It’s About Who’s Sitting in: Reflections on the Early Global Springtime of Peoples

Pardon me while I interrupt my usual narrative of corporate and imperial hegemony to report that popular resistance is on the rise around the world. Things are looking up, comrades. If you are paying attention in the first quarter of 2011 you can mark the outlines of a great global stirring – a burgeoning springtime of peoples blooming in advance of the technical onset of spring.

The most dramatic, regime-toppling revolts have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions poured into the streets to end the reign of long-term U.S.-backed dictators. The wave of protest spread to the authoritarian Arab states Yemen and Bahrain, to Iraq, Iran, and to Libya. (It even spread to totalitarian, state-capitalist China, where Egypt-inspired calls for democracy protest put hundreds in the streets in Beijing and Shanghai, leading authorities to put dozens of activists under arrest and to deep censorship of the Internet.) Economically marginalized youth without prospects have figured prominently in the democracy upsurge that has rocked the Middle East, 1848-style.

Turning to Europe, there has been an uprising in Albania, where Tunisia-inspired protests led to violent government repression at the end of last January.  In Albania’s southern  neighbor Greece, workers and students have carried on their struggle against harsh neoliberal austerity measures and recently launched a one-day general strike.  Fully 250,000 workers and citizens hit the streets across a large number of Greek cities.  According to ABC News, “the 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralyzed public transport … In the biggest march since riots in December 2008 brought the country to a standstill for weeks, Greeks marched through the streets of Athens chanting ‘We are not paying’ and ‘No sacrifice for plutocracy.’”

The renewed popular agitation in Greece is consistent with widespread 2009 protests there and with significant mass actions against austerity measures and layoffs in Belgium, France, Spain, Ireland, and Italy last year.  Millions of European citizens, workers, students flooded the streets in major social movements and marches to resist budget, wage, and pension cuts and tuition hikes last fall and early winter. Expect millions more to hit the streets and occupy their offices, factories, and universities in Europe this spring and summer.

Here in the Western Hemisphere, mid-February of 2011 brought a nationwide general strike during a popular rebellion against food price hikes in Bolivia.  All of Bolivia’s major cities — La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro — were paralyzed three Fridays ago, as “workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages….” As the World Socialist Web Site reported, “Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.”

So what if Bolivia’s president Evo Morales is left-leaning and indigenous? The nation’s popular forces expect him to respect the power of the their social movements and their determination to resist the drastically increased cost of food and fuel imposed by capitalist elites.

And then there’s the remarkable state-level progressive labor rebellion that has erupted in the United States, where right wing governors’ and state legislators’ attack on public worker benefit levels and negotiating rights amounts to the largest assault on labor’s political and collective bargaining power in recent United States history. Much to the surprise of Wisconsin Governor Stott Walker, the clumsy, messianic, business-backed Tea Party governor who launched the assault, workers and citizens have responded with an historic uprising in defense of labor rights. The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison has become the  site of an incredible three-week (so far) protest that has sparked support demonstrations across the country and received statements of solidarity from Egypt. From one day to the next, tens of thousands union members and supporters have marched (some carrying signs likening Walker to the deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak) and rallied around and inside Madison’s Capitol Rotunda.  Schools were briefly closed within and beyond Madison as teachers and other public school employees flocked to the Capitol to show their opposition to “Imperial Walker’s” attack on union power. On February 22,  the Madison-based 97-union South Central Labor Federation (representing 45,000 public and private sector union members in southern and central Wisconsin) passed a resolution in support of a General Strike.  The federation appointed a coordinating committee to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes.

Walker’s assault was prefaced by a provocative statement claiming that he would call out the National Guard if workers dared to resist his effort to effectively strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. The public workers of Wisconsin and their supporters went ahead despite this threat.

The fire of grassroots labor rebellion has spread to other states along with the top-down right- wing attack on union rights. Other battlegrounds include Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Last Saturday, rallies were held in support of Wisconsin’s public workers and collective bargaining rights across the country in every state capital in the U.S. – an extraordinary development.

The Tea Party right insists that their great, supposedly socialist nemesis Barack Obama – the corporate-friendly savior of Wall Street – has intervened on workers’ side in, and even sparked, these historic, state-level labor uprisings in the American heartland. The charge is absurd.  As Wall Street Journal reporter, Jonathan Weisman, noted last week, Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Obama has responded to the rank-and-file labor rebellion in the American heartland in much the same way as he responded to the right-wing coup in Honduras in June of 2009 and to the rise of the Egyptian revolution in February 2011: with initial statements of seeming support for popular-democratic forces followed by conservative equivocation and caution meant to identify himself with democratic change without damaging his deep ties to existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and elites.

