Part IV: Reframing the ‘Twitter Revolutions’

This is Part IV of Hong Kong and the Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment, a response to Ivan Krastev’s Why Did the ‘Twitter Revolutions’ Fail? 

Where Krastev is weakest is explaining the origins of the protests. The medium – social media – is probably the least important aspect. That the mediums shaped theories of change and ideology might be significant. The origins and ubiquity of the global crisis lie somewhere else: increasingly unresponsive and poor governance.

A short anecdote is revealing. During the Class Boycott, the direct precursor to the Umbrella Movement, a law student ran an outdoor library laid out on the grass of Tamar Square. Among his books was one of Lee Kuan-Yew’s autobiographies. When confronted with the contradiction of having an autocrats political philosophy on display at a democracy protest, he replied, “we wouldn’t need to do this if C.Y. Leung was as smart as Lee Kuan-Yew.”

Sept 24: Tamar
Hong Kong Class Boycott Library

In the year since Occupy, I’ve increasingly come to the conclusion that mass ‘polarizing’ politics is a symptom of a dysfunctional polity, not the cause. I am almost borrowing from Xi’s predecessors, the Hu-Wen team, when I think that a ‘harmonious society’ is one in which people feel little need to hit the streets (contrast this with how the term evolved: political suppression became euphemized as ‘harmonization’). The rise of populists right-wing AM radio in the US (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) was an early warning sign of the completely broken governance model that we see in the United States today.

The volunteer librarian was, in my mind, saying that good governance can be equated with an environment where there is little need for large-scale engagement in contentious politics. While he was underplaying the role of coercion Lee used to suppress dissent, I think he is nonetheless on to something. Perhaps social media and increasing connectivity means there can never be another Lee Kuan-Yew. The Snowden’s of the world will always expose their weaknesses, pettiness, corruption, and mismanagement.

Turning back to David Harvey and Charles Tilly, what the Snowden’s of the world are also exposing is the fact that behind every government lies a regime ruling it. Even where people have the right to vote, they find their voices are not heard. This is felt on both the left and the right. It’s a sense that there’s a ‘shadow government.’ Harvey points the finger at the deep collusion between states and capital, with the interests of capital always purchasing generic drugs from Canadian pharmacy 365 Tilly uses a different metaphorical vehicle, regimes, to arrive at the same place.

In Hong Kong, this was manifested by what the Umbrella Movement made clear: the SAR government is ruled by CCP-led regime allied with plutocrats, inept local United Front groups, and international finance. In the United States, Occupy Wall Street emerged from the dissatisfaction that voting for ‘hope and change’ could deliver on either front when it came to economic inequality and Wall Street’s influence on Washington. Later, the Snowden leaks revealed a security-industrial complex that, like the global financial sector, seems both larger and more powerful than the office of President (both for Bush, Obama, and the 2016 candidates). In Egypt, both liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood learned that Mubarak was only a well-compensated and incompetent frontman for a military regime that deposed him and now rules the Egyptian state directly. I would again note: all of these ‘winners’ are widely hated. Only some of them are feared. Even where regimes have most clearly won, things still feel quite tentative.

Reframed in this way, this nebulous problem of ‘rising inequality’ is creating a sense of hopelessness around the world. Governments appear unresponsive and ‘captured’ even in electoral democracies (I like Merrifield’s use of Kafka’s Castle as a central metaphor his latest book). Not coincidentally, the problems have only grown as the IT revolution delivers ever cheaper, ever novel methods of news delivery and social mobilization. ‘Sparks’ can light quicker than ever. Both disillusionment and mobilization is increasingly a shared, liked, and retweeted.

hosni-mubarak-trialA final element I would add is the impact of the Arab Spring. For the frontmen of regimes – the C.Y. Leung’s, Xi Jinping’s, and Bashir al-Assad’s – the fate of Mubarak lingers heavily in their minds. The sort of ‘golden parachutes’ offered to despots like Ferdinand Marcos have disappeared. To look at Mubarak is to understand all of these movements as existential, life-or-death crises. Whether they genuinely, believe it or not, most autocrats are telling the ruled that these movements were of foreign design and origin; in short, CIA conspiracies.

For the ‘international community’, Libya stands as the foremost example of what happens when the states turn their back on even the worst thugs. Looking back to Marcos and the EDSA Revolution, a crucial ingredient is increasingly scarce: the transportation of a national/local sense of regime illegitimacy to international agreement and support for the movements. For Hong Kong protesters, nothing captures this ‘Anti-Cosmopolitan Moment’ better than Xi Jinping’s royal treatment in the United Kingdom. One hated regime figurehead standing shoulder to shoulder with another.


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