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Why our young angry protesters must be making Karl Marx smile

Wednesday November 23 2011



The young people of Egypt are very angry. After overthrowing the corrupt dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in a street uprising this year, the army took over power and set up what was supposed to be a transitional supreme military council.

Now, the military council is being accused by Amnesty International of having been more brutal than Mubarak in suppressing protests that broke out early this week.

The youth are unrelenting, and will not even hear of an election planned for Monday, November 28. They want nothing less than the exit of the army.

We saw the same kind of rage among jobless Kenyan youth in the post-election violence.

And in the West, young — and old people — everywhere are protesting austerity measures imposed by governments that are squeezing them but will not do the same to big businesses that have grown extremely rich, often, corruptly.

There are many things going on here that can’t be covered in a short column.


However, one of them fascinates me. I think we are witnessing a new debate about what country (and citizenship) is, and what government means.

It could change how human beings organise politics, and radically in years to come.

Until now, to many people, country has been a chunk of land, with it waters and minerals, separated from others by a boundary that belonged to you as a citizen.

People who didn’t belong to this were, like me, “alien” as it says on my official ID.

As an alien or foreigner, you can’t vote, and your life is governed by a series of permissions.

You need permission (a permit) to work. If you want to become a citizen, you need permission for that too, and so forth.

What distinguishes a citizen is that you don’t need permission to do or be most of these things.

The State’s duty, on the other hand, is to protect your life, property, and family.

Then it is also supposed to provide justice in the courts if you are wronged or you wrong someone.

If you are lucky, you will get medical treatment, and “free” education. But that is not where this process starts.

It starts by you first giving the State money to do these things for you through taxes.

If you are poor and have no money, the State looks after you with other citizens’ taxes. In other words, there is nothing free. Everything people get from the State, they first pay for.

Now, things are changing. Citizens are demanding better value for their money. New ideas, and some old ones that did not have prominence in the past, have come to the fore.

From the US, to Egypt, we are hearing a new emphasis on “fairness”. That it is not fair for the people who have little to pay more taxes than those who have a lot.

That it is not fair for a few to own most of a country’s wealth, and for the rest to live on edge — i.e. inequality is evil.

Two other words have also become very big — “opportunity” and “future”. It is wrong, the protestors say, for governments to burden future generations with huge debts to finance today’s consumption and excesses.

The young people in Egypt and Tunisia revolted because, apart from not having opportunities today, they did not see a bright future for themselves.

Another expression that was started by the global anti-capitalist movements that raged over the last 10 years and is echoed in the Occupy Movement is this thing that “no one should be left behind”.

The anti-capitalists argued that it was immoral for the West to be indulging in high consumption, while the rest of the world was poor and hungry.

Turns out the consumption was built on a foundation of sand, and now it has gone bust.

So the idea of what a country it is changing. It is ceasing to be a territorial entity, but a dining table and collection of obligations to others.

Everyone has a right to the dining table, and if they don’t, they are freed of the obligations of obedient citizenship.

Similar ideas were once reviled in the West, and in many parts of the world.

They were refined by a man some called a “communist”, “socialist” or “Marxist”.

That man was, of course, German philosopher, economist, historian and journalist Karl Marx.