Global Protests: Rebellion and Repression

Updated: Feb 12

Phil Hearse investigates the wave of revolt by workers, youth, and indigenous people against austerity, corruption, dictatorship, and climate extinction.

23 December 2019.

Mass anti-austerity/anti-corruption protests meet state repression in Chile.


In the last two months, the world has seen the most widespread mobilisations against austerity and corruption since the wave of struggles that followed the financial crash in 2008.

These movements have been met with brutal repression, with hundreds killed and thousands arrested. The international movement against climate extinction has been particularly massive, but has not (yet) met by the same level of repression.


At the time of writing (10 December), mass demonstrations against the French government’s proposed pension ‘reform’ continue across the country for the sixth day, with an estimated 800,000 on the streets. Transport workers have been joined by other public-sector employees in continuing action, while the unions are considering broader one-day strikes like that on 5 December. The proposed ‘reforms’ would mean working longer to achieve the same pension – up to the age of 79 in some cases.


In Chile, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt, young people have been at the fore. Many participants were children or young teenagers during the Arab Spring and Occupy! movements of 2010-12. Despite this youthfulness and the harsh repression, in most places these new protest movements have been only temporarily pushed back, not defeated.


In some counties, such as Algeria and Lebanon, the focus has been on elite corruption, but in Iran, Ecuador, and Chile the movement started as a protest against price increases – notably, sharp increases in fuel prices. Iranians generally regard cheap fuel as a right, in a country that is a major oil producer. As Borgou Daragahi explained:


A sharp spike in fuel prices has ignited days of anti-government protests across Iran… potentially plunging the country into a new political crisis.


Thousands of demonstrators defied freezing temperatures to take to the streets of the capital Tehran and other towns and cites including Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz…


In one widespread gesture of defiance, drivers in numerous cities simply abandoned their vehicles, leading to major traffic jams.


Security forces have responded with characteristic harshness, shooting teargas and possibly live fire to disperse crowds amid dire warnings by top government authorities.


A world to win

Iran: anti-regime protestors under tear-gas attack.


It is now known that more than 250 have been killed by security forces and 7,000 arrested during demonstrations in 165 cities. Declining living standards are linked to harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. But Iranians know that those in power in the Islamic Republic are corrupt, and the lifestyles of the rich are untouched by sanctions.


On November 22, despite massive repression, protests continued for the eighth Friday in a row. President Hassan Rouhani claimed victory over ‘armed anarchists’ supported by the United States and Israel – blaming the US and Israel is the regime’s go-to excuse when quashing internal opposition.


The situation for ordinary people in Iraq is even worse than in Iran. The country’s infrastructure remains in ruins, having never been rebuilt after the 2003 war. Hundreds of thousands have died in sectarian conflict, victims especially of Isis, al Qaeda, and pro-Iranian Shia militias.


Patrick Cockburn, reporting from Baghdad, puts it this way:


All Iraqis know that the country possesses vast oil wealth, bringing in $6.5bn a month, but they live with widescale unemployment, lack of electricity, pervasive corruption, and a poor-quality health and education system. They know that vast fortunes have been made by government officials siphoning off money for projects that are never completed and, frequently, are never even begun.


One of the positive characteristics of the current movement is that it is not based on sectarian Shia/Sunni lines, but has united people from all communities.


Most of those killed in Iraq have been felled by live ammunition, including machine-gun fire and bullets fired by snipers, both randomly into crowds and at identified protest leaders.


The fight-back in Latin America


In the past few years, the political tide in Latin America has been running sharply against the Left. The defeat of left-wing reformist governments in Brazil and Ecuador and now the coup against the Evo Morales government in Bolivia has not prevented the re-emergence of mass rebellion, notably in Chile and Ecuador.


The huge rebellion in Chile is detailed in an article posted on the Public Reading Rooms site (here). The country has a notional GNP of $19,000 per capita, but privatisation of pensions and health care has plunged much of the country into poverty. The movement started as a protest against a price rise on the Santiago metro, decreed as part of an austerity package by neoliberal president Sebastián Piñera.


