The Square People

Politics of Protests

*By Ivan Krastev

This article was written in preparation for the 17th Trilogue Salzburg and is an original piece of research. The opinions and views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Bertelsmann Foundation or its employees.*

I. Introduction

“Is our democracy in danger?” asked Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of the recently published How Democracies Die,1 and added, “It is a question we never thought we’d be asking.” “Nothing lasts forever. At some point democracy was always going to pass into the pages of history,” agreed David Runciman, the author of the bestselling How Democracy Ends,2 “but until very recently … very few would have thought it might be taking place before their eyes.”

The discourse of crisis has been the natural discourse on democracy. Contemporaries have always tended to view democracy as being in crisis and on the edge of collapse. What is different today is the growing feeling that democracy as a form of government could have outlived its usefulness in the face of the social, cultural and technological transformations that we are undergoing.

The paradox is that democracy has reached its existential crisis at the very moment when it has triumphed. Contrary to past experience, i.e. at the end of the last century, neither God (tradition) nor revolution (ideology) can grant governments “the moral title to rule.” The will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections has become the only source of legitimate government that modern societies are ready to accept. The global spread of elections (frequently free and sometimes fair) and the universal acceptance of the language of human rights have become the distinctive feature of politics in our time. But while democracy is perceived as the best form of government by the majority of the people in the world, the opinion polls indicate that people living in authoritarian regimes are more likely to believe that their voice matters in the process of decision-making than those living in democracies.

According to a recent survey, the paradoxical effect of the global spread of democracy in the last 50 years is that citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have grown more critical of their political leaders.3 They have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The study also shows that “younger generations are less committed to the importance of democracy” and that they are “less likely to be politically engaged.”4

In short, the global spread of democracy and the democratization of public life, instead of strengthening democratic regimes, have undermined them, and the question is, why has this happened?

It is now commonly believed that globalization has something to do with it. In his book The Globalization Paradox,5 Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik suggests that we have three options to manage tensions between national democracies and globalization. We can restrict democracy in order to gain competitiveness in international markets. We can limit globalization in the hope of building democratic legitimacy at home. Or we can globalize democracy at the cost of national sovereignty. What we cannot have, Rodrik makes clear, is hyper-globalization, democracy and self-determination simultaneously. But this is precisely what most governments want. They want people to have the right to vote yet do not want those votes to sanction populist policies. They want to be able to reduce labor costs and ignore social protests while also refusing to enter the murky waters of publicly endorsing an authoritarian “strong hand.” They favor free trade and interdependence, but they want to be sure that when necessary (in a moment of crisis like the present) they can return to national control of the economy. Instead of choosing between a sovereign democracy, a globalized democracy or a globalization-friendly authoritarianism, political elites try to redefine democracy and sovereignty in order to make possible the impossible. The outcome is unworkable: You end up with democracy without choices, sovereignty without meaning and globalization without legitimacy. In the words of Moisés Naím: “Power has become easier to get, harder to use and easier to lose.”6

When looking for political change, the citizen finds himself in a dilemma. He is angry at power but he does not know whom to blame—those in government, those behind the government, the very idea of a government, the market, Brussels (for those who are EU members), and so forth. If a citizen today seeks to criticize, say, rising inequality, where should he turn to find those responsible? The market? The government? New technologies? Could any government succeed in reducing inequality on its own without destroying the country’s competitiveness? It is unclear if it would make more sense to topple the government or pity it.

Another factor behind democracy’s troubles is the growing mobility of the world’s population, which makes the change of one’s country rather than the change of one’s government the preferable strategy for an individual looking for a radical change. In his most famous work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty7 Albert Hirschman contrasted the two strategies that people have for dealing with poorly performing organizations and institutions. People can either “exit”— that is, vote with their feet and express their displeasure by taking their business elsewhere—or decide to “voice” their concerns by staying put, speaking up and choosing to fight for reform from within. In his reading, exit is the path to reform favored by economists because it is the preferred strategy of the consumer.

