2011 was an extraordinary year of struggle and revolution.
The economic and environmental crises continued to get worse, but it was a year marked by a much stronger, broader and more effective fight back against austerity in Europe, dictators in the Middle East, and corporate power the world over.
It was remarkable for how quickly protests became global and interconnected; the mass protests and victories in Tunisia and Egypt inspired protests against austerity and then the Occupy movement and they in turn reinforced the original struggles to keep fighting. For years we’ve heard the complaint that people are too apathetic to stand up for their rights, but when Egypt showed us the possibilities of what can happen when we do, then people in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere all came out and protested too and proved that actually, other people aren’t apathetic as we might have thought. It also reminded us how quickly a dormant situation can change.
What started in Tunisia in December, a year ago, quickly spread to country after country in the region, and then jumped to Europe and the UK, motivating people to stand up for their own rights, then moved on to the US, Russia, Nigeria (When the government raised the price of petrol by 120% on Jan 1 this year, more than 10 million Nigerians went out on strike in more than 50 cities and towns within the country).
The same feeling of rebellion is everywhere and it’s not over yet.
The victory of the Egyptian protestors at forcing the removal of Mubarak was one of the most inspirational moments of 2011. Through dedicated organizing and a continual protest in Tahrir square, defending themselves from government thugs who violently attacked them, they showed exactly how powerful protest can be. Mubarak and his cronies are now facing court for their crimes. But the revolution is not yet complete.
The military is still in control and in November fresh protests in Tahrir square erupted to demand their resignation. The elections that took place in November were a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood but the dynamic of people struggling for democratic rights remains. Egypt remains a hot bed of revolution.
We support the uprisings and democratic movements in Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. These movements are all very different, according to their different histories, the strength of the Left and trade unions, and the reaction of the ruling class.
Here I want to draw your attention to point 6 in the motion, drafted by Tony Iltis: “We condemn all Western interference in the uprisings while at the same time recognizing that the presence of overtly or covertly pro-Western elements in a movement does no characterise that movement.”
Of course Western governments will try to influence and control the situation as far as they can, even despite being opposed to the uprisings in general. In Libya NATO forces carried out a direct military intervention under the guise of protecting civilian lives. Understanding the desperation of the rebels, there was some debate inside Socialist Alliance about whether this intervention could be justified in order to help the rebels win, however the majority view was that we should oppose a foreign intervention.
Socialist Alliance released a statement that read in part: “The Socialist Alliance has also consistently opposed and warned against the dangers of foreign intervention — especially from the governments of the rich and powerful nations in the West. These governments have long supported and propped up many dictatorial regimes in the Arab world.
“We understand and sympathise with the desperation of the Libyan opposition — which was threatened by Gaddafi with a “merciless” attack on Benghazi, the second biggest city in Libya.
“But we believe that if Western powers and their allies (including the Saudi monarchy now occupying Bahrain) begin a military intervention in Libya, this will threaten Libyan solidarity. It will weaken the democratic uprising politically and help rollback the wave of democratic uprisings across the Arab world.”
The Arab revolutions have challenged the West’s claims to be the bringer of democracy in the region. In Iraq, the last 4000 US soldiers departed in December. However, up to 10,000 private contractors will take up their role. Originally, 3000 US troops were supposed to stay on as part of a deal to train the Iraqi armed forces. But when the soldiers weren’t guaranteed immunity from prosecution the deal fell apart. The departure of US soldiers is great victory for Iraqi resistance, and shows that despite eight years of war, the US still didn’t win outright. Antony Loewenstein describes the Iraqi government as “quasi independent”.
When US President Obama visited Australia last year he signalled a major shift to focus the US military on China, using Australia as a base. However, US forces are still occupying Afghanistan and there was another shameful incident last week of US soldiers killing Afghani’s an then urinating on them.
We continue to support the struggle by Palestine against Israeli apartheid. Israel is under international scrutiny after several events at home left it looking less like the cosmopolitan, liberal democracy it wants to be known as and more like the intolerant religious state it actually is.
