Posted on | december 16, 2011 | No Comments

In 2011, there were thousands of stories that had an impact in people’s lives. Some news stories were of national interest (to the US, Venezuela, etc.), but they did not have much significance beyond the nation or region. I have decided on ten stories that I believe either had a far reaching global impact in so far as they manifested something profound about institutions, or they signified a change in society and directly or indirectly impacted or may impact the lives of millions of people around the world. 

1. Arab Spring:
‘Arab Spring’ or the ‘Awakening’ actually started in mid-December 2010 and continued throughout 2011, marking a turning point in the history of North African and Middle East. Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, the Gulf states, Syria and even Israel were swept up by this momentous grassroots movement against regimes that were blatantly corrupt, authoritarian, or at the very least unresponsive to the needs of the broader masses of people who demanded systemic institutional change, a new social contract that is truly democratic in essence not just in empty rhetoric.

Overwhelmingly driven by the chronic gap between rich and poor and the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, Arab Spring caught the world’s imagination. Many in the West believed that it meant ‘democratization’ Western style (free enterprise and multinationals corporations reigning supreme), although in essence Islamic supporters were among the most significant force behind the insurgency. Owing to US and Western rhetorical support for some of the movements, direct military intervention in Libya to remove the old regime led by colonel Gaddhafi, and covert support to rebels in Syria, Arab Spring was not without the aroma of Western imperialism concealed behind the veneer of promises of democracy.

Although the future of the countries engaged in the uprisings appears to be helping the Islamic elements vying for power, no regime will be able to survive for very long without subjecting itself to an integration model that the wealthy countries, especially the West, would impose on Islamic nations. In short, Arab Spring is highly unlikely to result in the fulfillment of the rebels’ goals of popular sovereignty, and very likely that regimes similar to those overthrown will emerge. To the degree that the local elites and the West fear that popular democracy constitutes an obstacle to economic and geopolitical influence, Arab Spring represented the most significant development since decolonization.

2. Scandals of Powerful Men:
2011 was no different than previous years in terms of mega scandals involving powerful men from around the world, men whose policies impacted millions of people, or who represented the decadence and corruption of concentrated power in otherwise democratic societies. One of the most fascinating cases involved Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. He started the year as relatively popular prime minister and ended up forced out in disgrace, not because of his indiscreet taste for young models and other teenagers, but because he failed to adopt austerity measures that Germany and France demanded.

Under the watch of the infamous “Il Cavaliere”, Italy followed the road of accumulating massive public debt, forced to accept unprecedented austerity, and a technocrat government. As an oligarch who enjoyed both political and economic power, and whose lifestyle was tabloid material, Berlusconi along with French Socialist politicians and former International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing Director Dominique Strauss-Khan represented the decadence and corruption of the excesses in today’s political economy, decadence that is at least in part responsible for the gap between the oligarchs that rule democratic societies.

A symbol of global power and influence, Dominique Strauss-Khan was expected to be the French Socialist Party’s candidate for president when the sex scandal erupted and he found himself in entangled with the American justice system. One significant aspect of the scandal was the rumor mill about conspiracy theories, while another was that DSK represented the essence of the depth to which politics, including Socialist politics, had sunk. A symbol of wealth, political power and global influence through the IMF, DSK, like Berlusconi, was the embodiment of contemporary culture of the rich. While the DSK scandal was a matter of a single person and his tastes, because that person was IMF chief and presumed candidate to head France’s Socialist Party, the scandal had the aroma of the duplicity embedded in bourgeois politics and finance capitalism.

On 8 December 2011, John Corzine, former senator and Governor of New Jersey, and former Goldman Sachs and MF Global Holdings CEO, claimed that he had no idea of the whereabouts of $1.2 billion investor money that MF is ‘missing’. Corzine told the House Agriculture Committee that he was surprised to learned that the money was missing, and owing to poor memory, he cannot recollect specifics of circumstances surrounding the missing money.

