By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
In our previous post, Global Protests Round-Up: Authoritarian Adaptation, Data Gathering, and the Role of Class, we prepared for a look at some country studies with a review of the literature. Topics to watch for: Authoritarian adaptation (for example, blaming foreigners and outsiders, using direct violence against dissidents, or agent provocateurs), false optimism by protesters a la 1848, “violent flanks” accompanying non-violent movements; the methodological difficulties of data gathering, whether via event counting or field surveys, and the irony that data gathering on a sufficient scale would create institutions of more or less the same scale as protest organizers themselves; and how the social composition of movements, whether whether driven by the working class or, let’s go ahead and say it, bourgeois, affects the likelihood of “democratization.” (Although movements led by either class can succeed, working class movements are more likely to succeed, all other things being equal, if they have the requisite operational capacity). We also pointed out (with a map and table) that the number of protests is very large. Here is another example of scale, from event counting in Africa:
Have you been following protests in Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon, Spain, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador? It is a global trend. Take a look at the rise in riots and protests in Africa in one decade. More to come. pic.twitter.com/IjuAM63Jdo
— Carlos Lopes (@LopesInsights) October 28, 2019
(Although a comment further down in the thread draws attention to the methodological difficulties: “Interesting, but must be used with care. This may not be comparing apples with apples e.g. consistency of measurement methods, etc.” Quite right!) I would bet there are other such scattered examples as well.
Methodology aside, it’s clear that today’s global protests are an enormous story, far bigger than Occupy, which propagated in a relatively simple fashion, east to west. Working from memory: Tahrir Square (the “Arab Spring”), Athens, Madrid, Paris, London, the Capitol occupations in the U.S, followed by Occupy proper in Zucotti Square and then throughout the United States, with the Carré Rouge uprising in Montréal as the lovelu coda of the sequence. There was a great similarity tactically beween the Occupations (seizure of central urban spaces, ideally squares) and ideologically (general assemblies, and often no clear “demands”). Today’s protest movements show no such pattern of propagation: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Guinea, Haiti, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Netherlands, Peru, Russia, Spain, Sudan, Uganda, and Venezuela are all happening in the same year and in no evident sequence. Nor do they show ideological consistency, although they do show similarity in tactics (YouTube is great for How-To videos, as is the Twitter. If you want to engineer a trebuchet from locally sourced materials, it’s easy to find out how). They do have demands, which vary by the protest. They also often involve millions of people, not hundreds or thousands. They are, perhaps, national rather than urban (even Hong Kong). They are not, so far as I can tell, international, as a follower of the Bearded One would understand that.
Today’s global protests, then, are perhaps the biggest story going, which — hold onto your hats, here, folks — the press is covering very poorly (or, in the case of the gilets jaunes censoring) relative to its importance. Most of the protest stories focus on single countries; there seems to be little effort to integrate the stories into an analytical framework (see, again, the previous post), or to compare and contrast different protests. And while I am sure the local reporting is what it is, the English-language reporting is even more miserably inadequate.
As a sidebar: One aspect of coverage on protests especially annoys me: the reporting on “violence.” In Hong Kong, for example:
Media really need more precise & detailed descriptions & better perspective, rather than just slapping this lazy cliche of ‘escalating violence’ on the protests, which are for the most part nonviolent with pockets of property destruction & clashes with police.
— Kong Tsung-gan / 江松澗 (@KongTsungGan) October 26, 2019
Violence is always “breaking out,” or a protest “descends into” it, but there hardly ever any agency or even explanation for why it did. (There is also a pervasive bias toward inflammatory imagery: I remember vividly a picture of a flaming building during riots in London that was everywhere, and the implication was that London was in the grips of a Detroit- or Newark- or Watts-style riot. In fact, the fire was in that one building, and a rather small one at that, as a photo with a wide-angle lens would have shown.) I’m not saying that violence never happens, because of course it does; but the reporting on it tends to be bad along almost any axis you choose to evaluate it. End sidebar.
In the previous post, I surveyed the literature; in this post, I’m going to review several explanations of what causes the protests; some regionally, some globally, so that we can understand the frames that journalists will be using in their reporting. (Sadly, I will not be able to aggregate information for country studies, as I said I would do in the previous post. That was far too ambitious! I will be begin by looking at Chile, Iraq, and Lebanon tomorrow; readers with knowledge of those countries are welcome to email me at lambert [UNDERSCORE] strether [DOT] corrente [AT] yahoo [DOT] com. I already have a lot of help on Chile. I also welcome good links and tweets in comments.) So to the various frames that journalists will use, some of which are exceptions to the strictures against press coverage that I outlined above.
