What are the meanings behind the worldwide rise in protest?

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? And what do we find when we compare organisational dynamics?

Richard Youngs
2 October 2017
Anti-corruption demonstration in Tunisia

Anti-corruption demonstration in Tunisia, May 2017. Image: Mohamed Krit/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

This week sees the launch of our partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU. Called Right to Protest, the project will be looking at the power of protest and why the right to protest is fundamental for human rights and democratic society. We will be examining the day-to-day realities of protest around the world; the reasons behind the worldwide increase in protest; how states are responding – including a look at the use of crowd-control weapons; and what can be done to protect the right to 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; Acled). 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.

Issues, grievances and concerns

It is possible to identify a number of overarching 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 of 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.

Protest in Kiev, Ukraine, against the banning of the VKontakte social media network, May 2017.

Protest in Kiev, Ukraine, against the banning of the VKontakte social media network, May 2017. Image: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In fact, most protests combine a number of different features. Most mobilisations are made up of diverse elements, involving uneasy allies whose agendas and operational modes diverge significantly. Often, for example, progressive forces begin protests that are then joined by activists with illiberal or nationalist-nativist identities – the relationship between the new active citizenship and today’s much-discussed wave of populism is complex, often uneasy, yet significant. Recent activism in Ukraine – that has involved both progressive democrats and more rightist-nationalist groups – provides one particularly noteworthy example of such uneasy bedfellows combining in common revolt. 

Immediate triggers merge with longer-term grievances

Overall, the current spike in protests contains some elements that are radical, some that are conservative, some that are moderately ‘liberal’ reformist, and some that are apparently more practical than overtly ideological. Describing today’s protests in terms of only one of these ways would be unduly simplistic and too analytically neat. 

Arguably the defining feature of modern protests is their eclecticism. Protests generally contain a mix of system related demands and policy specific grievances. They can be both very specific (pressing for reduced bus fares or against a new shopping centre) and expand into extremely generic grievances (‘The whole system must change!’ or ‘All politics is rotten!’). Different protests exhibit a different balance between the systemic and specific dimensions. Motives can also overlap – for example, anti-austerity protestors often also employ the language of democracy as a form of community-building and social justice.

Nearly all protests are ignited by a proximate cause – a particularly emblematic corruption case, a mining company’s new project, a disaster that kills many people and can be traced back to government negligence. But invariably they also emerge out of background grievances that fester for years – a slow decline in political freedoms, poor economic performance. As a general rule, protests erupt in dramatic fashion when both an immediate trigger and longer-term frustrations are powerfully present and fuse together. Think of the way that protests in Turkey moved from their specific aim of stopping a redevelopment project in Istanbul’s central square to a wider set of rights and governance issues. Think also of the way that protests in Brazil initially focused on the specific issue of bus fares, then on high-level corruption cases, then on the country’s broader political situation – and in doing so involved grassroots community groups, leftist-radicals, rights-oriented NGOs and rightist-conservative movements. In the US, Black Lives Matter has responded to specific killings, and then also harnessed a wider set of grievances about black communities’ abrogated rights. 

One striking paradox is that many protests are driven both by those that have done well out of globalism and those that have suffered from it

Protests are also increasingly path-dependent – that is, they evolve depending on their contrasting fortunes and on government responses. Many begin with relatively modest concerns but take on more ambitious and radical aims if and when their momentum grows and where regimes attempt to end a protest with violence. Egypt is an example of this trend: in 2011, protestors originally sought quite specific policy changes, but upped the ante after the Mubarak regime reacted in such brutal and intransigent fashion. The reasons for which many protests hit the headlines are often not those that first ignited them.

One striking paradox is that many protests are driven both by those that have done well out of globalism and those that have suffered from it. These two camps rub shoulders in many a protest, often employing the same kind of language and adopting similar agendas, but coming from very different perspectives. One example of this was the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. Protest in Mexico has been driven by marginalised communities hit hard by government hikes in fuel prices, but also by a rising middle class worried about spiraling levels of violence. The same group or class of people may be motivated by sharply contrasting concerns in different regions. In some protests citizens pour into the streets because their living standards are declining, in other states because they feel emboldened as their lot improves.

March against the 'Gasolinazo', Mexico City, January 2017

March against the rise in fuel prices ('gasolinazo'), Mexico City, January 2017. Image: ProtoplasmaKid / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.

In this sense, patterns of protest reflect the well-documented trend of middle classes rising in developing states, but being squeezed in rich economies. Both sets of change are unleashing similarly contentious forms of activism, for diametrically opposed reasons. Moreover, if in rich Western states many recent protests have been about citizens retaining entitlements in the face of cuts in welfare spending, in developing states they revolve more around price rises making basic survival more arduous. 

The shift to community-level demonstrations

If there is a general trend – beyond this eclecticism – it is probably away from globally linked protests at high-profile international summits and aimed at system-level issues of global justice. These kinds of protests certainly still occur, for example as seen at the Hamburg G20 summit in June 2017. But, the wider trend is towards community-level protests that mobilise for more tightly defined aims, specific to local context. 

