This year will go down in history as the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, a year of global crisis. Some countries handled the situation well. Others, in different ways, failed to mount an adequate response.
In South Africa, the widespread enthusiasm that initially marked much public response to the government’s authoritarian but, in medical terms, inept response to the pandemic mutated into a deep cynicism as the army and the police began to murder people in the streets and the political class brazenly looted the funds allocated to deal with the virus.
But despite the striking differences in the way that states across the planet responded to the crisis, it remained a global crisis. Each country has had to face the same virus. In the weeks and months to come, decisions such as those relating to the production and distribution of new vaccines will continue to have direct, immediate and urgent consequences on a global scale.
This pandemic is not the first global crisis of the 21st century. The consequences of the financial crash of 2008 are still unfolding, but that crisis was certainly global. With the defeat of social democratic forces in the dominating countries by right-wing populism, and the recent return of the “extreme centre” in the United States, the conditions that led to the financial crisis have not been resolved. Unless this changes, there will be more economic shocks that reverberate around the world.
Other kinds of crisis seem likely or inevitable. Europe, and then its settler colonies, have dominated the planet since 1492. As the US inexorably loses political authority and economic power to China, and the long epoch of Western dominance starts to come to an end, the new Cold War started by Donald Trump seems certain to escalate. This poses risks of various kinds.
There is also, of course, the rapidly escalating climate crisis. It is an existential threat to humanity that, like all forms of collective crisis, poses the most serious and immediate risk to the most vulnerable. These crises, and others to come, can only be effectively addressed with a global response.
No nation state can deal on its own with the environmental destruction that increases the prospects of the emergence of new zoonotic diseases, or drive a social rather than corporate agenda for medical research and the production and distribution of medication. No nation state can deal with the climate crisis on its own. No nation state can, on its own, subordinate finance capital to society or socialise the vast wealth of humanity.
An international revolt
This week, a decade was marked since a different kind of moment that, while not entirely global, was certainly international. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street trader in the rural Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, on 17 December 2010 ignited a sequence of uprisings, occupations and riots that, in 2011, moved from North Africa into the Middle East, southern Europe and then the US and England. These events would, by a circuitous route, have significant influence in South Africa some years later.
Bouazizi’s desperate action was a response to an impossible personal and familial situation compounded by the sadism of local state officials. On the day that he took his life, his cart, scales and produce were confiscated by a municipal official after he refused to pay a bribe. He was humiliated and, in some accounts, beaten. This was not a new experience for Bouazizi; he had suffered harassment from officials and the police for years. But on this day, he demanded to speak to the mayor. His demands were ignored. He bought a can of petrol and set himself on fire outside the town hall.
The circumstances that led Bouazizi to take his life in such a dramatic and public fashion were not a matter of personal misfortune. Millions of people across the cities of the Global South were making their way through life in similar conditions. And millions of people in North Africa and the Middle East had similar experiences of corrupt and brutal dictatorships. But a shared experience is not the same thing as a shared political identity and commitment to organisation and action.
Bouazizi’s self-immolation captured the political imagination of a generation. With the velocity enabled by social media, an uprising that began in Tunisia brought down a dictatorship in three weeks and rapidly spread into adjacent countries, most dramatically Egypt, where Tahrir Square was occupied and, in the end, another dictator removed.
By May 2011, people opposing austerity were occupying public squares in Spain. In June, squares were occupied in Greece. In August, riots broke out in cities across England. And in September, Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district was occupied, kicking off the Occupy movement.
In October a small protest was organised in Makhanda, then still known as Grahamstown, in solidarity with increasingly global initiatives in response to Occupy in New York. Ayanda Kota of the Unemployed People’s Movement threw a bucket of faeces into the town’s city hall in protest against the massively corrupt municipality’s failure to provide decent sanitation to its impoverished residents. This gesture inaugurated what came to be called “the politics of shit”, a form of political theatre that reached its climax when the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town received similar treatment in 2015, an intervention that kicked off the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
Organising from the ground up
If the financial crisis of 2008 put an end to the post-Cold War fantasy that unregulated capitalism was a virtuous, emancipatory force animated by greater reason than democratic disputation, the different kinds of rebellion that emerged in 2011 put an end to that other post-Cold War fantasy: the idea that popular political contestation had given way to enlightened technocratic management. The sequence of occupations, protests and riots in 2011 was international rather than global, and certainly less so than the youth-driven rebellions of 1968. But it offers a sense of what might be possible in the years to come, and its limits and failures offer a set of important lessons for building sustained and effective forms of transnational popular mobilisation.
Hashtag politics has real virtues. The velocity with which it can enable mobilisation – and enable mobilisation to move from city to city and country to country – is extraordinary. It often appeals to the sensibilities of the professional classes and, as a result, can make quick shifts in the common sense of the elite public sphere. But it is not well equipped to build sustained forms of democratic organisation, something that is required to sustain mobilisation, build new forms of solidarity, and create the spaces for ongoing collective discussion that can deepen understanding and strategic thinking.
Building effective and enduring political organisation is always a project rooted, to a significant degree, in the local – this factory, this campus, this neighbourhood. It is always, to a significant degree, owned and shaped from below. Forgetting this and trying to build politics with a wider reach on a top-down basis does not work.
But it is equally true that we will not be able to meet the challenges of the crises to come without powerful forms of progressive transnational political mobilisation. Building sustained forms of progressive popular organisation from the ground up, forms of organisation with a capacity to make linkages and interventions at a transnational scale, is a key challenge of our times.