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II Global political conflicts after the pandemic

Pandemics, globalization, and contentious politics

Agnieszka Paczynska and Terrence Lyons

The immediate effects of the pandemic on globalization are ambiguous; the crisis stimulates reversals of globalization while also demonstrating its inescapability. What, then, of the wave of protests around the globe that made 2019 one of the most active protest years in recent memory? The current crisis may lead to a shift in tactics and at least a temporary advantage for authoritarian regimes. Nevertheless, comparative examples suggest that contentious politics and social movements will adjust to the new context and develop new tactics to pursue their demands for social justice.

Processes of globalization that once seemed relentless faced daunting challenges in the 2010s. Trade wars and neo-mercantilist policies, xenophobic reactions to migration, and increased nationalism in the United States and parts of Europe threatened to slow if not reverse decades of increasing intercomiectedness and interdependence. The global spread of the coronavirus in 2020, however, reflected both the continued salience of globalization and its greatest challenge. On the one hand, international travel facilitated the virus' swift spread and the search for a vaccine became a matter of global interdependent research and competition. But. on the other hand, the pandemic led to the shuttering of international borders, the near collapse of cultural and educational exchanges, an economic recession that reduced global trade, and attacks on key institutions at the center of global health policies such as the World Health Organization.

This chapter will focus on how globalization as manifested in the CO VID-19 pandemic shaped patterns of contentious politics around the world. The concept of contentious politics, initially coined by Charles Tilly and his colleagues, has developed into an interdisciplinary subfield that has expanded beyond its initial concerns with social movements to consider a wider set of conflictual phenomena, from street protests and patterns of state repression to civil wars and revolutions.1 The contentious politics approach emphasizes relational mechanisms, thereby allowing scholars to study movements and institutional politics interactively. Key processes are the competing and often transgressive forms of claim-making where one party making claims is the government. These processes are inherently about power but often unfold outside of formal political institutions.

This orientation provides a framework for research that highlights the transitions and relationships between different forms of contention and encourages the investigation of how one form of contention, say a civil war, emerges from an earlier form of contention, such as a nonviolent social movement. The approach separates the nature of the claim and the social mobilization from the "repertoire of contention,” that is, the tactics deployed. It assumes that social change and power shifts often emerge endogenously from struggles among parties without assuming that dialogue or problem-solving are the only means to advance justice. These struggles between states and social groups are now taking new urgency and adopting new repertoires as the COVID-19 pandemic lays bare and further deepens structural inequalities that fueled the Fall 2019 global wave of protests.

Globalization and both violent and nonviolent forms of contentious politics are interlinked. Civil wars, for example, have become increasingly transnational as global trade and investment as well as the circulation of people and ideas intensified, providing new ways to finance armed conflict and to engage with global actors to support an often distant cause.2 Social movements and nonviolent forms of contentious politics likewise have been shaped by globalization and accompanying shifts in technology as activists could more easily connect with global advocacy organizations as well as each other and share strategies, tactics, and resources. For instance, members of Otpor (Resistance), the Serb nonviolent movement that helped topple the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, trained activists from the Middle East in the run-up to the Arab uprisings in 2010? It is notable that waves of contentious politics are often geographically centered, as with the 1989 protests in East and Central Europe and the Arab Uprisings of 2010-2011, but not in the case in street protests of 2019.4 New technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, have also facilitated the diffusion of nonviolent strategies and strengthened transnational networks among activists. At the same time, repressive states have capitalized on technology to more effectively monitor and suppress opposition.