Advertising billboards with women’s faces on them were taken down under threat that the bus stops were they were placed would be burnt down. Along similar lines, a woman was harassed by religious fundamentalists when she refused to sit at the back of the bus she was on.
The covert war that Israel is waging on Iran became public last week with the murder of an Iranian nuclear scientist. The impunity that Israel has to murder civilians abroad, and then be defended and congratulated for it by Western governments and the press is horrifying.
Another central site of crisis and impressive resistance struggle was in Europe. There is no end in sight to the economic crisis that engulfed Europe all last year, in fact it is set to get worse. The World Bank warned in mid-January that in 2012 the financial crisis is expected to be deeper and more damaging than the one in 2008.
In this context the leaders of the European Union and International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank are positioning for permanent austerity, where cuts to welfare, a higher age of retirement, less jobs in the public service and longer work hours, will become the norm.
As these neo-liberal cuts are driven through Europe, living standards for the majority are starting to fall, as funding for health, education and welfare is slashed. Huge numbers of hospitals and schools have been closed. The human consequences are appalling. It was reported that in Greece the Athens’ Ark of the World youth Centre has had four children left on its doorstep in recent months by parents who can no longer afford to look after them.
Meanwhile the numbers of wealthy has actually risen and the profits of big banks are rising too. World markets are now betting that the European Union will be broken up.
This economic crisis is also exposing how easily democracy can be cast aside when it’s not useful for markets. Greek PM George Papandreou planned to ask the Greek people, via a referendum, if they supported EU-ECB-IMF budget plans for their country, but was quickly shut down by Germany and France. He then stepped down as PM and was replaced, without an election, by a former vice president of the European Central Bank. The same happened in Italy, with former PM Silvio Berlusconi resigning, and being replaced by a banker.
Along the same lines, without any national public and parliamentary debate, the European Parliament rushed through a decision which will mean all national budgets must now first be approved by the Commission, before they are even seen by each country’s parliament. If countries do not reduce their debts fast enough or refuse the budgetary “suggestions” from Brussels, enforcement measures will kick in.
The one sector that is hiring is the police force – to stifle the increasing number of protests. In Spain, the Indignadosmovement saw up to a million people take to the streets, as Dick Nichols outlined in his report last night.
There were large general strikes in Greece, Italy and Portugal. In England the anger caused by long-term unemployment and cuts to social services exploded into dramatic riots that spread across London and lasted almost a week. The aftermath saw the young people involved given extremely harsh sentences, such as six month’s jail for stealing a bottle of water, which will no doubt help prevent similar riots in the future. But a significant political fightback is occurring as well, with up to 2 million people taking part in the first public sector strike in 30 years in November.
Over in the United States, there’s a very different mood compared to when President Obama was first elected. His approval ratings were down to an all-time low of 39% in October, although support remains high among Democrat voters at 83%. He has failed to deliver most of what he promised before he was elected, such as closing down Guantanamo Bay; and he is implementing some much harsher policies than Bush, such as signing the indefinite detention bill into law recently.
The Republican candidates who are putting up their hand for Presidential nomination are all from the extreme right, and are mostly affiliated to the Tea Party. They compete with each other to see who would go furthest in banning abortion and equal marriage rights, wrecking the climate and the number of foreign nations they can bomb. In the words of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, “the Republican presidential race is the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance the world has ever seen.”
The unemployment rate in the US is still high, including those who have simply given up looking, low tax rates for the rich and corporations, and a country mired in debt. The government agreed to raise the debt ceiling to $2.4 trillion.
This is the context that the influential Occupy movement emerged in 2011. Inspired by the “Arab Spring”, and spurred on by the Indignado movement against austerity in Spain, the call to Occupy Wall Street was made and within a month it had inspired similar Occupy events across the world in hundreds of cities.
Why is the Occupy movement important?
It has popularised the slogan “the 99% versus the 1%” which is a very accessible way of talking about the working class and the ruling class, it has brought issues of inequality, corporate greed and democracy to the front and centre of discussion in the mainstream media and it has radicalised a new generation of activists who realize that this is a common struggle across the world. This is not just a first world movement, but is being linked to local workers’ issues.
