Comparisons have been made between the protests in the Arab world and the collapse of communism in 1989. I don't think it is an exact parallel, but in one sense they do have things in common. In 1989 the relaxation of its grip by a hegemonic power, itself in its own death throes, allowed the contradictions inherent in Stalinism to destroy the whole rotting edifice. It strikes me that, similarly, we are now witnessing the end of the post-colonial state.
There is a central contradiction in the notion of post-colonialism, the idea that national liberation is nothing more than a process of replacing foreign oppressors with new tyrants drawn from your own people. Some liberation that is.
Allied to this was the idea that development could be achieved through a centralised authoritarian state that restricted the liberties of its citizens, suppressed human rights, engaged in all the classic brutalities of the police state, but promised the benefits of modernisation in return. Instead, over time, the model presented a beautiful opportunity for the new elites to loot their own countries, whilst playing games with geo-political power politics to secure external backing.
In the wake of the debt crisis of the 1980's, predominantly caused by the actions of the old corrupt elites, countries experienced changes of government and were exhorted to 'liberalise' their economies. Neo-liberal orthodoxy was brought to bear through a process know as structural adjustment. It was assumed that this would usher in a new era for these nations, an opportunity to join in the global market, to become free and prosperous. This was always wishful thinking. In many cases exploitation intensified, political transgressions were brushed under the carpet and the tendency towards increased polarisation in unregulated corporate capitalism proved to be a godsend to new plutocratic elites who revelled in the opportunity to build free-market kleptocracies.
The current protests appear to be predominantly a challenge to oppressive political structures, but the demonstrators are also talking about inequality, youth unemployment, grinding poverty and declining wages at a time of rising food prices. So we are not only seeing the contradictions in post-colonialism at work, but also those inherent in neo-liberal political economy. This more than a crisis of governance and the establishment of democracy has to be a precursor to deeper social and economic change.
An economic shadow hangs over the whole process. Unless we can build new models of political economy the revolutions may fail and open up the path for other movements. In the short term though I am optimistic. The destruction of these nasty tyrannies is welcome and the political systems that replace them may well be democratic, robust and open up opportunities for economic change. As the post-colonial state crumbles the new economic orthodoxy could begin to go with it. And if we are witnessing a global phenomenon rather than merely a regional one, the crucial question is about which country is next. Do you think that in a few years those hagiographic editorials about China might need revisiting?