24 February 2021
Phil Hearse writes on the new wave of progressive action around the globe and shows why street protest is so important.
The February 22 general strike and huge mass demonstrations against the Myanmar military coup are symbolic of a new global wave of resistance against neoliberal corruption, dictatorship, and fascism. As we discuss below, women and young people are in the vanguard of this movement, which demonstrates the entry of a new generation of struggle, already evident in the Black Lives Matter mobilisations last year.
After the 2007-8 fiscal collapse, mass protest movements erupted across the planet, including the Occupy! movement in many countries, repeated general strikes in Greece, the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, and the Arab Spring movement against Middle Eastern corrupt governments. This wave of struggles was headed off by widespread repression, which included many thousands dead in Syria and Egypt— and in some cases by the movement being diverted into political dead ends. Now the mass movement against neoliberalism, dictatorship, and corruption is back—spearheaded by a new generation of activists from Generation Z (people born after the mid-1990s).
The roster of mass struggle, largely invisible to BBC journalism, is striking:
Generation Z activists are leading a new wave of protests against the Erdoğan government in Turkey;
Young people have been to the forefront of a wave of struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean;
Mass movements in Tunisia and Lebanon have resumed the objectives of the Arab Spring;
The vast anti-coup movement in Myanmar is boosted by a leavening of young worker activists;
Thousands of young people have been battling police in Barcelona and elsewhere in the Spanish state over the imprisonment of anti-capitalist rapper Pablo Hasel;
Young people in India have been mobilising to support the farmers’ titanic struggle;
Millions of women in Argentina and Poland have mobilised to defend their reproductive rights;
While temporarily pausing for breath, the mass movements in Sudan and Belarus continue.
This new wave of struggle is a counterpoint to the continuing strength of right-wing and fascist movements, especially in the United States and Europe. Nearly all these mobilisations have come up against repression by extreme right-wing, repressive, and/or dictatorial states. Each in its own way is representative of the emerging Global Police State, taking the form of a military dictatorship in Myanmar, a fascist government in India or corrupt and authoritarian governments in Latin America.
Mass resistance to Myanmar military
What has happened in Myanmar is extraordinary. The military coup on February 1 was directly linked to the refusal of Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Tatmadaw, (the official name of the Myanmar armed forces), to accept the result of the general election and step down. He feared the loss of the military’s control of their corrupt business interests that a decisive position in the government gives them. Under the 2008 power sharing deal, with the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Ky, top army leaders remained entrenched in key ministries and kept their hold on many businesses. The overwhelming victory of the NLD in the November 2020 elections put all that in danger, threatening a transition to a civilian-led government.
What is amazing about Monday’s general strike and mass demonstrations is their scale—and the refusal of the mass movement to back down in the face of direct threats to use military force against the protestors. Three demonstrators were shot dead in Mandalay over the weekend of February 19/20.
Young women play a leading role
In a revealing interview, Stephen Campbell an expert on labour organising in Asia explained the role of young women from the garment factories on the edge of the capital Yangon:
“Actually, workers in Myanmar, especially garment factory workers, who are mostly young women in their late teens and early 20s, have been organizing continually over the past decade, and even before that. This dedicated organizing work has produced a strong network among industrial workers throughout the various industrial zones around Yangon… As a result, many workers have gained extensive experience in workplace organizing and in strikes. And out of these struggles, they have become quite militant and very capable at taking collective action. Since these industrial zones are around Yangon, it is relatively easy for these workers to get downtown. Since the coup, garment factory workers have made clear in their protest chants and in interviews that they expect military rule to entail a restriction of their legal rights and a contraction of the space for worker organizing. If that happens, it will have a detrimental impact on their already-precarious livelihoods…
“One of the most prominent worker organizers in the anti-coup protests, Moe Sandar Myint, recently stated in an interview, “Workers are ready for this fight. We know that the situation will only deteriorate under military dictatorship, so we will fight as one, united, until the end.” So, for many workers, this struggle is not simply about Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is a struggle grounded in their immediate material concerns, and in many ways, it points beyond a simple return of the NLD to the government since the situation for workers under the NLD was also very precarious and very restrictive.”
From defending democratic rights to working-class struggle
This account points to one of the most fundamental questions facing the movement in Myanmar and elsewhere: the need for the movement for democracy to grow over into a movement that fights for the direct interests of the working class.
