Looking for dignity, finding revolution: how North Africa & the Middle East inspire us

Can the revolts in North Africa and the Middle East of the past few months inspire similarly energetic uprisings in the US against the self-destructing industrial/financial system and the handful of people who profit from it? The revolts in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, etc. have demonstrated how quickly a society can move from resigned acceptance of an oppressive status quo to open defiance. It is inspiring to see how fragile seemingly intractable power structures can be.

The US, too, is ripe for revolt despite the superficial appearance of stability indicated by the millions of people who dutifully head off to work everyday focused on consumerism and corporate media. Social pressure is building over increased inequality and injustice that is barely discussed in mainstream dialog, much less addressed. The last 40 years of tax cuts for the rich, corporate globalization and union busting have created the largest wealth inequalities since before the Great Depression. All of the fruits of US economic growth in the last 30 years have gone to the richest 20 percent of the population, with just 1 percent getting the lion’s share. Ever year, millions of Americans have fallen out of the middle class and into marginalized economic hopelessness. Meanwhile, it becomes more clear every year that the environmental consequences of the ever-expanding industrial machine are not sustainable. The oceans are dying, the air increasingly filled with CO2, forest and mineral resources depleted, and farmland exhausted.

As exciting and inspirational as it has been to follow the revolts in the Middle East, it is easy to feel despair, alone and small when you compare their successes to our situation in the US.

Perhaps that’s how Mohamed Bouazizi felt in Tunisia. In December, Bouazizi, a 26 year old street vender, touched off the current wave of revolts when, in total frustration with police abuse, corruption and his struggle to survive, he set himself on fire. In fact, he was not alone. Everyone around him was thinking roughly the same thing he was thinking. They couldn’t take the rotten system anymore. But until Bouazizi’s act, most people did nothing – they kept their dissatisfaction bottled up and hidden. Maybe out of fear. Or maybe because it is natural for people to be resigned to unacceptable circumstances when they feel isolated. We get used to tolerating our circumstances and feel powerless to change them.

Once a spark was lit in Tunisia, it turned out thousands of isolated and resigned people were ready to join with others and risk everything against a seemingly all-powerful system. And not just in Tunisia – the spark started fires that spread country to country. People even turned out for protests in China, although those protests were instantly crushed by the massive police state.

Watching the revolts from the US, the bravery and determination exhibited by so many thousands comes through powerfully. What is it they have, and we lack? Or are we all psychologically equipped to rise up? And if so, when and how?

The feeling of dissatisfaction and yet resignation is familiar in the US and to people everywhere and throughout history. The emotional basis for inaction in Tunisia or Egypt or Syria before the current uprisings – and the way people can break free of their inhibitions and take huge risks to demand a new world – are the same no matter where you are. In North Africa and the Middle East, anyone getting out of line faces torture chambers and murder, and yet they are rising up anyway.

The power structure in the US (usually) uses more subtle forms of control to establish cultural hegemony and political stability. There are a million cheap thrills to constantly distract attention from the oppressive operation of the system. Most people conclude that the current structure of society is inevitable and that there are no realistic alternatives – even people deeply unhappy with the status quo.

No one knows what might spark mass resistance to the system in the US – there are no easy answers or magic formulas. At the very least, it is crucial to continually discuss alternatives and articulate the values and stories that underpin them. Whereas the system emphasizes competition and imagines each individual as a mini-entrepreneur, rising or falling against everyone else based on his or her individual talent and initiative, it is important to discuss and expose the role of social class and centralized power.

The alternative to a corporate industrial world that concentrates all wealth in a few hands at the expense of workers, communities and the environment is a system of decentralized, voluntary associations based on cooperation and production for use, not profit. The alternative is organizing society around meeting human needs, sustaining the earth, and promoting freedom, pleasure and beauty. The alternative is to make decisions consciously and collectively, rather than letting economic and technological systems unreflectively exercise most of the real power over our lives.

The huge protests in Madison, Wisconsin against attacks on public-sector unions and the recent riots and protests against police killings in Seattle and Portland have demonstrated how people can push back, even though these protests are reactive and defensive. It’s time to take the initiative and go on the offensive. This means talking to people we don’t already know, taking risks, building new communities where none exist, and pushing each of our boundaries.

The stories that people use to help them understand their lives are a critically important piece of the puzzle. There is a constant and continuing battle over values and stories. Purely activist efforts are too simplistic and too focused on facts and rationality – they assume that everyone is operating with the same stories and that particular facts will be interpreted the same by everyone. In fact, depending on the stories you start out with, two people can see the same facts and come to startling different conclusions.

Mainstream culture and the pro-business interests that control its organized side have developed compelling stories about what is important in life and the nature of human beings that make it very difficult to notice particular facts or take effective action. If you assume that the most important characteristics of human beings is their selfishness, competitiveness and individualism, then the fact that the world is organized around profit, private property and centralization of wealth and power appear to be natural results of human qualities, rather than particular power structures created to benefit a minority of the population.

The assumption that people are basically selfish is not supported by the most important relationships people have with each other, which are cooperative and generous. On a day-to-day level, we spend far more time sharing and cooperating with our families, our friends, and those close to us than we do competing with them or acting selfishly. The relationships that are most meaningful to us are cooperative, generous, sharing relationships. By contrast, our competitive and individualist interactions exhaust us, stress us out, and don’t give us a sense of meaning, satisfaction or happiness. Instead, they make us feel alone, small, scared and constantly inadequate. You never feel a sense of wonder at merely existing with no need to justify your value during your daily interactions with the market economy and the technological industrial machine.

We need to articulate and live stories of sharing, community and cooperation to oppose the mainstream’s one-sided story of selfishness and isolated individualism.

It is in the interest of those in power to view people as primarily selfish economic actors – concerned with rational decision making aimed at accumulating material goods. Cooperation and sharing are invisible to the market economy because they don’t concentrate wealth. For the capitalist system to continue expansion, it must constantly invent new needs and develop new markets, which in a developed economy means figuring out ways the market economy can meet needs previously met informally through the family or the community.

So cooking at home gets replaced by instant dinners and fast food supplied by corporations. The market supplies video games, television and a gym membership to displace free recreation like playing in the woods or hanging out with friends in the streets. Kids who formerly walked or biked to school get rides from their parents. Granny doesn’t come around to do childcare and some mending – she goes on a cruise or to a casino, or a nursing home, while the kids go to daycare and the clothes get thrown away and replaced with new ones from China.

When people do things for themselves and those around them, it builds feelings of solidarity and group identity that allows people to stand up to centralized power structures. By contrast, the more of our lives we spend working meaningless jobs and enjoying superficial corporate treats, the less sure of ourselves we become and the more alone, isolated and powerless we feel. Increasing participation in the system weakens the ability to resist the system.

The sense of working class culture in the US – that people who work for a living have different interests than their bosses – may be at all time low because people’s lives have become so focused on individualized pursuits and so stripped of shared, cooperative activities. Driving alone, living alone, enjoying personally directed media entertainment alone, eating alone – all of this has psychological effects that accumulate over time. Without opportunities to practice cooperation, it is easy to buy mainstream stories about which of our impulses – individual or collective – are most natural and human.

I still don’t know how people in the US can finally move to action from our deep resignation, but I feel encouraged in the knowledge that I can do something by staying present and trying. Standing in a crowd can make a difference, at least for those of us there. Any society can move quickly from resignation and acceptance to revolt – the difference is a small psychological shift, building on feelings already present in all of us all the time. Being together – a community in the streets visible to others – can help build that change as it always has across the globe and throughout time.