On Democracy Disrupted - Notes on The Politics of Global Protest

A decade ago, we found ourselves in observance of a genuinely new global phenomenon – the global spread of horizontalist networked protest movements. From the democratic vibrato of  “الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام” [Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām][1] that resonated across the Arab World, to the Zuccottian cries of “We are the 99%” emanating from occupation after occupation, the early 2010s, or ‘teens’ as they have come to be known, saw illustration after illustration of networked protest spill over onto the global arena; where certain normative values overcame arbitrary territorial frontiers and united peoples inter-nationally. Or, however, at least it could have of appeared as such.

Following a reading of The End of The End of History: Politics in The Twenty-First Century by the members of the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast[2], I found myself reading Democracy Disrupted by Ivan Krastev, the function of which is to evaluate exactly such a sceptical claim – i.e., whether or not this series of globally networked protests held revolutionary substance or were substantially a phenomenon of appearance alone.[3] Krastev’s short 2014 work examines the very character of these protests, not only by looking at a handful of cases, but by examining the strictly ‘anti-political’ or ‘anti-representational’ quality that unified them.

Although I found this work timely, for 2014 at very least, I would say that it was not without its problems. The very fact that neither the global character of the Arab Spring nor the Occupy Movement were addressed at any length somehow does take-away from the work. These were two instances of genuinely global movements that transcended borders with their logic; logics which could not be caged to a single domain, and as such, contributed in their own way to the general discourse of what it means to be a political citizen in the twenty-first century, as a citizen-come-cosmopolitan human in a thoroughly global world. The cases that Krastev discusses - Ukraine, Russia, Thailand and Turkey - are geared more towards dispelling Francis Fukuyama’s claim that these protests were simply similar middle-class eruptions, and thus were unitary and singular cases to be compared, as opposed to the genuinely global.[4] Indeed, to summarise my only point of critique if I were forced to find one, it seems that the ‘politics of global protest’ that Krastev centred his reflections around is less that of global revolutionism, of coordinated global ends and means, and more a certain character of protest that reproduced itself within different localities in a single period - and the two are distinct, albeit interconnected.

Returning to the content of Krastev’s work, it would be a disservice to such a great conversationally academic piece to summarise the work in but a handful of quotes. Nonetheless, if I were to abridge Krastev’s argument in his own words, I would pick the five following passages:

1 - “Today’s mass protests, in many respects, are acts in search of a concept; they are praxis, if you will, without theory”.

2 -  “The protests are a rejection of a politics without possibility, but they are also a form of acceptance of this new reality. None of the protest movements emerged with a platform for changing the world, or even the economy.”

3 - “Unlike elections, which focus only on direct, formal centres of power, protests promise to destroy the real centres of power – which are far more dispersed throughout the society, culture and economy.”

4 - “The protests have not marked the return of revolution. Like elections, they actually serve to forestall revolution by keeping its promise of a radically different future at an unbridgeable distance.”

5 - “‘The graduate looking for work’ is not the new proletarian. Revolutions need ideology as oxygen and fuel, and the protestors have no ideology or alternative vision of the future to speak of.”

Each one of these speaks directly to one of the qualities that Krastev identifies as colouring the contemporary nature of such global networked protests. Let’s go through each.

In the first case, the great reversal can be seen at play. Whereas in ages past the question asked was ‘what is the praxis that is an extension to the theory?’, answered chiefly in the praxis-oriented nature of the Leninist query ‘What is to be done?’, Krastev highlights that today it appears that such global protest operates on the site of its inversion – it is instead asked ‘what is the framework that is an extension to our praxis?’ or ‘What is to be theorised?’. Primarily, if praxis is not directed to a given ends – i.e., the enforcement of particular legislation or the seizure of the state apparatus, for instance –praxis alone without direction can quickly become potential to all possibility, not only the affirmative, but the regressive and conflictual also. The events that unfolded in Libya may demonstrate this most profoundly. This centricity upon praxis, with its lack of direction, if successful in rupturing the political trajectory of the state, or in disrupting its functioning deeply enough, can turn to colour a vacuous state of disorder, out of which the potential to possibility becomes the character of one’s nightmares as equally as one’s dreams. Perhaps, equally, this is what Theda Skocpol cites as demonstrating those civic movements that are between "heads without bodies" and "bodies without heads".[a]