National New York Times correspondent, Jackie Calmes, learned that the White House intervened in anger against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the labor rebellion, which administration officials found as contrary to its happy and neoliberal message “… the White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights. When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters.  Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address, in which he exhorted the country to… ‘out-innovate and out-educate’ its global rivals.” ((New York Times, March 3, 2011))

The real energy in the great Wisconsin worker rebellion and its state-level offshoots comes from the bottom up. It comes from the grassroots, not from the top down. As Wisconsin State Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller rightly noted when theWall Street Journal (WSJ) queried him on Obama’s role: “Really the people of our state, and the people of our country, have been able to find their voice in this battle. The voices of the people are the voices the governor needs to listen to.” ((Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2011, A4))

Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda seem uninterested in the question of who’s atop the national media-politics extravaganza.  They were focused on the real and relevant policy issues at hand – above all on basic labor, human, and civil rights and social justice within and beyond the workplace.  With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, it seemed as if they were channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009:

There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in — in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating — those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.

It’s nice to see North American progressives and activists grasp something their South American counterparts have long understood: it isn’t about politicians and elected officials at the end of the day; it’s about the people joining together in solidaristic social movements to discipline and educate the politicians and policymakers from the bottom up.

The message is understood at home and abroad and is being acted on in inspiring ways. It is, we can be sure, more than pure coincidence that all these remarkable popular rebellions on behalf of democracy are breaking out at the same time in seemingly disparate regions: Greece, Albania, Yemen, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Bolivia, Dublin, Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio and the fifty state capitals of the “world’s greatest democracy” – the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society, where the business elite’s top-down class warriors have targeted public sector unions as their main enemy on the path to unchecked profits and power.

These struggles are all connected by the global crisis of the profits system, whose epic recession has imposed escalated and crushing unemployment, homelessness, insecurity, and budgetary austerity on working people the world over – from the sprawling slums of Cairo to the desperate ghettos and shattered working class communities of Wisconsin and Ohio.

We are in the midst of a planetary slump, as the Marxist political scientist, David McNally, has shown – a reflection of the neoliberal “financialization” of the world economy, wherein the costs of bailing out the very giant financial and corporate interests that caused the ongoing economic crisis are borne by working people and the poor especially but not exclusively in the global South. ((D. McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance [PM Press, December 2010])) The economic, social, and ecological crises inflicted by the global de facto dictatorship of capital are restricted to no single country and the peoples’ struggle against that system’s savage and authoritarian injustices is not restricted to any one  nation, state, city, or province.

Paul Street ( is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on March 5th, 2011 at 10:13am #

    To take the European perspective on all this, speaking of “popular rebellion” is rather exaggerated, and the very fact that the author describes them as “remarkable” just shows how little he knows about Europe! Over here, one day strikes are a regular occurrance and a demonstration is always part of the programme. The December 2008 riots in Greece involved teenagers (not university students) who were protesting against the shooting of one of their number by a policeman (who has since been convicted) and had nothing to do with economic issues. Albania was about political corruption. There was a culture of systematic corruption in all the communist dictatorships and, as the saying goes, old habits die hard! The interesting thing about the economically-motivated protests, though, is that it has rallied people enormously behind the EU. The protesters want more EU, not less and only the lunatic extremists are still calling for their countries to leave the EU (or the euro, for that matter). And not even all of them!
    Thus, Europe is actually one step ahead of the Middle East. They are now seeking to do what Eastern Europe did in 1989 – 91, i.e. overthrow the corrupt dictatorships. Europe (and probably Latin America as well) is at step 2: trying to survive, without suffering too much damage, the collapse of the American dinosaur as it lashes out wildly in its death agonies. Let”s hope the peoples of the Middle East make it to step2 and don”t get stuck in 1848!

  2. sandraw said on March 5th, 2011 at 11:16am #

    If you are tired of watching the corporatocracies of the world continue to hoard most of the wealth, leaving little for the rest of us to squabble over join us in changing things from the bottom up. We have a website that is dedicated to coordinating “targeted boycotts” against corporations that are unduly influencing our politicians to make decisions that are not in the public’s best interests. No corporation can survive without us buying from them and these boycotts can drop a corporation to its knees. Once they see what we can do, they will begin to change their behavior and begin to act in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. go to the site, sign in and jump on board and then spread the word to your family and friends. We can take back our country and our way of life with this forgotten tool. Remember “Starve the Beast”……Peace

  3. elisehendrick said on March 5th, 2011 at 2:52pm #

    To claim that it was “only teenagers” participating in the 2008 uprising directly contradicts the well-known (and well-documented) facts. University students joined forces with immigrants to occupy a large number of university buildings particularly in Athens, and continued those occupations for so long that the government openly considered changing the law to allow the police and military to enter university campuses. Meanwhile, when the head of the corrupt trade union federation claimed that “no Greek worker” was involved in the protests and occupations, he found the main office of the union occupied by enraged union members who gave the lie to his claim. Economic issues – particularly unemployment and underemployment – were very much a focus of the uprising.

