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Could the great recession lead to a great revolution?

A look at mass protests during the past 500 years reveals surprising clues.

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For the first time in generations, people are challenging the view that a free-market order – the system that dominates the globe today – is the destiny of all nations. The free market's uncanny ability to enrich the elite, coupled with its inability to soften the sharp experiences of staggering poverty, has pushed inequality to the breaking point.

As a result, we live at an important historical juncture – one where alternatives to the world's neoliberal capitalism could emerge. Thus, it is a particularly apt time to examine revolutionary movements that have periodically challenged dominant state and imperial power structures over the past 500 years.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which laid the foundation for liberal democratic elections and the expansion of the free-market system throughout the world, revolution and protest seemed to lose some of their potency.

Leading historians believed that a new age had appeared in which revolutionary movements would no longer challenge the status quo. Defenders of the contemporary system were suspicious of nearly all forms of popular expression and contestation for power outside the electoral arena. But remarkably, this entire discourse sidestepped the major impulses of human emancipation of the past 500 years – equality, democracy, and social rights.

Proponents of neoliberalism are indifferent to this history and dismiss the notion that "another world is possible" that could alleviate grinding misery and poverty around the world. But in opposition to the contemporary individualistic system of capitalism, evidence of a new global movement dedicated to social justice and human rights has sprung from the ashes of the past. Just in the past decade, we have witnessed the expansion of worker insurgencies, peasant and indigenous uprisings, ecological protests, and democracy movements.

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