Why so many Uprisings? Why now?

November 26, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Somethin is happening here: Every day my timeline highlights a different uprising – today it is a national strike in Colombia, with hundreds of thousands protesting in support of the faltering peace process, despite the pouring rain (thanks to Hong Kong, at least umbrellas are cool now). But it could equally well have been Iran, Iraq, Bolivia, Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong or many others.

According to the Economist ‘Not since a wave of “people power” movements swept Asian and east European countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s has the world experienced such a simultaneous outpouring of popular anger. Before that, only the global unrest of the late 1960s was similar in scope.’

What it is ain’t exactly clear: so why now? So many simultaneous protests could of course be mere coincidence, especially as people are protesting over so many different issues – corruption, fuel or transport prices, inept governance, civil rights, demographics, and often a cocktail of all of them.

But the sheer number suggests it is at least worth looking for common causes. At this point, every campaigner and political scientist worth their salt says it was their issue wot done it – inequality, human rights, civil society space, food security, neoliberalism, electoral fraud etc etc. But the challenge for them (and me) is to answer the question why now, rather than 2009, or 2029?

Take inequality for example. The argument goes that rising inequality within countries has eroded whatever social contract existed and created a powder keg that can be ignited by even the smallest spark (eg a 4% rise in metro fares in Chile; a tax on whatsapp in Lebanon). But a lot of the rise in inequality occurred in the run up to the 2008 global meltdown – in many countries it has since fallen a bit, so why now rather than 2009?

Demographics was seen as a contributor to the Arab Spring and is one explanation of the current uprisings – a ‘youth bulge’ of young people, many of whom are coming out of universities with few if any job prospects – kindling for student riots. But again, why now? And lots of older people are to be seen on many of the marches. Electoral fraud and corruption are hardly new phenomena either.

Some of the other explanations seem more relevant to the ‘why now?’ question.

Social media: given the continuing spread of smartphones and internet usage, there has been lots of breathless coverage of whatsapp or twitter revolutions. But research suggests that in many of the protests, social media use is limited (although elsewhere it is seen as a massive multiplier – hence the government internet shutdowns in Iran and elsewhere). However, even in the places where protesters use social media to organize and outmanoeuvre the forces of the state, I’m not convinced that social media does more than lubricate the wheels of protest. Much deeper forces need to be present – people don’t walk into the tear gas because they’re friends with someone on Facebook (I’m still with grumpy old Malcolm Gladwell on that one).

The domino/copycat effect is probably at work – people see protests kicking off in neighbouring countries and think ‘why not here?’. Some kind of system process where protests align and attract across borders.

There may be some delayed reaction to 2008. Naomi Klein recently spoke in London about how 2008 had released young people’s imaginations – the crushing ‘there is no alternative’ school of austerity and financial free-marketry has lost all credibility. Maybe it takes a decade for imagination to turn into action?

Linked to that, I’m intrigued by the whole question of the death of deference and erosion of what I think of as political absorptive capacity or resilience. There are always people who are unhappy with their situation or the way they are treated. My impression is that in the past they were readier to channel their grievances through formal political processes – wait for the next election or express their views through their social organizations (unions, professional associations, faith groups). That enabled the system to absorb and respond to discontent.

But now, more and more people think ‘they’re all the same, just in it for themselves’. They are less prepared to channel grievance through politics. Fuses are shorter; protest more attractive. Even small grievances can generate big, angry responses.

And then of course, there’s the whole question of ‘after protest, what?’ Protest movements are inevitably fleeting, and end up being channelled into some kind of institutional response – rejection, co-option, backlash or deeper change.

And what does this ‘unruly protest’ all mean for activists elsewhere? Paul O’Brien raised a telling challenge in his comment on my recent post on the inequality movement:

What do institutions and networks like Oxfam have to say about movements when they appear to have lost faith in the theories of change on which our existence depends: economic rights can be strengthened through demanding the rule of law, public institutions can be made more accountable through peaceful civic organizing. Electoral politics and constitutional protections are still our best bet. If our type of “professionalized” organizing is not to slow down or be irrelevant to transformative political activism, we may have tougher questions to answer.

Just as I finished this, Branko Milanovic weighed in with some typically insightful thoughts. Turns out I’m not the only one struggling to understand what’s going on: ‘While Marx and other observers and participants knew in 1848 more or less exactly what was haunting Europe, in our 2019 revolutions we have no clue.’

Branko sees the current unrest as ‘the first revolution of the globalization era’ and distinguishes between revolts of exclusion, against elite corruption, against higher prices, desire for independence, and hatred of oppressive regimes.

His conclusion?

If there is a single ideological glue to them, it is desire to have one’s voice heard. At the time of tectonic political shifts where politicians and old ideologies have lost much of their credibility, a thing which has not lost its credibility is the desire and the right to be heard and counted. It is in a sense a democratic protest but since standard two-party democracies have lost much of their shine after 2008, the revolts have trouble defining themselves in an ideological and political sense.

We should expect more of such diverse, often inchoate revolts of globalization until more structured political forces appear on the scene and show themselves to be able to channel the grievances and use them to come to power.

Over to you. And in case you were wondering, ‘Somethin is happening here’ comes from ‘For What it’s Worth’, a 1966 song by a back-in-the-day band called Buffalo Springfield (which I’d entirely forgotten until I looked up the line). The lyrics look pretty contemporary.