Northern winter, Southern spring + Gramsci rules: looking back on 2011
Here’s my contribution to the flood of ‘2011 retrospective’ articles, published on the Guardian site today
What you make of 2011 depends on your vantage point. The year’s events look completely different depending on whether you are sitting at the bottom or the top, in the old north or the old south.
From the bottom, this was a year of protest and revolution, toppling tyrants and throwing up new governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and (probably) Yemen. So far, thankfully, fears about the negative impact of such revolutions on women’s rights or religious tolerance have not been realised; that’s something to watch out for in 2012. In Madrid, Washington, London and dozens of other cities, a rather more sedate protest movement raised the question of whether a single global movement is emerging. I’m sceptical, though certain themes – of inequality, greed and injustice – emerged in common. What was universal was “active citizenship” – people taking matters into their own hands – in many cases, with historic results.
The geopolitical order, too, continued in ferment, as the “emerging economies” and “low-income countries” carried on booming, in stark contrast with what I recently heard referred to as “the formerly rich countries”. Can it only be two years since the old certainties and power of the G8 officially handed over the baton to the new order of the G20? This year’s aid conference in Busan and climate summit in Durban brought further progress, with China and other emerging economies accepting new levels of global responsibility to accompany their growing economic and political might. With China the world’s second largest economy and largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the north-south frame of the 1970s is now as redundant as the east-west divisions of the Cold War.
Seen from the bottom, or the old south, many of the changes are positive and uplifting. Not so the view from the top, the old north. For all its internationalism, the aid industry and international NGOs such as Oxfam have substantial European DNA, and it is hard to shake off the Euro-gloom narrative of crisis, fragmentation and decline that hangs over the continent.
Across the Atlantic, the crisis feels more political than economic, as decades of partisan venom have poisoned Washington’s bloodstream, leaving a US too consumed by infighting to show the global leadership required.
Globally, northern gloom is compounded by the gulf between science and politics, as political systems struggle to adapt to the growing evidence binding planetary issues to human activity. While in some ways achieving surprising progress, the Durban climate change summit kicked the can of ecological constraints down the road, making it increasingly likely that the world will experience catastrophic levels of climate change over the course of this century.
At Oxfam, this cognitive dissonance between bottom-up optimism and top-down malaise informed our new Grow campaign, a four-year global effort to grapple with the issue of “food justice in a resource-constrained world”. Feeding the 7 billion, without destroying the land and water that they and future generations will depend on, requires both a transformation in how we behave (production, consumption, investment) and how we think (materialism, solidarity, fair shares for all).
So roll on 2012. From the bottom, we should see resolution (and maybe revolution) in Yemen and Syria, and further developments across the Arab world. If recession and economic crisis bite, as seems likely in Europe, at least, there will be little political bandwidth for global diplomacy and leadership of the kind needed at the Rio+20 environment and development summit in June. But the planet and its people cannot wait for a more propitious political moment, and organisations such as Oxfam will be pushing for global responses before it is too late. Our state of mind is perhaps best described by Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will”, echoing the dissonance that described the world in 2011.