The Year 2011

Not the most imaginative title in journalistic history, but who can argue with BBC News Magazine‘s headline of 19 December 2011:

‘2011: The year when a lot happened’

The Year 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring and the European Winter. A year marked by protest, revolution, and conflict; a year that saw the toppling of dictators – from Ben Ali to Mubarak to Ghadaffi. And the toppling, ideologically, of big banking and the idea that unfettered and global finance can only be a good thing (at least in some quarters…).

If any single moment can be identified when the Arab Spring started it has to be when the young man Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. His death on 4 January 2011 sparked within two weeks a ‘Jasmine’ Revolution that overthrew Tunisian despot Ben Ali.

Quick on its heels followed similar protests – driven by passionate young men and women utilizing in an unprecedented manner the technology of the social media – in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Oman, and more recently in Russia.

The Year 2011 will also be remembered as the European Winter – perhaps the European and US winters – a year wherein growing unemployment, troubling government debts and fiscal austerity measures and heralded (exaggerated) announcements of the imminent collapse of the Euro; A year wherein rightwing parties moved into the political ascendency amidst greater intolerance and xenophobia – even in traditionally more liberal and tolerant societies. As in Arab countries, protests led by predominantly youthful men and women took place across Europe as well as in the US – including a walk-out by the University of Harvard’s economics 10 class.

Yes, 2011 was a year when a lot happened. Many have asked whether it will be in retrospect as a historically decisive year as was for instance 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Will the Arab Spring, like the protests in the former DDR and Soviet Union that ended the Cold War eventually contribute towards global socio-political stability?

As I write this on Sunday 22January 2012 I cannot but think that comparison with an earlier ‘historical’ year may perhaps be more apt – and more ominous: The Year 1905.  Sunday 22 January 1905 was a Black Sunday. On that day the Imperial Guard in Tsarist Russia opened fire on peaceful protesters in St. Petersburg. It was to be a fateful day, one that eventually sealed the fate of the Tsar and the Russian ruling class as it paved the way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union.

Amongst those who were amongst the protesters in 1917 were the 11 year old Dimitry Shostakovich, who was witness to the brutal hacking to death of an unknown young man, who was accused of having stolen, out of hunger, an apple. Like the Arab Spring in the year 2011, the Russian Revolution of 1905/1917 was kindled in the poverty, desperation and  the blood of the youth.

The eventual Russian Revolution of 1917 was with the benefit of hindsight one of the most significant events shaping the rest of the 20th century. It led to the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, the  nuclear arms race, proliferation of nuclear weapons (see Pakistan and Iran), and the conflict in Afghanistan (of which the consequences are still shaping geo-political affairs).

How different would the developing world have been if these countries had gained their independence in a world where there was no Cold War? In many of these countries communism and the backing of the Soviet Union contributed to  large scale predation of human and natural resources – often accompanied by ‘leaders for life’ through the cult of the ‘big personality’ – as exemplified by Stalin. The latter cult of the personality became almost de rigueur in many poor countries, and continues to this day in ‘strongmen’ such as Al-Assad, Mugabe, Museveni, Castro, Chavez, Obiang and others.

So how will we judge the Year 2011 in a century’s time?  Will the protests ignited by the Arab Spring and European Winter eventually lead to a more equal and prosperous global society, the type of society that many expected to follow in 1989 but did not happen? Or will it in unimaginable ways lead to even more terrible horrors than we witnessed in the 20th century?

Humans have throughout history far underestimated the sweeping power of demography. And what we are witnessing now is nothing but momentous demographic changes in the form of a growing, and largely youthful and much more mobile and connected world population. Many of whom are unemployed and marginalized.

What is different this time around – compared to 1905 – is the availability of vastly superior technologies than before; technologies that have already left their mark on the planet’s climate; technologies than can cause incredible destruction and enable new forms of slavery and control. As Luc Soete stressed in his 2011 Tans Lecture not all innovation is successful or socially desirable.

For some historians The Year 1905 was actually an annus mirabilis. This is because on 27 September 1905 Albert Einstein published one of the most significant single scientific articles ever – an article in the journal Annalen der Physik (under the title “Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content?”).  The article laid the foundations of the theory of relativity which led to quantum mechanics. It facilitated some of the most powerful technologies humans have ever encountered – from lasers, CDs to nuclear power.

It is interesting and ironic then that on 22 September 2011 scientists reported that they had recorded sub-atomic particles travelling faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, this would be overthrowing, in a year when a lot of overthrowing happened, an important cornerstone of modern science. And perhaps open a Pandora’s Box of unimaginable future technologies. The demography-technology cycle continues.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht

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