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A Brief Intermission in the Age of Unrest

A new report from a national security think tank documents the historically unprecedented spread of mass protest across the globe over the past decade. As the world economy sinks into its worst downturn since the 1930s, we are likely entering an era of explosive change.

The empty Champs-Élysées avenue on March 28, 2020 in Paris, France. The country has introduced fines for people caught violating its nationwide lockdown measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

“The year 1848 is working out well,” wrote a satisfied Friedrich Engels. Mass street protests had erupted in France, and a current of rebellion was coursing through Europe. “Our age, the age of democracy, is breaking. The flames of the Tuileries and the Palais Royal are the dawn of the proletariat. Everywhere the rule of the bourgeoisie will now come crashing down, or be dashed to pieces.”

It wasn’t to be. The revolts were crushed everywhere and followed by a period of severe repression. But despite their failure, the year 1848 did go down in history as a fateful year of protest. As the liberal columnist Gideon Rachman observed in the Financial Times, it’s the first in a string of years whose mere mention conjures vivid images of mass unrest: 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989.

Mysteriously skipping over 2011, the year of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, Rachman cautiously adds another year to this list: 2019. He enumerates the places where particularly significant protests broke out across the world: Hong Kong, India, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, France, the Czech Republic, Russia, Malta, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan. All told, according to a separate analysis, mass demonstrations took place in 114 countries.

But despite the intensity and global spread of these protests, 2019 does not seem poised to develop the reputation it deserves. Perhaps this is because they happened in places too disparate and dissimilar to give rise to a single narrative, Rachman speculates. “There has also been no single iconic moment — no fall of the Berlin Wall or storming of the Winter Palace to capture the drama.”

There is another possible explanation for the understated response to such an eventful year. Rachman hints at it, but doesn’t flesh it out, when he predicts that 2020 may be even more volatile than 2019. Maybe the reason 2019 has gotten short shrift is that we are living through an entire era of roiling mass demonstrations. Last year was not an aberration but an intensification, and we can all feel it even if we can’t put our finger on it.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right think tank, has attempted to nail down the phenomenon with a new report called “The Age of Mass Protests: Understanding a Global Trend.” The paper’s authors analyzed data from across the globe and found that the current period of mass protests dwarfs any that has come before in size and frequency. Each year between 2009 and 2019, the number of mass protests increased annually by an average of 11.5 percent.

The protests are growing bigger, too, both in terms of sheer numbers and proportion of the broader population. Last year over a million people protested in Santiago and two million protested in Hong Kong. The authors’ regional analysis showed that sub-Saharan Africa saw the largest spike in mass demonstrations over the last decade, followed by South America, while Oceania saw the smallest, followed by Asia. Every region of the world saw an increase.

And wealthy, developed capitalist nations were far from immune. The rate of increase in mass protests in North America and Europe was higher than the global average. The United States has been a hotbed of dissent, especially since the advent of the Trump administration. Even accounting for population growth, the authors estimate that the relative number of people who participated in protests from Donald Trump’s inauguration to the present day is higher than the relative numbers who participated in the Civil Rights Movement or the anti–Vietnam War protests. The period from January 20, 2017 to January 1, 2020 included the five largest protests in US history.

The study’s authors cited several potential reasons for the spike in protest. Internet access and social media is clearly of critical importance, a consensus that emerged early in the decade during the Arab Spring. So too are global youth unemployment and underemployment, intensifying global economic inequality, growing perception of corruption and loss of faith in political leadership, increased education which leads to higher political awareness and engagement, and environmental stress and climate change. The latter have not only elicited mass protests themselves but have also destabilized regional economies and political regimes, spurring mass demonstrations as well as displacing rural people, sending them to cities where they are more likely to participate in protests.

The report’s authors conclude that each of these trends is poised to accelerate, not abate, and therefore mass protest is likely to continue increasing. However, as they observe, their study comes at an odd and likely pivotal moment. Like Rachman, they were already projecting an intensification of protest in the near future; but with the citizens of many countries under shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus pandemic, protest in those places has ground to a halt — even as frustration surges dramatically.

In the United States, the hospitals are in chaos, but the streets are eerily quiet. Online, one encounters bitter recriminations against political opponents, panicked attempts to sort accurate from inaccurate information, confessions of anxiety and despair, and newly unemployed and uninsured strangers fundraising to make it to the end of the month. But if one is lucky enough to be able to work from home during this pandemic — which not everyone is — one encounters these signs of mounting tension in silent isolation. It’s like watching a lit fuse inch toward a bomb.

In countries that are economically shut down, these pandemic times are a brief intermission in an age of unrest. When it’s over, we’re likely to see protests on a scale we’ve never imagined. Unemployment in the United States is likely to surpass the levels of the Great Depression, and political instability is almost sure to follow. If the pandemic begins to cause major devastation in Africa and South America, where protests have already been intensifying at a rate not seen in human history, it will act as a match to a tinderbox.

Some of the protests on the horizon may tend toward fascism. Others will be inflected with the ideals of socialism, and more still will be politically incoherent and up for grabs. We have cause for fear but also for hope that, as Engels predicted, “our age, the age of democracy, is breaking.”