Friday, 4 March 2011

Will Revolution Spread South?

Pressures on the poor and unemployed in developing countries are set to increase. Rising food and fuel prices have hit an all-time high - food prices are at their highest since the FAO started measuring the food price index in 1990, and oil is now selling at over a $100 per barrel, way over the projected rises in both. So we are in unprecedented territory. Globally, the vast neoliberal schemes to privatize and deregulate national economies, the creation of the new industrial division of labour (i.e. through 'outsourcing'), and two global financial crises brought about by loose regulation of markets and their principal multinational progenitors of growth, have devastated working and middle classes around the world. Unemployment is at an all time high too. To add to this, vast inequalities exist between those at the bottom of the pile and those at the top, and governments have come under increasing pressure to deliver, or face political revolt and indeed in some cases, all out revolution.

The viral spread of revolutions in the Middle East has caught their long-term leaders completely off guard. They have searched desperately for explanations, turning to theories of conspiracy and intrigue to explain the events that have unfolded around them. It's either America, Al Qaeda, Al Jazeera, cell phones, facebook and/or twitter that are destabilizing their longstanding regimes, yet they fail to acknowledge the simpler drivers of discontent. Not being able to maintain a household budget is a very difficult life to lead, and people who don't have the option of migrating when pressures become severe have to choose either death or revolt in order to survive (as outlined by Josette Sheeran, the UN World Food Programme's executive director). 

So why wouldn't these revolutions spread South? The reasons against this spread generally constitute the same reasoning that was applied to the middle east, yet everybody (experts and non-experts alike) were caught off guard when the sparks ignited and spread like wildfire in a strong wind. Everybody who never thought it would happen was found wanting. It is easy to make post-fact analyses and to provide deep 20-20 introspection with hindsight, so the only truthful answer is that nobody knows. Indeed, nobody knows the exact time or hour of revolution, but we can diagnose whether the conditions for revolution exist.

In my view, populations with huge youth bulges in countries with authoritarian tendencies that provide scarce opportunities for these youthful populations to live humanely are in the most danger of experiencing wide-spread civil revolt. We no longer live in a world where people are unaware of the differences between the lives they lead at the bottom of the pile, and the lives that are being led at the top of the pile. Indeed, in most of sub-Saharan Africa the inequalities between the ruling elitocracies and the masses are too vast to be ignored. And when people can no longer access the necessary material flows that are required for their survival, even through fallback routes, there really is only one option left if one cannot migrate, and does not wish to die.  Quite simply, when the elitocracies find themselves in turbulent seas, where rapid price changes destabilize the tentative 'stability' that has reigned for decades, they will find themselves faced with the prospect of widespread revolt.

There are many post-liberation countries in Southern Africa that have liberation-led organisations that have been in power for decades - whether democratically or otherwise - that have presided over the slide of their liberated nations into kleptocracy and corruption. The people they purportedly liberated are living in pretty much the same misery as they did under colonialism. Indeed, the lot of sub-Saharan Africans is amongst the most desperate in the world. And with a projected 150 million climate refugees expected in sub-Saharan Africa, high urbanization rates, and increased pressure on limited resources such as water, energy and arable land,  it is not difficult to imagine that the future might be dominated by even more intense conflict over access to resources and material flows. What might the consequences be of this 'polycrisis' that is already in the making?

It is clear that business as usual means that the majority of people will be left destitute, and with little or no option but to enter into micro-conflicts, regional conflicts and/or national revolts. Business as usual will intensify power amongst smaller and smaller groups that have such a tight grip on economies that middle class migration to the developed world will increase, skills gaps will widen and the conditions for descent into arcane nepotism will intensify ... that is, until the water breaks. What will light the spark is unknowable, yet it is safe to say that we will be sitting on a powder keg, smoking a cigarette, hoping that the keg won't blow. The conditions for revolt and revolution will no doubt be there, but what sparks it remains to be seen.

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