Göran Therborn casts a broad eye across Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. The popular movements that defined that past two years are unlikely to prove socially transformative in the West, he argues, though they have more potential in the Middle East, China and India.
The unexpected will happen in 2013, like every year. But what will happen will, to an unknown but not insignificant degree, depend on how we are facing the future. What have we learnt from the past years about things still here this year?
The financial crisis from late 2008 is still with us. Why hasn´t it anywhere—with the bantamweight exception of Iceland—issued into a progressive political re-alignment? Critiques of financial shark capitalism have penetrated enlightened parts of the liberal mainstream, but political reception has remained minoritarian, even in Greece. What is needed, and to be demanded from progressive economists and politicians, is a program for how to loosen the iron grip of financial sharks within the parameters of contemporary capitalism, unlikely to disappear this year or next. In Europe—at least outside the UK, where prevailing anti-Europeanism excludes any short-term EU solution—that would have to be an EU program. Were a double-dip recession to materialise, such a program might stand a chance.
Why did the Occupy movements peter out, and why did those of the Spanish Indignados and their Greek, Italian and Portuguese equivalents lead no further than to new rightwing governments? Because they had no political project to sustain and/or prolong them. The necessity of politics is a crucial lesson.
However, important capillary, sub-political social changes are also possible. After all, the French May '68 issued into a Gaullist electoral victory, which did not stop the social transformation under way. Do the movements of 2011 have similar potential? That is something to explore and try to develop. Personally I see few signs of it so far, but the 2011 movements have at least avoided the big political error of the 1968 movements, namely its attempts to revive orthodox Communism (be it Maoist, Trotskyist or Soviet).
The Arab Spring ran into the 18th of Brumaire problem as analysed by Marx: a mainly metropolitan revolutionary movement (1848, 2011) was soon confronted by a conservative rustic majority, which elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in late 1848 and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. But in the Arab world, '2011' is more likely to resemble '1968' in changing social relations. Politically, while there is a case for secularism, the Arab Left would probably do better in developing some conception of Islamic socialism or of Radical Islamic democracy.
Recent egalitarianism in Latin America—the only world region currently reducing inequalities—will continue in 2013, deserving respectful attention. It will survive the possible death of Hugo Chávez, perhaps even in Venezuela.
Africa has ceased to look like a hopeless poorhouse, but it is still governed by Big Men politics and rentier economics, towering above a few democratic examples and a spread of capitalist entrepreneurship. Most of Asia looks pretty conservative and socially rather stable. Visible risks of change are above all geopolitical: a NATO-land strangling of Iran, or Sino-Japanese nationalism spiralling out of control. The local workers' movements in China will probably continue to strengthen, and the recent Indian women's movement will not disappear.
Göran Therborn is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of, among others, The World: A Beginner's Guide (2011) and What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? (2008).