Revolt as Consumer Backlash
Beyond Washington DC, Donald Trump, and impeachment, there lies a great big world – and that world, at the moment, is being convulsed by a remarkable number of revolts against political authority. I will let Tyler Cowen, who is an economist, do the counting:
As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.
That we hardly talk about the collapse of order within so many nations is a tribute to the unconquerable provincialism of our thinking classes.
So what are we to make of this mess? Why the frenzy of protests – and why now?
A reasonable explanation is randomness. What could Hong Kong’s protests against an extradition law have to do with an independence movement in Catalonia – or with anger at mass transit fare increases in Chile? Only coincidence in time. Cowen touches on this possibility, only to gently push it aside. For good reason: once you make randomness the cause, there’s nothing more to say. Still, I believe randomness has a place in this story. There are times when the odds suddenly play us false. The Soviet Union was our eternal enemy, and then, in Marx’s phrase, it melted into air. Hosni Mubarak was the immoveable pharaoh of Egypt, and then, in three weeks, he was gone. Donald Trump was unelectable, until he won. A nation is an exceedingly complex system, and at the heart of every complex system, propelling it toward each possible destination, is the sociopolitical equivalent of the Infinite Improbability Drive.
As his daunting list indicates, Cowen is among the few who have paid attention to the big picture, and his economist’s perspective on events is intriguing. Many of the protests, he observes, began with price or tax increases. Consumers, mustered online, may be the twenty-first century’s subversive class, much as factory workers were for the nineteenth. That would account for the protesters’ almost universal lack of interest in power or revolution, programs or ideologies – the traditional objectives of politics. A consumer revolt has no need for such baggage. In fact, as Cowen remarks, a political blank slate can be an advantage in rallying huge numbers against a specific grievance.
I agree with Cowen that the public has erupted into politics with the mindset of the digital consumer. The “producers” are the elites who inhabit the government, above all, but also the parties, advocacy groups, the media – they manufacture laws, programs, decisions like impeachment. The public stands aside, as it would from any production and marketing process, but it retains the ultimate consumer’s veto. It can say No. All its implacable fury is invested in that act of negation.
But we should take care not to mistake trigger mechanisms for a sufficient cause. The crunch between the public and authority today is tectonic: the slightest pressure can release vast destructive energies. In Chile, for example, a 4 percent hike in mass transit fares ignited protests that have led to 23 deaths, property losses approaching a billion dollars, and a constitutional crisis. That’s disproportionate on any accounting. Clearly, anger and alienation preceded the fare increases. “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years,” is how Chileans explain it. Similarly, in Bolivia, it’s been about 14 years of Evo Morales. In Catalonia and Hong Kong, it’s been about decades of perceived abuses by a remote central government.
Everywhere, the mobilizing force has been the wish to strike at the established order.
Revolt as Viral Message
Politics in the digital age revolve around information. A safe assumption when thinking about this environment is that everyone is aware of everything, globally. This sets up powerful demonstration effects: protesters in one nation can learn from those in another. One reason for the spread of anti-establishment revolts may well be their improved capacity to evade suppression.
The epic uprising in Hong Kong, conducted under the eyes of the world, has proved to be a sort of Cavendish Laboratory of revolt. Activists in that city have devised ingenious tactics to narrow the disproportion between public and power: coordination by way of encrypted applications like Telegram, for example, or summoning flash mobs that disrupt airports or shopping districts then melt away before the police can arrive in force. The effect has been a running morality play, performed on YouTube and social media no less than television news, in which the forces of change constantly outmaneuver and outsmart the lumbering Goliath that is the state. Imitation was inevitable and, in fact, has been widespread. The first move in the current round of Catalan protests was a message on Telegram urging users to swarm into Barcelona’s airport. Chile’s anti-government crowds, like their Hong Kong counterparts, have wielded laser sticks to dazzle the cops and bring down surveillance drones. Such examples can be multiplied at will.
Hong Kong has been experienced by the global public as incentive and inspiration for taking to the streets – but also as a lesson in the unsuspected resilience of revolt. The triumph of opposition candidates in the city’s recent elections has only reinforced this lesson.
Turmoil in one country is also transmitted, like a contagion, to others that share cultural or geographic affinities. The Sudanese and Algerian protesters who toppled two octogenarian dictators “borrowed each other’s imagery and slogans.” The massive October demonstrations in Iraq and Lebanon that led to the resignation of their respective governments were propelled by almost identical grievances. In Latin America, long-running insurgencies in Venezuela and Nicaragua provided a model for those in Chile and Bolivia – and the latter directly inspired Colombia’s unrest in late November.
The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure. After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale. Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation. From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty. We should expect to be surprised.
What appears to be new about the present cycle is the scope and pace of change. The revolt of the public has begun to circle the earth at warp speed, beyond the reach of analysis that conceives of it as an accumulation of national flashpoints. Demonstration effects, Hong Kong ingenuity, cultural contagion – these account for bits and pieces of the riddle, but seem insufficient to explain the whole. Something global and systemic looks to be at work.
I can think of two hypotheses that explain the matter from a global perspective.
