In 2011, the revolution was tweeted

December 29, 2011

2011 was a good year for protest and a bad year for government. 2012 will be a good year for both if our political leaders can figure out the connection.

Across the globe, this was a year when people took to the streets, often overthrowing their leaders in the process. That was true in the Arab world, in Russia, in India, in Western Europe, in the United States and even in China.

And everywhere, this year of mass defiance wrong-footed those who were supposed to be in the know. The experts had thought the Arabs were getting richer and were too scared of their autocrats, that the Russians were apathetic and quite liked their neo-czar, that the Indian middle class was politically disengaged, that West Europeans were too old for outrage, that Americans didn’t care about the class divide and that the Chinese comrades were too effective at suppressing dissent.

But everywhere, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down by people who turned out to be angrier than their elites had suspected, and better able to channel that dissatisfaction into mass protest and even revolution.

The first surprise was the strength and near universality of the public discontent. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

The unifying complaint is crony capitalism. That’s a broad term, to be sure, and its bloody Libyan manifestation bears little resemblance to complaints about the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States or allegations of corrupt auctions for telecommunications licenses in India. But the notion that the rules of the economic game are rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of the middle class has had remarkable resonance this year around the world and across the political spectrum. Could the failure of the experts to anticipate this anger be connected to the fact that the analysts are usually part of the 1 percent, or at least the 10 percent, at the top?

The second surprise was how easy it has become to transform mass dissatisfaction into mass protest. That was true both in chillingly repressive regimes and in ones where the hurdle to collective action had been thought to be public apathy.

The answer to this puzzle is obvious today — the communications revolution, ranging from satellite television to Twitter to camera phones, has made it easier than ever before to organize protests and to keep them going once they start.

What’s important to remember in hindsight is that one of the most provocative ideas of late 2010 — published just two months before a Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, posted his suicide note on his Facebook Wall, and three months before the Egyptian government blocked Twitter in an effort to muzzle its people — was Malcolm Gladwell’s characteristically iconoclastic assertion that, as the subhead to his October 2010 New Yorker essay put it, “the revolution will not be tweeted.”

At least in public, Gladwell is sticking to his guns, but not too many other people are. In one informed example, consider a recent public interview I conducted with Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecommunications billionaire and liberal politician who backed the Tahrir Square demonstrations.

When I asked him about the Gladwell theory, Sawiris first wondered, “Is he here in the room? Do I have to be polite?” and then went on to explain his criticism: “He has no clue what this technology has done to my part of the world. Ninety percent of the success of this revolution is attributed to it.” The point isn’t to mock the brilliant Gladwell — it is to recall that as late as the autumn of 2010 the impact of the technology revolution on civil society, particularly outside the developed West, was still very much an open question.

So much for the success of the rebels. Inside the citadel of the state, by contrast, 2011 was a veritable annus horribilus. That was especially true for some pretty vile dictators. But even in democracies, government didn’t seem to work very well. Political paralysis was a routine complaint in the world’s richest democracy, and in its biggest democracy; it was the diagnosis in presidential systems and in parliamentary ones. Right-wing governing parties were accused of dysfunction — and so were governments on the left. Some central bankers were attacked for printing too much money; others were criticized for doing too little.

The success of the protesters and the dysfunction of government are the flip sides of one another. They are related in an obvious way — people take to the streets when they think their leaders are doing a poor job. But the widely perceived failure of the state around the world is connected to the effectiveness of the protests in deeper ways, too.

Let’s start with the technological tools that made protesting so much easier. They may have made governing tougher –informed and empowered individuals are probably harder to boss around than ignorant, isolated ones. More important, though, social activists have embraced the technology revolution more effectively than governments have. The revolution is being tweeted, but government isn’t. It’s time for the state to catch up — and hopefully not by emulating the Chinese comrades with their cybercensorship expertise.

As for crony capitalism, this slogan of the street is both a challenge for the state and an opportunity. For some regimes, of course, crony capitalism, with a side order of repression, is the only dish on the menu. For them, the trends of 2011 do not bode well.

But most of today’s troubled market democracies don’t need a revolution to sweep away their cronies. What they do need is a new version of capitalism, designed for the 21st century. That is what the world’s protesters, in their different ways, are all asking for. Here’s hoping that 2012 provides some politicians with some answers.


