In 2011, the revolution was tweeted

Published : 2 Jan 2012, 11:19 AM
Updated : 2 Jan 2012, 11:19 AM

2011 was a good year for protest and a bad year for government. 2012 will be a good year for both if our political leaders can figure out the connection.

Across the globe, this was a year when people took to the streets, often overthrowing their leaders in the process. That was true in the Arab world, in Russia, in India, in Western Europe, in the United States and even in China.

And everywhere, this year of mass defiance wrong-footed those who were supposed to be in the know. The experts had thought the Arabs were getting richer and were too scared of their autocrats, that the Russians were apathetic and quite liked their neo-czar, that the Indian middle-class was politically disengaged, that West Europeans were too old for outrage, that Americans didn't care about the class divide and that the Chinese comrades were too effective at suppressing dissent.

But everywhere, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down by people who turned out to be angrier than their elites had suspected, and better able to channel that dissatisfaction into mass protest and even revolution.

The first surprise was the strength and near universality of the public discontent. Like Tolstoy's unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

The unifying complaint is crony capitalism. That's a broad term, to be sure, and its bloody Libyan manifestation bears little resemblance to complaints about the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States or allegations of corrupt auctions for telecommunications licenses in India. But the notion that the rules of the economic game are rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of the middle-class has had remarkable resonance this year around the world and across the political spectrum. Could the failure of the experts to anticipate this anger be connected to the fact that the analysts are usually part of the 1 percent, or at least the 10 percent, at the top?

The second surprise was how easy it has become to transform mass dissatisfaction into mass protest. That was true both in chillingly repressive regimes and in ones where the hurdle to collective action had been thought to be public apathy.

The answer to this puzzle is obvious today — the communications revolution, ranging from satellite television to Twitter to camera phones, has made it easier than ever before to organize protests and to keep them going once they start.

What's important to remember in hindsight is that one of the most provocative ideas of late 2010 — published just two months before a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, posted his suicide note on his Facebook Wall, and three months before the Egyptian government blocked Twitter in an effort to muzzle its people — was Malcolm Gladwell's characteristically iconoclastic assertion that, as the subhead to his October 2010 New Yorker essay put it, "the revolution will not be tweeted."

At least in public, Gladwell is sticking to his guns, but not too many other people are. In one informed example, consider a recent public interview I conducted with Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecommunications billionaire and liberal politician who backed the Tahrir Square demonstrations.

When I asked him about the Gladwell theory, Sawiris first wondered, "Is he here in the room? Do I have to be polite?" and then went on to explain his criticism: "He has no clue what this technology has done to my part of the world. Ninety percent of the success of this revolution is attributed to it." The point isn't to mock the brilliant Gladwell — it is to recall that as late as the autumn of 2010 the impact of the technology revolution on civil society, particularly outside the developed West, was still very much an open question.

So much for the success of the rebels. Inside the citadel of the state, by contrast, 2011 was a veritable annus horribilus. That was especially true for some pretty vile dictators. But even in democracies, government didn't seem to work very well. Political paralysis was a routine complaint in the world's richest democracy, and in its biggest democracy; it was the diagnosis in presidential systems and in parliamentary ones. Right-wing governing parties were accused of dysfunction — and so were governments on the left. Some central bankers were attacked for printing too much money; others were criticized for doing too little.

The success of the protesters and the dysfunction of government are the flip sides of one another. They are related in an obvious way — people take to the streets when they think their leaders are doing a poor job. But the widely perceived failure of the state around the world is connected to the effectiveness of the protests in deeper ways, too.

Let's start with the technological tools that made protesting so much easier. They may have made governing tougher –informed and empowered individuals are probably harder to boss around than ignorant, isolated ones. More important, though, social activists have embraced the technology revolution more effectively than governments have. The revolution is being tweeted, but government isn't. It's time for the state to catch up — and hopefully not by emulating the Chinese comrades with their cybercensorship expertise.

As for crony capitalism, this slogan of the street is both a challenge for the state and an opportunity. For some regimes, of course, crony capitalism, with a side order of repression, is the only dish on the menu. For them, the trends of 2011 do not bode well.

But most of today's troubled market democracies don't need a revolution to sweep away their cronies. What they do need is a new version of capitalism, designed for the 21st century. That is what the world's protesters, in their different ways, are all asking for.

Here's hoping that 2012 provides some politicians with some answers.

Chrystia Freeland is editor of Thomson Reuters Digital.