A global wave of protests is destabilizing political systems. Although the protests in Chile, Lebanon, Haiti, Hong Kong and Egypt, among other places, are occurring under very different circumstances, they share an important characteristic. All of them are “mass protests” that combine the grievances of the middle class with those of the poor.
What does this mean?
Under the conditions of modest economic growth and low unemployment, a global middle class is growing. These people have rising expectations about the future, which can easily lead to disappointment (as during the wave of protests in 2013, which Francis Fukuyama called “the Middle Class Revolution”). Because the middle class is generally optimistic about the future, it is not readily inclined to proceed to protest. However, in recent months, price increases, driven by a looming global economic downturn, have brought the poor to the streets. Consequently, the pessimistic poor and the optimistic middle class have found common ground, publicly airing their grievances, frustration and disappointment – leading to mass protests.
As Fukuyama argued, the middle class (divided as it is) rarely succeeds in bringing about political change, but the ongoing wave of mass protests will make it difficult for states to govern themselves. The current unrest will make it much more challenging for governments across the world to implement fiscal austerity, redistribute wealth and tackle climate change. Amid economic downturn, and especially if a recession hits in 2020, emerging markets whose governments cannot successfully navigate this political climate will be forced to take on more debt or resort to regime change.