Two years on from the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the new Egyptian president is from the Muslim Brotherhood; on the streets of Cairo, the same kind of people who died in droves in 2011 are still getting killed. On the streets of Athens, the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn is staging anti-migrant pogroms. In Russia, Pussy Riot are in jail and the leaders of the democracy movement facing criminal indictments. The war in Syria is killing 200 people a day. It's an easy step from all this to the conclusion that 2011, the year it all kicked off, was a flash in the pan. But wrong. Something real and important was unleashed in 2011, and it has not yet gone away. I am confident enough now to call it a revolution. Some of its processes conform to the templates laid down in the revolutionary wave that swept Europe in 1848, but many do not: above all, the relationship between the physical and the mental, the political and the cultural, seem inverted.
There is a change in consciousness, the intuition that something big is possible; that a great change in the world's priorities is within people's grasp. The impervious nature of official politics – its inability to swerve even slightly towards the critique of capitalism intuitively felt by millions of people – has deepened the sense of alienation and mistrust.
But the changes in ideas, behaviour and expectations are running far ahead of changes in the physical world. There is greater space for democratic movements in the Arab world, but they are constantly menaced. "The Protester" may have made it on to the cover of Time – but not a single protest has yet achieved its aim.
If we take 1848–51 as a template, the crucial moments of reaction lie ahead: coups, crackdowns, intelligence-led disruption of the activists and hackers. But there is still one powerful factor militating against a return to stability of the kind achieved after 1848: the economy. Even if the Eurozone remains stabilised, and America avoids a political crisis over its budget, the developed world faces years of Japan-style stagnation.
In February 2011, in a blog titled Twenty Reasons Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, I argued that there was a "new sociological type" at the heart of the global protests: "the graduate with no future". Since then indignados have flooded into Madrid's Puerta del Sol; Occupy camps have sprung up in hundreds of cities across the globe; and student protests in Chile and Quebec have completely changed the political atmosphere there. The anger is undimmed. But the limits of what young protesters are prepared to do have become more obvious.
Free-market capitalism offered the generation born after 1985 the moon and stars. Now, in the west, it can offer very little. Even for those with jobs, there is a dramatic scaling back of opportunity that makes no version of the future seem palatable. In Athens, I interviewed a female anti-fascist, who alleged she had been strip-searched and abused in the police HQ: what was her job? "I wait tables," she said, adding with an embarrassed laugh, "but I am a qualified civil engineer."
To survive, the young have become a generation of drifters, reliving the plotlines of movies from the 1930s. Without some massive and cathartic turnaround, the generation in their 20s, in the west, will never accumulate pay, conditions or savings at the level their parents did. What they are accumulating is resentment.
In February 2011 I pointed to the use of social networks to organise protest, and argued that this had made "all propaganda flammable". Two years on there's a clearer pattern: the interaction of social media with a mainstream media that is, itself, undergoing rapid change. On protests you have started to see geeky men wandering around with a GoPro camera on a bike helmet, linked to a computer and a makeshift aerial, effectively live-streaming the action to niche blogs. But you also now have mainstream news networks live-streaming the protests, albeit sometimes from the safety of a rooftop or helicopter. Wherever the traditional media has the guts to do it, they can show the unedited truth about protests: who starts them, who escalates them, who behaves stupidly, who not.