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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Demonstrations, Protests, And Popular Uprisings–Why They Fail Here

There are many critics who observed that the massive street demonstrations and protests of the 60s in America were, more than anything, a result of demographics – there were simply a lot of young people around, and even in the days long before social media, there was a kind of ant colony information system at work.   Antennae were touched, pheromones transmitted, roles assigned, and collective energy harnessed as hippies touched radicals who touched social activists who touched student leaders. Before long there was a critical mass of young people, discontent for many reasons, but idealistic, passionate, energetic, and deeply committed.  The movement had become organic, alive, and uncontrollable by government. (This interactive website shows the post-War youth bulge in the US http://populationpyramid.net/United+States+of+America/1970/).

There was no one event that sparked ‘The Sixties’, and the popular uprising was more about culture than politics.  There was no one act of violence or outrage that spawned the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964-65, one of the first popular uprisings of the decade.  Many of the leaders had been Freedom Riders to Mississippi in the early 60s, but the campus revolt was more about what were considered repressive university policies.

Why then and not before? These policies had been in place for decades; but demographics, economics, and socio-political culture had changed. The WWII generation were children of the Depression and remembered only hardship and penury. By contrast the Fifties was a period of economic exuberance.  Children had the resources to pamper and encourage their children in a wave of optimism and patriotic idealism.  Much has been made of the spoiled Spock generation, but it is true that families brought their children up in a permissive environment.  Children didn’t have to save, be frugal,and worry about community scrutiny and opprobrium.  They could be free to follow their dreams, jobs were easy to find, and they could take risks. Add youthful idealism to this mix of economic security, risk taking, demographics, and ant colony behavioral patterns, and it was not surprising that demonstrations, protests, and uprisings occurred.  

Student uprisings were common in Asia.  Students toppled governments in Thailand, Indonesia, and Mexico.  Student uprisings in Mexico in 1968 led to The Tlotlolco Massacre and eventual fundamental political change.  Student activism provoked  the Thammasat University Massacre in Bangkok in 1976 and precipitated years of civil unrest and frequent regime change.  In the mid-60s student activists helped overthrow the unpopular Sukarno and continued to be active in politics for decades.  In Iran, students were behind the anti-Shah revolutionary movement in the early 70s and are active in the anti-clerical movement today.  In France, students allied with labor unions rioted in 1968 and precipitated fundamental changes in the sclerotic French administration.

Third world countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Thailand have always had high birth rates and demographic profiles (http://populationpyramid.net/Thailand/1975/) skewed towards the young. France, like other European countries experienced a big jump in fertility after the War, and the demographic dynamics were similar in 1968 to those of the United States.

The demographic pyramids for countries with ongoing street protests are as youthful if not more so than the 60s.  Turkey and Egypt are remarkable for their youthful age profile.  Egypt in particular is highly skewed towards the young.  In general the Muslim populations of North Africa and the Middle East are younger than other regions of the world. Brazil, while not as preponderantly young as the countries of the Arab Spring and Turkey, is also young (http://populationpyramid.net/Brazil/2010/).

What has changed about the dynamics of youthful protesters today is that the ant colony metaphor is no longer applicable but the social media one is.  Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Brazil are all young countries; youthful idealism remains what it always has been; and Facebook and its clones serve as pheromonal surrogates.  As importantly, these developing countries share many of the same social, economic, and political characteristics of the United States and Europe in the 60s. Wealth is increasing, risk-taking more feasible, and old-line, traditional governments still in power.

There is more wealth in Brazil and Turkey; but the dynamic triangle of demographics-wealth-politics is different for every country.  Egypt is far less well-off than Turkey, but the hatred of a repressive dictatorship provided the impetus for risk-taking and demonstration.  Turkish students are wealthier and while their protests are mild compared to the Arab world, they are still taking risks and beginning to express their concerns about government repression and an erosion of secularism.

In the United States now the population pyramid has evened out considerably since the 60s and is now tall and straight without the significant youth bulges of fifty years ago. The political cataclysms of the 60s and 70s were replaced by the narcissism of the 80s, a time of renewed wealth, prosperity, and international influence which persisted until the end of the 90s.  Young people saw tremendous opportunity in the financial markets, and then turned their attention to the more serious start-up IT ventures later on.  Ronald Reagan legitimized the market, entrepreneurial activity, and making money; and cleared away all but the last vestiges of a liberal, ‘progressive’ ethos.  Of course pockets of old-guard New Deal thinking still existed, but the zeitgeist was one of prosperity for those who had the gumption to achieve it; and this sentiment persists to this day.

The recession emptied a lot of pockets although not universally.  Most importantly young people who had grown up with the expectation of prosperity, advancement, and wealth were stunned by the sudden reversals of the mid-00s and are now very eager to get back on the fast train to success.  In other words, the demographics aren’t there, the political environment is troubling but not fostering hatred among students and well-off young graduates, and the culture of the times is individualism, not collectivism as it was in the 60s.  In short – no demonstrations.

The Occupy Movement came and went like a California fad because it had no real focus; and because young people were more anxious to get on with their lives than save the world from the street.  Young idealists today have jobs with NGOs and non-profits.

Yet Americans, both young and old, have to look with some respect and admiration at Turkey, Brazil, and the Arab world. Student protests are making a difference.  Erdogan has begun negotiations with the occupiers, but he has recently turned defiant and militaristic – both of which augur poorly for a resolution to the crisis and may likely lead to his demise.  Rousseff in Brazil has said she understands how unhappy people are with a deteriorating socio-economic environment, crime, pollution, low wages, and high costs and is committed to take remedial action.  She has been put on notice, however; and  once the young genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to get him back in.

Perhaps the NSA surveillance scandal now swirling in the United States will be the cause celebre of the ‘10s; or maybe even an honest casus belli – the one act of an overreaching federal government which will tip the balance to the people.  Since the youthful demographic numbers are not there, a new coalition of rich and poor, educated and uneducated will have to emerge. Both Tea Partiers and Liberal Democrats will have to be equally enraged and take to the streets, hustings, airwaves, and Internet together.

I doubt this will happen.  In contrast to the 60s, the ‘10s are characterized by a far more powerful and concentrated cabal of government and corporate interests.  It is one thing to topple a government; another altogether to take on the likes of Dow, Monsanto, Grumman, and Wall Street and the federal government.

I am of the ‘Cusp Generation’ – not exactly a Baby Boomer, but close.  My campus was quiet in the mid-Sixties, and I was more persuaded by Fifties rectitude than anti-establishment sentiment.  I did hippy-like things (travelling to India in the late 60s, dope, and sex) but never was part of any movement or uprising.  I have always acknowledged, however, what this youthful political commitment and visible action accomplished; and I do not look back, as many conservatives do, to the damage done by this generation.  To do so is historical revisionism at its worst.  Of course there are consequences today of the ultra-liberal social policies of the 60s; but there are always consequences to deliberate and concerted action.

I hope that someone – anyone – will rise up against the outrageous invasion of privacy perpetrated by the federal government; and although I might disagree, I would welcome massive protests against the supposed depredations of Wall Street, income inequality, or international adventurism; for they might force the issue on a craven and venal Congress.  I hesitate to say that young people have been bought off, but what other conclusion can I come to?

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