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How poverty and inequality power ISIS and anti-authoritarian protest alike

Violent extremism, uprisings from Chile to Lebanon – and far-right populism too – are ‘revolts from the margins’ fuelled by anger at elites.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
31 October 2019
Riot police surrounding  and restraining someone with a pink backpack
Keeping the lid on
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Adrien Vautier/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump’s bizarre press conference announcing the killing of the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was par for the course: yet another example of ‘making America great again’. Having declared ISIS defeated many months ago, Trump could now sell this death as the final achievement. The reaction across the world was rather different, with relief at the death alongside a widespread conviction that ISIS was anything but finished.

Taking a longer-term perspective than that acceptable in the Trump era, this caution makes sense. After 9/11 the Taliban was defeated and al-Qaida dispersed in a ten-week war, but Afghanistan remains riven with conflict and hardship, and the Taliban control much of it. In 2003 the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was felled in three weeks and within months George W. Bush had delivered his “Mission Accomplished” address aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln – but in hindsight this only marked the start of a bitter five-year war.

That was appeared to ease by early 2009 and Barack Obama was able to withdraw most US troops from Iraq by 2011, which also saw the death of Osama bin Laden and the ousting of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. Al-Qaida, though, reasserted itself in a new manifestation as ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and post-Gaddafi Libya descended into complex and deadly militia wars that affected the stability of much of northern Africa and the Sahel.

Even the ISIS defeat in Iraq in 2017 after a three-year US-led air war was not what it seemed. The caliphate had certainly gone, but ISIS went to ground in both Iraq and Syria while offshoots started forming mini-caliphates elsewhere, including parts of the Sahel and Afghanistan, as well as associating with other extreme Islamist factions across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of southern Asia

Moreover, as last week’s column described, the chaos that has followed Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds has meant that many detained ISIS paramilitaries are back in circulation.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that George W. Bush’s old ‘war on terror’ is still very much with us. But a broader analysis is now emerging: one that joins the likes of ISIS and al-Qaida into a much wider phenomenon taking in the outbreak of mass demonstrations in many countries, including Chile, Iraq, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Ecuador and many others, and extending to some of the populist movements in the US, western Europe and elsewhere.

Oxford Research Group explores this perspective in a new report published this week, ‘The Global Revolts from the Margins’. It starts from earlier work from 2006, ‘Global Responses to Global Threats: Sustainable Security for the 21st Century’. Written two years before the 2008 financial crash, that earlier report argued that the neoliberal economic model that had come in 25 years previously was failing, a likely consequence of this being rising anger, especially among younger people, that would lead to increasing unrest and outbreaks of violence – what might be termed revolts from the margins. From a security perspective, the 2006 report described one response to marginalisation and subsequent unrest that is often employed:

Problems of poverty and socio-economic divisions are largely ignored as a security issue. But when immediate threats to the ‘homeland’ are perceived, the usual response is heavy societal control in an attempt ‘keep the lid on’ civil discontent, which only makes matters worse in the long term, and a belief is promoted that the free market will enable people to work their way out of poverty.

The new report does not attribute all the world’s ills to the western neoliberal transformation of the early 1980s and its export to the global south through the policies of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other organisations. It points to other elements as well:

In most cases there are specific factors which push unease and resentment over into demonstrations, often followed by repression and violence. A few may have little to do with rising inequality and diminishing life prospects but for the majority these are very much part of the wider social and political context.

What should be added to this is two other issues on either side of this rising mood of anger at elites. One is the emergence of anti-elite populism, as seen with the likes of Trump, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, his Hungarian opposite number Viktor Orbán, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage in the UK, and Marine Le Pen in France – even if the leaders themselves often come from quintessentially elitist backgrounds.

The other is the extreme movements that may focus on violence to achieve their aims. These will more commonly arise where large sectors of a society really are on the margins while facing small elites that have done exceptionally well in recent decades.

They are even more likely where a large proportion of the population is under the age of 25, as it is across much of the Middle East, Africa and southern Asia. Whether we are talking about movements stemming from extreme religious interpretations, such as ISIS and al-Qaida, or secular ideologies such as the Indian Naxalites and other neo-Maoists, the movements provide a response to the anger, bitterness and resentment of millions of people.

To put it another way, what we are witnessing is a spectrum of change running from violent movements through mass protests to generalised populism. Far more of this links to the failing neoliberal system than we are willing to acknowledge and all it is happening before the most important factor – climate breakdown – really has its multiple effects. We are moving into strange and very uncertain times.

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