This character is compounded in the second and third quotes above. These protests rejected the lack of possibility the status-quo entailed, but were equally resigned to it. Discourse centred around ousting a particular regime or dislocating the centres of power that limited the citizenry to some ends. Nonetheless, without theoretical framework, without ends, without alternative, there emerged not even the semblance of change nor the whisper of overturning the order of the day, nationally of course – tangible global change did not even seem worth the time to contemplate, despite the globally networked nature of such movements.

These features come to a head in the fourth and fifth points I have selected to highlight. Such a character of protest serves only to forestall an authentically global revolutionism. At every turn, such movements provide a crushing dose of ‘reality’, reconstituting the very neoliberal principle that some of these protest rally against, i.e., that ‘there is no alternative’. In fact, by constructing the headless-chicken-like praxis in the manner they do, such global protests serve to reinforce the Capitalist Realism described by the late Mark Fisher[5]. Simply put, by presenting the illusion of their genuine alterneity, the supposed reality that there is no alternative to neoliberalism becomes itself reconstituted with every failure, and these protests, by virtue of being ends-less, being alternative-less, without telos, can only fail. Thus, a future of radical difference is kept perennially at an arm’s length away and so an alternative future remains foreclosed to us.

In these regards, Krastev’s work is as critical as it is descriptive or analytical of the character of the then primary wave of globalised networked protests. Therefore, Krastev’s reflections may be short, but they provide guidelines for how to think about global protest, be that from the perspective of the theorist or practitioner, and their evidenced potential to cause change in the world itself, be that on a national or global scale.


The rest of this piece contains those quotations and notes I wished to record of Krastev’s work, for future use.


Page 10:

“The demonstrations were different, but the slogans of the protestors were strikingly similar.”

Page 11:

“While the slogans of the protestors were similar, the demands varied.”

“The spread of the protests resembled a flu epidemic. The revolutionary virus of Tunisia was easily caught in Madrid. The white piano that became a symbol of the protests in Istanbul got reproduced in Sofia.”

“The global spread of the protests was assisted by the visual dimension of politics, since images are more universal and contagious than words.”

“Ultimately, several protests managed to overthrow governments or blocking certain policies. Others were defeated or ran out of steam. It is instructive that with the passage of time it is increasingly difficult to decide which protests succeeded.”

Page 12:

“The new social movements conceptualized themselves as networks and became convinced that networks can trump hierarchy. The all-powerful network is their organizational weapon of choice in the same way that the small but disciplined revolutionary party was once the organizational weapon of choice for communists.”

Page 13:

“Today’s revolutions are not inspired by theories; they have acquired company names. Pundits speak of ‘Facebook revolutions’, ‘Twitter insurrections’, and ‘Blackberry Riots’. Spanish Sociologist Manuel Castells called the nameless new protest movements ‘networks of outrage and hope’[6]”.

Page 19:

“Today, hardly anybody is interested in the system. The current revolution is not revolution of readers start radical students today are only preoccupied with have experience the system-not by what kind of system it is. Barely thinking in terms of social groups, they have a shared experience but no collective identity.”

Page 20:

“In most of the protests, citizens on the street treat politics not as a set of issues but as a kind of performance art.”

“It was more of a radical consumers protest than a protest of radical utopians.”

Page 21:

“We are living through the world’s first libertarian revolution.”

“The success of the revolution lies in the people’s readiness to return to the square at any time needed by any means necessary.” – [Reference to Hirschman[7]: leaving, fighting, and accepting.]

