The World Class Struggle: The Geography of Protest

Source: Immanuel Wallerstein

When times are good, and the world-economy is expanding in terms of new surplus-value produced, the class struggle is muted. It never goes away, but as long as there is a low level of unemployment and the real incomes of the lower strata are going up, even if only in small amounts, social compromise is the order of the day.

But when the world-economy stagnates and real unemployment expands considerably, it means that the overall pie is shrinking. The question then becomes who shall bear the burden of the shrinkage – within countries and between countries. The class struggle becomes acute and sooner or later leads to open conflict in the streets. This is what has been happening in the world-system since the 1970s, and most dramatically since 2007. Thus far, the very upper strata (the 1%) have been holding on to their share, indeed increasing it. This means necessarily that the share of the 99% has been going down.

The struggle over allocations revolves primarily around two items in the global budget: taxes (how much, and who) and the safety net of the bulk of the population (expenditures on education, health, and lifetime income guarantees). There is no country in which this struggle has not been taking place. But it breaks out more violently in some countries than in others – because of their location in the world-economy, because of their internal demographics, because of their political history.

An acute class struggle raises the question for everyone of how to handle it politically. The groups in power can repress popular unrest harshly, and many do. Or, if the unrest is too strong for their repressive mechanisms, they can try to co-opt the protestors by seeming to join them and limiting real change. Or they do both, trying repression first and co-option if that fails.

The protestors also face a dilemma. The protestors always start as a relatively small courageous group. They need to persuade a much larger (and politically far more timid group) to join them, if they are to impress the groups in power. This is not easy but it can happen. It happened in Egypt at Tahrir Square in 2011. It happened in the Occupy movement in the United States and Canada. It happened in Greece in the last elections. It happened in Chile and the now long-lasting student strikes. And at the moment, it seems to be happening spectacularly in Quebec.

But when it happens, then what? There are some protestors who wish to expand initial narrow demands into more far-reaching and fundamental demands to reconstruct the social order. And there are others, there are always others, who are ready to sit down with the groups in power and negotiate some compromise.

When the groups in power repress, they quite often fan the flames of protest. But repression often works. When it doesn’t and groups in power compromise and co-opt, they often are able to pull the plug on the protestors. This is what seems to have happened in Egypt. The recent elections are leading to a second-round runoff between two candidates, neither of whom supported the revolution in Tahrir Square – one the last prime minister of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the other a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood whose primary objective is instituting the sharia in Egyptian law and not implementing the demands of the those who were in Tahrir Square. The result is a cruel choice for the about 50% who did not vote in the first round for either of the two with the largest plurality of votes. This unhappy situation resulted from the fact that the pro-Tahrir Square voters split their votes between two candidates of somewhat different backgrounds.

How are we to think of all of this? There seems to be a rapidly and constantly shifting geography of protest. It pops up here and then is either repressed, co-opted, or exhausted. And as soon as that happens, it pops up somewhere else, where it may in turn be either repressed, co-opted, or exhausted. And then it pops up in a third place, as though worldwide it was irrepressible.

It is indeed irrepressible for one simple reason. The world income squeeze is real, and not about to disappear. The structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy is making the standard solutions to economic downturns unworkable, no matter how much our pundits and politicians assure us that a new period of prosperity is on the horizon.

We are living in a chaotic world situation. The fluctuations in everything are large and rapid. This applies as well to social protest. This is what we are seeing as the geography of protest constantly shifts. Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday, unauthorized massive marches with pots and pans in Montreal today, somewhere else (probably somewhere surprising) tomorrow.

© 2012 Immanuel Wallerstein

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).