How the 'Year of the Protester' played out in Europe

The protests in the Middle East and United States may have garnered more attention, but 2011 was just as much a year of awakening in southern Europe, where young people are worried their future. 

Susana Vera/Reuters
A Spanish protester in a Guy Fawkes mask demonstrates against banks and politicians in Madrid. The text on the dollar bill translates as "I won't be silenced."

This year, no one waited for Dec. 31 to interpret the significance of 2011. By early fall, it was being hailed as the year of people power, indignation, upheaval and revolt, of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street

This month, Time Magazine named "the protester" its person of the year.

A deeply felt global impulse, a rejection of police control, a sense of inequality, outrage over bankers that got bailed out, and a desire among youth for a stable future – what the Polish poet and Solidarity godfather Czeslaw Milosz called “the deepest secret of toiling masses, more than ever alive” – found unexpected power and expression in 2011, even if, as Mr. Milosz says, this secret often “finds no language to express itself.”

The language of the protester this year was greater dignity in ordinary lives, and it went viral. In 1989, an East German pastor in Leipzig described the spirit of protest as "we lost our fear and went into the streets.”

The specifics of 2011's protests varied from place to place, but everywhere they cropped up, they highlighted the “power of the powerless,” as Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel, who left us two weeks ago, described it. Disillusionment with elites, autocrats, politicians, and policies of self-interest found a voice in places as disparate as Tunis, Athens, Madrid, New Delhi, New York, Oakland, Tel Aviv, and the suburbs of Damascus. It is now on display in Moscow, where Russians are challenging the tightly controlled “democracy” of Vladimir Putin.

Fears of a bleak future

In Europe, protests reflected fears of a bleak future in the face of colossal debt, harsh austerity measures, and an epic lack of faith in political leaders. It rose up in Greece and coursed through the upper Mediterranean, through Italy to Spain.

In May, young people in Madrid launched protests after they were told they could not stay all night on Puerta del Sol square – where only days before, they were allowed to camp out for tickets to a Justin Bieber concert – to discuss educational budget cuts.

Spanish youth are highly educated, but suffer a 45 percent unemployment rate. Theirs is the first generation in Europe to have lower expectations about their future than their parents and to feel indifferent about the post-World War II project of a single, unified continent.  They were inspired by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They were also inspired by the new writings of French resistance hero Stephane Hessel, who urged youth not to abandon “idealism” and succumb to a cynicism he finds hovering over Europe like a polluted cloud.

The protest camps of Athens and Madrid were variously praised, ridiculed, and ignored in the European press. Some portrayed their demonstrations as countercultural posturing. Others saw them as the “holy fools” of the medieval ages, questioning the unspoken edict in contemporary Europe that "there is no alternative” (TINA) to the economic model of austerity, cuts, and shrinking possibilities.

Still, the basic “call” of the protest here outshone the posturing:

“When I saw the images from Puerta del Sol, the skin on my arms jumped off,” says Gaelle Simon, 29, an earnest young Frenchwoman who moved home after losing her job and apartment, and a stint at a factory in Switzerland. “I had been depressed. But after Tunisia and Egypt, I could see what the Spanish kids were doing. Something’s not working in our system, but we don’t need to accept it.”

Ms. Simon, like many here, spoke about “waking up” and finding “new energy.”

Some commentators like Paul Krugman wrote sympathetically about “the malefactors” whose protest jumped from Europe to Wall Street, saying that while they might not have a specific platform, they are asking the right questions.

Experience “has made it painfully clear that men in suits not only don’t have any monopoly on wisdom, they have very little wisdom to offer. When talking heads on… CNBC mock the protestors as unserious, remember how many serious people assured us that there was no housing bubble, that Alan Greenspan was an oracle and that budget deficits would send interest rates soaring,” Mr. Krugman wrote in September.

Media depictions

What dismayed many young European protestors was media depictions of them as shiftless and lazy freeloaders.

“We hear politicians describing a breakdown in youth responsibility, a moral collapse; we hear about feral children running wild, feckless youth – it is complete nonsense,” said Ed Howker, coauthor of “Jilted Generation: How Britain has bankrupted its youth,” which examines youth job and housing problems.

“The description of the generation, not by their parents, but by politicians, and to some extent the mass media, is irresponsible and uninformed. We have TV shows called the Bank of Mom and Dad; its offensive,” Mr. Howker told the Monitor in September.

“All these different glib generalizations of youth bear no relation to the vulnerable situation they feel themselves in. Pensions are unfunded, long term debt is being leveraged against taxed earnings, privatization schemes proliferate," he said. "Far from being feckless drunks, these youth are vulnerable, and ignored, and ultimately put upon, since they are the ones that will be expected to pay for all this spending. From their standpoint, the price to enter society is higher and higher. That isn’t something previous generations had to worry about.”

Rage against the machine?

Is it fair to draw parallels between the disparate protests? Are groups of jobless physicists in Barcelona to be equated with the rioters in London this August? Or those in Syria, where thousands have died in clashes with government troops and security forces?

Many worry about how this ends, particularly in the Middle East, as Egypt and Syria writhe. Why can’t revolutions stay within the clean machinery of reason, rather than becoming a “rage against the machine?”

Perhaps this was the London elites' complaint against the American colonists in the 1770s or what the prelates in Rome said about Martin Luther’s Reformation. (A piece in the Economist this month, citing the invention of the press, called Luther’s anti-clerical message in 1517, which emphasized scriptural vs. church authority in matters of faith the first revolution to truly go “viral.”)

In a more sobering example, some say Russia's Old Guard similarly castigated the Bolshevik uprising, leading to Stalin's gulags.  

The hopeful may see the varying degrees of chaos in 2011 as a necessary transition period. Milosz, the poet who fought in the Warsaw Uprising, saw the shaking of the Soviet Union by the Polish Solidarity movement this way. In his 1980 Nobel lecture, he argued that the need for “true values” and expression among ordinary people could not be forever suppressed. “… Transformation has been going on,” he said, “defying short term predictions, and it is probable that in spite of all horrors and perils, our time will be judged as a necessary phase of travail before mankind ascends to a new awareness.”

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