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Exellent analysis, Chrystia. Thank you.

Not only was the revolution televised (eventually) and Tweeted, it was streamed as well. I followed a Tweeted link to a live, streamed broadcast from the Brooklyn Bridge one day, and I was amazed at the ubiquity and effectiveness of the smart-phone-enabled citizen journalists. I started following @OakFoSho on Twitter and uStream ( and almost felt like I was there (in Oakland and Los Angeles). Years ago, protest groups, like Greenpeace, developed strategies to attract traditional broadcast media to cover their protests. Now, protesters simply broadcast the events themselves directly. Professional journalists provide the background, context, and analysis, but they can now also draw upon the wealth of undigested, raw material provided by participants and their followers. These streams enable anyone to follow the development of hyper-democracy at the micro-local level, while traditional media reports on the loss of democracy and national sovereignty at the macro-level. It is impressive to see the speed with which ordinary citizens have been able to make effective use of new, networked communications technologies, and it is frightening to realize that governmnents, and other traditional institutions, may be incapable of adjusting to the new normal.

Mark McGuire

Posted by mark_mcguire | Report as abusive

When Iceland’s voters refused to ”bail out” their banks by referendum in 2008, a new constitution was drafted with broad public participation including use of social media.

The document that emerged is summarized here, 77, indicating that technology can indeed be embraced to improve government.

Posted by dsandahl | Report as abusive

The capitalism designed for 21st century may not be answer. The best approach would be to rethink and redesign the system of organizing and running our individual and collective lives. A new form of democracy might be the answer.

The politicians may have vested interests in maintaining the status-quo. As the events of 2011 have shown, the systems may be changed only by the masses pulling in more or less coherent directions. The only issue remains: What’s next? What kind of democracy would be the best for tomorrow?

If we analyze the daily agendas of politicians and their efforts to find a balance between running their offices, fundraising, popularity, lobbyists, and other tasks, it is difficult to envision any motivation to think long-term, to analyze, and to push for a change of any system. The lifespan of politician’s ideas is from election to election. Moreover, the politicians may not aspire to develop a nonpartisan system…

More at: 011/12/democracy-for-tomorrow.html

Posted by Democracy499 | Report as abusive

what revolution?
this so called revolution is nothing more than white suburbans romancing their ipods
pre-revolution= millions and millions of unemployed arab men.
Post revolution= millions and millions of unemployed arab men.

Posted by cp61 | Report as abusive

Dear Lord … when will people figure out that government drives corruption? Take away the government’s power to enrich or destroy business and “crony capitalism” disappears.

Once again … corruption and “crony capitalism” is driven by people with power over others. That means government. Reduce government, increase liberty, end corruption.

Asking the government to stop “crony capitalism” is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

Posted by darwin2 | Report as abusive

Very insightful analysis. Freeland might add that the prime driver of the Tea Party movement in the United States is objections to “crony capitalism.”

Posted by fiscalhawk | Report as abusive

Not sure if the author noticed that the so called Arab Spring is not ending in freedom but rather in Islamists coming to power who will be much harder to dislodge than the largely non ideological dictators they replace.
And the so called Occupy movement in the the West only objects to crony capitalism to the extent they are upset they weren’t bailed out instead, crony wannabes, but also as a step to ending capitalism itself.
But the idea that we need a new form of capitalism is the most risible point. Crony capitalism is nothing new; it’s as old as the notion of a “state” that dispenses favors and power to those who seek its rent.
What is needed is what has always and everywhere been needed and what always work best; free markets in which people voluntarily exchange ideas, goods and services.

Posted by mudpuppy | Report as abusive

So what? Who really cares. The electronic hallucination is always going to support the powers that be, believe me.

Posted by Talleyrand02 | Report as abusive

Technology will can also be the downfall of revolutions. Every mobile phone can be individually tracked as long as it is turned on. This is a necessity of mobile networks – calls have to be directed to the correct cell. Facebook is now requiring a 1 to 1 link to a mobile phone. Tweets and SMS messages can be monitored and the location of leaders can be tracked. With some analysis the real life identities of leaders and documenters can be determined.