Contentious politics during a time of pandemic

In 2019, the world saw an extraordinary wave of street protests that included massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, Sudan, Lebanon. Algeria, France, Chile, and Iran, among many others. Some dubbed 2019 the “year of street protests.” Contentious politics contributed to the change of

Pandemics and globalization 37 political leadership in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Bolivia and important political concessions in Chile, Hong Kong, and other cases. Most demonstrations began and remained nonviolent, but harsh repression in Iraq and Iran led to the killing of hundreds of protestors. While the sources of grievance and the goals of those engaging in different episodes of protest varied and reflected local contexts, many if not most were sparked by economic hardships, the removal of subsidies for basic goods, and frustrations with deepening social inequalities and pervasive corruption. A significant number had feminist agendas at their core, as the #MeToo movement diffused and went global. Issues of social justice and a general rage against what many young people saw as dysfunctional traditional political classes animated many of these actions. Protests tended to focus on institutions that sustained inequalities and drew on shared symbolic imagery, such as the global adoption of the creepy grin of the Joker mask inspired by the 2019 film or the Chilean feminist protest chant “the rapist is you” which quickly spread to other countries.5

Protests were often led by young people mobilized through social networks rather than formal organizations. Many followed patterns seen in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Maidan Square in Kiev, and Gezi Park in Istanbul and occupied key symbolic places. To show commitment, many remained mobilized for months, as in Hong Kong, France, and Algeria. The ability to return large numbers of supporters onto the streets and into public spaces week in and week out represented a key signal of levels of support, unity, commitment, and power to shape policy outcomes. These movements typically demonstrated considerable social media sophistication. Iconic images of Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman singing in her thoub from the roof of a car during a sit-in around army headquarters, or protestors in Hong Kong with umbrellas blocking tear gas, or graffiti in Beirut and Santiago underlined the importance of the visual. “Viral” images shaped contentious politics before the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing tensions and created new ones, thereby heightening the grievances around which protestors already had mobilized. State leaders, often seen as corrupt and ineffectual, demonstrated their inability or unwillingness to respond to the threat. Communities previously marginalized were impoverished further as economies stalled. Lebanon and Sudan in particular neared economic collapse. At the same time, however, CO VID-19 at first stifled this wave of demands for change, as governments used the opportunities afforded by the pandemic to impose new controls over their populations, to postpone elections, shrink political space, and ban mass meetings. Millions of activists across the globe left the streets and hunkered down at home following lockdown and shelter-at-home orders. National elections in Ethiopia and Bolivia and a referendum to change Chile's constitution, among many other polls, were postponed. China used the pandemic as the opportunity to crack down on protest in Hong Kong. An Indian activist reflecting on new restrictions on opposition gatherings stated "this government is lucky.’’6

This, of course, is not the first time that the world has grappled with pandemics. Over the past centuries, pandemics have regularly swept across continents. While these epidemics and pandemics have delivered death and devastation, they also sometimes ushered in social and political change. Historians see the Plague of Cyprian as hastening the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death contributed to the downfall of feudalism in Europe and the devastation wrought by the Spanish flu ushered in changes in the way many states constructed their public health systems later in the century.7 At the same time, pandemics historically exposed and amplified structural inequalities in societies, thereby fueling grievances. Protests and revolts ignited by the Black Death included the 1381 peasant revolt in England and the Spanish flu strengthened the anti-colonial movement in India. The yellow fever in Philadelphia led to the publication of a pamphlet by two African American pastors, who pushed against racist narratives circulating in the city during the epidemic and called for abolition of slavery. We see a similar pattern emerge during the contemporary COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

Contentious politics as a rule evolves with new techniques of mass mobilization being challenged by new forms of repression, leading to innovations by those demanding change. As has long been seen in the case of comparative studies of contentious politics, innovative social movements generate changes in government responses, which in turn result in new forms of creative political engagement. The pandemic of 2020 illustrates these larger recursive processes in particularly dramatic forms.

Innovation and contentious politics

The restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the opportunities for social movements to pursue their goals through the mass street protests and occupations that characterized 2019.® While this particular genre initially lost momentum, the underlying connections and commitments to social justice remained undiminished. In many places, including Tunisia, Algeria, and Lebanon, social movement networks transformed from organizing protests to providing support for marginalized communities impoverished and devastated by both the virus and the collapse of the economy. In Hong Kong, activists turned workshops that had been used to make props for streets demonstrations into facilities to make and distribute hand sanitizer, providing a new focus to keep networks active and to underline

Pandemics and globalization 39

the government's fecklessness. In Brazil, Coletivo Rapo Reto shifted from reporting on police abuses in Rio de Janeiro to monitoring fake news about the virus.

