Welcome to the Global Rebellion Against Neoliberalism

Bolivia protestor 2019

A supporter of former president Evo Morales holds a Bolivian flag during clashes with police in La Paz, Bolivia, November 13, 2019. (AP / Natacha Pisarenko)

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Something—someone—keeps knocking at the door. It’s cold out there and getting colder, but the people inside are cozy on the sofa with the TV on and a blanket on their laps. But there’s that knock again: at the front door now, then the side door, then the back. Maybe it’s the wind. Now there’s knocking at the windows and the roof and the walls of the house—who knew they were so thin? It’s hard to understand: How could so many people be knocking all at once?

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But they are, and it’s getting louder. Last week you could hear the banging in Colombia—in Bogotá, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellín, a curfew declared, the army in the streets—and the week before that in Iran, a steady beat that quickly spread to more than 100 cities. At least 100 protesters have been killed so far. It’s hard to know if there were more, or exactly what is going on: The government shut off the Internet on the protests’ second day. But even when there’s a steady connection, it’s hard to put it all together: Protests have been roiling through Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Germany, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Spain, Sudan, the UK, and Zimbabwe—I’m sure I’m leaving someplace out—and that’s only since September. Some have been the fleeting, routine sort that snarls up traffic for a day. Others look more like revolutions, big enough to topple governments, shut down entire nations.

Something is happening here. But what? And why now? In the last 12 weeks, protests have spanned five continents—most of the planet—from wealthy London and Hong Kong to hungry Tegucigalpa and Khartoum. They are so geographically disparate and apparently heterogeneous in cause and composition that I have not yet seen any serious attempt to view them as a unified phenomenon. (I don’t count The New York Times’ determination that the discontent can be traced to “pocketbook issues”—as close to class analysis as the paper of record gets.)

On the face of it, there appears to be little that unites them. In Iran, the announcement of a 50 percent hike in fuel prices set it off. In Germany, the Netherlands, and France, farmers blocked highways to protest environmental regulations. The outrage that has been shaking Hong Kong since June started with proposed legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. In Chile the spark was a hike in the cost of public transportation, in Indonesia an oppressive crime bill, in Lebanon the announcement of new taxes on everything from gasoline to WhatsApp calls.

Some of these movements have been organized by unions or formal opposition parties, but many are of the horizontal, leaderless sort. (“Be like water,” as the Hong Kong protesters put it, channeling Bruce Lee.) No overarching revolutionary ideology unites them. No vanguard party is rushing to the front. The single left-right axis on which the world was split for most of the last century is no longer always helpful. Right-wingers, and the United States government, have cheered the democratic aspirations of demonstrators in Hong Kong, Iran, and Bolivia—before the coup that toppled Evo Morales anyway—while scorning or ignoring them more or less everywhere else. The more doctrinaire quarters of the left have sniffed imperialist interventionism behind the Hong Kong and Iranian protests while affirming the legitimacy of pretty much every other popular movement on the planet.

If you can squint past the smoke from the barricades, the commonalities start to stand out. In Chile, anger over a  3 percent raise in metro fares revealed a population not merely miffed by “pocketbook issues”—the fare hike pushed transit costs to 21 percent of the monthly salary of a worker earning the minimum wage—but so exhausted by austerity, so squeezed by low wages and long hours and debt, so fed up with the greed and blindness of the wealthy few who run the country that they were ready to burn almost everything down. A few hours after declaring a state of emergency and dispatching the military into the streets, billionaire President Sebastián Piñera went on TV to remind the citizenry that Chile’s “stable democracy” and growing economy make it a “true oasis” on an otherwise chaotic continent. “The practices that underpin prosperity are not popular,” The Economistdrily observed.

In another corner of the same echo chamber, not long after Egyptian police rounded up thousands who dared to demonstrate in September, the country’s finance minister lamented that the “fruits of [Egypt’s] economic reform were not captured by ordinary people.” Measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund had in fact caused inflation to rise 60 percent over three years, plunging millions into poverty. This is what a Morgan Stanley analyst recently called the “best reform story in the Middle East.”

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The disconnect between elite perception and mass experience is as widespread as it is fundamental: All of the countries recently experiencing popular revolts—and most of the rest of the planet—have for decades been ruled by a single economic model, in which the “growth” celebrated by the pedigreed few means immiseration for the many, and capital streams into American and European accounts as reliably as sewage flows downhill. Chile was a notorious early laboratory: Pinochet’s assassination squads worked in tandem with Chicago-trained economists to create an “economic miracle” that only the fortunate, the unscrupulous, and the blind were able to appreciate. Should popular mobilizations in Bolivia fail to reverse the November 10 coup, they can expect similar acts of god.

