Civil unrest is a shot across the bows for the ruling class
European governments are finding that bail-outs for bankers and the rich are provoking social discontent among the population as a whole
Two years ago the UK Ministry of Defence's Strategic Trends depicted an alarming futuristic scenario in which proletarianised middle-class radicals engage in revolutionary activity and violent 'flashmobs' threaten the authorities with lawless disorder. There are growing signs that these predictions may be more prescient than was originally thought.
Last night's scenes in central Paris were just the latest in a string of violent clashes across Europe since December's 'Greek Intifada' where the police shooting of a teenager became the catalyst for a major grassroots revolt. During January, police have confronted demonstrators protesting deteriorating economic conditions and political corruption in Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria. There have been smaller demonstrations in Spain, Turkey, Denmark and Italy.
Whatever their specific national contexts, these disturbances are another consequence of the bursting of the speculative capitalist bubble and the illusion of unlimited prosperity that once sustained it. In the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, one 63-year-old protester criticised "the lies, corruption and those grinning, fat faces behind the windows of Parliament". A young Frenchman interviewed by the BBC last night complained about Sarkozy's government aiding bankers but leaving ordinary people to their own fates.
The US military sees the modern city as the battleground of the 21st century
These disturbances cannot be explained away by the usual references to 'anarchists' and 'outside agitators'. For too long European politics have been conducted by career politicians who have mostly accepted the neo-liberal model as the only game in town and allowed irresponsible and unaccountable financial elites a free hand.
While their electorates may have accepted such behaviour when times were good, they may be less disposed to do so in stagnating economies, where bail-outs for bankers are accompanied by wholesale redundancies and cuts in benefits for the most vulnerable sectors of society.
All these factors mean that Europe's 'winter of discontent' may become more widespread. How will the societies affected by these upheavals respond? One possibility is repression. In Greece and Italy in the late Sixties, political challenges from the left were followed by dictatorship, authoritarianism and the neo-fascist outrages known as the 'strategy of tension'.
Today, in an era when the armed forces increasingly assume responsibility for 'homeland security', there is a growing convergence of law enforcement and military priorities. This tendency was already evident at the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle and Genoa and it is likely to become more pronounced in the future.
Many US military planners identify the modern city as the primary battleground of the 21st century. For some military theorists, their future adversaries will consist not only of terrorists and insurgents but 'angry crowds' whose suppression may require 'non-lethal' weaponry.
The Pentagon is already experimenting with an array of such weapons, including the Active Denial System (ADS), a microwave 'ray gun' designed by Raytheon, which directs unbearable heat on the skin from a 2km distance and is specifically designed for crowd dispersal. Other ongoing projects include acoustic devices and Pulsed Energy Projectiles (PEPs) which hurl plasma at crowds, causing 'pain and temporary paralysis'.
These weapons were originally intended for the urban battlegrounds of the Third World. But if Barack Obama fails to reactivate the ailing US economy, they may well find themselves deployed in the United States. (The news from Wall Street this week that US financiers awarded themselves a staggering $18.4bn in bonuses in 2008 - much of it after the financial crisis had begun to bite - hardly helps the new president's cause.)
There is also the possibility that social discontent may take the form of ethnic clashes and racism. In the Czech town of Litvinov this month, 1,000 riot police prevented a far-right march on a Roma neighbourhood. Other countries have a similar potential for ethnic or racial scape-goating.
But there is another potential outcome. Even in the moribund democracies of the new century, the 'angry crowds' on the streets of Europe are a reminder that the public may not always passively endure the insane avarice of the financial elites who have brought about this catastrophe and the cowardly and incompetent politicians who serve them. Rather than something to be feared, the coming upheavals might herald, not the end of civilisation, but the emergence of a new politics. ·
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