Social networks, particularly those based on social media, have repurposed themselves into mutual aid initiatives, matching volunteers with actions to respond to the virus and those it infects. In Algeria and Lebanon, the protest movements increasingly focused on providing food and medical supplies to neighborhoods most devastated by the pandemic.9 The capacities and commitments of groups demanding political change remained while the specific targets of government failure shifted.

In other cases, however, protests movements responded with new and innovative contentious actions that reduced the dangers from large and concentrated crowds but retained the focus and the ability to signal the movement's size, commitment, and political power. In a number of places, protestors used social media to remain active in the public sphere. In northern Europe, climate strike activists shifted to online meetings and public advocacy that targeted specific government instftutions. In Poland, protestors organized car parades and covered windows and balconies with the slogan Przelozmy Wybory (postpone the election), which then were edited and distributed on social media as a way to signal the continued determination of the opposition movement.10 In others, particularly in Spain and South America, street protests shifted to balconies and the banging of pots and pans - known as cacerolazo - replaced speeches and chants. Coordinadora 8M, a Chilean feminist advocacy group, projected images of crowds onto walls and activists organized weekly cacerolazo demanding the release of protestors from prison.11 In yet other cases, notably Lebanon, parades on foot were replaced by car rallies, where streets could be occupied by protestors honking horns and waving flags out of sunroofs while retaining physical distance.12 In Belarus, where public displays of opposition to president Lukashenko have in the past been swiftly repressed, the pandemic made protests possible, as fear of reprisals declined with anonymity provided by the previously banned face masks.13 Following what was seen as a rigged presidential election, mass protests escalated in August.

Finally, in spite of COVID-19, mass protests remain a key instrument in movements to advance social justice. Sparked by the wide distribution of video showing the chilling killing of George Perry Floyd Jr. by police in Minneapolis, a wave of streets protests erupted across the United States. As was the pattern in the 2019 protests around the world, these were overwhelmingly nonviolent and relied upon social media and informal forms of organization to bring large crowds, particularly into symbolic spaces such as the area where Floyd was killed, Lafayette Park in Washington DC, and Centennial Park in Atlanta, in front of statues of Confederate Army soldiers in Richmond and Chapel Hill, as well as in front of city halls and court houses in small towns. Even under the restrictions of the pandemic, sports teams and athletes went on strike to demand action against structural racism. Large solidarity protests were organized in Europe and elsewhere, demonstrating the power of globalized media and the rapid spread of ideas and symbols. Statues often served as a focal point for demonstrations. In Oxford, protestors demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, in Bristol a statue of seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston was dragged into the city’s harbor, and in Belgium, protestors defaced and demanded the removal of a statue of King Leopold II.

The demand for dignity resonated globally. In India, events in the United States, bolstered by statements of support from major Bollywood stars, sparked a discussion of police brutality against India’s poor and marginalized minorities. Black Lives Matter protests provided a vocabulary and repertoire of contention that bolstered movements in the United Kingdom and France to re-examine their own imperial histories and racialized hierarchies. Protestors in Ethiopia donned T-shirts that said "Oromo Lives Matter.” Korean pop stars BTS sent S1 million to Black Lives Matter and used their considerable presence on social media to raise global awareness. Global diffusion of grievances and new forms of global solidarity animated renewed demands for political change.


The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new set of challenges to contentious politics and social movements demanding political change and social justice. The pandemic both deepened and made more visible patterns of marginalization and also implicated governments for sustaining these forms of oppression. At the same time, the pandemic and consequent quarantine that brought many street protests around the world to a halt ignited a series of new demands and new forms of mobilization.

