An article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper HA'ARETZ, reporting discussion with three Harvard faculty, Helen Haste (HGSE), Jim Sidanius (FAS) and Ryan Enos (Government) about the recent worldwide protest movements. Translated from Hebrew by Shai Fuxman
The global protest movement, which spread last year from European countries like Spain and Greece to countries like Israel, Chile, and finally the United States, completely surprised the academic establishment around the world. The United States – where for years academics dismissed social protest movements, arguing that only right-wing conservatives can bring out the crowds to the streets - found itself in a very embarrassing position with the outbreak of the protests on Wall Street. The professors and lecturers had not anticipated, predicted nor were prepared for the most part to the possibility that a real protesting social movement will arise in the United States on an economic basis and echo around the world. They almost laughed at the idea that thousands of Americans might rebel against the ills of the capitalist system, with millions of Americans supporting them from their homes, until the moment when the 99% in the U.S. rose and the global wave of protests arrived on their doorstep.
James Sidanius, Helen Haste and Ryan Enos, however, did actually identify the factors that led to protests around the world. After all, the three are Harvard professors, world-renowned experts in political psychology, the dynamics of protest movements and struggles between groups on the basis of economic background and class. Even though some of their colleagues tended to downplay the protest movement and be refer to it dismissively, they have no difficulty pointing the finger at the ills in the current system that led to the outbreak of the protest, pointing out the similarities between Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square, and warning of systemic and governmental failure that might lead to an even more acute outbreak of social instability, or a renewed era of conservative rule in the style of Reagan and Thatcher
The three professors arrived in Israel to attend the "political psychology and decision making" conference (Harvard IDC) held at the Interdisciplinary Center in early November, the result of a collaboration between the Center and Harvard. In a conversation with Markerweek, the three professors analyzed the similarities among the protests across the world, the differences between them and their futures. They were joined by Prof. Alex Mintz, Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC who organized the conference and is also is an international expert on political psychology. The four of them analyze the present, comment on the past and in particular warn against the future.
"The protest movement reflects the growing alienation on the part of citizens who feel that elites do not represent them," says Sidanius, professor of psychology and African-American studies at Harvard, winner of the Harold Lasswell Award in political psychology and an expert in inter-group social, political and economic struggles. "That is accompanied by a global increase in inequality levels. Economic inequality is often accompanied by political equality, in which financial elites have more and more weight in decision-making, and ordinary citizens feel more and more sidelined. That is what's is common to all the protest movements from the Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street to Oakland."
"We must also take into account the new technology, and the key role it played in empowering citizens," said Haste, a visiting professor at Harvard and a professor at the University of Bath in the UK, an expert on civil involvement in ethical, social and political issues, and the relationship between science and political consciousness. ""Because people have access to new technologies, you no longer see communication in the protest movements taking place from the top down like before, but horizontally instead. The new technology gives access to a larger and younger audience, but more importantly: It makes the organization of protest activity easier and more effective. Just think what needed to be done to organize a demonstration 50-60 years ago - it was complicated and required many organizational talents and skills that technology made redundant.
"But it's not just that it is easier to organize a protest - the technology itself is an empowering factor. It makes people feel they can do something and say something like they couldn't before. The combination of the alienation Jim talked about, with the feeling that your actions have an effect, that's what made this new kind of protest possible. "
"Of course the economic crisis must also be considered," says Enos, a professor at Harvard who specializes in American politics, and is on the executive board of the Center for American Politics at the universityHe sees the protest as a response to a systemic failure of government institutions, but notes that the failure does not cause people to take to the streets as long as they have food on the table. "There is the sense of alienation, and increase in inequality has occurred over decades. The immediate catalyst that sparked the protest was the economic crisis, and it seems this factor cuts across ideologies, as a year ago no one even thought of the possibility of a popular protest movement from the left of the American map. Everyone busied themselves with the popular protest movement from the right - the Tea Party movement. That was also born as a result of alienation, and was driven by demographic changes and factors associated with a recession. "
"Based on information from the Bank of Israel and the Trachtenberg report, the national prosperity never trickled down to the masses, to the public. The country is wealthy, but there are too many poor people. This led to frustration, alienation, jealousy and anger towards the tycoons," explains Mintz the Israeli angle.
Perhaps the biggest question you can ask about the protest is why now.? After decades of increasing inequality, why did all these protest movements appear simultaneously now? Is it just the crisis, or something deeper?
Haste: "protests come in waves. In the 60s was a huge wave of protest, especially from the left, and a tiny bit from the right. In the '80s there were leftist peace movements, but they dwindled after a short time. Now we see their awakening. The economic crisis plays an important role, but there is also a matter of imitation, of a sense of power passing from country to country. Once one country does something that looks useful, in another country someone says, 'If they can do it, why don't we do it too?' ".
Enos: "It's contagious."
