A brilliant piece by Branko Milanović who has the courage to admit that our political categories are useless in explaining the ever increasing number of revolts occurring around the world. Social media may be an enabler, but it is not the cause. A thought provoking blog.
Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His new book “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World” should be appearing in October.
Cross-posted from Branko’s blog
“The specter is haunting [the world]. The specter of … [what?]”. While Marx and other observers and participants knew in 1848 more or less exactly what was haunting Europe, in our 2019 revolutions we have no clue. Some people like Yascha Mounk and Thomas Friedman, the veterans of the dreams of the 1990s, hope to see in them the nationalist revolutions (which to them appeared democratic) that brought communism down. But so heterogeneous are today’s revolts and the regimes they face that it is unclear what they could be bringing down. Others see the Arab Spring, but hopefully with a better final outcome, raising its head again.
These are the new worldwide revolts which have little in common with any of the older dates, whether 1848 or 1968, in which we artfully try to squeeze them. They are the first revolution of the globalization era. Since the revolts are spread over such a wide space, and affect different countries and continents, they cannot have, unlike the more geographically limited revolutions of 1968, much in common with each other. They share I think first, the ability to organize through social media, and second, political demands that can be perhaps summarized as the dislike of the politicians who rule them, and desire to be heard and be included in the political process.
Revolts of exclusion unite gilets jaunes and the Algerian protesters. Revolt against the corruption of political elites unites Lebanese and Colombian protesters. Revolt against higher prices, enacted with insouciance for the poor, unites Iranian and Chilean protesters. Desire for independence unites Catalan and Hong Kong manifestations. Hatred of the regimes that shoot protesters unites Bolivian and Venezuelan mass movements.
The attempts of finding ideological commonality between these revolts shows clearly its limits. Yascha Mounk sees in the Bolivian regime overthrow a desire for democracy. But in reality it was an old-fashioned military coup, very likely prepared months in advance, that brought back to power a racist oligarchic elite. So, now the disenfranchised left will have to begin anew its fight for democracy. But in Venezuela and Nicaragua, it is the opposite: the right is trying to overthrow the former left-wing revolutionaries that have decided never to leave the power and asphyxiate everybody else.
Protesters in Hong Kong are called by the mainstream media “democratic”. But they are in realty secessionists who use democracy as a more convenient slogan because demands for democracy, not likely to spread to the rest of China, can be realized only in an independent Hong Kong. They are thus similar to Catalan protesters who believe too that real democracy implies the right of self-determination. Both pose a question to which, since at least 1918, when Woodrow Wilson and Lenin tried to propose their solutions, the world has had no answer: who has the right to self-determination? Is it a fundamental democratic right or not? Can it be exercised if other members of a given state are against it? We are just unable to answer it today in these two cases, as we are unable to say anything meaningful about Kurdish or Palestinian independence, or Kosovo and Abkhazia. Thus the world is full of “frozen” conflicts which flare up from time to time and represent so many points that potentially could lead to much larger wars.
Then, consider Chilean and Iranian demonstrations. Both were triggered by a seemingly modest economic changes: increase in the price of gasoline (which by the way was also at the origin of the gilets jaunes movement) and increase in the metro fare. Both regimes reacted back with unusual violence: apparently more than 100 people were killed in Iran and more than 20 in Chile. But these two regimes are very different: one is a neoliberal democracy with its constitutional roots in an extreme right-wing dictatorship; another is a quasi-democratic theocracy with its roots in a revolutionary movement against a right-wing dictatorship. Yet in both, people have not risen only because of higher prices; they seem to be driven by something more fundamental: regimes’ contempt for citizens’ rights, regimes’ total ignorance of vast groups of peoples (the poor in Chile, the young unemployed in Iran).
The most violent suppression was in Iraq. But the world has become so inured to the violence and killings in Iraq since the “democratic regime change” arrived there in 2003 that the new round of mass violence attracts very little attention. Many of those who supported the invasion of Iraq, arguing that it will bring the second (after Israel) Middle Eastern democracy, say very little about these protests: so difficult are they to fit in any of their schemes. If they supported it, they would be indirectly indicting the “democratic regime” they helped bring about in 2003. So they say nothing.
Revolutions of 2019, I think, presage a new breed of globalist revolutions. They are not part of the same and easily recognizable ideological pattern. They respond to local causes, but have a global element in the ability of communicate with each other (Catalan protesters imitated blockade of public infrastructure started by the Hong Kong protesters). Perhaps more importantly, they encourage each other: if Chileans are able to stand up, why not Colombians? If there is a single ideological glue to them, it is, I think, desire to have one’s voice heard. At the time of tectonic political shifts where politicians and old ideologies have lost much of their credibility, a thing which has not lost its credibility is the desire and the right to be heard and counted. It is in a sense a democratic protest but since standard two-party democracies have lost much of their shine after 2008, the revolts have trouble defining themselves in an ideological and political sense.
We should expect more of such diverse, often inchoate revolts of globalization until more structured political forces appear on the scene and show themselves to be able to channel the grievances and use them to come to power.