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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

TIME Gets it Right

Time's "Person of the Year" feature has been so much of an institution for so long that I can remember comic story-lines that were built around it when I was kid, nearly 30 years ago. (I'm thinking in particular of one comic from the 1980s that had a futuristic Tony Stark competing to named "Man of the Year" by a Time-magazine-U.S.-military-industrial behemoth.) Mostly, it's just like every other feature produced by any major media outlet: it's a way to attract advertisers and sell magazines, or at the very least to catch readers and get people talking. Very rarely would the act of identifying someone, or some thing, as uniquely representative of a whole year be anything more than just a predictable stunt, and Time's annual issue is usually just that.

But not this year--this year, media cynic that I am, I have to give them credit; the choice of "The Protester" has put the finger on the essential, populist/anarchic/utopian/democratic vibe of nearly all left-leaning politics this year, and to that extent has successfully captured one of the biggest sources of genuine news in 2011 all the world over. Obviously those struggling in the streets against equality, austerity, and corruption don't even begin to tell the whole story of politics in 2011, and of course a great many--including thousands who will be writing letters to the editor in response to Time's choice--will argue that it not only isn't the whole story, but that it's a bad story as well, one that is basically boils down to a wrong-headed sideshow, distracting us from the "real" issues of economic growth. But they're wrong, and Time is right, at least this time. Three years after the global financial meltdown, and nearly two years after President Obama and the Democratic party managed to get through Congress the most extensive (though seriously flawed) social welfare reform bill the United States has seen in over 40 years, all the real energy on the left or liberal side of the political spectrum is focusing on the former, and dismissing the latter. The technocratic and neoliberal compromises with high finance, global capitalism, and foreign policy realism which have (ever since Bill Clinton and others, if not earlier) become predictable with all liberal and left-leaning political parties and ideologies, quite suddenly seemed bankrupt, useless, perhaps even counterproductive, as a way to challenge entrenched authority, corrupt practices, and a concentration of power that, for whatever reason, suddenly seemed beyond the pale.

Some of what Kurt Andersen wrote for the magazine is truly dead-on:

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. Two decades after the final failure and abandonment of communism, they believe they're experiencing the failure of hell-bent mega-scaled crony hyper-capitalism and pine for some third way, a new social contract.

A desire to build something something more democratic and grounded in local demands for justice and dignity, something more responsive to actual human beings rather than to financial derivatives, something that isn't "too big to fail": yes, that's what unites the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and much else besides. And moreover, the desire to see it done with participatory tools and technologies that privilege those that are on the ground, rather than those who are in elite positions of corporate influence. Is that a crazy, utopian dream? Possibly:

Globalization and going viral have been the catchphrases of the networked 21st century. But until now the former has mainly referred to a fluid worldwide economy managed by important people, and the latter has mostly meant cute-animal videos and songs by nobodies. This year, do-it-yourself democratic politics became globalized, and real live protest went massively viral. But as they've rejuvenated and enlarged the idea of democracy, the protesters, and the rest of us, are discovering that democracy is difficult and sometimes a little scary. Because deciding what you don't want is a lot easier than deciding and implementing what you do want, and once everybody has a say, everybody has a say.

A few years ago I would have laughed knowingly at this passage. Of course democracy is hard, and never more hard than in the essential community-building work of deciding who gets to talk and when and about what. Without such decisions being made--or, speaking more theoretically, without such constitutions or traditions or norms being in place so as to give some identity to the place and time of speaking--then of course democracy collapses into just noise. What is necessary, I would have said, is to, first, work with and reform one's institutions and one's culture, so as to move towards the kinds of moral/communal consensus and legitimacy which representative democracy ought to enjoy, even if that includes having more “authority” and less “democracy” in our lives. I’m not sure I wouldn't ultimately make that same response today, as well....but still, I wouldn't make it so dismissively. I've become a little more anarchic, localized, and decentralized in my communitarianism; I have come do better appreciate what I've long known intellectually: that a truly radical challenge to inequality and authoritarianism has to draw something from a different mode of action and a different (probably not only liberal!) set of priorities. The protesters in Cairo and Madrid and NYC know that, whatever else it is that they do not (yet?) know. Many kudos to Time for getting that much right about our global conversation at this moment, at least.

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