by Simon Stocker
Yes, there were many protests in 2019. But no, it was not an epochal year like 1917 where poverty caused by brutal warfare led millions of people to protest on the streets or 1989 were protest waves in eastern Europe brought communism to its knees. The nature of the current protests seems to be less tangible and they lack a common ideological frame. This does not mean that no common motifs can be discerned. I am well aware that a lot of young people are protesting and that social media plays a key role. In addition, more and more movements have become “headless” in the sense of not relying on one leader figure. But this is rather a descriptive way of analyzing the similarities of the different protest movements which does not go deep into the roots of them.
The conventional wisdom at the moment gives two explanations to categorize the protest waves. First, in some countries like Bolivia or Algeria imperious authorities have overstepped in exploiting their powers. Second, in Lebanon or in France small additional economic burdens were the straw to break the camel’s back. Both explanations are superficial and just focus on certain tipping points which have been reached. It cannot be a coincidence that all this is happening at the same time. In my opinion, there are more complex, structural reasons why all these protests occurred and to see them we need to take a broader historical perspective.
During the last decade, some perpetual and stable believed structures lost their significance. 15 years ago, the financial market followed well-established models, in politics the same old positions were reflected by the same parties and the allocation of roles in a family was hardly questioned in the public sphere. Today, we are seeing negative interest rates, a French socialist party which is almost clinically dead and women’s strikes even in the most conservative regions of Switzerland. We are now realizing that we actually do not understand a lot of complex systemic relationships as well as we thought. Consequently, this leads to uncertainty and insecurity, and social media is accelerating this development by fragmenting the public sphere. The driver for this development is the progress in technology combined with globalization. On the one hand, the emergence of the GAFAs, platform enterprises like Uber or blockchain applications can be seen as a success story. On the other hand, a big part of the population is not getting anything from the benefits and is even suffering because of them. Tensions and anxieties arise, and what happens next — if possible people react in elections, or just protest on the streets.
One might feel taken back to the 19th century where the first industrial revolution caused a similar level of disruption to the current fourth industrial revolution. The result was very similar: people realized that the rug was pulled out from under their feet and reacted in panic. So, the 19th century became a time of experiments and disruptions. After the French Revolution, the old order was re-established in 1815. Only fifteen years later in 1830, a new wave of revolutions and upheavals takes place and in 1848 again. The feeling of being overstrained also manifests itself in the emergence of new ideologies like Marxism or Nationalism since ideologies simplify the perception of reality. A suitable illustration for the situation in the 19th century but also for the current circumstances is the painting “Gotthardpost” from the Swiss artist Rudolph Koller. The painting shows a stagecoach with five horses speeding down the Tremola pass road. A calf is fleeing and the cows are stunned by the vehicle which disturbs their idyllic landscape. The Germanist Peter von Matt interprets the painting as an old era that is overtaken by a new era and asks — what will actually happen with the calf?
I think that the calf is a good analogy for those who are anxious and insecure about the future. The calf has to be protected and here I see our responsibility: we have to learn from the past and start realizing that technological innovation always demands for societal innovation. The current protest waves are just a precursor of what might still be in front of us. It is our duty to elucidate and to come up with creative, deliberate strategies. We need reasonable answers from the center of society and not from its extremist margins.
This article was first released in the latest publication of the Graduate Press, entitled “Revolutions”. Download the Spring print edition here.
Photo is taken from Die Gotthardpost by Rudolf Koller.