Worldwide Protests Challenge the Global System

Youth celebrating the Lebanese revolution in 2019. Photo by Vicken Vincent Avakian with kind permission (source)
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This year has seen an extraordinary number of significant mass protests in over twenty countries or territories, many of which in a national context represented the biggest in recent times. They are often spontaneous, with a distinctly revolutionary nature. In many cases protesters would face a serious risk of arrest, injury or death. The ruling class, government or even the whole system of government, are the targets. Corruption, authoritarianism and/or austerity are their key motivators. 

Listen closely, and you can hear the global system creaking and groaning, threatening to come upart under the weight of the global injustice and bad governance it sustains. Things could get much louder still, as the irresistible force of global public opinion meets the immovable object of a broken world system.

The overview we’d like to provide in the following leaves aside strikes such as the doctors’ strike in India or the teachers’ strike in Chicago, issue-specific protests such as the global climate climate marches or anti-Brexit protests in the UK or protests relating to international or seperatist disputes such as in West Papua against Indonesian occupation or in Ukraine against Russian influence in the East.

Protests in over twenty countries or territories

Venezuela’s multi-year crisis continued, with struggle between an authoritarian left and an oligarchic right which saw both sides mobilising large crowds and both claiming to be representing the democratically legitimate government. Both sides have been implicated in corruption and political violence.

In France, the Yellow Vest Movement, which began in 2018 continued through 2019. Triggered by increases to the price of fuel and dissatisfaction with the high cost of living.

Haiti continues to be shaken by protests that began the year before. These are led by the political opposition, calling for the resignation of the president, the eradication of corruption, and the provision of social programs to deal with the country’s endemic poverty.

In Serbia a campaign of protests which began in November of 2018, calling for greater democracy and denouncing alleged persecution of government opponents, has continued through the year.

The Sudanese Revolution started in December of 2018 and continued for about eight months, during which the long term dictator Omar al-Bashir being forced from power and a transitional government put in place.

Protests also began in February in Algeria, following the announcement that President Bouteflika would seek to serve a fifth term. In the first days of November, as this list was being compiled, this protest saw some of its biggest numbers yet, with crowds filling squares across the country, demanding the fall of the regime.

In February, protests in Gaza over taxes and high prices saw the biggest challenge to Hamas since their takeover of the strip in 2007. 

February also saw protests in Montenegro against President Milo Đukanović and the Prime and the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, centered on allegations of corruption. 

Since April protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong, expressing opposition to an extradition bill which could have seen Hong Kong dissidents transferred to mainland China to face trial. By June these had ballooned into a mass movement, which continued despite the withdrawal of the bill, and began calling for broader reforms, including universal suffrage, as promised in Hong Kong’s constitutional document, The Basic Law.

In June protesters in the Czech Republic held huge rallies demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has been caught up in a fraud and corruption scandal. Protesters carried EU flags and banners declaring a commitment to democracy. Crowds were widely estimated to be the biggest since the 1989 “velvet revolution” which toppled communism. 

In June protests also took place in Kazakhstan, challenging the legitimacy of election results which saw a smooth transition from Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had governed since the fall of the Soviet Union, to his hand picked successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Human Rights Watch agreed that there was a context of authoritarianism meaning any appearance of a democratic transition was “an illusion”.

In July and August protests took place in Russia’s capital Moscow, following accusations of interference in the Duma city elections, with a large number of independent candidates being refused registration due to alleged problems with the signatures collected to back their candidacies. 

In September Indonesian students lead a mass movement opposing corruption and strict new morality laws which prohibted sex outside marriage.

Also in September in Egypt protests against the Sisi dictatorship broke out,with substantial crowds forming in parts of the country, but not in Cairo where a massive suppressive deployment of coercive force was noted. 

Starting in September and continuing into October, protesters in Idlib province in the north of Syria, outside government control, signalled their continued opposition to the Assad regime, even as the rebel enclave was shelled and bombed from the air.

In October protesters took to the streets in Guinea, opposing moves by the president to hold a referendum to extend his term limits, having already banned street protests for a year according to Human Rights Watch

Also at the start of October Ecuador saw two weeks of extremely intensive and ultimately successful protests that began when the government of Lenin Moreno adopted a reform package of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that included the removal of fuel subsidies and other increases in the cost of living. After two weeks of road closures, street protests, and riots, the government backed down and withdrew the reforms. 

Soon after the victory of their Compañeros to the north, Chile saw the emergence of an ongoing mass protest movement, originally triggered by a 30 peso increase in train fares, which has expanded to target the entire ruling establishment, neoliberalism as an ideology, and major trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership. Much anger is directed at the continuation of policies, such as privatisation of the pension system, which were enacted under pinochet but survived the “managed transition” to democracy.

Iraqi protesters demanding social justice and an end to corruption have swarmed the major squares across the country, following on from and dramatically out-doing a similar wave of protests from 2018 (which included protesters wearing yellow high-visibility vests, signalling solidarity with the protests in France). Protests have focussed on unemployment, corruption and the lack of services. The first protests were in Basra in June, with larger and more widespread protests centred on Baghdad in October, which are ongoing. 

