Protests are everywhere. The world is rising up. So can humanity

Micah White, PhD
Nov 23, 2019 · 8 min read
From Hong Kong to Iraq, Bolivia to Spain, Lebanon to Chile and Ecuador, 2019 has been a year of widespread anti-government unrest.

It’s happening again: Revolutionary fever is infecting the social body. The people of Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile, Iran, Iraq and beyond are mobbing the streets in massive numbers. These movements are achieving a level of militancy not seen in a decade.

Spectacular street violence has toppled Bolivia’s former president, Evo Morales, while elsewhere governments hang on, deploying riot police in Iraq, closing the border in Colombia, disabling the internet in Iran. The frenzy of protest appears contagious. Elites and activists in stable countries are rightly wondering if the virus might infect their neighbours, too.

At first glance, today’s unrest is remarkably reminiscent of the events of 2010 and 2011, when the Arab Spring initiated a wave of global protest culminating in Occupy encampments in 82 countries.

History, however, never repeats itself in exactly the same way and it would be naive to assume that this new wave of protest will play out like the one before it, which ended with the paramilitary eviction of Occupy’s encampments and a deeper entrenchment of autocracy in the Arab world.

Activists learned a tremendous amount from successes and failures of the previous cycle of protest movements. As did governments.

So, what should we expect in the months ahead? Will the protests morph into something bigger or will police countertactics — for example, an escalation of force leading to live ammunition — prevail? Will activists get it right this time? And what would success for the people in the streets look like, and mean, for the rest of society?

The only thing that is certain in these moments of contagious social protest is that no one knows with certainty what will happen next.

When the status quo is faced with vehement demands for change, many previously dormant (or restrained) forces actively vie to influence the course of events. The outcome is always unpredictable.

We can, however, increase our odds of correctly anticipating how the protests will unfold by being attuned to the ways in which society has changed, and what activists have learned, in nearly a decade since the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

I’ve been keenly following the various protests around the globe for several weeks. My interest was initially piqued in July by footage of activists in Hong Kong storming the government headquarters using a sophisticated protest tactic that combined hand gestures with a human chain to rapidly deliver supplies from a depot to activists at the front lines. The ingenuity of the tactic, which required a high level of crowd participation, suggested we were entering a new era of protest. Since then, monitoring the unrest spread to other countries, I’ve thought a lot about what’s shifted since the start of the decade, when I, along with my collaborator at Adbusters, publisher Kalle Lasn, called for Occupy Wall Street, the spark that launched the Occupy movement.

Let’s focus on just three of the shifts that have the greatest bearing on what will come from the contemporary wave of protest: the evolution of social movements, the changing nature of power and the shifting role of activism in society.

The rise and fall of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and subsequent social protests ranging from Idle No More to Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives has had a tremendous effect on our understanding of social movements as a social phenomena.

In the years leading up to 2011, social movements were typically understood to be the manifestation of popular discontent around a specific political issue. In a sense, protesters were taken at their word: If the masses were in the streets protesting against pre-emptive war on Iraq in 2003, for example, it was accepted that the root cause of unrest was an unpopular war. Governments had a simple choice of complying with, or disobeying, the explicit demands of the movement. Advances in riot control technologies, from sound canons to armoured vehicles, meant that governments less often complied.

This naive understanding of movements proved to be untenable when faced with the first wave of social-media-driven protests, such as Occupy Wall Street, that were oriented around abstract concepts — the influence of money on democracy — or, Brazil in 2013, where massive marches against a public-transport fare hike were obviously about so much more than that. Later, we saw it with Brexit, where information was so distorted that people protested in favour of policies that resulted in changes some now oppose. Obviously, these movements were motivated by something deeper. The old joke that activists don’t really know what they are protesting against turned out to be true because the reasons given were never the real reason everyday people felt drawn to unite with the collective in the square.

There is ample historical evidence that protests have been happening since the dawn of civilization. The earliest record of unrest leading to the overthrow of a government can be found in the Ipuwer Papyrus from ancient Egypt, roughly 3,000 years ago. And waves of protests have been happening steadily since — and seemingly with increasing frequency since the end of the Second World War.

