Declan Walsh and Max Fisher, From Chile to Lebanon, Protests Flare Over Wallet Issues, NYTimes, Oct 23, 2019.
LONDON — In Chile, the spark was an increase in subway fares. In Lebanon, it was a tax on WhatsApp calls. The government of Saudi Arabia moved against hookah pipes. In India, it was about onions.Small pocketbook items became the focus of popular fury across the globe in recent weeks, as frustrated citizens filled the streets for unexpected protests that tapped into a wellspring of bubbling frustration at a class of political elites seen as irredeemably corrupt or hopelessly unjust or both. They followed mass demonstrations in Bolivia, Spain, Iraq and Russia and before that the Czech Republic, Algeria, Sudan and Kazakhstan in what has been a steady drumbeat of unrest over the past few months.At first glance, many of the demonstrations were linked by little more than tactics. Weeks of unremitting civil disobedience in Hong Kong set the template for a confrontational approach driven by vastly different economic or political demands.Yet in many of the restive countries, experts discern a pattern: a louder-than-usual howl against elites in countries where democracy is a source of disappointment, corruption is seen as brazen, and a tiny political class lives large while the younger generation struggles to get by.“It’s young people who have had enough,” said Ali H. Soufan, chief executive of The Soufan Group, a security intelligence consultancy. “This new generation are not buying into what they see as the corrupt order of the political and economic elite in their own countries. They want a change.”Few were as surprised as the leaders of those countries.On Thursday, the President Sebastián Piñera of Chile boasted that his country was an oasis of stability in Latin America. “We are ready to do everything to not fall into populism, into demagoguery,” he said in an interview published in The Financial Times.The next day, protesters attacked factories, torched subway stations and looted supermarkets in Chile’s worst upheaval in decades, eventually forcing Mr. Piñera to deploy troops to the streets. By Wednesday, at least 15 people were dead, and a clearly rattled Mr. Piñera had spoken of “war against a powerful and implacable enemy.”
As protests have been rising for decades, their rate of success has been falling:
Although the recent scattering of mass protests appears dramatic, scholars say it is a continuation of a rising trend. For decades, societies across the world have become far likelier to pursue sweeping political change by taking to the streets.The rate of protest has accelerated sharply of late, as various factors have converged: a slowing global economy, dizzying gaps between rich and poor and a youth bulge that in many countries has produced a restive new generation fizzing with frustrated ambition. In addition, the expansion of democracy has stalled globally, leaving citizens with unresponsive governments frustrated and activists sure that street action is the only way to force change.But as protest movements grow, their success rates are plunging. Only 20 years ago, 70 percent of protests demanding systemic political change achieved it — a figure that had been growing steadily since the 1950s, according to a study by Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard University political scientist.In the mid-2000s, that trend reversed. Success rates now stand at 30 percent, the study said, a decline that Professor Chenoweth called staggering.These two trends are closely linked. As protests become more frequent but likelier to flounder, they stretch on and on, becoming more contentious, more visible — and more apt to return to the streets when their demands go unmet. The result may be a world where popular uprisings lose their prominence, becoming simply part of the landscape.“Something has really shifted,” Professor Chenoweth said in an interview.“You could say these protests mirror what’s going on in the United States,” said Vali Nasr, a Middle East scholar who recently stepped down as dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. In countries where elections are decisive, like the United States and Britain, skepticism about the old political order has produced populist, nationalist and anti-immigrant results at the polls.“In other countries, where people don’t have a voice, you have massive protests erupting,” he said.
But protests organized by mass media are not as effective as grass-roots protests:
If protests are quicker to stir and more widespread than in earlier decades, they are also more fragile. The painstaking mobilization that once was a feature of grass-roots movements was slow but durable. Protests that organize on social media can rise faster, but collapse just as quickly.Authoritarian governments have also learned to co-opt social media, using it to disseminate propaganda, rally sympathizers or simply spread confusion, Professor Chenoweth said.And even where there is a spasm of protest, it takes a lot more for it to snowball into a full opposition movement.
The trend is that price increases may continue to become less popular. And, crucially, the internet will help people organize against such changes.Consider that an old-style labor-oriented protest can be organized through the workplace or plant itself, through on-the-ground techniques that long predate the internet. There is a common locale and set of social networks in place, including perhaps a union. Those who suffer from a price increase, in contrast, typically do not know each other or have common social ties. Just about everyone buys gasoline, either directly or indirectly. The internet, however, makes it possible to mobilize these people into protests with prices as the common theme.In other words: Protests of workers seem to be becoming less important, and protests of consumers are becoming more important.You may recall that one of the original demands of the “gilets jaunes” protests in France was for free parking in Disneyland Paris. If you think that sounds a little crazy, you haven’t yet internalized the nature of the new millennium.In the future, efficiency-enhancing or austerity-induced changes in prices may be much harder to accomplish politically. The new trend is neither central planning nor market liberal reforms, but rather frozen prices, especially when those prices are set in the political realm.