Five Reasons for Optimism

As awful as the times may seem, they also contain seeds of hope.


It was a miserable decade. From Baghdad to New Orleans and from the Patriot Act to TARP, the last 10 years sometimes felt like nothing more than a series of colossal government screwups alternating with colossal extensions of government power. At the end of 2009, we're faced with an escalating war in Afghanistan, a growing corporate state at home, and a renewed push for protectionism around the world. There has been little to cheer in the age of Bush and Obama, especially for those of us who think Washington should be shrinking rather than swelling.

Or so it might initially seem. But there have been countervailing currents as well, broad trends that began before the dawn of the decade and have continued, even accelerated, in the time since then. They haven't undone the awfulness oozing from the District of Columbia, and some of them may yet be reversed. But taken together they offer a more balanced image of the world, one with better prospects for peace, prosperity, and freedom than you'd expect if your only source of news was the Congressional Record.

1. A surge in nonviolence. In his 2005 book Unarmed Insurrections, Rutgers sociologist Kurt Schock made a strong case that the last 30 years have seen a substantial shift away from violent "people's war" and toward nonviolent people power. From 1979 to 2001, Schock notes, there were 31 predominantly peaceful rebellions in the Second and Third Worlds, 23 of which concluded with oppressive governments falling. His list ends with the EDSA II revolt in the Philippines, but the trend has not abated in the following decade: Since 2001, nonviolent civil resistance has brought down regimes in Argentina, East Timor, Bolivia, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Ecuador, Nepal, and the Maldives, while efforts to replicate those successes are active everywhere from Burma to Zimbabwe. There are still guerrillas out there, from FARC in Colombia to the Maoists in Nepal, but the general trend is toward Gandhi, not Guevara.

One difference between people's war and people power is that the latter is more likely to lead to a relatively free society. Nonviolent resistance relies not just on mass disobedience but on mutual support; rather than disrupting civil society, it depends on the strong social ties that are the building blocks of self-government. But even when a revolt's political payoff isn't especially admirable—as with, say, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, which replaced one obnoxious leader with another—the very fact that the transition was accomplished by peaceful protest rather than violence is something to celebrate.

That reflects not just a surge in civil resistance but a rise in another kind of nonviolence. In his 2004 book The Remnants of War, the Ohio State political scientist John Mueller notes that traditional state-on-state warfare is far rarer today than at any other point in modern history. Civil wars persist, but even they are not as common as they were two decades ago. Mueller may exaggerate when he writes that warfare "is moving toward obsolescence, rather in the manner of slavery and dueling before it." But he has spotted a real and laudable change. For the United States the aughts may have been a decade of war, with American soldiers bogged down in bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a global scale, though, we're seeing a strong if unsteady march toward peace.

2. The media revolution. In 1969, American TV was centralized in three television networks and a rudimentary public broadcasting system. In most other western countries, TV and even radio were controlled by the state, with varying degrees of independence and with little or no private competition. In the Soviet bloc, government broadcasters had no independence or competition at all. Cable TV existed only on the edges of the western systems, and the network we now know as the Internet was an obscure Pentagon project.

Over the following four decades, two things happened. One was the immense growth in one-to-many and many-to-many communications tools, most notably the Net. The other was a steady decline in the cost and difficulty of the tools of cultural production. In 2009 it is easier than ever before to shoot a movie in your neighborhood, edit it in your bedroom, and distribute it to anyone with access to the World Wide Web. It's even simpler to create a homebrewed webzine, game, or radio show. And none of these activities need be solo pursuits: Creative and critical communities have grown up around all this backyard entertainment and journalism.

We've already passed the point where DIY art is at least as interesting as the products of the big entertainment combines. (Which would you rather watch, a Hollywood remake or a YouTube remix?) Now those grassroots media are having a political impact as well, not just as a tool of conventional political campaigns but as an element of the civil resistance mentioned above. This connection goes back at least as far as the fax networks that helped fuel the revolt against communism two decades ago; today it stretches from Tehran tweeters to the human rights videos shot by grassroots activists and posted on sites such as The Hub. And then there are oddball movements like 4chan's chaotic crusade against Scientology, which might seem silly in itself but offers a compelling example of decentralized, leaderless organization—and of the ways ephemeral online fandom can evolve into something politically engaged.

3. The rise of voluntary governance. As of 2007, for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in the countryside. Tens of millions more men and women move to urban centers every year; some come voluntarily, in search of opportunity, and some come involuntarily, because someone has seized their land. All of them construct new communities in those dense urban zones, often without bothering to ask permission from the authorities. In the words of Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, the migrants "create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities," with "a seething informal economy in which everyone works."

