I’m willing to contend that the month of October 2019 has seen the most mass protest across the world in human history. As Buffalo Springfield memorably said (cue the song as you read - it sets a nice tone): “There’s something happening here.”
Yes, the authoritarian tide is still rising: here in the U.S., in the UK, in Poland, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Brazil, China, Russia, Turkey, Algeria, and more. The majority of humanity now lives under an authoritarian ruler.
Yet at the same time we are seeing an unprecedented popular response. Will Bunch, one of my favorite journalists following social movements, put it this way:
The autumn of 2019 is fast becoming the most revolutionary season on Planet Earth… It wouldn’t be melodramatic to say the next few months will be among the most important in human history.
You could be forgiven for not tracking this from the echo chambers of American media (impeachment! Kanye! Football!) So I’d like to take a moment to highlight some of what I’m seeing, and what gives me hope in this moment.
Three trends toward people power
One of the ways I’m making sense of this moment is through three interrelated trends.
A set of explicitly multinational movements, perhaps best exemplified in the September #ClimateStrike reaching an estimated 6-7.5 million people across 150 countries.
Movements that start within the boundaries of one nation but rapidly evolve into transnational movements (Extinction Rebellion as one example that originated within the UK but soon expanded; #MeToo as another that started in the US but quickly went global).
A diverse range of national movements arising seemingly spontaneously across the world, in countries as diverse as Chile, Lebanon, Haiti, Peru, Sudan, Hong Kong, Iraq, Algeria, Indonesia, and many more: no continent is untouched.
Of these, it is the last trend that I find most exciting. Yes, there is something powerful about watching people gather in solidarity around the world (#climatestrike). And it’s powerful to realize that what we thought of as a local phenomenon turns out to be global (#MeToo).
But there’s something about the simultaneous eruption of protests that feels foundational and different. We’ve had global protests before (Iraq War), and even local protests that have jumped borders (Occupy, Black Lives Matter). But concurrent mass mobilizations in different places responding to different local conditions? That feels powerful. For me it has echoes of the great revolutionary periods of the last century: 1968, 1989, 2011.
All sound and fury, signifying… what?
We don’t yet have a name for what’s happening: no one seems able to truly grasp the enormity of what’s going on and what’s at stake. Here’s how a US News and World Report photo essay describes it in classic understatement: “Global Discontent Rising Around the World.”
We had handy names for specific revolutions: the “color revolutions” in the Balkans and beyond in the early 2000s, the “Arab Spring” of the early 2010s… but this current moment is so much bigger, and cannot be contained by narrow geographical boundaries. Our concepts and even the language we use is inadequate to this moment. Bayo Akomolafe put it beautifully in a podcast I was listening to this afternoon:
It refuses to be conceptually coherent for our easy consumption. How do we see ourselves as part of something that is larger than language, larger than language’s capacity to frame our understanding?
Previously I talked about living in a second axial age, and described what I see as a “global emergence.” This is what I’m talking about. The revolution is here, but no one knows where it’s headed (indeed, a revolution is not what we want; we don’t want the wheel to return to the same place—we want to smash the wheel entirely).
More in common
What I find most fascinating is that these movements have more in common than might appear at first blush, and that in each case the specific trigger moment was almost impossible to predict. I’d like to zoom in on three illustrative examples from three different continents that I think give a flavor of what’s going on (from what I’ve been able to piece together from afar):
Lebanon: The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a plan to tax WhatsApp calls. Students and youth led the early protests, the government eventually backtracked… and it was too little too late. Because of course it’s not about the tax: it’s about that and everything that preceded it. [As the Chilean protesters said in response to the 30-peso subway fare hike in Santiago: “It’s not about 30 pesos. It’s about 30 years.”] The protesters are calling for a complete overhaul of a corrupt political and economic system, calling for a changing of the guard. The tagline so far: “All of them means all of them” (the entire ruling elite must go, not just members of the ruling party). Reminiscent of Occupy, where Democrats first jockeyed for political advantage only to realize that protesters saw them too as part of the 1%.
