Do you hear the people sing?

An overview of protest movements of the past decades – and what they managed to achieve with Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernán Saenz Cortés' World Protests. A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century, reviewed by Ania Skrzypek,

Director for Research and Training

An overview of protest movements of the past decades – and what they managed to achieve with Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernán Saenz Cortés’ World Protests. A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century, reviewed by Ania Skrzypek.

A couple of years ago a senior strategist from the Swedish Social Democratic Party (SAP) was asked how the party had managed to stay in power – almost uninterruptedly – for so many years. He took a moment and then answered: “It is simple. It is because we are always in opposition. When we are in government, we oppose everything that is socially unjust. When we are on the other side of the fence, we oppose the right wing that conducts wrong policies. Either way, we are always on the social justice side of the argument and hence on the side of the people.”

This instructive observation prompts the question as to where the lines of political demarcation are today. Recent years have been marked by profound transformations, which have brought about tectonic shifts in political landscapes across the world. As a result, several political movements have been elevated to the position of leading parties and others, even some with long traditions, have been pushed off the historical cliff into irrelevance. Some of the underpinning phenomena such as the growing volatility of voters, polarisation, and fragmentation are already subjects of extensive studies. But what frequently escapes the attention is the dynamic on the fringe of the political system. And this is where Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernán Saenz Cortés shed some much-needed light with their new book World Protests. A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century.

Their publication is the result of so-called policy dialogues that were aimed at evaluating the political and social protests of the last 14 years (2006-2020). Having collected the dialogues, the four authors then went about organising them into findings. With each of the authors having a different professional profile (an academic, a think-tanker, an entrepreneur, and a consultant for a development organisation), the insights that the book provides are formulated to be of great inspiration to all the respective disciplines of the authors – which makes the book outstanding in its interdisciplinarity. World Protests. A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century is divided into five sections: an introduction (which explains the methodology), two chapters (which respectively classify the protests, and analyse the issues around which the protesters rallied), conclusions, and annexes. The authors’ diligent compilation of an almost encyclopaedic record of protests across the globe makes the book highly recommendable. In all, the book looks at 101 countries, which equates to 93 per cent of the world’s population. In addition, the authors provide a glossary that categorises the various methods of protest (as many as 250 methods are covered). 

The main argument of the book is that over the past one and a half decades (2006-2020) the number of protests around the world has increased unprecedently, which the authors consider as proof that representative democracy is failing the citizens (p. 93-94). Looking at the intense frequency of these protests, one could even conclude that this makes the book the first attempt to describe what may be a wave comparable to the Springtime of the Peoples of 1848 (p. 13). As back then, not all regions and countries are today affected in the same way. Indeed, the statistics provided in the book indicate that the biggest number of protests in the 2006-2020 period took place in Europe and Central Asia, and that there is a positive correlation between income and the number of protests – the wealthier the country, the more empowered its people feel to act. 

In overall terms, the authors show that the main motivation for people to protest is the failure of political representation (and of ‘real’ democracy). This motivation is followed by that of economic justice and anti-austerity, and then by that of rights. Interestingly, the statistics show that issues connected with global justice or the opposition to international organisations (the EU included) fall far behind these three main motivations. This may come as a surprise to those who follow protests about the climate, women’s rights, or TTIP – as these latter protests receive wide media coverage. Yet statistics nevertheless show that there have been relatively fewer of these latter protests than one might have been led to believe. There is therefore clearly a gap between perception and reality. That said, the authors add a disclaimer that although they tried to categorise each protest by the main issue around which it revolved – there was hardly ever a protest that was devoted to one specific question alone (p. 18). 

Connected to this is the fact that it is not only the number of protests that matters, but rather the change that the protest brings about. The authors suggest looking at this change from two perspectives – first, how far the concrete demands of the protests were met; and second, to what extent the protests brought about a structural change in power. This is a very important point, which – if the book was to have a sequel – would deserve further reflection. It would be fascinating indeed to see concrete examples of where protests brought about a change of government and to what extent the protest was generally a factor in the rise or fall of Social Democrats – especially as the authors point out that most of the issues around which protesters rallied were synonymous with what was at the core of the respective agendas of progressives at that particular time (p. 53). And while in the past the centre-left seemed able to use the context of protests and ride on their wave (for example in 1848, and the 1960s), a valid question today is why, in recent years, it has been so difficult for progressive movements to benefit directly and politically from the various protest movements. 

Coming back to the question of the failure of representative democracy as a motivation for citizens to rally, the book shows that unlike in the past, the last 14 years have seen protests right across all demographic strata. Yet it is interesting that there is only a small growth in the number of protests instigated by political parties and movements. While this more than doubles between 2006-2010 and 2016-2020, it is not comparable with the growth in grassroots activism, which indeed triples. There is also a decline in the figures for NGOs. Greater grassroots participation goes hand in hand with the activation of the middle of society, which is becoming increasingly anti-elites, anti-1 per cent, and determined to exhibit its lack of trust towards institutionalised politics (p. 51). Although these figures can of course be used to explain voter volatility or the rise of right-wing (economic) populism, more interestingly they offer a new explanation of what has been happening inside Social Democratic parties. The zeitgeist that these numbers capture helps explain the rise in popularity of and the excitement around the political style of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and Jacinda Ardern respectively. 

All in all, World Protests. A Study of Key Protest Issues in the 21st Century is very relevant reading for all those interested in relations between societies and politics. The meticulous account of the protests recorded in the last 14 years, the respective methods of these protests, their participants and their impact equip readers with a knowledge that will also allow them to better understand the mechanisms of protests that are ongoing today – such as those in solidarity with Ukraine, against the Covid-19 measures, or against inflation. Ultimately, the book’s final message is most instructive – that the complexity of the phenomena means that the protests very rarely rally around just one issue. There is always more in the background and therefore if progressives want to hear the people, to build on the context of the protests, and to lead on – they must prepare for a fight that is extremely unlikely to be one-dimensional. Yet the compass that progressives must use to navigate and connect with the disenchanted is one focused on progressives’ own values and the translation of these into principles and rights. This will ensure that progressives are consistently on the social justice side of the argument, wherever and whenever that takes place. 

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