Making Sense of Social Protest

By Sada Reddi

The citizens have always put their trust in the state to regulate capitalism; if they have had to take matters in their own hands, it is because the State has abdicated its role and responsibility

Hardly a week goes by without some form of protest taking place by citizens in some part of the island. I am not referring to the daily grievances voiced on the radio crying for redress or the daily battles of trade unionists denouncing poor working conditions. Instead, I am focusing on the grassroots protests of citizens who very often take to the streets to ventilate their grievances.

Only last week, citizens protested against the setting up of an incinerator for waste in their neighborhood at Riche Terre. About 5000 signatures have been collected. Meetings are regularly taking place to monitor the situation in order to make sure that the peace and tranquility of the neighborhood is not disturbed. On the other side of the island, the members of Resistans ek Alternativ, Aret Kokin Nu Laplaz (“Stop Stealing our Beaches”), le Front Citoyens Libres, General Workers Federation (GWF) and Centre for Alternative Research and Studies (Cares) are waging a relentless battle and resorting to direct action to recover the public beach at Pomponette. Some time back, small planters marched to protest against the low prices they fetch for their sugarcane and even policemen have protested against their conditions of work. Every now and then, citizens raise their voice to protest against road accidents, irregular water supply, proliferation of drugs or some other threats in their neighborhood.

The state very often fails to assume full responsibility for the protection of its citizens. In fact, it does the contrary: there are instances where public officers appear to be acting in collusion with those who put the lives of citizens at risk. Enforcement agencies at different ministries, in the municipal and district councils rarely seem too keen to monitor or enforce their own regulations and offer innumerable excuses for failing to do so. They are perfectly satisfied with the hollow promises of property developers that measures will be taken to safeguard the environment, to control noise pollution, to put in place waste water treatments and so on. In fact, once permits have been delivered, a long, litigious and expensive battle starts for citizens to obtain redress. Worse, state officials do not hesitate to let out that they do not attach any importance when protests emanate from the common citizens or from small villages or areas inhabited by the poorer classes.

Social protest in its various forms and at different locations is directed against capitalism and its acolytes. Capitalism itself has taken various forms to extract surplus value from those it exploits. It confronts citizens as industrial capital, financial capital and global capital, and its extraction of profits occurs at various points in the social landscape. For example, in factories, workers have to put in long hours, in call centres the conditions of work are stressful. Consumers pay high interest charges for loans and credits. Pensioners fetch low interest on their savings. Increasing use of technology by global capital to boost productivity widens inequality in society as unskilled workers are marginalised and reduced to unemployment. The plundering of natural resources continues unabated. Anyone travelling along the road at Helvetia will come across a billboard advertising the sale of one acre of freehold land for Rs 55 million rupees and during the week we learn from newspapers that two companies are to obtain about 300 acres of state land at Bagatelle.

To come back to the reasons behind the growing resentment of citizens, one can see that the common thread running through it all is the determination of citizens to protect their livelihood and enhance their quality of life. Discontent manifests itself in different settings and stems from an awareness of the people that their reality is deeply unjust. Their specificity and focus is understandable and is not without certain limitations. Being deprived of a public beach at Pomponette for both local citizens and the general public is not dissimilar from the threat the local citizens face at Riche Terre if an incinerator for waste were to be set up in their neighborhood.

The citizens have always put their trust in the state to regulate capitalism; if they have had to take matters in their own hands, it is because the State has abdicated its role and responsibility. Its institutions no longer serve the interests of the citizens. The market is not a sacred cow, and even Adam Smith expected the state to regulate it. Periodic reform of capitalism is a must whether that means banks, private companies, the energy market or the electronic platform. Instead what we have at present is the opposite – an unregulated market, crony capitalism, rent extraction, unequal distribution of information and power, and the prevalence of corporate lobbies.

Underlying all these protests, though isolated and often uncoordinated in some cases, lies a fundamental unity: they form part of the struggle against capitalism. There is now an effort to scale up their protests and turn local efforts into wider collective action. An association of Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs) regrouping small planters, fishermen, manufacturers, etc., has already been set up. The SMEs have realised that they need to work together. The fishermen who face a decline in their daily catch are now conscious that pollution of the lagoon and aquaculture are responsible for the destruction of the productive system and lagoon fisheries as well as the extinction of certain species of fish. The exploitation of the small planter has a long history, and their memory and history have galvanized them into action. The small bakeries and the small shops too face unfair competition from the supermarkets, and even consumers eating in supermarket restaurants may be consuming unhealthy food prepared from expired products such as chicken, meat and vegetables.

What citizens’ protests suggest is that even on small scale, they have a great impact in advancing the interests of our citizens and a great potential to democratize our society so that we do not become hostage to capitalism. Many are currently advocating a restructuring of the economy and society. Increasing the multiple forms of resistance and building larger collectivities from below will contribute significantly to construct a larger people project, the more so when every citizen realises that an injustice to anyone is an injustice to all of us.


* Published in print edition on 12 July 2019

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