Is it the Age of Protest?

From Europe to US, Hong Kong and India, people are protesting not only for a few demands but also for asserting that beyond all barriers people are stakeholders in the nation-building process

JNU Protests (File Photo)
JNU Protests (File Photo)

Prem Anand Mishra

This is an unspoken rule; a pearl of conventional wisdom that in a totalitarian society, public opinion doesn’t matter. It changed in 2011 when the consciousness of the world was shaken to a new reality: the age of protest. The public sphere rattled those covenants that regimes are sacred and people are slaves. Nothing is sacred, the Arabs defied them. The Arab Spring brought hope with anguish and despair too. From Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and to Gaddhafi in Libya, the dictators met their fateful destiny like the house of cards. The Middle East was living a new history and the makers were ordinary people. Tunisia changed forever but for others, the Spring didn’t last much and proved to be a lost hope, as they said. Now we come to 2019, the same ordinary people from Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and now even Iran brought the hope alive. They are haunting the authoritative regimes and their only weapon is- protest.

The Middle East was the context for every debate in 2011. The West saw it from the orientalist lens and the rest of the world just consumed that propaganda. But protests are now rattling every corner of the world. Like fire, the fate of the Middle East has started haunting the liberal and illiberal democracies too. Authoritarianism is catching every society from the US, Europe, Latin America to South Asia, and so on. Just google it and find an endless list. The crisis is snowballing and various protests are taking place all over the world.

Forget autocracy, is the liberal order failing us too? This is an age of protest, and the public anger is haunting every sphere. The globalisation of protests is writing an early obituary for the enlightenment project: the source of the liberal order. As Krauss writes in AP that ‘The unrest on three continents, coupled with the toxic dysfunction in Washington and London, raises fresh concerns over whether the liberal international order, with free elections and free markets, can still deliver on its promises.’

This phenomenon can’t be simply reduced to economic mismanagement. This is writing on the wall, democracies are failing and descending into authoritarianism. In France, the protest didn’t stop on rising fuel tax. In Hong Kong, it is not just about the extradition bill but for the full autonomy from mainland China. The rise of Far right in Europe is rattling its democratic credentials with protests all over from Italy to the UK. In Lebanon, protesters are not against tax on WhatsApp only they are also challenging the sectarian, kleptocratic system. In Algeria, after ousting Bouteflika, young protesters continue to demand the end of military control.

In Sudan, protesters continued to demonstrate until they forced the military to accept a civilian-military coalition to manage the transition and prepare new democratic elections. In Chile, the protests have focused on inequality and corruption, not just subway hike. In Iraq, the protests are most violent killing over 300 people but they are not just against transcended sectarian lines but calling Iran not to meddle in Iraq. Protests in Iran, Haiti, Egypt, and Bolivia have expanded beyond their original aims into calls for their governments to resign. Beyond the US and Europe too, whether it is Turkey, China or Russia, protesters are challenging the regimes everywhere.

In India, these protests are an everyday reality from Kashmir to New Delhi, from farmers to students asserting their anger against the growing authoritative regime, the culture of passivity and toxic bureaucratic model of governance. Protest cultures are forming undefined rules; an underlying strategy, fluid and amorphous, leaderless. The Hong Kong model of protest ‘formless, shapeless, like water” as Bruce Lee said once, mirrors a beacon of hope for protesters across the globe. Protests are a common thread, a scene of ubiquity against the growing authoritarianism in all societies.

This rise of the public sphere guiding the world is sweeping generations, echoing a new culture of expression and creating an imaginative space for collective memories across cultures. The protests speak a universal language: the social contract needs a new definition. Rousseau asks in the Social contract, ‘Can there be any legitimate and sure principle of government, taking men as they are and laws as they might be?’ It would have been a collective response in the Middle East due to the absence of democracy but what explains the anger of the Yellow Vest in Paris and the Occupy Movement in the US?

What’s happening in Lebanon is no different from Hongkong. The fact is that there is a deep mistrust between state and society; the people and the regime, the citizens and the rulers, the consumers and the elites.

This whole idea of protest is challenging the myth that in a liberal democracy, people are the king. In the age of surveillance, the virulent rise of the Far-right from Europe to Asia, and with the arrival of people like Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Modi as elected rulers are blurring the boundaries between liberal democracy and autocratic regimes.

The crisis doesn’t have an easy answer. People have been pushed to the margin and their social capital has been robbed off by the state and its bureaucracy, which French theorist Henry Lefebvre used to call ‘the root cause of everyday terror’. The have-nots, the disadvantaged no longer trust that the state represents them or have the willingness to find solutions to their problems. Beyond the inequality and broken promises, this is also an age of the dissent against biased media. The mainstream media has been reduced to the ideological arm of the state and its propaganda machine, which speak the language of their masters: the dirty alliance of the state and capitalists. For them, these protests are evil, manufactured and the protesters are criminals and the enemy of their own state. Unfolding this age of anger and the ubiquity of the protests, one needs to ask: What is a protest? Is it just a demonstration of the anger or an emotional flux of their conditions against state’s ruthlessness, or the absence of civil liberties?

Protests in different forms and shapes are as old as society. From political, social to religious, history has been full of such events. What’s different now? Can one make sense of this wave of protests? Beyond the efficacy, there is a meaning to it. The protests have been seen through a different lens from abstract trans historical processes to the arrival of industrialisation, the chasm between democracy and its inexact form and the idea of universal suffrage is about the transformation of societies and its different structures. From unconventional forms to the mode of popular culture, the protests have clothed different facets and dimensions. It has a cognitive function, a form of collective identity, and sense of assembling shared bodily expressions.

A protest is not just dissent but an act of imagination also demanding the cultural reformation in the dysfunctional social and political order. It is a reflex, moral emotion and Justice from all grievances without being passive citizens. Habermas writes that the public sphere is about forming an approaching public opinion and protests are its logical means. This age of protest is about: what democracy ought to be. It is not just a message but has aesthetic value as well which can be seen in graffiti over the walls of the central protest camp in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere. Hundreds have died in these global protests. Protesters won’t submit against any coerciveness. In Hong Kong, it’s expressed ‘Five demands, not one less.’ In Lebanon, protesters are raising ‘All of them means all of them,” rejection of the entire political class.

In India the sight of such protest came from Jawaharlal Nehru University, becoming the light for many universities across India and even in Pakistan. These protests are about dignity, democracy and freedom. The prophecy of the failure of liberal democracies and the enlightenment project might be premature but this age of protest is for reclaiming the order, harmony, humanity and freedom. Protests are not just about achieving those ideals of enlightenment but an assertion of their meaningful presence as fundamental human rights. It is an assertion of ideas that they are stakeholders in the process of nation-building against the binaries of haves and have-nots, against the state hegemony.

The protesters are writing on the walls: nothing is sacred. Whether, it’s a totalitarian regime or failing liberal democracy, whether it is the age of surveillance or age of state monopoly, public opinion matters. This is the age of Protests: hail them as they are…Bleeding hearts.

This is the author’s personal view.

Prem Anand Mishra is a PhD student at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.