The Shifting Geography of Protest (Redux)

Long ago, and in all four of our print editions, the OTC ran a feature called “The Shifting Geography of Protest: A Global Digest,” in which we listed and summarized all the different areas of the world in which protests had erupted. The feature was inspired by a blog written by the late, distinguished sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who wrote in 2012 of the “rapidly and constantly shifting geography of protest” that had been sweeping the world since the onset of the 2008 recession. In this scenario, one protest “pops up here and then is either repressed, co-opted, or exhausted,” after which another protest pops up somewhere else and then, after it has run its course, another pops up elsewhere, “as though worldwide it was irrepressible.”


To Wallerstein, the root cause of these protests is quite singular: a reaction to neo-liberal austerity measures that allow the “one percent” to hold on to, or even increase, their share of the wealth through increased profit margins, bonuses and lowered taxes while everyone else’s share shrinks.


“The struggle over allocations revolves primarily around two items in the global budget,” Wallerstein wrote, “taxes (how much, and who) and the safety net of the bulk of the population (expenditures on education, health, and lifetime income guarantees).”


Indeed, in a recent article in the Guardian, “Protests rage around the world – but what comes next?, Michael Safi and other correspondents detail the protests in countries such as Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Lebanon, and Iraq in a present day confirmation of Wallerstein’s thesis.   Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, a professor who studies social change and conflict at Vrije University in Amsterdam, is quoted as saying, “The data shows that the amount of protests is increasing and is as high as the roaring 60s, and has been since about 2009.” The authors then add: “Not all the protests are driven by economic complaints, but widening gulfs between the haves and have-nots are radicalising many young people in particular,” as is indicated by the fact that “billionaires grew their combined fortunes by $2.5bn a day in 2018, while the relative wealth of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people declined by $500m a day.”


But it isn’t only the world’s poorest half that is feeling the pressure of never-ending, de facto austerity; the 1% against the 99% is truly global in nature. The “Red for Ed” movement here in Arizona and other traditionally Republican states (protesting inadequate school funding that resulted from tax cuts aimed primarily at the rich and business) showed this in 2018, as do the current protests and strikes raging across France (protesting cut-backs to the country’s pension system)..




Triggered by a 20-cent tax on WhatsApp calls announced by the government as part of a whole range of austerity policies on October 17, as well as additional taxes on gasoline and tobacco, over a million people (twenty percent of the country’s population) participated in the protests that followed the announcement. The protests continue, despite the resignation of the country’s prime minister because the protestors demand a complete change in government to address the country’s serious infrastructure problems and high youth unemployment. The protests are also notable for being truly national and “Lebanese” in nature, a historical first in a country in which politics normally plays out across the country’s numerous religious, ethnic, and political divides. Their “leaderless” nature (similar in that way to the Occupy movement) circumvent the complicated, often corrupt power-sharing structures that have characterized the Lebanese government since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990. After a period of relative calm, the protests resumed on January 14. On January 21 a new government was formed, and the new prime minister claimed that it was composed of technocrats unaffiliated with the political parties (which has been a key demand of the protestors).




As in Lebanon, an increase in the price of a service triggered the protests. Specifically, an increase in the price of subway tickets in the capital city, Santiago. These protests were initially spearheaded by high-school students, who en masse rode the subways without paying their fares, overwhelming the enforcement system, but they soon grew, as the Guardian reported, “into a far broader battle against inequality, deficient public services, poor wages and pensions and government repression.” The protests, which started on October 14, quickly spread to the rest of the country. Unlike the reaction of the Lebanese government, which has been quite restrained, the Chilean government called army troops into the streets for the first time since the Pinochet era and, by late October, 19 people had died, nearly 2,500 had been injured, and nearly three thousand arrested in the demonstrations. For the government it was all, however, to no avail, as the protests continued, and on October 25 over a million people took to the streets throughout the country. The protests finally died down as a result of moves by the National Congress to call a national referendum in April 2020 to create a new constitution in place of the Pinochet-era one – a key demand of the protestors. On December 23 Chilean President Sebastian Pinera enacted a law that will allow the country to hold a referendum on April 26 to start the process of constitutional change.




The sprawling, vast protests that have rocked Iraq since October 1 lack the single, clear trigger that characterized the Chilean and Lebanese protests, but like them is being broadly driven by anger and despair over a crumbling infrastructure, widespread corruption, lack of economic opportunity, and failing government services. These protests are leaderless in nature and fueled for the most part by the young and unemployed. The number of protestors shot dead by the police and militias affiliated with the state has been staggering, totaling 490 as of late December (including 33 activists assassinated in targeted killings), with over 20,000 injured. As with Lebanon, a notable characteristic is that economic and anti-corruption demands cut across the sectarian and ethnic divides in the nation, divides that were both brought to the forefront and then formalized in the ruling structure by the United States after its destructive, illegal invasion of the country in 2003. These protests have therefore been against the corrupting influence of all foreign powers in the country, irrespective of whether they are Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states), Shia countries (Iran), or Western invaders (the United States). The protests forced the resignation of the sitting prime minister in early December and, later in the month, the president of the country stated that he will resign rather than being forced by parliament to appoint a prime minister from an establishment party, which would go against the demands of the demonstrators. The dynamics of the situation, however, have changed, given the surge in anti-American feeling after the assassination by the United States of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani while he was leaving Baghdad International Airport. This has allowed the pro-Iranian militias to paint the protestors as pro-Americans.




