Outburst of Rage or moral outrage?

“Failure,” so goes the Chinese proverb, “is not falling down but refusing to get up.” Did the Arab Spring really fail? Ten years after it sprang up in the most inhospitable region for democracy, the jury is still out. History tells us that several “failed” revolutions made far greater impact globally than the successful ones. The Arab Spring ignited great many movements for democracy just as the two   failed revolutions—the 1848 revolution and the 1968 revolution—made even greater impact on the world.

Arab Spring’s “failure” has been fetishised. Political theorist Hannah Arendt famously said, “The point, as Marx saw it, is that dreams never come true.” But some dreams never die. The quest for dignity that the Arab Spring espoused will remain a quest. The Arab Spring didn’t become a global spring but the discontents that it typified are becoming global discontents.

 In 1848 a series of republican revolts against European monarchies took place but all ended in failure and repression. But it was also the year when Marx wrote the Manifesto, perhaps the most influential single piece of political writing. The 1968 revolution too was defeated. No one seized power and yet the world changed. The fire of 1968 may have died down but memory and legacy haven’t. Today, an array of protests across the world by the youth, students, farmers, migrants, women’s groups and climate warriors including ‘collapsologists’(those who abandon  all hope and are learning to die) is rocking the world.

When the 21st century dawned, some geopolitical sages proclaimed that future was already written and that the future had already happened. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, both the hype and hope of the 21st century are fading fast. We are still struggling to  define the contours of the present century. Is it the “age of mediocrity” or are we living in the “age of anger?” Have we ushered in a “post-truth world” or are we going through “modern primitivism?” A lot is still unfolding and there is a lot more that we don’t know than what we do know.

The spirit of the Arab Spring continues to be a potent force. In fact, a plethora of protests and movements of this decade is already overwhelming the world. As they say, every outburst legitimizes the next. Democracy remains alien to the Arab world. And yet, the region has changed. In fact, democracy may be moving in reverse gear across the world but the anger and the spirit of rebellion of the Arab Spring is pervasive.

Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice writes, “How far that little candle throws his beams!  The Arab Spring indeed threw its beams far and wide. It will be unwise to dismiss the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, Podemos and a host of protests globally as a failure. As Henry Kissinger told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1972, “The history of things that didn’t happen” has to be considered before passing a verdict on things that did happen.

The second decade began with widespread protests and closed with even wider upheavals. Even the first decade witnessed strong movements which ousted several governments in Latin America. The Piqueteros Movement in Argentina gave an innovative slogan, “Nadienos representa” (No one represents us). It was perhaps the strongest assertion of citizens’ power.

By all indications, the 21st century appears to be an age of rage. We are witnessing extraordinary wave of protests around the world against widening inequality and rising authoritarianism. It is understandable why citizens are angry. But why are political leaders angrier than the citizens? And not just Trump whom The Nation magazine calls a “Merchant of Anger.” Xi Jinping , Putin, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban and many others are all getting angrier by the day as the citizens refuse to bite Marie Antoinette’s cake. What is worrying is the growing trend of toxic rhetoric shaping politics. Peddlers of lies and conspiracy theorists are having a field day.

How does one explain what Raul Gallegos, political risk adviser to Fortune 250 companies, calls the “global anger pandemic”? Italian political theorist Paolo Gerbaudo says that ‘citizenism’ is the defining belief of the new wave of protests. The world is “angriest it has ever been”, according to a recent Gallup Emotions Report. Christine Lagarde, former managing director of IMF, says that anger is real. She had earlier cautioned that similar conditions preceded many wars. Thanks to the information revolution and the advent of social media, anger has become infectious. The stories and slogans on petitions websites that call for change are enraging people.

Most movements begin as campaigns. And end of campaign is not the end of revolution. Movements need not always be huge. It is not so much their national and global reach but their transformative and organic nature that make them movements. A successful movement rests on the principles of engagement and appeal.

Protest movements may not overpower the governments and regimes but they go a long way in undermining their legitimacy and support base. Not all great movements begin with clearly defined goals.  Whether women’s suffrage movement, India’s freedom movement, civil rights movement, colour revolutions, or the Arab Spring, they all began with powerful banding together against the powerful.

Most protests in recent years have been spontaneous. A notable feature of this outburst of anger is its peaceful nature. Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth describes it “a pronounced shift in the global landscape of dissent”. Though many non-violent protests are aimed at the end of a policy or a regime, a large majority of them have the objective of bringing about transformative change and influencing governmental policies. Non-violent protest movements don’t alienate anyone; they seek to bring everyone on board. They also keep the windows of opportunity open to conversation.

This is the greatest strength of the ongoing farmers’ movement in India. The Indian state has often handled the farmers’ agitation in a myopic way. Farmers were earlier dismissed as ‘kulaks’ but never as ‘Khalistanis’( a separatist religion-based movement) and ‘Naxals’(Maoist rebels). Blinded by its electoral gains, the ruling dispensation has kept pouring venom on agitating farmers even while holding talks with them. As thinker and cultural activist G N Devy says, “the nation did not create Indian farmers; the farmers created the Indian nation.” There is no idea of India without the farming community. Gandhi understood this reality when he gave a clarion call to “go to the villages, that is India, therein lives the soul of India”.

Islamophobes, supremacists  and toxic nationalists are never tired of stigmatizing the designated others—immigrants, minorities, farmers. Both market and governments promised El Dorado but provided only a Disneyesque beacon of light and fake optimism to the masses. The populists of all hues have used the economic crisis and the pandemic to grab power by perpetuating false narratives and taming the media and civil society. The sense of frustration and powerlessness among the poor and marginalized masses explains the unprecedented rage among the people.

Pankaj Mishra in his book, The Age of Anger, talks of a “global civil war” between the elites who enjoy “modernity’s choicest fruits” and the uprooted masses who have been cheated of the same fruits. He cites Nietzsche to illustrate his point that ressentiment thrives ‘where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership’.

The epidemics of protests in all corners of the world, says political scientist Ivan Krastev, are “not against the government, but against being governed”. Citizens rage is also against the current practice of politics and managed democracy. What social psychologists would call “moral outrage,” the tsunami of protests can be explained in terms of concern for justice and fair play and a reflection of guilt of not doing enough.

 The 21st century democracy is fast becoming a democracy of rejection and a contest of power between the top and the bottom, not so much between the left and right. One thing is clear though that the citizens are no longer impressed by political leaders blessed with flawed judgment and impoverished imagination and that they are determined to take back national institutions. Protest movements for democratic rights, dignity and justice are opening new horizons. Henry A Wallace. the 33rd vice-president of the US, described the 20th century as a “century of the common man” which remained a myth. But the 21st century is turning out to be a “century of empowered citizens”, perhaps a century of “angry citizens.” As Gabriel Garcia Marquez warned us, “expect nothing from the 21st century. It is the 21st century that expects everything from you.”

Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi