On Friday, December 1, two protest marches met in central London in what felt like a magical moment. A few thousand striking university lecturers had just reached the British Parliament at Westminster after marching from the Bloomsbury neighbourhood, when close to a thousand Extinction Rebellion teenagers came pouring down a parallel street and the two protests united.
The university strikers came to a halt and, as a sign of solidarity, they stood and clapped as the two protests merged. University professors alongside teenagers then began walking together for the last 100 yards to Parliament Square.
To those in attendance, the merger of the two protests made perfect sense. After all, the forces that undermine higher education in the United Kingdom by pushing through the marketisation of British universities are the same ones driving the ongoing climate crisis.
They are also responsible for the socioeconomic and political upheaval that over the past few months has pushed people across the globe to the streets: from France and the UK to Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, through India and Hong Kong to Colombia and Chile.
Clearly, each protest is unique and carries its own set of demands. Grievances may diverge, but there are also some very powerful forces that link many of these demonstrations together. And it is vital that we begin to see these common patterns.
Connecting the dots
As protesters in Europe, the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia are pushing back against austerity, the abuse of power by corrupt regimes, and rising authoritarianism, it is important to remember that these forces are very often connected to the brutal imposition of neoliberal principles of privatisation and deregulation.
In the UK, 40,000 staff members in 60 universities were on strike from November 25 to December 4 to protest against detrimental pension reforms and persistent gender and race pay gaps, whereby white male colleagues are, on average, getting paid 15 percent more than their female counterparts and 9 percent more than colleagues of colour. More than 50 percent of the workforce does not have permanent contracts, while salaries across the sector have decreased by a staggering 17 percent in real terms since 2009.
While inequality and casualisation among university staff are part of much wider trends in the workforce that ultimately aim to increase profits for the few at the expense of undermining job security and reducing pay to many, the marketisation of the universities in the UK began in earnest with the introduction of tuition fees in 2009, followed by the adoption of “managerial models of private and especially public sector corporations”.
Institutions that are supposed to cultivate thinking and encourage the search for truth (veritas), now treat students as consumers, professors as service providers, while the university managerial class pockets hefty salaries, at times reaching half a million pounds.
Such changes are part of global processes. Today, the six richest people in the UK control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. Over the past 10 years, billionaire profits haveskyrocketed everywhere as whole populations are rendered disposable and as the earth heats up.
And the situation is similar in countries across the world.
In Chile, for example, the demonstrators are protesting against deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, which can be linked directly to the legacies of the privatisation policies of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial regime and programmes introduced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
This is also the case in Lebanon, where corrupt politicians have pocketed millions while ravaging the country. Here, too, the IMF has been involved, demanding structural adjustments.
Indeed, in many countries, people are filling the streets due to increasing fury at the effects of neoliberal economic and political policies – even if these effects manifest themselves differently and unevenly across the globe. Neoliberal policies are predatory and extractive, enabling a small minority to thrive while the rest of the population suffers.
Neoliberalism has also facilitated the rise of reactionary, ultranationalist and ethnocratic governments that just happen to be climate change deniers as well. From Brazil to India and back to the United States, governments are deregulating environmental protections at the very moment when the United Nations is issuing dire warnings about the looming climate catastrophe and calling on nations to urgently transform their economies to cut greenhouse gases and switch to sustainable energy.
Neoliberalism thus operates as a kind of nihilistic colonising force, where profit trumps people, undermining civil society and weakening democratic processes and institutions while propelling the introduction of policies that will engender a climate holocaust.
It is also what links many of the strikes and protests around the world – from extinction rebellion and the South Western Rail strike in the UK and the massive strike against pension reforms in France to the student strikes at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India and Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan and the union strike in Bogota, Colombia.
Creating intersectional solidarity
The congregation of university strikers alongside extinction rebellion militants at Parliament Square should thus be seen as part of a new surge in massive civil protests which have spanned the globe, and it is precisely the prospect of drawing connections between different struggles and activists that provides us with glimmers of hope.
Given the incredibly powerful forces that we are currently up against, it is perhaps more vital than ever that we recognise how the hundreds of daily protests taking place across the globe constitute part of a growing transnational movement that is struggling, each in their separate countries, against imminent devastation that will ultimately be planetary in scale.
The next step, however, is to find new ways of creating intersectional ties and demonstrating solidarity across national borders. We have witnessed how social media can facilitate this, as when Miriam Barghouti, a Palestinian-American writer and student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, sent off a supportive tweet to the African American protesters in Ferguson, Missouri who were being teargassed by police in riot gear: “Always make sure to run against the wind/to keep calm when you’re teargassed, the pain will pass, don’t rub your eyes! #Ferguson Solidarity.”
But there are many, many other examples on which we can draw: from Native Americans waving the Palestinian flag at Standing Rock’s Oceti Sakowin Camp to our colleagues marching with a sign of solidarity for the protesting students in Lahore.
We need to continue to use all the various venues at our disposal in order to learn from each other and to deepen these kinds of alliances. Social media is clearly key, since it enables us to make immediate connections between rail workers in the UK, students in Lahore, and feminist activists in India, and can mediate expressions of solidarity and support across different sectors and political borders. But we also must keep in mind that even as cyber-activism may facilitate change, it is by no means enough.
Historically, a meaningful economic and political transformation has only occurred when masses of people have acted in concert within the public sphere and threatened the powers that be. When environmental activists, students, railway workers, care providers, street cleaners, migrant labourers and professors unite against the forces destroying the possibility of a decent life for the vast majority of the population, it will be extremely difficult to stop us.
While recent events – from Tahir Square in Baghdad to Parliament Square in London – have taught us that even mass protests are no guarantee, these kinds of civil uprisings are perhaps our best hope. Indeed, our future – and any future on this planet – may well depend on them.
Catherine Rottenberg is an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Neve Gordon is a Professor of International Law at Queen Mary University of London.
This story first appeared on Al Jazeera.