2011 was a year of change in a decade of change.
It’s been obvious since before the 2010 general election that the coming decade was likely to involve big constitutional changes in Britain: Scotland might leave the UK, the UK might leave the EU, the electoral system for the commons might change, or the House of Lords would be elected using a PR system. The probablility of each of these changes individual is less than 50%, but together, at least one is likely to happen. Any one would radically change the political situation.
2011 started off with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which wouldn’t have been possible without the internet. Then the masses rose up against Gaddafi, and with outside assistance in the form of air power, they were able to overthrow him. Across the Arab world, people looked to these examples and launched protests and demonstrations; which haven’t been successful in the short term, but have succeeded in changing the tone of the political process throughout the Arab world: people now expect Arab dictatorships to be fragile, which in turn causes them to be so. In Syria, Assad has managed to hang on, but is looking shaky: compare this to a year ago when his rule looked rock-solid.
The Arab spring inprired protests in other countries, notably Spain and Israel. Israel saw the largest proportional turnout, when 460,000 people (1 in 17 of the population) took to the streets on the 3rd of September. Two weeks later, Occupy Wall Street started, and spread across the USA and throughout the world. And in December we saw protests in Russia complaining about Putin rigging the general election.
These protests were about specific issues in their own countries, but had common and interlocked themes: (1) discontent that ordinary people are stagnating or getting poorer while the rich get richer, (2) a feeling that government cares about the rich elites rather than the common people, and (3) a desire for more democracy to solve problems 2 and therefore 1.
The role of the internet
The internet has been instrumental in causing the protests, because it makes it easier for people to get together of a common purpose. So we’ve seen the rise of hastivist groups such as Anonymous and Wikileaks.
The internet also harms powerful inyterests who will try to tame it (do do so, they would have to break it, although they don’t quite realise that), for example with laws such as the Digital Economy Act (in the UK) and SOPA (in the USA). To counteract this threat, we’ve seen the rise rise of a political movement based on the principle that everyone should be allowed to use the full power of the internet to enrich their life; I mean of course the Pirate Party movement. Pirates won their first great victory in 2009 in Sweden, when two Pirates were elected to the European Parliament, and their second great victory in September this year when 15 Pirates were elected to Berlin’s parliament.
Now for the hard bit, some predictions. I’m not going to do any for next year, but over the next decade…
Firstly, we’re in for a time of accelerating change. Not necessarily on a year-for-year bases, but certainly on a decade-for-decade basis. The internet is going to be a major driver of this change as it fundamentally tears down and rebuilds every single human institution, Other factors, which I’ve not mentioned so far are the ongoing Euro crisis and the rise of China. The consequences of the Euro crisis will take years to work through, and will result in a different EU to what we have now: possibly one with an inner core and a few outer members.
China is likely to see the same sort of protests we’ve seen in many other countries, and the result will either be a democratic revolution, or a crackdown. Whichever happens, the Chinese economy will continue to grow more quickly than the world average, so their share of world GDP will increase. This will increase their power, and to secure oil they’ll become a major player in the Middle East.
Moore’s law will continue to make computers cheaper and more capable. Vested interests — for example the copyright industry — will be hurt and will respond by getting politicians to create ever more draconian laws, clamping down on the interent, removing the right ot a fail trial, instituting punishment on suspicion, attempting to ban general-purpose computing. They will fail, and opposition to them will result in the Pirate movement becoming an established actor on the political stage, particularly in Europe, with MPs in many countries.
There will be a flowering of democracy in the Arab world. Not everywhere, and there will be some backsliding, but by 2020 Tunisia will be widely seen to be at least as democratic as the UK and USA are now (OK, that’s a low hurdle to jump). So will Egypt, probably. In Syria, the Assad regime will not survive to 2020, though what replaces it may be something messy (think of the post-invasion civil war in Iraq). Some other Arab countries (perhaps Morocco and Jordan) may become democracies. Everywhere, the assumption will be that democracy is the future.
In Iran, there are two possibilities. The stealing of the Iranian presidential election in 2009, and the resulting protests, showed that conditions are ripe for a “Persian Spring”, and by 2020 a revolution will have happened there. Or, the other possibility is that Israel — with US tacit approval — will attack Iran; this will weaken reformers as Iranians rally round the flag, preventing a revolution.
I don’t know what 2020 will look like: but the difference between 2020 and 2010 will be bigger than the difference between 2010 and 2000.