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Global crises and global revolts

A talk from Socialism 2023

In this talk delivered last September at the Socialism Conference, Tempest member Shireen Akram-Boshar describes how multiple global crises and revolts signal rising popular rage against the neoliberal capitalist order. Because neoliberalism has eviscerated resources for care and social reproduction, feminist insurgency is especially important.

At the time of this presentation, protests had entered their third week in the largely Druze city of As-Suwayda in southern Syria. The demonstrations initially erupted due to an ever-worsening economic crisis prompted by the regime’s scaling back its fuel and gasoline subsidies and weakening social services, creating an ever worse cost of living crisis.

From basic economic demands, soon the protests moved to calling for the downfall of the regime. The protests have been marked by the multicolored Druze flag and the leadership of As-Suwayda’s women. In the first week, protesters welded shut Assad’s Ba’ath Party headquarters and spray painted anti-government slogans on the walls.

What is unusual about this is that As-Suwayda is in a government-controlled region of Syria that largely stood on the sideline of the revolution and counterrevolution that overtook much of Syria for the past 13 years. In fact, Assad claimed to be the protector of religious minorities (of which the Druze are one) in a bid to keep them on his side. Nonetheless, after over a decade, As-Suwayda has erupted in protest, as have several other regime-held cities, though to a smaller extent. This is the case even though the regime has consolidated its iron fist over the vast majority of the country, and its victory seemed all but complete after a decade of brutal defeats for our side.

But popular rage has become rampant today in multiple countries around the world. In late June and early July, riots spread across France after the police murdered a 17-year-old of North African descent, Nahel Merzouk. The riots of the banlieues (suburbs) quickly spread across the country, as well as to France’s overseas colonies in a way similar to the spread of the Black Lives Matter rebellion of 2020.

In response to the violence of the French state and its particular oppression of North African, Arab, and Muslim populations that the state has neglected and marginalized economically—as well as brutalized—protesters (many of them under the age of 18) torched cars, barricaded streets, and firebombed police stations.

The rebellion lasted just over two weeks, with massive crackdowns and thousands arrested by the state in order to quell the rebellion. Still, the rage at police violence and the Islamophobic French state remains and will inevitably re-emerge. This is because we are in an era of global rebellion and mass popular uprisings.

In the past year alone, we have seen revolts erupt in France, China, Iran, and Peru. And in the past four years people have risen up in Chile, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Hong Kong, Belarus, and Palestine. The Black Lives Matter uprising that started in the U.S. spread globally, demanding an overthrow of racist violence and challenging racist and colonial history.

The pace of revolts and revolutions has risen over the past two decades, since the entrenchment of neoliberalism globally, and since the 2008 economic crisis devastated the livelihoods of the global working class. The revolts have been most acute in the Middle East/North Africa region, which has seen a long-term revolutionary process due to pronounced and unresolved structural issues.

According to Mark Bessinger’s research, from 1900 to 1950, there were an average of 2.4 revolutionary episodes per year, then 2.8 per year from 1950 to 1984, and over 4 per year from 1985 to 2014. But the number of revolts exploded after 2008. As Jamie Allensin wrote in his book The Age of Counter-Revolution, the 2010s witnessed a wave of protests greater than any since that sparked by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Under a gray sky, a massive crowd demonstrates in front of sprawling gray building. Most of the crowd is facing away from the camera, toward the building. People are holding multiple, large, red and white Belarusian flags that wave left to right above the crowd.
August 2020, Belarus Government House: Protest in Minsk against Alexander Lukashenko after he won the presidency in a fraudulent landslide. The protests of 2020-2021 were the biggest in Belarusian history. Image by homoatrox.

Across the world, anti-government protests increased by 11.5 percent each year through the 2010s. Although the COVID pandemic of 2020 put a temporary pause on mass revolts, it has not stopped the wave of revolts, including, for example, Iran’s revolution emerging in September 2022.

I want to make a few arguments about the nature of these revolts before delving deeper into a few examples. The revolts vary in character and size, with some being week-long rebellions and others lasting a year or more. Although there are different lessons to learn from each, they are worth studying as a phenomenon. From these events, we can draw several conclusions.

First, the pace of global rebellion will continue. Revolts and uprisings will continue to erupt with increased frequency due to the economic crisis, cost of living crisis, climate crisis, and the fact that political parties in power have marched further to the right for the past 50 years. The massive uptick in revolts and uprisings should be understood largely as a response to decades of neoliberalism and neoliberal austerity.

Under neoliberalism, the welfare state was essentially eradicated on a global scale with the privatization and removal of social provisioning, and the transfer of immense wealth to a smaller, wealthier elite. At the same time, while neoliberalism entailed the destruction of the welfare state, the armed aspects of the state were made more powerful.

