The Power of Protest

Richard Youngs

What trends can we decipher when it comes to modern protests? Is there a pattern to the grievances that helps to explain the current spike in protest?

Large-scale protests have become more numerous and geographically widespread in recent years. While much debate among international relations experts has focused on the shift in power away from the West to rising economies, equally significant in the nascent era of global politics is the rise of citizen mobilisation.

Previous periods have, of course witnessed bouts of protest. Today's wave of protests is relatively unique, however in effecting all regions of the world, with similar patterns of revolt spanning diverse national and cultural contexts. The ubiquity and frequency of large-scale mobilisations is sufficient to denote a structural shift in how citizens confront power and in how global civil society organises in pursuing its concerns.

There is no single set of statistics that can be used to quantify the rise in protests—in part because what constitutes a 'protest' is defined in different ways. However, several surveys and databases show a sharp spike in protests in 2011-2012, followed by a lull, and then a renewed intensification of citizen revolts from 2015-2016 (ILO : Gdelt; Acted). In 2016, new protests rocked Armenia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Thailand, Yemen and Zimbabwe. In 2017, there have been notable protests in Argentina, Belarus, Ethiopia, Gambia, Hungary, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco, Paraguay, Romania, Russia and Venezuela—to name but a few examples.

It is possible to identify a number of overreaching features of the current surge in global protest.

A key characteristic is that today's protests are driven by a diversity of issues, grievances and popular concerns. Some protests aim very directly to eject a government or regime from power—think of the on-going revolts in Venezuela that have been seeking a 'recall referendum' on President Nicolas Maduro's continuation in office. Some revolts push for other types of less dramatic democratic reforms—like the protests in Iraq in 2016 that pressed for a fairer power-sharing democracy or those in Latin America seeking more extensive rights for indigenous minorities. Some focus more on cases of corruption—recent Brazilian and Indian protests being two of the best-known such examples. Many protests in the West have been primarily against austerity cuts—those in Greece and Spain being emblematic of this type of mobilisation. Others are less precise and more generically against capitalism and neoliberalism like the various national versions of the Occupy movement. In contrast, some protests are responses to very specific, local grievances and have relatively modest aims—a growing number of protests in Russia fit into this category, for example.

Most mobilisations are made up of diverse elements, involving uneasy allies whose agendas and operational modes diverge significantly.

There remains a tendency for activists and analysts to see protests through the prism of their own particular set of concerns. For those working on or exercised by corruption, the current protest surge represents a global struggle against corruption, for democracy campaigners and experts, it is a new uprising in favour of democracy. For critics of capitalism and neo-liberalism, it is part of a growing anti-capitalist revolt. For environmentalists, it tends to be interpreted as an outgrowth campaigning on natural resource exploitation and mining rights. Social justice activists emphasise the idea of protesters demanding greater social justice. The same protest ends up being portrayed in very different ways by different parts of the media or expert communities.

Vol. 50, No.33, Feb 18 - 24, 2018