2019: The year revolt went global

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.

Hong Kong

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.

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39 Responses to 2019: The year revolt went global

  1. Pingback: Martin Gurri on the current Age of Revolt - Marginal REVOLUTION

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  3. novabyblos says:

    My impression is that you are right, and the issue is, simply, ignorance. The level of information required to determine that something is wrong and that one should/could protest about it is very low. Modern communications systems easily disseminate that level of information very cheaply and quickly. But the level of information required to know what the solution to those wrongs is, and which politicians/factions are best suited to produce them, and how to monitor them over time to see if they enact those solutions – is extremely high. And crucially, no one disseminates the information “if you don’t know the general outlines to a better political solution, demanding change is very likely to not result in an improvement” because at the end of the day, there are too many people (not necessarily a majority, or even more than a few – but enough) in any movement like this who simply want power, (an elite sweeping in and appropriating a popular movement for their own political goals is, after all, a pretty common historic event) and telling people that doesn’t help them.

    Look at the posts in your link to the woman in Sudan. Almost all of them are about her identity or symbolism. No one is talking about her words, (not her fault, obviously she is the one saying them! – but the article and the people commenting in it) saying “I am so glad to see her recommending policy X that will solve problem Y, for obviously true reasons A B and C!” At least, if anyone is, they aren’t being signal boosted in that post. The people she is protesting against could, tomorrow, say “you know what, she’s awesome – we’re conceding power, abolishing our government and granting her (or her supporters) full control of our nation!” But no one has any idea if then she’d/they’d govern well. She could be Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991 or, tellingly, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2019.

  4. gsanders says:

    Hi, thanks for a systematic and thoughtful post. I’m here from Tyler Cowen link, so I apologize if my two responses are ones you cover in other pieces:

    1) I would disagree that Hong Kong has a negative agenda. I’d say they have an agenda requesting greater autonomy and sparked by the steady degradation of autonomy. Likewise, I think the Catelonia agenda can be reasonably characterized as a response to the Spanish governments rescission of prior autonomy arrangements, even if some members and key leaders were definitely shooting for more. Autonomy has a much better record than partition and the wave of revolt that contributed to post-WWII decolonialization definitely had mixed results, to put it mildly, might be instructive here.

    2) The consumerist I think that the role of leadership and their ability negotiate may be more the differentiator than negative or positive agenda. Leaderlessness can be particularly powerful against an authoritarian state but is also enabled by the current information environment in ways you describe. I’d agree with your characterization that it has no real end game. But that is part of why I think there’s a greater chance for Hong Kong than some of the Arab Spring revolts, as there are more established politicians.

    3) I think that the collapse of journalism’s advertising-driven economic model is an important part of the change in the information sphere that applies in parts of the developed world, though I’m most familiar with the phenomenon in the U.S.

    • gsanders says:

      And in one clarification, I think there’s a strong case for decolonialism having a strong positive effect on the world, just wanted to be clear that the process was very bloody in some cases and also did result in no small number of nationalistic dictators replacing imperial overseers.

      • JM de la Torre says:

        Actually, that’s wrong. Catalan nationalists have held power in Catalonia since 1980. And they still do, despite an anti-nationalist party having won a plurality in the elections after the aborted Independence Declaration.
        Plus, they constitute the elite: they control education, health, police, most councils (just not he mod populated), they are wealthier, better educated, and control patronage.
        Is actually the minorized majority who opposes independence who’s been mistreated by the nationalist-led catalan government and left un-assisted by the spanish central government.
        The protest were largely proofed by catalan government officials and media. And the app used by the hereto now unknown organizers was most probably financed by misused public funds.

