The renaissance of the street struggle

by Donatella della Porta

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

Lebanon and Iraq, Chile and Colombia, Barcelona and Hong Kong – the list of global hotspots that have dominated the headlines recently is long. And the list of specific challenges which sparked the protests is just as diverse —from the tough sentences against independentista leaders in Catalonia to the small increase in the fares of public transports in Chile or the much debated extradition law in Hong Kong, which would mean that anyone suspected or wanted by China could be extradited to the People's Republic.

At first glance, these protests seem unrelated. But even though certainly heterogeneous, triggered as they were by specific challenges and developing in different contexts, they do have something in common. Viewing them as separate phenomena would be shortsighted.

In actual fact, most of the protests worldwide rocking the world since 2019 have a similar source: a double crisis, socioeconomic and political. And additionally, they both build upon the previous history of struggles in such as the anti-austerity protests of the beginning of the decade, as well as with the Global Justice Movement at the beginning of the millennium.

The Global Justice Movement in the 2000s denounced the rampant models of neoliberalism

The interlinking element of the movements, which have spread in both the global north and south, is the rejection of the extreme inequalities that have developed during late neoliberalism, with its reliance on the free market and its declining social protection. The Global Justice Movement in the 2000s denounced the rampant models of neoliberalism, pre-announcing the crisis that followed. The anti-austerity protests later reacted to the long and deep financial crisis that proved neoliberalism’s lack of ability to deliver on its promises.

While past protests seemed to hinge on a belief in hopeful change, the protest wave of 2019 seemed to be catalysed by a sense of disillusionment. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is clear that deep inequality was not a temporary consequence of the crisis, but rather stems from neoliberalism. What many thought was an exception, turns out to be our new normality. That in Chile the richtest one percent have 33 percent of the wealth and in Lebanon even 58 percent, is not due to a crisis but the capitalism’s inability to strike a balance between a free market and social protection.

The first dams break when people are systematically exploited and therefore have to fight for their existence

The fact that around the world increasing numbers of women, youth and indigenous people join the protests shows that the imbalance of the system is no longer bearable for the weakest parts of the global economic machine. The first dams break when people are systematically exploited and therefore have to fight for their existence, whether it is through precarious jobs, land expropriation or a lack of social protection.

The protests, as well as having their roots in the growing gap between the richest and the poorest, also reflect a legitimacy crisis that hit, in different forms, both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Even in its rampant years, neoliberalism had contributed to delegitimate political institutions. In effect, it spread an ideology that saw political intervention as a nuisance for free market. The financial crisis testified to the failures of unregulated capitalism. Austerity policies and state intervention to bail out banks were considered immoral by many citizens. Facing welfare state cutbacks, the deregulation of the labour market and the privatisation of public services, mistrust in public institutions spread widely. And evidence of proximity between the political and the economic elites also dramatically fuelled political mistrust, spreading concern about rampant corruption.

Global elites stand in the focus for protestors in Chile and in Lebanon, in Algeria or in Ecuador, and meanwhile in countries like France and Italy

Meanwhile, the various domestic waves of protests shared the trait of not just pointing the finger at the local elite, rather by bridging, these complaints with a broader denunciation of inequality and corruption. While in the same period global movements such as Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion and Ni Una Menos bridged issues of violence against nature and women with capitalist exploitation, the massive mobilisations were rooted in national issues but also vented at a global capitalist development that increased social inequalities. Global elites stand in the focus for protestors in Chile and in Lebanon, in Algeria or in Ecuador, and meanwhile in countries like France and Italy.  Moreover, the wealthy elites are perceived less as individuals and more as part of a united worldwide network.

As the repertoire of types of protest are broadcast worldwide by the old and new media, it is small wonder that the protests often assume similar forms. So called cacelorazos—the noise made by banging pots and pans—spread from South American countries like Chile, Venezuela and Argentina to Morocco, Turkey, Catalonia and even Lebanon, becoming a global means of revolt. Meanwhile, million-strong marches and blockades of roads, trains or even airports are highly popular, for example in Hong Kong or Barcelona. This is all about disrupting a system, sending shockwaves to power centres. In this sense, it is not just the methods that converge, but also the symbols. A demonstrator in Iran – covered by a mask, a bandana and a black hoodie – can nowadays hardly be distinguished from a member of Extinction Rebellion in London.

In this sense, global protest movements have developed in new directions since the start the millennium. In place of hierarchical union-like organisations, the notion of fluid networks has become the norm. This can be seen, for example, in the recent protests in Hong Kong, where protesters quote fighting legend Bruce Lee’s statement “be water”, reflecting the trend towards flat hierachies. Instead of leaders, decentralised networks dominate, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to rapidly coordinate via mobile phone, instant messages and social media platforms - and to all disperse in all directions at once, as if by magic.

Rather than addressing the issues raised, the discredited elites tended to fail in their attempts at scaring protestors with high levels of repression

For the established elites this is becoming more and more of a problem. State reactions to the protests have often fuelled rather than curbed them. Rather than addressing the issues raised, the discredited elites tended to fail in their attempts at scaring protestors with high levels of repression. The protests in Iraq, which took hold in October 2019 because of unemployment rates, low wages and corruption, were quashed with mass arrests and with almost 700 people had been killed by the end of January. Or in Haiti, where similar protests have been underway, there have been around 200  deaths. Meanwhile, in Chile, international observers from the United Nations reported torture, abuse and violent deaths.

This will, however, by no means calm the situation. On the contrary: With every imprisonment in Lebanon and every shot fired towards protestors in Hong Kong, the wave of protests is bound to swell. Because when statesmen and dictators could silence critics behind closed doors in the past, the ongoing global protests of 2020 are visible to the world - and solidarity will rise.

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