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Why the World is Filled With Failed Protest Movements

The insurgencies are anti-political at their base

“We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the … collapse of free market capitalism … an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in … individual freedom and a change … about what freedom means,” avers British journalist Paul Mason, the author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere. Mason, who acts as a kind of twenty-first-century John Reed of the global anticapitalist class has journeyed to Cairo, Tunisia, and Moscow, and has spent time with the Indignados in Spain, “occupiers” in the United States, and rioters in Athens and London. Out of these travels, he advances two fundamental points: that the anti-Mubarak uprising in Egypt, the occupation of Wall Street, and other manifestations of political unrest are simply different episodes of the same global revolution; and that the revolutionary imagination has returned to politics. If a decade ago “it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” today capitalism looks like a dead-end for the majority of young people. Young people today do not see capitalism as their future because they do not see a future for themselves in a world dominated by global capital. They fear that they will have to compete for jobs with machines and that they will be treated like machines. The demographic boom in the global south and the technological boom in the global north inverted the very meaning of “having a job.” Most young people do not have a job even when they work. If in the pre-crisis period a young Spaniard could live with the illusion that his underemployment was his choice—a decision made in freedom to live like an artist—now he knows it is no longer the case. In the next two or three decades, many of the professions to which young people currently aspire will be as unknown as the previously respectable job of stenographer is to us now.

In Mason’s view, “the graduate without a future”—the one who has a degree but not a proper job and who has inherited nothing but the debts of the older generation—is the lead protagonist of the new revolution, and the “occupied” public spaces have become workshops for a new generation of democratic politics: a politics without leaders and followers. What matters most for Mason is the revolutionary experience that citizens have gained. In this sense, protests have succeeded in transforming democratic politics even when they have failed to change governments or policies.

Not everyone treats the global protests as a crucible of anticapitalist revolution. We are in the middle of the revolution, agrees American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, but its protagonists are not the losers (graduates without a future) but the winners (citizens empowered by the opening of state borders and the spread of new technologies). Rather than being a crisis of democracy, Fukuyama asserts, the revolution is a triumph of democracy. It is the emergence of a new global middle class defined less by income and more by education, occupation, and lifestyle that has challenged democratic and nondemocratic regimes alike. Fukuyama posits that the recent expansion of the middle class explains the sources and dynamics of the protests. The new revolution is one of expectations not of frustrations. This is why it is not anomalous that the protests have hit hard some of the economically most successful countries and those least affected by the financial crisis of 2008.

Beyond expectations, the emerging global middle class is empowered by new digital technologies and characterized by its mobility and individualism. These individuals live in a world governed by global comparisons. The medical doctor in Brazil is no longer satisfied to compare his lot in life to his neighbor working in the local shop; rather, his point of comparison is with his colleagues in Berlin or Singapore. He insists on his “right” to have better public services and to have far more control over his life. He demands new norms for transparency and accountability, and political elites are pressed to make good on them. This new “civic vigilantism” is simply another expression of the general trend toward the democratization of public life. What makes this middle-class revolution principally different from its nineteenth-century predecessors is that this time the global middle class is far more attached to the market than to the nation-state. Protesters on the streets do not want to overthrow democratic governments, they want to control them.

Fukuyama has a point. But in two important aspects, the current discussion of the middle class is different from the twentieth-century debate about the historical role of the national bourgeoisie. In the last century, the aristocracy was the symbol of a cosmopolitan identity; the middle class, by contrast, was identified with the interest of the nation-state, and state nationalism was its customary political ideology. This is no longer the case. What is different today is an apparent schism within the middle class. There exists a statist middle class (a national bourgeoisie), usually represented by government functionaries and low- and middle-level managers of public companies who aspire to be part of the government; and then there is a global libertarian middle class whose political ambition is not to be in government, but rather to control it. This global middle class is suspicious of any government. It believes that it has succeeded in life not because of anything the state has provided but against the attempts of the state to put its grubby hands on everything.

Those in the global middle class and those in the statist middle class often share similar income and educational levels, but they see the world very differently. The state-dependent middle class is highly anxious about the shrinking of the state; the global middle class prays for it, and it is the latter that is at the heart of today’s protests in many parts of the world. The protesters in Moscow who labeled themselves “the creative class” and the Bulgarian protesters who were dubbed “the smart and the beautiful” are both representatives of the mobile and more cosmopolitan part of the middle class that trusts the market more than the state even when it subscribes to anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist slogans.

Paradoxically, the protest is not so much a means of defending the interests or the values of the middle class. It is a way of preserving the status of the middle-class individual at the time when in many parts of the world his income has been painfully hurt by the economic downturn. It was mesmerizing to observe philosophy professors from the University of Sofia marching for months against the government and thus preserving their social and political identity at the very moment when they are paid ridiculously low salaries and when the conventional wisdom holds that philosophers have become obsolete. In their book Identity Economics, George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton assert that identity may be the most important “economic” decision a person ever makes. This observation is critical for understanding the nature of the middle-class protests. People do not protest because they are middle class but because they want to be—and because they know that in situations like this, middle-class individuals should be on the streets. Political activism compensates for the economic impossibility of being middle class in the midst of an intractable recession.

Do the protests signal a radical change in the way politics will be practiced? Or are they simply a spectacular but ultimately insignificant eruption of public anger? “Is it the technology, the economics, the mass psychology, or just the zeitgeist that’s caused this global explosion of revolt?” Do the protests make clear the new power of the citizen or, alternatively, do they mark the decline of the political influence of the middle class and its growing discontent with democracy?

Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy The Hunger Games—the story of a rebellious girl, Katniss Everdeen, who raises hell and brings a revolution in a land where revolution had been defeated seventy-five years earlier—captures the new spirit of rebellion better than faddish sociological theories. The global protests, like Katniss’s revolution, boil down to an insurgency that is antipolitical at its base. It is born out of a profound sense of injustice, governed by a broad array of images, and rooted in an innate sense of empathy and human solidarity. The conscience-stricken celebrity may be its only legitimate leader. Is it accidental that Kseniya Sobchak—the enfant terrible of Moscow’s good society, who is famous for little more than being famous—became one of the symbols of Russia’s protests? It is a revolution without an ideology or a master plan. It does not envision a future radically different from the world of today. Failing to offer political alternatives, it is an explosion of moral indignation. Protesters are furious that their freedom does not translate into a capacity to change aspects of their socioeconomic condition that they desperately want to change. That leaves rebellion as the only option.

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