ANALYSIS

Stochastic populism: the wave of the future?

By J Brooks Spector 28 October 2019

Protesters face the police on the sixth day of protests against the Government, in Santiago, Chile, 23 October 2019. (EPA-EFE/FERNANDO BIZERRA JR)

All those waves of populist uprisings and upheavals from Hong Kong to the Middle East to Latin America breaking out; do they inevitably mean a better, fairer world? Maybe yes, but maybe not. Studies point to the key variable in many such protests. And maybe they mimic some deep geological forces too.

It would be particularly easy to use this space to describe the increasingly hallucinogenic texture of the Trump White House, and the increasingly desperate efforts by the dissembler in chief to evade the consequences of his using the presidential levers of foreign policy for personal political advantage. In that now-well known, but the still-mysterious phrase, the “quid pro quo” he increasingly stands accused of trying to strong-arm the new Ukrainian president into doing Trump’s goons’ dirty work in the run-up to the 2020 election by digging up some imaginary dirt on Joe Biden and his son.

The result has been an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives that increasingly looks unlikely to stave off an impeachment finding (even if not — yet — a good chance of conviction in the Republican-controlled Senate). Over the past week, a growing number of senior officials have laid out, in graphic, repellent detail, the capture of US policy towards Ukraine by Rudy Giuliani’s band of thugs, heavies, pirates, and wheeler-dealer wannabes. (Makes us want to reread Jimmy Breslin’s classic of mafia misadventures, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.)

Increasingly, this is all playing out on international media channels, and, importantly, the nub of this conflict has a simpler, easier-to-grasp narrative line than the earlier, complex, convoluted Mueller-Russia investigation. And it increasingly is reinforcing the view that the Trump administration IS itself the Great Dismal Swamp of political misbehaviour and, potentially, criminal venality.

Similarly, we could hone in on the disastrous American withdrawal from northeastern Syria. This has condemned the Kurds to carry on as best they can under the tender mercies of Russia, Turkey, and Assad’s Syrian forces, and thereby marking the effective end of any deep American engagement in the future of the Near East’s geopolitical future shape, save for the eastern Syrian oil fields. (The death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi hardly changes the basic shape of things.)

A protester depicting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demonstrates during a protest outside the gates of Number 10 Downing Street in Westminster, London, Britain, 28 August 2019. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

These developments seem to be running in parallel with a real push by Russia to re-enter Africa. There has been the splashy Sochi Russia-Africa summit, all the deals for new weapons sales, and a puzzling dispatch of a brace of long-range bomber aircraft to land in South Africa that practically screamed, “We are back! We’re number one!”

Or, perhaps, we could turn our increasingly haunted gaze to Britain instead, to watch a now-thoroughly muddled parliamentary morass. The terms of the Brexit split have seemingly been agreed to, but the timetable for actually doing it has been rejected. This is leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go back to the EU for yet another extension in coming to the finish — and, concurrently, to call for a 12 December parliamentary election.

This is presumably being called for on the grounds Johnson’s Conservative Party would gain sufficient seats so he would be able to push his version of Brexit to victory without all those awkward allies, the Democratic Unionists or those Tories who have been driven from the party over their lack of enthusiasm for Brexit. Since this issue, too, is playing out almost daily on international news channels, the long-held reputation of the British House of Commons as “the mother of parliaments” is taking hit after hit.

There have been other international developments, of course. The American presidential nomination competition continues, at least among Democrats. Increasingly it seems to be evolving into a struggle over whether a moderate Democratic Party centrist like Joe Biden, Cory Booker, or Amy Klobuchar, or a confirmed leftwing champion like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, will gain enough momentum to conquer the upcoming primaries and caucus votes. And, of course, looming over this is the question of whether the party will resemble the walking wounded by the time the actual nomination happens?

But this week, we want to look beyond these obvious issues. Regular readers will recall that a couple of months earlier, we took a look at what is being called stochastic terrorism, deadly events that are similar in nature and which arise from a broader substrate, but which are not necessarily predictable, and which seemingly erupt without any obvious, anticipatory signs.

Over the past several weeks, a whole array of large, popular or populist public protests and uprisings have erupted across the world, seemingly unrelated, but all erupting nearly simultaneously. We are going to label this development: stochastic populism. A paper from the seemingly unrelated field of volcanology, “Integration of stochastic models for long-term eruption forecasting into a Bayesian event tree scheme: a basis method to estimate the probability of volcanic unrest”, offers insights.

As the three-person team of authors explains, “Eruption forecasting refers, in general, to the assessment of the occurrence probability of a given eruptive event, whereas volcanic hazards are normally associated with the analysis of superficial and evident phenomena that usually accompany eruptions. Nevertheless, several hazards of volcanic origin may occur in noneruptive phases during unrest episodes…” Now, substitute the phrase “populist uprising” for the idea of violent geological phenomena that the authors were looking at and the model might also say human upheavals can take place without all the preliminary signs that would point it to the crowds pouring into the streets around the globe.