Of course there are problems with Occupy, ones which we know about firsthand and it’s unclear where it will go this year.
But it showed that the fire that swept through the Arab world wasn’t confined to that world. Millions across the globe identified with those revolutions even though they weren’t living under political dictatorships. Millions can see that governments put the needs and wants of corporations before the people and millions know that they had no real democracy to change things, and so felt powerless.
Occupy was an expression of those who want to fight back: it allowed people across the developed world to give expression to their needs and desires for change.
Occupy was tolerated, at first. But when the authorities realised that protests weren’t going to fizzle and die on their own, a coordinated crackdown began .
The violence used against protestors, including tear gas, beatings with batons, sonic weapons and mass arrests, shocked the majority of people. Police have been condemned for pepper spraying peaceful students sitting in their university, or the shooting of Scott Olsen, a US Marine, in the head with a tear gas canister leaving him in a coma.
Despite the attempts of the media and government to demonise Occupy (claiming that the protestors didn’t know what they were protesting about, that they were disrupting public space and preventing others from using it and that they were violent), the movement has broad sympathy.
Occupy has since been named word of the year. The movement has contributed to the recent finding that 49% of young Americans have a favourable view of socialism.
US socialist Pham Binh described Occupy as “more than a movement and less than a revolution. It is an uprising, an elemental and unpredictable outpouring of both rage and hope from the depths of the 99%.”
The movement has opened up important reflection and debate about the role of socialists, and about left unity, with Binh proposing that socialists can no longer justify being split into different tendencies and remaining weakened when such an important movement is taking place that could have such a decisive role to play in future class struggle.
Some credit for the the rebellion of 2011 needs to be given to one organisation that helped to spread the truth about corrupt governments, war crimes and what goes on behind the closed doors of “diplomacy” – WikiLeaks.
Because of his actions, Julian Assange has been living under house arrest for the past year while fighting his extradition to Sweden to face questioning by police. The fear is that he could be extradited to the US, where agrand jury is investigating whether there’s enough evidence to pursue him for espionage. has been abandonment by Australian government.
The attacks on Wikileaks doesn’t stop at Assange, under pressure from the US government, Mastercard, Visa and Paypal have all refused to process donations to the organisation, making it difficult for them to continue their work.
The alleged leaker of the war logs, Bradley Manning, has been held in US military prisons without trial since May 2010. He’s suffered months in solitary confinement and being forced to stand to attention while naked every morning, and he is now being recommended to be tried in a military court.
Another front in the battle for a free internet and the free exchange of information has just opened up with the online protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP bills which are due to be voted on in the US congress on Jan 24. Wikileaks and many other high profile websites shut down for 12 hours this week to draw attention to the bills and encourage people to act. In the name of preventing piracy, these bills will give the legal power for governments to shut down sites, or get their funding cut off through Mastercard and Paypal, or get the ISP to cut off services.
A serious threat at a time when we have all seen the power of the internet to mobilise and connect people, as in the Arab revolutions both inside and outside the country, and the power to inform people of what’s really going on, as with Wikileaks.
2011 was also a significant year for our knowledge of climate change. The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report in November, which showed that carbon emissions have risen to their highest level in 800 000 years, picking up again strongly after slowing during the financial crisis. It warned the world now has only five years before it locks in irreversible climate change. “If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door will be closed forever.”
The latest round of UN climate negotiations wrapped up in December, 2011. Held in Durban, South Africa, it was widely reported that it ended with an “historic” agreement and, on this basis, was a success or at least a step forward. But, in fact, this agreement is to start negotiationsfor a new legally binding climate treaty to be decided by 2015 — and to come into force by 2020. The platform will delay action for five to 10 years while a new treaty is being negotiated and ratified. In addition, it appears that future decisions will no longer be based on the scientific advice of the IPCC but instead the process is only to be “informed” by the science.
