Nearly 10 years ago, the series of uprisings known as the Arab Spring began — triggered by outrage at corruption, Wikileaks revelations, the self-immolation of Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi and, above all, mobilisation in Cairo. The first uprising substantially entwined with social media — the then-relatively new Twitter and Facebook — ensuring the event rapidly globalised.
As the journalist Paul Mason noted, by this point the world was thronged with newly-minted graduates — products of the long boom, whose futures were now cancelled by the 2008 crash. The disjuncture had created a fatal gap within which absolute demands for recognition and justice could form.
From Greece to Occupy to the Arab Spring, such malcontents had formed a new class in their own right, less likely to stoically accept a tightening of conditions than beaten-down workers and peasants. The new class could come together thanks to two newish things — the smartphone and social media — which in turn shaped their resistant identity.
Now, the world is rising up again. From Lebanon to Chile to France to Hong Kong people are in the streets. But this time it’s not principally or even significantly this new class; its gone one stage down to the old-fashioned working class.
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In France it began with the gilets jaunes, protesters of a fuel tax, who had donned the safety vest that all French drivers have to carry in their car boot. They were angry that Macron’s elite government, who were flying everywhere, had imposed a tax which took many to the edge of solvency, and then airily spoke about climate change.
In Chile, the first neoliberal society — the wisdom of Hayek and Friedman imposed with death squads — the cause has been a hike in subway fares; in Ecuador, it’s the withdrawal of fuel subsidies. And in Lebanon the protests were triggered over taxes on use of the WhatsApp messaging system.
It would be easy to mistake these for old-fashioned middle class tax revolts (and I’m sure the IPA will), but something else is clearly going on. Governments with both a shrinking revenue base due to the mobility of capital, and with debt increasingly weighing upon them, are turning to easily applicable “life taxes” to fill the gap. These fall on workers and are better seen as a wage cut than a tax rise. For many, such taxes carve into their basic ability to live anything other than a “bare” life.
This sudden shift in peoples’ willingness to put up with the slow stagnation of their conditions is yet another sign that the decade-long period of “quantitative easing” has ended, and the effects of that are beginning to be felt. There was no real recovery after 2008; simply money pumped in vast quantities, much of it hoarded by its recipients (beneficiaries of bond buy-backs), and inflating prices on the real conditions of life. The money that did trickle down pooled into the easiest channels; start ups with no revenue base or realistic business plan, and consumer franchises.
Thus, the new global slowdown can be memorialised, after Edward Gray, as such: “the overpriced stupid doughnut chains are closing down across Europe and the world. They will not reopen again in our lifetime.” Unsurprising given there was no transfer of money to wages for people to buy anything — now including tram tickets and wifi.
What has given these protests a new global dimension, and a link-up with the somewhat different Hong Kong protests, is the new generation of social media, beyond Facebook and Twitter, looking lugubrious and trivial by equal measure. WhatsApp and TikTok, with their mass peer-to-peer possibilities, take the possibility of non-hierarchical, but coordinated, action to a new level. The new techniques have helped an uprising, since many millions of low-income workers and the excluded have a smartphone, but will never use a laptop.
The new techniques of massing — the “be like water” style, which the Hong Kong protesters have been communicating to Lebanese protesters — essentially mirror that new fluid social form. What an exciting time to be alive! Unless you’re a Bellevue Hill millionaire who fears that the agile mob might soon be at your door.
What happens next? This wave will eventually crash across the Anglosphere when all the Trump-Brexit bluster is revealed as such. And of course the ethno-nationalist right will adapt it to their own, more lethal, ends.
And in Australia? Should a major reversal hit this place, watch out. The hidden contradictions here are greater than elsewhere. Our traditions of mass protest are sleeping, but not yet dead. Politics, like economics, is a matter of time. That time comes when you can only live by changing life; a point that is reached when you can’t buy a tram ticket; when your life is weighed in the scales that have been taken from you.