Why it’s still kicking off everywhere

From Chile to Iraq, we’re witnessing a global populist revolt.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics World

Egypt in September – thousands of people take to the streets to protest against General al-Sisi’s brutal government. Iraq in October – thousands of people take to the streets to protest against a corrupt political class and its Iranian backers. Chile in October – over a million people take to the streets to protest against the self-enriching governance of politicians and big business.

In country after country this year, millions upon millions of people have started kicking off. Think of Hong Kong, where, since June, increasingly violent protests have become a fixture of daily life. Or of Bolivia, where president Evo Morales’ attempts to install himself effectively as Bolivia’s permanent president provoked an angry response. Or of Sudan, where a restive populace rose up and finally ended the 30-year reign of President Omar al-Bashir. Or indeed of Algeria, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Catalonia, Haiti, Ecuador, Iran…

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in 2019 we have witnessed a massive uptick in global protest. Protests have been on the rise since the beginning of this decade, in fact, with the financial crisis haunting the global political and economic order, materially and ideologically. Think back to the anti-austerity upsurge in the southern periphery of the crisis-ridden Eurozone in 2011, when the Indignados in Spain cut a brief radical dash, and protesters in Greece paved the way for the now ruined dreams of Syriza. Or think back, of course, to the Arab Spring, where, for a moment, the fall of the hollowed-out, aged despots of Egypt and Tunisia gave hope to a whole region.

Still, 2019 has proven an especially tumultuous year. More striking still is that it is not immediately apparent why. The ostensible prompts for protest have been far more disparate than they were in 2011, when old, sclerotic Middle Eastern regimes wobbled and occasionally fell. And certainly more disparate than they were in the late 1980s, when people across Eastern Europe rose up for political and economic freedoms, against the Communists’ decrepit, authoritarian rule. In Lebanon, for instance, it was a tax on phone calls via services such as WhatsApp; in Egypt it was a vlogger alleging endemic political corruption; in Hong Kong it was a law allowing the extradition of criminal suspects to China. So there are irreducibly local contexts and causes for each moment in what looks like a global wave of protest and unrest.

Not that this has stopped some commentators from searching for what the protests have in common. As in 2011, many have pointed to the use of social media as an organisational tactic in contexts as diverse as Hong Kong, Catalonia and Lebanon. Likewise, as in 2011, the protests have largely been deliberately leaderless. Not only, or even mainly, because of some theory of horizontal decision-making, à la Occupy, but because it makes it difficult for a repressive state apparatus to target specific individuals.

Another notable common feature in places as distinct as Bolivia, Egypt and Algeria is the prevalence of young people among the protesters. This makes sense, given that many of the countries in which protests have taken place have predominantly young rather than aging populations. Moveover, those under 25 are often bearing the brunt of longer-term economic problems, with youth unemployment rates for Iran and Egypt hovering around 30 per cent. As the LA Times concludes, ‘Current protest movements are often spearheaded by financially strapped young adults increasingly fed up with their plight, which they believe is the result of corrupt political elites’.

And of course, the No1 go-to causal explanation for it all kicking off remains: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ In this vulgar Marxist re-telling, people are rebelling against neoliberal economics. They’re tired of seeing a top 1% basking in whatever wealth their economies still produce, while they scrabble around for the basics of life. Or as Red Flag, an Australian socialist journal, puts it: ‘For more than four decades, country after country has been ravaged by neoliberal policies designed to make the mass of workers and the poor pay for what is a growing crisis in the system.’

Admittedly, some of these factors are combined to some degree in today’s global convulsions. But ‘the economy’ feels inadequate as an explanation for what is going on. A fuel-price hike in Iran, a WhatsApp tax in Lebanon and a metro-fare rise in Chile, all mapped on to a broad tale of rising inequality, are not sufficient as economic causes to explain the rapid escalation of these protests. Moreover, they don’t explain why the protests have developed as they have – into populist revolts.

For that is what is most striking about the protests. They have all largely taken a populist form. Hence in Lebanon, the protesters have gradually pitched themselves as the Lebanese people against the entire political elite, including Hezbollah, under the slogan ‘all of them means all of them’. In Egypt, the chant first heard in 2011 is being heard again: ‘The people want the fall of the regime.’ And, in Chile, mass protests have been taking aim at the entire political system, on the grounds, as one observer puts it, that ‘there is a failure of the system of political parties in its ability to represent society’.

