“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 and sitting in a car surrounded by a crowd of political protesters. However, credit to them for doing their best to soothe the Lebanese lad whose mother made the mistake of driving into their demonstration last weekend.
As revolutionary anthems go, Baby Shark is unusual. The bloodthirsty Marseillaise it ain’t, nor the once stirring, now threadbare Internationale. When the late-1960s hipster radicals 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 apt 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 semi-autonomous region’s common law legal system to the Communist Party, which rules the mainland with scant regard for individual rights.
In Barcelona, by contrast, protesters took to the streets after harsh sentences were handed down to the separatist leaders responsible for 2017’s illegal referendum on Catalan independence. Beirut’s protests are said to have been triggered by a plan to tax WhatsApp. In Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, it was austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund. In Santiago, Chile, it’s all about bus and metro fares. In Cairo, it was 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. Thousands (you need at least quadruple digits) of mostly young people take to the streets of a big city, usually but not necessarily the capital. They carry placards with pithy slogans. They chant or sing. If they (or the authorities) are belligerent, they end up clashing with police, lobbing bricks and erecting barricades. Very occasionally, they succeed in overthrowing the government. More often than not, the protests are crushed or peter out. Isn’t that the pattern throughout recorded history?
Well, not quite.
For one thing, the protests of 2019 are the first to be organised via smartphone, which is fast becoming a truly universal gadget. Smartphones enable today’s protests to function with minimal leadership. Yes, there are individuals whom the media elevate in importance to give the crowd a face and a voice. But the reality is these movements are acephalous — leaderless — networks. They are collectively improvised, rather than conducted. They are jazz, not classical.
In Hong Kong this summer, for example, the protesters used a Reddit-like forum, LIHKG, where ideas could be “upvoted”. They crowdsourced supplies of umbrellas and rides to and from Central, the focal point of the protests. The organising principle of this adaptive mode of operation was martial arts icon Bruce Lee’s phrase “Be water”.
Second, acephalous networks are inherently hard to defeat, as Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has discovered to her cost. When the messaging service Telegram suffered a cyber-attack by Beijing, protesters switched to Apple’s AirDrop feature and sent messages over Bluetooth. They even used Tinder and Pokémon Go.
At the same time, the internet has made it easier than it has ever been for protest tactics to be disseminated. 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 favourite articles about the 1848 revolutions was “The Problem of an Excess of Educated Men in Western Europe, 1800-1850” by Lenore O’Boyle. O’Boyle’s argument was that European cities had been swept by revolution in 1848 because “too many men were educated for a small number of important and prestigious jobs, so that some men had to be content either with underemployment or with positions they considered below their capacities”.
Something similar happened in the 1960s, as the late lamented historian Norman Stone described in his magnificently mordant book The Atlantic and Its Enemies. “In all countries, new universities . . . were crammed with students; taught by men and women appointed all of a sudden in great numbers, without regard for quality. The expansion with relatively new subjects, such as economics, sociology and psychology, meant that there were young men and women aplenty who imagined that they had the answer to everything. It was a terrible cocktail.”
Guess what? We’ve done it again, but now on an unprecedented scale. In every country where large-scale 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 enrolment 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% to 90%. In Ecuador, it’s up from 25% to 46%. Egypt: 15% to 34%. France: 34% to 64%. Hong Kong: 13% to 72%. Lebanon: 32% to 38% (the smallest increase). Top of the class is Turkey: 12% to 104% ( it must have a lot of mature students).
These, then, are the baby sharks: the excess of educated young people 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 you now know what to sing when the baby sharks surround you.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford