The big issue of the coming year will be more of the same: rolling protests across multiple countries that will morph into revolutions in many. They are the result of “disruptive technology”, and we are only just beginning to grasp exactly what this means. It means that disruptions in the lives of individuals – through arrest, beatings, torture, rape, detention, kidnapping, and murder – have a much higher probability of disrupting entire societies.
The difference from traditional technology is speed, scale and resilience. The immediacy, apparent veracity and emotional power of words and images that are instantly transmitted to thousands and then millions of people can transform existing currents of dissent into a raging flood. Equally important, when the state takes action to crush the first waves of protest, the resulting images create instant martyrs and a steadily growing determination that the lives lost shall not be in vain. Finally, success in one country fuels a sense both of possibility and of competition across a region. The Egyptians marching to Tahrir Square were inspired by both hope and a friendly but real rivalry: “If the Tunisians can do it…”
In 2012 we should see many more protests in sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe is one obvious candidate; Sudan is another. Nigeria could rise up en masse against enormously pervasive corruption; uprisings are also possible in Ethiopia, Uganda, and a number of smaller countries. In Russia, shame among educated classes that Vladimir Putin is just the latest czar, combined with growing economic desperation and corruption in rural areas, makes another Russian revolution plausible if not probable. And I would not be surprised to see mass protests in several central Asian countries, in Pakistan, again in Iran, in Algeria, Mexico, Venezuela or Cuba.
In the US, the Occupy movement will operate through rolling flashmob-type disruptions, but we should also see much more concrete actions such as defending against foreclosures – a tactic pioneered in Spain. In European countries that are choking on eurozone-imposed austerity, protests are also likely to turn into coordinated civil disobedience, centred on a refusal to pay new or higher taxes. And the Middle East will continue to burn.
Revolution is the ultimate disruption; it is an overturning rather than a reshaping through reform. Rolling disruption is somewhere in between. Wise governments will preempt revolution and respond to protests with rapid and meaningful reform. But wise governments are few and far between; and wise governments able to act quickly are far fewer. Expect a very turbulent year.
The writer is a professor at Princeton University and a former director of policy planning at the US State department