The deployment of troops on the streets of Santiago and other major cities, an eerie throwback to the Pinochet coup in 1973, has resulted in more than 30 dead, at least 80 suffering grave injuries, and thousands arrested – with reports of many being brutalised or raped. On 21 November, it was reported that people had been blinded by rubber bullets.


Piñera has responded by sacking half his cabinet and apologising for ‘not having understood’ the demands of the protestors. Few are deceived by these manoeuvres. Piera understood the meaning of the movement only too well. And the mass movement refuses to go away.


In Ecuador, the announcement by the government of the inaptly named Lenín Moreno of a US$2.2bn package of austerity measures led to a huge protest. The government responded with brutal police repression and on 3 October and declared a state of emergency for 60 days.


Lenín Moreno’s package includes lifting subsidies on fuel prices, cuts in public spending, an assault on the rights of civil servants and public-sector workers (reduction of paid holidays from 30 to 15 days a year, a one-day-of-wages ‘special contribution’, and the renewal of temporary contracts with a 20% loss in pay), as well as a plan for mass lay-offs in the public sector: it is an across-the-board assault on employment rights. These measures are aimed at unravelling the left-wing legacy of former president Rafael Correa.


Here the movement was led not just by youth but especially by indigenous people, who make up 25% of the population and have been at the forefront or social struggles in the last decade.


So huge and militant was the movement that Moreno and his cabinet left the capital Quito, and eventually withdrew the austerity package. Direct negotiations with indigenous leaders produced a compromise, whereby the rebels will form a joint committee with the government to discuss economic reform. We will see what comes of that, but for the moment Moreno’s austerity moves have been defeated.


There is more. In Sudan, a movement that started in December 2018 overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in April this year – though it continued to be held back by the power of a corrupt military.


In September, a remarkable rebellion took place in Egypt against the corrupt and sadistic al-Sisi regime, with the predictable result of hundreds killed and more than 7,000 arrested.


In Haiti, protests against price rises and elite corruption that started in 2018 are continuing.


The background to the extraordinary mass movement in Puerto Rico, which also started in 2018, is well explained by Isaac Chotiner:


Puerto Ricans have long chafed at the island’s poor governance and commonwealth status. Their concerns, though, became acute during the debt crisis of 2016, which led former President Barack Obama to appoint a federal board to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances …

The combination of a decade-long recession, an enormous debt burden, austerity measures imposed by the federal board [appointed by Obama to oversee the island’s finances], and an American president [Trump] with contempt for the island has prompted many Puerto Ricans to contend that they are neither free to govern their own affairs nor granted the respect and dignity of Americans.


Or as socialists would put it, Puerto Ricans are in an even worse situation than most American workers, since they are treated as colonial inferiors.


Analysing the upsurge


How should we understand this wave of protest movements? What can they achieve and what obstacles do they face?


In different combinations, the themes of anti-austerity, anti-corruption, and pro-democracy unite these movements. These themes are no accident: they reflect the consequences of the response of capitalist governments worldwide to the economic crash of 2008 – a crash which dramatically exposed the way that neoliberalism has worsened inequality, impoverished millions, and enabled corrupt elites to fill their pockets through control of the state apparatus.


When the Keynesian welfare state/mixed economy system faltered in the 1970s, the capitalist elites eventually forged an alternative – the privatised, financialised, and debt-based system now known as ‘neoliberalism’.


Not only were vast fortunes made by bankers, but this system greatly encouraged state corruption and accumulations of wealth on a scale without historic precedent. Huge amounts of money have been hidden in tax havens, and fortunes have made in every conceivable way, including – with the connivance of the banks – through drug dealing, the pilfering of state assets, and the trading of blood diamonds and minerals.


When this system came crashing down in 2008, a radical anti-austerity, pro-democracy movement emerged in many countries. Its most dramatic forms were the Arab Spring and the Occupy! movement, but it also involved repeated and huge anti-austerity mobilisations elsewhere, such as the Indignados in Spain and numerous general strikes in Greece.


Capitalist governments have not, however, reverted to a more regulated form of capitalism such as Keynesianism, which would have involved a more equitable distribution of wealth, the prevention of debt bubbles, and limits to tax evasion – in other words some limits on the ultra-rich.

