Wed, Jun 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Global protests herald new age of political power

The unrest of 2011 is likely to last for decades. From Istanbul to Rio, it is not about austerity, but the nature of the state

By John Harris  /  The Guardian, LONDON

The state is a massive part of the problem — whether that is masked by progressive intentions, as in Brazil; or stark-staringly obvious, as in countries where cuts are in full effect, and government is currently sloughing off its residual social-democratic obligations.

This is why, irrespective of election results, there will be many more flashpoints around the planet and politics will sooner or later have to be reinvented. On the left, most people remain in thrall to a worldview little changed since the early 20th century, whereby the top-down state can supposedly be captured and used to tame an inhuman market. However, what does the state do now, as a matter of in-built logic?

In Britain, it props up banks, humiliates the poor and, as we know now, scans everybody’s e-mails and mobile phone records. Even when it is seeing to its more benign functions, it is now so cold and target-driven that initiative, empathy and care are often nowhere to be seen.

“I’d have to say there is far too much bullying and harassment, nepotism and patronage,” one former hospital boss said about the National Health Service — he may just as well have been talking about any part of the machinery of politics and government.

So it is that you arrive at what might tie together South America and Britain: sitting on top of a tangle of problems, that self-same inefficient state and ineffective political class. Moreover, the latter are now the same tribe, across the world: They wear Joe 90-style glasses and nondescript suits, attend international summits on “governance” and fumble with social media so much their unease with the new reality is obvious.

It is in the nature of protests that people are impatient for change. However, all this is so huge that it will take decades to work itself out. Across the world, parties of both left and right will either be transformed or disappear as in more and more countries protests flare into life and then go quiet. Ugly populism and the hard right could very well prosper, and social democracy may spend a long time in retreat. For good or ill, it is going to be a very interesting century.

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