The uprising in Tunisia is at once a response to systemic inequity and injustice and an expression of the limits of elite control. But to the economic and political ingredients of the revolt must be added the potent if less evident one of global environmental crisis.
Across north Africa and the middle east, ruling elites watch the popular insurrection in Tunisia with concern and even fear. There are already some indications that the uprising there is emboldening oppositions elsewhere, not least in Egypt and Algeria.
The talk of a domino effect aided by the internet and social media may be premature, in part because these tools are far less widespread in much larger and poorer Egypt. More significant in any case has been the broadcaster Al-Jazeera's massive coverage of Tunisian issues.
This is partly because some elites are already starting to limit and even co-opt opposition: often with more cautious public-order control than the Tunisian regime showed, but also by accepting the need to ease the more severe economic problems such as rising food prices. Such moves may not prevent an upheaval in Egypt - the country to watch - but it is still enlightening to see the upheaval in Tunisia in a far wider context.
A global dimension
In matters of world economy, the first five years of the 21st century saw widespread growth: steady in most countries, rapid in the largest emerging economies (notably China and India). Even at the height of the Iraq war and (at that time) the low-level Afghan conflict, western analysts could here find some consolation.
That changed dramatically in 2007-08 with the United States’s sub-prime crisis. The unravelling of the system of multi-billion-dollar collateralised debt obligations - often complex bundles of credit-default swops - soon threatened some of the world's largest financial institutions. Massive government bailouts in western Europe and the US averted collapse, but many countries will be paying the price for years to come.
The ensuing economic stringency has provoked strong public opposition in many countries, including mass demonstrations and some street violence. These trends are likely to be further stimulated by the current round of salary and bonus hikes by some of the biggest financial institutions. Goldman Sachs, for example, paid its 6,000 staff an average of just under $500,000 in 2010; and it has removed the bonus “cap” of $1.6 million for each of its 500 leading staff. All this at a time of rising unemployment across western economies.
True, there is evidence from the growth of vibrant Asian economies and other regions that the world economy as a whole remains on course, with further expansion anticipated. China reports an extraordinary 10.3% increase in GDP for 2010 and India continues to grow apace.
A deeper view offers a different picture, however. A theme of this series of columns is that rapid growth in India is matched by deep inequalities whose fruits include a resurgence of the neo-Maoist Naxalite insurgency, which now affects around half India's states (see "India's 21st-century war", 5 November 2009).
In China, too, rapid growth also intensifies widening divisions. By the start of 2010, the richest 10% of the Chinese population controlled 45% of the wealth and the poorest had just 1.4%: a wealth-poverty ratio of 31:1. This is leading to rising social tensions - including frequent strikes, demonstrations and riots - which are now regarded by elements in the Chinese leadership as the worst problem facing the country (see Mitch Moxley, “As Poverty and Privilege Clash, Social Tensions Rise in China”, TerraViva/IPS, 14 December 2010).
What is happening on a world scale is that economic growth is being accompanied by a deepening socio-economic divide (see "China and India: heartlands of global protest", 7 August 2008). The financial problems of the last three years have not resulted in even the most limited improvements in financial regulation. Instead it is business as usual, with what amounts to a double elite emerging (see "Inequality: The rich and the rest", Economist, 20 January 2011).
Across the world, around 1.5 billion people out of a world population of almost 7 billion are doing well, but at the expense of the rest who are seeing very little improvement in their standards of living (see Foresight, Global Food and Farming Futures, 24 January 2011). Within that large and comfortable elite there is a super-elite where the levels of wealth are grotesque, and this last group is the focus of most of the anger (see “A world in breakdown”, 13 January 2011).
The relevance of Tunisia to this larger picture is that the uprising has come from a complex mix of economic problems involving food-price rises and high unemployment together with a hatred of an autocratic and plutocratic regime that has exercised violent control of public order for decades. The key question is whether this is a significant marker for likely future events, as a different phenomenon such as the Naxalites in India have proved to be (see "A world on the margin", 20 May 2010).
Tunisia may be significant because it is one of a cluster of countries that combine elitist regimes with rapid population growth and economic stagnation. This shared experience helps explain the emergence of further unrest across the region - and state attempts to prevent, deflect, and mollify it. In this delicate moment, most governments may calculate that - even though divisions will likely widen further in the next decade - they can maintain control.
Where this assessment begins to come apart is that the world community is facing not just a dangerous socio-economic divide, but profound environmental constraints as well. The most potent of these is climate change, though the impact of peak oil may not be far behind.
An interlocking reality
A core implication of this is that building a more emancipated and stable world community involves both an economic transition to a fairer financial system and ensuring that the system is ecologically sustainable. In consequence there is a need to avoid Tunisia (and comparable events) being seen exclusively as a political-economic issue, in isolation from environmental constraints. The temptation to explore the latter in a separate context is exemplified by the ongoing tropical “land grab” by richer economies (see Stephen Leahy, “In Corrupt Global Food System, Farmland is the New Gold”, TerraViva/IPS, 14 January 2011).
In reality, they are both part of the same process and in the long term have to be seen as such. The Tunisian turmoil is one example of a response to inequity and violent control, but it is a more fundamental indication of a failure of one particular power elite to maintain its power (see Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control [Routledge, 2007]).
On present trends, as the combination of a divided and constrained world becomes more intense, that loss of control will become much more evident. This makes it even more essential to look for alternatives while there is still time.