From Iran to Hong Kong, the World Is Becoming Ungovernable

The dominant political trend of the past year has been popular uprisings that are jolting the ruling institutions. But anarchy isn't the worst that could happen

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A protest in Hong Kong, November 2019.
A protest in Hong Kong, November 2019.Credit: Dale De La Rey / AFP

Battles on university campuses, burning arrows, show windows of brands smashed – Hong Kong has been in a state of chaos for months. The mass protests, first against the proposed extradition law and now against Chinese rule itself, have been continuing unbroken since June and there’s no sign that they’re close to ending. China is not known for its excessive patience toward political protests, and police there are adopting ever more violent measures to suppress the disturbances. Nevertheless, the protests are only spreading.

Hong Kong’s economy shrank for the first time in a decade during the third quarter of this year, and tourism has plunged. Chaos became the new routine in thriving Hong Kong, for so long a financial center of the global economy. Many local malls and stores are closed and barricaded on weekends, but of late there have been demonstrations on working days, too. An extensive New York Times article last weekend raised the question of whether Hong Kong would return to being what it was in the foreseeable future. It looks as though we will soon be able to ask the same question about large sections of the world.

The dominant phenomenon in world politics during 2018 was a regression of liberal democracy and the spread and strengthening of right-wing nationalist regimes. That trend continued in 2019, but toward the end of the year a different political phenomenon, equally significant, is discernible: a worldwide wave of protest, the most extensive since the start of the decade. The opening volley was the so-called yellow vests movement in France, which has just marked its first anniversary with a new display of blocking roads and smashing shop windows.

Anyone who has looked at news sites in recent weeks will have perceived that mass protests are a hallmark of the contemporary period. Protests have erupted in rapid succession in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, in Latin America and in the Middle East. This week, the protests in Iran have made headlines. There, too, bank branches have been torched and hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested. In this case, the trigger was a sharp rise in fuel prices, which have shot up by hundreds of percent due to American-imposed sanctions.

In the meantime, the demonstrations in Iraq continue, also propelled by the economic situation and the political system. The Iraqi police have killed more than 300 demonstrators since the beginning of October. Simultaneously, protests have been ongoing in Lebanon for more than a month, even after they dropped out of the international headlines. The past few months have also seen widespread protests in South America – in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador; in Europe – in the Czech Republic, Spain and Britain; and in Africa – in Sudan, Guinea and Ethiopia.

In most places, the cause of the protest is a worsening economic situation. But that is not the only factor. In Hong Kong, Spain, Bolivia and across the Middle East, the demonstrators are taking aim at the political system. Because the contexts and causes of the protests are diverse, it’s hard to subsume them under the rubric of a world political movement. Certainly, the protests do not have a common leadership or a unifying ideology. Still, they are reflecting from one another a revolutionary urgency and are copying methods of operation.

More important, what the political situation in most of the countries where protest has erupted has in common is the helplessness of the central government. Even if the leaders threaten to react with an “iron hand,” it turns out that their hands are tied. In many countries, the central government seems to be weaker than it has been for generations. Try as they might, these states are not succeeding in enforcing their authority.

In the past few years, many countries have been fortifying their borders and maintaining defensive barriers against refugees and migrants. But with the borders protected by walls, unexpected shocks are occurring within. Even if the current wave of protests recedes, the instability will very likely persist for some time and may even become a permanent situation. Seemingly, political upheaval should bring in a new regime that will restore quiet. But because the problems that cause the protests appear unresolvable by means of the current political and economic system – the waves of protest are likely to arise time and again.

Iranians protest against the gas price hike, on a highway in Tehran, November 16, 2019. Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

The political instability generated by the protests comes on top of the bankruptcy of the political system in a number of democracies. Israel is not the only country that has been hurled lately from one election to another. It was preceded by Spain, which this week went to the polls for the fourth time in the past four years, and by Britain, which has been mired in unprecedented instability since the Brexit referendum, in 2016.

In other countries, the political impasse is so far evident only at the local level. A case in point is the German state of Thuringia, where the election last month produced a parliament in which the largest parties are the radical left Die Linke and the radical right AfD. Because both parties are boycotted by the ruling party in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (which came in third), no coalition seems possible. The state was declared “ungovernable” by the CDU, among others. This is a typical crisis, characteristic of a period in which the political center is crumbling and the political arena is polarized between radical right and radical left.

Mob state

The Economist magazine maintained recently that the Western democracies as a whole have become ungovernable. “A spectre is haunting the rich world. It is the spectre of ungovernability,” the magazine’s editors warned, in an allusion to the opening words of “The Communist Manifesto.” Neoliberal media outlets like the Economist that caution against anarchy can be suspected of seeking to generate panic and thereby to bring about the imposition of law and order by means of police truncheons. Their concern is to ensure that the economy will function and that capital will continue flowing. But in the present situation, it’s far from certain that the authorities have possible channels of action that will not cause economic damage as well.

There are some who warn that the continuation of the anarchy will lead to the rise of strong leaders who will implement brutal measures and suppress democracy. In regard to Hong Kong, Newsweek commentator Melinda Liu argued that two scenarios are possible for the Chinese territory: a police state in which the authorities impose curfew, or a mob state. There’s no need to recall that large and small dictatorships began to emerge even before the current wave of protests – in China, in Russia and even in some countries in Europe. The existing economic and political system is already now generating wretchedness for a large part of the world’s population.

True, things could always be worse. But when the choice is between tightening the shackles and anarchy, the second option is preferable.