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Lebanon, Chile, Hong Kong, Sudan … Why is the world rising?

A surge of insurrections has set the planet on fire for several months. The common driver of these uprisings is the denunciation of economic and social inequalities as well as the loss of democratic control. Interview with Mathilde Larrère, historian of revolutions.

Is our world boiling? For several months, many social conflicts cross the continents, from Hirak in Algeria to the sling in Hong Kong through the “yellow vests” in France. The planet knows popular revolts whose common points are the denunciation of inequalities, the demand for democracy and the rejection of the elites.

The spark that triggers anger may seem derisory, such as the rising price of subway tickets in Chile or the tax on calls via couriers like WhatsApp in Lebanon, but it is indicative of a deeper malaise. To understand these uprisings in terms of history, franceinfo asked Mathilde Larrère, lecturer at the Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University, a specialist in revolutionary movements in the 19th century. She is the author ofOnce upon a time the revolutions (Editions of Detour).

Franceinfo: Can we say that there is an “insurrectional climate” in the world at the moment?

Mathilde Larrère: There are insurrectional explosions in different parts of the world and this simultaneity creates an insurrectional climate. Especially since each insurrection refers to others and in each, the protesters cultivate similarities and common symbols. For example, when looking at graffiti on the walls, it is clear that revolts refer to each other. I saw a picture of a graffiti in Malmö, Sweden – which is not a place of protest – to refer in Latin and Arabic characters to what is happening in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq or in Hong Kong.

We are in what is called the “revolutionary citation”, which is the register of international solidarity, where we refer to the other countries in struggle. To learn in Beirut that the people rise in Chile, then in Chile that it rises in Ecuador also makes the protest legitimate. And we say that it is possible since others do it.

Each new uprising provokes signs of solidarity with other insurrections.Mathilde Larrère, historianat franceinfo

Another similarity: when we look at the images of these revolts, the insurgents wear the same clothes and masks to protect themselves from the forces of order and facial recognition, they throw objects, there is often fire … If we do not Not very familiar with each revolt, if the image is not very identifiable, it can be difficult to make the difference, especially since the media choose the same type of “iconic” photos to symbolize the revolts.

About common symbols, Joker masks have been spotted in several manifestations.

This is not surprising. This character is associated with the revolt, just like the mask of Guy Fawkes. And since these revolts are carried by the popular and average class, the protesters will use the codes of the culture that is theirs: popular culture, with characters that are known from the South American continent in the Middle East.

A protester in Lebanon, with a make-up of the Joker, on October 19, 2019. (PATRICK BAZ / AFP)

We are less concerned with organized movements in a classic way, such as the labor movement, for example, the traditional symbols of the revolution – like the fist, the red flag, the sickle and the hammer, or the black flag in a more anarchist political culture. – are less mobilized. Images circulate on social networks, we see a symbol that works in one place and we take it by mimicry. He is then relayed in the media and is found in many places around the world. In addition, the internet also speeds up the spread of these symbols. There is a “digital internationalism”.

Is this accumulation of simultaneous uprisings unprecedented?

No, it's not unusual that there are flare movements in several spaces, it's even very classic. Except that this time, they occur in a very busy time, thanks to social networks.

From 1770 to 1790, for example, we had the American revolution, the Batavian revolution (current Netherlands), the revolution in Ireland, the Haitian revolt in the Caribbean … From 1810, the colonies of Latin America conquered their independence in the space of fifteen years. And then around the 1820s and 1848s, we have a series of revolutions in Southern Europe, Portugal, Spain, Naples … All aim to overthrow autocratic monarchs and replace them with constitutional monarchies. Greece returns to insurrection to wrest its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, there is the revolution of July 1830 in France against the monarchy … In 1848, the Spring of the Peoples is an uprising almost generalized in Europe.

In 1917, the October revolution led to the creation of the Communist International, which must propagate the revolution in other countries. When Germany or Hungary try their revolution in 1918-1919, they refer to the Bolsheviks …

Not to mention 1968, which is a worldwide movement: revolts are exploding in Japan, Mexico and all over Europe. In 1989, the countries of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, as did Czechoslovakia during the “Velvet Revolution”. In 2011, it is the turn of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to know their Arab Spring.