Azerbaijan also saw protests in October, with a series of rallies held by an alliance of opposition groups, denouncing growing unemployment and inequality and calling for the release of political prisoners, free and fair elections.

October also saw the start of mass protests, still ongoing, in Lebanon, triggered by the introduction of a regressive tax on the messaging service Whatsapp, which have expanded into a challenge to the entire system of sectarian patronage and corruption, and the political elite whom operate and profit from it. Prime Minister Saad Hariri turned in his resignation.

In Pakistan, in the first days of November, as this list was being populated, a broad alliance of opposition and religious groups staged a mass protest complaining of corruption and inflation and cost of living expenditures following an IMF deal signed by the country’s president, Imran Khan, including typical austerity measures.

Different theatres of the same conflict

Obviously protests occur constantly, and we haven’t done a thorough data analysis comparing this year with historical averages. However, it’s generally accepted that the current protests aren’t normal. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria called them  “this autumn of protest”, and noted that “the politics of each of these movements seems quite distinct. But they are all occurring against a worrisome backdrop: a collapse of [global] economic growth”, which is now at its lowest point since the 2008 crash.

We can take the line of thinking further and note that these various uprisings are in fact different theatres of the same conflict. 

Protesters may be waving their national flags, and speaking of national rebirth – not global justice, but as the example of Ecuador especially shows, these national transformations can take place, but they must currently do so in spite of the prevailing global system, which is institutionally incompatible with the needs of the world’s population, captured by an undemocratic, ahistorical ideology which fetishises the balancing of national budgets with same year tax revenues which effectively prohibits effective development strategies, such as the provision of basic services or redistribution. 

Ecuador, under the leadership of Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa, had defied the IMF and World Bank’s dictates, defaulted on the country’s debts, and used the central bank to fund government spending, in a policy similar to the “People’s Quantitative Easing” program proposed by the UK Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. These post-Keynesian soft currency policies had been wildly successful, transforming Ecuadorian society within a generation, and Moreno was elected with a promise to continue this “citizens’ revolution”, but has since broken with Correa and his movement. It seems the technocrats of the IMF  – who directly or indirectly have influenced the policy of all governments facing protest – and the local elite underestimated the population, and thought that with the figurehead gone the movement would dissolve. 

A global system that legitimates oppression

The current global protest wave is not the first precursor to a global democratic revolution. It is the second, or perhaps even the third. It depends whether you start counting from the global explosion of dissent in 2011, or protests against the Iraq war in 2003, when the New York Times famously declared that the global order was now dominated by two great superpowers, “United States and world public opinion.” But this diagnosis misses the mark. The United States is not its government. Many US citizens were in the streets against that war, too. The true dividing line runs not vertically, between single countries and the outside world, but horizontally, across global society, including in the United States. The White House is just an especially strategic piece of terrain, which had been captured by Bush and his warmonger buddies, serving as stormtroopers for global capital.

One supporter of Democracy Without Borders recently complained that the media, even from democratic countries, seems to favour the Chinese authority over the protesters in Hong Kong, asking if the protesters have “gone too far”. This begs the question, how far is one morally allowed to go when fighting a dictatorship which survives through terror, and which has up to a million of its citizens locked away in reeducation camps? One would think disruptions, the destruction of property, and non-lethal scuffles with police would be permissible. 

But these journalists cannot be blamed. The world system, after all, deems the Chinese government legitimate. As it deems Egypt legitimate, to name another example.  Earlier this year Secretary General of the UN, António Guterres smiled as he shared the stage with Egypt’s El-Sisi, a dictator whose security forces routinely use rape and sexual humiliation, along with torture, massacres and mass death sentences, to terrorise the population against democratic mobilisations. The IMF has historically seemed more comfortable lending money to dictatorships than elected governments. Oppression is legitimated and abetted by the global system. 

But the global populist uprising has begun, not the astroturf fake populism of Fox News and the Bannonites but a true populism based on solidarity, generosity and universality in an ever more connected world. The participants may not even know it yet, but the inevitable target of this uprising is the global system, bringing about democratic global institutions such as a global parliament, or a citizen-elected Secretary-General, that help to make sure it operates in the best interest of all. 

Potential new US administration as a game changer

We should expect the continued appearance of vibrant national movements around the world pushing back against the false overlapping technocracies of neo-liberalism and authoritarianism. And, if the radical spirit which has rhetorically captured the democratic primary process leads to a new progressive US administration in 2020, the ceiling of possibility will be raised in terms of what movements in other countries can achieve – and in terms of what a global movement like ours can hope to achieve, when it comes to reforming global institutions. 

It was in the context of the radically progressive president Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the United Nations was first conceived, with his widow Eleanor overseeing the committee which authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a “magna carta for all mankind”. 

The spirit of this project was abandoned by the lesser men who followed, and saw in the nascent global institutions just more clubs for the powerful to beat the powerless with. But as the global temperature rises, and the same revolutionary forces that currently shake capitals around the world arrive in Washington, the vision of a humanity unified in prosperity, freedom and peace may come alive again.

Austin G. Mackell
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