How different are states?

I just read an interesting article in the Guardian about the global protests. It quoted Gopal as saying:

Gopal says she was struck by the diffuseness and lack of direction in the recent British riots, contrasting it with protests in the Arab world, where “a focus and self-awareness that comes from those countries’ recent history of anti-colonial struggle has been transmitted from one generation to the next”.

This is a very interesting idea I hadn’t thought of before. Of course there is no doubt that Arabs are facing dictatorships that are willing to kill thousands to stay in power, whereas in the west people are facing democracies willing to kill thousands (often non-westerners) to stay in power. So there is a limit to what the British state can do, as opposed to Syria for example. But still – the protests have many commonalities, among them anti-capitalism and an end to police brutality and abuse.

Two common motifs run through this year’s rebellions. First has been the collapse in authority of traditional institutions; from Mubarak’s cult of personality to the seemingly incessant scandals engulfing Britain’s arbiters of political, financial and cultural control – bankers, MPs, and the Murdoch media empire. The crumpling is contagious, fuelling rebellions in the most of places.

In England, Cameron is has used social media (BBM, Twitter) to track down those “responsible” for the riots, as well as images from the thousands of hidden cameras around the country. The police are now going door to door in many of the poor estates arresting young Brits. More than 2000 are already in police custody and who knows what this number will be by the end of it. Many in the Arab world are laughing at the hypocrisy, and rightly so. Yesterday, I read this article on al-Jazeerawith the following headline:

California transit provider interrupted wireless mobile service to hamper protesters angry over police shooting.

Again, the hypocrisy is laughable. The “civilized” west that “would never block internet or use rubber bullets” has now done both in the span of one week. It reveals that states are not as different from one another as we think. When threatened, they will use any amount of violence necessary.  Arab states were more at risk because they knew they were illegitimate, whereas western states, hiding behind a veneer of democracy, knew they could get away with more.  But not anymore. The global economic crisis means that no government is safe, because the system behind them is crumbling. Whether its a democrat or a republican; a right-winger or a left-winger; an Islamist or a secularist – the system behind all of them, the neo-colonial, patriarchal, capitalist system – is still in place, and is currently being brought down by millions of amazing, brave youth around the world.

Back to Gopal’s quote: are the uprisings in the Arab world more focused because they are more aware of how corrupt the system is? And is this awareness due to their recent experiences with colonialism and anti-colonialism? Having grown up in Zambia, and then lived in Egypt, I became very aware of how the global system is screwing over countries in the South. And then having lived in the Netherlands, I became very aware of how most Dutch people are ignorant of this fact.

In Europe, citizens are taught (brainwashed) to accept authority, whether it be the media or the state. Most Dutch people I speak to trust the news and trust the government, especially on major issues, and especially on foreign-related issues (including immigrants).  This makes it very difficult for me to imagine a Dutch revolution, when the time comes (and it will – more and more cuts are being made, and the EU and Euro are falling apart).  I think people in England were at a different point than those in the Netherlands, because the social inequality was much higher.  Still, did the rioters/looters have a common aim, or set of aims? Did they know how to articulate the anger they were feeling? Or were they unsure of who to blame? Yes, there is police brutality: but who controls the police? The state. Yes, there are no jobs and rising prices; but who controls the economy? The state. And who controls the state? The capitalist system.

While I think the quote is interesting, I wouldn’t say this is the only reason. Many Egyptians are aware of neocolonialism, but many aren’t: otherwise how would neocolonialism work? Similarly, many people in England are aware that they need to target the state and capitalism, and in fact I would argue that they did by looting. More than 2 billion pounds in damage – in a way they are speaking to capitalism in the only language it understands: profits and losses.

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One thought on “How different are states?

  1. This was a good read. What I don’t like is that these protesters are destroying other people’s property. You might argue that these stores were built on the backs of the poor and they are unjust, but I don’t know. If I worked hard to start a business only to have people on the street break down my door and steal things, I would be upset. I think most people would actually. If I were in Damascus at my little spice shop in the souk and protesters came through and started overturning my lovely-smelling spices and ruining them, I’d be angry. So maybe I support them against the root causes of the unrest, but not their methods. I am still trying to learn about this so your post was helpful in giving one point of view. Thank you.

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