Tales of the world – Ukraine, Syria, Bosnia, Venezuela – the rise of a new Axial Age of protest?

Ukraine, Syria, Bosnia, Venezuela – the rise of a new Axial Age?

What do the protests in Ukraine, the rebellion in Syria, the student uprisings in Venezuela and people’s revolt in Bosnia have in common?

Some time ago I was writing an op-ed in the Swiss newspaper Le Temps, claiming that, deep in economic crisis, our world faced a crisis of meaning and of lack of concepts for what was happening to it. It made me think of Europe’s early modern period, similarly shaken by conflicts and social transformation. It was the time of Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke and Spinoza, who were all trying, along kings, their enemies, the populace, to understand what kind of government would be most peaceful and effective, what language was the language of politics and how it could be achieved. It was the time of Menocchio, Carlo Ginzburg’s 16th century mill owner, who might not have been educated, but was wise enough to understand that behind the high ideals upheld and enforced by the Inquisition, lay the Church’s interests in keeping people in fear and ignorance.

I would qualify the moment of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, in June 2013, as the moment when we, as agents of contemporary civilisation and primary stakeholders in what is currently unfolding worldwide in terms of protest, have gone from tensions similar to early modern Europe’s trials and tribulations, into an equally effervescent time, which reminds one of the wave of social and political revolutions of 1848.

The Gezi Park protests occurred in a country that did not suffer too much from the economic crisis, is a regional leader in a geopolitical hotspot, and diplomatically had a pretty sound and strong position. Yet, internally, it was and is, teetering, as it has for the past 90 years, on the verge of the authoritarian abyss. That abyss, which shows that economic well-being does not necessarily mean political liberties, not even individual freedom. When the young Turks protested prime minister Erdogan’s rule and opportunistic urban planning decisions, they also protested the tacit cooptation that unchecked elites everywhere constantly seek to achieve between them and the wider population, such that they can continue with whatever project they have, in exchange of a little well being, mostly material.

What of freedom and democracy, then? This was the question that the Turks asked so loudly in their streets in June 2013, and that is the desperate cry that is heard in Ukraine, Bosnia, Venezuela and Syria today! If in 1848 the peoples of Europe were fighting to achieve democracy as something that they had mostly only heard of and intuited from hard earned freedoms, and lofty political theories, in 2014 they are fighting for a freedom and democracy that has been lost.

It was lost just about at the same time when national elites from most states became part of a global compromise putting personal and group interests above any other kind of principles. Make no mistake, these interests have always existed, but there has been a time, for the better part of the 20th century, when in a lot of places, lofty ideas such as democracy and equality of opportunity, freedom and affordable education and healthcare could actually harness the energies of many of the members of these elites, as well as others, who found meaning and sense in their pursuit. The European Union has been and can still be one such place. Even more so “Europe”, this idea that continues to be a beacon to so many people, even when its very citizens and leaders are letting it down every day.

That is why, in their despair, the Ukrainian opposition forces ask “Europe” for help and loans. They are looking for the uncompromising goal that can take their people, mired in the effects of decades of communism and aborted post-communist reforms, towards a more hopeful future. That goal which used to be represented and upheld by the European Union, and the West.

That is also why Syrian rebels had their hopes set on the “West” for two years, only to finally understand that whatever the “West” used to mean is now in shambles. (At this point, Islamism not only takes over the spirit of the Syrian rebellion, but, ironically, starts being an option for an alarming number of Western youth – about 1,500-2,000, as French public radio says). 

Alas, there is no (more) consensus on the fact that democracy must prevail, even at a high cost: after a long(ish) road together, democracy and money making have parted ways.

That is the point that the crisis in Bosnia Herzegovina also makes: beyond ethnic tensions, beyond the wounds of civil war, the Bosnians denounce the corruption of their elites and the sacrifice of their life on the altar of easy profits. In their turn Venezuelans are saying: we’ve sacrificed our freedoms, we’ve let ourselves bought by oil money and populist policies, and we discover neither well-being, nor security. Perhaps struggling, but free, is worth it, after all.

I don’t know about you, but when I read and look at these movements worldwide, a provoking thought crosses my mind: maybe Francis Fukuyama, when he pronounced the end of history in the 1990s, was not wrong. It was certainly the end of a history, after all. Not because Western liberalism represents the pinnacle of human political and cultural development, but rather because, its advent has accelerated the spiral of history. This takes humanity through its cyclical tectonic shifts much faster than previously experienced.

Let’s see the positive in this incredibly fast spiralling process: the centrifugal force accumulated might just push us as a civilisation further than ever before!