In the logic of the capitalist class, this makes complete sense. Increasingly authoritarian and repressive measures are needed, including more militarized and massive police forces, to enforce untenable levels of economic inequality that otherwise the working classes would reject. In recent years, counterrevolution, war, and economic and climate crises have driven up migration, and states have responded, again, by bolstering their border regimes and global repressive apparatuses.

This repression has accompanied a rightward march of politics globally as centrist, neoliberal policies fail to address the crises they create. The only political alternative for the ruling class is an increasingly reactionary right-wing movement in not only the United States, but also globally.

Second, working-class struggle over the past decade has taken the shape of anti-racist, and emergent feminist revolts and insurgency. As Tithi Bhattacharya writes in Salvage, given that in the last five decades neoliberalism has either smashed or chipped away at workplace organizing and organizations, the Left should expect struggle to erupt in domains of social reproduction. International struggles against oppression and racism and feminist struggle should be understood as central to working-class struggle rather than at the margins.

These struggles cannot and should not be viewed as separate from working-class struggle or, even worse, as a distraction from working-class struggle and demands, which some have unfortunately continued to argue about Black Lives Matter and Palestine, among others.

Bhattacharya also poses the question of organization. She explains, “Marx urges us to expect new organizational forms during social movements. Though these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organization, they are equally a means of developing this organization.”

The question of organization is one that we must pay attention to in the revolts that emerge. Since the organizations of the Left and the working class have been hollowed out over the past half century, the revolts that emerge take the form of justifiable outbursts of rage at deep, deep systemic issues, but lack long term organization that can lead to victory.

We are starting from a position in which the right is in power and we are in the streets, but often not organized beyond these periodic outbursts. In revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, and in particular in Sudan, we do see experimentation with organizational forms to figure out what will work today, but there remains the obstacle of challenging the state. These experiments have not been enough to successfully take on the state and remove its bodies of armed men.

Third, there is an emergent feminist consciousness, and in the past few years, we have seen revolts sparked by feminist demands. This is due to a crisis of social reproduction, a crisis of care also caused by decades of neoliberal austerity.

Neoliberalism, in removing social provisioning and welfare measures, has put more of a burden on individuals to take on tasks of social reproduction and drastically increased pressures on the global working class. Social reproduction is how, in between the work days or work shifts, people do all the tasks they need to do to reproduce themselves for the next day or week, including feeding themselves and their families, doing the laundry, taking care of children and the elderly, and so on.

Neoliberalism has brought about an increased burden on those who provide care, which globally is largely women. For example, in the U.S., cuts to welfare and benefits like WIC paired with privatized and unsubsidized child care means that child care can cost up to twenty percent of median family income per child, sometimes more. So how can the working class reproduce itself under such conditions of privatization and the excessive burdens on the individual?

The right wing globally has their own solution to the problem, which they are doubling down upon with renewed vigor: to re-emphasize the nuclear family, traditional gender roles within the family, and the woman’s role as caretaker. Along with this ideology, there are more attacks on trans people and gender non-conforming people. There are more efforts to control women’s bodies, limit abortion access, and prescribe what women can and cannot wear, whether that is the mandatory hijab in Iran, or in France, the forbidden burqa, forbidden abayas in school, and forbidden hijabs in sports, and so on.

In response, we see new feminist insurgencies springing up in various countries and through various uprisings, holding a mirror to the sexist and heteronormative oppression and connecting sexist oppression to the state.

In the uprisings that erupted in 2019, this spirit was most visible in the Chilean anti-rape anthem, which connected rape to state and police violence. Its lyrics included, “It’s the cops, the judges, the state, the president. The oppressive state is a rapist.” Activists, feminists, and revolutionaries translated this protest song and performed it in protest movements and solidarity demonstrations from Mexico to Lebanon.

It was also visible in the iconic images of Sudanese women revolutionaries, pointing to the historic women’s leadership in Sudanese revolutionary politics.

Close nighttime shot of Sudanese demonstrators. A woman in the center wears a small Sudanese flag—red, green, white, and black—as a veil covering her mouth and nose. She holds up her forearms, showing a the words “Just fall” in Arabic on her left arm.
Sudanese woman at a demonstration in Khartoum in April 2019. She has written “Just fall” on her arm—calling on President Omar al-Bashir to resign. Image by Ola A. Alsheikh.

France’s rebellion this past summer put a spotlight on its colonial history, racism and Islamophobia and increasing police violence against Arabs and North Africans. It also served as a reminder that the political forces in power have moved further to the right, as is the case with Macron.

France has never reckoned with its 132-year colonization of Algeria, during which it killed a million Algerians. This colonial relationship still saturates French politics. In 2017, while 85 percent of France’s general population had not undergone a police stop in the previous five years, 80 percent of young Arab and Black men had been stopped by the police.

