2011 will be remembered perhaps above all for the extraordinary wave of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East. They were triggered by the self-immolation a year ago this week of one man in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi. It was an appalling act, but one of such devastating conviction that it inspired millions.
Our own politics has been in recent weeks illustrated by the banal spectacle of the Republican presidential debates. It could not offer a more hollow and passionless contrast. Whether the resemblance to The X-Factor is deliberate or subconscious, the public admission of the utter artificiality and boredom of contemporary politics could not be more conspicuous. The contest is dull because we already know who has the real power behind the scenes, and it's not us.
Like the "color" revolutions that overthrew repressive regimes in Ukraine and Georgia, the Arab Spring revolts had one goal: the removal of the oppressor, replacing autocracy with democracy. The object of the revolution was singular.
Those seeking fundamental change in western democracies face a different and more confusing situation. The lines of good and evil are not so clearly drawn, although they undoubtedly exist. We enjoy pluralism, freedom of speech, and democracy, at least in name and form, if not actual effect. The problems of today cannot be singularized, as dictatorship can. Mounting inequality, climate change, and the ultimate emptiness of much of modern life may be pernicious and potentially devastating problems, but they are also complex and resistant to simple remedy.
The causes of these ills are multiple but closely connected. The reckless pursuit of profit above all else is sustained by political institutions, and electoral process, that have been more or less completely, if often covertly, subverted by money and corporate influence. Remarkably, everyone seems to know this. We pretend to believe that our democracy works, even when we know that it doesn't.
The enemy that must be conquered is not a dictator, both easily identified and caricatured. It is both less blatant and more sophisticated. It is not one, but many. This means that a revolution to change things fundamentally for the better will not look like the Arab Spring. Protest alone will not dislodge the deeply entrenched forces that maintain an iniquitous status quo.
Indeed, protest in some ways helps legitimize this subtly but deeply unjust system, for it reinforces the pretense that the system is responsive to popular discontent. The bankers of Wall Street may secretly welcome "Occupy Wall Street" because one of its cultural effects is to remind the broader public that, unlike Egypt, America is, at least ostensibly, a free and democratic country. The subterranean reality however is that it is neither of these things, as the plutocrats are well aware. Both wealth and legislation are controlled by a tiny minority, and for their benefit.
This is a complex beast to fight, and it must be fought on many fronts and in many ways. This battle will not be won by marches on Washington, but by myriad small but substantive changes wrought by individuals and groups acting upon, as well as declaring, their convictions (for not only systemic change is needed, but also cultural). This revolution does not need a manifesto, or leaders. It can be, and perhaps needs to be, a leaderless revolution: a million acts of change, driven by individual conviction.
These acts might be to set up or give preference to new forms of economic organization, like cooperative companies that, owned by their workers, give weight to other values, social and environmental, as much as profit, but without sacrificing competitiveness. In one Occupy Wall Street working group we are seeking to establish a bank that by its very nature -- transparent, accessible, democratic -- will inject these values into the nervous system of the economy, and thus society (and offer better services than the for-profit banks, to boot).
But these multiple acts of change must also inhabit the simple choices of the everyday: what we buy and where we bank, and how we treat others -- celebrating the compassionate, shaming the greedy. And though simple, the decision to enact our beliefs in every circumstance is profound and liberating, not least because this is harder than it sounds. Dull, it is not.
The many steps towards a just and sustainable economy, and a truly inclusive democracy will be taken not by those we vote for, or petition. They will not emerge from the inevitable dialectic of history either. These steps require action and choices by us, individually, and then together. And here is one similarity of this revolution to the Arab Spring. Like the act of Mohamed Bouazizi, it can only start with one person, and that is us.
A former diplomat, Carne Ross is the author of The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century, published by Blue Rider Press (Penguin), ebook now available, hardcover to be published in January 2012. For further information and videos explaining the book, visit www.theleaderlessrevolution.com. This is the second in a series of four posts.