That desire for a “new social contract” fueled the “gilets jaunes” shutting down Paris, as well as the protest movement that brought more than a million to the streets of Chile’s capital. Anger over feckless regimes and “sham democracies” spurred mass uprisings across the Arab world, unseating leaders in Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq. In Hong Kong, “fervent small-d democrats” held the line against Beijing for more than half a year, in a daring showdown with the most powerful single-party state on Earth that will carry into 2020.
Except the passage above was written not in 2019 but in 2011.
It’s an excerpt from Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue, which the publication had then awarded to “The Protester,” a catchall figure to encompass those on the front lines of the pro-democracy uprisings in the Arab world and the anti-capitalist “Occupy” protests in the West. The shine of two decades of globalization and liberalization had worn off. Western democracies reeled from financial crash and recession; citizens in corrupt, authoritarian states chafed against their repression. Protesters everywhere, Time suggested, lived in societies that had “not quite totally arrived at the end of history.”
We still need a bit of a distance to figure out how to characterize this decade that is about to end. But we’ve not moved far from the upheaval and discontent that was already on show in 2011 — and, by some measures, things are only getting worse. According to data released earlier this year, income inequality in the United States has hit its highest levels since the Census Bureau started tracking it five decades ago. Political divisions are deepening as well, with polarization and political fragmentation marking the new normal in democracies in most parts of the world.
Far from ascendant, liberalism seemed in retreat: Autocrats tightened their fists; nationalists and xenophobes edged into the political mainstream; great power competition made its return on the geopolitical stage. A bit more than halfway through the decade, a definitive marker was laid down when the British voted for Brexit, and Donald Trump won a shock election with a campaign powered by xenophobia and grievance politics. Elsewhere, once-fringe, far-right parties such as the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, morphed into powerful national players.
“AfD members represent a policy that denigrates minorities in a country where a similar development led to catastrophe 80 years ago,” wrote Annelie Naumann, a Berlin-based journalist. “But public outrage at the far right’s new place in society and government is already abating. Polls show that moderate Germans are shifting right, polarizing the country’s politics.”
In an essay for the Guardian, Andy Beckett argued that the sense of “perpetual crisis” with which the 2010s began and now end has made the decade “seem much longer than the two previous” ones. That’s also reinforced by our immersion in the realms of social media, as well as addiction to nonstop news services, which, he wrote, “have made awful events seem relentless and impossible to ignore.”
The relentlessness (and bleakness) of the digital age shapes our worldview at a moment of genuine planetary turmoil. In the past decade, scientists have understood better than ever the acute climate disaster facing the world. Far from visions of inexorable growth and uplift, policymakers began wrestling with questions of scarcity and survival. “The 2010s could be just a pause in humanity’s erratic upward progress,” Beckett suggested. But, he added, “even some of humanity’s cheerleaders have started to lose faith.”
If there is a reason to maintain faith, it’s in the scenes from the streets. The motives of the millions who marched this year in Santiago and La Paz, Algiers and Basra, London and Berlin, New Delhi and Hong Kong were as varied as their geography. But they were united in what became an epochal display of global discontent, an explosion of popular unrest that capped a decade of angst and anger. When they weren’t clamoring for greater freedoms and democracy, protesters were demonstrating against climate inaction, corruption, inequality and state brutality. In their wake, presidents fled, prime ministers resigned and governments fell.
Those gains, of course, are fragile. Crackdowns by security forces on protesters killed hundreds in Iraq and Iran and led to smaller death tolls elsewhere. As was the case in 2011, the specter of counterrevolution looms large.
“The Arab Spring might seem burned out in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya due to the combination of unprecedented repression, violence, and regional and foreign intervention,” Abdelrahman Mansour, one of the lead activists in Egypt’s 2011 uprising, wrote in an essay earlier this year that hailed the new wave of protests. “However, people are still able to find ways to peacefully express their disapproval. Intimidation by the authorities is not going to scare people away from demanding their rights.”
Far from history ending, it’s being made, day by day, by those taking a stand.