2013: The year of protest

Demonstration against corruption
in Manila.

Revolutionary years seem to happen every half-century. In 1848 fifty revolutions in Europe and Latin America put a definitive end to the monarchy in France, absolutism in Denmark and the feudal serfdom in Austria and Hungary. In 1917 the two Russian revolutions started to put in practice the ideas summarized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in a famous Manifesto, published precisely in 1848. In 1968 the specter of revolution toured the world again with rebellions against the established order in Paris, Prague, Mexico and many other cities and campuses.

Was 2013 one of these years that history will remember as turning points? Statistics say that this is indeed the case. In a study titled "World Protests 2006-2013" Isabel Ortiz from Columbia University and Sara Burke, from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in New York, record and analyze strikes, demonstrations, rallies, riots, road blockages, occupations and other protest actions in almost ninety countries worldwide*.

The 2010 figures double the number of protests registered in 2006 and the first half of 2013 double it again, with 111 events recorded, fifteen of which with over one million people participating.

Between 2006 and 2013 seventy events with global demands inter- regional characters were reported, but nine out of ten protests are directed at national governments. The demonstrations occurred worldwide, but were more numerous in the high-income countries as a result of the financial and economic crisis and its aftermath, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean. In the Arab world the greatest number of recorded protests took place before the “Arab Spring" that changed governments in Egypt and Tunisia. The majority of the violent riots happened in low-income countries, almost half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, mainly as a result of sudden increases in food and energy prices. The largest demonstrations happened in Egypt, where 17 million people took the streets against President Mohamed Morsi before his overthrow by the military and in India, with a hundred million demonstrators against poverty and inequality.

Many protests have several demands, or evolve in their claims, as was the case in Brazil, where huge marches against the price of public transport turned into protests against corruption. The authors cataloged 843 protests in four major groups. In 488 cases, more than half of the total, the protests were motivated by issues of economic justice, against austerity measures, unemployment, poverty, taxes and inequality.

Over 40 percent of the registered events (376) were directed against the political system, protesting corruption, demanding democracy, justice and transparency. Global justice was the generic theme of 311 protests, directed specifically against the International Monetary Fund and other international financial institutions, trade agreements or to protect the environment.

Finally, 302 events aimed at gaining or defending rights, including ethnic/indigenous/racial rights; right to the Commons (digital, land, cultural, atmospheric); labor rights; women’s rights; right to freedom of assembly/speech/press; religious issues; rights of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered people (LGBT); immigrants’ rights; and prisoners’ rights.

The authors identify two "jumps" in the growing number of protests over five years. The first, in 2007, relates with the increase in fuel and food prices resulting from the global financial crisis and the second, in 2010, coincides with the expansion of the austerity measures worldwide.

In 2013, at least 119 countries are experiencing cuts in government spending as a result of increased public debt (in many cases after rescuing failed banks) and lower economic growth. Globally, only two in five people of working age are employed and 900 million workers fail to escape poverty due to low wages. Austerity measures implemented in 174 2010 and 2013include tax increases (mainly in socially unjust direct taxes like VAT), elimination of subsidies, reduction of wages of civil servants, labor flexibilization or reforms of the pension system.

"Protests that appear random are linked by a set of policies adopted by Ministries of Finance and generally advised by IMF surveillance missions," conclude the authors.

In contrast, the second group of events is more subtly linked together: "The occupation of Puerta del Sol in Madrid (calling for "¡Democracia Real YA!"), Syntagma Square in Athens ("Demokratia!") and Zuccotti Park in New York ("Democracy Now!") spread because the grievances in one place—frustration with politics as usual and a lack of trust in the usual political actors, left and right, coupled with a willingness even on the part of the middle classes to embrace direct actions—resonated in the other places as well. Frustration with politics as usual and politicians, couples with a willingness even on the part of the middle classes to embrace direct actions, led thousands of people to occupy public spaces in large assemblies that became experiences of democracy and a new form of protest, based on principles of autonomy and solidarity."

Almost four in ten protests achieved some satisfaction of their demands. But the "contagion" of examples and the non-satisfaction of the craving for real democracy and economic justice is likely to feed further movements. The year that ultimately makes it into the history of world revolutions may well be 2014.

By Roberto Bissio.


* The study is available at http://policydialogue.org/publications/working_papers/world_protests_2006-2013_executive_summary/