Hong Kong: This has been the most inspiring example to me, taking place as it does in the face of one of the most repressive regimes in the world (China), a country which has shown itself willing to resort to brutal force if necessary (Tiananmen). Here the spark was a proposal to allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China for prosecution. It was seen as the latest in a string of efforts by China to exert control over Hong Kong’s fragile autonomy, and people — students in particular — took to the streets. I love how creative the protesters have been, using umbrellas to hide from the omnipresent surveillance state, and continuously holding to principles of nonviolence and inclusion.
Bolivia: The stage was set when longstanding president Evo Morales defied the constitution (and a 2016 popular referendum explicitly on this question) to run for a 4th term. Then protests erupted when the election appeared fraudulent… and people took to the streets. In Bolivia’s case, unlike many of the other protests sweeping the world, the relative economic picture has actually been pretty good (though it shows signs of slowing). It’s about something more basic: dignity, respect. In the words of one protester:
What’s at stake this year, more than a political party that leans left or right, is our democracy.
I think these three examples offer a rough typology to help us understand what’s happening. The meta-narrative, as near as I can understand it, is this: a sense of a growing chasm between haves and have-nots… and an increasingly widespread belief that the gap will never close, that the system is rigged; ordinary people will never get a fair shake.
In 2011 I wrote about this emerging moment juxtaposing the Arab Spring to Occupy and ruminating about the future it seemed to herald:
People are finally concluding: the system is fucked… They are not interested, by and large, in improving the system. They want to change the system. They want, as we all do, to live in a system that respects their human dignity and allows potential for them to pursue a meaningful life.
This article paints a beautiful picture of what’s happening, in the words of protesters. This about sums it up (this is Chile, but could be anywhere):
I want the government and big business to stop looting my country – to stop taking what belongs to all of us and selling it to the highest bidder.
Against that common backdrop of anger and a deep sense of injustice, here’s one way I’m thinking about the different manifestations now playing out across the world:
In an environment of unnecessary and forced austerity (whether by globalized neoliberalism, or more localized corruption and rent-seeking behavior by entrenched elites), the haves make one more demand of the have-nots. This could be cutting fuel or food subsidies (France, Sudan, Ecuador, Chad), or imposition of a new tax (Lebanon, Chile), or some additional burden seen as the last straw (Nicaragua last year).
In an environment of authoritarianism or anti-democratic power-hoarding, the ruling elites (the haves) make yet another power grab (a claim on taking still more from the have-nots). This could be extending time in power (Armenia last year, Bolivia and Algeria now), or simply an on-its-face erosion of what semblance of democracy may remain (Hong Kong, Poland last year).
Generalized discontent, both economic and political, finally finding expression through popular protest… often without an explicit action/choice by ruling elites: a groundswell rather than a spark (Haiti, Iraq, Tunisia…)
Learning from the past
These movements spring directly from their predecessors, in many ways both large and small. I personally give much of the credit to Occupy and the Arab Spring, for calling the question on rising inequality and authoritarianism, for offering a template for protest, and for showing that change is possible (it’s no accident that less than a decade later Elizabeth Warren is a front-runner for president here in the U.S.).
Lebanon experienced the “Cedar Revolution” in 2005 (what they called the “Independence Uprising”), experimenting with civil resistance as a strategy for nonviolent mass protest. The elders in Chile remember protesting Pinochet: what came before sowed the seeds for what we are now reaping.
Women and children to the front
One of the trends that I found most exciting watching this latest round of protests is the prominence of youth and women assuming informal leadership roles. Of course the most prominent global example is 16-year old Greta Thunberg as the face of the climate movement, but the photo here is Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old Sudanese woman symbolizing resistance in the face of authoritarian (and male, seemingly always male) oppression.
#MeToo has only accelerated this dynamic: women have simply had enough, and they’re rising up. Sometimes out of self-preservation (movements this year in Spain and South Africa, among others, protesting rising rates of intimate-partner violence), but also in powerful solidarity, as with the incredible “women’s wall” in Kerala, India earlier this year.