An Economic Slump
This argument is being made only for Latin America. From the Associated Press, “Is boom, then slump, behind fiery Latin American protests?“:
[F]rom Port-au-Prince to Santiago, furious demonstrators were marching this week to demand fundamental change, part of a wave of often-violent protests that has set tires, government offices, trains and metro stations ablaze across Latin America and the Caribbean.
What’s driving the protests thousands of miles apart, across countries with profoundly different politics, economies, cultures and histories? One important factor: Despite their differences, the countries hit by fiery protests this month saw often-dizzying commodity-driven growth in the first decade of this century, followed by a slump or stall as prices dropped for key exports. Even Haiti , its own economy largely stagnant, saw billions in aid from oil-rich Venezuela flood in, then disappear.
Behind the commodity slumps may be slowing growth in China:
Well said. Slowing Chinese growth important part of story, esp. for Ecuador & Chile, bc domestic social compromise dependent on exports of copper & crude oil to China. Rising debt appears to be postponement strategy, as social compromise itself is proving tricky to dismantle…
— Jack Copley (@JackCopley6) October 19, 2019
Journalists approach income inequality from several angles. (Country studies have a Thomas Piketty-like precison, as we shall see; both Hong Kong and Lebanon are highly unequal, for example).
Jeffrey Sachs frames income inequality as social unhappiness and distrust, in “Why Rich Cities Rebel” from Project Syndicate:
Three of the world’s more affluent cities have erupted in protests and unrest this year. Paris has faced waves of protests and rioting since November 2018, soon after French President Emmanuel Macron raised fuel taxes. Hong Kong has been in upheaval since March, after Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed a law to allow extradition to the Chinese mainland. And Santiago exploded in rioting this month after President Sebastian Piñera ordered an increase in metro prices. Each protest has its distinct local factors, but, taken together, they tell a larger story of what can happen when a sense of unfairness combines with a widespread perception of low social mobility.
Each year, the Gallup Poll asks people all over the world, “Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?” While Hong Kong ranks ninth globally in GDP per capita, it ranks far lower, in 66th place, in terms of the public’s perception of personal freedom to choose a life course. The same discrepancy is apparent in France (25th in GDP per capita but 69th in freedom to choose) and Chile (48th and 98th, respectively).
Hong Kong, France, and Chile are hardly alone in facing a crisis of social mobility and grievances over inequality. The United States is experiencing soaring suicide rates and other signs of social distress, such as mass shootings, at a time of unprecedented inequality and a collapse in public trust in government. The US will certainly see more social explosions ahead if we continue with politics and economics as usual.
Perhaps most important, and least surprising, traditional economic measures of wellbeing are wholly insufficient to gauge the public’s real sentiments
Others frame income inequality as withdrawal or repricing of government services from those who most need them:
What's interesting about the latest cycle of struggles in Ecuador, Chile and Lebanon (Barcelona is a more complicated story) is that they were all triggered by some tax or subsidy removal—part of austerity measures in response to growing economic pressures and rising public debt.
— Jerome Roos (@JeromeRoos) October 19, 2019
I thought we were over austerity. I guess not. (Interestingly, transport was a flashpoint for the gilet jaunes, because there was no public transport in the periphery where they lived, and so a proposed tax on fuel, sold as a climate change measure, hit them hard; the trigger for Chile was a rise in public transport fees; and public transport, long a source of civic pride in Hong Kong, has become a terrain of battle.)
Still others frame income inequality as consumer issues. From the New York Times, “From Chile to Lebanon, Protests Flare Over Wallet Issues“:
In Chile, the spark was an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, it was a tax on WhatsApp calls. The government of Saudi Arabia moved against hookah pipes. In India, it was about onions.
Small pocketbook items became the focus of popular fury across the globe in recent weeks, as frustrated citizens filled the streets for unexpected protests that tapped into a wellspring of bubbling frustration at a class of political elites seen as irredeemably corrupt or hopelessly unjust or both. They followed mass demonstrations in Bolivia, Spain, Iraq and Russia and before that the Czech Republic, Algeria, Sudan and Kazakhstan in what has been a steady drumbeat of unrest over the past few months.
(I’m being unfair to this article in the quote I pulled; this is actually the best wrap-up I’ve found. It’s just that somebody needs to devote a whole bureau to it, instead of having two reporters wrting a single article — and then filing it under “The Middle East!”)