Contentious politics and social mobilization were at the center of the search for political transformation during the street protests of 2019 as well as in the innovative new forms of mobilization from cars, balconies, and on social media that characterized contentious politics in 2020. The pattern of mobilization followed by state repression followed by new repertoires of protest is visible around the world. While specific contexts and demands for justice vary widely, globalization and the diffusion of models is a core characteristic of these mobilizations. There are reasons to anticipate that post-pandemic contentious politics may empower those seeking transformation more than those conservatives seeking to shore up the status quo. As was true following early pandemics such as the Black Death, the violent and

Pandemics and globalization 41 tragic disruption may usher in a new era of change and with it the potential for increased social justice. Social mobilization and contentious politics, a major force in driving transformation in 2019 and 2020, are likely to remain at the center of this transformation.

Given the many reasons to anticipate a lengthy and uneven period of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is difficult to predict with any certainty the how contentious encounters between people and states will evolve. The imperatives of protest movements to demonstrate power through size, unity, and steadfastness are likely to shape future forms of contention, with an increased focus on how these can be signaled through social media and other forms of new media. It is notable that despite tremendous pressures, most social movements in most of the world have remained overwhelmingly nonviolent. Riots and looting have certainly occurred, but given the scale and expanse of the protests, such disorder has been markedly limited. One-sided state violence remains extremely high in places ranging from the Philippines to Iraq and police brutality has been the focal point of mass movements in the United States and Brazil. However, there is little to suggest to date that those engaged in mass street protests are moving toward armed insurrection in most of the world. While demands for justice remain expansive, the favored tools - even in a time of pandemic - have been nonviolent mass mobilization.


  • 1 Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, The Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • 2 Terrence Lyons and Peter Mandaville, Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas and Networks (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • 3 “Contextualizing the Arab Awakenings: An Exclusive Interview with Srjda Popovic,” Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, April 14, 2014, https://
  • 4 Agnieszka Paczynska, “Cross-Regional Comparisons: The Arab Uprisings as Political Transitions and Social Movements,” Perspectives on Politics 46, no. 2 (April 2013): 217-21.
  • 5 Gaby Hinaliff, ‘“The Rapist Is You!’: Why a Chilean Protest Chant Is Being Sung Around the World,” The Guardian, February 3, 2020,; Harmeet Kaur, “In Protests Around the World, One Image Stands Out: The Joker,” CNN, November 3, 2019, www. /03/worid/j oker-global-protests-trnd/index.html.
  • 6 Vivian Wang, Maria Abi-Habib, and Vivian Yee, “ ‘This Government Is Lucky": Coronavirus Quiets Global Protest Movements,” New York Times, April 23, 2020,
  • 7 Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flue of 1918 and How It Changed the World (New York: Public Affairs, 2017).
  • 8 We thank Fatma Jabbari for her assistance in developing this section.
  • 9 Saskia Brechemnacher, Thomas Carothers, and Richard Youngs. "Civil Society and the Coronavirus: Dynamism Despite Disruption,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. April 21,2020, https://carnegieendowment.Org/2020/04/21/ civil-society-and-coronavirus-dynamism-despite-disruption-pub-81592.
  • 10 Claudia Ciobanu, “Poles Find Creative Ways to Protest Despite the Pandemic,” April 21, 2020, https://balkaninsight.coni/2020/04/21/poles-find-creative-ways-to-protest-despite-the-pandemic/.
  • 11 Charles McGowan, “How Quarantined Chileans Are Keeping Their Protest Movement Alive,” Al Jazeera, April 14, 2020, quarantined-chileans-keeping-protest-movement-alive-200414122141809. htrnl.
  • 12 See Reuters, “Lebanese Protesters Return to Streets in Car Convoys Amid Coronavirus Lockdown,” April 21, 2020, voys-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-idUSKCN2232WK.
  • 13 Vitali Shkliarov, “Belurus Is Having an Anti-‘Cockroach’ Revolution,” Foreign Policy. June 4, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.coni/2020/06/04/belarus-protest-vote-lukashenko-stop-cockroach/.
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