19 June 2011 #globalrevolution: Noise or Weak signal?

Occupy, protest, strategic foresight and warning, populism
Designers and graphists support the Global Revolution @ Voces con futura

On 19 June, Take the Square, a web-platform relaying regional and national information on and calls from the various Real Democracy Now movements, is calling for the official start of a global peaceful revolution – shortened as twitter’s category as #globalrevolution – expressed through a worldwide demonstration.

The Real Democracy Now movements, as has been explained by a few blog posts (e.g. Laura Gutierrez; Leila Nachawati Rego; Asteris Masouras; Martin Varsavsky) have started “officially” on May 15 in Spain and are inspired not only by the Arab (Winter-)Spring but also by the Icelandic “revolution.” First and foremost, those movements are an answer to actions by political systems that are perceived by citizens as increasingly illegitimate. Previous movements help notably by breaking feelings of powerlessness and despondency; web-based social networks accelerate and facilitate communication and organization; but none of these would be sufficient to generate collective action if everyday life situations were not increasingly felt as collectively unjust.

Amazingly, mainstream media, be they national or international, have hardly reported the various protests and movements, although they spread to many countries and progressively got more traction among citizens with varying speed and success according to national real life situations. In Greece, for example, tens of thousands of people gathered on Syntagma Square as early as May 22, ignored by all but by Facebook and Twitter followers. Meanwhile negotiations regarding the Greek bailout between European and International monetary authorities and the Greek institutions received broad coverage. The Greek movement did not recede as explained by Thalia Tzanetti in “The surprises of Syntagma and its Indignados.”

Actually, one may trace the beginning of the Spanish mobilisation that marks the start of the European and potentially global movements to March 14 on Facebook (twitter #15M). To date, the Real Democracy Now movements have spread to at least 26 countries, including the U.S., plus one endeavour spearheaded by Germany to network all European efforts in a European movement. In quantitative terms some of those mobilizations can be considered as negligible and unrepresentative. For example, if we use as indication by proxy the number of “likes” on Facebook, the U.S. movement only gathers 941 people on June 14, 2011 from 624 on June 3.  Using the same proxy indications, European movements are more important, yet also quantitatively diverse: Spain (406.425 likes) then Greece (138.740 likes) are in the lead, followed by Italy (26.065) and Ireland (21.301); many countries display between 1000 and 12000 likes, the smallest numbers are obtained by the more recent Czech Republic movement (499) and Switzerland (199, inactive since June 10). Again, using this proxy, it would seem that the mobilisation is slowing down and looking for direction, notably since the Spanish movement decided to abandon its occupation of central squares on June 12.

Were thus mainstream media and analyses right in ignoring a movement that could be considered as just one more protest of no consequence and would just die and disappear as so many European demonstrations before? Are those movements just noise rather than signals? Or is there something else here? Are those movements, on the contrary, weak – or not so weak – signals that something is amiss and that change is in the making?

Actually, alternative hypotheses can be made for the general disinterest the #Europeanrevolutions and #Globalrevolution movement has garnered, notably compared with the events in North Africa and the Middle East.

  • The Arab (Winter-)Spring can be analysed in the light of the fear of and struggle against terrorism and religious extremism, when the European and potential global movements do not carry with them straightforwardly a potential for such analyses.
  • The Arab (Winter-)Spring revolutions have been quickly re-interpreted by mainstream media as spreading pro-democracy movements, when the reality behind each mobilisation is more complex. On the contrary, what happened in Europe could not be easily labelled as pro-democracy – despite the demands of the actors – because those movements take place in… democracies.
  • The revolutionary movements and their sympathisers, wherever their location, offer and share reciprocal moral support across boundaries. Yet, despite those messages, it is likely that mainstream thinking deems the movements taking place “in the West” unworthy of attention and even unwarranted because they do not fit the still prevalent yet outdated First World/Third World ideology.
  • From the point of view of Western media and analysis, the movements taking place “at home” would demand an inward political analysis made in terms of processes, when meagre resources in political analysts are usually focused on what is foreign and on political leaders and elite, while the bulk of domestic analysis tends to be seen through an economic analysis that would be severed from political processes.
  • The European and potential global movements want themselves to be peaceful and actors responding to them did not make so far the mistake to use violence (save for a few forced evictions as in Barcelona). The overall situation has not escalated to see tension carried out as violence. The movements did not thus satisfy the “sensational events” criteria that often create interest of media and decision-makers.
  • Finally, most of those movements being grass-roots and being not used to integrate a strategy of international support, expressed themselves and communicated in vernacular languages, thus generating a mosaic of tweets and posts in Spanish, Greek, Italian, Dutch, German or French etc. and more rarely English, making it more difficult for analysts to follow and see patterns across boundaries.

The existence of so many alternative hypotheses is sufficient to let us consider that the #Europeanrevolutions and #Globalrevolution are most likely weak signals. Those movements would thus demand consideration, coverage and an in-depth analysis, which would have to include a struggle against many biases including normative ones. The work would, however be eased by the understanding and knowledge accumulated over at least the last hundred years on revolutionary movements, political mobilisation, radicalization, state-building, etc., properly adapted to present and future conditions. The least that strategic foresight and warning analysts –and policy-makers – could and should do, would be to take stock of those movements, to consider them in the light of political processes with their dynamics, and to listen to what citizens have to say as those movements and their demands may well inform the future.