After the financial crash of 2008, the politicians saved the banks. But they did practically nothing about the massive corruption that was revealed in its wake. And the reason they gave was that it might destabilise the system. Public anger burst out. The Occupy movement took over Wall Street and then the Senate in Washington.
What drove the Occupy movement was the original dream of the internet that people like John Perry Barlow had outlined in the early 1990s. In his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, Barlow had described a new world free of politics and the old hierarchies of power. A space where people connected together as equals in a network and built a new society without leaders.
Now, the Occupy movement set out to build that kind of society in the real world. The camps were to be the models. All the meetings used the idea of the human microphone. People throughout the crowd repeated a speaker’s words so everyone could hear them. But, if someone wanted to challenge the speaker, the human amplifiers also had to repeat their words so their voice had equal power.
Each person was an autonomous individual who expressed what they believed. But together they became components in a network that organised itself through the feedback of information around the system. You could organise people without the exercise of power.
Then, almost immediately, the Arab Spring began. The first revolution started in Tunisia, but it quickly spread to Egypt. On January the 25th 2011, thousands of Egyptians came out in groups across Cairo and then started moving towards Tahrir Square. It seemed like a spontaneous uprising but the internet had played a key role in organising the groups.
One of the main activists was an Egyptian computer engineer called Wael Ghonim. He worked for Google in Egypt, but he had also set up the Facebook site that played the key role in organizing the first protests.
Many liberals in the West saw this as proof of the revolutionary power of the internet. Again, it seemed to be able to organise a revolution without leaders. A revolution powerful enough to topple a brutal dictator who had been backed by America and the West for 30 years. But the internet radicals were not the only ones who saw their dreams being fulfilled in the Arab Spring. Many of the political leaders of the West also enthusiastically supported the revolutions because it seemed to fit with their simple idea of regime change. It might have failed in Iraq but now the people, everywhere, were rising up to rid themselves of the evil tyrants. And democracy would flourish.
So when an uprising began in Libya, Britain, France and America supported it. And suddenly, Colonel Gaddafi stopped being a hero of the West. All the politicians, and the public relations people, and the academics who had all promoted him as a global thinker suddenly disappeared. And Gaddafi became yet again an evil dictator who had to be overthrown.
But instead of becoming a democracy, Libya began to descend into chaos. And the other revolutions were also failing. The Occupy camps had become trapped in endless meetings. And it became clear that there was a terrible confusion at the heart of the movement. The radicals had believed that if they could create a new way of organising people then a new society would emerge. But what they did not have was a picture of what that society would be like, a vision of the future. The truth was that their revolution was not about an idea. It was about how you manage things. And those who had started the revolution in Egypt came face-to-face with the same terrible fact.