The question is how one defines 'age of protest' while living in it, when it is very difficult to discern its features within the social structure and political economy. Does the fact that Islamic countries started the 'Arab Spring' in 2011 entail an age of popular protest movements resulting in regime change? Will structural or systemic change take place in 'Arab Spring' countries, or have they merely changed leaders without impacting the institutional structure? And does this mean that mass protests will end, or will they continue until there is systemic change?
Do grass roots protest movements of disgruntled middle classes and workers in Spain and across much of Europe as well as in Canada, Chile, Russia, and even conservative Israel and US - "Occupy Wall Street" - entail that the masses have lost confidence in the social contract, in the political economy and established institutions that the political shapes? How do we know that all of these movements are not an ephemeral occurrence amid economic hard times and all will go back to the status quo ante in good time? Are we living in an era similar to the 1960s that gave us the civil rights, human rights, and women's rights movements, all gradually co-opted by the established institutions?
All signs are that the world economy is undergoing transition that impacts the social structure in a fundamental way, and therein are the causes of mass protests seeking change. We are at the beginning of a new age where capital concentration enabled by political systems claiming to represent all people have developed obvious contradictions that undermine the social contract. The capitalist world economy under a neo-liberal model with finance capital as its backbone, buttressed by the state as well as international organizations such as the IMF, OECD, World Bank, World Trade Organization, among others, is in its early stage of causing deep structural transition in the social structure; namely, downward social mobility amid social discontinuity. Social discontinuity rests behind the age of mass protests, structurally not very different from the first such age of protests in the 16th century Europe when the broad masses of the population recognized that the transition from the feudal-manorial system was causing disruptions in the social fabric at the expense of displaced peasant and workers.
German theologian Martin Luther did not know that he was living in the age of protest, any more than his followers including the more radical Thomas Munzer that led social uprisings and became a symbol of egalitarians and socialists. The Protestant Reformation, which started with Luther castigating the abuses of the Papacy and church hierarchy, was not just a religious movement against the corrupt Catholic Church, but a popular movement against the nobility inexorably linked to the upper clergy and royal government, as well as the emerging merchant class.
The Protestant Reformation marks the beginning of mass movements, with the German Peasant's War followed by other mass protests that questioned the Age of Absolutism. This was first evident in 17th century England - Civil War and Glorious Revolution - that appeared to be a religious struggle on the surface, but was in essence a political and social struggle amid social discontinuity. In the 16th century clerical authority figures like Luther who enjoyed the support among of the German elites afforded a sense of legitimacy to protest. In the 17th century, John Locke representing the intelligentsia and merchant class questioned the established institutions, thus affording legitimacy to protest against the old order. Locke's philosophy that provides philosophical grounds for dissent came after the English Civil War, but it influenced the Age of Reason in the 18th century. Intellectuals - religious or secular - provided the theoretical grounds for expressing opposition to an establishment that did not reflect the rapidly changing conditions in society, namely, social discontinuity.
The nature of protest movements, which had been middle class from Luther (Reformation) and Locke (Glorious Revolution) to Rousseau and Robespierre (French Revolution), took a turn toward the left during the revolutions of 1848 when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto. Reflecting working class interests, nineteenth century ideologies - varieties of socialism, anarchism and syndicalism - afforded a sense of legitimacy to mass protests on the part of workers, minority populations and women against a bourgeois establishment that placed narrow walls around the institutional mainstream. Whether in Czarist Russia, US, or Mexico, in the 19th century government representing set out to crush mass protest movements with brutal force, presenting them as treacherous to 'the national interest', which meant the interests of the small establishment; a concept no different than regimes used to combat Protestant reformers in the 16th century, English Liberals in the 17th century, French republicans (anti-royalists) in the 18th century.
Protests movements in early modern European history coincided with the transition from the agrarian economy to merchant capitalism that both the Protestant Reformation represented as well as Locke's Liberalism. In short, the middle class of northern Europe was at the core of these movements that never spread to predominantly Catholic Southern Europe. Similarly, the protest movements and popular revolutions of the 19th century were a reaction to the dreadful conditions that industrial capitalism was creating among workers from the mines of Russia to the factories of the US. Protest movements focused on the political economy creating such conditions, namely on the privileged class benefiting from the exploitation of subsistence labor values. The rapidly evolving market economy was creating social hardships, thus social disharmony largely because government was structured to represent the propertied classes and to keep the rest of society conforming to the existing system.