These vast illicit neighborhoods are a social revolution in themselves: parallel cities governed from the ground up by a thicket of voluntary associations. El Alto in Bolivia, for example, was once little more than a collection of unofficial settlements. It now has a formal municipal government, but the real centers of power are independent, self-sustaining local groups: neighborhood councils, labor federations, parents' committees, and the syndicates that own and organize the public markets. Such communities are the low-end counterparts of the private neighborhoods that have taken over so much of the work of local governments in the United States. But the squatter towns are messier and jerry-rigged, improvised rather than master-planned; they are more decentralized, more democratic, more dangerous. Built as they were on unused, usually government-owned land, they frequently face the threat of being bulldozed. When they are allowed to stand and to thrive, they grow wealthier, eventually evolving into middle-class neighborhoods.

That process in itself is nothing new. What's different is the scale. A billion people live in these informal zones now; and as the planet continues to urbanize, the shadow cities only grow larger. They are filled with poverty, and thus with serious social problems, but thanks to the autonomy enjoyed by the people who build and dwell in them they tend to be more livable than the officially sanctioned slums. They are, in a way, another people power revolution. In the squatter sectors, erecting a house is itself an act of civil disobedience. Yet those builders have created not just homes and enterprises but a flourishing civil society, one that can resist the state when it attempts to crack down.

There's another sort of self-rule worth mentioning as well, one linked closely to the media revolution. Immigrants in the United States today do not merely stay in touch with the village back home. Many continue to take part in its political life, using communications technologies to forge a voluntary, deterritorialized system of governance. The leftist writer Mike Davis calls these communities "virtual villages," citing as an example the Mexican town of Ticuani, "now equally split between Puebla and Brooklyn."

4. An explosion of entrepreneurship and wealth. In those squatter cities you'll find a rich ecology of tiny businesses, from street vendors to jitneys to schools. Some of these are the same informal enterprises that have always flourished in the underground economy, but others might represent the next step of the DIY revolution that has already swept the media. The shanzhai of China, for example, may have begun as mere pirates manufacturing knockoffs of brand-name gear, but they've branched out into original designs. Shanzhai phones, writes the hacker/blogger Bunnie Huang, "integrate wacky features like 7.1 stereo sound, dual SIM cards, a functional cigarette holder, a high-zoom lens, or a built-in UV LED for counterfeit money detection. Their ability to not just copy, but to innovate and riff off of designs is very significant. They are doing to hardware what the web did for rip/mix/burn or mashup compilations." This doesn't just mean funky add-ons for niche markets. The shanzhai "could not only make an iPhone clone, they could improve it by giving the clone a user-replaceable battery."

Such entrepreneurship is one reason for the enormous growth of the world's middle class. (The other catalysts include the decline in warfare and the rise of the cities.) The comfort enjoyed by the western bourgeoisie still seems absurdly wealthy to most Third Worlders, though more of them have attained such a standard of living in recent years than ever before; The Economist estimates that about a tenth of the developing world now lives at that level. But "those who are middle-class by the standards of the developing world," the writer adds, are now "a majority of the developing world's population." Citing the New Delhi–based economist Surjit Bhalla, the magazine also reports that "the middle class's share of the whole world's population rose from one-third to over half (57%) between 1990 and 2006," with most of that growth taking place in poorer countries.

5. The breakdown of hegemony. Of the five trends described here, this one emerged most recently. A decade ago, it was possible to describe the United States as the sole superpower in a unipolar world. Neither Europe nor China could match America's economic or military might, and the rest of the world hardly seemed interested in trying. There were a few relatively autonomous spots aggravating Washington—tax havens on the high end of the social pyramid, "failed states" on the low end—but it was easy to assume that power would continue to be concentrated on the Potomac.

Today the U.S. has graphically demonstrated the limits of its military power, and it seems intent on demonstrating the limits of its financial power as well. China looms larger than ever before. Moscow has distanced itself from Washington, Latin America has taken a sharp turn to the left, and India and Brazil are establishing themselves as emerging powers. Some nations are attempting to forge their own trade agreements rather than take D.C.'s lead. And to judge from the chaos at the Copenhagen climate summit, the multilateral model beloved by European social democrats isn't in much better shape than the unilateral globalism supported by American neoconservatives.

Obviously, not all of those developments are welcome in themselves. There's not much to like about, say, the rise of Putinism in Russia. But taken together those changes represent something positive: a world where no single agenda inevitably takes precedence over all the others. Europe and America's maximalist ideas about intellectual property now have to contend with the more moderate views of India and Brazil, not to mention China's lackadaisical approach to the subject. The global south is pushing against the north's agricultural protectionism, and newly industrializing nations are not as eager as their wealthier cousins to adopt skewed schemes such as cap and trade. The emerging powers don't always have better ideas than Washington. But they have different ideas, and different interests; and this competition opens a space for experimentation and change.

Put those five currents together, and the prospects for prosperity and freedom start to look less grim. Nothing is inevitable, of course, and we face no shortage of reasons for pessimism. But if our grandchildren grow up in a world that is freer, wealthier, and more peaceful than ours, that won't be a repudiation of all the values embedded in the decade now ending. It will be a triumph for the trends that grew in the interstices while your attention was focused on the men who thought they were in charge.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.