Act: Inspiration

How a Decade of Disillusion Gave Way to People Power

January 9, 2020

As I write, immense protests are taking place in India against the new anti-Muslim law and Hong Kong activists, who have been protesting for their own rights for months, stand in solidarity with the Uighur people being persecuted on the other side of China. The decade will end in protest. But who can look back a decade when a week in Trump time is like a century, and hardly anyone can remember the overstuffed chaos of the month before, let alone 2017, to say nothing of the remote era before he was president?

Seriously, people keep forgetting what came before, which is why they fail to recognise patterns, consequences and the real power of movements. For instance, the wave of feminism called #MeToo is often treated as a sudden eruption out of nowhere when in fact it came out of a very specific somewhere: a ferocious upsurge of global feminism over the past decade that had been spawning news, protests, hashtags and action about feminism before #MeToo in 2017. That upsurge was itself the culmination of feminist analysis and action for decades before. All that happened in October of 2017 was that movie stars got involved.

But my real fear is that the 2010s will, like the 1980s, be misremembered through oversimplification. People dismissively say the 1980s were “Reagan”, as though several billion people on several continents were one reactionary old white man in America. Ronald Reagan was horrible, and his regime launched the reversal of decades of progress towards economic equality and security in the United States. But beyond and all around, the 1980s saw remarkable activism with immediate consequences – the overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines through people power in 1986, the overthrow of the South Korean military dictatorship in 1987, the toppling of the whole eastern bloc of Soviet states in 1989, the beginning of the end of the apartheid era in South Africa (and powerful but unsuccessful uprisings in Burma and China).

But a lot of groundwork was also laid for what was to come, with feminism, Aids activism and queer rights organising, and the beginning of a profound shift toward recognising racial and social issues in the environmental movement. Even deeper than that was the evolution of new, inclusive, less hierarchical, nonviolent organising strategies that rejected some of the failed tactics and principles of past activism and have been important ingredients in movements ever since.

So one could dismiss this decade as the rise of Donald J Trump and authoritarians around the world (and yes, there have been plenty of them, from the Philippines to Hungary). But there have also been plenty of moves in the opposite direction. If protests had a slow start in the teens, they woke up fast with the Arab spring in January of 2011, one of the most powerful waves of anti-authoritarianism the world has ever seen. Regimes toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with protests spreading from Sudan to Iraq. Of course the Syrian version turned into the long nightmare of civil war, and many of the nations involved in the Arab spring did not end up better in any simple way. But the protests made clear that even dictators backed by armies are not invulnerable, that ordinary people together sometimes have extraordinary power, that the longing for democracy is powerful in the Islamic world and that history is sometimes written by the vanquished when they cease to be vanquished.

In October of the same year came Occupy Wall Street. The feminist upheaval has been global, with significant eruptions in Chile, Mexico, South Korea, Japan, Pakistan, Kenya and beyond in this decade. And Occupy was influenced by the Arab spring and anti-capitalist movements in Greece and elsewhere. And eventually outposts of Occupy were established in cities from Kyoto to Auckland to small towns in Alaska.

The climate movement grew in power, reach and sophistication, often led by indigenous people, from the Arctic to Ecuador to the South Pacific and beyond. It became a powerful force that needs to grow yet more so in the next year and needs to win in the next decade.

But what has been more important than any single movement in this decade is disillusionment – and I mean that in the positive sense: of letting go of illusions. Black Lives Matter, founded in 2013, and other anti-racist movements around the world shattered the sense that racism was over and linear progress was trustworthy and inevitable. Feminism went deeper into the nature of oppression and rose higher in its demands for equality. Same-sex marriage came into law in Argentina, Mexico, Iceland and Portugal in 2010, followed by many other countries including Britain and the US later in the decade. And the question of what equality meant for LGBTQ people also went deeper. So did questions about how gender is constructed and deconstructed as trans rights grew in visibility.

What lay underneath all this disillusionment was a readiness to question foundations that had been portrayed as fixed, inevitable, unquestionable – whether that foundation was gender norms, heterosexuality, patriarchy, white supremacy, the age of fossil fuels or capitalism. To see beyond what we had seen before, or to change the “we” whose perceptions define the real, the important and the possible. With this came a capacity to understand more complex, subtle and hidden forms of oppression, and to think – encapsulated in that beautifully valuable word, contributed in 1989 by law scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw intersectionally – about how multiple identities overlap (and thus do multiple forms of oppression or privilege).

The decade began in the wake of global economic collapse, and Occupy Wall Street was one of the reactions to the sheer greed, destructiveness and shortsightedness of the financial system. That the current economic arrangements don’t work for ordinary people has also prompted protests that don’t fit into a left framework. These included the gilets jaunes protests in France, the people who voted for Trump in the belief that he was an economic populist and the British voters who said yes to Brexit because they felt the system didn’t work for them. A surprising late-in-the-decade form of resistance has arisen among the employees at Facebook, Amazon and Google, protesting aspects of their corporations’ amorality. Employees at all three walked out as part of the September climate strike.

The climate movement is inevitably an anti-capitalist movement. That capitalism is the best or only way to do things was, in the triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, affirmed again and again. That mood fell apart in the wake of episode after episode of corruption, destruction and failure – and the rise of a young generation ready to rethink the alternatives and, often, embrace versions of socialism. The nonviolent strategist George Lakey argues that polarisation brings clarity and a volatility that makes positive change more possible. We have the polarisation and the disillusionment, and with perspective about how we got here and when we won, we can claim the possibilities in the decade to come.

Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is a freelance writer. She is the author of Men Explain Things to Me, along with many other books.

Tags: building resilient societies, social change, social movements