Voice represents a different type of activism, one where people cannot or simply do not want to exit because they deeply value the organization in crisis. Instead, they are compelled to improve its performance by participating, offering ideas and taking the risk to oppose those who make decisions. Voice-led activism is constructive by its very nature. It assumes a readiness to take responsibility for what one suggests. It is closely associated with the strategy to change an organization, party or church from within, and it is based on loyalty.

Exit and voice can be complementary under certain conditions. But they can also function as diametric opposites. The availability of exit reduces the pressure on individuals to look for change through voice. And this is what we observe today: In many cases, citizens react to dysfunctionalities in their democracies similarly to how consumers react to dissatisfaction with certain commercial products – they prefer to exit (to emigrate) instead of voicing their discontent and fighting for reforms.

The growing fear that democracy can break down in the US, the model democratic country and the geopolitical actor that for the last century has been primarily responsible for democracy’s advancement in the world, is another factor that explains our growing uneasiness when it comes to the future of democracy. As Israeli military historian Azar Gat has argued, democracy’s victory in the last two world wars is better explained not by the intrinsic superiority of the democratic political system but by the fact that the United States happened to be in the democratic camp.8 It is America’s superiority, and not democracy’s superiority, that explains the outcome of the power struggles of the 20th century.

The emergence of China as a rising superpower representing a model of big data authoritarianism able to compete with the world’s most advanced democracies is another factor explaining the growing pessimism surrounding democracy. The latest political developments in China have made us doubt that economic modernization necessarily leads to democratization of society. It is also clear that the new technologies dramatically increase governments’ capacity for social control. Big data authoritarianism is able to compensate for one of the major deficiencies of the old-style authoritarian regimes—namely, the lack of relevant information about what is happening in society. Authoritarian regimes always dreamt of knowing everything people do or think, but their will for total social control has historically backfired because the enormous policing mechanisms they build end up distorting the information they gather. In the end, authoritarian rulers find themselves living in societies they cannot understand. In this sense big data is a dramatic change because it creates surveillance mechanisms that are less influenced by the paranoia of the rulers and because authoritarian regimes do not need police informers, since every citizen is busy informing on herself every time she makes a phone call or buys an item from a shop.

It is in this context of the growing fears about the future of democracy that we will try to evaluate the potential of protest politics to generate answers to some of the major problems democratic regimes are facing today. The capacity for self-correction is at the heart of democracy’s advantage as a political regime. So what should worry us is not that democratic regimes are besieged by problems, but that they sometimes fail to act on their failures. Thus, the question is, how can the mushrooming protest movements help democracy to re-invent itself and contribute to restoring trust in democratic institutions?

The last decade, characterized by declining trust in democratic institutions, was also a decade marked by an almost unprecedented wave of civic activism and the emergence of new political actors. While in the last years most of the attention has been focused on the impact of the rising populist parties, I will focus here on the impact of the big protest movement that did not end in creating a major political party and that functioned as an alternative to representative politics. What is the potential of protests to restore trust in democracy and democratic institutions? Unfortunately, my answer is that their potential is limited. When we summarize the impact of the protest movements, we must conclude that the power of protest is negative.

Regardless of the myriad demonstrations of civic courage and political idealism and the inspiring videos and rich expressions of countercultural imagination, in the final account the protests failed to come up with solutions for societies trapped between 21st-century economies, 20th-century politics and 19th-century institutions.

II. The Effect of Protest Politics

The current protest wave has transformed democratic politics but not always in the way protesters hoped for.

The discontented ranks of those whom US columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the square people”9 have been a major part of our democratic experience. In the last decade, more than 90 countries around the world witnessed major mass protests. Millions of people have turned out in public to mount sizeable, sustained protests that ignore political parties, distrust the mainstream media, have few if any specific leaders and mostly leave formal organization aside, relying instead on the Internet and ad hoc assemblies for collective debate and decision-making.

