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Tweeting 1848?

 Having had a few very interesting conversations about the historical turn in political science with students in my Comparative Methods class and also used the Arab Spring as an example issue for research design, I was interested to pick up a copy of Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet. This, in case you hadn’t guessed, was the telgraphy and the electronic telegraph.  Students reckoned, like many commentators, that the Arab Spring was partly driven by the socially empancipatory potential of the internet and social networking. Sceptically, I pointed out that revolutions took place in the pre-internet era, although admittedly TV and fax machines did play a role in some of the East European ‘Revolutions of ’89’. (Prof James Carey says something similar in recommending ‘historical pragmatism’ as an antedote to the over-hyping of the political consequences of the net in a paper here.)

Perhaps, I thought, there was actually  a (his)story of technology and social and political revolution? After, all historical analogies about political processes – comparisons of the Arab Spring with the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Europe’s Springtime of Nations of 1848) –  are not in short supply.

Standage’s book offers a readable account of the social impact of the Victorian internet – and makes a reasonable case that this analogy – but, unfortunately, doesn’t really answer this question: it has hapters on  the new communications technology and war and peace, as well as a discussion of the changing timescale of news reporting (foreign correspondents reporting in hours or days, not weeks). A similar point s made by  Tom Wheeler writing how the North’s use of the telegraph (Mr Lincoln’s ‘t-mails’) won the American Civil War.

Little or nothing on the 19th century ‘internet’ and grassroots social protest and mobilisation, however. Perhaps these technologies were just less emancipatory and usable by non-state actors, hence the lack of research.  Or maybe you know different?

>An Arab 1989? Look to Bucharest not Berlin

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I know  very little about North Africa and the Middle, but like many people interested in comparative politics and political change I have been watching the turbulent and unexpected development in Tunisia and Egypt  – and their smaller ripples elsewhere in the Arab world. Even Albania seems to have been affected by the demonstration effect. Moreover, area specialists, as with East Europeanists in 1989, seem to have been caught slightly on the hop, but the speed and decisiveness of events.
Tunisian Interior Ministry employees protest
Much comment, in the absence of any real knowledge,  seems to be a kind of echo chamber for the preoccupations of whoever’s doing the commenting. The centre-left Twittersphere, for example, is awash with expressions of #solidarity and breathless updates about tanks in Suez from people who see popular mobilization against a corrupt semi-authoritarian regime in Cairo as a loose parallel for the kind of mass civic protest movement against austerity measures and spending cuts they would like (but have so far failed) to create in the UK.   showdown with the Coalition does indeed materialize in 2011. But, of course, Hosni Mubarak’s regime and its imminent demise about hiking tuition fees, shutting down libraries and privatizing woodland. And then there is the small matter of rigged elections, secret police  torture, rampant corruption etc.

Still, I am basically no better. My attention homes in speculation of an ‘Arab 1989’, a ‘1989 moment’ or comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The basic parallel is that of sudden, unanticipated regime collapse spreading across a region through domino (aka ‘demonstration’ ) fueled by people power. The analogy is, however, a rather lazy – even dangerous – one. The same ‘1989’ paradigm was in the mind of the US Neocon policymakers as planned the invasion of Iraq (and neglected to plan the post-invasion). 
However, as far as I can judge, the East European parallel tends to underline differences in the developments we are seeing now: although the semi-reconstructed Tunisian government coming under pressure from the streets had echoes of  the early stages Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, most transitions in 1989 were negotiated elite deals with little or no mass popular protests driving events. Well-organized and credible oppositions either existed or quickly emerged and there was a wide social and political consensus about the future direction. In Egypt opposition parties seem weak while civil society groups  – much better organized than in communist Eastern Europe – seems reluctant to unite and step into the vacuum and there seem to be few obvious big policy ideas lurking below the notion of ‘reform’. Moreover, the much younger demographics of the Arab societies seemingly now entering political transition seems to give issues like youth unemployment a bigger profile than

If they resemble 1989 at all, events in Egypt and Tunisa seem most reminicent of Romania in 1988-9 – a parallel spotted by a piece in the Baltimore Sun –  usually considered an exception and outlier in Eastern European ‘revolutions of ’89’: a personalized dictatorship with dynastic overtones; spontaneous, chaotic and somewhat violent popular protest; a key role for the police and army and their willingness (or unwillingness) to keep order; and a new regime recruited mainly from second rank figures fromt he old bureaucratic power stucture.  Except that – although European Neighbourhood Policy will now no doubt turns its  eyes South in a big way – there is no equivalent to the magnetic prospect of EU membership that dragged Romania into being a minimal but real liberal democracy. Similar points are made in an interesting piece by Florian Bieber.

