2019 the Best Year Ever? The Street’s the Place to Go

“In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever,” declared an eminent opinion writer for the New York Times. His statistical proof was that “children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases,” plus more and more people had access to electricity, running water, went online and moved out of extreme poverty.

What about growing inequality? Disasters caused by climate change such as fires in Australia? Millions and millions of people forced to leave their homes? Violence in Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the continuing threat of groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Harem and al- Shabaab? Donald Trump’s presidency? The rise of autocratic rulers and the decline of democratic values? Brexit? Potential famine in Zimbabwe? Venezuela? Eastern Ukraine? Crimea? Civilian deaths from powerful guns including shootings in schools? Growing disillusion with traditional values and institutions? Racism, even on soccer pitches? Data surveillance and invasion of our private sphere? The situation of Muslims in China and India?

In Geneva, the failure of the United Nations and multilateralism to have a moral voice and to influence global peace and security? The lack of impact of the Human Rights Council and the Conference on Disarmament? Blockage at the World Trade Organization? The continuing financial crisis of the United Nations and the assault on any form of multilateralism by the Trump administration?

How does on judge the positives and negatives of the past year? The Times columnist missed an important point. In spite of all the negatives I mentioned, the most positive thing that took place in 2019 was the fact that people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Whether in France with the Gilets jaunes or in the streets of Chile, Iran or Hong Kong, civil society has responded to perceived injustices.

Street manifestations have increased. Throughout the world followers of Greta Thunberg, for example, have raised awareness of environmental degradation and the dire consequences of human inactivity to reverse climate change. Whether or not formally organized, protesters, often helped by social media, have been able to have a voice.

Where traditional political mechanisms have failed, in the words of the Weather Girls, “the street’s the place to go.”

Whatever the subject – environmental or social – people have gone to the streets to show the political leaders that the status quo is unacceptable. Whether or not the protesters are organized like the recent strike by union workers in France, or even if they have been aided or encouraged by exogenous forces, 2019 has seen street movements throughout the world.

Some have failed. Occupy Wall Street had little traction. The students’ Friday protests did not have an immediate effect on governments at the recent COP25 meeting in Madrid. The Friday protests in Algeria did not lead to a radical transformation of the traditional system. Nonetheless, there were partial victories. The Hong Kong protesters were able to get the extradition law retracted. French President Emmanuel Macron has already modified his radical retirement reform.

But the point is not who won or lost. The protests have come in many forms and their goals have changed over time. What is important to watch is how quickly people are ready to take to the streets and how willing they are to continue in the face of extreme repression and economic hardships.

Marching in the street remains a vital means of expression. With the help of new technology, and with little formal legitimacy, people like Greta are able to mobilize large movements. And the traditional political system will have to take notice. In democratic countries like Switzerland, street demonstrations were reflected at ballot box which allowed the Green Party to make substantial gains. In a different way, the general unrest in Bolivia led to the ouster of Evo Morales.

In spite of predictions of general passivity, civil society protest movements have had tremendous influence. So while it may be easier in the future to count how many U.S. senators will vote for impeachment, it will be as important if not more important to watch the growing groundswell of protest movements. They may not give statistical hope for the future nor confirm that 2019 was the best year ever. But they are certainly something to watch if not to participate in.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.