Global Uprisings? On resistance, violence and democracy

Keywords: resistance, uprising and revolution, violence, democracy, (transnational) social movements, (global) civil society, (global) justice, human rights

Organizer: Koenraad Bogaert (Middle East and North Africa Research Group)

Speakers: Dries Lesage (Ghent Institute for International Studies) and Ipsita Chatterjee (University of North Texas)

Moderator: Koen Bogaert (Middle East and North Africa Research Group)

This workshop started from the question how critical Global Studies should evaluate the recent ‘global’ wave of popular movements of resistance – not only against authoritarian regimes, e.g. the Arab Spring, but also against capitalism and the global economic order, e.g. Occupy Wall Street and the Indignados? Can we talk about a global uprising? In order to address these questions, the aim was to analyze, first of all, the politics of scale involved in these protests, moving beyond the simplistic notion of the ‘global’ and ‘globalization’ as a dimension or a process detached from the local, and examine the commonalities and differences between these movements. Secondly, in keeping with the reflexive stance inherent to critical Global Studies, the goal was to scrutinize our own implicit and explicit normative positions. Can we claim that these protesters have a right to resist what they define as unjust national and global orders, even if this means that they break out of the consensual order of contemporary liberal democracy, or even use violence?

In addressing the recent wave of popular movements of resistance, both in the Global South and the Global North, Ispita Chatterjee took a more theoretical philosophical perspective, focusing on the question of the revolutionary subject today. More precisely, she asked, can we determine today who is the revolutionary? And what kind of concepts can we use to describe him? Is class still a valid concept? The problem, Ispita Chatterjee argued, is that class is maybe no longer a neat category. Therefore, she suggested to include everyone who is dispossessed, especially in the context of the Global South and Global Southern cities. The debate following her introduction focused on the   question whether the revolutionary subject is pre-given or rather constituted in the process of struggle itself. The latter conceptualisation might shed new light on the Arab uprisings and the Global uprisings that followed, in the sense that they are maybe not so much part of a leaderless protest movement, but rather a historical process in which new leaders are emerging.

The second speaker, Dries Lesage, took a slightly different approach to nuance and elaborate on the geopolitical complexity of some of the heroic and idealized images of the social protests that are circulating in the Western mainstream media, as well as among activists networks and alternative media outlets. He discussed five concrete cases – Turkey, Egypt, Venezuela, Ukraine and Thailand – in order to expose some of the parallels between them. In all of these protest movements, there were genuine democratic cosmopolitan forces that took to the streets and demanded change from their leaders or even a change of leadership. Yet, another parallel was the fact that all of these democratic forces were complemented by an urban secularist and Westernized middle class recuperated or instrumentalized by the old elite. In all of these cases, contemporary ruling power had replaced an old elite through elections. The latter saw an opportunity in the recent uprisings to reclaim some of their old power positions. The global dimension of these political struggles, according to Dries Lesage, is therefore not only expressed by the ways protesters on the public squares around the world use similar tactics and adhere to similar ideals, but also by the ways in which these old elites are connected to the media and Western governments, and attempt to manipulate protest movements. In the discussion that followed, the issue of counter-revolution was discussed and questions were raised about how to determine whether a protest or revolution can be considered to be a democratic, (i.e. legitimate) struggle.

By Koenraad Bogaert