In other words, regime opponents can be easily identified and tracked by the same social media used to organize the resistance. US law enforcement routinely uses real time phone tracking in criminal cases. It is just a matter of time until some enterprising consultants tie the whole package up for convenient deployment by any third world dictatorship.

Posted by sally1234 | Report as abusive

Many things enabled this to happen.
Foremost the vilifying of any Western Leader that used force to suppress a uprising. Syria/Iran no big deal. Egypt Obama joins in.
The covering up of the fact of who these Arabs were. They were the same ones that we are fighting in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East. Why is anyone surprised the Muslim Brotherhood can mobilize. Shoot we fought them in Tripoli shortly after we became a country. Basically same folks.
We will live to regret allowing these Pirates to get out of hand I fear. How long before they demand ransom from us. Wait we already pay it in the form of oil, Somalia Pirates (since they have no oil).
We were far better off with these Dictators suppressing the Pirates.

Posted by CaptalismWorks | Report as abusive

You state:

“The first surprise was the strength and near universality of the public discontent. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

The unifying complaint is crony capitalism.

But most of today’s troubled market democracies don’t need a revolution to sweep away their cronies. What they do need is a new version of capitalism, designed for the 21st century. That is what the world’s protesters, in their different ways, are all asking for.”

You conclusion is grossly mistaken, since “troubled market democracies DO need a revolution to sweep away their cronies.”

Our leaders have learned absolutely NOTHING from this new trend towards revolution, which has been facilitated by ease of communication never seen before, yet “market democracies” do not see, nor understand that their citizens are just as angry with their excesses as those in the Arab Spring.

The only difference is the conditions here aren’t quite bad enough to energize that type of violent protest.

However, as conditions continue to deteriorate, and people begin to realize their jobs, homes and lifestyles are gone forever, to be replaced by an “in your face” wealthy class, I guarantee you it WILL happen here.

We don’t need a “new version of capitalism” — which has fatal flaws and is irretrievably broken — we need a new form of government that is more responsive to its people, and not just dedicated to the further enrichment of the wealthy class!

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Thank you Ms Freeland for this article giving a general global perpective of social unrest, cataclymic states and all else you mention that goes a way to making this world a seemingly ill-managed place to live in. With the sum of natural distasters thrown in for good measure it’s hard to understand how things could ever get better. I hope for all that 2012 reveals a better understanding of a changeing world where creating a better quality of life is paramount.

Posted by Ceorolus | Report as abusive

Corruption and “crony capitalism” cannot exist without powerful governments that have the power to enrich or destroy business.

The problem isn’t capitalism, it’s politicians who have given themselves the power to control people and business. Reduce and reform government and corruption disappears.

Posted by darwin2 | Report as abusive

I’m a big fan, Chrystia, and I agree completely about the core global issue being crony capitalism or, put another way, the control of politics by money. But you are too nice to Malcolm Gladwell by at least half. I wrote a response to Gladwell’s inane assertions about social media for Huffington Post in February 2011 ( fitz/note-to-malcolm-gladwell-_b_818761. html). More recently, I reported remarks by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, underscoring how much power the American military attributes to the rise of personal publishing technology ( fitz/how-much-does-america-rea_b_1129063 .html). The only place I part company with you is that I don’t think there was significant disagreement in late 2010 about the connection between social media and the rapidly spreading protest movement that surfaced in the US as Occupy Wall Street. I truly believe this was Gladwell trying to be contrary without devoting much thought or research to his argument, which is actually his standard operating procedure. But I also realize that Gladwell is the sideshow here. The global connections being fostered and accelerated by new kinds of gobal communications are the main event.

Posted by KirkCheyfitz | Report as abusive

I saw you on the Chris Hayes show today. I watch it to see what the left is saying. I live in South Carolina and I do read books. Floor-to-ceiling filled bookshelves are in my home, are they in yours? I am 56, retired comfortably, with no pension. If I got a job, I’d be taking it from someone who needs to provide food and shelter for themselves. There are many like me. Please don’t “broad brush” those of us in South Carolina, or any non-lefty. Try listening to us! Your response is very much appreciated. Thank you in advance.

Posted by CfromSC | Report as abusive

what we need is for reporters, columnists, and journalists to start doing their job for the good of man kind and not to enrich their career or pocketbooks.

Posted by fleshmeat | Report as abusive