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Jonathan Schell: Global protest movements challenge global elite

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from Yale is Jonathan Schell. Jonathan is, amongst other things, a board member of The Real News Network. He also is a fellow at the Nation Institute. He teaches at Yale. He’s also the author of the book–tell me the name of your book.

JONATHAN SCHELL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.

JAY: Great. Thank you. Which speaks exactly to what we’re seeing now across the Middle East, a massive nonviolent movement. Talk a little bit about–place what’s happening in the Middle East a little bit into the context of what’s been happening over the last few decades.

SCHELL: Well, it really revives a worldwide movement of nonviolent revolutions that have tended, where they have occurred, to lead to democratic rule. It really started in Southern Europe in the 1970s, in Spain, Portugal, Greece; moved to South America–Chile, Argentina; the Philippines; South Korea; and of course the big one, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And for a while it seemed to lose momentum, especially with the rise of authoritarian rule in Russia and its continuance in China, but now we have a whole new region that is exploding in this way. And so it looks as if the momentum is back.

JAY: Can you compare all these movements? Some people distinguish, for example, what happened in Latin America from what happened in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe they see regimes that were essentially not in the American camp, and that the Western, American forces helped instigate the colored revolutions. In Latin America, where you had more or less pro-American governments, these are seen differently. I mean, what do you make of that argument?

SCHELL: Well, I think one of the great things about this sort of disparate movement that rather mysteriously has cropped up all over the world in the last three decades is that it’s been no respecter of superpowers. And it’s occurred in the American side of the ledger, and it’s occurred of course in the Soviet side. And the Soviet Union up and disappeared, as well as in the dictatorships in Europe in the early 1970s. So really I think what we’re seeing here is the emergence of what you might call a new superpower. It’s a kind of disaggregated superpower or a sort of dispersed or–maybe the best phrase would be a “decentralized superpower”, because each people is turning out to be the superpower within its own borders. It’s not the kind of power that projects to other countries. But each country within its own borders is taking charge, and the superpowers seem to be sidelined.

JAY: Well, are they sidelined, or have they learned to live with this? Like, if you take the Latin American or even East European model, while they don’t–like, in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union doesn’t have the same kind of dominance–and now I guess the Americans have replaced it, certainly in countries like Georgia. And in Latin America, much of Latin America is–on the face of it has these kind of more progressive governments. But neoliberal economics still functions. The United States capital still flows in and flows out. Can’t the Americans live with this situation? And has it fundamentally changed their interests around the world?

SCHELL: Well, I think it has. I mean, if you look at South America, for instance, you have governments that were–are not so neoliberal anymore. And certainly neoliberal economics has spread its influence, but just at the minute I’d say it’s waning, it’s rather waning. And if you look at the Middle East, for example, there’s no way that the governments that come into power as a result of these revolutions that are now going on in the Middle East are going to be bowing down to American pressure in the same way that the previous ones were. They may be friendly, they may be unfriendly, they may sometimes coincide with American policy, they may sometimes rebel against it, but they’re not going to be toeing the line in the way that they have in the past.

JAY: Well, if you look what’s happening in Egypt, so far, at least, we have military rule without Mubarak. We’ve yet to really see what this new Egypt’s going to look like. But there’s a lot of indications that the movement, the opposition movement, doesn’t have a clear vision to challenge the real economic power of the elite. So far the challenge has just been on the political side. Doesn’t this movement need a more coherent political force to really have the kind of social–more profound social transformation?

SCHELL: Well, that’s the thing about revolutions, isn’t it? You don’t know what they’re going to bring. It usually comes as a surprise. And often there are many stages in it. If you think of the French Revolution back in 1789, it went on for two or three years, and there was one wave after another. Or you think of the United States. We didn’t have the Constitutional Convention until five or six years after the revolution succeeded kicking out the British. So the jury is still out on that. But one thing that’s different: it’s not going to be the United States that decides. The Soviet Union, of course, is no more. It’s certainly not going to be the EU. It’s going to be the people there in Egypt. And that’s something new.

JAY: Now, in terms of a more radical rupture with the old system, is there evidence of a place where this took place peacefully and there was also a more radical rupture? If you look at South Africa–which, frankly, wasn’t all so peaceful; there was an armed force in the wings, although it didn’t come to a bloody battle in the end. But the South African situation suggests that there really wasn’t the radical rupture with who owned and what the economic system was.

SCHELL: That’s true. These revolutions did put aside the social and economic question. They achieved a kind of national independence, they achieved a certain amount of liberty and freedom, but they did not challenge the economic order. In fact, as you say, in South Africa the deal was we take the power and you take the money in a certain way. But I think there’s some sign, anyway, where–it’s too early to tell, but that the neoliberal order is a little bit shaky anyway after the crashes of 2008 and ’09. And already we see in Egypt labor protest that has been breaking out rather in the wake of the departure of Mubarak. So, once again, I think that there are signs that maybe times are ripe for a challenge to the neoliberal order. But that has not materialized yet, and we don’t know if that will happen.

