I once heard socialist grandee Tony Benn describe his never ending desire as being fuelled by 2 fires burning in the human heart; the fire of anger against injustice and the fire of hope you can build a better world. That moment gave me the same shivers that watching the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have. Ordinary people have once again realised that the status quo in Egypt, East Germany, Ukraine (insert your own particular favourite here) seems deeply unfair and simply not working - Despotism = Poverty. The answer again is pretty obvious – kick out the fuckers who have caused this, run the country ourselves and make sure everyone gets their share.
A heady mixture of grubby day to day material desires matched with a framework of ideals seems to be able to sweep all tyranny before it. The American Revolutionaries wish for no taxation without representation neatly ties these two seams together. Each choosing their own personal mixture of the two to take as inspiration. The same seems to be the same during recent events in the Arab world today and Eastern Europe in 1989. I notice similarities and differences between1989 and 2011, between the Velvet and Jasmine.
The similarities are striking – they were driven by a young hungry and bored generation. They were a largely unexpected, domino effect of falling autocracies followed by a final nasty violent bloody mess of a revolution. It’s too early to tell if Libya or Iran will be an obvious synonymy with Romania – although Gaddafi’s use of African mercenaries where he can no longer trust his soldiers to commit war crimes shows an imagination beyond that of Ceaușescu.
There were subtleties with each of the social revolutions in 1989 as each country found its own voice and heroes, as a distorted crippled civil society jerked itself free. In Poland it was a Trade Union and the charisma of an electrician, Czechoslovakia: the urbane arts and a Frank Zappa fan.
The Arab revolutionaries’ bible looks to have been From Dictatorship to Democracy. Its amazing lessons of non-violent action reminded me of Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless where he suggested that by Living in Truth ordinary people can simply ignore Tyrants into destruction.
I have yet to hear of an Arab hero and this seems to be the difference with the events in 1989. I hope and trust that it is just too early, just too fresh for us to understand how and who this happened to. I cannot believe that in every city from Tunis to Amman there haven’t been inspired brave individuals risking their futures and their lives in exactly the same way as a samizdat smuggler in the 1980’s. I look forward to hearing their stories and witnessing their Nobel awards. I have to trust that our parochial media don’t assume were not interested people who don’t look like us. I also hope that a girl who spent her day showing my mother and I around the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities but was far more interested in asking my mum half a million questions about the freedom and choices she enjoyed as a western woman is among them.
There is a piece of Pop Art recently “borrowed” by some noisemaking friends of ours, which as a reaction to the war in Vietnam sarcastically suggesting that if we want to win the war in Asia the we should bomb them with Cadillacs. The idea being that you don’t bully people into freedom you inspire them (with shiny consumer-yankee goods if needs be). The link between social and economic freedom is undeniable and demonstrators on the streets in Tiananmen, Wenceslas and Tarir will, I think have something in common with each other and something in common with the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the French revolutionaries they inspired. Yes they will cry we want democracy, but not just for its own sake – but also for the practical application of it to make our lives and the lives of our fellow men simply better.
Aneurin Bevin made the best case for this I have ever read on almost every page of In Place of Fear. I’m working with out a copy handy but remember a line smothered in wry understatement that “it is well and good putting down your guns – but you can’t presently pick them up and start eating them”. The real test of these revolutions will be what they bring to ordinary Arabs. It will be a crying shame if they merely provide an opportunity for an alternative management team for the status quo. What would be worse is if they descend onto some fundamentalist terror ala France or Iran.
It’s hard to imagine that those who have endured the slow drip pain of being treated as dictatorial chattel or the sharp bloody pain of murder would let either of these outcomes to happen. Having risen from their slumber they surely realise that they are many and those that oppose them are few. Their best defence might be to realise their grubby day to day desire and reach for a better life and the silly luxuries that I have stopped considering a luxury. I for one am looking forward to many generations of beautiful Arab women in Levis…