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The Dumb Growth Revolution

by Umair Haque on February 18, 2011


umair-haque's picture

The Dumb Growth Revolution

In light of recent events, here's a tiny hypothesis: In a hyper-connected world, revolutions spread. Tahrir Square, Trafalgar Square, and Times Square aren't miles apart--but inches.

Think the revolution in Egypt is yesterday's news? Think again. You know how the flu spreads--the first glimmering sign of a great global epidemic is a small eruption here and there. My hunch is that Egypt is just the tip of the iceberg, the spark signaling a larger conflagration--a viral epidemic of contagious, self-organizing revolutions, hell-bent on ousting the creaking, rusting powers that be.

I'd suggest we're witness to the first wave of a larger movement spearheaded by the world's young, fiercely devoted to toppling the tired, toxic status quo--whether they sit (and protest) in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen or Wisconsin and London.

What created an environment so conducive to the spread of this epidemic? I'd put it this way. Yesterday's institutions were built to narcotize us into sleep--and while we dozed, they purloined our future, looted our societies, trampled nature, eviscerated our communities, ransacked our values, and body-slammed our own sense of self-worth. If we ever needed a revolutionary imperative. . .

Sound harsh? Welcome to what Tyler Cowen and I have both termed the Great Stagnation. Let me not mince numbers. Over the last decade and more, median income has stagnated. Net worth has declined. Mass unemployment has become a chronic, unshakeable illness--and youth unemployment is a full-blown crisis. Happiness and satisfaction have flatlined, while trust and a deeper sense of meaning have plummeted. The picture is as undeniable as it is dismal: these trend lines map the contours of a deeply broken economy, society, and polity.

No amount of polite hand-wringing or half-hearted tweaks from the complacent frequent-flyer class will provide cover at this juncture. The message is clear: Unenlightened soul-sucking planet-eating bean counters of the universe, your day is over.

Consider, for a moment, a radical institutional innovator: UK Uncut. It's an open platform for self-organizing direct action. In other words: it's a revolution engine. Anyone anywhere can list an action, anytime--and utilize its handy tips and tricks for mounting an action to turn a tiny spark into a roaring flame. It's less than a year old--and there are already some forty self-organized protests planned across the UK this weekend alone. Epidemics don't grow in slow, straight lines--they catch fire and explode.

Here's what's really happening: the costs of coordination--and taking action against yesterday's institutions--have been slashed to almost nothing. What does that mean? Grab your crash helmet, and prepare to be toppled. I predict an inexorable, dramatic rise in the quantity and quality of protest, insurgency, rebellion--and umpteen other flavors of upset.

The proliferating engines and platforms of protest like UK Uncut are bit like having a miniature Wael Ghonim who never sleeps, never eats, and never gives up, living inside your laptop. The momentum it and its cousins create will mint more and more real-world Ghonims--people increasingly proficient in the art of revolution, in every community, town, and city. Think of it as increasing returns to social disruption.

You know how Craigslist and eBay exploded the boundaries of musty newspaper classifieds and redrew the economic possibilities in the process? I have a hunch that UK Uncut and its brethren just might do the same for protest, upheaval, and revolution. Except they might redraw the political and social possibilities as well. What are you going to do when radically decentralized, self-organizing protests erupt outside the gilded gates of your giant corporation--and don't stop erupting? Here's a helpful hint: marketing, management, strategy, and finance as you know and practice them will be about as helpful as thug-carrying camels.

Here's how you connect the dots between Tahrir, Trafalgar, and Times Square: We're watching the costs of revolution plummet even as the benefits of revolution mount--and prosperity gets emptier and emptier. That equation is fatal to yesterday: the days of jowl-cheeked fat cats justifying bogus prosperity by perpetually exclaiming "profit!" The days of spin doctors, the heartless merchants of fear, and the double-talking peddlers of exploitation. The days of "work" that sabotages your future even while it eats your soul. Those days are done.

Welcome to the Dumb Growth Revolutions. They're revolutions against what I've termed in my recent book dumb growth. Most of you, unfortunately, were born in yesterday's world. Most of them? Children of tomorrow--spreading at the speed of light through the fibers of a new global nervous system. They're waking up to the boundless possibility of creating a better tomorrow. And just as important, they're waking up to the timeless truth that history's most unforgivable act is to carelessly squander what has always been its greatest gift: the ever-unfurling, infinitely fragile, endlessly mighty human potential that lies sleeping in each of us.

Yesterday's institutions were built to squander it, to drug it asleep. But the world--and the full force of its untapped human potential--might just be finally, groggily waking up from that overlong slumber. Governments, corporations, banks, the whole belching, wheezing gamut, failed to create an authentic prosperity. Instead, they created "growth" bereft of prosperity--and pacified us with trinkets and gizmos.

No more. Here's a thesis I'm pinning to the gleaming boardroom wall, for all the zombie overlords formerly known as masters of the universe to read and re-read: We're taking it back.

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rik-berb's picture
Really interesting and you might be right about these developments. However, I would prefer integration between old and new worlds. That would be the real tough thing, but sometimes crises is needed. We'll see :)
anne-perschel's picture
I've been following and reading you for months, although I prefer to #SSW (share space with). You show me things I may prefer not to see from a perspective that I don't always take on my own. That's a good thing. Your voice is strong. 
Following the revolution in Egypt I am thinking about another perspective. The leadership and actions required to tear down institutions are very different from those required to build them. We will have to see how the building phase unfolds and whether the leaders, the people, and what they/we build will deliver on a different promise.
Anne Perschel
aka @bizshrink