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The Thunder of Multitudes

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Perhaps it should not have been surprising that given the rolling thunder of multitudes that the world witnessed throughout 2011, the global news media would end the year with reflections on the fact that citizens massed, marched and yelled at the powerful.  If you are English-speaking, you would have noticed that TIME Magazine’s person of the year was The Protester.  Kurt Andersen’s cover story is beautifully written; so too are the photographs and illustrations that accompany the piece. If you have not read it, try to do so.

For me, the very heart of the piece is this paragraph on page 61:

"It’s remarkable how much the protest vanguards share. Everywhere they are disproportionately young, middle class and educated. Almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs. All over the world, the protesters of 2011 share a belief that their countries’ political systems  and economies have grown dysfunctional and corrupt –sham democracies rigged to favor the rich and powerful and prevent significant change. They are fervent small-d democrats."

So, young people in much of the world rebelled. Reading these different essays celebrating the year of action, and watching some of the many current affairs broadcasts with the same theme, the one thing that struck was how surprised we all were, how so utterly amazed we were that citizens in countries that we believed were so culturally different human rights meant nothing to them, nevertheless challenged long-established autocracies. Our astonishment matters and it matters because it reveals the extent to which two ideas have not yet won universal acknowledgement. 

The first is the idea that human beings are everywhere the same and human beings do not like to be oppressed.  When oppressed, human beings feel the pain and dream of a very different set of circumstances for themselves and their loved ones. If they can figure out how to end the oppression, they will move to end it. There are no human beings anywhere who simply love to be abused, cheated, and brutalized. They might not paint a picture of a new life that will match the formal features of liberal constitutional democracy, but, as Jeremy Bentham would say, they will seek ‘securities against misrule’. If you think through what those securities mean, you will approach soon enough the formal elements of constitutional democracy. 

The second idea we seem to have lost sight of is the idea that the citizens of a political community --- any political community --- are a critical force in politics. The events of 2011 astonished us because we seem to have concluded that the opinions and attitudes of citizens matter hugely only in democracies…because these polities must organize elections from time to time.  But students of public opinion have always known that whatever the political system political leaders who neglect the movement of public opinion will – one fine morning -- be at the receiving end of thunderbolts hurled by citizens on the move. 

Finally, there is this intriguing piece from the Financial Times of December 28 2011.  It is on the behavior of crowds. Reporting on the latest findings of neuroscientists, Clive Cookson and Daryl Ilbury argue that the ‘throngs driving the year’s memorable events, from the Arab uprisings to the eurozone crisis, may be social and political worlds apart – but they share more that it first appears’.  In both cases, they argue, we are dealing with how crowds behave when roused. Crowds in financial markets and crowds in politics have much in common. Apparently, neuroscientists also want to figure out what one can only describe as the Holy Grail of both power politics and commerce: ‘What does it take for a powerful individual or small groups to sway opinion?’’ The piece ends by noting that given the likelihood of more volatility in both the political and financial markets in 2012 neuroscientists are likely to ‘gain plenty of fresh material for their studies’.

And so shall we. Happy New Year.


Picture credit: flickr user Collin David Anderson

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