Haste: "I tried to avoid precisely that term 'contagious'. But it is a sense of 'let's try it.' "
Mintz: "In Israel there is also the security situation. You cannot maintain a social protest if there is war or terrorist attacks, but the timing of the protest was right".
Enos: "In the U.S. too, for a decade, the politics and citizens were engaged in problems of security and terrorism, but now the crisis is internal."
It wasn't just an economic crisis that sparked these protests, but also a crisis of leadership the West suffers in parallel to economic decline. The political systems in the U.S. and Europe are not working.
Enos: "I think it's deeper than a crisis of leadership. It's an institutional crisis - of institutions and systems of government. I do not think that Barack Obama, for example, is an ineffective leader. He is charismatic, he passed important legislation during his tenure. But in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East, institutions of government have let the citizens down. In the U.S. the Congress is not working now, it cannot pass legislation because of the increasing polarization between the parties; and in Europe the EU is in crisis, partly due to his inability to cooperate. The leadership has not failed, but the institutions themselves, regardless of who leads them. "
Sidanius: "Ryan is absolutely right. I also wonder why this crisis of government is occurring, what factors led to it. I do not have a final answer on the matter, but it's a critical problem. Governments, especially in Congress, are unable to function".
Haste: 'I wonder if the media has a part in that. We read all the time about the loss of faith in politicians and governments, but the level of faith wasn't high to begin with. I wonder if the quality of politicians really has declined, or is it that the media has greater freedom and ability to expose failures that sometimes are quite trivial. If you ask the average protester in each country what irritated them in a certain politician, they won't know. They won't be able to point to one particular thing that was done to them. Maybe only when it's someone very well-known, like Rupert Murdoch. This is total alienation includes, that is not focused on individuals. "
Like in the 30s
All over the world, and in Israel and the United States in particular, there is an attempt to tie the protest to the left side of the political spectrum, despite the claims of the organizers. Do you agree with that observation? Is this really an awakening of the global left?
Haste: 'I think it is important to leave the traditional distinctions of right and left, because to a great extent these terms don't actually mean what they did 10-15 years ago.. However, I read a study done in Europe that showed a sharp rise in activity by far-right organizations - not just demonstrations, but also online activity. There is a dangerous rise of right-wing nationalism, that stems out of hatred for immigrants and immigration. It must be recognized that it's not just the left - it cuts across political views. Even right-wingers, especially younger ones, feel alienated ".
Sidanius: "Also the protest from the far right stems largely from economic inequality, from the feeling that they do not control their fate. They are also motivation by the sense that they are losing control of their countries. The election of Obama, for example, was perceived as particularly threatening for many white Americans, a feeling that blacks and minorities have taken over their country. What these movements have is common – those of the right, left and center - is a sense of losing control, of wrongs done to them by the elites, a feeling that life is becoming more and more difficult as a result of the economic crisis. This is what unites the movements of all parties. "
Enos: "It is important not to go to far in dismissing traditional distinctions between left and right. The protestors on Wall Street say they are not affiliated with the Democratic Party, but if you ask any of them go to the polls to vote, would they vote for Republicans? Of course not. They will vote for Democrats - if they even go vote, which is a different matter. It is important to differentiate between the reality and the rhetoric.
"People in the U.S. do feel like the two major parties do not represent them, and this goes to the alienation Jim mentioned, but at the event of the day most of them will return to the traditional parties, even though they convey they are tired of them. There are other situations, such as in the Middle East, where people are demanding regime change and really do not find themselves within the system, but I do not think that's the case in Western Europe and the U.S. "
But in all the demonstrations, not just in Arab countries, protesters are talking about a revolution, not about elections. About a complete and decisive change of system, not integration into the current system.
Mintz: "There are those who want to make the change outside the system, and those who want to change it from within".
Haste: "In the '60s and '70s there was also a climate of revolution, of changing the system, and it didn't happen. It was a response to the U.S. war in Vietnam, and fear of nuclear war and disillusionment with the Cold War in Europe. In Europe Especially Vietnam and the Cold War were seen as part of a larger problem, part of a system that reinforced a sense of fear and uncertainty."
Enos: "It is interesting to think about what happened to the movements that spoke of revolution in the '60s and '70s, then in the 80s we actually got Reagan and Thatcher. These movements may lead to similar results. Perhaps people talk about a revolution only when they have no food on the table , and that the system will function well if the employment situation improves. "
Still, the feeling is that since the 30s there hasn't been such a severe combination of social instability and deep economic crisis.
Haste: "It's an accurate comparison, because the period most resembling ours is not the '60s – that was a period of economic prosperity and an era following the World War - but the 30s. The periods are similar economically, and issues of the day are no different. Please note that protests tend to skip a generation: the grandparents of the generation protesting now protested in the 60s, and their grandparents protested in the 30s, but the generations in between went on with their lives and did not take to the streets ".
