Joe Piette

2019 seems to have consolidated an unusual outpouring of widespread anger. In fact, not since the wave of “people power” movements in the late 1980s and 1990s has the world experienced such a wave of demonstrations. Algeria, Bolivia, Britain, India, Sudan, Chile, Ecuador, Spain, France, Guinea, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Pakistan – the list goes on. The triggers differ, although some have pointed to similar patterns across movements: a stagnating middle class, economic discontent, electoral fraud and the ultimate conviction that things can and should be different.

According to a study conducted at the University of Cambridge, more people in the richer countries are dissatisfied with democracy than ever beforesince the 1990s. The proportion of people unhappy with democracy has since then risen to fifty-eight per cent. Such dissatisfaction is often blamed on governments’ inability to cope with global threats such as global warming. Carbon emissions demand international solutions beyond the reach of one government, let alone one vote.  But what is interesting is that the striking feeling of voters’ powerlessness has coincided in 2019 with an outstanding decline in voter turnout around the world, despite the increasing number of voters and number of countries with elections. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the average voter turnout has been stable between the 1940s and 1980s: at least seventy-six per cent. However, by 2015 it dropped to sixty-six per cent. Such data suggests a striking loss of confidence in elections and voters’ impact.

Trends in voter turnout in all the countries (free, partly free and not free) that hold parliamentary elections grouped by Freedom House indicators.

What has triggered this loss of confidence? Many factors have been proposed in order to analyse the nature of the varying demonstrations in the past year. Economic explanations may be the most notable. As happens in most countries, the mass middle class tends to be the one paying the most, which is increasingly causing discontent among stable countries around the globe. Perceived growing inequalityhas been an important incentive in mass protests, and the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” is radicalising many young people in particular. According to Oxfam, the world’s 26 richest individuals own at present as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population. While billionaires saw their combined fortunes grow $2.5 billion a day in 2018, the relative wealth of the world’s poorest half (around 3.8 billion people) declined by $500 million a day that same year. Thus, minor pull-outs in living standards have proved to be the final straw for people struggling to get by.

Another often-cited explanation is the demographic one. This points out that young people are more likely to protest. Such theory should not be disregarded, as the world has a median age of 30 and a third of its population is aged under 20. A boom in tertiary education has enabled a more educated young population than ever before, with more graduates than jobs for them. Nonetheless, none of these factors gives the whole picture. The world economy faced more severe problems in the past, yet fewer people took to the streets then. And not all people who protest are young, as it can be seen especially in Hong Kong and Britain.

Technology has overall accelerated the organization and efficiency of protesting in 2019. Encrypted apps, such as Telegram, WhatsApp, and Airdrop, offer more secure means of communicating with a degree of anonymity and less need for a single leader to mobilize the demonstration. Social media and the explosion of access to information have reordered hierarchies of knowledge and communication, and some blame the global contagion to social media. According to a political scientist at Harvard, nonviolent campaigns in the 20thcentury had a fifty per cent success rate. This number rose to sixty per cent between 2000 and 2010. However, peaceful demonstrations between 2010 and 2019 have seen their rate of success decline to thirty per cent, yet these are far more successful than violent campaigns and, ironically, where the absolute success of nonviolent resistance has declined, its relative one has increased.

Nevertheless, protest movements face serious limitations. The leaderless natureof many demonstrations makes it harder for governments to repress them, but it may also make the movements more difficult to sustain. Protesters may struggle to maintain control and unity, and the initial message may be dispersed. The leadership question is central and essential to proceed once the message has been delivered.

Even if leaderless movements are not designed to govern, they can still generate momentum among politicians to take action. Together, demonstrations in 2019 have produced an emerging global political culture and nonviolent mass movements are one of the most striking challenges for governments at present. People are using their voices more than at any time in recorded history, and this marks an important shift in the global landscape. Whatever the original motivations fuelling each protest may be, the global demonstrations are making clear the need for a new social contract between citizens and state power. Such change, however, goes beyond traditional political reforms, economic adjustments, or shifts in who sits at the top.