This year in protest
Enough is enough
Some see it as a wildfire of democracy while others view it as the cancer of instability. Call it what you want, revolt is in the air and spreading almost everywhere. It scares some and fills others with hope but there can be little doubt that in a phrase made famous by the classic 1976 film Network: people are ‘mad as hell and… not going to take this anymore’.
Currents of discontent began to emerge in Hong Kong in March over an extradition bill that would have granted the Chinese state the ability to extradite Hong Kongers to stand trial in China. Though the bill was ultimately withdrawn, it sparked unrest over China’s influence in the administrative region. With youth at the forefront of the leaderless ‘umbrella movement’ as often is the case unrest quickly spread both generationally and geographically across the island.
Immediate flashpoints varied – metro fare hikes in Chile; the removal of fuel subsidies in Iraq; gas price hikes in Iran; in Lebanon it was government plans to tax WhatsApp calls while Ecuadorians took to the streets after fuel subsidies were cut as part of IMF loan conditions.
These crises have laid bare chronic structural oppression. Haiti continues to face the perennial problem of corruption (President Jovenel Moïse got caught with his hand in the cookie jar – after being accused of corruption over mismanagement of Venezuelan oil subsidy funds) and in Lebanon the political scoliosis of the confessional system allows Christian, Sunni and Shi’a elites to divvy up leadership positions among themselves.
Grievances piled on yet more grievances. Photos from Algiers to Quito show so many protestors clogging the streets and squares that the pavements are invisible. In place after place the catalyst is the rising cost of living brought about by public finances squeezed by under-taxation of the wealthy or outright elite tax evasion, often salted with a healthy dose of corruption.
A highly provocative response by neoliberal governments in thrall to corporations and entitled elites is to then try and squeeze the missing revenue out of the desperate poor and the shrinking middle class.
The emperor has no clothes
While the domestic politics and potential solutions vary sometimes dramatically the heavy-handed response of the authorities has been almost universal – curfews, martial law, tear gas and rubber bullets, mass arrests and the selective targeting of activist leaders: increasingly we see the bodies of dead demonstrators.
Promises of change and a range of symbolic gestures have failed to dampen popular resistance. Resignations of compromised leaders, as in Algeria, Sudan and Lebanon, have largely failed to dislodge the corrupt political elites and military that surround them.
From Bogota to Baghdad, securing the political space to protest is essential for any kind of meaningful democracy. But this space is being constricted by governments that are desperate to maintain power and privilege at the top. It is Iraqis that have paid the highest price with at least 330 dead between early October and late November.
Unlike news coverage of Hong Kong, western silence on Iraq is deafening. There, police and military forces commonly use live ammunition on unarmed demonstrators. The Internet has been shut down in both Iraq and Iran making it hard to count casualties accurately. A recent Amnesty report estimates that at least 106 have been killed in protests across 21 Iranian cities by authorities and militias using lethal force. In both places governments seem to regard protest as a form of warfare, and for it to be treated as such.
What is emerging across the globe is a crisis in the notion that states ‘represent’ their people in any meaningful way. Rather, they are increasingly seen as just representing themselves and a narrow layer at the top who benefit from the repressive order that is being imposed.
How ever they achieved power – wealth-based manipulation of the electoral process, if not outright fraud; military coup; pseudo-revolutionary movement or some other form of nefarious chicanery – the political class is in trouble almost everywhere. Minimum social consensus is essential to govern, whether in an elementary school or a national government.
Once it becomes clear that the political class is mostly there to feather its own nest and that of its corporate backers, the mandate needed to govern melts away. Despite this, political hypocrisies abound – some on the ‘anti-imperialist’ left are unsympathetic to demonstrators in Damascus, Managua or even Hong Kong – those who dare challenge heavy-handed abusive regimes.
While most on the Right, keen for regime change in Bolivia or Venezuela, are prone to ignore the brutality exercised to keep neoliberal regimes in power. Bolivia has now flipped as the military-backed coup against the government led by Evo Morales, put thousands onto the streets in opposition to the ‘self-appointed’ new neoliberal government.
One thing that unites demonstrators almost everywhere is a desperation born of hopelessness about the future, such that fear of the police is no longer enough to keep people in line. The revolts of 2019 have a generational component fuelled by the use of social media to coordinate popular action.
It is mostly people under 30 who are leading the charge and, with 41 per cent of the world’s population under 24, the disgust with the mostly male, mostly white, mostly rich, gerontocracy that rules the globe won’t cease any time soon. Underlying it all lurks the insecurity born of global climate degradation and the refusal of ruling carbon capitalism to do anything about it.
Popular revolt runs in cycles but eventually protests tend to run their course and demonstrators go home. Years of spectacular international revolt have occurred within living memory, most notably in 1968 (Europe and the US) and 1991 (the revolt against the former Soviet Union). Mostly rebellion has been regional as with the 2012 Arab Spring. What is unusual about protest in 2019 is the global nature of the revolt, its overt rejection of neoliberal rule and the arbitrary abrogation of democratic space.
It sometimes takes years even decades to weigh up what social movements have achieved. The twin dangers of repression and co-option lurk after the street action dies down. Things can shift for the better as they did in Tunisia and Taiwan, or compromises may endanger goals as could be the case with the Sudanese pro-democracy movement which was forced to deal with the military. Or life can revert to a military reign of terror like General Sisi’s Egypt or Erdoğan’s Turkey, or perhaps what may be unfolding in the Bolivian coup.
It is in this period that the leaderless nature of movements can switch from advantage to disadvantage. The failure to gain some purchase on institutional power leaves them exposed to manipulation by populist demagogues of the right. But ultimately the failure of the political class to come up with any meaningful answers to the twin predicaments of neoliberal inequality and climate degradation, makes it highly likely that democratic rupture will only increase.