This new wave of vocal dissatisfaction is not gathered behind any particular ideology or clear set of demands. It consists mostly of young people “aspiring to a higher standard of living and more liberty … connected to one another either by massing in squares or through virtual squares or both, and united less by a common program and more by a shared direction they want their societies to go.”10

Each angry demonstration has been angry in its own way and for its own local reasons, but the protests add up to a worldwide phenomenon that has changed many of our ideas about what the future will look like. The protests have been massive affairs. From July through October 2011, Israel was witness to the largest grassroots mobilization in its history. More than two million people took part in the Spanish protests that same year, and more than three million joined the Brazilian protests of 2013. “There can be little doubt,” wrote Google’s Eric Schmidt, “that the new future will be full of revolutionary movements, as communication technologies enable new connections and generate more room for expression.” But, he added, “We will see fewer revolutionary outcomes.”11

Protesters showed open hostility toward institutions and voiced their mistrust of both the market and the state. The protests are driven not by unrepresented groups that want to enter the institutions, but rather by a new generation of rebels who aspire to do without existing institutions altogether. “It wasn’t because occupiers brought the politicians specific demands and proposals” that they made a difference, insisted Occupy Wall Street activist David Graeber. “Instead, they’d created a crisis of legitimacy within the entire system by providing a glimpse of what real democracy might be like.”12 The protests assert the subjectivity of the people at the very moment when they lack the opportunity to make big political choices. Even when they are not advocating anything concrete, the protests assert the possibility of change and thus do something that elections once did—keep the future open. People who occupy public spaces get a sense of power that is absent in the voting booth. They also create community. People who take an active part in such protests customarily make them a part of their political identity. Yet those who take to the streets remember not their defeat but their sense of power.

Mistrusting institutions, the protesters were flatly uninterested in taking power. Their revolt was not against the government, but against being governed. In a way, the new protest movements are inspired by mistrust in the elites, empowered by mistrust in leadership, constrained by mistrust of organizations and defeated by the protesters’ inability to trust even each other: “This is an obvious but unspoken cultural difference between modern youth protest movements and those of the past. … Anybody who sounds like a career politician, anybody who attempts to use rhetoric, or espouses an ideology, is greeted with visceral distaste.”13

But while the protests succeeded in fueling the anti-institutional imagination of some, they fueled other citizens’ fears of chaos and anarchy, allowing governments to portray the protesters’ urge for direct democracy as a threat to public order. The much-debated success of the right-wing populist parties in the world was also the outcome of the failure of the left-leaning protest mobilization of the previous period. Surprisingly for many, new authoritarians ended up as the biggest beneficiaries of the protest wave of the last decade. Most striking about the protest wave has been less the way protesters in different corners of the world have mimicked each other, but rather the nearly identical response of governments we view as fundamentally different. In places like Russia and Turkey, it was as if the responses emanated from a common script. If the protests were well organized, they were passed off and discredited as “unspontaneous.” As for the conspiracy theories, it was as if they had been fashioned collaboratively. Erdoğan blamed the protests on the interest-rates lobby in Turkey; Putin on foreign agents underwritten by the American embassy. In all these countries, foreign-funded NGOs became the bogeymen. The message of the respective governments was not so much “trust us”—most of them knew that this would be a fool’s errand—but “do not trust anybody.”

Paradoxically, the protests have also contributed to the declining influence of the NGOs as an agent of social and political change. The anti-institutional message of the protests drives the younger generation toward spontaneous, Internet-centered activism and discourages more formal organizational thinking. Since many governments deny the spontaneous nature of the protests and seek to pin blame on a handful of masterminds, NGOs are an easy culprit. Not surprisingly, the protests inspired governments in several cases to introduce anti-NGO laws.

Why have protest movements failed to meet some of the expectations that they would be able to reinvent democracy at the beginning of the 21st century?