Sidanius: "The comparison to the '30s is correct, but it's rather the differences between the periods that deeply trouble me. The economic crisis of the '30s could have been resolved through the development of social democracy, through the New Deal. There was a concrete social policy that could have solved the problems. Today we see no sign of social policies that can help resolve our problems. There is no new New Deal on the horizon. And not only is there no new New Deal on the horizon, but there isn't one in the minds of the protestors either, except for an expression of dissatisfaction with the system. This could may make the movement devastating if it does not change. "
Haste: "The protest may lead to a new New Deal in the U.S., it would be very interesting if that happened".
The 30s led to the rise of Hitler's fascism and Stalinism. Is that what we can expect now, too?
Haste: "That's why I mentioned with concern the rise of the far right that opposes immigration and is based on hatred of foreigners and a sense of threat to cultural identity. It's alarming, and indeed is reminiscent of troubling aspects from the '30s".
Enos: "Feelings of hatred for immigrants historically are linked to periods of economic crisis, when unemployment is and people need jobs. There is an interesting phenomenon in the U.S. today: Republican political candidates speak out against immigrants, mainly from South America, claiming they increase the crime rate and take jobs from Americans. They ignore the fact that illegal immigration to the U.S. is now negative, people are leaving the country because there are no jobs. But this rhetoric persists because it tends to succeed when people fear for their economic situation. "
Do you agree with the characterization of the protesters as spoiled middle-class and up youngsters who are not really suffering from the economic situation?
Sidanius: "My colleague just finished a study of the riots in Britain in August. There the people demonstrating were not working-class unemployed. They had jobs, they were from relatively well-off parts of their communities. Even there it was not just an uprising of the poor and downtrodden".
Relative Deprivation Bias.
Enos: "Psychology plays a role here. It's about a phenomenon called Relative Deprivation Bias. In the '60s, for example, blacks who riot in the United States compared themselves to their white counterparts: they had a similar educational level, but whites earned more and had more political power. It can also be said about the 99% demonstrators that they are relatively affluent compared to other parts of the world, but they compare themselves to the top percentile, to the 1% that has more than them.. They are not the proletariat, they are the ones educated enough to know they deserve more. "
Sidanius: "such protests, it is important to note, often start not from those at the bottom, but from the more comfortable. Even in the 60s they were all middle-class and upper middle-class college graduates ".
Haste: "If you're poor and uneducated, powerless, you do not feel that you have the ability to do things. The ability to see the big picture and understand that something must be organized, and to feel you can do it and have the necessary resources, requires education and a certain level of social capital. These are the things the educated middle class has. Technology also helps in the form of social networking. "
How crucial was the role played by social networks in igniting this protest?
Enos: "Social networks play a role in all of this, but we do not know to what extent. In the 60s protests reached levels not yet seen in the current round. People tried to occupy the Pentagon, and did so without social networks. In the spring of the European nations in 1848, Europe was swept by a wave of revolutions, and they had no social networks. Therefore I argue we still need comprehensive research to find out what is the real impact of social networks on these revolutions ".
Haste: "Actually there have been research studies on this topic. What is done today on Facebook was done in the 60's using more old-fashioned methods, some of them were almost as effective as emails".
Enos: "The question is whether the protests would have taken place without social networking. No doubt they had an important role."
Mintz: "Traditional media also played a supporting role in the protest to the same extent as social networking. In Israel in particular, the media really helped the demonstrators up to a certain level."
Class mobility disappeared
What do you think will be the future of these protests? Where are we heading? in August 2011? Will the U.S. one day look like Greece, or will the protests succeed and the entire system change for the better?
Sidanius: "I hate to be a pessimist, but I do not see a high likelihood of a fundamental change in the power distribution. Not in the Arab world, particularly not in Egypt and Libya, and certainly not in the United States. There will not be an economic revolution. The middle class will not take the political power. The political system will remain in the hands of economic elites and the wealthy. I do not see anything that will change fundamentally or will undermine that order. "
Haste: "I'm also somewhat pessimistic, but I think there are differences between countries that were not democratic or were under a dictatorial regime and liberal democratic countries. In the Arab world there will be a larger structural change in my opinion, simply because people tasted a little freedom. There will be change, but not necessarily the change we want to see. "
Sidanius: "There will be change - different people will be in power. But in terms of the functioning of the system, the power structure and the distribution of wealth, I find it hard to believe there will be change. Egypt is the best example of this: the power passes to the generals and the military establishment, and they are turning back from many of the promises they made ".
