Today’s Global Uprisings and the Battle for a New World-System

The now persistent uprising in Turkey has been followed by an even larger uprising in Brazil, which in turn has been followed by a less noticed, but no less real, uprising in Bulgaria. Of course, these uprisings were not the first but merely the latest in a truly worldwide series of such uprisings in recent years. There are many ways to analyze this phenomenon. I see them as the continuing process of what started as the world-revolution of 1968.

To be sure, every uprising is particular in its details and the internalrapport de forces in each country. But there are certain similarities that should be noticed, if one is to make sense of what is going on and decide on what we all, as individuals and as groups, ought to do.

The first common feature is that all the uprisings tend to start very small – a handful of courageous people demonstrating about something. And then, if they catch on, which is largely unpredictable, they become massive. Suddenly, not only is the government under assault but, to some extent, the State as State. These uprisings are a combination of those calling for the government to be replaced by a better one and those questioning the very legitimacy of the State. Both groups invoke the themes of democracy and human rights, although the definitions they give to these two terms are very varied. On the whole, the tonality of these uprisings starts on the left side of the political arena.

Governments in power react of course. Either they try to repress the uprising or they try to appease it by some concessions or they try both responses. Repression often works but sometimes is counterproductive for the government in power, bringing still more people into the streets. Concessions often work but are sometimes counterproductive for the government, leading the people in the street to escalate their demands. Generally speaking, governments try repression more than concessions. And generally speaking, repression tends to work in the relatively short run.

The second common feature of these uprisings is that none of them keep going at high speed for too long. The protestors yield to repressive measures. Or they get somewhat co-opted by the government. Or they get weary of the enormous effort required by continual demonstrations. This fading of the overt protests is absolutely normal. It does not indicate failure of the protests.

That is the third common feature of the uprisings. However they come to an end, they leave a legacy. They have changed something in the politics of the country, and almost always for the better. They have put some major issue, as for example inequalities, on the public agenda. Or they have increased the sense of dignity of the bottom strata of the population. Or they have increased skepticism about the verbiage in which governments tend to cloak their policies.

The fourth common feature is that, in every uprising, many who join it, especially if they join it late, do so not in order to further the initial objectives but to pervert them or bring to political power right-wing groups who are different from those currently in power but by no means more democratic or solicitous of human rights.

The fifth common feature is that they all get embroiled in the geopolitical juggling. Powerful governments outside the country in which the turmoil is occurring work hard, if not always successfully, to help groups that are favorable to the outside government’s interests come to power. This happens so often that, by now, one of the immediate questions about a particular uprising is always, or should always be, what will be its consequences in terms of the world-system as a whole. This is very difficult, as potential geopolitical consequences may lead one to want to go in directions opposite to the initial anti-authoritarian direction.

Finally, let us remember in this, as in everything that is happening now, that we are in the midst of a structural transition from a fading capitalist world-economy to a new kind of system. But that new kind of system could be better or worse. That is the real battle of the next 20-40 years. And how we behave here, there, and everywhere must be decided in function of this fundamental and major worldwide political battle.

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).