Common Themes in the 2019 Protest Wave

By Francis Shin

Thirty years after the 1989 revolutionary wave that precipitated the collapse of most Communist regimes around the world, a new potential revolutionary wave seems to be brewing. With the exponentially growing number of large-scale demonstrations, popular discontent with current regimes has reached a level of participation that has not been present since the 1960s.  This can be seen in the cases of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Czechia, Spain, France, Britain, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the global climate strikes. In fact, according to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, it is possible that this is the largest wave of nonviolent protests in history. Given the geographical and socio-political diversity of all these protest campaigns, it is unsurprising that few of them share the same goals, guiding ideologies, or strategies. However, within the current protest wave, there are a few common themes, namely: the relatively high number of young core demonstrators, the impact of new communications technology, and a general discontent not with their governments’ policies but with the governments themselves.

Although the demographics of the demonstrators in the countries listed has some variance, notably, young people have been at the forefront in most of these campaigns, coordinating action and consistently turning out. Shrinking autonomy and a lack of opportunity, directly restricted by authoritarian governments in some cases or indirectly tolerated by incompetent regimes in others, seem to be the most frequently cited reason for young people to be dissenting. This is connected to another motivating factor for young people to demonstrate, which is the shrinking economic prospects for them. More specifically, in places where economic inequality is relatively high and young people are disproportionately less well-off compared to other generations, like in Chile and Iraq, young protesters feel that the government is not representing their interests

An additional factor in the rise of these demonstrations is the impact of new technology. As noted by Martin Gurri in The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, every major technological revolution in communications preceded massive socio-political change as the control of information became freer. Gurri highlights the impact of the printing press, the electrical telegraph, the radio, and television on societies, and how these technological developments always preceded huge socio-political disruption. With the increasing spread of Digital Revolution technologies, particularly with the rise of social media usage, coordination among potential protesters has become significantly easier, allowing decentralized campaigns that are much harder for governments to counter as they do not rely on any leadership figures to persist. 

Nevertheless, the lack of leadership for protesters has likewise probably been a contributing factor in their lack of impact; notably, while the protests in Serbia and Algeria have been continuing for months (or a year in Serbia’s case), neither of those campaigns have secured the major concessions that they have demanded. Similarly, in Sudan, the military regime that the protesters had been trying to remove was able to negotiate a continued role through a power-sharing agreement.

The last common factor among all the protests is their shared dislike of their governments in their entirety rather than just their policies. Although many of the protests share the same complaints about corruption, growing authoritarianism, and/or lack of responses to widening socio-economic inequality, the governments’ initially dismissive attitude towards the protesters almost universally inflamed tensions. This is another potential reason why the demonstrations have been so consistent – for example, despite the authorities in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria, and France conceding to some of the protesters’ initial demands as the protests intensified, the failure of those governments to respond fast enough to those demands, combined with heavy-handed armed responses in a few cases, galvanized the demonstrators to list more demands rather than allow themselves to be intimidated into silence. Popular upheaval has somewhat dissipated only in Sudan and France, but protests continue sporadically in both countries too. 

For now, it is almost impossible to say how the current moment of popular upheaval will turn out. Nonetheless, it is worth considering how the confluence of factors of youth discontent, new technological advances in communication, and distrust in governments are creating the conditions that paves the way for the contemporary protest wave to become a revolutionary one. The only thing that is immediately certain is that the present global proliferation of demonstrations is a pivotal time in which the situation can change dramatically in mere moments.

Title image by The Guardian

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