What comes after global protests? Hong Kong, Baghdad, Santiago. In 2019 the world took to the streets, leaving governments and leaders quaking in their boots. Here’s what to expect from 2020.
Collective protest movements are a constant and recurring phenomenon in global politics. Over the last few months, protest movements have filled the streets of many cities and nations worldwide, from Hong Kong to Lebanon, from Santiago in Chile to Iraq, and from Barcelona to Iran. These movements have their similarities and differences in terms of causes, effects, the events that unleashed them, the demands of protesters, the form of the protests themselves, and the reaction of local governments. They are similar in that all mass mobilisations create new collective identities that are both problematic and dynamic. They are rooted in the perception of shared interests, give voice to widespread discontent, and challenge institutions and the powers that be. The matters at the heart of the protests are various combinations of partially overlapping issues: social and economic inequalities, corrupt politicians, the privileges of the powerful, violations of human and political rights, and demands for autonomy. The events that unleashed them are quite varied, sometimes serious (such as suspicions of government involvement in the murder of Maltese journalist Caruana Galizia or the Hong Kong extradition bill), sometimes trivial (such as modest increases in the cost of public transport in Chile or gasoline in France), but they always seem to break a sort of threshold (the classic ‘last straw’) for social groups with deep-seated reasons for discontent, insecurity, malaise, or fear. The reactions of the powers that be are quite varied, and depend to a large extent on the nature of the regime (liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, authoritarian, totalitarian).
The most relevant questions concern the evolution and duration of the protests; in answering these questions, we find once again a mix of differences and similarities. Every movement generally sees an initial phase of collective enthusiasm, of euphoria born out of a sense of belonging and brotherhood, and radically pits those who belong to the movement (the oppressed fighting against injustice and abuse) against those outside it (the corrupt, the privileged, the incompetent, and the indifferent). In this phase, new identities are created, and new charismatic leaders emerge who embody and give voice to widely-held feelings, overcoming the general suspicion against any form of authority (although a characteristic aspect of many of the recent protest is an even higher degree of diffidence and hostility towards authority than in the past).
Nevertheless, in order to last a collective movement must adopt some form of non-ephemeral organisation, build a structure, define roles and responsibilities, establish chains of command, and communicate effectively. In other words, it must become institutionalised. But by doing so, the movement loses its spontaneity, many militants abandon it and they criticise the bureaucratisation of the movement and its takeover on the part of ‘professional’ politicians. In our digital society, social media facilitates the task of protest organisers and is highly effective at organising flash mobs and mobilising a great many people very quickly, in a wide-reaching and inexpensive manner; yet it does not solve the dilemma of institutionalisation.
In addition to the movement/institution dialectic, the other fundamental set of factors influencing the evolution, duration, and outcome of a collective protest is the response on the part of those in power, which in turn depends on the nature of the regime. In functioning democracies, the cycle of protest and representation takes place, with social transformation processes giving rise to new movements that mobilise to defend interests, uphold rights, and affirm identity, thus provoking a generally non-violent reaction and a ‘reformist’ response on the part of political representatives and parties; even if the changes demanded by the movement are not implemented, the reference context and power relations are nevertheless modified. Instead, in non-democratic regimes (or even in blocked democracies), which have neither organised pluralism nor consolidated channels for political representation, the response of those in power is violently repressive, and the protests themselves take on an increasingly violent nature. This launches a spiral of protest and repression, which lasts until the protest movement is silenced (bubbling under the surface until it explodes again) or, more rarely, escalates into a full-fledged revolution.