It’s no wonder the “okay, boomer” meme is going viral: this is intergenerational warfare. Generation Z — the kids just now in high school and reaching college — was born in the shadow of 9/11. They were in elementary school when the financial crisis hit in 2008. They were just coming into political consciousness as Trump took office.
Literally their entire lives have been one long testament to the manifest failures of neoliberal capitalism, and the obvious fact that the “leaders” responsible for fixing these problems are in fact the ones responsible for causing them. No wonder they’re pissed. As Jack Shenker put it, writing in the Guardian: “This wave of global protest is being led by the children of the financial crash.”
Anchored in solidarity
The thing I love most about this global uprising is the beautiful blend of anger and love. I’m reminded of Ruby Sales’ poignant reflection on “two kinds of anger”: redemptive anger (rooted in love) and non-redemptive anger (rooted in hate). This is one way of understanding the forces currently rending the world.
What unites these movements that I’m talking about — and is misunderstood by popular press images of molotov cocktails — is their grounding in redemptive anger. In love. The image that kicks off this post came from the Lebanese “human chain of unity”: an effort to link hands across the entire north-south 105-mile length of the country. I suspect they took their inspiration from the Kerala women’s wall, referenced above.
I’ve had this viral video of Chilean protesters in my head: it seems to capture everything about the spirit of this moment. I dare you to watch it without getting chills:
This is self-organizing. This is solidarity. And damnit, IT FEELS GOOD. It’s a felt experience of power, of connection, and once experienced it will never be forgotten. And people are so hungry for it: for a sense of belonging, of significance, of believing that our actions matter… that we matter.
The stakes are high
Indeed, they couldn’t be higher. On one side you have the status quo, the powers that be, always resistant to change. That side has been pulled steadily farther right, toward a creeping authoritarianism rooted in a vision of domination, fear, and exclusion.
And it is increasingly — and terrifyingly — organized. John Feffer’s article out this week in the Nation is a phenomenal and disturbing piece of writing, documenting the efforts to lend coherence to the “nationalist international” (the authoritarian playbook):
The populist right has a vision of the future it wants. This vision may be intolerant, exclusionary, and backward-looking, but it is presented as a strong, nationalist alternative to the current more-or-less liberal status quo. At a transnational level, in other words, the far right has not only declared that “another world is possible”; it is busy building that world.
And let’s be clear: right now, “they” are winning (I don’t believe in a simple us/them binary, but you get my drift).
Partly we understand that we need to change the playing field: going up against entrenched power is never a fair fight. And increasingly younger generations are in the struggle in a fundamentally different way:
For us, politics is not a game, it’s reality, and that’s reflected in the way we organise – relentlessly, radically, as if our lives depend on it.
Or as Michael Safi put it:
In many places, grassroots victory – and radical political transformation – feels to many like the only possible resolution, lending clashes an “all or nothing” antagonism and urgency that is hard to roll back.
Where do we go from here?
No one knows. But this is what I’ve been working toward my entire adult life. I devoted my senior year at Amherst College to exploring the question of why there weren’t more large-scale social movements taking to the streets in the face of conditions that seemed to me hostile to human flourishing. The answer I explored at the time (2003-2004) was alienation: we are separated from each other, from the political process, from our own sense of power and agency.
No more. 15 years later, the movements have arrived. The revolution is here. And then as now, I believe that at its core the problem and the solution lies in the interplay between alienation and belonging (what john powell talks about as “othering” and belonging). Here’s Feffer again:
The root [of far-right populism's success] has been the right wing’s capacity to harness people’s sense of alienation—the discontents of globalization.
Ultimately, however, I believe the authoritarians are writing a check they can’t cash. They are peddling false solutions. And as Bob Marley memorably said:
The collaborative I’ve been helping build over the last three years is designed precisely for this purpose: to co-create a world of belonging, to help organize those of us committed to a relational, interdependent, forward-looking vision of the world. The time has never felt more urgent — the window won’t stay open forever. Join us!