The popular upsurge in the Arab world which has already thrown out two dictators and threatens many more has been seen as part of a currently unfolding global struggle for democracy. Such a reading, though exhilarating, is alas inaccurate. For, precisely when Arab dictators are being made to bite the dust, the state of Wisconsin in the United States of America has passed legislation that virtually decimates trade unions in the public sector; and several other states are set to emulate the Wisconsin legislation. Since in the US only about 7 per cent of private sector employees are unionized anyway, compared to over a third of the public sector employees, the destruction of trade unionism among the latter virtually amounts to an erasure of trade unions. This is a severe blow to democracy in the mightiest land of corporate capitalism. The struggle for democracy in one part of the globe in other words is accompanied by a struggle against democracy in another; put differently, the advance of the democratic revolution in one region is accompanied by a triumph of the counter-revolution against democracy elsewhere.
The sweep of the counter-revolution, however, is even greater than appears at first sight. The essence of democracy consists in the fact that the interests of the vast majority of the populace must not be sacrificed for the benefit of a few. The Mubaraks and the Ben Alis of the world amassed power and wealth at the expense of the people of their respective countries, and this, everyone recognized, was a negation of democracy. But let us take a look at what happened in Greece recently. Like in other countries, a handful of financial institutions had speculated and gained heavily in the financial markets, and when the bubble burst in 2008 they needed to be “rescued” with public money. The Greek government’s support for shoring up such institutions widened the fiscal deficit. To keep the deficit in check, since the government could not borrow enough, massive cuts had to be imposed on public expenditure which entailed significant erosion in the living standards of the vast bulk of the working population. The interests of the vast mass of the population, in other words, had to be sacrificed to maintain the wealth and power of a handful of financiers.
What has happened in Greece is merely the repeat of a story enacted virtually everywhere in the capitalist world, except that governments elsewhere were not pushed to the brink as the Greek one was. Originally, when the governments in the advanced capitalist countries embarked upon their financial rescue operations, the argument was that the common people, including depositors, would be hard hit if the financial institutions were allowed to fail; that is, they needed to be rescued in the public interest. While this argument found wide acceptance, the overwhelming public view at the time was that, even though these institutions had to be rescued, those who brought these institutions to the sorry pass they were in deserved to be punished; hence the governments, in lieu of the rescue assistance, should take over these institutions and restructure them, without compensating their existing managements. This way a repeat of financial recklessness, and the ensuing crisis that sucks up public money, could be avoided.
Soon, however, the Obama administration came up with a new catchphrase. The financial institutions that needed to be rescued were not only “too big to fail” (which is why they had to be rescued), but they were also “too big to be restructured”. In other words, they should just be left exactly as they were, with their managements making merry even as they were getting rescued with public money.
“Making merry” is no hyperbole here. Goldman Sachs, one of the firms rescued, is on track, according to the financial press, to pay out $17.5 billion as “compensation” for last year when many of its top executives had missed out on their bonuses. Its CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, will be receiving a bonus of $12.6 million, even as his base salary triples.
But the sacrifice of the interest of the people for that of a handful of corporate rich is not confined to the case of financial rescue alone. The US federal budget under George Bush had handed out massive tax breaks to the rich while cutting back on programmes that would benefit the common people. Barack Obama has not been able to roll back the tax breaks, and hence has had to cut a series of welfare programmes further. All this has made many commentators see contemporary US as moving towards an authoritarian State largely controlled by the corporations and a financial elite. And the tendency manifesting itself in the US is also apparent in all major capitalist countries.
The Mubaraks and the Ben Alis, strutting around displaying their power and wealth, are easy to identify as targets of the struggle for democracy. But there are less visible, but no less real and far more powerful, targets in this struggle. These consist of the corporate-financial elite in each country which in turn is integrated much more closely than before with similar elites elsewhere, including in the powerful capitalist countries. Overthrowing them is as essential for the struggle for democracy as it is difficult.
The Arab people rising in revolt are acutely aware of this. In fact, Noam Chomsky reports that on February 20, Kamal Abbas, the Egyptian trade union leader and a prominent figure in the uprising against Mubarak, sent a message to workers in Wisconsin: “We stand with you as you stood with us.” This awareness is what makes the Arab uprising such a source of inspiration for those who love democracy anywhere in the world, and so different from the so-called “orange” and other similar “revolutions” promoted by the US some years ago in Central Asia. These so-called “revolutions” were also ostensibly for the realization of “democracy”, but a necessary component of such “democracy” was the pursuit of neo-liberal policies, which were designed to hand over control of Central Asian gas to US multinational bodies.
What is striking about the current Arab uprising is that similar efforts on the part of the big powers have failed till now because the uprising is aware of their machinations. Egypt and Tunisia were “fortunate” not to have oil, so that imperialist concern about their uprisings was confined only to the potential implications of such uprisings for Israel. But in the case of oil-endowed Libya, there have been attempts at direct intervention. The British prime minister, David Cameron, even sent agents to make contact with the Libyan resistance, ostensibly to inquire about the requirements of humanitarian aid, but in reality to attempt imperialist penetration into the Libyan resistance as a means of achieving future control over Libyan oil. The agents were captured by the resistance and sent back, since it did not want Gaddafi to benefit from the people’s anti-imperialist sentiments by identifying the resistance with imperialism. But notwithstanding this awareness on the part of the resistance, imperialist overtures to it and interest in getting control over Libyan oil has been a potent factor behind Gaddafi’s survival.
What is inspiring about the Arab uprising is not just its struggle for democracy but the fact that its struggle for democracy is informed by anti-imperialism; its notion of democracy is not a facile one, which mistakes the fall of a dictator for the achievement of democracy. This fall is only the first step in a protracted process which entails confronting the power of the global corporate-financial elite that is currently engaged in constricting democracy everywhere, even in the advanced capitalist countries. What happens in the Arab world will depend also upon what happens outside it, which is why it is not enough to celebrate the Arab uprising; one must join it in one’s own country.