He admitted lobbying the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), headed by a Corzine colleague from Goldman Sachs, but in his defense, he noted that he was not the only one lobbying CFTC! While the US has seen many such cases, especially from the Reagan era forward, the Corzine case is one that clearly demonstrates that financial corruption in inexorably linked to political corruption, at a time that the US and European governments have been asking ordinary citizens to continue paying for the duration for the crisis that finance capitalism created.

3. Japan Earthquake-Tsunami and Fukushima disaster:
 In March, the natural disaster was a tragedy that could not be prevented, but it caused another even more serious crisis in Japan with the nuclear power plants that were old, loosely regulated and lacked the appropriate safeguards to protect the local population. Among the first to be blamed for the accident were the Japanese government and the IAEA for failing to do a good job at sounding the alarm for aging nuclear plants, and the companies that built and operated the nuclear plants.

While the earthquake-tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster sounded the alarm about nuclear power throughout the world, a number of governments declared that they would proceed with their plans for cheap and clean nuclear energy, while others like Germany and Switzerland, Sweden, Venezuela,  and Italy admitted that the time had come to rethink nuclear power.

Other governments from Australia and Taiwan to Holland, Canada, and Chile stated that they would need more safeguards and more rigid regulation for nuclear power plants. Like the Chernobyl disaster, Fukushima’s legacy worked as a reminder to the world on the need for investment in safer energy sources of the future, energizing the ‘green’ and anti-nuclear advocates as well as those that have argued in favor of restructuring the IAEA so that it can do a better job as a watchdog, instead of having inordinate influences from the nuclear industry. 

4. Greece and the Eurozone debt crisis:
In 2010, Greece was the trigger that set off an explosion across Europe by the end of 2011. Never was Greece as much in world news headlines as it has been in the past year, largely because it represents everything gone wrong with finance capitalism and the corrupt and parasitic credit economic system that had been supported by a welfare state transitioning from social to corporate welfare.

Under IMF-EU austerity policies, Greece began sinking deeper into debt, requiring more massive bailout loans, enduring more socioeconomic hardships, and becoming a greater burden on European taxpayers. A somewhat similar scenario exists in Portugal and Ireland. When it became apparent that Italy, one of the G-7 and Eurozone’s third largest economy, was following the ‘Greek path’, and signs indicated even France was right behind Italy, it was apparent that the Greek crisis was in fact an EU crisis of confidence in the credit economy. 

Led by Germany, in November the EU decided that the road out of crisis is fiscal discipline, a recipe that will most definitely help strengthen the wavering euro and the strongest eurozone members with surpluses, while leaving behind the rest of Europe. In a desperate move to protect the large banks in the core countries and the euro’s value, Germany prevailed on the rest of the eurozone members to accept a fiscal solution, namely centralization, to a problem that can be solved by a liberal monetary policy and Keynesian stimulative measures. The result of the German ‘fiscal fix’ was continued loss of the euro’s value, continued alarms about EU members credit downgrading, and continued forecasts of a deepening recession in 2012, with the result of a much weaker and more rebellious  middle class.The evolution of the EU debt crisis and its handling by governments will determine the course of the world economy in 2012.
5. Grass roots mass movements: from US to Europe:
I think that TIME magazine chose “The Protester” appropriately as person of the year, but not an individual protester, not a Tunisian, not a Muslim, not an African, European, American or Russian; rather a protester from the neighborhood of any major European, American, Middle Eastern-North African, or Russia city. 2011 was the year of the protested from the neighborhood and from across the entire world.

Spain kicked off the mass grass roots protest movement in the spring, but it spread to the rest of Europe, to the US, Israel and Russia, after Vladimir Putin’s narrow presidential victory that a segment of the population deemed fraudulent. Political, economic, and social conditions deteriorate for the majority in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, and Italy, and to a lesser extent the rest of Europe, US, Russia and Israel.

All of these movements are against concentrated economic and political power, and all aspire to some type of pro-democracy regime and institutions designed to serve all of the people and not merely the top ten percent. Given that the political parties (center, center-left and conservative) have not heeded the cries of the indignant middle classes and workers, how long will it be before the mass protest movement is converted into a mass uprising?