On October1, the Ecuadorian government announced the end of decades-old fuel subsidies and cuts in public worker benefits wages and benefits as part of a deal with the IMF so that the country could obtain 4.2 billion dollars in credit. The reaction was immediate and strong: mass protests and strikes by transit workers greeted the changes on the day they were to take effect, October 3. By October 5 large numbers of indigenous people and students had joined the protests as the government still refused to negotiate. By October 8 the president, Lenín Moreno, and his government had fled Quito and relocated to a coastal city as protestors overran the capital and even took some security forces hostage. The protestors also occupied the country’s major oil producing field, shutting down production. On October 10, with the indigenous protestors increasingly taking the lead, thousands of activists occupied the Casa de Cultura theater in Quito where they accused the nation’s private media of ignoring reports of police brutality and demanded that they broadcast a statement made by the demonstrators on live television. Three of the private broadcasters complied. On October 12 the government and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, agreed to negotiations. The next day they reached an agreement during a televised negotiation in which the government agreed to end the austerity measures that triggered the protests and, in turn, the protesters agreed to end the two-week-long series of demonstrations.




Though given even less media coverage than many of the other countries’ protests, the protests in Haiti run perhaps the deepest and have lasted the longest. They started in July of 2018 when government fuel subsidies, per an agreement that Haiti had entered into with the International Monetary Fund, were eliminated. This would have led to price increases of 38 percent for gasoline, 47 percent for diesel and 51 percent for kerosene, and some public transit routes would have seen a price increase of 50 percent. As a result of the civil unrest that followed the announcement, Port-au-Prince was paralyzed and almost all flights into the capital city’s airport were cancelled. The government soon announced a suspension of the fuel price increases, but the demonstrations continued, spurred by revelations about massive government corruption concerning the money that came to Haiti through the Venezuela-backed Petrocaribe program. Major eruptions of anti-government protests, some violent, also occurred in October-November of 2018 and February of 2019, with numerous protestors being killed. Some of the most effective protests have occurred since October of 2019, leading to extended school, government, business and manufacturing closures, as even the Catholic Church organized demonstrations calling for the president to resign. The situation remains fluid.




Prompted by proposed cuts to pensions, the trade unions called for a national strike and demonstrations on November 21, and on that day hundreds of thousands turned out in one of the largest protest demonstrations in years. But the action turned into a catalyst for additional protests and issues against the right-wing government of President Iván Duque, whose approval rating stood at just 26%. Additional thousands of people turned out in ensuing demonstrations and general strikes on November 27 and December 4 to protest the slowness of the implementation of the country’s historic 2016 peace deal with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or Farc) rebel group.




After the government announced pension reforms that would, among other things, raise the retirement age for most French citizens, some 30 trade unions called for strikes. These began on December 5, and between a million and a million and a half people across the country took to the streets that day to protest the reforms. Strikes continued throughout the month and are still ongoing, making it the longest series of strike actions since May-June 1968. Popular support for the strikes was running at 60 percent as of mid-January. On January 13, the government climbed down on one part of the reforms, stating that they would “temporarily” suspend the lowering of the retirement age, but the strikes and protests have continued, aimed at forcing the withdrawal of the entire package. On January 17, half a million demonstrators turned out across the country–150,000 in Paris–to further that demand.  


Hong Kong, Iran, Catalonia, Czech Republic…


Of course, not all of the current protests fit completely into Wallerstein’s schematic: the Hong Kong protests, though leaderless, are first and foremost a reaction to the political and judicial encroachment of the People’s Republic of China into Hong Kong. Meanwhile, though the protests in Iran were triggered by an austerity plan (a dramatic hike in gasoline prices) that was imposed by the government, in this case the austerity measures were the result of brutal US sanctions against that country, not because of the international neo-liberal order as they were, for example, in Ecuador. And the half-million strong demonstrations that were seen in Barcelona in October demanding Catalonian independence from Spain were organized by the leading Catalonian pro-independence political parties. Finally, the recurring, 200,000 to 300,000 strong demonstrations in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, have had as their focus the removal of the country’s prime minister, the politically “moderate” oligarch Andrej Babiš. He, however, is also the country’s most popular politician, and so the demonstrations, though genuine, are more reflective of a capital city/provincial political divide in the country. Babiš, in fact, is popular among the poorer segments of society, in part because he resists austerity measures.


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