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19 August 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:15pm

From Belarus to Lebanon, the US to Thailand, righteous moral outrage is sweeping the globe

Anger, it can seem, is everywhere. It spreads faster than ever. It is viral, but unlike coronavirus cannot be socially distanced into abeyance. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

Amid demonstrations over Belarus’s fraudulent election, President Alexander Lukashenko tried to bolster his position with a public appearance on 17 August. It did not go well. Travelling by helicopter to avoid protesters on the roads, the president visited what he considered an outpost in his political heartland: a state-owned tractor factory on the outskirts of Minsk. Even there he could not hide from the rage, as workers chanted “resign” until Lukashenko left the stage. Unthinkable until recent days, the scenes illustrated the scale of the public anger in Belarus over the electoral fraud and curtailment of rights.

We are living in an “age of anger”, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra observes in a book of the same name. Consider the course of the long 2010s: starting with the financial crisis in 2008 and the political revolts it sparked; the Arab Spring uprisings and their descent into autocratic backlashes and even bloodbaths; the rise of nativists and their tribunes, the Erdogans, Modis and Trumps; the terror attacks, the state collapses, the refugee crises, the violence from Ukraine to Yemen, from Myanmar to Brazil, from ­social media newsfeeds to city squares.

Since Mishra’s book was published in 2017 the anger continues to spool forth. Last year saw an upsurge in street protests in Chile, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Algeria and Hong Kong, as well as the global Fridays for Future marches. These have continued this year – amid a pandemic that has exposed inequities and strained societies – in Bolivia, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Israel, in the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong, Iraq and Russia and in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Daily protests fill the debris-strewn public spaces of Beirut over the fatal blast on 4 August and the misrule behind it. Belarus’s protests are the largest in its history. Thailand, too, is experiencing record demonstrations as a younger generation vents its rage at military and royal overreach.

Anger, it can seem, is everywhere. It spreads faster than ever, rippling across social media networks whose algorithms, which constantly push users towards rage-clicks, speed it on its way. It is viral, then, but unlike coronavirus cannot be socially distanced into abeyance. Its roots are deep. Mishra argues that they reach back to unresolved tensions within the Enlightenment, caused by that project’s insensitivity to what Sigmund Freud dubbed “primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind”. Humans are subjective, emotional and tribal. They are individuals, yes, but also crowds; the mass protagonists of an age symbolised by fists in the air, police sirens and tear gas drifting across city squares.

In their recently published dialogue “Angrynomics” the economists Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth helpfully refine the picture. They differentiate between two forms of anger. On the one hand is primal, tribal rage, which can range from benign forms (sports fans yelling at a referee) to malign ones (social media pile-ons) and ones yet darker still: wraths stimulating desires to dominate, marginalise, and obliterate. This is anger serving what psychologists call the “minimal group paradigm”, humans’ psychosocial predisposition to form groups based on any distinctions available. On the other hand is moral outrage, the Aristo-telian anger at injustice that inspires movements for freedom and justice. This form of anger is in league, not in tension, with the unfinished (indeed, rather dilapidated) project of Enlightenment modernity.

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Separating out the two can be tricky. Universalist moral outrage can spawn tribal anger, which in turn can create objects of moral outrage. Nor do crowds have to be tribal and exclusive: as the MP David Lammy notes in his book Tribes, “inclusive group identities” are the fount of belonging and collective organisation. Both forms of anger have intertwined throughout the 2010s, including within individual causes and movements, and continue to do so today.

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It is notable that the anger expressed in the protests of 2019 and 2020 has largely been moral outrage: anger at leaders and other elites over economic injustice, racism, environmental degradation, ­authoritarianism or incompetence, or in many places (Hong Kong, Lebanon, Iran, Belarus, Thailand and the US among them) combinations of the above. These movements have often been leaderless, emerging organically from the citizenry rather than being summoned by figureheads. That makes them harder for authorities to decapitate; the Hong Kong protesters, for example, aim to “be water” – fluid, flexible and ungraspable. Such movements spread their messages on social media and organise through encrypted messaging apps, especially Telegram and WhatsApp. Often they encompass groups previously written off as apathetic: white middle-class Americans joining BLM protests; supposedly materialist, apolitical Gen Z-ers marching for the environment; peoples long cowed by numbing autocracy – Belarusians, Iranians, Thais and others – raising their voices.

We live, then, less in an age of anger than an age of angers; some base and brutish, others defensive and simmering, many a mixture of traits, and some – the factory workers chanting at Lukashenko in an act that would have had them arrested and even tortured days before – overwhelmingly in pursuit of noble ideals. And this is just the beginning.

The coming months alone, including the US election campaign, still-rising coronavirus death tolls and a global economic crisis, will stimulate anger in all of its forms. So expect more tribalism, demagoguery and petty hatreds. But also expect more righteous moral anger, expressed by brave citizens marching on the streets of the world’s cities and towns in a continuation of the wave that began in 2019. The long 2010s? We may already be well into the long 2020s.