Rather than dying off, the grassroots protests movements gained strength in 2011, and they are likely to become much more significant when conditions deteriorate for the middle class and workers in 2012. In the last analysis, two decades after the fall of Communism grassroots movements represent that a segment of the population is apparently convinced that bourgeois democracy under neoliberal policies serves a very small segment of society.

6. Emerging Asian Global Hegemony and Regional Pacific Blocs
As China emerged he world’s second largest economy, and India proved to have enormous economic growth  potential, 2011 was the year for regional bloc consolidation. In July, Russia introduced a regional integration plan, forming potentially the world’s largest free trade zone that would extend from China to EU. Russia formed a customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus and inviting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to join among others.

In early December, 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries signed an agreement creating the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, (CELAC). Intended as a regional economic bloc, the goal is to exclude the U.S. and Canada that have historically dominated Latin America. As champion of this new regional bloc, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez argued that: “We’re laying the foundation stone for integration. Only unity will make us free.” While the dream of greater independence may bring romantic images of Simon Bolivar in the minds of Latin Americans, the reality is that Brazil is expected to continue its race toward economic stardom in 2012, leaving behind most of the republics, some of which can hardly afford to keep Canadian and US investment, thus political influence, away as Chavez wishes.

Under Franco-German leadership, the EU became a much tighter regional bloc through fiscal centralization, while the US reached out to consolidate its position in the Asia-Pacific region. In November, President Obama took advantage of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, sending a strong signal to China that the US would not surrender the broader Asia Pacific region to China.  Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam joined the US, with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda expressing an interest, but unlikely to join under the terms that the US has imposed. America’s future rests in the Asia Pacific region, given the troubles of Europe and its limited growth prospects, as well as the problems in the Middle East that has been providing the US with oil for almost a century.

The US is trying to make sure that it retains a solid trade bloc from which both China and EU would have less competitive advantage. At this stage, the Trans-Pacific Partnership may appear to be more symbolic than real, given that it represents a mere 6% of US total trade. However, the new bloc has enormous potential as a free trade zone that could eventually integrate up to two dozen countries of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. But the potential of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is immense. Regional blocs are reminiscent of pre-1945 world division of power; some analysts argue pre-1914, others interwar. Global competition is becoming so intense against the background of shifting economic balances of power from the West to Asia that we will continue to see the consolidation of blocs in the next ten years.

7.  Massacre: January 2011, Tuscon, Arizona; July 2011, Utoya, Norway:
There were numerous mass killings in a number of countries in 2011. The most significant in terms of the mode of operation and political goals were those in Tuscon, Arizona in January and Norway in July. Although in both cases the individuals were mentally disturbed, the motives were political and the influences on the murderers came from extreme right wing ideologies.

The attack on Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and six other victims falling to gunfire by a disturbed young man appeared like a ‘TAXI-DRIVER’ (motion picture) type episode. It is true that TEA PARTY Republicans raising extremist rhetoric to the level of encouraging half-crazed individuals to commit political crimes cannot be held responsible for the Tuscon massacre. On the other hand, the polarizing rhetoric by the Tea Party elements was a contributing element to the incident. Psychiatrists may conclude that Jared Lee Loughnern would have committed the exact same crime even if the Tea Party never existed. However, it does exist and its polarizing extremist rhetoric does have an affect on the minds of all kinds of people, from the average non-political person to the insane.

The tragedy in Norway took place on 22 July 2011. It left 69 people dead and 66 wounded, most of them young. Like the Tuscon massacre, the one in Norway was also politically-motivated, revealing a disturbing trend across Europe that is a sign of rising ultra right-wing activity according to authorities. Anders Behring Breivik, responsible for the mass murders, is deemed mentally disturbed as was expected. He had targeted the Labor Party government and was out to cleanse Noway of non-Viking elements. As early as 2002, Anders and other far-right individuals attended a London meeting where they discussed a xenophobic agenda, especially targeting Muslims. Breivik was apparently one of the founding members of the Knights Templar, a group named after a Medieval Christian crusading order that set out to conquer the Holy Land.

