Thursday, December 12, 2019

Why So Many Protests?

Tyler Cowen counts:
As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.
In a fascinating essay, Martin Gurri tries to explain. The public, he says, feels excluded from the whole production process of society and government, and people feel that they can either say yes or no. Unhappy with what they are getting, the public says no: "All its implacable fury is invested in that act of negation."
The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure. After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale. Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation. . . .

Any attempt to sort out the consequences of the 2019 upheavals will soon bump into the inadequacy of our thinking on the subject. Consequences must refer to initial conditions: and these varied wildly. Algeria was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship. France, on the other hand, is one of the oldest democracies in the world. In the last two decades, the sectarian cliques that run Lebanon have destroyed a once-thriving economy, increased poverty, and blighted the infrastructure. In the “30 years” that sparked the Chileans’ indignation, however, their country became the wealthiest in Latin America, with the lowest poverty rate. Levels of acceptable violence also diverged broadly: the death of a single bystander shocked Hong Kong, but hundreds have been killed in Iraq. Given such an untidy tangle of starting-points, it may be futile to search for common landing-places. . . .

Beyond the oppositional stance, the public in revolt has displayed a singular lack of clarity about its objectives. Indifference to ideology and programs may be part of its consumerist charm. Pure negation – a loathing of the system and the elites who fatten on it – has taken the place of political doctrine. Ordinary people have faced bullets and beatings for that cheerless cause. The ideals of democracy are often invoked, but these are wielded like a club to smash at the temples of authority. France and Chile are well-functioning democracies with little corruption, yet the protests there have been notable for their violence and vandalism. While few are calling for revolution and absolutely no one is proposing alternatives to representative government, the public’s alienation clearly runs deeper than mere hostility to the elites. There is, I believe, a powerful if inchoate craving for structural change.
I agree, and I also agree that while that longing for change is real, so is the lack of any alternative plan. Ideology may be the bane of modernity, but without ideology, what is politics but a vapid power struggle? What is protest but destruction?

Gurri asks us to consider where this might lead:
This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis. It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration. Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality. A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart. This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.

Not every outcome is condemned to drown in pessimistic tears: the process, recall, is unpredictable. A structural reform that brings the public into closer alignment with the elites is perfectly possible. But I find it hard to see how that can be accomplished, so long as the public clings to the mutism of the consumer and refuses to articulate its demands like a true political actor. One rarely gets what one hasn’t asked for. Reform depends on the public’s willingness to abandon negation for practical politics. . . . If this willingness has been expressed in any of the revolts now under way, I have been unable to discover it.
I am reminded of the immortal words of an Occupy protester quoted by Joseph Bottum:
We want change. Just change.

1 comment:

David said...

I must confess I've been looking on the current wave of protests with a rather cynical eye. It seems to me that a lot of the agitation comes from the public wanting combinations of things that it can't have. In Britain, the aggregate desire seems to be for the dynamism of an international supercapitalist entrepot (when Johnson cares to state his vision of a post-Brexit Britain, that's what he comes up with) combined with a safe, unchanging Little England of cozy-mystery villages and lifelong, subsidized mining jobs. More or less the same could be said for France and, in a way, the US. In Lebanon, people may be fed up with corrupt sectarian leaders, but would a decisive majority of the population be willing to give up their own sectarian identities and tales of sectarian grievance in order to become rootless cosmopolitans? And everywhere, the aggregate public seems to want safety from global warming with no sacrifice or change in our lifestyles.

I suspect as a species we will continue to drift unhappily until some catastrophe--perhaps a depression, perhaps a giant Arctic methane burp, who knows?--focuses our minds.