Why so many Uprisings? Why now?

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?

Iran. Credit: Steve Eason

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.

Chile. Credit: wikimedia commons

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.’

Hong Kong. Credit: Studio Incendo

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.

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9 Responses to “Why so many Uprisings? Why now?”
  1. Well it’s an important question and thank you for raising it. But as historians have difficulty explaining timings of previous turbulent events, it seems unlikely we can get much consensus over why it is happening now.

    Personally I feel the same as the government official passing Greta Thunberg in her early solitary phase:

    As you surely know, the global socio-political-environmental-economic system is a diabolically complex system so trying to explain and predict its behaviour is pretty futile.
    The big question is: how to live in a time of increasing uncertainty? Those of us working in the development sphere need to confront the problem of helping people when we ourselves don’t know what’s going to happen next. Just telling them to ‘dance with the system’ doesn’t quite hack it somehow.

    But Somethin is definitely happening and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cia_v4vxfE

    One thing is certain though … pop music was definitely better back then.

  2. Our global, considerable increase in population; accelerating environmental degradation; and foreseeable resource limitations are conjointly resulting in more variegated and intractable conflicts about territory, lifestyle, panaceas and governments. The combined effect is a decrease in our collective capability to cope with a heretofore never-experienced complexity. The accumulated and combined pressures can result in emergent responses which, at times, may be haphazard, irrelevant, illogical, insufficient or extreme. Judgement may be impeded to an extent that the support for and self-promotion of false saviours (e.g. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Xi, Kim etc.) serve only to exacerbate an underlying, volatile society. It may thus be increasingly difficult (not impossible, but difficult!) to reign in the festering, intensified fractiousness among peoples.

  3. Heather Marquette

    Great comment from Ivan, and a really excellent blog, Duncan. Thanks!

    Ivan’s comment reminded me of this piece by Guardian journalist John Harriss, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/29/trump-brexit-society-complex-people-populists.

    Among other things he points to a book on The Collapse of Complex Societies by archaeologist Joseph Tainter. The argument is that as societies become more and more complex, political and economic systems become increasingly disconnected from people who feel (and often are) far removed from them. The complexity holds the seeds of collapse.

    I reckon reading this alongside journalist Oliver Bullough’s excellent Moneyland would be illuminating. Oliver shows how the uber-elite are not just increasingly disconnected from the rest of us, but have also shaped global finance to suit them and them alone. And formal institutions like the ones you describe, such as political parties and elections, are co-opted by Moneyland. As the fabulous American crime writer, Don Winslow, tweeted recently, when the dust has settled on all of the political chaos right now, we’ll realise that this has all just been about money laundering all along…

    And thanks for the song. You could listen to it alongside Bob Dylan’s With God on Our aside, CCR’s Fortunate Son and, to move to 1990s grunge – at another time that saw quite a lot of protest – RATM’s Killing in the Name Of and Everlast’s What It’s Like. With Buffalo Springfield, our family’s favourite protest playlist…