Global unrest: a unifying thread of protest is establishing a new normal

By Kristian Rehfeld Thodén

To protest, or to display ‘a statement or action expressing disapproval or objection’, has long been a popular method of pushing for political change within societies. 2019 was a significant year for public protest, and 2020 has continued along the same lines of unrest. But is there a common thread that ties these events together?

Public protests have become a worrisome signature of the past year. Of all significant periods of civil protest throughout history, 2019 appears to have been the most marked of all, ‘a vintage year’ for popular unrest. With the scale of discord rivalling even 1968, coined the ‘year that rocked the world’.

2019: the year of popular unrest

Large-scale protests erupted across the world from Colombia, Ecuador and Chile, to Spain, France, India and Hong Kong. A report published in January by Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk consultancy firm, found that at least a quarter of the world’s countries had been swept by civil unrest in 2019, with forecasts that this would continue well into 2020.

The catalysts for the current wave of civil unrest have varied. In Lebanon, a tax on WhatsApp use; in Iran, an increase in gas prices; in Hong Kong, a contentious extradition bill; in Bolivia and Russia, cases of electoral fraud; and in Brazil, a cutback in education funding.

Many of these protests then evolved to issue greater demands of their governments, calling in some cases for sweeping changes or outright removals of government.

Global-Unrest-or-the-New-Normal-Candid-Orange
Source: Maplecroft

What is significant is both the scale and disparity between these protests, emerging at once in wealthy democracies with wide ranging political freedoms such as France and Spain, whilst springing up too in less wealthy, autocratic and isolated states such as Russia and Venezuela.

This might immediately suggest that there is little correlation between these events, that the reasons for protest in say, Hong Kong, would categorically vary from the reasons for protest in Bolivia or Iraq. However, this is not the case.

So, what, if anything, can link the protests that have emerged and continue to develop across the world? And what could a common thread teach us about the relationship between government and the population in the 21st century?

The unifying thread of popular unrest

A report by the Centre for Strategic & International Studies found that the mass political protests that have emerged since 2019 are part of a decade-long global trend which has seen the average frequency of popular unrest increase by 11.5% each year since 2011. Since 2009 there has been a 31% increase in the volume of protests. In this context, significant events (such as the Arab Spring) are not isolated incidents, instead they are part of a wider political phenomenon of global unrest which is set to continue into 2021.

Whilst each protest is unique insofar as they stem from individual state-related grievances, common threads can be formed considering, amongst other things, the general deterioration in economic wellbeing.

Global youth unemployment has increased by 37.2% since 1991. When considering that the youth are making up the bulk of protesters and are the same generation that came of age during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the problem becomes clearer.  Under 24s also make up some 41% of the global population.

The ensuing collapse of the economic and political system saw reduced opportunities for millions of young people who now regard rising inequality to be a fact of life. Since the 1980s the top 10% of earners have captured 57% of global income growth, and now the world’s 26 richest individuals own as much as the poorest 50%.

In economically developing countries especially, the benefits of economic growth are often seized by political and economic elites. As such, numerous protests are grounded in grievances over inequality and unemployment. These range from Tunisia’s protests over underdevelopment, to Chile where protests emerged over the cost of living and inequality, and Iraq where protesters rallied against unemployment and failing public services.

Corruption and political freedom

Perceptions of corruption are another common thread that can link protests. Such perceptions have grown sharply in South America, Africa and the Middle East since 2009. Failure to provide basic social and economic rights and the perceived theft of public funds caused Lebanese protesters to call for resignation of the government figures and the accountability of ministers and public officials.

In Moscow widespread protests emerged over government interference in the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections in which opposition candidates were barred from running. The protests in Moscow speak to the common frustration over a lack of political freedoms, a common cause of political unrest from India, to Barcelona and Hong Kong.

The previously mentioned study by Verisk Maplecroft found that the weakening of mechanisms for freedom of expression, such as restrictions on the press or labour unions, was the most common predictor of unrest – occurring in 12 of 47 countries. Protests over corruption and political freedoms are symptomatic of the wider decline of civil, legal and political rights which, since 2006, have been experienced in over 113 countries.

Encouragement and inspiration

Combine relatable issues with the political awakening that has resulted out of the global contagion of social media, and it is clear that now more than ever individuals are aware that things could be better, and that they are willing to do something to make it so. For the first time in history almost all of global society is politically interactive.

The relative deprivation that results from being able to see how the ‘other half’ live is an undeniable catalyst for protest, and is one of the reasons that protests in Latin America and the Middle East took inspiration from one another whereby common slogans and ideas transcended borders. Some Catalonian protesters were seen carrying the flag of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong protesters rallied in support of separatists in Catalan.

Seeing protests in other places has encouraged and inspired individuals to take to the streets with their own issues.

The failure of the nation state, is this the new normal?

We are living in an age of mass protest, far more significant than previous periods of global unrest such as the late-1960s. Common threads of economic and political discontent emerging from around the globe reflect the seeming failure of the modern nation-state. Income inequality, corruption, the erosion of civil liberties, stagnating incomes and a general loss of faith in the political class are entrenched issues that are experienced across vast swathes of the world.

Few leaders have offered any real and fundamental improvements to the structural causes so prevalent in some of these cases, be they corruption, economic inequality or political freedoms. An inability to address structural problems seems to highlight both that governments are unaware of the needs of their citizens, and that they are generally unprepared for a surging wave of civil expectations. With new protests emerging due to the associated effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, and no seeming movement to address key structural issues, the world will undoubtedly get more turbulent in the coming months.

These movements are symptoms of the growing disconnect between the desires of citizens and the actions of government. Regardless of their individual catalysing events, when looked at together, they demonstrate the need for a new social contract between the state and its citizenry with an improved system of responsiveness and understanding between the two. A range of political and economic models have proven that there is a common disillusionment amongst 2019’s protests: with governance and with the economy.

Failure to ensure political freedom, guarantee economic security and provide basic services link these protest movements by the concept that, today, citizens deserve more. The world’s governments will never be at a place where the demands of every citizen can be met, but it is within the capabilities of states to address the basic issues that underwrite much of this unrest.

It seems now that the entire political order of the modern era is being challenged, and that some form of change is long overdue.

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