In addition, Muslims, largely North Africans, make up an estimated 30 to 40 percent of France’s prison population. Three days into the rebellion, France’s largest police union issued a statement calling the protesters savage hordes and vermin. Macron issued no response to this racism, but moved to crush the rebellion.

Macron issued nightly curfews to crush the revolts. In the streets, police shot rubber bullets and maimed many of the young protesters. Police ripped off female protesters’ hijabs and banned them from wearing their headscarves in courts after their arrests when they had to come to trial. It should be clear from these examples alone that the rebellion was an outburst of justifiable anti-racist and anti-colonial working-class anger.

In fact, the Arab and North African youth of banlieues have been organizing and resisting police violence in the background of France’s social movements for years now. Both the Yellow Vest movement and this year’s anti-pension reform protests against Macron provided fertile ground for this summer’s rebellion. France has been a powder keg on a knife’s edge, and the anger at Macron is likely to explode again at any moment.

In September 2022, a mass uprising began in Iran after the killing of Jina Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police. The funeral of the Kurdish Iranian 22-year-old transformed into an uprising that spread beyond the country’s Kurdish regions to the rest of the country. The revolts coalesced under the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” and the demand to end the compulsory hijab and abolish the morality police.

But soon the uprising spread to encompass economic and political demands and to include large sections of workers who went on strike during the uprising, and oppressed minorities within Iran, from Kurdish to Baluchi (an Arab minority largely based in Khuzestan).

Prior to the uprising, the state, under right-wing President Ibrahim Raisi, had ramped up surveillance of women’s dress by the morality police. At the same time, the working class faced inflation, economic hardship, neoliberal reforms by the state, and the effects of U.S. sanctions as well.

In the early months of the revolution, young women led the movement. They burned hijabs in the streets, cut their hair in public, and soon called for the downfall of the dictatorship. It should be stressed that this was not a movement against Islam, or even the hijab per se, but against the state’s use of women’s bodies and clothing as a means of control and part of its right-wing ideology.

An Iranian writer, writing under a pseudonym, noted that the early chants of the revolution, from university students to protesters in the street included, “Down with the dictator, poverty, corruption, injustice, shame on all this tyranny, exploitation, unemployment, and the forced hijab for women,” among other slogans against the morality police.

In another article, this writer explores how workers took on strikes throughout the uprising. For example, the Union of Truck Drivers and Owners called a ten-day strike in November 2022 in solidarity with minority communities who had faced repression during the uprising and in protest against their own working conditions.

In February of this year, twenty independent Iranian trade unions and a few feminist groups and student organizations issued a joint charter listing their demands, including the freedom of all political prisoners, abolition of discrimination against women and LGBTQ populations, full gender equality, etc.

While the mass protests in Iran may have subsided for the time being, the struggle is certainly not over. The movement has planted seeds that can last and grow, especially in terms of labor organizing.

In the Middle East and North Africa, acute revolutionary crises have also meant severe and brutal counterrevolution.

In Sudan, protests that erupted over the price of bread in December 2018 turned into a long-term revolutionary movement that followed the footsteps of the region’s revolutions in many ways, and, in some ways, going far beyond them. After successfully toppling their dictator in 2019, Sudan’s slogan was “Victory or Egypt,” using the example of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, backlash, and defeat as a reminder not to abandon the streets, and that overthrowing the figurehead of the regime is not enough. Revolutionary movements must also abolish the police and the military and establish civilian rule. But establishing civilian rule, getting rid of the police and military, has proved extremely difficult.

The leadership of the movement in Sudan shifted from the Sudanese Professionals Association, which is a middle class grouping of unions that was in the lead of the revolution at the start, to more radical but decentralized neighborhood resistance committees. Although Sudan has seen experimentation with revolutionary forms that have advanced beyond most other revolutions globally, the movement has faced the refusal of the military to relinquish power.

A brutal massacre in 2019 brought about counterrevolutionary negotiations, a power-sharing agreement that opened the way to a military coup in 2021, which then led to this year’s war between the two factions of the military, who have now devastated the capital Khartoum, creating a massive humanitarian crisis which set back the revolution.

The neighborhood resistance committees were in the process of cohering into a national charter when the war broke out. This shows that a protracted situation of dual power cannot be sustained, as it will open up the door for counterrevolution and brutal repression. It’s a reminder that militaries and militias must be removed from power and dismantled in an alternate, well-organized and forceful movement of the left wing.

One must take power. Without that there will be counterrevolution. Of course, doing so is easier said than done.

Featured image credit: seven resist via Flikr; modified by Tempest.

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Shireen Akram-Boshar View All

Shireen Akram-Boshar is a socialist activist, writer, and editor based in Boston. She is a member of the Tempest Collective and on the editorial board of Spectre Journal.