>Off the map

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In the spirit of David Černý‘s (in)famous Entropa installation (above) – which was in many ways the best thing about the ill-fated Czech presidency of the EU a while back unless you are a big fan of the Eastern Partnership – Bulgarian visual artist, graphic designer and illustrator Yanko Tsvetkov has come up a series of maps of Europe mapping the (supposed) prejudices of various nations (US, Brits, French, Germans and, Bulgarians, naturally) and, for some reason, also of gay men. Not inappropriately, the series seems to have been flagged by The Daily Telegraph.

Europe according to the Brits – Why are we always depicted as nation of europhobes? … possibly because we are?

Europe as seen by the French: Zut alors! Does this have the ring of truth?

A similar Europe-As-Seen-By-Estonians (that’s ethnic majority Estonians, I think) appeared on You Tube a while back (see below) – marvellous line about ‘…the country where Bjork and dragons live in harmony’.

And, of course, there is much weird and truly wonderful stuff on the Strange Maps blog (now also a book) such as the invaluable map of European alcohol belts (beer vs. wine vs. spiritis) – note the interesting beer/wine cleavages running through Northern France and the apparant identification of wine-drinking with ethnic Hungarians (although they should perhaps have marked South Moravia  in the Czech Republic more prominently as wine enclave) and Croatia seems oddly to have slipped into the beer zone.

Europe’s alcohol belts (from Strange Maps)

The venerable tradition of satirical map making – covered by the excellent just closed British Library exhibition – is it seems to be alive and kick and taking over from straight political analysis.

Updates: As my SSEES colleague Eric Gordy notes, you can also get this type of analysis in fuller tabular form and, Catherine Baker informs over Facebook, the slightly neglected Croats have produced a map of their own . Oddly, they seem to remember us in terms of the British Empire, but  so much discussion about British politics betrays a  subconscious obsession with our fall from imperial superpower status, I guess that’s OK.

>Eurostar to Brno? The Economist’s fantasy Europe

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The Economist offers an odd, slightly heavy handed bit fantasy geography (aren’t there just a few more important things going on?) re-arranging the countries of Europe by character, political stability and fiscal rectitude. The Czech Republic is now boring enough to swap places with Belgium and more deserving of its north-west European spot as dully politically stable (at least, by contemporary Belgian standards). I guess that’s fine by me. If we can take the Eurostar to Prague and Brno, then it’s a much shorter trip to see the in-laws. But hey, I see Brits have to move down to a spot just off Portugal, as our deficit is large and we don’t seem likely to produce a majority government. Oh well, at least the sun will shine, although with global warning we are probably set for Meditteranean temperature just by staying put and waiting 20 years.

Real afficianando of fantasy geography should, however, perhaps try the Strange Maps blog.

>Scotland: Greens, Reds and Greys all squeezed says poll

>Well, it seems as ever I am rubbish pundit. Polling in today’s online edition of The Scotsman, of which I have temporarily become an avid reader, suggests a big squeeze on minor parties with Socialists, Greens and, of course, Greys all getting severely whacked. A consequence of Labour’s successful strategy of polarizing the campaign as a choice on the future of Scotland, apparently.

>Taxing reading

>Came across an interesting paper – actually chapter of PhD incorporating ideas into a rational
choice framework from a Hayekian/Austrian School perspective – on the spread of (the idea) of flat taxation in Central and Eastern Europe using Ragin’s QCA method of comparision. The author Anthony J. Evans is British but did his thesis/postgrad in the US.

>Bulgaria (and East European aristos) on my mind

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Bulgaria seems to attract an especially interesting vein of reflection sheets from my MA students. Writing on left and right in Bulgaria a student recently noted how the the Bulgarian opposition Union of Democratic Forces emerged much more as an anti-communist formation than a force positively committed to shared positions – beyond vague notions of normality, democracy and European politics. During the early transition period, she notes, the opposition Union of Democratic Forces consisted of two big leftist and moderate parties (a Social Democratic Party and the Agrarian Party (BANU) whose members had been repressed and/or imprisoned under the communist regime. The electorates of the UDF were predominantly people with a low economic status (respected but underpaid intellectuals and artists or underprivileged non-communists). One can thus understand why their political claims – somewhat like those of Democratic Russia in 1988-91 (see Fish’s book) – were quite social-democratic. Opposition leaders in Bulgaria like their DR counterparts spoke about retributive justice, equal chances (the abolition of the (enduring) privileges of the nomenkltura) and the opening up of special lesiure and other facilities to the public In this early period UDF did not adopt a right-wing economic policy partly because would affect its electorates most. An interesting phenomenon was that the opposition was a mirror of the ‘transformed’ Communist party (the Socialist): although the latter used populist and patriotic rhetoric, it acted as a right party in a certain economic sense (participating in (insider) privatization and opening nomenklatura linked firms as in Poland, Hungary and Russia), while the UDF used the labels of the ‘free market economy’, ‘privatization’, or ’’radical reforms’, etc., but recruited its politicians from the public sector and the intelligentsia. The biggest entrepreneurs of the early transition were to be found among communist leaders and their relatives who amassed resources due abuse of office and de facto privatization of state resources. One of the emblematic names of BSP during the 1990s, she notes, Nora Ananieva happened to be the leading entrepreneurs in meat industry while her UDF counterparts lived relative poverty and worked in the state sector. The problem with this became obvious when the opposition finally came to power in 1996 and started itself abusing the state resources as a form of party building and counterweight to communist era networks – a point made by another student writing about Bulgarian decommunization policies a couple of years ago – and to compensate for the years of deprivation. This reinforced the nationalist Socialists who, naturally, felt economically threatened. This was, she argues, one of the reasons that led to the party collapse in 2001 when the expelled by the early Communist regime ex Bulgarian monarch- Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was recognized as a competent ‘European’ aristocrat – shades of the rather sychonphantic treatment of the new Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwazenberg and, more distantly Paneuropa – who was, supposedly, different from the corrupted domestic politicians. This is one of the most interesting – and understudied – episodes in post-1989 CEE politics.

>Gapminder: moving statistics

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I checked out the impressive animated statistics presentation programme Gapminder developed by the Swedish public health and development researcher Prof Hans Rossling. Although the site proclaims its commitment to open source software and positively urges you to download its tools, it seems mainly to house demonstrations of particular sets of stats and earlier presentations done by the Gapminder team. Most, unsurprisingly, concern health and development issues graphically illiustrated with interactive animations of socio-economic and demographic data – I was rather disappointed, however, that it wasn’t more straightfoward to load up your own data and run it on Gapminder – I couldn’t make head or tail of the link to Google – and that there didn’t seem to be any political variables like, say, Freedom House human rights ratings. Still, its’s impressive and arresting – see above my tracking of Botswana’s life expectancy and aveage income score: although one of the success stories of African development (a relative concept, of course), life expectancy crashes through the floor around 1990s due to the impact of AIDS despite a doubling of income.

>The end of the world – news?

>Sat up late watching programmes in BBC 4’s Science Fiction Britannia/the Martians and Us series hoping for a bit of entertainment and ended up instead getting a joltingly interesting watch which led me straight back to politics.

Science fiction has, of course, always been less a means reflecting about the future and other planets than the condition of society in the here and now. What I had never realized was how British SF had a dystopian and pessimistic streak which tracked (anxieties about) the decline of the British Empire and our post-imperial condition. A conservative preoccupation with the fragility of modern civilization not present in more optimistic, technology oriented SF (think Star Trek).


Interestingly, current debates about the political and social impact of climate change (after alien invasion, always a favoured mechanism for destroying the world the catastrophist ‘day after’ genre of British SF and US disaster movies) seem closely to echo this preoccupation.
According to The Times James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia thesis, predicts a parched earth by 2100 capable of supporting only 500 million people in which one of the few habitable places is… Yes, very much a la John Wyndham, the British Isles, a target for millions of migrating climate refugees – says Lovelock – likely to be much more overcrowded island than ever before, filled with high rise estates and an government rationing precious food resources very carefully (shades of 1960s Sci Fci classic When the Grass Died).

So, are such concerns just drawing on the well established paradigms of Sci Fi and a deeper vein of cultural pessimism, as various born again anti-ecological ex-Trotskyists such as Frank Furudi, Claire Fox and others from the Revolutionary Communist Party diaspora like to tell us? I suppose you could say that fears of social collapse are some kind of ancestral memory. As Jared Diamond’s book Collapse shows numerous pre-modern societies succumbed to ecological self-destruction and we could probably find many examples of more directly politically or economically induced breakdowns – decline and fall of the Roman Empire etc.

On the other hand, even if he may unconsciously draw on some literary archetypes, Lovelock, is a reasonably serious thinker, whose advocacy of nuclear power as a response to global warming (‘global heating’ as he calls it) show a tough mindedness I admired, even if I was sceptical of his rather sweeping conclusions.

Deep seated preoccupation with civilizational breakdown – or at least the breakdown of liberal institutions – probably reflects the fact we have the capacity to fulfil all the grimmest presentiments of SF writers. And occasionally, of course, we actually do… There was little demand for catastrophist or dystopian science fantasy during Somme, high Stalinism or shattered post-war Europe – because it was already (briefly) a social reality.

>(Red and) black humour

>Political joke of the week…

Q Why do anarchists drink Earl Grey?
A Because proper tea is theft.

I’m sure Proudhon and Bakhunin would have appreciated that one….