There’s a fascinating visualisation on the Foreign Policy website this week. It takes 34 years worth of data on protests from a Global Database of Events, and maps them over time. The result is a visual history of unrest. Over the brief running time, you can see little outbreaks of protest over Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrations against the Gulf Wars, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.
One of the most striking things about it is the rising frequency of events. We tend to think that previous generations were more politically motivated, and that our own era is one of apathy by comparison, certainly in the West. The database starts in 1979, so we don’t have a comparison with the 60s and 70s, which is a shame. But it is notable how few protests there are through the 80s and 90s, seeming to bear out the idea of a more apathetic age. If there was ever any truth to that idea, it definitively ended halfway through the last decade, with an explosion of protests across America and Europe, and around the world.
There are limits to what the map can show. The data is drawn from news reports, so protests that haven’t been reported aren’t included. Perhaps the rise in protests is due in part to better reporting. It’s far easier to find out what’s happening around the world today than it was in 1979. The map also can’t show us who is doing the protesting, so those excited by the burst of Occupy protests across America in 2011 should consider that some of those little lights are Tea Party rallies too.
Nevertheless, we live in an interesting time, in an age of revolution.
That’s a word that is usually associated with regime change, with the overthrow of an existing order. We might think of the French Revolution, or of figures like Che Guevara. In reality, revolution is broader than that. It tends to move in waves, and brings change with or without violent uprising. The French Revolution might be the headline event of 1789, but there was widespread unrest over the four or five years either side, all involving a re-negotiation of power between the aristocracy and the majority. Germany saw a peasant uprising, Sweden’s king was assassinated, the Brabant Revolution saw the formation of Belgium and Poland rose up against Imperial Russia. Haiti became the first free black state, and sparked a series of slave revolts. At the same time, the USA was drawing up its founding principles as a nation, cementing the change towards shared power.
There was another revolutionary wave half a century later, the 1848 Spring of Nations that rumbled across mainland Europe. Britain saw the Chartist movement. Many of these movements were considered failures, but although they didn’t necessarily win the freedoms they sought at the time, the reforms did arrive afterwards. Feudalism had become impossible.
Another wave rippled across the world at the close of the First World War, when Germany disposed of the Kaiser and Russia of the Tsar. The Ottoman Empire dissolved. Protests against colonial occupation happened in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Egypt. Many of these were successful revolutions, some not, but the changes echoed around the world for years to come. These were broad political changes, paving the way for the creation of pensions and welfare schemes. Another wave of revolution through the 60s centred on rights and personal liberties, peaking in 1968.
What these waves do, according to David Graeber, is “transform basic assumptions about what politics is ultimately about”. Radical political ideas become common sense – women voting, elected rather than hereditary rulers, the idea that authority is derived from the people – all of these were impossibly idealistic ideas at one point, and are now largely taken for granted.
We appear to be in the middle of another era of revolution. Quite what comes out the other side remains to be seen, but there are reasons for optimism. History suggests that even when revolutionary movements peter out or are quashed, the political terrain is often sufficiently changed that the reforms arrive anyway. (In fact, as cases such as Egypt show, the revolutions that ‘succeed’ are often hollow victories.) Most importantly, revolutions open up new possibilities, space for new ideas. And in our stale and deadlocked political culture, perhaps that’s exactly what we needed.