Throughout last year and the first part of this year, a comfy misapprehension seemed to have settled among those whose job is to analyze world events: that, aside from continuing turbulence in the Arab world, the huge surge of protest that defined 2011 had died. This plotline was never entirely convincing. Blighted eurozone countries such as Spain and Italy have hardly been models of quiet and obedience, and protest movements in such wildly diverse countries as Chile and Israel have not gone away. However, in the UK and US, the demise of the Occupy movement fed into a banal, but effective story: that camping in city squares and decrying the general state of things is so 2011, darling.
However, look at Brazil now, where protests have rippled through about 80 cities, with clear echoes of events two years ago. Inevitably, everything is organized via social media and, as happened in 2011, exactly what anyone wants seems less important than the general outlines of dissent and simple experience of being involved. There has been surprise that such convulsive events have happened in a country seemingly transformed by the ruling Workers’ Party, where unemployment is at an all-time low. However, therein lies proof that deeper factors are at work, and the country seems to be sounding a great popular wail about a distant state and cronyish elite.
“This must be a nation where people have a voice [and] we don’t have a voice any more,” read a typical statement from a protester.
To quote from a Financial Times report: “While much has changed in Brazil, the protests highlight those things that have not — repressive and outdated policing, an inefficient state and an often corrupt and ineffective political class.”
The protests in Turkey seem to be brimming with similar stuff, as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan apparently acknowledged last week.
“The same plot is being laid in Brazil,” he told a crowd of supporters. “The symbols, the banners, Twitter and the international media are the same.”
He was trying to blame an outside conspiracy, but in a different way, his words rang true.
Fundamentally, what has been popping up around the planet for more than two years is not about austerity, or the rest of the fallout from the crash of 2008, as important as they remain. Its central tension is surely between a revolution in communication that is transforming people’s expectation of influence and voice, and closed networks of power that tie together corporations and government.
If you have not read Paul Mason’s Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, I would suggest you do so and begin with a quote halfway through, from the Internet theorist Clay Shirky: “Most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.”
Brazil is a particularly fascinating case study, because it shines light on how awkwardly this new reality sits with even the most forward-looking parts of the mainstream left. Orthodox social democracy would have you believe that the essential relations between citizen and state can remain largely unchanged, so long as money goes from rich to poor and society is understood to be on roughly the correct path. However, the politics that has flashed to life since 2011 proves that this is increasingly insufficient.