Over the past year, mass protests have broken out in countries from Lebanon and Iraq to France and Spain, China and Chile. Few corners of the world have been spared. On the streets at least, we are one big family.
Globalisation repeats itself, first as farce: remember how thirty years ago some seemed genuinely to believe in the end of history and the onset of universal harmony. Today it comes as tragedy, with a wave of violent protests that have left dozens dead and many world capitals roiling from widespread destruction.
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That these demonstrations across different continents share some common motifs and causes seems obvious, and those taking to the streets often appeal to the actions of their intuitive comrades thousands of miles away. As the Yellow Vests in France like to proclaim, the globe is rising in unison and “Peoples around the world are waking up”.
This may have some elements of exaggeration. It is difficult to see what protestors in Catalonia and Iraq have in common; the former are restricting political ties to ethnic identity, the latter are expanding them. But even when distinct, they march together, and ultimately the uprisings of 2019 have a common thread that links them, tied together by technological change, economic pressure, and the shifting axis of power from West to East.
Protestors across the four continents are linked, for one thing, by a common enemy: things as they stand, the status quo and the hated establishment. They are also linked by the new technology, so that as the news of their actions fills broadcasts worldwide, they acquire a much larger significance; there are echoes here of the Springtime of the Peoples, the Year of Revolution, the improbable series of political upheavals that spread throughout Europe in 1848.
That year new inventions such as the railway, the steam ship and the telegraph proved a boon to revolutionaries, who could now travel across Europe much faster than before and spread their ideas and programmes with far greater ease.
Today social media has had a similar effect, catching the scions of the old order off guard and allowing for what is doubtless a brief interlude when revolution has the upper hand. The 1840s was also a period when technological change was for the first time being applied on an industrial scale, leaving many segments of the population behind; around 10,000 workers were laid off in Vienna alone in 1847. Here too there are obvious similarities to the present, where globalisation has enriched many but also increased job insecurity.
Yet there are differences. In 1848 the peoples of Europe rose in the name of a vision of the future. That vision could vary, but all or almost all the revolutionaries knew where they were going, a vision of creative destruction. The old order of priests and monarchs had to be destroyed so that in its place a new world could be built, one of bourgeois parliamentarianism for some, something decidedly more popular for others.
Today the dialectic of revolution is very different. Rather than starting from the heavens and trying to bring them down to earth, protestors everywhere fill the streets to seek redress for a specific grievance: the extradition law in Hong Kong, the fuel tax in France, the price increase of the Santiago Metro ticket in Chile (the 30 pesos which cannot but remind us of the 30 pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Jesus).
In Iran, violent protests triggered by the elimination of fuel subsidies resulted in hundreds of dead, a level of violence not seen in previous upheavals, dwarfing the numbers killed in 2009-2010. India is the most recent case, with a new citizenship law being met with widespread resistance.
And yet the specific grievance is never a cause. To see it as such would be a serious mistake, one that authorities all over the world are prone to make, but which we can and should avoid. In all these demonstrations ,the protest is an occasion, a beginning, an incitement, a vehicle for a much deeper urge. Once the protests start, they take on a life of their own. Sharper collective awareness and a growing list of political demands are a consequence rather than a cause.
In Hong Kong, the protestors started by demanding the withdrawal of the extradition law. When eventually it was withdrawn, going back to normal life felt like a defeat. Today, nothing less than independence seems acceptable to many of those protestors because only a complete break with the status quo could ensure that the past would not quickly return or reassert itself.
Protests need to anchor themselves in a specific grievance but often the underlying cause is the unbearable lightness of the existing order. In France the Yellow Vests represent the inability of the Fifth Republic to convince anyone that current French society is the best of all possible worlds, but it illustrates a wider problem in the West.
It was always a dangerous gamble for European societies to bet everything on the end of history; if the eternal present fails to measure up, citizens will embrace a different future, any future. Today neither politicians nor intellectuals have much of a vision to offer, and indeed regard any vision as an authoritarian sin.
For centuries we grew accustomed to think of the world as existing on different time scales. In the West, and only in the West, societies could be found that had already gone through their modernisation process; other societies have merely to retrace their steps.
Perhaps it is still possible to find those who believe this is what is taking place in distant parts of the world, when people protest on the streets; that those young protestors are entering history and at last making the effort to rejoin their Western brethren at the end of the tunnel. But fewer and fewer people believe this.
Instead something else links the current wave of protests happening in both France and Moscow, in Hong Kong and Algeria. Protestors everywhere look to the future and see only empty space in front of them.
And the Western vision of the future is receding, something particularly obvious in India. The consensus around a Western, secular model for the country has collapsed, but how can Indians agree on a new path to be built from scratch? Cultural and political independence have an irresistible appeal, but with independence comes a life of danger.
In Istanbul, where I now live, the mood is increasingly febrile as Turks collectively realise that, rather than living a few decades behind Europe, they are in fact more firmly planted at history’s crossroads. Turkey is starting to test what it means to enter history in order to shape it; the more actively they exercise their powers, the less they look to Europe or America to point the way.
I will conclude with Iran because it was in Tehran, three years ago, that the themes of this essay first presented themselves to me. Spending a few weeks with contemporary artists and gallery owners, I realised two things, seemingly contradictory. First, that Iran has not stopped moving on the path of modernisation and that the ruling clerics have no chance to survive its dynamics.
Second, that the most vibrant segments of Iranian society — including the radical artists I was meeting — no longer look to the West to provide a model for Iranian society. Why not? I am sure there are many reasons, but the main one is likely the simplest: Western modern societies, so young and beautiful in their youth, have aged since. Everyone and everything ages, so why should they be an exception?
I wrote in a book published last year, called The Dawn of Eurasia, that “to become modern is no longer equivalent to becoming Western. Talking to young Iranian artists, I learned one important lesson. While they were rebelling against the confined spaces of life in Tehran, they also insisted that they did not want to follow the same path as Europeans or Americans. Contemporary art had taught them that there is always a different way of seeing. Art must foresee other pictures, other worlds. Western modernity is for them just another form of tradition to be uprooted and overcome.”
Have no illusions: this is a much more chaotic and much angrier world. It is also unpredictable, radically so. Protest and rebellion are no longer organised from above because they are no longer organised with the future in mind. We are aware that nothing is permanent. Unlike those before us, we no longer believe that historical change has a meaning and direction. We are revolutionaries who have lost the faith in revolution.
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