Paolo Gerbaudo, a political sociologist at King’s College London, describes it as follows: ‘These movements don’t appeal to specific categories. They appeal to the entirety of the citizenry… who feel defrauded by the political class.’ And that is what marks out the protests of 2019. They share a populist form, and a democratic aspiration.

If the post-2008 economic downturn does play a role in what’s happening, it is certainly not confined to the extent that it has visited hardship on people. This is no direct global revolt against neoliberalism. Rather, its principal role lies in the extent to which global economic stagnation and recession have deprived so many autocratic or semi-democratic regimes, from Iran to Bolivia, of the means to authorise and legitimise their rule. In such an economically straitened context, the rule of each nation’s political elite increasingly appears self-interested, and its corruption, which is hardly new, appears ever more brazen. And with each move they make to preserve their power, each constitutional fiat and repressive gesture, they appear increasingly opposed to their own people.

Generalisations about this populist revolt are always at risk of effacing the specific social and political tensions involved. It is impossible to understand what’s happening in Lebanon, for instance, without understanding the rising domestic opposition to the role of Iran.

Still, from Chile to Iraq, the ambitions of the various protesters remain remarkably consonant. They want politicians to represent and serve the people. They want a form of popular sovereignty. And here’s the kicker. They do so at a time when populist surges within the very Western nations that drew up the global political and economic order are rendering that order ever-more unstable. Rarely has the demand for popular sovereignty been as explosive as it is right now.

We live in interesting times.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


TrappedInTheOffSide .

30th December 2019 at 9:39 am

Tried and tested Keynesian economics. Mixed economys generally produce better societies. However I would say don’t matter what economic and political system you have it’s the people in it. Better people = better outcome.


29th December 2019 at 5:50 pm

I doubt these localised rebellions are connected. Correlation is not causation. Maybe it’s just coincidence.

Garreth Byrne

28th December 2019 at 7:01 pm

Populist revolts? I think some clarification of terminology is needed, before we judge these revolts to be Good or Bad things. Means employed may contribute to good or bad ends. We also have to wait a short or a long time for results. Who are ‘the people’ anyway? In 19th century Russia small groups calling themselves the People’s Will and other democratic-sounding names circulated manifestos and planted bombs or assassinated high-ranking rulers. We know that in 1917 the popular slogan Bread, Land & Peace swayed war weary soldiers and urban workers to push the czar aside and make way for Kerensky’s unstable social democratic government, which in turn was swept aside by Lenin and the Bolscheviks with their radical slogans like All Power to the soviets. After Lenin’s death the Russian people experienced shortages of bread, the kulaks were wiped out, Stalin went to war and the soviets had no power. Right populism in the form of Peronism in Argentina did not give power to the people. There seems to be a strong element of deja vu in much of this populist talk at present. I’m not optimistic about the historical outcome.

Modern Money

28th December 2019 at 12:11 pm

Two words

Neoliberal globalism.

The liberal left and right need out back in their box.

We have to bring all sides of the argument to the table to improve the debate that helps everybody after brexit. Improving the debate is always a good thing.

Somebody said this to me during a debate….

” Deficits can NOT “help us fight a myriad of problems that plague our economy–inequality, poverty and unemployment, climate change, housing, health care, and more.”

we can’t use deficits to solve problems if we continue to think of the deficit itself as a problem.” Deficits are ALWAYS the problem. Period. End of discussion.

Deficits are wrong in personal finance and more so in government budgets.

A deficit is the equivalent to a HIGHER tax. Think about it. All debts must be paid either by the debtors or the creditor. In the case of a deficit the taxpayer is BOTH. And who pays the taxes that pay off the deficits that pay for the wages of all those “helpful” government employees? Not the lazy SOBs that sit on their arses in council housing, but the productive hard workers who are trying to save so they can pay for their OWN housing and necessities.

Government deficits is NEVER the answer. FREEDOM always is. ”

Sounds reasonable and straight to the point and fits in with the narrative that has been created while we were in the EU.

