In March 2011, I asked a class at an unemployed training centre in Madrid who would be prepared to emigrate to find a job. They all raised their hands. Youth unemployment in Spain stood at 43% – higher than both Egypt and Tunisia. Everyone in the room said most of their friends were unemployed. One in five of those under the age of 30 in Spain were still looking for their first job. Almost every young person I spoke to believed their lives would be harder than their parents’.
“This is the least hopeful and best educated generation in Spain,” Ignacio Escolar, then 35 and author of the country’s most popular political blog, told me. “And it’s like a national defeat that they have to travel abroad to find work.”
Why, I asked him, had they not taken to the streets? “It’s like there is oil on the streets,” he said. “All it needs is a small spark and it could blow.”
The last decade has been a combustible one. Across the globe, millions of protesters have marched, sat down, sat in, camped out, occupied, filled jail cells, rioted, looted, chanted, petitioned, lobbied and hashtagged. These protests have toppled despots and overthrown governments, transformed geopolitics, led to the death or transformation of old political parties, and the birth and ascendancy of new ones.
These demonstrations were largely led by progressives, liberals and leftists, often supporting the demands of the poor, the young, students, workers, minorities, the indigenous, women, trade unionists and migrants. In most cases, however, they cleared more space for the left than it could hold, either electorally or politically. Caffeinated through social media, these movements had a tendency to burn brightly only to fade, making space for whatever came next. They involved mostly the same people, shifting from one protest to the next – campaigning first about war, then inequality, then racism, then sexism – which lent the culture of protest an itinerant quality.
The right was on the march, too. From Africa to South America, people mobilised against migrants, wealth redistribution and alleged corruption. Although at times equally chaotic, and less impressive in terms of numbers or strategy, the right has proved itself capable of building a more permanent presence. Fascism has reasserted itself as a mainstream ideology in Europe; in the US, neo-Nazis have marched by torchlight and killed in daylight; in Bolivia they staged a coup.
It is in the nature of protests that, for the most part, they highlight problems they are not equipped to resolve. This decade was no different. We have witnessed some of the largest and most widespread leftwing protests in history, and we end the decade with the most rightwing governments in living memory. These contradictions are most evident in the US, which saw four of the five biggest demonstrations in its history in the second half of the decade – prompted primarily by the election of its most reactionary president.
The source of this flammable liquid is no great mystery. At the end of 2008, a huge financial crisis – one that started in the US housing market – spread across the world like a virus. The only thing that could save free market capitalism from itself was the state. And while it was public money that rescued private capital, the public were the ones who suffered. Real wages, which had long been stagnant, fell – and in some places, including Britain, remain lower than they were when the crisis began. Everyone was affected, but not everyone was affected equally. Within a few years, the bonuses returned to the bankers, who had invested so venally and recklessly. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the decade, the median net wealth for women of colour in America was calculated at just $5. An entire generation of young people saw their future diminish, with Spanish youth being just one of the salient European examples.
The notion that the subsequent hardships would result in social unrest, particularly in those countries that passed the pain directly on to the poorest by way of austerity, was not just predictable: it was predicted. Weeks before the decade began, the credit rating agency Moody’s warned that future tax rises and spending cuts could unleash social unrest, a key risk identified by Christine Lagarde, who would soon become chair of the International Monetary Fund.
In April 2010, the then Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, painted a bleak scenario during the election campaign: “Imagine the Conservatives... get an absolute majority, on 25% of the eligible votes. They then turn around in the next week or two and say, ‘We’re going to chuck up VAT to 20%, we’re going to start cutting teachers, cutting police and the wage bill in the public sector. I think if you’re not careful in that situation… you’d get Greek-style unrest.” The Tories got 23% of the eligible vote. They did not win an absolute majority but, with Clegg’s help in the coalition government, it all happened anyway.
Such was the highly flammable liquid, poured freely and knowingly over the turn of the decade. The sparks varied with each country, though there were some commonalities. Austerity was a key one. Greece began the decade with a newly elected centre-left government and a wave of strikes, demonstrations, bond downgrades and appeals for bailouts. By September 2010, they were joined by hundreds of thousands of protesters and strikers in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Ireland and Lithuania in a Europe-wide day of action against cuts. In Dublin, a man rammed a cement mixer into the gates of the Irish parliament. In Britain, not long after, students went into occupations across the country over an increase in tuition fees.
Two months after I spoke to Escolar, Spanish youth occupied the main squares across the country, rallying to the slogan: “We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers.” They would become known as the Idignados (“the indignant ones”) and formed the basis for a new political party, Podemos.
The issue of inequality, global capitalism and who should pay for the crisis went global after an occupation in New York’s Zuccotti park in September 2011, protesting against the venality of the 1% and solidarity with the 99%. Occupy Wall Street soon became a franchise that found homes around the world. From Ojota in Nigeria to Seyðisfjörður in Iceland, via Vancouver, Melbourne, Boston and Bournemouth, encampments sprang up demanding wealth redistribution and systemic change. The ubiquity of these protests illustrated both their easily transferable popularity and the elusiveness of their target.
