[Viewpoint] A global cry for changeThe big world news story early this year was the wave of democratization in the Middle East. Today’s big story is the “Occupy Wall Street” movement by young students on the streets of major cities around the U.S. There are underlying forces that are similar in the street protests in the Arab World and U.S. cities, and here at home too where political novice Park Won-soon beat contenders from mainstream parties to win the liberal candidacy for the Seoul mayoral by-election.
A political pundit in an article in Foreign Affairs in March dissected the reasons why Middle East experts underestimated and missed the hidden, driving forces behind the chain of revolts in the Arab world. He pointed to a fixation with Israel, oil and stability in autocratic regimes that blinded them to the emerging passions and power of their own people.
The tipping point in the so-called Arab Spring was social polarization. Among the league of Arab despots, oil-producing countries - with the exception of Libya - that provided financial security to the people with their petrodollars remained immune to the wave of mass antigovernment protests. Egypt and Tunisia, the epicenters of the revolt, were open and reform-minded economies. They were eager to learn neoliberalism in the past, with the help of foreign aid. The families at the top became richer through the privilege of access to foreign capital or business opportunities, while most of the people in those countries’ social pyramid saw their livelihoods stagnate or deteriorate. A young street merchant in Tunisia set himself on fire, and the flames spread, fueled by people’s anger over wealth disparities and the unfairness that seemed to characterize their countries.
They had a weapon that was ignored by their out-of-touch dictators: the Internet and social network services. Innovation changed the people’s perspective and also helped motivate and mobilize them. The Internet, mobile phone accessibility and SNS connectivity in Egypt and Tunisia were the most widespread among Arab countries. The protest movements were possible because the two societies were less rigid and closed. An educated middle-class, educated with a vision for a better alternative to their current way of life - gleaned from the Internet - stood at the head of this digital army.
The same cries against corruption and for greater equality resonate on the streets of lower Manhattan. The revolt by the young - frustrated with a dearth of job opportunities and inequalities - that filled the streets of both Britain and France during the summer finally reached the shores of New York. Young Americans are descending on Wall Street singing the chant, “We are 99 percent” - distinguishing themselves from the 1 percent of Americans who are filthy rich - echoed by others in cities across the U.S.
A new form of class struggle is panning out in a society that is, in theory, free of class ideology. These young troops are also armed with their digital weaponry, the social networking services. A video clip of smug guys in suits looking down on the young protesters from a tower with champagne glass in their hands went viral, unleashing rage against wealth disparities and ultimately evolving into a broader antigovernment and antimainstream movement.
We must look at the ascension of lawyer-turned-civilian activist Park Won-soon in the perspective of this global trend of longing for change. Mainstream politicians were cynical of his popularity. The general, or mainstream, opinion was that it wasn’t of note, and shouldn’t be noted. But Park triumphed over candidates from the main opposition party, with its half-century of political history, as well as splinter parties of a progressive nature. His rivals said he lacked a political network and funding, but he proved he didn’t need them. With the help of his resourceful digital army, he easily raised 3.8 billion won ($3.2 million) and filled the voting booths at a sports stadium. The SNS forces overwhelmed the snail-mail political parties both in organization and fund-raising.
Park arrives on our political scene at a time that anger about the wealth gap rages across the globe amid worsening economic prospects. He proves an alternative to the frustratingly frozen world of mainstream politics. He has the backing of tech-savvy organizations. Park has been in the news since his boycott campaign against corrupt politicians a decade ago. His popularity is not a passing breeze. He came back stronger with the backing of a digital army and on a wave of public anger.
Park’s ascent poses a challenge to conservatives as well. The liberal is striding ahead while the conservatives stagger in one place. The conservative will not fare well with pure mudslinging. Park is more than an individual candidate: he symbolizes trends of our time, and satisfies the people’s desire for change. The only way for the conservatives to stay in the game is to change as well.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Byung-sang