Protests have broken out on seemingly every continent. The waves of powerlessness pervading through populations across the globe have finally broken, and the images of colorful violence are splashed across our screens.
It may look like an age of anarchy may be upon us, but totalitarianism seems to be more popular than ever. There is a reason for that: authoritarians are excellent at appealing to the downtrodden and co-opting these movements, and we are still none the wiser.
Social upheaval begets social unrest, and necessary social change is rarely enacted by the explicit benefactors of the system. Hence protest is one of the most powerful tools the unwashed masses can use to articulate their frustrations, and apply pressure to those in charge; one citizen alone is not typically listened to, but masses of enraged people have violently overthrown governments. Numbers are power.
Each of the ongoing protests are unique, but have one trait in common: they are all spearheaded by citizens upset with how their government is operating, they all start small, and they all snowball to include more grievances simmering just beneath the surface. The demonstrations in Ecuador were sparked when the government planned to cut fuel subsidies, plans to tax WhatsApp made the Lebanese people take to the streets, the citizens of Iraq are calling for the complete overhaul a government they believe has failed them, the protests in Hong Kong were in response to a controversial extradition bill, and the still ongoing Yellow Vest movement in Paris started over a fuel tax.
While the initial sentiment behind these demonstrations is often noble, some of their endings are not. The alarming rate at which the protests have broken out coincides with the rise of populism across the globe. Embittered and disenfranchised people are electing radicals into office, enthralled by their charisma and promises of change – no matter how dubiously founded. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and President Donald Trump of the United States are the result of this upswell.
There is no shortage of journalists retweeting quotes from George Orwell’s 1984 every time Trump tells us not to trust our eyes and ears, but out of context they do not capture the danger. In a letter to Noel Willmett, penned three years before he wrote his perennial novel, Orwell spells it out:
“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
It is unwise to ignore this dynamic. It is still just as prevalent now as it was in the 1930’s. The Tea Party was initially a fiscally conservative grassroots movement established to oppose the ballooning national debt – a noble cause on the surface – before they invited racists and conspiracy theorists under their tent. It was slaughtered by money hungry PACS – but not before giving us Trump and Rand Paul. It will take decades after they leave office to get rid of the rot they leave behind, if we ever truly do.
Protests are necessary to speak to power, but it is important to examine the actors in these movements. We must be wary of how they morph, who the benefactors are; the revolutionary can be just as nefarious as the dictator they oppose.