Haste: 'I do not think we'll see a significant change in regime in the West. I think we will see a certain amount of change at the level of values. The people who hold power will need to adapt and make some changes in response to the protests. We do not know yet if these changes will improve the lives of many people. The 60s also led to social changes of another kind: Look at any movie, show or a book from the 50s and you'll see that everything was racist, homophobic and very chauvinistic. The 60s changed that, and that social change is important, even though it did not lead to regime change. Maybe the social change of these demonstration will be a different approach to the way bankers accumulate wealth. "
Enos: "Different countries are going in different directions. In the 30s the United States and Europe began at a similar point and went in very different directions".
There is talk now about the collapse of capitalism, about the failure of the current economic system that serves only the top percentile and not the remaining 99% of the population. Do you agree?
Mintz: "Capitalism is under attack, and the protests are a response to that. The fall of communism was perceived as a success of capitalism. The result was massive privatization, increases in inequality and tax cuts for the rich. I think that the protests are a response to the fact we went too far in this direction. We went from one extreme to another, from a relatively egalitarian system to an Ayn Rand version of capitalism ".
Enos: "The kind of capitalism that was common in the West wad indeed a free market, but it was crony capitalism. It served a certain segment in society, and to some extent specific interests in the United States. Economists have known for a long time that capitalism has limits, and Western economies were mechanisms meant to restrain the parts of capitalism that led to increase in social inequalities. These mechanisms were dismantled deliberately in order to serve a very small share of the population. Unfortunately, the former communist countries also imitated that model. "
Sidanius: "To a great extent the battle between those who want to continue the deregulation of the capitalist economy and those who want to curb it still is underway in the United States.. The Presidential campaign in my opinion will be based on this conflict. "
Maybe the problem is not capitalism as an economic system, but its application. Maybe the problem is with the elites, who abused their power?
Sidanius: "The increase in inequality occurred in every society we know about, including the social democratic societies of Northern Europe."
Mintz: "We must distinguish between democratic regimes and undemocratic ones. In undemocratic regimes protesters are attempting to topple the system, while in the West it's different. The factors and methods may be similar, but the aims are different and thus also the ways to achieve them. In undemocratic countries, people feel the regime is working against them" .
Enos: "People in the U.S. can say the same thing. Citizens who work ask 'Where is our rescue?'. They feel that the system works against them and in favor of other segments of the population ".
Haste: "The question is, again, why is this happening now. Why are they complaining now. After all people do not believe in the ideal state for long."
Sidanius: "Because of the economic collapse. People cannot pay for their homes, cannot pay medical bills, cannot afford rent, cannot send their kids to college - these are conditions developing right now."
Enos: "People who have worked hard assumed they would have these things, and suddenly they are not accessible to them."
Haste: "It is also more difficult to lose something you already had than to lose something you never had before".
Sidanius: 'I wonder what happened to social mobility in the U.S. Once there was a high degree of social mobility in the United States. If you were born in the bottom third of the population, you had a chance to work and make your way to the upper third. That is no longer the case. The U.S. is lagging behind the Scandinavian countries, France and most other countries, except for Israel ".
Both in the U.S. and Israel, minorities did not join the protest. Why?
Mintz: "Put simple – they were not invited. Organizers promoted their causes, their agendas and their interests".
Enos: "For protests in the U.S. to cross segments and races, they need to overcome the many layers of structural division. It's hard to point at a protest movement in the United States that was really interracial, except perhaps the civil rights movement. If your protest movement is made up of educated college graduates, it will not include many black people. This is a stand of college graduates, and there are not enough black and Latino members of this segment. So many positional obstacles have to be overcome."
Sidanius: "Another reason African-Americans shied away from the protest in the United States, this is trivial but important, is that African-Americans are loathe to criticize Obama, because he is the first black president. They are not satisfied with him, but find it difficult to demonstrate against him. "
The solution all governments propose is austerity, austerity and more austerity. What will austerity do to these protests? Increase them? Or maybe the struggle for survival will weaken them?
Haste: "If you look at history, austerity can increase the sense of loss and increase the demonstrations. But if people are more concerned with the personal survival and lose sight of the big picture, if they feel helpless and powerless to do anything to improve the situation, chances are they withdraw each to his personal struggle ".
Sidanius: "I think if the burden of austerity programs is not distributed evenly - if the 99% pay the entire price and the top percentile skirts any responsibility, and we continue down that path of inequality - that's a recipe for trouble, for a real confrontation. Democrats in the U.S. are trying, although rather weakly, to divide the burden equally among the population. Something like that will prevent a significant outbreak of violence. "
Enos: "Austerity has implications for the short and long term. In the short term it can add fuel to the fire and ignite the protests. When you already feel cheated by the government or administration, and now they tell you you have to be cheated once again to rescue someone else, it's hard to hear. You see it in Greece - people are unwilling to accept it. In the long run austerity does not solve the problem. Economists agree with this. When there is a recession, it's not solved by cutting expenses. The best way out is to stimulate the ailing economy, and that's hard to do when you have austerity. So that not only fires up protest in the short term, it also perpetuates the problem."