Page 23:

“In this sense, voice is never synonymous with simply opposing power; it assumes the responsibility to be the power.“

Page 32:

“What seems clear are a series of aporias. The protesting citizen wants change, but he rejects any form of political representation. He longs for political community, but he refuses to be led by others. He’s ready to take the risk of being beaten or even killed by the police, but he is afraid to take the risk of trusting any party or politician. He is dreaming of democracy, but he has lost faith in elections.”

Page 35:

“The result is that voting has a dual character – it allows us to replace those in power, thus protecting us from the excessively repressive state, but it also takes no measure of popular passions, thereby defending us from the excessively expressive citizen. Democracy allows mad people to vote and It could even elect them (though it surely would not tolerate them for long), but it also disarms their madness.”

“Democracy at once restrains the intensity of political actors while overdramatizing the stakes of the political game. It tries to inspire the apathetic to interest in public life while simultaneously cooling down the passions of the zealot. Mobilizing the passive and pacifying the outraged – these are two of the primary functions of democratic elections. But elections also have a transcendental character. They ask us to judge politicians not simply on what they have done but on what they promise to do. In this sense, elections are a machine for the production of collective dreams. Ban elections and you consent to live in a present without a future – or you subscribe to a future decreed by the state. Elections give us a hand in constructing the future. They bring change; they do not foreclose.”

Page: 37:

“In the days of the Cold War, citizens would go to the ballot box with the expectation that their vote would decide their country’s fate: whether it would remain part of the West or join the East, whether industry should be nationalized, and so on. Large, imposing questions were the order of the day. Today, the differences between left and right have essentially vanished and voting have become more a matter of taste than of ideological conviction.”

Page 39:

“The paradoxical effect of the loss of drama in elections is their mutation into a ritual of humiliation to the party in power rather than a vote of confidence in the opposition.”

“Voters simply do not see their ballot as a long-term contract with the party they have chosen. No longer predicated on one’s future expectations, voting is now purely a judgement on past performance”.

“ ‘No one is truly elected anymore’, Pierre Rosanvallon has argued. ‘Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of the voters; they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors’[8]. In several of the new democracies in Europe, it is easier to ‘resurrect’ than to re-elect.”

Page 59:

“In this, a world defined by mistrust, popular sovereignty will assert itself as the power to refuse. Do not expect politicians with long-range visions or political movements to inspire collective projects. Do not expect political parties to capture the imagination of the citizens and command the loyalty of their followers. The democracy of the future will look very different. People will step into the civic limelight only to refuse certain policies or debunk particular politicians.”

“The core social conflicts that will structure political space will be between the people and the elite, not between left and right. The democracy of tomorrow – being born on the streets of the world’s great cities – will be a democracy of rejection.”

“The protestors on the streets of Moscow, Sofia, Istanbul, and Sao Paulo are the new face of democratic politics. But please do not ask them what they want. What they know is only what they do not want. Their rejectionist ethic may be as radical and total as dismissing world capitalism (see Occupy Wall Street) or as local and modest as a protest against a new railway station in Stuttgart.”

Page 59-60:

“We do not make positive choices anymore; we are active in politics by our readiness to reject.”

Page 60:

“We are heading to a new democratic age in which politicians will not have our trust and citizens will be preoccupied with controlling their representatives. Political representation does not work in an era inhabited by people with multiple identities…Nothing should constrain or challenge the freedom of her individual choices.”

“ ‘Why should it be more important for me that I am a German than that I am a cyclist’, a young member of the European Parliament from the Greens told me. She refused to think in terms of social or ethnic groups and she refused to take history into account. Nothing should constrain or challenge the freedom of her individual choices.” [Fisher + individualism – Vampires Castle?]

“In the new democratic age, electoral politics will no longer take pride of place. Elections have lost their connection to the future.”