  4. diane said on March 5th, 2011 at 5:48pm #

    Its good to see Paul Street, deviating from what seems to be the old lefts line that somehow if it is happening in the street, its not a real political happening, which they see to believe can only come from the organised working class. and yes I have in times behind considered myself to be old left, but am thoroughly disappointed with their analysis of current events
    As Bob said, get out of the way if you cant lend a hand

  5. Deadbeat said on March 6th, 2011 at 12:31am #

    I guess that this is a pretty good article but I do take issue with Mr. Street’s insistence of one size fit all. Not all of the uprising are rooted strictly in Capitalism. Fighting against the dominance of Zionism in the Middle East also plays a huge role in the uprisings especially in Egypt. What is happening in Libya is a counter-revolution and Iraq, the so-called “color” uprising are designed to disrupted the Iranian democracy.

    The problem here IMO is that Mr. Street is not providing the needed depth and nuance in his analysis to place proper context for each of these uprisings. In other words we can see the similarities in that poverty and inequality are pervasive but the causes of the traits are not strictly grounded in neo-liberal Capitalism as Mr. Street would have us believe. The importance of this is to be able to formulate the proper strategies and context in order to properly confront these forces.

    If we are to believe that neo-liberalism is the only force then there will be no awareness that Zionism must also be confronted and will remain intact even if there should be any concession garnered from Capitalists. This will not result rooting out a major causes of strife but like Liberalism provide only a temporarily fix but maintain the structures of oppression.

    Where I agree with Mr. Street is that these grassroots efforts are inspiring again where Egypt differs from say Wisconsin is that Egypt’s uprising was offensive while Wisconsin’s is defensive. In the end, change will only emerge when people take the offensive. In other words they have to aspire FOR change rather than merely hold ground. The Egyptians knew that Mubarak was a flak for Western Imperialism and Zionist dominance over Arab aspirations and they are still in a struggle to dismantle those oppressive aspects.

    Wisconsin on the other hand is fighting to hold ground — collective bargaining — within the context of the “law”. IMO it is time for the grassroots to defy the “law” and make bolder demands that goes beyond these limited constraints.

    I see that Street quotes Howard Zinn but even Zinn stayed within the constraints of the Democratic Party by supporting pro-War John Kerry in 2004 via the safe-state canard over Ralph Nader. What is needed is something more radical that can inspire people to make the kinds of demands that will shake up the system for good.

  6. Jonas Rand said on March 6th, 2011 at 3:42am #

    Deadbeat said on March 6th, 2011 at 12:31am…

    Iraq, the so-called “color” uprising are designed to disrupted [sic] the Iranian democracy. ”

    Deadbeat, could you just clarify something…did you mean Iraq or Iran? I would think that you meant the latter, since there is no “color revolution” associated with Iraq, and nothing that might be perceived as being designed to disrupt government, but I suppose you can’t make assumptions.

    Also, Iran is not a democracy, but an Islamic republic governed by jurisconsult. If you meant Iraq, it’s a democracy in name only, because the US imposed corrupt leaders like Ahmed Chalabi and Nouri al-Maliki on Iraq after occupying it for seven years. Now Iraq is stuck with them, and you could barely call their elections “democratic” at all.

  7. Don Hawkins said on March 6th, 2011 at 4:01am #

    For a region that expects populations to double to more than 600 million within 40 years, and climate change to raise temperatures, these structural problems are political dynamite and already destabilising countries, say the World Bank, the UN and many independent studies.
    In recent reports they separately warn that the riots and demonstrations after the three major food-price rises of the last five years in north Africa and the Middle East might be just a taste of greater troubles to come unless countries start to share their natural resources, and reduce their profligate energy and water use.
    “In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil. The situation is alarming,” said Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey last week, as she launched a Swiss and Swedish government-funded report for the EU. Guardian

    Ye man will be the first to run out of H2O.

  8. Don Hawkins said on March 6th, 2011 at 4:50am #

    The Air Force has denied that the X-37B is designed as a space weapon, describing it simply as “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.” aol

    Yep a few will sure get a good look at the destruction from a secure location alright.
    A reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force very proper very proper indeed each word carefully chosen.

  9. Deadbeat said on March 7th, 2011 at 12:33am #

    Deadbeat said on March 6th, 2011 at 12:31am…

    “Iraq, the so-called “color” uprising are designed to disrupted [sic] the Iranian democracy. ”

    That should be Iran.

    “Ira[n], the so-called “color” uprising are designed to [disrupt] the Iranian democracy. ”

    You are right that Iran is an Islamic republic but Ahmadinejad was ELECTED legitimately by the people of Iran and the majority of Iranian support their government. By that characterization it is difficult to deny that Iran is a democracy IMO moreso than the USA. The “color” uprising was designed to disrupt the will of the Iranian people.

    The fact that Paul Street includes the color disruption in Iran with Egyptian people struggles to overthrow Zionism and Western Imperialism demonstrates either intellectual laziness or dishonesty.