2021 has settled the role gained by street protests in recent years. Is it one of the symptoms of social evolution?
Bursts of violence are nothing new. History is punctuated by an alternation of peaceful periods and bloody moments that might have been triggered by hunger, class struggle, social protest, political antagonism, and religious, economic or international conflicts. Violence is part and parcel of human development. More often than not, even peace has been imposed by relying on violence in order to tame adversaries or opponents. In the past, internal disorder and external war were so frequent that some conflicts were named after their duration (the Thirty Years’ War, the Hundred Years’ War) or their tremendous territorial extent (First and Second World Wars). In many ways, the post-1945 period and the subsequent international settlement might appear as relatively peaceful times in a historical perspective…
However, today’s observers and analysts emphasise a “new” phenomenon, the emergence of violence in mature democracies as well as in more recent ones. Such episodes are perceived as failures of a political system that aims to pacify social relations through a set of values (trust, dialogue and consensus), principles (liberty, equality, solidarity) and institutions (checks and balances, limitation of power, rule of law, fundamental rights). These components have been incrementally transformed into rules, procedures and institutions over time in order to fill the gap between ideals and reality. In truth, many of these improvements were the result of violence and disorder (the American civil war, the Russian and German revolutions of 1917/18, the French Commune etc…) or the “price” to pay after traumatic events such as the two World Wars (voting rights, welfare state). While still imperfect, democracies were seen by many observers as the best possible regimes and some analysts went as far as theorising political apathy as an expression of satisfaction. Illusion! Over the past 30-40 years, one can observe, nearly everywhere, at best growing disenchantment with the democratic system itself, at worst violent manifestations of anger, some might even say of wild rage. Three recently-published studies of American politics, among many, use the words rage, anger and fury in their titles. Countries unanimously considered as “models” of democracy such as Britain or the USA are now at the centre of international attention as harbingers of a democratic crisis. The surprise shown by observers might stem not so much from the level of violence (far worse episodes have occurred everywhere in the past) but from the causes and the depth of the anger. Indeed, violence is not only directed against a decision, a policy or a person but against a political system supposed to favour political integration, liberty, rights and opportunities. Democracy or rather its present form has become the favourite scapegoat of frustrated and enraged protesters in recent years and 2022 does not look much better.
Such protest is rather confused, often badly expressed and framed, multifaceted and contradictory but nearly universal: the promise of democracy has been betrayed by ruling elites accused of being selfish, corrupt or incompetent. The famous (and misleading) Lincoln formula of a “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” has become the leitmotiv and flag of the so-called populist movements. This phenomenon, found only in the United States at the end of the 19th century, has exploded everywhere in various forms at the end of the 20th.
The causes of this radical upsurge are many and difficult to disentangle. Their intensity varies from country to country. However, it is possible to identify similarities and communalities.
The first one is structural. Democracy and the market (this ‘unhappy couple’ to use Robert Dahl’s terms) have been indissolubly linked. Markets are able to function without democracy but democracy cannot work without the market, as shown by the failures of alternative attempts. The unique nature of the situation today is the result of a twin decoupling: authoritarian regimes have shown that flourishing markets might develop under the tight control of a political authority; globalisation highlights, on a daily basis, that democratic regimes established within the borders of the Nation-State are unable to tame or control the negative side effects of the global economy except when acting together, possibly in conjunction with non-democratic systems. Together, they can still influence market excesses but they are powerless if they are unwilling to pool their forces into joint action. This situation entails a chasm between the world of politics and the reality of policies. While political theory claims that nations are sovereign and their people the holders of such sovereignty, the plain reality is that policies are framed, limited and squeezed by international constraints, mainly from market forces such as powerful multinational companies. The emperor has no clothes… In other words, it becomes extremely difficult, not to say impossible, for Nation States to counteract the unfolding of market failures and to address the legitimate claims of their people. States act in the shadow of market forces.
This inability to address economic or social issues highlighted by voters (in opposition to the political discourse and narrative pretending just the opposite) has triggered growing polarisation and deep frustration. It has been exploited by new political entrepreneurs and outsiders. The old paradigm promoting consensus, tolerance in spite of differences, moderate discourse and policy accommodation has imploded and been replaced by radical speech, hatred, the exacerbation of passions and emotions, and mutual exclusion. Mediatory instruments have become useless or obsolete and replaced by social networks. More and more, sophisticated algorithms provide ad nauseam information (often fake news) adjusted to the bias of individual consumers. Pluralist media are weakened by politicised networks. Deliberation is replaced by a dialogue of the deaf. In short, democratic systems tend to work rather badly due to the collapse of representative institutions. Electoral abstention seems the least of evils but the growing dissatisfaction can also trigger rage and violence, as shown by the Capitol invasion in the US, the Yellow Vests protest in France and the No-Vax movements everywhere.
There is no single explanation providing a full understanding of this phenomenon unfolding before our eyes. History might provide some help: violence is the most radical mode of political expression when other channels are unavailable or inefficient. And it occurs at times of profound economic and social transformation. Economic, technological, scientific revolutions are not for quiet times… One cannot expect that the multiple revolutions we are facing (internet, new technologies, globalisation, climate change) can be addressed though the usual policy changes. The task is far more daunting. The problem is that social and political structures have always reacted rather than anticipated the transformation of the world.
 Yves Mény, Popolo ma non troppo, Il malinteso democratico, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2019 (English, French and Portuguese translations)
 Evan Osnos, Wildland: The Making of American Fury, Bloomsbury ed., London, 2021. Steven W. Webster, American Rage. How Anger Shapes Our Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2020. Robert Withnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2018