Events can act often as an illuminating light. Predictions, warnings and expert forecasts of which no one took much notice suddenly become obvious to everyone.
This is precisely what has happened as the result of the great fuel-tax rebellions that have been sweeping Western Europe and which in recent days almost brought the British economy to a standstill.
Before this extraordinary event occurred, the idea that a handful of unknown protesters could paralyze an entire society by striking at one of its most vulnerable points seemed like something out of science fiction or a paperback thriller.
There have been tax revolts before. Everyone has heard of the Boston Tea Party and its momentous consequences. And trade union-organized strikes by the coal miners, transport workers and dockworkers were a familiar and predictable misery in Britain back in the 1960s and ’70s.
But this time, as the stocks of gasoline ran out and the nation came to a standstill, there were no warnings and no identifiable strike leaders with whom to parley.
Leading commentators and expert analysts admit that they are thoroughly baffled by the whole episode, while even more unusually, government ministers have frankly conceded that they were totally surprised by the suddenness of events which no one warned them were coming and whose organizers no one could name. This sort of crisis was not supposed to happen.
Yet happen it did, with a speed and nationwide coordination that left officials gasping and the Blair government reeling.
But should there have been such surprise? From the onset of the information-technology revolution it has been obvious that power is being placed in new hands and that it is being used, and will continue to be used, with increasing frequency. Expert after expert has been forecasting for years that once citizens became empowered by the Internet, the e-mail system and the mobile phone, a new era of turbo-charged direct action would begin, leaving no government as secure as before.
Now that this is actually happening, the politicians and the governing classes are waking with a jerk and becoming thoroughly alarmed. And they have good reason to be.
There is now glaring evidence that not just within separate nations, but at global levels as well, a new species of high-tech mass protest has developed. International governmental gatherings, such as the IMF/World Bank gathering in Prague, now have to be organized under siege conditions. Ministerial meetings of European Union ministers have to run for cover and find secret locations to avoid spontaneous street pressures that seem to spring from nowhere. The lessons of Seattle, Washington, Davos, the City of London and a dozen other well-organized protests are beginning to sink in.
These are not just one-off affairs, orchestrated by the usual mob organizers who used to be behind every student demonstration. They bring together amazingly disparate groups and interests with e-enabled speed and unparalleled efficiency. Crowds can now be mobilized with military precision mouthing identical slogans in 10 different capital cities on the same morning. The age of network politics has arrived, and it is presenting a direct challenge to traditional forms of government and systems of authority.
The prospect now opens up of an unending series of campaigns, crusades, copycat protests, spontaneous demonstrations and marches, spreading far across national boundaries and obeying no local laws.
To brand these phenomena Poujadist, neofascist or just plain Luddite, as some bewildered British government leaders have been doing, badly misses the point.
Immediate, cheap and easy access for millions of individuals to an interactive and worldwide network of information and communication has turned the tables on traditional hierarchies of authority. It has created a more powerful tool of influence, for more people, than ever before in history.
Whether it is tax protests, road protests, farmers’ or fishermen’s protests, antiplanning demos, the more massive alliances of rural interests that have now formed in Britain or even the rise of new forms of tribal or mini-nationalist crusades, the scene has been transformed and turbocharged by the now ubiquitous mobile telephone, the Internet and the vast mosaic of Web communities to which the Net has given multiple birth.
What this means is that the business of governing has changed radically, and so have the tools of the business and the language in which it has to be conducted. Government leaders who have failed to notice this now risk a serious impairment of their authority and legitimacy — a fate that directly threatens the Blair administration.
In short, the information revolution is imposing a new kind of democracy. No conventional organization, whether it be a national administration, a large corporation, a supranational body or any other center of hierarchical authority, is immune from the consequences. The more far-sighted leaders of business have long since realized this, but have the politicians?
The major political challenge — although it does not yet seem to be everywhere understood — is to reassemble the processes of governance in a different pattern so as to perform new duties and tasks. A new social glue now has to be found — strong enough to provide identity, engender respect and loyalty and resist civic disorder and yet pliable enough to survive conditions of almost terrifying fluidity and change.
How is this to be done? Clearly not by imposing higher taxes, whether direct or indirect, or by grand announcements of lavish public-expenditure plans. These impress the public less and less. Japan has already provided a vivid example of the hollowness of this approach and it looks as though Britain is about to provide another.
To maintain control of a network society that no longer responds or respects central authority, a modern administration will have to use more subtle skills and techniques.
The task of governing has now to become far more modest and circuitous. Political leaders will have to change their vocabulary. They will have to learn to speak more like servants, and less like arrogant celebrities.
Above all, if the information revolution is to be an instrument of unity rather than anarchy, rulers round the world will need to demonstrate their understanding of the fact that heavy centralism, uniformity and strict hierarchy are no longer the key requirements for an ordered and prosperous society. In an age of interactivity and networks, authority will have to earn respect and loyalty in new, and as yet unfamiliar, ways.
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