NEW YORK – What does the New Year hold for the global wave of protest that erupted in 2011? Did the surge of anger that began in Tunisia crest in lower Manhattan, or is 2012 likely to see an escalation of the politics of dissent?
The answers are alarming but quite predictable: we are likely to see much greater centralization of top-down suppression – and a rash of laws around the developed and developing world that restrict human rights. But we are also likely to see significant grassroots reaction.
What we are witnessing in the drama of increasingly globalized protest and repression is the subplot that many cheerleaders for neoliberal globalization never addressed: the power of globalized capital to wreak havoc with the authority of democratically elected governments. From the perspective of global corporate interests, closed societies like China are more business-friendly than troublesome democracies, where trade unions, high standards of human-rights protection, and a vigorous press increase costs.
All over the world, the pushback against protest looks similar, suggesting that state and corporate actors are learning “best practices” for repressing dissent while maintaining democratic facades. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron routinely impugns human-rights laws; the Metropolitan Police have sought authority to use baton rounds – foot-long projectiles that have caused roughly a dozen deaths, including that of children, in Northern Ireland – on peaceful protesters; and a police report on the threat of terrorism, distributed to “trusted partners” among London businesses, included updates about Occupy protests and referred to “suspected activists.”
The UK has stringent internal-security legislation, but it never had a law like the United States Patriot Act. After anti-austerity protests in early 2011, followed by riots in major cities in August, the Metropolitan Police claimed powers to monitor private social-media accounts and smartphones. And, under the guise of protecting this summer’s Olympics against terrorism, the British military is establishing a massive base in London from which SAS (special forces) teams will operate – a radical departure from Britain’s traditional civil policing.
In Israel, Ha’aretz reports that Occupy-type protests have been met with police violence, including a beating of a 15-year-old girl, and threats of random arrest. Israel, like Britain, has seen a push, seemingly out of nowhere, to enact new laws crippling newsgathering and criminalizing dissent: a new law makes it potentially a crime to donate to left-wing organizations, human-rights laws have been weakened, and even investigative reporting has become more dangerous, owing to stricter libel penalties. Ha’aretz calls the push “the new feudalism.”
Finally, in America, the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted by Congress in December, allows the president to suspend due process for US citizens, detain them indefinitely, and render them for torture. One should not be surprised to see similar legislation adopted in democracies worldwide.
Not only are laws criminalizing previously legal dissent, organizing, and reporting being replicated in advanced democracies; so are violent tactics against protesters, backed by the increasing push in countries with long traditions of civil policing to militarize law enforcement.
Indeed, increasingly sophisticated weapons systems and protective equipment are being disseminated to civilian police officers. In the US, the federal government has spent an estimated $34 billion since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to arm state and local police forces with battlefield-grade hardware. Investigative reporting has also revealed cross-pollination of anti-protest training: local police from cities like Austin, Texas, have been sent to Israel for training in crowd control and other tactics.
The globalization of mercenaries to crack down on dissent is also proceeding apace. Mercenaries are important in a time of global grassroots protest, because it is easier to turn a foreigner’s guns or batons against strangers than it is to turn the military or police against fellow citizens. Erik Prince, the head of the most infamous outfit, Academi (formerly Xe Services, formerly Blackwater), has relocated to the UAE, while Pakistani mercenaries have been recruited in large numbers to Bahrain, where protesters have been met with increasingly violent repression.
But this apparently coordinated pushback against global protest movements is not yet triumphant – not even in China, as the people of Wukan have shown. While the outcome of the villagers’ protest against the local government’s confiscation of their land remains uncertain, the standoff reveals new power at the grassroots level: social media allows sharper, coordinated gatherings and the rapid dissemination of news unfiltered by official media. The Internet is also disseminating templates of what real democracy looks like – instantly and worldwide.
Not surprisingly, people use this technology in ways that indicate that they have little interest in being cordoned off into conflicting and competing ethnicities, nationalities, or religious identities. Overwhelmingly, they want simple democracy and economic self-determination.
That agenda is in direct conflict with the interests of global capital and governments that have grown accustomed to operating without citizen oversight. It is a conflict that can be expected to heighten dramatically in 2012, as protesters’ agendas – from Occupy Wall Street to Occupy Moscow – gain further coherence.
Much is at stake. Depending on the outcome, the world will come to look either more like China – open for business, but closed for dissent – or more like Denmark.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.