This trend is in part a response to draconian repression by regimes against the new wave of highly political civic activism. As overtly anti-regime demonstrations are put down with increasing brutality in many countries, so activists are adjusting. Many are targeting more modest and achievable objectives relating to day-to-day service delivery and the like. On these issues, local communities continue to organise even where regimes have succeeded in suffocating the life out of explicitly political opposition protests. In these cases, the very fact that citizens continue to gather is seen as valuable in itself, keeping at least some identity of contestation alive in difficult circumstances. Examples of this trend can be found in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

While mass protest is a global trend, it is not globally orchestrated in organisational terms

This nascent shift towards less politicised, local-level protest has analytical ramifications. A common criticism made against the new wave of protestors is that they fail to define their aims clearly and invariably descend into a visceral and unconstructive anti-politics. However, some of today’s most typical protests do exactly the opposite, focusing at least initially on very specific and tightly defined issues of relevance to a particular community – the closure of a school or hospital, the corrosive effect of local patronage networks, or very tangible environmental degradation.

In sum, a range of substantive demands fuels today’s protests and this variation cautions against any single, uniform statement of what these revolts are ‘really about’. A key implication is that, while mass protest is a global trend, it is not globally orchestrated in organisational terms. While activists certainly reach out to each other across borders, mobilisations are increasingly local or nationally specific, rather than an integral part of global agendas for systemic, order-related change. 

New and old organisational dynamics

There also appears to be more variation in the organisational patterns that lie behind these protests. Of course, the best-known observation is that the modern protest is organisationally minimalistic, even ‘leaderless’, heavily dependent on social media and wary of any alliance with ‘old’ forms of civic and political organisation. Indeed, most analytical work focuses on these allegedly new organisational dynamics and it is these that elicit most general comment about ‘Twitter revolutions’ and the like.

However, while these now-standard descriptions capture essential features of many protests, they are not universally applicable. Many protest movements have begun to engage with mainstream political channels such as NGOs and parties. While there is undoubtedly a degree of spontaneity to most protests, many ‘old’ actors have been prominent in their organisation – actors such as NGOs, parties and trade unions. Post-2011 Tunisia provides one example of an apparently effective marriage between new and old civic actors. Another case was the coordination between between community activists and Bernie Sanders’ political campaign in the US. Over time, many protest movements have introduced more formal and hierarchical organisational structures than they originally intended, and some have relinquished their initial reluctance to enter mainstream party politics.

In some cases the new wave of ‘organisation-less’ protest has been more conciliatory, more political nuanced and more constructive than it is habitually assumed to be. The standard picture of an unruly protest, unfocused in its goals, absolutist in its hostility to formal politics and devoid of coherent leadership has become something of a caricature. Most protests around the world are not cast in the same mould as the Occupy movements that generated such interest in recession-hit Western states. Some are undoubtedly concerned mainly with disruption; prioritise group-identity over concrete policy ideas; and retain ‘flat’ and informal internal decision-making processes. But others are the very antithesis of this routine description – examples include recent, well-focused protests over electricity prices in Armenia, educational reform in Chile, rubbish collection in Lebanon and pensions in Singapore.

Student march in Chile, 2011

Student march for public education, Chile, 2011. Image: Nicolás15/Wikipedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Outcomes of protests

The results of the current cluster of protests have been mixed. Some have succeeded in pushing presidents or corrupt ministers from power, or in getting governments to unblock political, social or economic reforms – like the protests against incumbent presidents in Burkina Faso, Gambia and Senegal, and in Guatemala and Korea. Conversely, some have failed more or less completely in meeting their declared aims and have simply invited harsher repression from governments and a restriction of the right to assembly – like in Bahrain and Cambodia. Probably the most common outcome is for protests to elicit some concessions from governments, but without bringing about profound, underlying change – either to governance patterns, economic relations of power imbalances. Recent revolts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, Iceland, Jordan, Moldova and Morocco all won some positive responses from governments but far short of protestors’ demands and without any systemic breakthroughs in political or economic governance.

There is no easy explanation of why some protests succeed and others fail – a complex combination of factors is habitually at play. The evidence questions an often-made assertion that certain features of a country’s political context determine whether or not contestation occurs and how effective it is. In recent years, protests have erupted in highly autocratic states, in well-established democracies, in imploding conflict-states and in apparently well-managed semi-authoritarian rising powers. Successes are scattered among all these regime types – but so are the failures. Context and political structures matter, but in a more contingent and fine-tuned manner, and need to be combined with the aforementioned path-dependent agency for an adequate explanatory framework to today’s protests.

In sum, while the wave of global protest represents a major trend in international politics, we must take care not to describe this trend in unduly simplistic or sweeping ways. Variation between protests is at least as significant as the common features that link them together. Much of the received wisdom about today’s wave of protests is well grounded, but only partially so. A more granular understanding of protests’ aims, forms and impacts is needed as our ‘age of rage’ unfolds.


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