In the era of the massive development of communications technologies, the lessons of one struggle go rapidly to others internationally. The Hong Kong democracy movement has hugely inspired activists throughout the region.
According to Stephen Campbell:
Already, the civil disobedience campaign in Myanmar has motivated a resurgence in the pro-democracy protest movement in neighbouring Thailand. And Myanmar has been asked to join the Milk Tea Alliance, which is a loose online coalition of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. Of course, the people involved in these movements are often workers in one way or another. But it is not yet clear to me whether the actions of workers in Myanmar will motivate people in other regional countries to voice an explicitly working-class politics or to adopt the general strike as a tactic of struggle toward a democratic pro-worker political arrangement.
The intersection of youth and the working class is very much in evidence in the continuing movement in Tunisia. Events there sparked the Arab Spring in 2011. And Tunisia was regarded as the one ‘success story’ of the Arab Spring, because it led to democratic political changes and because the labour movement played a key role. But it was not an economic success, nor did it offer much hope to the millions of unemployed youth and impoverished sections of the working class. As Gilbert Achcar points out:
…Tunisia is actually proof of the fact that the issue is not ‘governance’: it’s not just democratization. It is fundamentally about deep social and economic problems that translate inevitably into political discontent. There is no way out of the crisis without radical socioeconomic change, but that’s a far cry from the situation in Tunisia today… Now, there is a serious problem with that role in that, instead of forcefully fighting for the social demands of the population, the trade-union leadership has been busy cutting deals with the bosses’ organization to guarantee a smooth alternation of bourgeois governments.”
Latin and Central American uprisings
In November mass demonstrations in Peru brought down two governments in a single week. In Haiti, at the beginning of February, a two-day general strike against President Jovel Moise revolved around his continued rule by presidential decree. On Monday (22 February) Moise told the UN Security Council that democracy was in ‘good shape’ in Haiti, a laughable idea.
The events in Peru and Haiti coincided with a string of victories for popular movements in Lain America. In Chile, the referendum on replacing the constitution imposed by the military government in the 1970s won 80% of the popular vote. A new constitution will be written by a popular assembly.
In October the left-of-centre Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) returned to power in Bolivia, enabling former president Evo Morales to come back to the country. In December the long fight for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina was finally won, although right-wing and reactionary forces will continue to challenge abortion rights at a local level.
Lessons of the struggles worldwide
This global panorama of struggle has many lessons. The first is that everywhere the ruling elite will attempt to use the police and army to repress the movement. When mainstream media talk of ‘clashes’ during protests, it means ‘government riot police attacked the demonstrators’. From Belarus to Tunisia, to Haiti, the same pattern repeats itself. Only the strengths of the mass movement can defeat this repression.
The second lesson is that women, especially young women, have come to the fore in most of these struggles. In Argentina and Poland key battles have taken place on abortion rights, and women naturally have taken the leadership of these struggles. But that is a small part of the story. In Sudan, in Lebanon, in Hong Kong, in Chile, and elsewhere young women have mobilised massively and played leadership roles. This reflects a worldwide rise in feminist consciousness over decades, which particularly affects young people.
But everywhere the key shock troops are young people, who have the energy, the dynamism, and the creativity to sustain movements for revolution and radical reform—as has been the situation throughout history. The worldwide capitalist class is now involved (even if it doesn’t always realise it) in a battle for the hearts and minds of Generation Z. Opinion polls in the United States, which continually show 40-50% of young people prefer socialism to capitalism, is a hint of this unfolding ideological conflict.
But the Left must get fully involved in this battle. The ability of the fascists and far-right in countries like Spain and Italy to build mass support among young people—especially in the middle class—is a warning. But the fight is not just ideological. The networks of self-organised rebellion in so many countries need organisational consolidation and nationwide and international objectives for social change. They need to link together immediate demands on democracy and inequality with the battle against climate catastrophe. A red-green revolution.
Phil Hearse and Neil Faulkner are joint authors, with Samir Dathi and Seema Syeda, of Creeping Fascism: what it is and how to fight it.
Phil is also a joint author of System Crash: An Activist Guide to Making Revolution which will be published soon on Resistance Books.