In my view three factors are of critical importance:

First is the blind belief in the democratizing power of new communication technologies. In trying to understand the failure of the connected generation to reinvent democracy, it is worth reflecting on the findings of Zeynep Tufekci, one of the most insightful analysts of the politics of social media. Tufekci opened a recent talk at MIT’s Media Lab14 with a photograph of the Hillary Step just below the summit of Mount Everest. Taken on a day that four people perished on the mountain, the picture shows the massive crowding that makes Everest perilous for climbers as they are forced to wait for others to finish before room opens up on the narrow trail.

Because of new technology and the use of Sherpas, more and more people who aren’t expert climbers are streaming to Everest. Full-service trips (for a cool $65,000) get you to the base camp and much of the way up the mountain. But the guides still cannot adequately prepare people to climb to the peak. People have proposed installing a ladder at the Hillary Step, at almost 9,000 meters above sea level, to reduce the risk. But the fundamental problem isn’t the absence of a ladder; it’s the exceptional difficulty of hiking at such a high altitude. The mountaineering community has suggested a reasonable solution: requiring people to climb seven other high peaks before they take on Everest.

This is Tufekci’s analogy for Internet-enabled activism. In discussing the Internet and collective action, political commentators usually focus on the increased opportunities for coordination and community-building. But in Tufekci’s view, the wonders of the Internet are also a curse for the building of effective political movements. Social movements, like inexperienced mountaineers getting to base camp without adequately acclimating to exceptionally high altitudes, show how some of the Internet’s benefits can have significant handicaps as side effects. The result is that we are seeing increasing numbers of movements, but they may not have impact or endurance because they come to the public’s attention too early in their lifetimes. Movements get stuck at saying “no,” she argues, because they’ve never needed to develop a capacity for representation and can only coalesce around the negative rather than building an affirmative agenda.

The second factor is making transparency the goal rather than simply the instrument of protest politics. Transparency is the new political religion shared by a majority of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments. The transparency movement embodies the hope that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data and fresh civic activism can more effectively assist people to control their representatives. What makes transparency so attractive for different civic groups is the exciting premise that when people “know,” they will take action and demand their rights. And it is fair to admit that the advancement of the transparency movement in many areas has demonstrated impressive results. Governmental legislation that requires companies to disclose the risks related to their products have empowered customers and made life safer. Demand for disclosure has also transformed the relations between doctors and patients, teachers and students. Now patients have a greater capacity to keep doctors accountable, and parents can more effectively decide which school to select for their children. The new transparency movement has empowered the customers.

Thus, it is logical to assume that, stripped of the privilege of secrecy, governments will be irreversibly changed. They will become more honest. Where the government maintains too many secrets, democracy becomes brittle, even when competitive elections produce, ex ante, uncertain outcomes. Only informed citizens can keep governments accountable. In short, it is unsurprising that democracy activists have invested so much hope in transparency itself restoring trust in democratic institutions. As American legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig stated in his essay “Against Transparency”: “How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.”15 But while the virtues of transparency are obvious, the risks should not be ignored, as Lessig powerfully argues.

Yet the notion that transparency will restore public trust in democracy rests on several problematic assumptions, primarily the presupposition that “if only people knew” everything would be different. It is not so simple. The end of government secrecy does not mean the birth of the informed citizen, nor does more control necessarily suggest more trust in public institutions. For instance, when American voters learned that the US had started a war with Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction, they still re-elected the president who led the way. Donald Trump is the ultimate example of the fact that, in a politically polarized world, access to facts does not change opinions. Contrary to the expectations of the transparency movement—that full disclosure of government information will make public discourse more rational and less paranoid—the reality is that more transparency could also fuel conspiracy theories. There is nothing more suspicious than the claim of absolute transparency. In other words, the rise of the transparency movement has the potential to remake democratic politics, but we should be sure we are in agreement as to the direction of the change. Is the transparency movement capable of restoring trust in democratic institutions, or is it, alternatively, going to make “mistrust” the official idiom of democracy?

