Status quo on way out
That’s the headline for my first Fin article for 2102, over the fold
Status quo on way out
At the peak of his power as Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell marched north from London to fight the rebellious Scots. One of his lieutenants commented on the enthusiastic support they were given by the London crowd, to which Cromwell is said to have replied ‘Do not trust to the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged.”
That anecdote can be interpreted in many ways, but one of the most important is the fragility of seemingly solid regimes, political, economic and social. The same crowds that turn out to cheer in mass rallies when the regime is unchallenged will turn against it the moment that change seems possible.
We saw quite a few examples of this in 2011, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Already a number of dictatorial regimes have fallen, and others are clearly on the way out. But as 2012 begins, hardly any established institution can be confident of seeing out the year.
The upsurge of 2011 began, entirely unexpectedly, in Tunisia where a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi who had set himself on fire in protest of the confiscation of his wares, died on 4 January. Ten days later, the seemingly solid regime of Zine Ben Ali had collapsed, and the dictator himself was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia marking an ignominious end to 23 years of power.
The subsequent turmoil has seen the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. The few remaining dictators, including Assad of Syria and Saleh of Yemen are on the way out, and the absolute monarchies of the Gulf are living on borrowed time. Arguably more important has been the death of what might Francis Fukuyama called the ‘Arab exception’. This is the claim that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support.
This idea, in one form or another, has guided the foreign policy of Western countries ever since the fall of the Ottoman empire, implying a free rein to interfere in the pursuit of a variety of goals, notably including a secure supply of access to oil, support for the policies of successive Israeli governments and, more recently, the War on Terrorism.
The Arab Spring echoed around the world, producing popular movements that challenged entrenched powers as diverse as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Wall Street in the US. The concentration of money and political influence represented by both of these powers seemed to make any opposition quixotic. Yet the combination of poor economic performance and popular revolt has put them both on the defensive. Putin’s return to the Russian Presidency later this year, viewed as a formality until recently, is now in question. Meanwhile, the financial sector, which suffered no real consequences for the near-destruction of the global economy in 2008, is suddenly on the defensive.
Popular revolt has undermined long-established institutions in many different ways. In the US, the Republican Party should be looking forward to an easy victory in the November Presidential election. The economy is in very poor shape, and Obama has ignored the problem for most of his term in office, focusing instead on the passage of a health care reform package that has never been popular. Instead, thanks to the influence of the radical rightwingers of the Tea Party, the nomination process has been a farce. The absurdity of the process means that the seemingly inevitable, but thoroughly unappealing, candidate of the Republican Establishment, Mitt Romney, will start the year at no better than even money to beat Obama.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the European Central Bank with the support of the French and German governments is pushing misconceived austerity programs over popular opposition, while refusing to take the one step that nearly all independent economists recommend – a program of quantitative easing. Not only the euro, but the viability of the EU itself is being called into question.
Here in Australia, the economy is going well, and popular revolts on the right (the Convoy of No Confidence) and left (the Occupy movement) have not attracted much support. Nevertheless, Julia Gillard is just one bad opinion poll away from a leadership challenge. If she falls, the spotlight would immediately turn to Tony Abbott, who is almost equally unpopular.
All in all, many people and institutions that seemed firmly entrenched at the beginning of 2011 are likely to be distant memories by the end of 2012. We are in for interesting times.
John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow at the University of Queensland