Peoples' movements and protests




Why did the protests fail?





by Jan Wiklund



Why did all the popular uprisings of the 2010s fail, asks Vincent Bevins in The Guardian. The Arab Spring, the protests against urban projects in Turkey, the protests against anti-democratic reforms in Hong Kong, the protests against bus fare increases in Brazil, among others - if they achieved anything, they achieved the opposite of what the participants wanted. You can also add the protests in the US, Spain and Greece after the financial crisis. The only mass protests that have so far seemed to lead to something like what participants wanted were the protests against commercial schools in Chile, and the yellow vests in France.

Bevins' explanation, which he also presents in a book, is that the protests have all been leaderless. They have succeeded in creating a hole in the previous power structure, but they have not been able to fill the hole, someone else has done that, who has had nothing to do with the protests. No one has been able to resolutely but legitimately fill the gap and use their position to realise the purpose of the mass protest, as the social democratic parties in the Nordic countries did in the 1930s.

Asef Bayat has another explanation in his book Revolution without revolutionaries, the introduction downloadable here. These protests rarely had any programme at all, other than a "no" vote, sometimes expressed as "the government must go". Anyone could then exploit this for their own purposes. This is in contrast to the movements of the early 20th century, which usually had a well-discussed overall programme for what society should look like.

However, more or less spontaneous movements that have had a concrete programme, such as all IMF uprisings from 1975 onwards, have often succeeded reasonably well, even if they were leaderless. When a government has cut the budget on the orders of the IMF, people have revolted and demanded that the cut be removed. Not infrequently they have succeeded, if not completely, at least in achieving a compromise. The Chilean school protests and the yellow vests are also examples of this.

Leaderlessness, the distrust of representativeness as a principle, emerged in the 1960s as a protest against the bureaucratisation and timidity of the governments that took it upon themselves to manage the movements of the early 20th century. For those of us involved in this protest, it was clear that representativeness did not help. We had realised that we had no way of controlling those who claimed to represent us through the usual electoral process alone. We therefore felt that it was up to all citizens, all the foot soldiers, to constantly hold the representatives to account. Politics was too important to be left to others.

At least those of us involved in the fight against urban devastation in Swedish cities achieved some limited but significant victories - perhaps because we had a clear programme. And perhaps also because, despite the lack of leadership, we had a very clear organisation in the form of frequent formalised meetings and meeting places for a long time, which forged us together into a we. We didn't have a frivolous Facebook or Twitter to leave the organisation to, with the corruption that inevitably results from that.

Of course, we are dealing here with an false contradiction.

In principle, it should be possible to sustain grassroots democratic movements and mobilisations as well as formal political parties capable of governing. In Sweden, we managed to do so in the 1920s - but when the Social Democrats reached governmental power in 1932, they did everything to stifle the grassroots democratic movement and put it under the control of employed functionaries responsible upwards. And the participants don't even seem to have noticed, probably because they couldn't think of the idea. Maybe also because their programme seems to have been exclusively about what the state should do; when it turned out that the government for a generation afterwards largely followed the programme, there was little to complain about. Nor was there any interest in participating in a political activity that was becoming increasingly predictable, top-down and boring.

When we now draw up new long-term and more or less comprehensive programmes to avoid the disappointments of the 20th century in the future, there is something to think about. These programmes should not just be wish lists for a government to fulfil, they should also be addressed to ourselves.

And we need to remember that even grassroots democratic movements need to be structured. Not only with fixed routines for how to decide things, but also with social routines that create a sense of importance and solidarity, so that people can cope and have the courage, even over time.



Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: