From protests to where in 2012?

2011’s person of the year, according to Time magazine, is “the protester”. Clearly, this is the image that has captured the world—from dissent against the lack of democracy and repression in large parts of West Asia to anger against economic policies in vast and disparate parts of the world. People, all over, are saying enough is enough. But what will happen to these voices in the coming years? Will the movements of protesters be enough to change the way the world runs its business? Do these movements even know what they want?

It is important to understand that there are similarities and yet huge differences in protest movements against economic policies in the rich and the getting-rich world. The US-born Occupy Wall Street movement’s slogan is “we are the 99 per cent who will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 per cent”. The movement, which began in New York and then spread across many states, has been squelched in many places by aggressive city governments. But protesters say they will be back. They will overcome.

It is difficult to gauge how this will pan out in the coming year. The movement prides itself in being leaderless and people-powered. It has no manifesto and no actionable agenda on how Wall Street must be reformed or how the global economy must be restructured so that it can meet the needs of all. In this way, it is easy to dismiss this movement as just one more protest that will go nowhere. It is not the Arab Spring, but the American Winter that will prevail.

But there is another possibility. The fact is that this movement—as with many similar movements in the rich-but-economically-troubled world—has struck a chord. Today, the same rich world, which was secure in its consumption and comfort, is finding the going tough. Things it took for granted are no longer easily available—from homes and medical facilities to education and jobs. Ordinary people are being hit by what governments call necessary austerity measures. They are hitting back in every way they can.

In Atlanta, the occupy-our-home movement wants to take over houses of people who will be thrown out by banks because of default in mortgage payments. It says the current assessment of property values is too high and banks have too much power to throw out people, even if they default on one payment. In Washington, the occupy-the-vote-DC movement is demanding electoral representation for the federal city. The list goes on.

These movements represent many uncomfortable and inconvenient issues that are refusing to go away. The rumbling that began in mid-2008 with the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers has become a roar as more banks and national economies collapse. This is in spite of governments doing all they can to portray that they have arrested the financial collapse. The problem is that the world’s economic managers do not believe there is any real option to restructure economies so that they consume less, pollute less and still grow in wellbeing if not in wealth. The problem is that we are wedded to this one ideology of growth. It is for this reason that in spite of all the perturbations and upheavals, the same people who have put us in this place continue to be in charge of fixing the problems of growth. It is no wonder that the protest movements are also on the rise. And even if they do not have the answers to the problems, they know that the current policies are not working. Their anguish reminds us that real change must happen, tomorrow or the day after.

The movements of protests in the emerging world are of many kinds and by many kinds of people. On the one hand, we have protests happening on the streets of urban India against corruption. This has certainly captured popular imagination and media attention. But there are many more protests—mutinies against displacement and pollution across the country—we rarely hear about and forget too soon.

These movements of small groups of people fighting for survival are real and intensifying. In a democracy there will be some hearing. Many of these protests—against land acquisition, water takeover, mining, dams, power projects or pollution—are getting some measure of official response. This is not to say that every protest will be successful. Far from it. But it is also a fact that these movements represent voices that are asking for different ways of development. These movements stand for rights to land, water, forest and mineral resources. And, as I have written before, these movements are collectively teaching us that we will have to build different pathways for economic growth that is inclusive and sustainable.

Therefore, even if these protest movements do not have a ready blueprint for future economic model, they have enough practice of prompting us to think of different ways. Most importantly, these movements are a response to real survival threats. They are here to stay until we find big answers to the big questions they raise.

This is then the challenge of 2012 and beyond. The world is on the boil and the steam of anger will not dissipate. The question is whether these protests can be channeled to etch new, better pathways of growth.