The world is protesting, but does it know what for?
As 2019 enters its final few months, the world has been thrown into turmoil.
The Bolivian people are protesting election results. Hong Kong’s most recent ban on face coverings led to thousands of masked protesters marching through the streets. Ecuador has declared a state of emergency in response to violent outbursts after fuel subsidies were cut. Barcelona resembles a battlefield amidst demonstrations to separate Catalonia from Spain. The list goes on.
Minor issues are spiraling into major violence. Just take a look at Chile, where fare-hike protests triggered by secondary school students have escalated into an official state of emergency and numerous deaths. Similarly in Lebanon, demonstrations over a “WhatsApp tax” proved to be the final push to transform dissatisfaction into calls for the ‘fall of the regime’. But while each and every protest has been distinct, there has been a common underlying dynamic…
Many movements have been started by price increases for key services. For example, fuel subsidies were the final straw in Ecuador and Haiti, and social media taxes prompted uprisings in Uganda and Lebanon. Many citizens view these price hikes as just another way to squeeze money from the poor and increase inequality. Furthermore, demonstrators claim that current political systems have enabled legislators to fill their own pockets from the wallets of their citizens. From Beirut to Hong Kong, protesters are no longer satisfied with the ruling elite who are meant to represent their interests, and call for change.
Interestingly, the most recent wave of global unrest has differentiated itself from the traditional idea of demonstrations. Protests used to be highly structured, but in an era of social media, demonstrations are increasingly organised informally amongst networks of people, and often lack a distinct message or leader. This was especially visible in Brazil, where posters expressed a variety of grievances, highlighting the lack of a set of cohesive demands. The bottom line seems to be that people are demanding redefinition of the relationship between governments and their citizens. These events are not defined by a clear plea; the event itself is the message and emphasises the dire situation protesters feel they are in.
While the current protests being reported worldwide are making their mark in the world, their power to actually change political systems is being questioned. Hierarchical protest structures may have their limitations, but these unstructured “new protests” can be ineffective in the long run. Social media participators can be opportunistic and inconsistent in their commitment to a cause. Furthermore, many protest seem to lack a final goal. While governments in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile and Ecuador have abandoned the policies that initially caused uprisings, unrest has only escalated. This leaves governments to choose either to intensify violence through increased police force, or do nothing and risk appearing apathetic.
Ultimately, it seems that unless protesters can find a common goal and offer a feasible ideological alternative to current systems, the issues underlying unrest will simply stagnate, serving to worsen political tensions in the long run.