Home » End of the world » On the nature of popular unrest

On the nature of popular unrest

Like you, I’ve been following the evenements in Ukraine on the news with concern. Principally, concern about the news.

The idea that Ukraine is split between the pro-Russian east and the pro-EU west has been downplayed as a gross oversimplification by countless expert contributors, but it continues to be the principal message conveyed in the headlines. Now with Sochi out of the way, we are clearly being prepped for a possible Russian intervention, whether one is pending or no. Ambassadors are flying everywhere, rumours of troop movements abound, warnings are issued, sanctions threatened; the old tensions are being ratcheted up once again.

And how convenient that we have the ghastly tropes of the First World War to call on, in the hundredth anniversary year.

Now, clearly there is a potentially useful role for Ukraine in the EU but with affiliations to Moscow. as the perfect counterbalance to the useful role Britain plays in the EU, with its links to Washington. We don’t have to have another eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the military establishments; or even a war, though I sense the two sides are spoiling for one, now we’ve all lost Afghanistan. The old faultlines that opened up in Europe in 1914 are no longer there. It’s not the same scenario as before: there is no power vacuum for any one nation to exploit militarily. No-one in Europe is surely dumb enough to try invading Russia again: it is not in Russia’s nature to invade Europe, except to guarantee its own borders.

There is something old-fashioned and romantic, almost comforting, then, about students manning barricades. Except when it happens in your own streets, as it did around north London and in some other cities in 2012. The riots then were contained, principally by the horror they engendered in a public unused to such things. The very diversity of British culture militated against a concerted attack on the State. The media chose to portray the riots from the point of view of the criminal damage and looting that went on, rather than framing the events in political terms. The measured response of the police and the government was not to shoot the looters, but over 2,000 of those who took part were later identified from CCTV footage and gaoled. We hear very little about them; or about the simultaneous Occupy movement, that crumbled beneath the soft-power offensive of the media, when its essential lack of leadership and purpose were brutally exposed.

The authorities in other countries never seem to learn the many lessons of history: opening fire on unarmed demonstrators is invariably counter-productive, when you can bathe them instead in ultimately teeth-drawing publicity. Yet we see it happen time after time. Protests result in stalemate, until one side or the other starts shooting. Autocrats seem never to understand that bloodshed is a necessary precursor to shifting the balance of public opinion against them. Once the shooting starts, the fear they have spent years inculcating is set aside. Increasingly, as in Thailand or Syria, children seem to be bearing the brunt of the sniper attacks. This deliberately repugnant policy will, of course, come back to haunt the authorities. They cannot win like this.

I’m curious, too, about the targets of these protests – which have been erupting like a rash all over the world. I have blogged before on how the Arab Spring and the various coloured revolutions since the Berlin Wall fell down all have in common, the rise of the educated urban middle-class demanding a voice; and a desperate yearning to be free of patermalistic governance that unites the shopkeepers of Tunis and the Tea Party soccer-moms of middle America. The drivers of these movements are a complicated but volatile mix of motivations, but always to do with the rise of modernity.

Yet these revolutions seem too often to result in bringing to power yet more slab-faced, monosyllabic gorillas in badly fitting suits, or expensively dressed, peroxided gangsters’ molls, the ambitious but seldom competent ex-wives of dead presidents. What is this yearning people have for ‘strong leadership’ and a superstitious desire just to touch the hem of the garments of nationalistic arrogance?

Here in the West, we have been through these upheavals before, and have arrived at a more confident place where we have ‘representative democracy’, which is code for desirably weak leadership. Our last strong leader, dear old Winston brought the tanks out onto the streets of Glasgow when confronted with union unrest, and was cheerfully gassing the Kurds long before Saddam did. But after World War Two, despite his pivotal role in the victory, British voters had the good sense (and the opportunity afforded by our representative democracy) to kick the old bugger downstairs. We were with Harold Acton on that one: power corrupts.

And we have seen how absolute power corrupts absolutely. When the Iron Lady began to go rusty, she too got kicked out, and by her own troops. We can do that, because in 1648 the executioner struck off the head of King Charles 1, by order of the Parliament. It was an important precedent – as was the decapitation of Louis XVI in 1793, and the shooting of Tsar Nicholas at Ekaterinburg in 1917. Those events marked the end of our tribal society and the beginnings of a new kind of distributed decision-making (although in Russia it went badly wrong as criminal elements then wrested power from the ignorant and confused masses).

I am struggling for something that connects the recent revolutions around the globe, and it seems to me there is some mileage in the idea that the longer societies have had representative democracy, the further back in history they threw off autocratic governance, the less prone they are now to violent change. Tribal societies and theocracies on the other hand have only limited opportunities to change their leaders; and a psychological inability to function without a ‘supreme leader’ who embodies their shared values. Thus they shift continuously between feelings of empowerment and disempowerment, until the oscillations become too chaotic and revolution breaks out. It’s a theory, at least.

Despite the Restoration of the English monarchy twelve years later, which was followed in 1688 by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (in fact, a Dutch invasion) which finally established the idea of representative monarchy, that act of regicide was a sign that the British people would let the corruption of office go only so far. Our current crop of politicians may well be out for what they can get, but it’s not very much. We could take to the streets tomorrow, pitch tents in Trafalgar Square*, but we wouldn’t find that Mr Cameron has been secretly diverting £billions of State funds to building a grotesque, tasteless Xanadu for himself, somewhere in the purview of the Heythrop hunt.

When he goes, a British Prime Minister doesn’t even get a taxpayer-funded private library to his name. Just the Bible and the works of Shakespeare…

*I remember a time when many old London streets were still paved with cobblestones; useful ammunition in a riot. Was it purely a noise-reduction measure that, since the events of 1968, the whole city has been tarmacked over?

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