Some have already taken to calling the events in the Middle East "the Arab 1848." Future generations, perhaps, will talk about the "spirit of 2011" when the ground begins to crumble beneath their own autocracies.
But are the same factors at work today as they were in past revolutionary surges? Some are undoubtedly similar -- throngs of disgruntled people have taken to the streets, questing for freedom and economic opportunity. Others, like the use of social media from YouTube to Facebook and Twitter, are undoubtedly new and different. Do the unfolding events of 2011 fit with our existing understanding of revolution or might they warrant updating?
By far the most influential and infamous account of revolution comes from Karl Marx. In The Communist Manifesto, authored with his benefactor and collaborator Frederich Engels and published in the real 1848, Marx argued that that revolutions are an inevitable and necessary outgrowth of economic development. The rise of industry and of an emergent capitalist class upended the old feudal order while ushering in a new more dynamic but inherently unstable capitalist system. As the capitalist class rises to new heights, Marx wrote, the working class is simultaneously expanded and immiserated, sowing the seeds of the next revolutionary impulse and its own demise.
Revolution = size of working class, exploitation of working class, working class consciousness and organization (working class papers, trade unions, labor parties).
Many alternative accounts of revolution have been proposed since Marx's day. In nations where capitalism emerged early, the rising bourgeoisie was able to secure a power base independent of the aristocracy and usher in a process of gradual democratization, according to Barrington Moore classic, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Countries whose economies developed later were more likely to undergo abrupt transformations. Students played a key role in the revolutionary uprisings of 1968; the same era saw the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and of the women's and gay liberation, environmental, and anti-war movements in the advanced nations. These "new social movements" came to be seen a new driving force behind political activism.
The uprisings of 2011, however, owe much of their impetus to the working class and labor movements as well as young people and students, according to the Middle East expert Juan Cole. Rising unemployment rates, stagnant wages and falling living standards prompted blue-collar workers to return to the barricades.
But a new generation of techies, social media types, and digitally savvy professionals have also played a visibly important role. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who became the public face of Egypt's uprising, is the veritable archetype of this Creative Class, spanning science, technology and engineering professionals, management and business executives, doctors, health care professionals and lawyers, as well as arts, culture and media workers. In an emotional interview recorded immediately after his release from detention, Ghonim pointed explicitly to the role that Facebook and YouTube music videos played in Mubarak's ouster. "We're the youth who loves Egypt," he declared, "And we did this because we love Egypt." Intellectuals and artists as well as students have long participated in revolutionary movements, but usually in subsidiary roles. This time creative class members are part of the vanguard.
In identifying the creative class role, I do not intend to diminish the role of unions and various other political, religious and social movements that have driven this and other seasons of revolution. I simply aim to call attention to this key factor that has become increasingly salient to the surge of revolutionary activity occurring today.
Using data from the International Labor Organization, the map below charts the percentage of the workforce in the creative class in the Middle East and around the world.
The highest percentages of the creative class -- in the range of 40 to 45 percent -- are found in wealthy, advanced nations like the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada. Egypt's creative class comprises roughly a third (33.1%) of its workforce, on par with the United States (34.8%). Only Israel -- where the creative class makes up 40 percent of the workforce -- has a higher creative class share in the Middle East. The creative class looms larger than one might expect, numbering one in five workers in Saudi Arabia (23.2%), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (22%), Qatar (21.8%), Syria (21.8%) and Algeria (21.4%). These levels are higher than in the rapidly growing nation of Brazil (18.4%) and roughly triple that of China (7.4%), the world's second largest economy.
Not all countries collect and report data on their creative class and other workforce categories. These figures are lacking for Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, and Kuwait in the Middle East, as well as several dozen other countries in the rest of the world. So I also use another closely related measure that is more systematically available for a larger group of nations -- the level of human capital -- the percentage of the young adults engaged in post-secondary or "tertiary" education. This measure is closely related to creative class workforce (with a substantial statistical correlation of .75).
The map above shows the human capital levels for the Middle East and the world. The top ranked nations on this measure -- Korea, Finland, the US, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, and, perhaps surprisingly, Greece -- have more than 75 percent of their young adults enrolled in tertiary education. For advanced nations like the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Japan the figure is 55 to 60 percent. Israel is the highest ranked Middle Eastern nation on this measure (57%). But several other Middle Eastern nations are also quite high, notably Libya (53%) and Lebanon (49%). Tertiary enrollment levels are higher in the West Bank (38%) and Jordan (35%) than they are in Hong Kong (34%). And tertiary enrollment levels are above 25% in Bahrain (31%), Egypt (29%), Tunisia (28%), and Saudi Arabia (27%). Tertiary enrollment in Iran (24%) and the UAE (23%) are roughly the same as Brazil (23%).