Evo Morales, the ousted radical president of Bolivia.


The police and the fascists


Instead, the responses have been to double down on neoliberal economics and confront anti-system movements in two ways – brutal repression and the building of far right and fascist movements to head off popular rebellion.


While the level of repression in the Middle East is astonishing, elsewhere repression – bad enough in Chile and Ecuador – has played out in tandem with political manoeuvres designed to head off or placate the movement.


In the United States and Europe, countries with strong traditions of bourgeois democracy, massive repression is, for the moment, unacceptable, although ultra-violent police tactics have been used against the Yellow Vest rebellion in France and the Catalan independence movement in Spain.


While anti-austerity movements have remained buoyant in Latin America, the Right continues to make gains at the level of government. In November, Bolivia’s radical president Evo Morales was ousted in a de facto military coup. In Uruguay, the right-wing National Party won the presidential election against the centre-left Broad Front.


Brazil, Chile, and Colombia have also moved rightward to varying degrees, though Argentina recently elected a centre-left president. Venezuela’s leftist government is hanging on despite political and economic turmoil.


If in Iraq, Iran, and Egypt corrupt and dictatorial governments rely on vast quantities of brutality to stay in power, elsewhere radical and socialist movements that have tried to give political expression to the mass protests have faced a strong political counter-attack.


Reactionary anti-government movements in Venezuela and Peru have been heavily financed and advised from the outside, principally from the United States. Egypt’s bloody military regime gets military aid and political support from the West, as do other reactionary regimes.


The demonisation of the Left


But a key plank in the global system of neoliberal reaction is to prevent, de-legitimise, and if at all possible smash up left-wing movements that might challenge for governmental power in advanced capitalist countries.


The slanders heaped on Jeremy Corbyn are an obvious example of this, as was the EU’s treatment of the Syriza government in Greece.


This prolonged campaign has different wings. Hard-right American billionaires have poured millions of dollars into reactionary think tanks, as revealed in the recent book Billionaires and Stealth Politics by Matthew Lacombe et al. The Guardian recently showed how influential right-wing think tanks can be in reshaping pro-capitalist politics in the long term, by reference to Britain (here).


But the campaign against any form of radicalism in the West depends not just on pushing the intelligentsia to the right, but intervening in mass politics on key themes that can harden out a reactionary core. This reactionary base is comprised of millions of middle-class voters, joined by demoralised older working-class voters in ‘left behind’ areas such as the smaller towns in northern England, French former industrial towns in the Pas-de-Calais, and the American rustbelt.

Rustbelt Trump supporters: how the Far Right is splitting the working class.


The key political themes for this operation are xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. The key instruments are the right-dominated mass media, whose scope and power is much more expansive that in the pre-WWII period and is frequently under-emphasised on the Left. We have seen this in spades in the recent British general election in the media blitz to discredit and demonise Jeremy Corbyn.


In terms of political organisation, this process can take the form of the Far Right capturing mainstream right-wing parties (as has happened in the United States and Britain) or support being given to extreme right and fascist parties, as with the Alternative for Germany, Vox in Spain, and the Lega in Italy. As far as these countries are concerned, the term ‘creeping fascism’ may underestimate the speed of what is ongoing.


American and British liberal elites present phenomena such as Donald Trump as distasteful ‘populism’ based on the unfortunate and excluded ultra-poor. This is wrong on every count.

Nearly everywhere, the ultra-right mass movements have their core in the comfortable (and generally older) middle classes, however much working-class support they eventually garner. But what is happening goes beyond ‘populism’.


Trotsky used to say that the situation in each country is a unique crystallisation of the elements of the world process. The attempt to crush anti-austerity, anti-corruption protest is part of a world process. Brutal repression, far-right movements, and the demonisation of the Left are part of a single process. Dictatorships and the reactionary Right everywhere are politically buoyed and financially aided by the power of ultra-reaction in the United States and Europe.


After the general election in Britain, there must be a thoroughgoing discussion about and reassessment of how socialists and radicals confront and defeat the power of the Right. At the core of that must be the struggle against racism and for internationalism.


Phil Hearse is the author, with Samir Dathi, Neil Faulkner, and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.

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