2019: The Year for Pellets, Pepper Spray and Protests

As we draw down to the end of the year, my memories of 2019 will be conflict, protest marches, pellets, pepper spray and tear gas. Hundreds killed too, as in the cities of Iraq over the past two months.

It is over a decade since the financial crisis began. And it was believed to have ended in the US in 2010, in the UK a few years later. It is still playing out in various parts of Europe, as southern economies grow ever so slowly with many people, especially the youth, still unable to find jobs; the once strong northern economies of Europe beginning to look frail as they stay determinedly fiscally conservative. To add to this, we have Brexit, and the rise of the populist right across many countries in Europe.

From Hong Kong to Santiago in Chile, to Lebanon and the cities of Iraq and Iran as well as Paris, people have taken to the streets to make their voices heard. The world is erupting with protest rallies: over price rise, poor economic conditions, corrupt politicians, lack of democratic freedoms and rights and more, not to forget climate change. In most cases, a very specific incident triggered the large scale protest, as an oil price hike did in Iran or a metro fare hike in Santiago, Chile. In most cases, the state is cracking down on protestors with brute force, arresting and even killing them in the process.

Glory to Hong Kong Protests 2019; Image: Studio Incendo CC by 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons

However, this is not 1968 redux, as I keep writing now and then. We seem to be blaming the capitalist system for all the wrongs, and at the same time we are clamouring for the attention of the millennial. From politicians to businessmen, everyone is courting the urban affluent millennial. And because the fight is visible in cities across the world, we are perhaps also mistaking it for a backlash against capitalism and globalisation.

To some extent, this might be true since years of unbridled capitalism exacerbated by the onrush of technology have left millions behind. But this would mean looking only at the symptoms, whereas the real causes might lie elsewhere. In politicians’ inability to think ahead and lead their people, in businessmen’s excessive focus on short-term gains, for example. And in technology surging ahead to connect people, while at the same time uprooting many from the workplace; the kind of change that has caught millions unawares, when policymakers should have been preparing society for it. But, how could they when they themselves were so unaware of the “leapfrogging progress” that technology was unleashing upon the world.

The reason I say that it is not a repeat of 1968, is because there is no one unifying theme linking the protests. In 1968, it was spontaneous student protests against the Vietnam War, against a callous “political system”, against treatment of industrial workers in France that all came to a head at the same time. In contrast, the Occupy Movements of 2009-10, as I have written before, all fizzled out in no time; millennials have no time or energy to sustain protests. Globalisation has been too much of a good thing for the urban affluent individual; it has numbed us to a kind of supineness, if I can call it that, blinded us to local societal concerns, made us insensitive to changes that are happening just beneath the surface. Here, I agree with Paul Collier’s observation that social media has intensified the connection of global elites, while disconnecting us from local communities.

On the other hand, it is perhaps the biggest irony of our century, that while the world has globalized, the protests highlight the particularity of local concerns and issues. It has, in fact, brought poor local governance and economic issues into public glare and I think it would be wrong to paint all the protests with the same brush as anti-globalisation or anti-capitalist, even while there might be some common issues. More importantly, it would trivialize the issue and not give protestors their due. I think there is a tendency among international media news networks particularly to often give the impression that the wave of protests around the world somehow makes it a global issue. If there is a common thread, it is only that many local political leaders have simply proved unfit to govern.

The Gilets Jaunes protest in Tours, France, February 2019; Image: Grand Celinien CC by SA 3.0 on Wikimedia Commons

In this April 2019 survey from the Pew Research Centre on Global Attitudes and Trends, across 27 countries, 51% of respondents are dissatisfied with how democracy is working in their countries and only 45% are satisfied. And while it varied across countries, within Europe six-in-ten Dutch and Swedes are happy with the way democracy is working, while large majorities in Italy, Spain and Greece are dissatisfied. Hardly surprising when you consider the economic situation in the two regions of Europe and when you also look back at the Los Indignados Protests of 2011 in Spain.

People have just had enough. And they are raising their voices against local every day issues: removal of fuel subsidy, raising transport tariffs, sky high property prices and lack of accommodation, high costs of living, a corrupt government that doesn’t deliver the goods, etc. In each country, the issues are different and I would prefer to focus on those if we are to really understand people’s angst.

