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The Year Ahead: Next, the Pessimists

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, January 6 2012

Occupy Oakland, Nov. 2011. Photo: Clay@SU/Flickr

Yesterday we heard from the optimists, the people who see the network-powered tumult of 2011 as the harbinger of more positive social changes to come this year. Today, we have the responses of a smaller but equally provocative group, the pessimists. We asked them the following question: "If 2011 was a year of tumult fueled, in part, by our growing ability to network, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the year ahead--and why?" and their answers range from gloomy to downright apocalyptic.

What's interesting about these responses is how they take the same events--economic dislocation, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the presidential election--and project losses, rather than gains, for democracy and better government. Also, it's noteworthy that several of our most optimistic respondents from yesterday were on the political right, while nearly all of our (smaller) group of pessimists would place themselves on the political left. Is the grass greener when you're on the outside looking in? Herewith, the opinions of David Callahan, Farai Chideya, Dave Karpf, Matt Stoller and Michael Turk.


David Callahan, Senior Fellow, Demos
I'm pessimistic about the year ahead. Abroad, I fear an ongoing economic crisis in Europe and growing economic problems in China as well. I also fear that some of the democratic gains from the Arab Spring will be lost -- as we are seeing already in Egypt. At home, I fear that the political environment will turn even more ugly amid ongoing economic stagnation, Republicans obstinacy on fiscal policy, and a money-saturated presidential election more likely to be dominated by negative campaigning than serious ideas.

Farai Chideya, Broadcaster and blogger,
"Our growing ability to network" is a reality for some and not for others. I've spent a lot of my career covering the most vulnerable people in America -- people who have lost their jobs and homes; people who have had to cut back not just on frivolities but on the basics. They are not always networked into our society, or have to rely on overcrowded library computers and not-so-smart phones as their main ways of accessing networks.

Of course, human networks are also imperiled. Some people move so often to find work or because they've lost work that they also lose meaningful community ties.

All that said: I believe we have 2-3 years of intense pain ahead as we adjust our expectations to reality. Then, my hope is just the way people recalibrated and got tougher during the Great Depression, we will after the Great Recession as well. It's my hope that those with greater access to networks will reach out to those with less.

Dave Karpf, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University and author of the soon-to-be-published book The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy
I am mostly pessimistic. At least in America, 2012 will be a year consumed by attention to the Presidential race. It will feature both the "organized minorities" and "disorganized majorities" that Andrew Rasiej often speaks about. But it will also feature a tidal wave of outside money, much of it aimed at voter disenfranchisement and disinformation campaigns.

In the 2008 election, the role of communications technology inspired many of us. In 2012, I fear that role will be muted by the ever-more-expansive power of the wealthy in an electoral system fundamentally resistant to change. Regardless of which party wins the White House, I expect 2012 to be an exhausting and dispiriting year.

Matt Stoller, The Roosevelt Institute
While there has been a lot of focus on the Occupy movement, the reality of 2011 is that it was a year in which the oligarchs grew in strength and power and the public lost out. Italy, Greece, Spain, and now Hungary are controlled by increasingly authoritarian regimes. Egypt isn't doing particularly well. And austerity and its associated end of democracy is heading straight for the US, perhaps in 2012, perhaps later.

The basic contradictions in the global order still exist - there is no way to balance widespread global prosperity with elite control. So one of the two has to go. One of my mentors always says, if you want a happy ending, get a Disney movie. As for the networking bit, they could just end up breaking the internet and then getting the world involved in a massive suicidal global war again. But if that doesn't happen, at least we have catastrophic climate change to look forward to.

I am usually considered a pessimist because I predict that bad things will happen. For instance, I thought that Barack Obama would be a bad President based on his track record of making bad decisions. Wow, you're such a pessimist, I was told. Then when I look back on my writing, it nearly always turns out I was *too optimistic*. So I don't like the term "pessimistic" or "optimistic".

Happy New Year.

Michael Turk, Partner || CRAFT | Media/Digital
I'm psyched; super optimistic. With the end of the world less than a year away - according to the Mayans, at least - we'll have super fast access to live tweeting and Facebook status updates detailing the collapse of global society. That is, until the networks fail and leave us in the dark. Who wouldn't be excited about that?