Occupy.com, 19 April 23014
We sail in an unstable political ocean, surfing bursts of protests and unexpected revolts emerging across the globe: 843 large protests in the last eight years.
If Karl Marx raised his head, he would be absolutely baffled: Revolts are shaking the world, bursting in the most unexpected places, but they rarely take power. The conditions for rebellion are as sharp today as in the nineteenth century, but few protests lead to the literal meaning of revolution, that “violent change in political, economic or social institutions of a nation.”
In addition, working people, whom Marx called the proletariat, seem not to have found control of the worldwide riots they are sparking – nor is class struggle the leitmotif of the wave of social unrest that has been repeating since the Arab Spring. Instead, a new political subject – more diffuse, more heterogeneous, more unclassifiable – is blurring the boundaries and formal definitions of revolution.
Measuring the period between 2006 and 2013, we live in the most agitated era in modern history – more intense than 1848, 1917 or 1968 – according to the World Protests report released last fall by the Initiative for Policy Dialogue and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in New York. We sail in an unstable political ocean, surfing bursts of protests and unexpected revolts emerging across the globe: 843 large protests in the last eight years, according to the study.
British journalist Paul Mason sees a strong parallel between the current unrest and the waves of discontent stirring in 1848 and 1914. The philosopher Alain Badiou even envisions a “rebirth of the story” in a new age of “riots and uprising” after a long revolutionary interval. It may be what we are seeing now with the constant procession of protests and pop-up revolts. People take the streets. They hack codes (legal, social, urban). They build new communities. But the establishment, in most cases, barely ruffles.
The increasing global revolution remixes and recombines social ties. However, when a revolt takes power, as in Ukraine, it may be with the help of conservative or even fascist, neo-Nazi forces. And a popular uprising against a dictatorship, as in Egypt, may lead to a new military government. “The protester” may have made the 2011 cover of Time magazine, notes Mason, but “not a single revolt has achieved its goal.” When Passe Livre protests in Brazil reached their initial goal (reduction of the public transport fare by 20 cents), the crowd already had dozens of new demands: quality education, political transparency, participatory democracy… Is global revolution infinite revolution?
However, some of the recent revolts do not even fit the definition of “popular” – and certainly few have anything to do with the Marxist-Leninist vision of an uprising by the proletariat. Time’s cover protester can be a Spanish graduate with no future. A poor worker in Brazil drowning in bank debt. Or a Turkish middle-class employee whipped by Istanbul’s gentrification. Today, urban precariat or netizens – insufficient concepts but more proper than proletariat – can fight hand to hand with retirees outraged by political corruption in Bulgaria or Greece.
Do we live in the most revolutionary era of history or just a prelude of discontent like the one that led to social unrest in 1848? Is the big explosion still coming?
Around the World in 843 Riots
Phi Beta Iota: Revolutions require precipitants, not only preconditions. They also require a public ready for a sustained manifestation. After fifty years of being dumbed down and drugged up, most publics are simply not ready to grasp the opportunity.