The global lockdown has become the global revolt. From Brooklyn to Bristol, Buenos Aires to Barcelona and Berlin to Belfast, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked protests and a new transnational anti-racist movement. Mr Floyd’s violent death has animated citizens – especially the younger, so-called Generation Z – across the United States not because it was unusual, but because it was all too familiar. Mr Floyd’s desperate and poignant last words – “I can’t breathe” – have been heard around the world.
In last week’s leader, we noted the temptation for British politicians to contrast favourably the United Kingdom with the US. Following the Black Lives Matter protests in London that began on 3 June, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said: “I think, thankfully, this is all based in response to events in America rather than here, but we must also continue the drive here for tolerance and genuine equality of opportunity.”
Yet the British protests were not just a response to Mr Floyd’s death. They were a demonstration against entrenched socio-economic inequality and pervasive racism in the UK, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Should national governments prove unwilling to act against structural racism and discrimination, others will. The toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol is an attempt to force a greater reconsideration of the British imperial state’s colonial past (as black activists observe: “We are here because you were there”). Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, responded to the toppling of the statue by announcing that statues and other urban landmarks in the capital will be reviewed by a new Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm.
In Minneapolis, as our US editor Emily Tamkin writes on page 22, the city council has voted to dismantle the police department and replace it with a new system of public safety. Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, has announced plans to divert funding from the police to youth programmes and social services. The opinion editor of the New York Times has resigned after staff revolted against a comment piece he published, which had been written by a right-wing Republican senator. The protests are effecting immediate change.
In common with 1848, 1968, 1989 and 2011, 2020 is already being celebrated as a year of revolt. This may be hyperbolic. Nation states are not threatened by these revolts. Political systems will not be demolished. However, this new spirit of insurgency not only reflects the grievous social and economic toll of the pandemic, but also the forces that have driven upheaval since the 2008 financial crash: wage stagnation, unemployment, austerity, inter-generational inequality, social media and political polarisation.
This period of rebellion, however, has not been matched by progressive political advance. After all, Donald Trump succeeded Barack Obama in the White House, and national populism has been on the rise across the world.
In the UK, the Conservatives won their largest majority since 1987 at the last general election on a pledge “to get Brexit done”. And it should be noted that Brexit is, too, a rejection of the status quo – a form of English revolt by towns and coastal fringes against cities.
In the US, Joe Biden, the aged establishment candidate, defeated Bernie Sanders, the left-wing radical, in the Democratic presidential primary. Free-market globalisation, which self-destructed in 2008, has stabilised, sustained by ultra-loose monetary policy and, now, state subsidy.
But the need for a new social, political and economic settlement founded upon the common good, as we have long argued, endures. For too long, Western politicians have tolerated grotesque inequalities while promoting the myth of meritocracy. After witnessing the failures of its millennial predecessors, Generation Z is adopting a more militant and confrontational approach. The Covid-19 pandemic, which had a record number of new global infections on 7 June (136,000), threatens a decade of discontent. If demands for change are ignored, the only certainty is of greater turmoil.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt