“The revolution will not be televised,” rapped African-American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron in 1971. “The revolution was televised,” boasted North African youths in 2011 after the Arab Spring revolts were driven on by coverage from Al Jazeera and other international networks. Of course, social networks played their part too. “The revolution was tweeted,” some might claim.
Although the media may be different, not much has actually changed in the 40 years since Scott-Heron, who died on Friday, left an indelible mark on popular music and popular conscience. In fact, the themes that Scott-Heron touched on in his song are just as relevant today: callous capitalism feeding the discontent of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Four decades on, it remains one of the most dominant threats to our democracies and societies.
It’s actually sobering to look at how many of the themes that Scott-Heron addressed, mostly in the 70s and 80s, are still ills we have not cured, or in many cases have allowed to become worse. There is the issue of unemployment (“Pieces of a Man”), social dislocation and prejudice (“Home Is Where the Hatred Is”), addiction (“The Bottle” and “Angel Dust”), corruption in public life (“H2OGate Blues”), the futile search for saviors (“Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman”), economic policies that fail to provide prosperity and security for all (“Winter in America”), the dangers posed by nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit” and “Shut ‘em Down”) and the lack of proper political representation in developed democracies (“B Movie”). The list could go on.
It is an indictment of our societies, our economic systems, our democracies and us as people that while we have achieved some significant advances, we’ve failed to tend to a worrying number of open wounds.
The result is discontent and growing restlessness. In such cases, the first who usually taste people’s disaffection are politicians, as Greece’s MPs discovered on Tuesday night when they were barracked and harassed as they attempted to leave Parliament. Whether it’s that incident at Parliament’s side entrance or the social media-driven peaceful and persistent protests being held in front of the House every night by the so-called Indignant, it’s clear that exasperation is growing in Greece.
Parliament Speaker Filippos Petsalnikos warned, “History has shown that a climate of across-the-board rejection of parliamentary democracy has had tragic consequences wherever it has been expressed.” He may be right but history has also shown that when a political class becomes so detached from the people it’s meant to represent, it loses both the ability and moral authority to govern, especially in a country like Greece where the rot of the political system has wormed its way through the public sector, the structure on which the country is supposed to operate. French historian Hippolyte Taine traced in 1896 the roots of the French Revolution to this dislocation between rulers and citizens. The premise remains the same more than a century later.
The North African revolts were to a large extent evidence of this phenomenon. They were movements aimed at bringing down dictatorships that had reached their expiration date. Fortunately, Europeans live in democracies, albeit stuttering ones. The change that many people in Europe are seeking is of a subtler kind. They want to keep their democratic political systems but they want parties and politicians that truly represent their hopes. They want a chance at economic prosperity and a decent quality of life but they don’t want the unbridled crony capitalism to erode fairness and morality. They want a “social Europe” that looks after you when you’re in need but they don’t want to be saddled with debt for generations to come. They want a good standard of healthcare and education but don’t want their governments to have policy dictated to them by the markets from which they borrow.
These are the conundrums Greeks and other Europeans face. Lashing out will not solve them, nor will indifference. Finding a constructive medium is going to be a huge challenge. The protesters in the squares of Greece, Spain, Portugal and other countries have yet to find an effective way to channel this frustration. But they have taken the first step, which is to realize that the problem is serious enough to warrant action from each and every one of them.
At some point, though, the derision of politicians will have to stop and people will have to ask themselves what they can do to remold the political, economic and social system. “If you’re not going to work, if you’re not going to help, do not complain about what ain’t happening,” Scott-Heron said in a documentary filmed last year.
He was absolutely right. We are here because we have been on autopilot for too long. Just-in-time protests and Facebook campaigns are not going to fix this on their own. And, only blaming politicians means voters will never take ownership of the problem. Reflection, generation of new ideas and full-time participation in our democracies is the only answer. But before this can happen, there needs to be an awakening at an individual level. Scott-Heron was correct about something else: The revolution will not be televised; it will be internalized.