2011 MIGHT be written about as the year of protests. The reasons for these protests have varied considerably from country to country and even from one area to another. Analysts have spent hours trying to determine whether the root causes of this widespread dissatisfaction were economic, political and social or a mix of all three. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson dismissed all the protests as being nothing more than a “global temper tantrum” but such a facile stance does nothing more than mock the real concerns of people.
Predictably, the ‘camp of experts’ is divided into socialists of various shades and liberals of different hues. Therefore, analyses have primarily been attuned to what is perceived to be the ideological and dogmatic goals of a particular school of thought. There might be a number of factors that underlie many of these protests around the world, but perhaps one underlying issue that seems to be shared by people is a disenchantment — indeed, even a distrust — of the State and its accompanying apparatus.
Over the past 150 years, the nation-state has gradually become the de facto and dominant form of political organisation and representation. The accompanying decrease of physical colonisation has also meant that for the most part many sovereign countries have not interfered in the internal processes of another state. Of course, the wars across the Middle East and the occasional ‘stealth operations’ are exceptions and their perpetrators claim that they have no permanent interest in staying in these regions.
Some argue that the subservience born out of colonial subjugation is still a feature of the political landscape of many countries and is further entrenched by capitalistic economic policies. Even if this is true, ultimately it is the State that functions as the enforcer and sustainer of such economic models. Even the bogeymen that have usually been fed to people to explain away some of the problems they face are themselves becoming hackneyed, unacceptable excuses. Communism was the bete noire for many years and of late it has been replaced by a fear of Islamisation’. However, it is important to note that Anders Behring Breivik mounted an attack against his own State, specifically the Labour Party, albeit in the name of Islamophobia but didn’t choose to target Muslims or Islamic institutions directly.
Since the beginning of this year, there have been sporadic protests around the world. Could it be more than a coincidence that it was the death of one man that sparked protests in Tunisia and in Tottenham? Unfortunately, in England the beginnings of any real movement was completely subsumed by the viciousness of the mob. Since January, many Arabs have been on the streets demanding more rights and even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, relatively wealthy countries, suddenly declared a number of measures to counteract any possible popular movement.
While the world has been fixated on the London riots, similar clashes have taken place in Santiago in Chile where students have taken to the streets in order to demand a better, more efficient and more just education system. Incidentally, it was only recently that the Conservatives in the UK hiked university fees, which in turn has had a domino effect on many other issues and perhaps this has played a small part in stoking dissatisfaction, especially amongst the youth. The protesters in Chile are now also demanding a rehaul of mining, agricultural and environmental policies. Nearly a quarter of a million people have protested against the rising cost of living in Israel. In Malaysia, the government is justifying stricter anti-protest measures by citing the London riots and again this illustrates the suspicion with which some governments view their own citizens, thereby increasing the gap between themselves and the population.
In India too, where national politics often drowns out local movements, one group has occupied prime-time news and has entered round two of its protests. Although Anna Hazare’s method of fasting as social activism and indeed his demands might not resonate or even be acceptable to many people, it is now increasingly hard to deny that there is a substantial and increasing disillusionment with the government and with governance.
A few weeks ago, I was travelling in the interior of Uttar Pradesh, when I stopped at a roadside tea stall. After chatting with a group of youth as well as the more elderly villagers, it transpired that on many issues the two generations had different views. However, when I asked them about what they thought was the biggest impediment in their everyday lives, the young men swore and said “sarkar” (government). At this point, one of the quieter and older people repeated this, spat on the floor with great show and said, “They are the real problem.”
Of course, it is easy to overstate the amount of discontent that exists, especially vis-à-vis the State, and it is equally simple to draw parallels and links between protests all over the world but the fact is that the State and its apparatus are increasingly being seen, not as institutions that will protect and enhance peoples lives, but as bodies with interests that are inimical to those of ordinary people. Although the violence and looting accompanying the riots in England as well as in other countries must be condemned, it is striking that unfortunately these protests are only ever truly recognised when people challenge one of the State’s most coveted monopolies: violence. The widening disconnect between citizens and the State is an issue that cannot be ignored by focussing on those elements that, by their actions, seek to undermine the real and legitimate concerns of an increasing number of people.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad is PHD student, University of Cambridge.