Occasionally, the ideas of many become synchronistic enough to manifest a Zeitgeist. A meme catches on like a wildfire; unanimity builds out of formlessness. This often happens within, but not across, demographic boundaries. Each demographic may take similar actions, but for entirely different reasons. From these manifold motivations uniform actions can come, but more often than not, manifold motivations manifest manifold machinations. In order for a meme to jump demographic boundaries, it must affect either the importance of a motivation (e.g. hunger normally trumps jewellery) or the utility of an action (e.g. employment can fulfill several human needs, whereas food can only fulfill a few – and only one or two of those things isn’t naughty). Our human capacity to “muddle on through” seems to be based on these fundamentals. We know, without need for deep thought, that food is more important than most things in life, but when it is plentiful, we turn our eyes to the next most pressing motivation. A hierarchy of needs (though it is likely not Maslow’s) is there, but we conveniently forget necessities when they are fulfilled in order to concentrate on the next need that needs fulfilling. That is the truth of it: human activities are so seldom exactly uniform because we are all acting on a different set of immediate circumstances. We have different contexts and different immediate needs. Fulfilling long-term needs, especially when the immediate opportunity cost is high, is not in our programming. Unanimity is, therefore, tough to manifest.
Unanimity is further obscured due to the fact we are products of learned behaviour. To a perpetual student, the solution to the lack of jobs is more training. To a junkie, the solution to coming down is another hit. To a gambler, the solution to going bust is just one more roll of the dice. Stepping out of our programmed patterns of behaviour is difficult, and uniform action requires many people step out of their comfort zone. That’s hard for humans to do even in a nurturing and accepting environment. I’ve met very few people who take to new experiences well. For many, it takes at least a moment of reflection, but more often it takes deep thought, rationalisation, and time to let the new reality seep in. Few people adapt immediately to the loss of a job. Few people can adapt readily to the loss of a loved one. It takes time to get used to the idea that you’ve graduated from grade school. Change is tough, and takes some coping to get right.
Then came the Arab Spring. We in the West persist in calling it a rising up of people to fight for freedom… but freedom is such an ephemeral and hard-to-quantify need. As a matter of fact, it isn’t really a need at all. Except in Libya, which seems to be an odd anomaly, the popular uprisings have been peaceful. The repression has not. Still, in Syria, peaceful protests persist even in the face of slaughter. Do these protests seek the overthrow of governments? Do they seek democracy and accountability? Perhaps. The immediate need that is being fulfilled for most people in these protests isn’t democracy though. Democracy isn’t a need. Accountability isn’t a need. Hope, however, is.
While hope itself may seem ephemeral and hard to quantify, I assure you, hope is a Boolean variable. You either have it, or you don’t. Here’s how to tell whether you do: if you think that there is a possibility your life could be better tomorrow than it is today, then you have hope. The martyr who lit himself on fire and ignited the whole Maghreb had lost all hope. Upon reflection, it appears that hopelessness resonated throughout the region. Where the middle class is rapidly being put into its place as a new underclass beneath the hyper-rich and the despotic, the hope that hard work will result in a more comfortable and happier future is wearing off. Mobility was promised to those who could do their time in post-secondary education and stick it out in entry-level for a few years, but that security had become more and more tenuous. In all of the Arab Spring regimes, protest was not permitted. Protest of any kind was considered seditious. Peaceful protest in and of itself was and is therefore notable. That protest is now sending a message to leaders in the Maghreb and in the Middle East: give us a better future or get out of our way. The dimmer the light at the end of the tunnel appears, the more realistic it seems to dig a new tunnel.
Similar dynamics are at work closer to home. The Obama election campaign tapped into America’s lack of hope with an unrelenting zeal. His progress, once elected, was steadily watched. The electorate waited with bated breath for when he was going to work his miracle… but his presidency has been marked by simple, though reasonably sensible, governance. He can’t crack the lobbies, nor can he undo partisanship, nor can he wrench himself easily out of military commitments made during the preceding presidency. The weight of history is heavy on his shoulders, and his ability to create more hope in America than there was before his election has likely fallen short of expectations. Whether this will affect his re-election is a moot point; his election itself proved that there is the beginning of a unanimity of purpose that is spreading throughout America. It is proof positive that the idea of hope, necessitating change, is a meme that has jumped demographic boundaries. Hopelessness moved the swing vote. If the vote doesn’t provide results for hopelessness… then what will hopelessness do next? Is it lost on people in Europe and North America that the middle class is becoming a new underclass for the hyper-rich? The same hopelessness of being crushed under the boot-heel of a despotic regime is dawning on the middle classes of the developed world, but it is no despot who is doing the crushing. The hopelessness comes from the hedge funds that annihilated their retirement savings. The investment houses that set their retirement savings up to be annihilated. The government that allows the same criminals who perpetrated this travesty to get away, scott-free, with their bonuses intact. There is a new sense of hopelessness rising in the developed world, and more and more, western governments are using familiar methods of curbing it.
We can see an indication in the London riots as to what may happen. I had predicted the Arab Spring would come to Europe and the US, but I admit I had not predicted it would turn violent, nor did I think England would be the first to taste it. Writer after writer have fallen over themselves attempting to distance these looters and rioters from the nobility of the Arab Spring, but such distinction is rhetorical, self-congratulatory, and wrong. The rioting in London is equally produced by a confluence of hopelessness. The methods used are equally an affront to the establishment. Whereas in Egypt, massive protests were seditious even if peaceful, in a democracy, peaceful protest is just par for the course. It was when the powers that be stopped listening to protesters that protest itself gave no feeling of hope. The rioters in London have spoken in a language that is heard by Whitehall as loud as the voices of the Arab Spring have been heard in palaces around the Middle East. These were not race riots, they do not conform to readily identifiable trait except this: they are a different kind of uprising. Cracking down on them will only reinforce the sense of hopelessness they manifest. Pouring water on a flame will normally douse it.
That is, of course, if it wasn't started with oil.