Finally, Tyler Cowen writes in Bloomberg, “Protesters Are United by Something Other Than Politics”
One frequent theme is people objecting to a price increase. In Ecuador, a focal point of the protests has been a demand for restoration of fuel subsidies. Petroleum price subsidies also have been central to the Haitian protests. In Lebanon, citizens have been upset at a new tax levied on the use of WhatsApp, with a social media tax also having been an issue in Uganda. In Sudan cuts to food and fuel subsidies have been a major complaint. In Chile they are protesting subway fare hikes.
The trend is that price increases may continue to become less popular. And, crucially, the internet will help people organize against such changes.
Consider that an old-style labor-oriented protest can be organized through the workplace or plant itself, through on-the-ground techniques that long predate the internet. There is a common locale and set of social networks in place, including perhaps a union. Those who suffer from a price increase, in contrast, typically do not know each other or have common social ties. Just about everyone buys gasoline, either directly or indirectly. The internet, however, makes it possible to mobilize these people into protests with prices as the common theme.
In other words: Protests of workers seem to be becoming less important, and protests of consumers are becoming more important.
(But wait. Isn’t Cowen really saying that prices are becoming political? That is, overtly political?) I think we have yet to see whether “consumers” have the operational capacity that “old-style” working class institutions had. I’m guessing no. I also don’t think Cowen is right. I think that the protesters percieve the political economy behind the prices, and that’s what they see as their enemy. Of course, an adaptive authoritarian system will buy them off! And since Cowen segued neatly to the Internet, so will I.
Like the New York Times, but, as usual, better, the Financial Times has put together an multi-bureau editorial team to produce “Leaderless rebellion: how social media enables global protests“:
The mass protests that have broken out during the past year in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East share other important characteristics. They are usually leaderless rebellions, whose organisation and principles are not set out in a little red book or thrashed out in party meetings, but instead emerge on social media. These are revolts that are convened by smartphone and inspired by hashtags, rather than guided by party leaders and slogans drafted by central committees.
The rallying power of social media is a crucial enabler for leaderless movements. When the Hong Kong demonstrations broke out in June, Joshua Wong — the most high-profile democracy activist in the territory — was in jail. In Moscow, a month later, the Russian government moved swiftly to arrest Alexander Navalny, a leading opposition figure, but demonstrations continued without him. In Lebanon, France and Chile, authorities have searched in vain for ringleaders.
Across the world, demonstrators are using similar technologies to organise and spread their messages. Messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption — such as Telegram — are hard to spy on and are very popular. Facebook groups and Twitter allow amorphous protest movements to crowdsource ideas and articulate grievances.
Social media also allows a movement in one place to take inspiration from news of revolts in another. The occupation of the airport in Barcelona last week was a tactic borrowed from Hong Kong. Hong Kong demonstrators have been seen carrying the Catalan flag. The Sudanese and Algerian uprisings this year borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans — in a similar fashion to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
The often leaderless quality of the revolts also makes them hard to either suppress or negotiate with
First, I’m not sure a (so-called) leaderless protest is all that difficult to negotiate with; the Hong Kong protesters, for example, have five demands that are very clear (one of which has been met). Meet the demands, end the protest. Easy peasy The real issue, from the perspective of adaptive authoritarians, is that there is nobody to co-opt. Second, the words “enable global protests” are carefully chosen; nobody ever decided to brave tear gas or a policeman’s club because of a social media influencer, but social media can explain how to neutralize the tear gas, and what sort of hard hat to buy. Worldwide and quickly, too. Third, I think a different term from “leaderless” needs to be found; just becaue leaders are not visible, or because people rapidly rotate through leadership positions does not mean there are no leaders. Everything I know about social media tells me that users follow a power curve. For example, in blogging: Perhaps 5% of readers comment. Perhaps another 5% of those readers comment regularly. Perhaps another 5% of those readers go on to create their own blogs. So I scoff at the notion that a movement that co-ordinates through a platform is leaderless, and I would bet that in all countries, the organs of state security are busily working out how to detect and contain the real-life people for whom online personas are proxies, using social graph algorithms.
We might integrate the various frames for causation listed above into this one sign:
Neoliberalism was born in Chile and will die in Chile. pic.twitter.com/tkLyNgoYu2
— Jalila Haider (@Advjalila) October 28, 2019
(However, I don’t think that slogan applies to Hong Kong or Catalonia.) Of course, the sign is in English, hence for global consumption, so one wonders who wrote and propagated it, and why. If indeed the common factor in the global protests is the failure of neoliberalism, and the protesters, globally, come to understand that, that will be a very interesting development indeed. We shall see!