The Rise of Political Marginals
If the State is a social contract between individuals to ensure proper life conditions, when it can’t hold up its end of the bargain, it faces public dissatisfaction that borders unrest.
The Kazakhstan‘s protests in early 2022] has been example of this.
The demonstrations, which began in the western part of Kazakhstan, began Jan. 2. over a sharp rise in fuel prices and spread throughout the country, apparently reflecting wider discontent with the authoritarian government.
When inflation rises, when democratic representation seems like a sham, when political leaders can’t tackle the most pressing problems, when there’s mismanagement of taxation money…
It’s the social contract that becomes eroded and we see a rise of the political marginals.
This story is about individuals living in the economy’s periphery and joining the ranks of political marginals. It’s how the cost of living pushes them to the brink of survival. How they see themselves alienated from that social contract.
It’s a story about fuel prices and its impact on the people that are deeply affected by its fluctuations. About their struggles, demands and protests. About how their survival is also in complete contradiction with climate change policies.
It is just one of the many paths that lead citizens to the margins of the political sphere. To joining the ranks of tribes that do not recognise the legitimacy of the State.
Gilets Jaunes — The Modern Tribes
Let’s first have a look at an example of such a tribe, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France.
The movement was initially motivated by rising crude oil and fuel prices, a high cost of living, and economic inequality; it claims that a disproportionate burden of taxation in France was falling on the working and middle classes, especially in rural and peri-urban areas.
What started as a movement to protest a hard economic situation in 2018, soon became a rallying cry, a tribe of disfranchised that demanded state reforms.
France has a long tradition of social movements that grew from the economic periphery. Think of the Sans Culottes who eventually toppled the monarchy. Similar to the Gilets Jaunes, they felt alienated by a society that was shaped for the « haves » and barely left enough for the « have nots ».
Jumping forward to 2018, it’s not a dissimilar process that galvanised the Gilets Jaunes. The introduction of a new fuel tax to curb climate change sparked that movement. For struggling people around the world, climate change is a « bourgeois » concern, that doesn’t put food on the table. When your car is a necessity and public transport is not a viable or even an available alternative, fuel price increases is a direct threat to your ability to make a decent living.
Covid’s lockdown eventually broke this movement’s momentum. And even though the French government has conceded to some demands, the Gilet Jaune tribe is still mobilised, meshed into other tribes and ready to take to the street again.
And it’s not only the Gilets Jaunes. Around the world the economic aftershock of Covid has pushed people barely making a living further to the periphery. Juxtapose that with a continuing trend of increased economical inequality, more tribes of disenfranchised are forming.
Inflation and Energy Costs
Covid-related sanitary measures disrupted the manufacturing and transport of merchandises. Even though demand might have increased with available savings from middle-class populations, the capacity to produce and transport merchandise decreased. This led to a bottleneck in the supply chain.
The basic economic laws of demand and offer led to inflation of prices, but not necessarily of wages. Everyone is impacted by a lower value of their currency, but people on the fringe even more so.
And that is especially true for people who depend on fuel for their work. Of all commodities that increased in price, fuel has seen the steepest inflation.
Inflation of fuel prices might be explained by various factors: artificial scarcity, climate change taxation, higher demand, etc. Whatever the reason, in an economy where inflation is already fragilising those in a precarious situation, it’s even more damaging to those who depend on fuel to make a living.
That situation has created enough pressure to trigger flares of protests around the world.
Fuel Protest Analytics
With all that context in mind, let’s explore the actual fuel protest events that we’ve observed through the discursus data platform.
We’ve published a Jupyter notebook where you can interact with the dataset we’ve worked with for this story. We also included a timeline, a geographical map and of course a wordcloud.
Fuel price protesters have diverse backgrounds, but one group stood out. Around the world, truck drivers have manifested their exasperation. Hauler drivers in Ireland have been blocking traffic… We’ve also seen truckers in Brazil block transportation of merchandises…
But more commonly, fuel protests have been observed in countries where inflation, social inequality or any other kind of perceived social injustice had already been raging. In Iran, rare protests erupted after an increase in fuel prices. Same in Turkey, protests have flared across the country, where inflation is rampant on all spending categories.
Rigidity and Fragility of Institutions
The rise of political marginals is a multi-faceted phenomenon. The trigger might be a sudden rise of fuel prices, mandatory vaccines, or just the perception that elections were stolen.
Whatever the reason, it puts at risk the legitimacy of governments.
In this story, the main institution that is being deligitimised is the country’s currency. When inflation rates are higher than wage increases, you end up being de facto poorer. And inflation of fuel prices is a really sensible component of a citizen’s overall wealth, as it not only impacts the cost of fuel purchase at the pump, but also increases the price of all goods that relies on transportation.
A currency that cannot hold its value over time is bound to being delegitimised. And as it could be argued that a nation’s currency is the most important power-holding institution for a State, losing adherence is jeopardising the legitimacy of the State itself.
It’s not a far-fetched leap to think as cryptocurrencies’s adoption as a symptom of all this. why « invest » in a currency that cannot hold its value through time, when the promise of some cryptocurrencies is to algorithmically hold/increase its value through a progressive release of new coins that prevents inflation.
This is not an apology for cryptocurrencies, just an observation that whenever an institution becomes so rigid and fragile, citizens will seek refuge in marginal tribes and form alternative institutions that are not only a new beginning but hold the promise of better representing their interests and aspirations.
To say it in other words, when the State can’t hold its end of the social contract, citizens will naturally form other communities with their own institutions.. and with it a new social contract.