JAY: But I guess the significance of what happened in Egypt and is continuing to happen across the Middle East is at least it creates a space to have a new kind of politics. Before now there wasn’t a space to do much of anything.

SCHELL: Well, exactly. And if you look at it in a somewhat longer sweep, what you really see is that the Soviet Union actually bowed out of history altogether, a great superpower of its time, and I think that this really marks a moment of–not quite on the same scale of comeuppance for the American imperial effort. I think maybe a better analogy would be the decline of the British Empire after the Second World War, a kind of overall waning of influence that didn’t involve actual overthrow of the government at home, but certainly marked the dissolution of imperial ambitions. I mean, if you think of the United States wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how irrelevant are they to anything that’s going on in the world today? They are just these sort of gigantic, brutal distractions, and the real action is taking place in Egypt and Tunisia, now in Libya, and maybe next in Saudi Arabia. In Bahrain it’s already occurring.

JAY: So what did you make of the Obama administration response to all this? I think it seemed to me it was pretty obvious they were hoping Mubarak would hang on, even though they’ve gotten kind of fed up with him, I think. But primarily the language has been stability, stability, stability. So stability with Mubarak, stability without Mubarak. Can the United States live with a populist, powerful democratic movement in the Middle East?

SCHELL: Well, they’re going to live with it, they’d better live with it, because it’s here, and there’s no way it’s going to be rolled back by the United States, which is simply powerless to choose an alternative. So they’ll just have to live with it.

JAY: Well, you can say they have to live with it, but right now the monarchies are still all in place. You know, Gaddafi’s tottering as we speak, in Libya, but they were never a big fan of his anyway. The military still have control of Egypt. The question is: will the US kind of live with some superficial reforms, but do what they can–. I mean, let me put it this way. If you really don’t want to live with it, you don’t finance and militarize these guys. That’s–we’re not likely see any change in that, are we?

SCHELL: Well, it depends on what the governments are; it depends on what governments eventually emerge out of this. I mean, this is revolutionary. This is revolution. This means new government. It means new people. It means new ideology. And we don’t know what that’s going to be yet. So the US response is going to depend on that. But what they will not be–and this much we do know, at least in the two countries that have already accomplished a revolution, namely Tunisia and Egypt–and mind you, that’s about a third of the Arab world right there, so–and kind of at the center of it all. So a great deal has actually happened, although we don’t know what the final outcome will be. But these are not going to be client states. They are not going to be under the indirect or direct control of Washington. Washington will have influence, of course, but it’s not going to be the way it was in the past, a kind of American hegemony through client states. I mean, we don’t know what’s going to happen now in Saudi Arabia, but really everything is up for grabs there, too. It may not be revolution. It may be reform. We don’t know yet.

JAY: Now, in terms of American response to this, public response, from the antiwar movement and such, we haven’t heard a heck of a lot of calls for the US to stop militarizing these regimes. You know, you get–it’s kind of commented on, but there isn’t–. You know, if you really want to help these Egyptian popular movements, you would stop sending teargas and guns that are being used against them.

SCHELL: Well, of course you would. But, again, this has happened–the government that–or the dictator to whom the United States was sending these weapons is now out of the picture. Now, admittedly it’s unclear exactly what shape and form of government will emerge. And you do have this real paradox here, which is, by the way, worth noting because the role of the Egyptian military was something absolutely singular in this history, which is that it didn’t really change sides and go over to the revolution or to the demonstrators, but what it did do was to refrain from violence. And this was very much welcomed by the movement. But the result is that now the movement is uneasily in bed with the military, and you have sort of two powers in the society: you have the people who actually made the change, who made the revolution on the one side, and you have the military on the other. And how those two are going to interact or agree on something is not at all clear.

JAY: Well, the demand for a real civilian government and a real transformation of the power of the Egyptian elite was the demand of most of the protesters. That’s still to be seen.

SCHELL: Well, that hasn’t happened, although, as I say, you know, there have been serious labor strikes that have erupted even after Mubarak left. And so the end of the story has not been written.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Jonathan.

SCHELL: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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We deeply regret the passing of Jonathan Schell. We will do
everything possible to keep his life long mission for peace and
disarmament a central part of TRNN coverage.

Jonathan joined the board of TRNN in 2005, he was at our very
first board meeting, smiling ear to ear. Since that day he never
missed an opportunity to stress the importance of our work.

As a journalist and anti-war activist he condemned conflicts
from Vietnam to Iraq and warned of a nuclear holocaust in
terrifying detail in his prize-winning book, The Fate of the
Earth (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).

He was a writer and journalist, Peace and Disarmament
Correspondent for The Nation magazine, a fellow at the Nation
Institute, visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, and a staff
writer at The New Yorker magazine from 1967 to 1987. He was a
native of NY.

Schell's companion, Irena Gross, reported that Schell died of
cancer on Tuesday at their home in New York City.

Here is a link to his work with TRNN:
The Real News

The Nation Magazine:
The Nation