Insurgent protest is spreading across the globe like wildfire as people take to the streets demanding fundamental change, writes Chris Nineham
Obscured in Britain by the wall to wall coverage of parliamentary paralysis, the world is witnessing the biggest wave of popular revolt since the Arab Spring in 2011, and probably longer. The rapid spread of protest and the speed with which they have turned into regime challenges points to a deepening social crisis.
Though the protests have various causes and varied political leaderships, they underline the fact that we are not living through a period of global political reaction but one of intense polarisation in which regime-shaking movements are an ever-present possibility.
In the Middle East and North Africa there has been a return to insurgent street protest after several years of counter-revolutionary pushback against the Arab Spring. Protests in Tunisia, have been followed by insurgent movements in Algeria and Sudan. Both toppled their presidents. They have helped inspire the heroic return to street demonstration in Egypt. In the last few weeks, mass struggle has spread north to Iraq and Lebanon which have both seen their biggest street protests for decades.
These outbreaks have had economic and political triggers. In Algeria, anger erupted when the regime tried to secure a fifth term for Abdelaziz Bouteflika, semi-paralysed by a stroke for the last six years. Lebanese youth initially took to the streets in protest at a new tax on WhatsApp, the only free communication platform. But all the movements have featured the rapid proliferation of protest points and the quick connections of economic and political demands. A comment from a young Lebanese protestor seems to sum up the state of mind,
“Tasty food has become a luxury. I haven’t seen a single politician sacrifice a salary. They’re not only stealing, they’re stealing shamelessly. It’s got to a point where they’re literally the cause of cancer in people. All politicians are staying much longer than they deserve, and when they leave we have to deal with their children.”
In a similar pattern, protests in Latin America began in Argentina in September and spread this month to Ecuador and Chile. The regional elite’s confidence that the region’s ‘pink tide’ has been rolled back is in tatters. While all of the protests have been responses to particular economic grievances, they have generalised and morphed into anti-government movements with astonishing speed. In Chile, the government's retreat over price hikes on the metro has only encouraged the spread of protest. A brutal police response has further intensified resistance and led to organised workers taking action in support.
A strand of opposition to oppressive political regimes has contributed to the autumn of resistance. Demonstrations in Hong Kong began this summer over a bill allowing criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The mass action forced the government to withdraw legislation, but has continued and generalised. Among their demands, protesters now want universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into police brutality and amnesty for demonstrators who have been arrested.
Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in Barcelona and other Catalan cities to express anger over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders by the Spanish state. Movements are learning from each other. Shortly after the sentence the Catalan movement borrowed a tactic from Hong Kong and called a mass demonstration at the airport using an encrypted messaging service. Local media reported that groups of youths were shouting: "We're going to do a Hong Kong".
Three factors appear to be coming together in different combinations to create this global wave of protest. The first is the general failure of the dominant economic model. Growth rates around the world are stagnating in what the new head of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva has called a synchronised slowdown. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook, published in July, calculates that 2019 world output is expected to shrink to 3.2%, compared to 3.8% (2017) and 3.6% (2018) In Latin America the commodities boom that began around 2000 and opened up some spending leeway has evaporated. IMF figures show that government debt in the region has risen from 51% a decade ago to 78%.
All this confirms the sense that the post banking crisis recovery has been so shallow as to be negligible. This semi-stagnation has impacted most on the poor as it has been accompanied by skyrocketing inequality starkest in some of the richer countries affected. Young people’s lives have been disproportionately blighted by high levels of unemployment, underemployment and casualisation. As Eurasia’s Latin America expert commented:
“In almost all of South America, we have unpopular governments with fiscal problems facing angry voters tired of corruption, bad public services and the lack of economic dynamism.”
Even in Hong Kong and Catalonia, economic grievances including austerity and inequality are widely cited as being amongst the drivers of protests.
Secondly, government corruption is reported almost everywhere to be one of the main targets of protestors’ anger. This is no accident. Endemic corruption is an outcome of one of the key characteristics of neoliberal regimes; the growing integration of the state and corporate and financial elites. Particularly in poorer regions of the world neoliberalism is stripping itself down to bare essentials, the collusion of business and state in the organised robbery of the poor. No wonder there is such rapid political generalisation.
Finally, elite response to both stagnation and upheaval has been disastrous.
At the international level, the IMF has reacted to slowing growth and increased debt by toughening its already draconian structural adjustment programmes, the conditions it attaches to loans and bailouts. The average number of conditions per IMF loans has gone up from 19.5 between 2011 and 2013 to 26.8 between 2017 and 2018. Partly as a response to this, governments are responding with a hyped-up version of the policies that have created the problems in the first place; austerity and cuts for the poor, cheap money for the elites. More insightful economists can see this is going nowhere but there seems zero appetite for remedial action. The only innovation is the Trump-led trend for tariffs and protectionism against competitors and punitive sanctions against ‘enemies’. But these policies too are actually deepening problems by disrupting global trade flows and storing up more popular resentment.
Meanwhile, years of neoliberalism and, in the Middle East in particular, years of western intervention and war, have destroyed, degraded or delegitimised institutions in society that have provided some consent in the past. Welfare institutions, civic organisations and political parties with some popular traction are in various stages of decay.
A recent Financial Times feature on Argentina outlines how in one of Latin America’s richest countries the state has virtually disappeared from whole swathes of the country in which more than a third of the population are living in poverty. It reports that the network of ‘slum priests’, historically the last resort of the poor, simply cannot cope with the level of social need. In this situation, ruling classes, often hiding from their populations in fortified enclaves, are falling back on their last resort – armed force. But when huge sections of the population including young people see no viable future, repression can simply inflame the situation.
Given the elites’ reluctance to change economic course and the prospect of another global recession, whatever happens in the short term, further and possibly deeper confrontations seem likely. It’s crucial that the left grasps the explosive potential of the anger and alienation felt by millions around the world and the speed with which it can lead to anti-government and even anti-systemic movements. In particular, the left mustn’t limit operations to parliamentary politics, especially when official politics is so compromised by the role it tends to play in the neoliberal order.
Politics and consciousness can move with lightning speed at times of insurgency. Strategic questions about how to take the movements forward are being thrown up; how to deal with repression, how to create the leverage necessary to remove governments and alter the course of whole societies and so forth. One clear danger is that over time militant activist minorities can be isolated from the wider population. To counter this risk and in order to score more victories, ways need to be found to draw the widest possible popular layers into struggle, in particular appealing to organised workers who have the power to paralyse regimes. The systematic linking of the political and social/economic questions is also essential to finding a way to turn outbreaks of protest into movements for permanent social change. There have been encouraging signs in Ecuador, Chile and Catalonia at least of workers starting to take action in support of the movements on a significant scale.
Finally, answers need to be found to the democratic question that is implicit in all these great upsurges. One of the great tragedies of the first phase of the Arab Spring was that for all their scale and dynamism, the movements didn’t manage to develop alternative, popular democratic institutions that could deepen, protect and potentially make the revolutions permanent. Given the almost universal crisis of bourgeois democracy, the tradition of insurgent working-class democracy urgently needs to be rediscovered and reinvented.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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