The word gets thrown around a lot these days, but this is what neoliberalismmeans: a globally applicable method for preserving the current overwhelming imbalance of power. It works microcosmically on a municipal level—think decaying public transit systems with an apparently bottomless budget for racist fare enforcement, while billionaires hop in helicopters from rooftop to rooftop—and macrocosmically on a planetary scale, in which national elites collude with multinational corporations and international financial institutions to keep labor cheap and wealth and resources confined into established channels.

For most of the early 2000s, abundant Chinese capital and high prices for commodities like oil, gas, minerals, and agricultural products meant that some poor countries had options. For a little while, they could avoid the draconian “reform” traps attached to IMF loans: the usual slash-and-burn austerity recipe of public-sector cuts, privatization of state-held resources, and the gutting of labor protections in the name of “liberalization.” In Latin America, leftist governments won ground, and poverty and inequality plummeted. But the commodities boom sputtered out, the Chinese economy has stalled, and, after years of what must have been painful soul-searching, the IMF has stepped back in with the same old and discredited solutions.

Local elites have been happy to play along, hacking away at their own populations to keep the money flowing. In March, Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno signed a deal with the IMF for a $4.2 billion loan, and in October, as required, slashed public sector wages and fuel subsidies, causing the price of diesel to double—and many thousands of mainly indigenous Ecuadoreans to pour into the streets. (Moreno soon fled the capital and agreed to abandon the austerity package.) In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced a raft of new consumer taxes—on fuel, tobacco, and phone calls made via Internet messaging services—as part of a deficit-reduction package required by foreign lenders to secure an $11 billion loan. After 12 days of protests in which as much as a quarter of Lebanon’s population took part, Hariri resigned. The protesters haven’t quit.

The same model applies even in countries where the IMF and World Bank are forbidden from doing business: Iran, hobbled by four decades of US sanctions, has turned for years to the usual array of austerity measures. If they had widely failed to provide the economic panacea that they promised, they could at least reliably cushion the elite, passing the suffering on to classes deemed expendable. Until they couldn’t, that is.

Dignity is a funny thing: Once you reclaim it, it’s even harder to give up. Protesters’ demands have almost everywhere expanded far beyond the original outrage that set them off. In Hong Kong, demonstrators quickly determined that the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill was not nearly enough: They wanted universal suffrage too. (Half the seats in the city’s Legislative Council are directly elected by “functional constituencies,” such as bankers, manufacturers, and developers; inequality and housing costs are higher than anywhere in the world.) In Chile, protesters’ demands expanded from rolling back transit hikes to scrapping the country’s Pinochet-era Constitution. (It looks like they’ll get both—Piñera has reversed the fare hike and agreed to a referendum for a new Constitution.)

In Lebanon, protesters are now debating whether their movement counts as a revolution. (It should be no surprise that such fierce protests have arisen in Beirut, Hong Kong, and Chile, some of the most heavily privatized places on the planet.) In Sudan, an uprising that started when the government of Omar al-Bashir cut wheat and fuel subsidies—“at the suggestion of international lending partners,” The New York Timespolitely put it—ended up toppling his 30-year regime, and has not stopped fighting yet. In Haiti too, protests began more than a year ago when President Jovenel Moïse precipitously raised fuel prices to please the IMF. Protesters were soon demanding the US-backed Moïse’s resignation and have been at it ever since.

It is hard not to notice that not only in Haiti but in at least half a dozen countries from Ecuador to Zimbabwe protests were sparked by increases to the price of gasoline. It is no secret that we have to begin weaning ourselves off fossil fuels immediately if we are to have any hope of preserving some bearable version of human life on earth, but although nearly all of these countries have been hurt by the climate crisis—and their most vulnerable citizens hurt the hardest—these fuel hikes were not about reducing emissions. The IMF frequently ties loans to cuts in energy subsidies, and fuel taxes are an easy if regressive way to defray public debt: two tactics for getting the poor, and all those who have not benefited from official corruption, to bail out those who have.

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On the other side of the global divide, wealthy European countries have seen protests directly linked to climate policy—either because governments are doing too little, as in the UK, or because the measures they are taking unevenly distribute the pain, as in the Netherlands and Germany, where farmers have reacted to restrictions on pesticides and nitrogen emissions by blocking highways with thousands of tractors, and France, where an environmentally motivated fuel tax coupled with tax cuts for the rich let loose more than a year of fighting in the streets.

From both sides, the lessons here are very clear. First, that any attempt to tackle the climate crisis that does not also take on the basic needs of the overwhelming majority of the earth’s inhabitants will catastrophically fail. And second, that those basic needs include not just food, health care, and housing, but also dignity and forms of solidarity that the current system does everything it can to destroy.

Is it any wonder that so many uprisings, all at once, barely rate a mention on the TV news? Earlier this month, the novelist Dominique Eddé wrote of the popular uprisings in Lebanon that it is “as if hundreds of thousands of solitary people had discovered at the same time, after an endless hibernation, that they were not alone.” If we would only look, we would see that the same thing is happening all across the globe, people waking up together, looking around, and finding each other looking back.