Globe and Mail, April 11, 2014
by Thomas Homer-Dixon
Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela. At first glance, it would seem hard to find four more different countries. But if you’ve followed international events over the last year, you’ve probably noticed that these countries share a striking similarity. Each has seen a surge of civil protest, including violent mass demonstrations against the national government.
The events in these four countries are the latest developments in a trend going back to the popular protests across the Middle East and North Africa in late 2010 and 2011. Extended unrest in this region eventually produced a fragmented polity in Libya, a civil war in Syria and resurgent military rule in Egypt. Elsewhere, Russia was shaken by protests from 2011 through 2013, while demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people swept Brazil in 2013.
The trend is striking partly because it contradicts conventional wisdom. According to scholars such as Harvard’s Steven Pinker, the world is becoming more peaceful. Steady improvements in living standards, the continuing spread of justice and human-rights norms, and broadening commitments to democracy and the role of reason in public affairs have allowed people, groups and countries to fight less.
Recently, however, that narrative has become less clear. According to the 2013 Global Peace Index (a standard reference compiled by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace), 70 per cent of countries surveyed became less peaceful between 2008 and 2013. Of the GPI’s 22 indicators of peacefulness, 17 worsened when averaged across all countries. The incidence of violent demonstration showed an especially large increase.
This unrest could be just a blip in a longer-term trend toward greater peace. Prof. Pinker’s analysis, for example, extends over centuries. But several things suggest that the new political instability is more than a blip.
Each case of recent unrest is different in the details. Yet if we look closely, we see they have features in common. In each, many early participants were relatively young (in their 20s and 30s), urban, relatively educated and wealthy. They were angry about economic stagnation, official corruption, government’s arbitrary use of power, their lack of representation in decision-making institutions and the accumulation of wealth by powerful cronies. Importantly, they were also adept at using information technology and social media to share information and co-ordinate their actions, which boosted their confidence and their feeling of power in numbers.
In most cases, these early participants seemed to demand something akin to liberal democracy and the rule of law, which encouraged support for the uprisings from established democracies. But a democratic impulse didn’t motivate all protests; in Thailand, the latest round actually attacked the country’s democratic institutions. Also, in many cases, liberal protesters were joined by long-established groups of religious or nationalist hard-liners; sometimes, the liberals even allied themselves strategically with these groups.
The hard-liners were generally better organized and more ruthless; they also had more resources and clearer goals. So they moved quickly to the protests’ front lines and were more inclined to respond to the government’s violence with violence of their own. Indeed, their presence in the protesters’ ranks helped legitimize violence by government forces, and the clashes that followed marginalized the more liberal elements. In Egypt, the new military regime’s crackdown appears to have succeeded. In Ukraine, the regime ultimately fell, but the protesters’ ideological differences have created deep divisions within the new government.
The fundamental cause of all this unrest – in such a variety of societies – is likely slower global economic growth. The Institute for Economics and Peace notes that countries experiencing recession “have decreased in peace at a greater rate than the rest of the world.” The unrest is a downstream consequence of the recession of 2008 and 2009, which flipped the global economy into a persistent low-growth state, as countries, firms, and households around the world hunkered down and focused on paying off debt. Consistently high prices for oil and food have reinforced this stagnation.
The political effects have been most dramatic in middle-income societies with corrupt authoritarian regimes, rapacious elites, wide economic inequality and small and economically insecure middle classes. In these fractured societies, stalled economies have dashed economic opportunity and deepened grievances – especially among cohorts of young people who have relatively good education but very few good jobs.
Some scholars argue that low growth is the global economy’s new normal. If so, much more political instability is in the cards. And we should watch developments closely in China, which exhibits many of the key precursors to unrest: endemic corruption and economic cronyism, rising middle-class grievances, virtually no avenues for expression of those grievances, rapidly falling economic growth.