In these negotiations there is no link between the targets that are set by governments and the scientific requirements that will reduce climate change. That is, they make a pledge to keep the world below 2 degrees warming, but won’t lock in emission reductions that will keep it that way.
Under the Kyoto protocol there was a commitment that governments reduce their emissions by at least 5% below 1990 levels. It is striking that the proposed amendment just fills out this number with a big X. The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba demanded that this number should be 50.
Some countries, led by Mali and Egypt, are holding firm on demands by the African Group, the Group of Least Developed Countries and the Latin American ALBA countries for binding global North emissions cuts of 50% by and 95% by 2050. These are critical targets to get the overall climate change to below 1.5 degrees Celcius. At 2 degrees C, the UN estimates, 90% of current African agricultural output will cease.
According to Pablo Solón, former lead climate negotiator for Bolivia, “It is false to say that a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has been adopted in Durban. The actual decision has merely been postponed to the next COP, with no commitments for emission reductions from rich countries. This means that the Kyoto Protocol will be on life support until it is replaced by a new agreement that will be even weaker.”
The Kyoto Protocol hasn’t been killed off completely. The main reason is that this was necessary for the stability of carbon markets, especially the European system. Carbon markets are being prioritised over real climate action.
Pablo Solón also said: “The COP17 (conference of parties) will be remembered as a place of premeditated genocide and ecocide”. This sounds extreme, but not when you consider that what was agreed at this conference puts us on track for an emissions pathway of 3 or 4 degrees of global warming, so far above the 1-2 degrees that we need to keep below.
Friends of the Earth International said: “An increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, small island states, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world has decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%.”
The Australian Greens condemned the deal. “Even the International Energy Agency has said that if we continue on a business as usual pathway by 2017 we will have built so much fossil fuel infrastructure that we will have used up the entire 2 degree carbon budget to 2035, making it essential that any infrastructure built after that is zero carbon.”
The climate crisis is worsening and there will be no alleviation if things continue as normal. We can’t underestimate this; the world will face a catastrophe on a huge scale. But as an antidote to despair remember that in 2011 things didn’t go along as normal, entrenched dictatorships were overthrown, Occupy has made the idea of the 99% valid; equality is a central discussion now. The issue of climate change will be, and needs to be, a central issue for revolutionary movements.
Latin America, a continent long used to rebellion, also had significant events last year. Besides the large student movement in Chile, one of the most significant events was the founding of the new regional alliance Community of Latin American and Caribbean States ().
Held in Venezuela in December 2011, the summit brought together the heads of state of 33 countries, including conservative governments of Mexico, Columbia, and Honduras but explicitly excluding the US. This new alliance builds on existing bodies such as ALBA, UNASUR, and the Bank of the South; Venezuelan President Chavez has expressed his hope that this will replace the OAS. This is the realization of a long held push towards greater integration between countries in the region, without the influence of the US. In early 2010 the Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “A union of Latin American countries is the weapon against imperialism. It is necessary to create a regional body that excludes the United States and Canada”.
Hillary Clinton complained that the US was in “an information war and we are losing that war”, with the US government concerned about global English language news outlets such as Telesur in Latin America, Al-Jazeera, and the equivalents in Russia and China.
That these countries are organising themselves independently of the US is an important step forward and shows the decline of US influence in the region, as dos the fact that the founding summit was held in Venezuela. Although these countries are very ideologically different, the simple ability to be able to meet and make regional decisions for themselves without outside interference is hugely significant.
Hundreds of thousands mobilised for the Bersih campaign which was a protest against the corrupt government and a call for new elections. The government responded with a crackdown on activists using the Emergency Ordinance Laws: six Socialist Party of Malaysia activists were imprisoned for a month. Now facing huge pressure, and almost entirely discredited, the government is expected to call for elections sometime in 2012.
A day after the parliamentary elections returned Putin’s party to power, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a protest against election fraud and corruption. These were the largest protests seen in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union and their demands are calling for an investigation into election fraud, and demanding that new opposition parties be allowed to register. These protests are a serious threat to Putin being elected as president in March 2012, as he had planned.