  5. Victor Tirumalai says:

    I can give a example from thermodynamics. The political system is like a metastable polymeric spinodal solution. All it requires for the precipitation to occur is a seeding event. The globalized system that we have right now since the collapse of the Soviet Union is built on older models of global finance and controls. But with the explosion of the Internet and the new Financialization of the World Economy (where Finance now is about 40 percent of the economy); this is unsustainable. People have a innate feeling that the system is basically unfair. Especially when a large proportion of the world billionaires are financiers/Hedge fund peeps. Thus. this reminds me of a metastable political/economic system. The protests we are seeing may be the seeding event that will lead to collapse.

  6. J says:

    The spontaneous mass “protests” are carnivals without any political meaning or effect. As you said, the persistent demonstrations in Hong Kong and in Paris have no political impact, no self-respecting regime has fallen because of bad press or masses on the street. A headless, organization-less, program-less mass is impotent. Only a political machine, with seasoned political leaders, with a program of concrete measures may represent a danger for the regime. We do not see any real police or army repression, not even in China, which indicates that the carnival is not serious.

    • The protests like we’ve seen will go on indefinitely. Why? Because throughout all of human history, nobody just meekly lays down power and walks away from it. The “masses” now have the power of negation like we’ve never seen before, thanks to miraculous advances in communications technology. We are at the dawn of something new and unprecedented and completely unpredictable. May God help us.

  7. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: 2019: The year revolt went global – protipsss

  8. peter says:

    so the “consumers” are unhappy with the status quo. is it their duty to come up with a better way to run things or is that be the duty of the “elite”? is the mark of a “good” elite the ability to create a stable system?

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  17. alex says:

    The Hong Kong riots are a hate movement – nothing more and nothing less. The hatred is of people of Chinese descent, and sadly I see it being amplified by western media which values clicks and attention over human life.

    You are right, however, that economic frustrations related to housing prices and job opportunities in Hong Kong have led some dispossessed youths toward the movement, even if they themselves are only weakly invested in anti-Chinese sentiment.

  18. This ignores the similar rise of reactionary fascism around the world; similarly mediated through the network medium.

  19. zzbbyy2017 says:

    I have pretty high priors for the viral hypothesis – but one important counter argument for the whole article is – how much of this is real increase of the protest rate and how much it is that now it is easier to find out that there are protests in far out places? In other words: https://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/16/cardiologists-and-chinese-robbers/

  20. Walter Sobchak says:

    Well, the UK election is another data point in the emerging landscape. I recommend the analysis written by Toby Young* and published on Quillette.com:


    *Young is an author, and conservative activist. His best known work was his cheekily named “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” a memoir of his sojourn through the New York publishing world. Young’s father was Michael Young, a socialist and sociologist, who coined the word “meritocracy”.

    Young cites “Thomas Piketty, the French Marxist, [who] wrote a paper about this phenomenon last year entitled ‘Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict’

    Click to access Piketty2018.pdf

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  22. Great post. I would only add the mass protests in Puerto Rico in July of 2019, which led to the resignation of the Governor of Puerto Rico, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

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  26. Peter says:

    I don’t know if there’s even a point in pointing the flaws of this post, as it’s obviously written from an ideological standpoint. To name but one example, the language that the author uses regarding the yellow vests – notably the incredible “violence” of the movement – seems to stem directly from the mainstream media coverage of the events in France.

    For those living outside the country, it is truly difficult to understand how disconnected the news media is from the ordinary man’s reality. It is truly a caste in itself – the Elite. The yellow vests are indeed portrayed as violent, without any clear revendication, but for anyone living in France, what people want is pretty clear. It’s touching – in a pathetic sort of way – to see the author revert to cliches such as “the oldest democracy in the world” and claim the country is corruption free. I’m guessing that the author hasn’t been following the French news very closely lately: conflicts of interests are a disease of French politics. Not a day goes by without a big scandal involving a top-ranked official linked to private interests. That alone is infuriating enough for the population to rise up and demand decent living conditions. Life in France – and elsewhere in Europe – is becoming increasingly difficult for a majority of people.

    So before the author may draw conclusions about every revolt happening in the world, I think he needs to do a lot more homework on his subjects.

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