Unrestrained by national borders or democratic accountability, neoliberal globalisation is a force without a face and a system without a centre. It is everywhere – in our pensions, mortgages and public spending cuts – until you try to hold people or institutions responsible for the mess we’re in, and then it evaporates.
This elusive quality also served as the basis for much of the right’s advance. In a moment when those responsible for the financial crisis remained out of reach, more visible targets – religious and racial minorities, migrants, refugees – were identified by opportunist populists.
On the progressive side, these protests mostly took place without reference to electoral politics. They may have been against a leader or a policy, but they did not emanate from a party and rarely advocated for one. This is not to say that they did not have an enduring effect on the political culture. Anita Dunn, White House communications director for Barack Obama, told a reporter in 2012 that Occupy Wall Street had “reframed the discussion nationally [because] it gave people permission to openly discuss something that had not really been openly discussed and gave many members of the Democratic party much more confidence in going to those places in the criticism of the Republican policies”. In Washington DC, where women’s marches have been the biggest of all, the decade will end with more women elected to Congress than ever before.
But they also started to reshape the political parties that existed. Previously centrist social democratic parties either underwent radical shifts to the left – Labour with the election of Jeremy Corbyn; the Democrats with the rise of Bernie Sanders – or were eclipsed by the left (as in Greece, France, the Netherlands) which often supported coalitions or minority governments (as in Finland, Denmark, Sweden or Spain). The right proved better at embedding themselves within pre-existing conservative structures and so ascended to positions of power – in the US, Italy, Brazil, Britain – far more quickly. Many protests, from the yellow vests in France to those against government corruption in South America or pro-democracy in Hong Kong, don’t necessarily fit easily into a left-right narrative.
But austerity was not the only cause. Corruption and despotism was another. On 17 December 2010, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, went to the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid to protest at the petty harassment he was facing and demand that the scales confiscated from him earlier that day be returned. When the governor refused to see him, he stood in the middle of traffic, shouted: “How do you expect me to make a living?”, doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight.
Bouazizi’s treatment was emblematic of a broader contempt leaders had for long-suffering citizens in the region. Major uprisings followed in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, as well as significant demonstrations in Morocco, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Sudan. The Arab spring, like the Prague spring before it, laid bare a crisis it could not resolve. Since revolutions demand not only the upending of the old order but the establishment of a new one, most of these uprisings did not complete their mission; many ended with increased authoritarianism under different management, civil war or reckless western intervention.
In a year that started with the Arab spring and ended with Occupy Wall Street, it would be obtuse to understand the rioting of young Britons in August 2011 as an isolated, random moment of mass social deviancy. With three-quarters of those who took to the streets having been stopped and searched in the previous year, and citing poverty, inequality or unemployment as the causes, theirs was the least coherent and most destructive expression against indifferent elites, economic hardship and cavalier policing.
Three years later, when the lifeless body of Michael Brown lay in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, the focus on despotism shifted to America and race. What started as a hashtag following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer became a rallying cry in the form of Black Lives Matter. Demonstrations against police shootings of African Americans proliferated. These shootings weren’t news in the conventional sense: they were neither rare nor a recent phenomenon. They were news because the combined impact of social media and video evidence forced a reckoning with a reality with which African Americans were all too familiar.
The same was true of the mass protest against sexual harassment prompted by numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Once again, a slogan founded years earlier (MeToo became a rallying phrase on social media in 2006) was propelled to the fore. Again, the scandal was not that this was new, but that it had been going on for so long, and everyone knew. Quite what qualified as victory for the movement was an open question, but it made a difference – raising awareness and thwarting the careers of several predatory men in the movie and media industries. Hashtag campaigns such as these were impressive in their capacity to change the conversation, to amplify the voices of those who had not been heard. But they lacked the social or economic base, let alone the organisation, to sustain themselves.
By the end of the decade, a series of school strikes around the world had found a poster child in 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, who addressed the UN Climate Change Action summit in September. Meanwhile, the environmentalist umbrella group Extinction Rebellion led campaigns of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience that brought airports and British cities to a standstill. Mobilising across generations, its goal was both definite – to save the planet – and elusive: demanding that institutions and individuals change their behaviour as a matter of both urgency and principle.
And so the decade ended as it started, with demands for systemic change, led primarily by the young, and hundreds of thousands on the streets in Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Haiti, Peru, Sudan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and the US. As resistance grows to economic inequalities, state repression, bigotry and sexism, political cultures have become more polarised.
With no systemic response to the financial crisis that would prevent it recurring, and no punishment for those who caused it, the world sits on the brink of yet another one. There is more oil on the streets and more sparks to ignite them. The next decade promises to be more combustible than the last.
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