Why public protests are proliferating

When networked societies clash with hierarchical states

This week’s Economist has a couple of interesting articles on the proliferation of public protests in recent times—from the United States, to Britain, to Arab North Africa, India and now Turkey and Brazil. It attempts to understand the phenomenon within the frames of democracy and dictatorship, with technology as a key enabler.

Any study of these protests must contend with a simple, central question: given that the protestors’ grievances are not new, why did the protests take place now (roughly since 2010)? Corruption, economic distress, political oppression and elite control of political power, among others, have been around for decades. What changed enough to cause people to get onto the streets to protest?

It is possible to identify a number of factors: youth bulge, urbanisation, size of the middle class, mobile phone penetration and growth of social media are the most important among them. It is highly likely that these factors—in various combinations—have a causal relationship with the eruption of protests. The “why now?” question, can be explained by the fact that social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter are of fairly recent origin. Text messaging over mobile telephone networks is older, but it was only in the last decade that mobile phone ownership increased significantly as a fraction of the overall population. So the availability of technology could explain when the public protests took place.

Technology also suggests a more profound implication. The proliferation of public protests—across democracies and authoritarian states—might be the first signs of a clash between radically networked societies and hierarchically ordered states. (See this talk on radically networked societies.) As I argued in my Business Standard column in December 2011, “the popular legitimacy of today’s hierarchically-structured governments – and the political order they rest on – is under threat in radically networked societies.”

In other words, corruption, bus fare hikes, tree parks or economic policies that the protesters are abstractions or symptoms of the underlying dissatisfaction with the way the people are governed. A networked society is flat, its demands are diverse and often inchoate, decision-making processes are amorphous, and leadership diffuse. However, such a society is governed by a government that operates in a hierarchical manner, top-down and bottom-up, in silos, bound by hard rules and distinct leadership. While a networked society moves fast, a hierarchical government moves relatively slowly on account of its structure. To members of networked societies the hierarchical government appears slow, less responsive and remote, hence lacking in credibility and legitimacy.

The structure of the modern nation-state was forged in the Industrial Age. It now confronts the demands of the Information Age and is increasingly found wanting.

In my column I wrote: “One reason the United States emerged on top of the world order is because it had the best political system for post-Enlightenment industrial age societies. It may well be that the nation that best reinvents itself for the information age will have a shot at being the next great superpower.”

This raises a number of questions. What does a networked state look like? How does a hierarchically-ordered state change itself into a networked state? What does this mean for individual liberty? We do not have the answers yet.

PS. For the record, the Business Standard article I refer to in this post contained a typo that risks changing the entire argument. The sentence in the third paragraph should read “This is not a classical class struggle.” The “not” is missing in the published piece!

One thought on “Why public protests are proliferating”

  1. I don’t think the phenomenon is unprecedented in the history of the world. Rather, it is more that the “Third World” is catching up to the Industrialized world in this phenomenon. The key cause I think, is rapid urbanization which creates a high density of people who can turn their disaffection into anger on the streets.

    I also do not classify the “Occupy” movement with the various Arab Springs or even the Ramlila Maidan and the Delhi Gangrape gatherings. Of all the various urban movements, it was the least coherent and least organized and “achieved” anything (howsoever you define it).

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