If we start by understanding why people rebel or revolt in the first place, it might guide us on how better to respond to it. As Albert Camus says in The Rebel, a rebel is one who says no. But not in a sense of renunciation; he is also someone who says yes, as soon as he starts to think for himself. To start with, we are dealing with an unequal power dynamic; people who rebel or revolt are doing so from a position of weakness against figures of authority. Further, Camus says:

“Values, according to the best authorities, ‘usually represent a transition from facts to rights, from what is desired to what is desirable (usually through the medium of what is generally considered desirable). The transition from facts to rights is manifest, as we have seen, in the act of rebellion, as is the transition from ‘this is how things should be’ to ‘this is how I want things to be,’ and still more, perhaps the conception of the submission of the individual to the common good.”

In the case of each of the protests across cities around the world, what people seem to be saying is that they have not got what they wanted, rather they have been deprived of what they were promised. That leaders have reneged on their commitments, that life simply can’t go on the same way, that they would like reforms or regime change. It is also not uncommon to find that facts themselves are suppressed many a time in some countries, and their people live for years in a bubble. So, as Camus says, when they can think for themselves (ie, when they find out) they are bound to rebel against the authorities. And in most cases, the protests or revolt is usually triggered by a single policy announcement which then snowballs and morphs into a much larger anti-government protest. Take the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest in France which began over a year ago, as a reaction to the decision to raise fuel prices. Over months of protest, it morphed into a rebellion against the Macron presidency, and also more broadly, against the wealthy Parisian elite. They argue that for city elites a higher fuel price is a trade-off they might be willing to make, but for ordinary and poor folk in the countryside it is not an option.  

Protests in Beirut, Lebanon, October 2019; Image: Shahen books CC by SA 4.0 on Wikipedia.org

Similarly, the student’s protest this year in Santiago, Chile, was sparked by the increase in metro fares. It amounted to a substantial increase for students and led to widespread protests. That has grown into a bigger call for reforms in education, healthcare and pensions, including a demand for change of the country’s constitution. Thanks to free market economic reforms that were introduced in Pinochet’s time, the country suffers crushing inequality – the top 1% owns 33% of the nation’s wealth.

Ditto for Hong Kong. What started off as a reaction to the draconian Extradition Bill planned by China, has led to widespread and violent protests demanding change of leadership as well as greater democracy – a longstanding demand of Honkkongers – and has been met with brute force by Beijing.  The underlying reason for the protests, many say, is years of simmering anger at the country’s astronomical cost of living, especially for accommodation.

I wonder when mass protests will take place in India, to revolt against a regime that promised millions of jobs when it came to power first and created few, that promised to double farmers’ incomes but instead gave farmers a handout, that promises to make India a US $ 5 trillion economy by 2024, when we are staring at a GDP growth of less than 6% this year. To the credit of farmers, they did protest last year in huge marches that they led to Delhi, the country’s capital and to Mumbai, the country’s financial capital. Since then, we have elected the same party to power, and all that farmers have received is paltry income support. There are no agricultural reforms to speak of, and the rural sector did not even receive mention in this year’s annual Union Budget.

Despite the seriousness of the economic slowdown, and the weakening of private consumption which has been the strength of our economic growth, no money has been pumped into the rural economy. Instead capitalists have got tax breaks and the real estate sector a few sops. When people are not buying new cars or washing machines, we expect them to buy new homes!

I would say my country is ripe for a mass protest. And yet, like the middle class in many countries in this Pew Survey, we are not entirely disengaged from politics, but happy to stay resigned to our fates. We believe greatly in destiny. And I believe the unwillingness to protest or challenge authority has a lot to do with our cultural mindset, as this comparison of national culture from Hofstede Insights shows. The power-distance and the uncertainty avoidance indices are the ones to pay attention to, in this context.

We have another five years before the next election comes along in India. Until then, we have NRC, Ayodhya Ram Temple, Kashmir, and god knows what else this government will think up next, to keep the pot boiling. As if emotive issues alone will fill people’s stomachs and fulfil their aspirations.

Meanwhile, we have two crucial elections coming up that could radically alter the world in 2020. I mean the UK elections that took place yesterday, followed by Brexit and the US elections next year. What 2020 will look like is anybody’s guess. But one thing seems certain: the protests begun this year are not going away anytime soon.  

The featured photograph at the top of this post is of the Student Protests 2019 in Santiago, Chile and is by Carlos Figueroa CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons.

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