How to explain the shift towards insurrection?

Do not stop at the detail of the trigger or the spark. At first glance, the reasons for anger in some countries may seem derisory, but it must be seen as the straw that breaks the camel's back. The British historian Edward P. Thompson studied this spark and explained it with his concept of “moral economy of the crowd”.

The population is ready to accept a number of sacrifices, financial, economic, social … But there comes a time when the additional sacrifice is perceived as unacceptable, illegitimate and unfair. It is at this moment that the rupture and the rocking is done.Mathilde Larrèreat franceinfo

We reject this new sacrifice, but also all that has been accepted so far: the neoliberal policies and their austere effects, the differences of fortune that are widening. The drop of water causes too much rejection of the entire vase.

It seems that one of the common points of these movements is the denunciation of economic inequalities …

Some economists have shown that the austerity policies chosen by some states after the 2007 financial crisis still weigh heavily on the working classes and the middle classes. The ultrariches have been getting richer for a decade, while many others are experiencing impoverishment. And when the elite of the middle class join the popular classes, there are explosive situations. When there are only the popular classes, it is easier to moderate, but there is an alliance. It has been seen in “yellow vests”, where the interclassist dimension has been demonstrated by studies.

Do these movements point to a crisis of democracy and representation?

There is a real demand for democracy in these revolts. In Hong Kong, France or Lebanon, we are witnessing the expression of popular sovereignty, which is the basis of democracy. The protesters use means of action that are not considered democratic at present, since they use violence, but the substance of their demands is profoundly democratic: they want to put an end to the policies imposed on them.

They reject the fact that they are still governed by the same families or by people from the same social classes, whether they are the same people who monopolize power.Mathilde Larrère, historianat franceinfo

In Santiago, Chile, I saw a graffiti that brought together President Sebastian Pinotera and Augusto Pinochet (dictator between 1973 and 1990). These insurrections show that democracy is not immune to the revolution. They question the very nature of democracy and its application.

Has the violence increased in the course of history?

In France, we are not at the level of political violence of the nineteenth century, still happy! The revolutions of the nineteenth century that I study leave hundreds of dead on the pavement and conclude with massive judgments that lead to a large number of death sentences and deportations. The level of repression in the nineteenth century is obviously much higher.

But it depends on countries and regimes. At the moment, in Chile or Iraq, live ammunition is also fired. The escalation of violence in several places is also explained by the repression of the police. It is their violence that explains the passage to the act. Both are linked.

The disorder is always coconstructed, there is a repression on one side, and in response, riotous acts on the other.Mathilde Larrèreat franceinfo

As for the tactics of urban guerrillas, they have always circulated. Today, thanks to social networks, we also have photos of these techniques. In Hong Kong, the “Be Water” tactic, which consists of being elusive for the police, has been taken over. This is a fairly classic tactic of the block (the black blocks) since the great international summits and alterglobalists. It is just applied to larger masses in Hong Kong.

Are women more present in these movements?

In fact, women are more represented. Not necessarily that they are more present; women have been present in all struggles. But they were less represented because they fought less weapons in the hand. They were in the back, to reload the rifles, to treat the wounded, to supply the barricades … But what we represent in priority are the combatants.

At each revolution, we tend to make the role and presence of women invisible. We have seen them more in the “yellow vests” because we are probably more sensitive than before to their presence and because they have also been more in the front line than in previous movements, where they were, but in withdrawal. And there were also demonstrations of women “yellow vests”.

Even if all these revolts do not lead to a victory of the protesters, what do they change in history?

If, after a revolt, we can have counterrevolutionary waves, there is no longer any turning back. We can have that impression, but when we look at the next decade, there are still evolutions. After the revolts of 1848 in Europe, the feudal system and serfdom were definitely abandoned. There are points of no return. The story shows that afterwards, compromises and improvements take place. I am optimistic.

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