Consider what is happening now. Hong Kong’s protests have been continuing for many weeks now, originally begun over a proposed law that would allow the extradition of some accused criminals from Hong Kong to China proper for trial there (and where civil protections were assumed to be lacking). But the initial protest has been morphing into a larger, less forgiving one against the feeling the special status of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” existence is being eroded, perhaps precipitously so. China, in the meantime, is caught between allowing the protests to continue unabated and thereby undermining the Chinese sense of inevitable progress, or finally, their losing patience and crushing the protests, but thereby severely wounding the economic and financial dynamo of Hong Kong.

Half a world away, two populist upheavals have been shaking the Near East — in Lebanon and Iraq. In Lebanon, a fractured, divided society that has only fitfully come back from a multi-sided civil war, is now facing popular protests against a narrow political elite that has milked the state and economy, and where the state is now virtually insolvent and can no longer provide essential services. These protests are coming at a time of growing unemployment, inflation, and all the rest of the usual destabilising suspects. There is no easy pathway out of this mess.

In Iraq, meanwhile, despite the country’s vast oil wealth, angry protesters have targeted the government over the unfulfilled promise of using all that wealth for the greater national good. Here too, there is no easy path out of this morass.

Move further west and there are multiple mass protest upheavals in Catalonia in Spain, and in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador. In the biggest mass action, in Chile, the protests may have brought a million people out on to the streets. They are contesting government austerity measures, the rolling back of subsidies in services such as public transportation, and, underlying it all, a growing anger that the deep economic inequalities in Chile are growing, not shrinking.

Several demonstrators hold smoke flares as some 400 people attend a protest against multinational company Vesuvius’ labor force adjustment plant, in Oviedo, northern Spain, 24 September 2019. Some 100 workers and their supporters began a rally against the plans UK-based manufacturing company of metal flow engineering plans to shut down the plant. EPA-EFE/J.L.Cereijido

None of these individual national popular upheavals are directly connected. They are not centrally directed or co-ordinated. What they can share is the substrata of various forms of economic discontent, not unlike the potentially volcanic substrata that underpins geology. In some places, it is anger over the failure of the state to deliver on its economic promise, or it is a sudden economic belt-tightening, or growing anger over vast (and growing) economic gulfs between the top, political-economic tier — and everybody else. And in some, it is an unredeemed revolution of rising expectations.

But, even if not directly connected or co-ordinated, one thing is certain. Each protest has garnered massive international news coverage, thereby giving yet others elsewhere the feeling that protests can possibly generate leverage, support, and even changes in policies. Social media, too, contribute to an increasingly global awareness of the possibilities of broad protest.

But all protests are not created equal. As the authors of a recent study reported in Washington Post explain:

We checked 100 years of protests in 150 countries. Here’s what we learned about the working class and democracy. The success of mass protests depends on who is doing the protesting.

Many observers fear that democracy is currently at risk — including in the United States and some European countries. Some commentators blame less-educated members of the working classes for the democratic backlash.

According to the stereotype, these voters tend to be sceptical of economic globalisation and immigration — and perhaps more inclined to support authoritarian populist politicians and parties. Political analysts tend to see the more educated urban middle classes, in contrast, as staunch defenders of democratic values and principles.

But are industrial workers really an anti-democratic force? In a new study, we systematically examine how citizens have sought to promote democracy in about 150 countries. Here’s what we find: Industrial workers have been key agents of democratisation and, if anything, are even more important than the urban middle classes. When industrial workers mobilise mass opposition against a dictatorship, democratisation is very likely to follow.”

But popular mass protest is not a guarantee of change, as the very different trajectories of protests in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring’s history can attest. In fact, mass protest does not always lead to the fall of a regime or a change in government. As the Post’s article adds:

Often protests do not even lead to the fall of an existing dictatorship, as in Iran, where the incumbent regime survived the 2009 Green Movement. Why do some movements bring about democratisation, while others fail?”

Here the authors argue:

According to our data, these peasant-led protests rarely led to democratic reforms. This could be because these groups lacked the power to change the regime, or the motivation to implement democracy.

It’s a different story when industrial workers come out. We find that democratisation is much more likely to follow mass protest movements that are dominated by the urban middle classes — and even more so when industrial workers are protesting. These groups often combine a strong preference for democracy (especially in urbanised societies) with the capacity to push through democratising changes.

Industrial workers, in particular, can use unions, international labour networks and social democratic parties to co-ordinate powerful challenges against dictatorial regimes. Here, we agree with influential, in-depth studies of specific European and Latin American countries, which highlight the historical role of labour movements in pushing for universal suffrage and competitive multiparty elections… Current debates on the recent rise of authoritarian populists may point the finger at the working classes — but our research suggests that industrial workers have been crucial to the historical progress of democracy.”

Populism — and the participation of the economically disadvantaged — can generate the kind of politics that can give a nation over to a Donald Trump or a Jerzy Orban, but it also contains seeds for positive change as well. Crucially, however, there is no sign on the horizon that the number of such protests will abate, or that the pressures from the global social and economic substrata will be dialled back. It depends, it seems, on who comes out to put their lives on the line. DM

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