Revolutions: the democracy thing is becoming an economic thing
Here's how the dynamic of the Middle East revolution is unfolding, and in the process morphing from an essentially political movement against a bunch of corrupt dictators who nobody (not even their allies) ever liked, into a wider movement that is unsettling centres of economic power.
The dynamic driving the revolts was never purely economic, but there was an economic through-line: 24% youth unemployment in countries where 2/3 of the population are under 30, a downturn in growth rates after 2008, and then commodity price inflation hits.
If you read about the life of Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself to death sparking the Tunisian revolution, you get a tragic micro-case study of how this plays out for millions of people: he can't get a regular job because he lacks connections; he becomes a street trader living on credit, but then an official confiscates his wares. His sister points out: "those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live".
There is then, an intimate connection between corruption, the powerlessness of the poor, of autocratic regimes - all of which are seen as "political" issues - and the economic facts of life for the urban poor.
Freed of autocracy, suddenly allowed onto the streets to find a voice, they merge with the "graduates with no future" who have been networking to build this moment for months and years. And where there are organized workers' movements the workers - as in Egypt - finally come onto the streets and again find a mixture of political and economic freedom. The state run trade unions chase out their appointed heads and the next thing is, wage demands break out.
In country run by old men, where the borders between corruption and perfectly legal patronage and cronyism are blurred (I am writing this in Dublin Airport!), for the youth, the workers and the urban poor, each in their own way, there is no separation of grievances between economics and politics.
What's happening now is that the second phase of the revolutions is already opening up. The Egyptian workers launched a round of wage demands; the Bahraini poor want economic reforms and access to jobs.
Such struggles - I have written at length about them in history - do not conform to the deadlines of 24 hour news channels. They are more like an infantry battle in which you only find out who is winning when the losing side throws its last reserves in and then crumbles. This can take months and the battlefield is the boring, subcutaneous world of the clocking-in desk at the door of shabby factories on the outskirts of suburbs nobody has heard of.
That's one dynamic that's been unleashed in North Africa.
A second one is the oil dynamic - now spectacularly unfolding in Libya. If the regime falls there will be a temporary glitch in the world's oil supplies and the price will spike. It would spike even higher if Iran blew up. But ultimately, western leaders are presuming, "democracy" or democratic values will win out and in the ensuing stability prices will fall.
There is a non-negligible risk of stagflation in the west while this happens: doomsters Nouriel Roubini and Mohamed El Erian have both warned of this in the last couple of days. But there is also the issue of ownership and control of the oil wealth of nations.
Libya, where growth is spectacular - 10% - and inflation low, has 30% unemployment. If the peoples of the middle east actually achieve some form of democratic control over the allocation of oil wealth, the terms of oil contracts etc, it will at the very least change the terms of trade between the developed world and the major oil producers.
OPEC, for example, has worked well as a cartel because it is an association of like-minded despots. The Bush administration may have dreamed of busting up OPEC with a pro-western government in Iraq, before the invasion, but it soon gave up on that - indeed it took the best part of a decade even to get oil contracts to the major producers signed.
And while the oil producing despotic regimes were concerned with the oil price and the oil supply, they were not examining the terms of trade, the restrictions on development, the economic rights of their own populations. There is a chance now that governments in these countries will embrace a more complex and challenging development path than cartel-pricing oil and swanning around the posh hotels of London and Paris.
A third big thing has changed. Libya was courted by western governments because there was a win-win. Gaddafi gave up his WMDs and gave intelligence about the WMDs of others; in return his family became suddenly welcome in the social circles of Berlusconi's Rome and Blair's London. And in return the West could suddenly access a big pool of cheapish (to extract) oil; while it would ultimately have to prospect the tar sands of Alberta, here suddenly was a new supply of the old, bubbly, sweet stuff on tap.
The miscalculation came in that - even if Gaddafi survives - the level of lethal force he has reportedly used means the whole deal is over. As Libyan diplomats jump ship, and fighter pilots defect, the whole ability of autocratic governments to use force against insurrections is being eroded.
And this in turn is being seen by opposition movements from Beijing to Puerto Rico.
The revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848 were driven by different factors: but once people had seen revolution succeed, the desire for it became a common factor. In most places those revolutions produced only counter-revolution, autocracy and then - after 20 years - the beginnings of industrial development. It is hard to see the revolutions of 2011 ending with a Louis Napoleon, a General Heynau, a Bismarck etc everywhere. Indeed David Cameron's speech in Kuwait indicates that the democratic powers in the world would rather see them end with stable democracy.
But democracy opens the way to economic instability, and to an economic re-balancing of wealth and power. All across the developing world people sense this is possible - and that the actions of their own rulers, even if unconstrained locally, are becoming constrained by the global forces.