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Arab Spring, American Fall

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With the elimination of the Los Angeles and Philadelphia Occupy sites, the Federal Government, in partnership with mayors across the U.S., has essentially closed down most of the Occupy sites across the nation, replacing protestors representing the 99 percent with police occupations protecting the 1 percent. Simultaneously, Tahrir Square in Cairo has been reoccupied by activists as the first more or less free election in Egyptian history gets underway, guarded by a military that is not really sure democracy is a good idea.

There are important distinctions in these diverse and politically loaded arenas in which democratic insurgents clash with state power. What ignited in Tunis and Egypt in the Spring catalyzed a global conflagration of activism both fed up with the inequalities of the current economic and political systems and desperately seeking to wake the wider public up to the scope of what is essentially a crisis of governance. In Tunis and Egypt, this concerned protesting dictatorships that had infested the polity virtually unopposed for decades. In the U.S., it concerns protesting the rapaciousness of the financial elites who are throttling the American middle class and destroying the economy.

However, the Spring is not the Fall. In the Arab world, something powerful is being born. For the first time in their history, the masses of Arabs, especially the youth, are waking up to their power, whether in Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, Lybia, Syria, even in Saudi Arabia. As Alexander Dubcek famously said, "You can crush the flowers, but you can't stop the Spring." There is, thus, something undeniable about what is happening in that region, something that will be remembered in the history books as a moment when the political and social tectonic plates shifted and their world was altered. The Arab world will not soon, if ever, go back to the Winter of pervasive and stable dictatorships across the landscape.

It is highly symbolic that the social unrest took place in America in the Fall, for rather than expressing a social upheaval that would turn the country upside down, it actually expressed something profoundly sinister -- the further application and extension of national security state power. The take-downs of the Occupy sites were nationally coordinated. The rationales given were all the same. The overwhelming police presence was similar. The acquiescence of the protestors in leaving, overwhelmingly non-violently, was strikingly common.

What makes this sinister is that it comes at just the moment when the Senate has passed the National Defense Authorization Act (SB 1867) co-authored by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain, which contains a "worldwide indefinite detention without charge or trial" provision. The bill legislates into law the capacity of the president to deploy the U.S. military anywhere in the world, including the United States, and have the legal right to arrest, hold without charge, incarcerate indefinitely, and even execute any U.S. citizen as a military matter without judicial oversight or control. As Senator Lindsey Graham says, the bill "does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland." This is the mentality dealing with Occupy, and unlike the Arab Spring, there is nothing that Occupy has done to date that has shaken this prevailing mentality. While Occupy has certainly challenged the prevailing elites, it has also given them the opportunity to exercise more powerfully the very powers Occupy is protesting.

It is, of course, an open question what the future will bring, both in the Arab world and in the U.S. The result of the Arab Spring is that each country involved has now begun its own unique interface with modernity. The future will be as turbulent as fledgling democracies always are, but the Spring is here and the landscape has irretrievably changed. Social and political turbulence rather than stable dictatorships will become the new norm. The interface between the military, fundamentalists groups, secular interests and very fragile civic institutions internally will now interact externally with an increasingly turbulent global economy in which food shortages, climate disasters, and neoliberal policies will create instabilities that will both exacerbate the need for change even as they will make it more difficult to achieve.

In the U.S., there will be continued protests, in no doubt very creative forms, as the Occupy movement adapts to not being able to actually occupy anything, but the system is too corrupted to any longer be responsive to the protesters unless they become massive in force and numbers. The American Fall thus symbolizes America's fall. We have become what we were founded not to be. We have become a national security state pervasively bought out by Wall Street and the large financial interests who so dominate Washington and the presidency that there is an almost bemused imperviousness to what is taking place. Occupy was more of a nuisance to them than a serious threat. Tahrir Square brought down a regime. Zuccotti Park never even phased it. Wall Street is the same after Zuccotti Park as it was before.

In the Arab Spring, popular movements seized the day. In America, it will in all probability take a major collapse of the financial system itself, brought about not by protest but by internal contradictions, for any meaningful change to occur. But then, given the build up of the national security state during the Bush/Obama Administrations, topped off with the passage of the Defense Authorization Act, what Americans can expect to end up with is economic decimation and marshal law, which is where the Arab world was before its Spring began.