The new understanding of protest movements is that they are a complex social phenomenon whose cause remains mysterious, not the simple manifestation of a political demand. They are a recurring phenomenon that is intrinsically human. And yet, mass protests cannot be conjured at will. Waves of protest such as we’re seeing today come as a surprise both to their instigators and the rest of society because the emergence of a movement requires a favourable historical moment, such as high food prices or a sharp economic downturn.

The eternal recurrence of mass protest serves a useful social function: Protests initiate a period in which old truths are challenged and great social transformations can occur. Without unrest our societies would not progress. Protests play a social evolutionary role and the grievance that unexpectedly triggers unrest is the symptom, not the cause, of why people join social movements.

China’s insistence that the Hong Kong protests are actually caused by unaffordable housing, and not the five demands of the movement — which are, “full withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting the classification of protesters as ‘rioters’, amnesty for arrested protesters [and] dual universal suffrage, meaning for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive” — demonstrates this evolution in the understanding of social movements by governments and gestures toward the future of how social protests will be dealt with in the future.

By using the momentum of the Hong Kong protests — which, let’s remember, started as a protest against the extradition bill — to instead advocate for aggressively solving the housing crisis by seizing idle land from developers, China is cannily harnessing the unique capacity of protest to usher in social changes.

Likewise, from an activist perspective, if periods of unrest are a recurring, inevitable and unpredictable social phenomena, then the challenge is not how to create social movements — or which injustices to organize around — but rather what to do when those moments arise.

In other words, the question for both activists and elites is now the same: How can we use the momentum of social protest to achieve grand social transformations that would have otherwise been impossible?

The evolving understanding of social movements coincides with a dramatic shift in the nature of power. In today’s increasingly fragmented world it is no longer sufficient to be the most materially, or militarily, powerful. It is now necessary to augment one’s power by demonstrating the capacity to rally the citizenry, a quintessentially activist task.

The United States National Intelligence Council anticipated this paradigm shift in power in its most recent Global Trends Report (2017):

“The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who […] demonstrate ‘power in outcome’ […] by mobilizing large-scale constituencies of support, using information to persuade or manipulate societies and states to their causes.”

The awareness that the powerful need to mobilize common people in order to achieve their strategic objectives has had the effect of altering the dynamic between activists and elites, movements and states.

The art of social-movement creation, once the exclusive domain of activists, is being weaponized. It is commonplace now to see governments experiment with deploying social protest to influence geopolitics. The United States accuses Russia of creating fake activist groups in a bid to influence the 2016 election and China accuses the United States of doing the same in Hong Kong. Not every protest is an authentic, grassroots expression of discontent.

The upside for activism is that street protest is no longer perceived as an unequivocally negative force, a symptom of social disintegration that ought to be quashed, but instead as one of the key sources of power, an unruly and vital phenomenon that ought to be harnessed.

Ultimately, power needs protest because many of the problems we face — climate change, in particular — are existential, not political, and are unsolvable without a large-scale global mobilization. Consider, for example, that some scientists believe planting one trillion trees would erase a decade of carbon emissions. Imagine the mobilization that would be necessary to get that done. From this perspective, the insufficiency of global climate agreements alone is clear. Only a collaboration between the creative energy unleashed by mass protest and the resources of sovereign power has any chance of planting a trillion trees, or pulling off any of the other dramatic public works efforts that are necessary to avert climate change induced mass extinction.

Activists and elites are thus thrust into an uneasy alliance. Hong Kong protesters have a choice: Collaborate with China on pivoting the movement toward a radical solution to the housing crisis or risk being defeated and getting nothing at all. This is a difficult choice between social and political priorities. After all, Hong Kong is the world’s least affordable housing market and last year, there were protests in the country demanding affordable housing. But collaborating with China would mean giving up on the political demand for autonomy. Activists can’t have what we want but we might get what we need.

Governments hit by unrest are presented with a similar dilemma: Use the opportunity of mass protest to accelerate social transformation to solve the underlying cause of unrest, or violently repress the people and suffer a decline in the new form of power. Occupy’s repression under former U.S. president Barack Obama arguably contributed to disillusionment, and the weakening of the progressive establishment, that fuelled Donald Trump’s victory. Mr. Obama failed to understand Occupy’s emergence as a symptom of the millennial generation’s existential anxiety about the future. What we craved was dramatic change, in any direction.

The new wave of protest is an opportunity to chart a new course for humanity. Let’s not squander it.

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