Page 62:

“In our new democratic world, loyalty has evaporated. Politics has been replaced by collective consumerism in which citizens regularly appeared poised to bolt for the door.” [‘Bolt for the door’ = Hirschman’s ‘exit’].

Page 64-65:

“The citizen who decides to leave the country hardly has reform in mind. He is interested in changing his lot in life, not lives of others. But the use of exit by governments as a way to reduce the pressure for change can be an impetus for bringing protestors to the streets.”

Page 65:

“The impact of the global financial crisis on the growth of protest politics was most strongly felt not through the rise in unemployment and economic hardship, but through the evaporation of emigration as an option to deal with social and economic pressures. The crisis was global. There was nowhere people could go to escape.”

“Middle-class individuals have been empowered by the freedom to leave. The financial crisis reversed this perspective, however, and exit began to be perceived as a sign of disempowerment. In order to understand the logic of the current protest wave in the world, particularly in Europe, we need to grasp this redefinition of voice and exit.”

“In their organizational logic, the protests can in fact be interpreted as a collective act of exit; the protestors reject representation and the possibility of negotiation and even agreement on a common platform or list of demands. But by denying the state of normal politics organized around conflicts between organized social groups, the protesters have been forced to oscillate between the individual and symbolic level of politics.”

Page 66:

“The demand can be grandiose and symbolic, as in ending capitalism, and then the meaning becomes the demand itself. In order to protest to be successful, it should be either concrete or symbolic. The middle level – messy space of actual politics that cannot be addressed by crowds huddled in public squares – has disappeared.”

Page 67:

“The secessions did not hope to bring change; they demanded the restoration of cosmic order.”

Today’s mass protests, in many respects, are acts in search of a concept; they are praxis, if you will, without theory

“They [mass-protests] are the most dramatic expression of the conviction that the elites do not govern in the interest of the people and that the electorate has lost control over the elected. They stand for insurrection against the institutions of representative democracy but without offering any alternatives (or even an openness to endorse non democratic replacements).” – Lacan and the Parle. During a lecture at the Catholic University of Louvain in 1972, a young man interrupts Lacan by pouring flour and water over the desk Lacan was lecturing from.[9] In this, the young man is asked what his desire politically entails and responds with something akin to ‘I want revolution’, demonstrating themselves as perhaps a ‘rebel with cause but without solution’. Is this the same here? Was the young man in the Lacanian Parle exhibiting the nascent character of global networked protest today? Perhaps.

Page 67-68:

“This new wave of protests is leaderless not because social media made leaderless revolution possible…but because the ambition to challenge all forms of political representation has made political leaders unwelcome.”

Page 68:

“Globalisation liberated the elites from their dependence on citizens. When drones and professional armies replace the citizen-soldier, elites lose interests in the views of citizen-soldiers. The flooding on the labour market by low-cost  immigrants or outsourced production reduces the elites’ willingness to cooperate. As a result, the citizen-worker gets detached from the citizen-voter.”[10]

“Elections fail to evince either the drama or the capacity to solve social problems that they once did, while rebellion from below has become unconvincing. Capturing the government is simply no longer a guarantee that things will change.”

Page 69:

“We live in a society of ‘innocent criminals’, where governments prefer to claim impotence rather than power.”

“The futile attempts of several leftist governments to increase taxes on the superrich are the most powerful demonstration of the constraints that governments face in an era of global markets and international capital flow. It is unclear if it would make more sense to topple the government or pity it.”

“Voters feel helpless today because the politicians they choose are candid about their lack of power. It is up to citizens to decide whether to trust that the politicians do in fact have their hands tied or to treat the cries of powerlessness as the ultimate power grab.”

Page 70:

“Democracy is nurtured by promises because politicians who fail to fulfil them can be held accountable. When there are no promises, there is no civic responsibility.”

“The protests are a rejection of a politics without possibility, but they are also a form of acceptance of this new reality. None of the protest movements emerged with a platform for changing the world, or even the economy.”