So I calmly showed them the real data graph that shows the budget deficit = The private sector surplus to the penny. Then replaced some words using the other side of the balance sheet.


It now looked looked like this……

” A private sector surplus can NOT “help us fight a myriad of problems that plague our economy–inequality, poverty and unemployment, climate change, housing, health care, and more.”

we can’t use private sector surpluses to solve problems if we continue to think of the private sector surplus itself as a problem.” Private sector surpluses are ALWAYS the problem. Period. End of discussion.

Private sector surpluses are wrong in personal finance and more so in government budgets.

A private sector surplus is the equivalent to a HIGHER tax. Think about it. All debts must be paid either by the debtors or the creditor. In the case of a private sector surplus the taxpayer is BOTH. And who pays the taxes that pay off the private sector surplus that pay for the wages of all those “helpful” government employees? Not the lazy SOBs that sit on their arses in council housing, but the productive hard workers who are trying to save so they can pay for their OWN housing and necessities.

Private sector surpluses are NEVER the answer. FREEDOM always is.

Does not sound so reasonable now does it.


Modern Money

28th December 2019 at 2:11 pm

Jan Hatzius Goldman’s Top Economist Explains the same thing.


Just in case you have a left wing / right wing bias.

The accounting is neither left wing or right wing. It is simple assets in one side liabilities on the other.

In Negative

28th December 2019 at 10:48 am

Internet starts being properly deployed throughout all citizenries in the 90s.
Mid-2000s sees the introduction of smartphones – the internet in your pocket -and social networking/social branding sites.
increasing numbers of self-expressive tools.
Digital reformation of economic practices – consumption, super-fast trades on stockmarkets etc.

All the above means the political and social consensus ushered in under Thatcher and Raegan collapses. Economy crashes 2008, but truth obsessed imbeciles continue thinking that in all conditions, one single economic/trade model is the right one.

The paradigm is shifting, a new world is coming, these revolts are the growing pains of that new order. The problem is that no one has the vision to replace the old one. No one really knows what the new world will look like. There is years of this to come yet – the people and institutions of the future are only just arriving.

TrappedInTheOffSide .

30th December 2019 at 9:47 am

If we produced people with a much better understanding of their social responsibilities, and are far less self serving, it won’t matter what system we have.

Gareth Edward KING

28th December 2019 at 10:40 am

I wouldn’t include Catalonia in amongst the popular protests that are listed here, all, as has been said, being very distinct in origin. In NE Spain, I would hesitate to say that protests were ‘popular’. In October 2017, the illegal referendum should have given way to one that was properly organised. Unfortunately, as regards the 1978 Spanish constitution the whole of Spain (i.e. all of its ‘Comunidades Autónomas’) would have to set up a referendum to vote on whether just one (Catalonia) could become independent from the rest of Spain. So, one along the lines of the 2014 Scottish referéndum couldn’t happen. Remember, that the whole country voted in the present constitution. As it is, since 2017 not only has the repression increased there with prominent members of the Generalidad in prison or on the run, it would appear that ‘separatism’ is anything but ‘popular’. Less than 39% of a 6.1 million Catalonian population support ‘independence’ and across the region it varies widely: between Barcelona city and rural Gerona there’s about a 2:1 difference. Lower income Catalonians do not support ‘independence’, in general terms, and to put it in a UK-perspective; those with a ‘remainder-type’ profile would.

Stephen J

28th December 2019 at 8:59 am

I reckon that what has happened is that the system that we know and love as “representative democracy” has proved itself to be unreliable, and the people that are protesting all seem to agree that the kind of representatives that we get do not necessarily represent our interests, either fancied or genuine.

It is no accident that many of these populist movements of which the author speaks have as one of or even as a main claim, that of an introduction of “direct democracy”, also known as “issue based democracy”. The thing is that we are all aware of the internet now, and we can see how representative democracy can be replaced in order to improve democracy, make it more accountable to the voters.

The problem is that those that are currently representatives fear this, since it directly threatens their power.

The defence (as used in Brexit) is that they are the only people that are qualified to represent, since they are clever, is not buttering many parsnips these days, and 2019 was the year when it all coalesced.

Emma Olivia

28th December 2019 at 8:13 am

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