The optimistic version is that revolt has, quite literally, gone viral. The process is well known, if imperfectly understood. The information sphere consists of billions of competing messages. Most are forms of entertainment, sports, and pornography, or trivial subjects like cute cats and comical babies, but political content is not unknown, and can include, say, a lesson in the glamor of defiance, or a video about an African warlord. If a message possesses qualities desired or needed by a network, that message has the potential to flood the entire network. A number of semi-magical accidents must first occur – but let’s skip the technicalities. All we need to remember is that we’re back in the company of our old friend, randomness.
The message of revolt of 2019, mediated by random factors, evidently has met a profound need of the network. In more concrete terms: when the whole world is watching, a local demand for political change can start to go global in an instant. At a certain point, the process becomes self-sustaining and self-reinforcing: that threshold may have been crossed in November, when at least eight significant street uprisings were rumbling along concurrently (Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon – with France, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, and Venezuela simmering in the background). Whether local circumstances are democratic or dictatorial, prosperous or impoverished, the fashion for revolt is felt to be almost mandatory. The public is now competing with itself in the rush to say No.
A true viral run will continue until the network is distracted by a new message or every possible node has been infected. Prophecy is a fool’s game – but I will freely speculate that we are not there yet.
That, I repeat, is the optimistic interpretation. Those of you with a taste for pessimism are invited to read on, as I weigh the consequences of revolt.
Revolt as Failure Cascade
Any attempt to sort out the consequences of the 2019 upheavals will soon bump into the inadequacy of our thinking on the subject. Consequences must refer to initial conditions: and these varied wildly. Algeria was ruled by a corrupt dictatorship. France, on the other hand, is one of the oldest democracies in the world. In the last two decades, the sectarian cliques that run Lebanon have destroyed a once-thriving economy, increased poverty, and blighted the infrastructure. In the “30 years” that sparked the Chileans’ indignation, however, their country became the wealthiest in Latin America, with the lowest poverty rate. Levels of acceptable violence also diverged broadly: the death of a single bystander shocked Hong Kong, but hundreds have been killed in Iraq. Given such an untidy tangle of starting-points, it may be futile to search for common landing-places.
In the event, there have been consequences. Two dictators of long standing are gone. A would-be strongman has fled to exile. At least three putatively elected governments have resigned. Others totter, helpless, on the brink. The cost in blood and treasure has been terrible, but there can be no question that a political earthquake has shaken the world in 2019. The puzzle is, to what end?
Beyond the oppositional stance, the public in revolt has displayed a singular lack of clarity about its objectives. Indifference to ideology and programs may be part of its consumerist charm. Pure negation – a loathing of the system and the elites who fatten on it – has taken the place of political doctrine. Ordinary people have faced bullets and beatings for that cheerless cause. The ideals of democracy are often invoked, but these are wielded like a club to smash at the temples of authority. France and Chile are well-functioning democracies with little corruption, yet the protests there have been notable for their violence and vandalism. While few are calling for revolution and absolutely no one is proposing alternatives to representative government, the public’s alienation clearly runs deeper than mere hostility to the elites. There is, I believe, a powerful if inchoate craving for structural change.
This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis. It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration. Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality. A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart. This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.
For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious. A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”: a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character. In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict. I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn. But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian. The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”
Not every outcome is condemned to drown in pessimistic tears: the process, recall, is unpredictable. A structural reform that brings the public into closer alignment with the elites is perfectly possible. But I find it hard to see how that can be accomplished, so long as the public clings to the mutism of the consumer and refuses to articulate its demands like a true political actor. One rarely gets what one hasn’t asked for. Reform depends on the public’s willingness to abandon negation for practical politics.
If this willingness has been expressed in any of the revolts now under way, I have been unable to discover it. Meanwhile, for all the toil and trouble, little fundamental change has transpired: governments have fallen, dictators have fled, but the old structures of power are everywhere in place. The military are still in charge of Sudan. Corrupt sectarians still run the show in Iraq and Lebanon. Bolivia remains divided and on the verge of civil conflict. Spain rules Catalonia. China controls Hong Kong. Brutal sacrifices have been offered on the altar of negation – many have died, and economies have been wrecked. The gains, so far, have been largely symbolic and psychological.
The overwhelming success of anti-government candidates in Hong Kong’s municipal elections stands as the model of symbolic victory. From one perspective, the elections were an astonishing event – a “democratic tsunami,” the protesters exulted, repeating a phrase first coined in Catalonia. Repercussions may, in time, extend into China itself. Yet the reality on the ground hasn’t changed in the least. China holds Hong Kong in an iron grip. The hard authoritarians of the regime, motivated chiefly by survival instinct, could never allow democracy near power. The protesters, for their part, are caught up in the romance of revolt and the existential joy of bashing at a system they deeply hate. Their “Four Demands” are a polite request that the Hong Kong government abolish itself. That is not going to happen. The street insurgents mostly grasp this, and oppose to the futility of their struggle a tragic understanding of their situation. “[W]e cannot give up, because if we do, there will be no future for us anyway,” one of them said. “We might as well go down fighting,”
In Hong Kong and elsewhere, revolt has become a necessity, regardless of consequences. The global crisis of authority seems to be hurtling towards a point of no return: when submission to government is perceived as self-destruction, a fatal logic will ordain the destruction of government.
That’s consistent with the claims of both hypotheses outlined above. The public, too, may be riding powerful structural forces, as it assaults the settled order of the world.