“Neither are the protests examples of Fukuyama’s revolution of the global middle class – at least not in the sense of them being a demonstration of its empowerment.”

“But if the protests do not signal a return of revolutionary politics, neither will they represent an effective strategy of citizen empowerment in the age of globalisation.”

Page 71:

“The notion of control in protest politics is instead focused on manipulating the elites to prevent them from benefitting from their positions of power. It is the protests’ spontaneity that makes it difficult for the elites to capture them.”

“The rise of protest politics is a natural  outcome of the oligarchic turn in democratic politics.”

Page 72:

“Protests did not change what governments were actually doing but rather how they soke about what they were doing. We now see that democratic governments are able to exhaust protest movements while nondemocratic governments (even when democratically elected) try to crash them.”

Page 73:

“Because protesters are no longer sure who governs, they end up attacking the whole system of governance. Was it not symptomatic that protesters in the United States occupied Wall Street rather than the White House?”

“Unlike elections, which focus only on direct, formal centres of power, protests promise to destroy the real centres of power – which are far more dispersed throughout the society, culture and economy.”

Page 74:

“The power of protest is negative. It injects insecurity into the elite, and it is the contagious nature of protest that turns it into a global issue.”

“Mass protests immediately divide the elite between those who want to engage and those who want to crush, between those who want to dialogue with the protestors and those who would rather arrest them.”

“Even when they are nor advocating anything concrete, the protests assert the possibility of change and thus do something that elections once did – keep the future open. People who occupy public spaces get a sense of power that is absent in the electoral booth” – This makes me think of Arendt, whereby Power, as acting in concert, sits in relation to natality as always power potential.[11]

Page 75:

“Regardless of the myriad demonstrations of civic courage and political idealism and the inspiring videos and rich expressions of countercultural imagination, the protests are not the solution to ‘there is no alternative’ politics. They are, however, powerful manifestations of resistance to the subordination of politics to the market (even when they are premarket). In the final account, the protests demonstrate the resilience of the political but signal a decline of political reform. The waning of the voice option is a side effect of this new generation of political mobilisation. In political activism that is so individualistic and symbolic, there is no place for Hirschman’s small-scale reformers. Contemporary protests are therefore much more about exit than voice.”

 “Indeed the anti-institutional message of the protests drives the younger generation spontaneous, internet-centred activism and discourages more formal organisational thinking.”

“The protests have not marked the return of revolution. Like elections, they actually serve to forestall revolution by keeping its promise of a radically different future at an unbridgeable distance.”

Page 76-77:

“’The graduate looking for work’ is not the new proletarian. Revolutions need ideology as oxygen and fuel, and the protestors have no ideology or alternative vision of the future to speak of.”

Page 77:

“The protestors disrupt democracy, but then democracy returns, poised and primed for the next disruption. Which will come. And then end. Just like the last time. Just like the next.”

[1] "The people want to bring down the regime".

[2] Alex Hochuli, George Hoare, and Phillip Cunliffe (2021) The End of The End of History: Politics in The Twenty-First Century. London: Zero Books.

[3] Ivan Krastev (2014) Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press.

[4] See, for instance: Francis Fukuyama (2013, June 28.) ‘The Middle-Class Revolution’. wsj.com. Available at: htt ps://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323873904578571472700348086.

[a] Theda Skocpol (2013) Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 167, 180-223. 

[5] Mark Fisher (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. London: Zero Books.

[6] Manuel Castells (2012) Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[7] Albert O. Hirschman (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[8] Pierre Rosanvallon (2008) Counter Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.176.

[9] One may find a video of this extract of the Parle here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jeXs3ZqoLg.

[10] Ivan Krastev (2013) In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?. New York: TED Conferences, p. 47.

[11] Hannah Arendt (1970) On Violence. New York: Harvest Books, p. 44.; (1998) The Human Condition. Second Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 200-203.