It’s rare when it comes to news these days, but every once in awhile a story comes around that is genuinely encouraging with regards to the future of the human race. Yes, giant corporations and corrupt governments are funneling wealth into fewer and fewer hands while ignoring any impact their actions have on the environment or ordinary persons, but in some places all it takes to push back against this trend is a little sunlight.
WikiLeaks provided that sunlight in Tunisia’s case, turning what had been a more-or-less impotent protest movement into an all-out revolution that has succeeded (at least temporarily) in toppling the grotesquely corrupt government and sending the ruling Ben Ali family into exile in Saudi Arabia.
It began with a leaked June 2008 cable from a U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia which confirmed everything the anti-government protesters had been charging. Here are some excerpts:
Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants. Beyond the stories of the First Family’s shady dealings, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of government ministries. The economic impact is clear, with Tunisian investors — fearing the long-arm of "the Family" — forgoing new investments, keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high (Refs G, H).
Although corruption is hard to verify and even more difficult to quantify, our contacts all agree that the situation is headed in the wrong direction. When asked whether he thought corruption was better, worse, or the same, XXXXXXXXXXXX exclaimed in exasperation, "Of course it’s getting worse!"He stated that corruption could not but increase as the culprits looked for more and more opportunities. Joking about Tunisia’srising inflation, he said that even the cost of bribes was up. "A traffic stop used to cost you 20 dinars and now it’s up to 40 or 50!"
President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of "the Family" is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are reported to have made the most of their lineage.
The cables go on to describe how First Lady Leila Ben Ali built an International School with government funds and then sold it to Belgian investors, keeping all of the profits for her family. They also describe how Ben Ali’s nephews stole the yacht of a French businessman, how the financial sector is riddled with corruption and mismanagement, how nepotism plays the most important role in the awarding of jobs and academic scholarships, and so on.
Tunisians were already viscerally aware of the corruption problem, but the solid document-based confirmation of their suspicions apparently pushed them over the edge. When 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire, the kettle boiled over and the protests ignited into a full-fledged revolution, culminating with the toppling of the government and the exile of the Ben Ali family to Saudi Arabia.
Although the petty corruption rankles, it is the excesses of President Ben Ali’s family that inspire outrage among Tunisians. With Tunisians facing rising inflation and high unemployment, the conspicuous displays of wealth and persistent rumors of corruption have added fuel to the fire. The recent protests in the mining region of Gafsa provide a potent reminder of the discontent that remains largely beneath the surface. This government has based its legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, but a growing number of Tunisians believe those as the top are keeping the benefits for themselves.
Sound familiar? The government promises economic growth, but all of the benefits go to those at the very top while the quality of life of average citizens gets worse.
This is the story nearly everywhere in the world, including the United States, and this is why the ruling class is so terrified of WikiLeaks. Everyone already suspects that their government is corrupt but the documents that constitute proof of this corruption—as well as the details regarding who specifically is involved and to what extent—remain classified. The ruling class knows that the internet is a dangerous thing and information is becoming increasingly harder to keep secret. They look at sites like WikiLeaks and fear the day that their positions are put in jeopardy by the revelation of their secrets.
We tend to imagine—whether consciously or unconsciously—that things have always been about the same as they are during the short time periods in which we’ve been alive, and we also imagine that they will remain more or less the same in the future. But occasionally new technology arises which shatters the very foundations of existing institutions and leaves a vastly different world in place of the old one.
The printing press broke the centuries-old stranglehold that priests held over spirituality by giving people a chance to read the Sacred Texts themselves and draw their own conclusions, and allowing concepts such as the “rights of man” to be widely disseminated eventually led to the toppling of the old monarchies and replacement by democracies. This took place over a period of many centuries and it can be argued that the transformation is not yet complete.
The internet has the power to disseminate information across the entire world at the speed of light, and there can be no doubt that it has already vastly transformed our way of life in the developed world. But we often forget that it’s actually just a baby on the world stage. It’s only been around for a couple of decades, and most people alive today—myself included—remember a time before internet access was a taken-for-granted aspect of life.
Is the revolution in Tunisia just the tip of the iceberg? I had the same thoughts about the Green Revolution in Iran back in 2009, although that revolution did not succeed. In both cases, online communication technology like Twitter greatly aided the ability of the people to organize and carry out their protests, though the Iranian government was better able to put a lid on it than the Tunisians.
In the next century, the ruling elites around the world are going to be doing everything they can to bring the internet under their control, but the hope is that things like WikiLeaks and Twitter can’t be controlled and that just as the printing press eventually brought about the end of rule by kings and queens, the internet will bring about the end of the shadow rule of corporations and super-wealthy families. Just as the printing press spread the ideals of human rights and self-determination throughout the human consciousness, the hope is that the internet will do the same for ideals such as economic fairness and environmental sustainability.
I would like to do everything I can to help bring about this transformation, so from now on I will conclude all of my posts with an invitation to visit my website, Revolution Earth, where people can come to discuss issues of significance to humanity’s long-term future. One of the things we must do is figure out how to make sure the internet remains free and out of the hands of the corrupt ruling powers, so that revolutions like the one in Tunisia can keep happening.
The site isn’t much right now, but the hope is that it will eventually grow to become a place where people from all over the world can meet to share ideas and gradually cultivate a common vision for a peaceful, just, and sustainable global model of civilization. Starting in February, I will begin to introduce a “topic of the month” for people to discuss, and the first will be the ideal structure of government. Whenever a system is toppled through revolution, something new must be put in its place. If the internet is to bring about a worldwide revolution in the next century, we should start thinking about what that new world should look like.