In Norway, the impact of the massacre on society was one of greater unity, sharp rise in youth political involvement and a number of stores removing from their shelves material that was related to martial arts and war games. By contrast, in the US the media tried its best to argue that the Tuscon massacre was the work of a disturbed individual, while the rest of society was fine and no action was needed. In short, Norway tried to heal the wounds of society by coming together, resorting to collectivist approach and taking measures to lessen the commercialization of martial arts and war games, while in the US nothing happened because there is an assumption that the polarizing political climate and culture of violence does not breed violence, but the individual does.

8. Famine in the Horn of Africa:
Famine in Africa, especially owing to drought in East Africa, is not a new story. However,beginning in July, a severe drought caused a major food crisis in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. In July, the UN intervened when it was too late and people were starving of famine and disease, while the rest of the world watched,partly because East Africa is an area know for piracy, terrorist activity, civil strife, and political corruption.

Although climate change and lack of water conservation are the main culprits of the famine that is continuing and expected to subside at some point in 2012, the underlying problem and solution is political to the crisis that resulted in a refugee population of about one million people. The US is primarily interested in East Africa as an area to fight terrorism, while Europeans are interested in fighting piracy that is costing an estimate $22 billion to the global economy. Warlords in Somalia will fight for any side, including CIA, as long as the payment is sufficient, while hundreds of thousands are dying of disease and starvation.

The African Development Bank and IMF in cooperation with US and EU have been promoting water privatization in Africa. Water ownership by large foreign corporations means that 400 million Africans without access to drinking water are victims or potential victims in a continent that has large water availability, but lacks continental-wide coordination and management. Water development in Africa is a salient factor to chronic famine, but not as long as IMF, World Bank and Western governments impose privatization schemes intended to enrich multinational corporations that own water supply and distribution. In the absence of cooperation between African governments on water development issues, and in the absence of foreign aid for water development projects designed to sustain the growing population, water-related conflict is inevitable.

9. ARTS – The Social Failure curated by Bjarne Melgaard.
Of the countless glamor stories about movie stars, singers, models and celebrity rich people, the most intriguing art story that caught my attention is one about an art exhibit that has a very important social message. In the past two decades or so, there has been global awareness of AIDS, especially in the domain of prevention, and in that respect artists from singers and actors to painters and writers have helped to deliver the message.

While there are organizations such as “Art for AIDS”, “Queer Arts Resource”, “Make Art Stop AIDS”, and others, in 2011 the Office for Contemporary Art Norway organized a program entitled “Beyond Death: Viral Discontents and Contemporary Notions about AIDS”. As part of the 54th International Art Exhibition at La Biennale di Venezia, the course by curator Bjarne Melgaard included a showing depicting pleasure, plain, and “the failures of heterosexuality”. Melgaard’s work has attracted a great deal of international attention in various art circles around the world, as it stands to remind people in conventional mode of thinking about this disease that the manner that mainstream society reacted to it has been a failure of humanity.

10. Science – Cloning and Stem Cells:
In 2011, the discovery of distant planets that could sustain human life is very exciting indeed to remind geocentrically conditioned humans of the endless possibilities in the universe. It is equally equally exciting to learn that CERN’s search for the “God particle” (Higgs boson) may change physics as we know it, but not people’s daily lives. However, a more practical development with enormous benefit to human beings in the future is the Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT).

A process responsible for cloning animals, SCNT could be used for therapeutic purposes – curing Parkinson’s Disease for example. While SCNT has and will raise ethical controversy similar to stem cell research, everything from creating a human egg market to cloning humans, for now the hope is that SCNT holds the promise for more practical therapeutic applications. In 2022, the Bush administration cut off all funding for SCNT research, and a year later the UN adopted Costa Rica’s proposal to have all member states prohibit human cloning. The potential for enormous benefit to society because of CSNT ‘therapeutic cloning’, may not be enough for governments to support this new field, unless pharmaceutical companies are behind it because they see the potential for enormous profits.

AUTHOR: Jon Kofas
E-MAIL: jonkofas [at]


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