A Collapse of Trust

The American and the French protesters understood that the problem went far beyond taxes: It concerned the very structure of political power.

Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz

Imagine you love a man and devote most of your life to him. Slowly, however, not only do you notice that he cares little about you, but you also begin to discover he has lied to you about his past (presenting it as more glorious than it was in reality); about his current emotional whereabouts (pretending to be with you when hes actually devoting his energies to someone else); and about his future intentions (pretending to be exclusively committed to you, when he holds many divided loyalties).

Such discovery is obviously terrible, but not only for you: It is in fact mostly terrible for him, because this discovery transforms him into a non-person, someone whose words and deeds become of no importance, do not matter, to you or to anyone else in the know. Trust is not only an important ingredient of social relations, it is a precondition: People or institutions unable to inspire trust in and from others become irrelevant entities; we simply stop listening to them; we laugh at them; and we ultimately expunge them from our lives.

Many have drawn analogies between our street protests and those that have been shaking the Arab world since the beginning of this year (the protesters are young, without particularly prominent leaders, and have spontaneously organized, via Facebook and blogs). But the analogy hides an important difference: Tahrir Square happened because the Arab world wanted democracy; our versions of it are taking place in the context of a full-fledged democracy in which the organs of civil society have collapsed. The protests in Israel are about a general lack of trust not only in government officials but in political parties, politicians in general, and such institutions as the Histadrut labor federation. The Arab protests reflect a great hope for the establishment of brand-new democratic institutions; our protests, on the contrary, reveal the collapse of our trust in the representatives of such institutions.

Israeli citizens have always been model citizens: extraordinarily, exceptionally, uncannily disciplined; devoted to their state, accepting peacefully some of its strangest decrees; paying very high taxes, seeing very little of these taxes invested in public goods; sacrificing vacations, work and sometimes their very lives to a demanding army; and responding with docility to the often-unreasonable demands of various groups and government coalitions.

Israels hard-working citizens have, generation after generation, devoted themselves to their state as the citizens of no other country in the world have. Governments, political parties and institutions supposed to represent the working, productive classes, have abused and betrayed this devotion. But the disgust with politics as usual must not make the protesters forget that they are waging their struggle in a political arena.

The two revolutions that are most relevant to our times are the French and the American revolutions. Both started as uprisings sparked by fiscal issues. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was a harbinger of the American War of Independence, as colonists refused to pay the taxes on tea that were imposed by the British power that ruled them. The French Revolution, too, began because both peasants and bourgeois merchants were overburdened by the taxes levied on them by aristocrats, the clergy and the monarchy. Yet what made these revolutions truly historic is the fact that they were also political, not only about wages and taxes. The American and the French protesters understood that the problem went far beyond taxes: It concerned the very structure of political power.

In France it was the whole institution of the monarchy and the structure of feudal power that were dispensed with; in America, the tea party was the catalyst for a crisis between the British and the American powers, as the colonists refused to be taxed if they didnt have representation, ultimately leading to the cut of the colonies from the British power.

I was at last Saturday nights demonstration in Jerusalem, and the slogan repeated most often was: The response to privatization is revolution. This is a great and valuable idea, but real revolutions happen when protesters become clearer about the structure of power they want to change. In the case of Israel, this means when protesters question how the total economic distribution of wealth is organized; why the settlements and the ultra-Orthodox bear so much less of the burden than the secular and traditionalist middle and working classes; and why politicians are so consistently oblivious to the needs of citizens and to the question of equality between them. By equality, I mean not only between rich and poor, but also between those who enjoy privileges without duties, and those who carry out many duties with very few privileges.

True revolutions can begin only when protesters connect between their livelihood and the structure of political power, and when different social groups build solidarity with each other, out of an understanding that their fates are inextricably intertwined.

Nota bene: Golda Meir was right: People who make revolutions are not nice.

Prof. Eva Illouz holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



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