On the 31 October 1958, a celebrated intellectual delivered a speech in Oxford called "The Two Concepts of Liberty" and it has defined our view of freedom ever since.
Isaiah Berlin characterised two separate definitions of liberty; negative and positive. Berlin argued that negative liberty was the freedom to do anything concerning an individual's own life to pursue happiness, as long as it did not infringe upon the liberty as others. He saw this as far safer then positive liberty, the freedom to act to radically improve society. He preferred negative liberty, believing that the latter always involved deceiving the masses because society would never agree on how to collectively improve in a radical way. Ever since then the western world has embraced negative liberty. Liberty was widely interpreted as the freedom to do anything to make oneself better off. For years, our politicians became less ideological and we began to use consumerism to express ourselves. At the same time, the Arab world stayed within the confines of positive liberty, where a small group of people made decisions for the good of the public. However, in the last 18 months, people in both worlds have simultaneously rebelled against the status quo.
In many ways, the year 2011 was the perfect storm. On an international level, financial uncertainty, mass youth unemployment and the ascent of broadband made insurrection more contagious and effective then any time in history. Globally, young, disenfranchised people set out to change the world around them and achieved remarkable results in doing so. In the Arab world, long-standing dictatorships crumbled while in the US and Europe, the political debate has been dramatically shifted in the long overlooked direction of wealth disparity.
It is for these reasons that 'the protestor' won the Time magazine person of the year award. As the celebrated protestors head into 2012 they will be faced with the question of what to do with the influence they have gained. The problem is that, while the world's new-found interconnectivity combined with near-universal disillusion makes organising and staging demonstrations against the status quo a quick and easy exercise, they offer no way of finding a new political consensus.
It should be said that there is a big difference between protesting an idea and proposing an idea and that the former does not require the latter to be valid. To protest is simply to express disapproval and objection, in the same way that you wouldn't need to have a pilot's licence to complain if your transatlantic flight crashed into the Icelandic countryside. The demonstrations all over the world are made up of people who are, foremost, against economic inequality and undemocratic systems of power; they are not obligated to collectively be in favour of anything. However, in terms of progress, this is a double-edged sword because 'the protestor' does not really exist because there is no sole set of beliefs among the individual demonstrators in any of the movements anywhere in the world; be it Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park. So far this has been a strength that has given exposure to the aims and ambitions of the protesters, unobscured by any one personality.
As we move into 2012 we are moving further into a very strange period in which we have lost confidence in the ideas of free-market economics but can think of nothing to replace it with. As Mark Fisher writes in his book Capitalist Realism; "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism". The politicians seem to have no new ideas, so it seems that if a group of protesters did have a better idea then now would be the best possible time to promote it.
It has been a long time since so many people in so many places have felt so universally dissatisfied. Much of the world is lacking stability, confidence and direction so if a positive movement were to start in the West - and by positive I mean in favour of something instead of simply being against the status quo - now would probably be the perfect time to start it. Even at the risk of undermining and dividing the insurrections of 2011. Concurrently protesters in the Arab world have a chance to propose a fresh system of government on behalf of the greater population. In a curious world where activists in the West march against negative liberty while their Arab counterparts march against its positive counterpart, the individuals within each movement must decide how much influence they want to exert and define the concept of liberty we strive towards in the 21st century. This I believe is the protester's dilemma in 2012 and beyond.
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