The Western populace is disgruntled. A cost-of-living crisis grips the UK, vice-like; in France, pension-fuelled pyromania has taken hold. Mass demonstrations grounded flights in Israel last week while the fallout from Dobbs continues to spur outcry across the US.
Coming out of the other side of the pandemic, a trend is seemingly apparent: strike action and public protest are on the rise throughout the world
Clearly, these highlighted cases have very different causes. Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine and sap the Supreme Court’s strength have no surface relation to Emmanuel Macron’s determination to make French workers toil for a further two years.
However, coming out of the other side of the pandemic, a trend is seemingly apparent: strike action and public protest are on the rise throughout the world — what’s the deal?
The UK’s case has been well-documented. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2022 saw the most days lost to strike action since 1989 — the tail end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Industrial action has continued into the new year with the ONS reporting a further 220,000 working days chewed up in January.
That which has made the UK such a fertile ground for figures like Mick Lynch to achieve cult-hero-like status in certain quarters can also explain dissatisfaction abroad.
The tricky trifecta of an energy crisis, rising food inflation (both corollaries from the war in Ukraine), and the uneven path of economic recovery from global recession has generated a dissent-fostering climate which stretches beyond borders.
In some good news, Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, announced on Friday that Eurozone inflation had fallen to 6.9% in the year to March, a more dramatic decrease than was expected, chiefly driven by an abatement in energy costs. Nonetheless, food inflation remains a worry having risen from 15% to 15.4%.
Naomi Hossain, a lecturer of the politics of development at Washington DC’s American University noted at the backend of 2022 that: “There have never been so many cost-of-living — mainly energy — protests around the world documented in a single year before.” In a co-authored publication from last year, she calculated there were over 12,500 events of protest globally between November 2021 and October 2022.
In the pre-pandemic world, this growing trend was also clear to see. The 2008 financial crisis, followed by a decade of austerity programmes, deepened existent societal inequalities, nourishing a wave of populism: Brexit, Trump, and the like. However, lockdowns managed to hide this. Broadly speaking, governments were listened to, orders were obeyed, and health workers were rightly lauded.
The 2008 financial crisis, followed by a decade of austerity programmes, deepened existent societal inequalities, nourishing a wave of populism
Yet, fast-forwarding to 2023, a high dose of uncertainty has accompanied renewed freedoms: uncertainty surrounding supply chains, uncertainty surrounding employment, and uncertainty surrounding how best to remediate fiscal ill health.
And it is under the strain of this uncertainty, under the ratchet of rising inflation and falling living standards, where social solidarity has splintered. This is all without throwing artificial intelligence (AI) worries into the mix — see last week’s GPT-4 release by OpenAI, triggering an open letter to pause AI training signed by Elon Musk and several researchers at DeepMind, a London-based AI company.
The fact that asset markets have responded strongly since the pandemic (meaning those with wealth have done pretty well) only serves to turn the screws through further frustration and animosity on the establishment, technocrats, and the elite.
And there’s no easy fix. Governments will always be faced with difficult decisions which see certain groups lose out. In France’s case, Macron’s presidential campaign answer to an increasing dependency ratio was to make retirement shorter. Right now, Spain threatens to tackle the same issue in the opposite direction – make younger generations contribute more to the pension pot, leaving the retirement age unchanged. Protest is sure to follow.