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Baby sharks take to the streets

Niall Ferguson
 

Baby Shark, do do, do-do, do-do, Baby Shark, do do, do-do, do-do. . . . ”

I am not sure how reassuring I would find that song if I were 15 months old, in a car surrounded by a crowd of political protesters. However, credit to them for doing their best to soothe the little Lebanese lad, whose mother had made the mistake of driving into their demonstration last week.

As revolutionary anthems go, “Baby Shark” is unusual. The bloodthirsty “Marseillaise” it ain’t, nor the once-stirring, now threadbare “Internationale.” When the hippie radicals of 1968 took to the streets, their soundtrack was classic rock ’n’ roll: the Beatles’ “Revolution” or the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” And yet “Baby Shark”— vacuous, repetitive, inane, infantile — is in many ways an appropriate anthem for our times.

The great revolutionary waves of the past had common objectives. liberty, equality, and fraternity in 1789; the nationalist springtime of the peoples in 1848 (and 1989); peace, land, and bread in 1917; make love not war in 1968. You will look in vain for such a uniting theme in the multiple protests that have occurred around the world this year.

In Hong Kong, the trigger was an extradition bill that threatened to subordinate the semiautonomous province’s common-law legal system to the mainland Communist Party.

In Barcelona, by contrast, protesters took to the streets after harsh sentences were handed down to the separatist leaders responsible for last year’s illegal referendum on Catalan independence. Beirut’s protests are said to have been triggered by a plan to tax WhatsApp. In Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, they are up in arms against austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund. In Santiago, it’s all about bus and metro fares. In Cairo, it’s corruption.

Meanwhile, central London suffers intermittent traffic chaos because of a millenarian sect calling itself Extinction Rebellion, which believes that the end of the world is nigh, as well as opponents of Brexit who still haven’t got over their defeat in the 2016 referendum.

There have been some valiant attempts to find a unifying thread to all this. According to the BBC, everyone is protesting against inequality and climate change, as well as corruption and repression. The American economist Tyler Cowen dismissed the importance of inequality (it’s been falling in Chile), pointing instead to the role of higher consumer prices. Bloomberg’s John Authers took a similar line.

Yet none of this convinces. “We are not here over the WhatsApp,” a Lebanese protester told the BBC, “we are here over everything.” That seems about right. What the protests of 2019 have in common is their form, not their content.

Superficially, mass protest is one of history’s hardy perennials. . . . Well, not quite.

For one thing, the protests of 2019 are organized through smartphones, which is fast becoming a truly universal gadget (Social media played a part in the 2010-12 Arab revolutions, but it was much smaller.) Smartphones enable today’s protests to function with minimal leadership. Yes, there are individuals whom the media elevate in their importance to give the crowd a face and a voice. But the reality is that these movements are acephalous — leaderless — networks. They are collectively improvised, rather than conducted. They are jazz, not classical.

In Hong Kong last summer, for example, the protesters used a Reddit-like forum called LIHKG, where ideas could be “upvoted.” They crowdsourced supplies of umbrellas and rides to and from Central, the focal point of the protests. The organizing principle of this adaptive mode of operation was martial arts legend Bruce Lee’s phrase “Be Water.”

Secondly, acephalous networks are inherently hard to defeat, as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has discovered to her cost. At the same time, the Internet has made it easier than it has ever been for protest tactics to be disseminated. Now every wannabe revolutionary understands that disrupting the airport is like taking the urban economy hostage.

In one key respect, however, the form of today’s protests is familiar.

When I taught history at Oxford 20 years ago, one of my favorite articles about the 1848 Revolutions was by Lenore O’Boyle, “The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men in Western Europe, 1800-1850.” Something similar happened in the 1960s, as the late lamented Norman Stone described in his magnificently mordant book, “The Atlantic and Its Enemies.”

Guess what? We’ve done it again, but now on an unprecedented scale. In every country where major protests have been reported in the past year, higher education is at an all-time high.

Compare the World Bank’s 2016 figures for gross enrollment in tertiary education (as a percentage of the total population of the relevant five-year age group) with those for the late 1980s. In Chile, the share has risen from 18 percent to 90 percent. In Ecuador, it’s up from 25 percent to 46 percent. Egypt: 15 percent to 34 percent. France: 34 percent to 64 percent. Hong Kong: 13 percent to 72 percent. Lebanon: 32 percent to 38 percent (the smallest increase). Top of the class is Turkey: 12 percent to 104 percent (they must have a lot of mature students).

These, then, are the baby sharks: The excess of educated young people who are currently taking to the streets in cities around the world. It does not help that so many professors fill their students’ heads with incoherent notions of “social justice.” But I suspect the real issue is the mismatch between the unparalleled glut of graduates and the demand for them.

At some point it will sink in that creating economic mayhem is the opposite of creating jobs. Until then, expect more traffic chaos. At least now you know what to sing when the baby sharks surround you.

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