Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Spring is in the air...

Back in '88 I was supervised for a term on the subject of the history of revolutions at King's College by a long-haired post-grad whose name it really pains me to have since forgotten.

Decades later I understand that I am at least as interested in the apparently lesser phenomenon of the 'Spring", those moments of mass popular engagement with political change which, by and large, end up being smothered by an unstoppable reactionary wave.

If I were a young historian at Cambridge today, I'd practically kill to be taught by the current Regius Professor, Christopher Clark, whose most recent book charts the history of the pan-continental mass movements we tend to refer to as '1848'.

Clark asserts that the revolutionary springs of 1848 did not end in failure as many other historians have suggested, but then in Sleepwalkers, he said the Germans didn't start WWI. (In fairness, he pretty much convinced me on the latter point, though I might have been predisposed to suspect the French and the Russians before even starting that book.)

Mass popular protest usually commences after a single instance of perceived injustice. In Chile in 2019 it was a change to the pricing of public transport with respect to one demographic, in USA and its cultural clients it was the racist murder of George Floyd the following year.

The people on the street are never really 'the people'. The momentum in the crowd comes from an uneasy alliance between bourgeois liberals (such as myself) and radicals from the disenfranchised and marginalised groups. The connection between them most often a cadre of middle class poseurs.

In essence this is a heady mix of people with realistic and unrealistic objectives. There are those seeking redress for a specific set of grievances and those whose purview encompasses pretty much all available grievances; an aggressive completism that is often hard to distinguish from nihilism.

The movement starts to falter at the point that the realists get spooked by the often loopy and violent approach of their fellow travellers, and this then permits 'los mismos de siempre' to rapidly re-consolidate.

The Spring that Guatemala is experiencing right now is fascinating on many levels, not least because it seems to have arrived with some powerful antibodies which may help it to dodge the familiar pathological outcome.

Firstly, the primary goal, an eradication of corruption, is either realistic or unrealistic depending on which side of the bed one got out of. That ambiguity will remain unifying for a considerable time, I surmise.
And crucially, it does not propose any fundamental change to the constitutional order (as in Chile). The social order seems fairly safe in the short term as well.

Through the persona of Tio Bernie, this primavera is as much backwards-looking as forwards-looking, a deliberate re-staging of the mid twentieth century social democratic aspiration which was effectively stolen after ten years by the gringos. (No prizes for guessing why Izabal sided with Sandra.)

It's like The Return of the King, the concluding part of a trilogy which began in 1944, re-appeared with renewed fury in 2015 and has apparently now seen off the resurgence of its orky antagonists.

I use that term resurgence with caution because the action of the corrupt elite in Guatemala throughout this election year have, to an almost ludicrous extent, contributed to the outcome on August 20.



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