American political history is usually told as the story of what political elites say and do. The twists and turns, advances and setbacks, wars, disasters and recoveries, are said to be the work of the founders, or of the presidents, or of the courts, or of the influence of a handful of great people who somehow emerge from the mass.
But this history can also be told as the story of the great protest movements that periodically well up from the bottom of American society and the impact these movements have on American institutions. There would be no founders to memorialize without the Revolutionary-era mobs who provided the foot soldiers to fight the British; no films about the quandaries of Abe Lincoln during the Civil War without the abolitionists and the thousands of runaway slaves; no Labor Day to celebrate without the sit-down strikers; no Martin Luther King to beatify without a movement of poor blacks who defied the Southern terror system.
When historians look back at the decades of the transition to the twenty-first century, I think they will see a distinctive era of tumult and protest, in the United States and across the globe. The perspective gained by the passage of time will show the broad similarities of these protests—both in their scale and in the societal upheavals they reflect and foretell—to the popular insurgencies of the nineteenth century that accompanied the spread of capitalist industrialization. In both periods, dramatic changes in the economy meant new hardships, broken compacts, and the uprooting of peoples from familiar places and accustomed ways of life. In the nineteenth century, some named the new system driving these developments “capitalism” or “industrialism.” Now we name the monster machine propelling diverse local disasters “neoliberal globalization.”
It is not easy to fix the exact moment that this era of popular protest against neoliberalism began. Maybe it was with the rise of the indigenous Zapatista movement in the early 1990s. Peasants from the Lacandon jungle armed themselves with wooden rifles (as well as real guns) and proclaimed neoliberal globalization as the target of their protests. Remarkably, they found an eager worldwide audience, and their uprising helped to give energy and élan to the emerging global justice movement. Soon after, in the wake of the imposition of austerity policies by the IMF and international finance, popular insurgencies spread across Latin America, toppling governments and challenging American domination of the hemisphere, with consequences that are still unfolding. Other uprisings spread across North Africa, from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria. Meanwhile, youthful insurgents mounted protests against austerity policies across Europe. In England, groups like UK Uncut targeted austerity policies, which were also the backdrop for the huge street riots in 2011; in Spain, there were the Indignados; in France, the riots by young people from the banlieues; in Greece, anarchist youths mounted continuous street protests against the austerity measures imposed by the Greek government and European financial overlords; and students in Canada, the UK, Chile and elsewhere mobilized campaigns against higher fees and mounting student debts. In Quebec, a large and tenacious student movement even won its main demands.