The sad story of WikiLeaks is the best example of transparency turned into an instrument of manipulation.

The third factor is protesters falling in love with direct democracy. The digital revolution put democracy on a Red Bull diet. It fueled growing expectations that the rise of modern technology would mark the return of democracy to a more authentic form. In the view of digital natives, democracy doesn’t have to be representative any longer.

The love of direct democracy is best manifested in the public endorsement of referendums as the way to restore trust in democracy. The electorate is “a sovereign whose vocabulary is limited to two words: ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’” wrote the American political scientist E. E. Schattschneider.16 He is basically right. Citizens tend to believe that only by saying “no” and, much more rarely, “yes,” will their voices be heard by the ruling class. Consequently, when support for traditional political parties has plummeted and confidence in democratic institutions is in question, referendum fever has become the natural response.

The question of the legitimacy of referendums is one of democracy’s oldest debates. Advocates of direct democracy argue that they are the most reasonable and transparent way for citizens to influence public policies beyond electing a government. In their view, referendums produce clear mandates (something elections generally can’t do), stimulate public debate and educate people, thereby achieving the democratic dream of a society of informed citizens.

The opponents of direct democracy disagree. They insist that referendums are not the best way to empower people but the most perverse way to manipulate them. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, referendums are a device of “dictators and demagogues.” They dangerously simplify complex policy issues and often lead to incoherent policies because referendums look at issues in isolation, the result being that people may approve measures that contradict each other. It is generally believed that if citizens were asked on the same day to vote for an increase in social spending and for tax cuts, they might support both (while politicians know full well that cutting taxes will make it impossible to increase social spending). The critics of direct democracy also argue that referendums are most often driven by emotions and not by arguments. They deny that referendums foster civic engagement. The evidence bears this out. As referendums have proliferated, the median turnout for nationwide referendums across Europe has fallen from 71 percent in the early 1990s to 41 percent in the past few years.

Several referendums in Europe in the last years, Brexit being the most important of them, have called into question the conviction that referendums can cure the ills of representative democracy. Representative democracy was never just a transitional stage between the direct democracy of the ancients and the point-and-click democracy of the future. It had merits of its own. It secured for us the unparalleled advantages of the separation of powers and guaranteed the liberal nature of democratic power.

III. Reasons for Hope

Paradoxically, if we trust opinion polls it is the electoral success of the populist parties that has mostly contributed to the increased trust in democracy and the EU. The rise of the populist parties has convinced many that radical change is possible within the democratic system. Trump voters and Five Star and Northern League supporters in Italy are the best example of these born-again adherents of democracy. It has also reminded many citizens of the role democratic institutions play in securing our freedom and prosperity. Thus, while five years ago the streets were occupied by people who believed that they do not need democratic institutions to exercise their power as citizens, today in Washington or Warsaw people are demonstrating in defense of independent courts and independent media. It is the changing nature of the protests that makes me believe that democracy will be back.

IV. References

Roberto Stefan Foa, and Yascha Mounk. The Democratic Disconnect. Journal of Democracy 27, no. 3 (July 2016), pp. 5–17.

Thomas L. Friedman. The Square People, New York Times, May 13, 2014.

Azar Gat. The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers. Foreign Affairs, July/August Issue, 2007.

David Graeber. The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. New York 2013.

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, Cambridge 1970.

Lawrence Lessing. Against Transparency. The New Republic, October 9, 2009.

Steven Levitsky, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown, 2018.

Paul Mason. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. London 2012.

Moisés Naím. Power Has Become Easier to Get, Harder to Use and Easier to Lose. Huffington Post, March 25, 2014.

Dani Rodrik. The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy. New York 2012.

David Runciman. How Democracy Ends. London 2018.

Elmer Eric Schattschneider. Party Government. Westport 1977.

Eric Schmidt, and Jared Cohen. The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. New York 2013.

About the Author

Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. He is a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the Board of Trustees of The International Crisis Group and is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.


Ivan Krastev