In the early 21st century, much of the world is experiencing a new protest era owing largely to rapid change in the political economy. There are differences between the current age of protest stemming from deep structural changes in socioeconomic structure and the popular protests of the 1960s. In the 1960s, protests aimed at curtailing wars of imperialism as Vietnam symbolized when there was upward mobility for the middle class in the Western World. At the same time, the 1960s protests were a middle class cultural reaction to the 1950s era of conformity stemming from the globalization of the Cold War used as a pretext to preserve the status quo even though the status quo included a society of racing, xenophobia, and gender inequality. Protest stemmed from social groups demanding a political voice into the institutional mainstream, not the overthrow of that institutional structure.
In the early 21st century, the entire institutional mainstream is questioned as not serving the vast majority of the people. There is the reality of downward socioeconomic mobility as the record of the past three decades indicates, a reality that has convinced many people to doubt the social contract best serves the majority. In the 1960s, there was hope of a better future for the young generation, whereas the young generation of the early 21st century does not have the same high hopes for a future better than that of their parents. On the contrary, the current generation realizes that society is democratic and seemingly egalitarian for an increasingly smaller percentage of the population that is at the top of the income pyramid, while the vast majority is squeezed down by finance capitalism that otherwise democratic regime endeavor to protect and preserve.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a recognition that American democracy works for an increasingly smaller percentage of the people, while the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder must make due with high unemployment and underemployment, a health care system and higher educational system that leave millions behind, jobs that barely pay subsistence wages, a social safety net that is gradually disappearing. Protesters come from all walks of life, from society's mainstream to protest the tyrannical institutions that operate in the name of the open society but in reality work as tools of oligarchical political and socioeconomic powers.The situation is not very different for protesters in England, Ireland, France, Spain, across Southern and Eastern Europe. If the triumph of the market economy over Communism entailed better times for all in the future, why has much of the Western World sunk into worst times two decades after the fall of Communism? Where is the promise land that capitalism was to deliver under seemingly 'democratic' government?
Not that things are much better in Asia, In 2011, much of Asia, including India and Japan, experienced mass protests. Naturally, war-ravaged Pakistan and Afghanistan are special cases, but India and Japan that are politically stable have felt the pressure from citizens who lack of confidence not just in their political leaders, but in the political economy working for a small percentage of the people. The lack of confidence by an increasingly larger percentage of people raises the question of legitimacy regarding the social contract as much in Asia and Eurasia, as it does in Europe and US.
From Nigeria and Uganda experiencing social unrest owing to various causes from tribal and political to fundamental economic hardships; from Russia where nationalist regimes governing on behalf of oligarchs replaced Communism to Romania where there have been mass protests and riots in Bucharest over a controversial government health plan and austerity policies, people recognize that the market economy under the neoliberal model is the beginning of mass socioeconomic disruptions at the expense of the many and for the benefit of the very few. The situation is not very different in Quebec province, Canada where hundreds of thousands have been protesting college tuition increases; or in Spain, Greece, and Italy where hundreds of thousands of people recognize that austerity measures benefit finance capital but destroy the average middle class and working class families, and all in the name of “saving” the global political economy that exists under the 'democratic' label.
Social discontinuity is inevitable because capitalism is a dynamic system based on the constant accumulation and concentration of capital in fewer private hands and fewer countries. In a previous essay, I argued that
the dialectic of social and cultural change is invariably linked to grassroots forces trying to find expression within the institutional mainstream. The success of the American political economy, and to a large degree the Western one as well is largely the result of the success of mainstream institutions to co-opt 'identity movements' and grass roots cultural trends/movements. As long as the institutional mainstream will have the ability to co-opt identity social movements and cultural trends, society will remain strong and dynamic; failure to successfully co-opt will result in the gradual waning of the entire system and it will be the nascent stage of social discontinuity.