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

Wed, Jun 26, 2013 - Page 9

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Times report: “While much has changed in Brazil, the protests highlight those things that have not — repressive and outdated policing, an inefficient state and an often corrupt and ineffective political class.”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.

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.