A familar face appeared in many of the protests taking place in scores of cities on three continents this week: a Guy Fawkes mask with a roguish smile and a pencil-thin moustache.
The mask belongs to “V”, a character in a graphic novel from the 1980s who became the symbol for a group of computer hackers called Anonymous. His contempt for government resonates with people all over the world.
The protests have many different origins. In Brazil people rose up against bus fares, in Turkey against a building project. Indonesians have rejected higher fuel prices, Bulgarians the government’s cronyism.
In the euro zone they march against austerity, and the Arab spring has become a perma-protest against pretty much everything. Each angry demonstration is angry in its own way.
Yet just as in 1848, 1968 and 1989, when people also found a collective voice, the demonstrators have much in common. Over the past few weeks, in one country after another, protesters have risen up with bewildering speed.
They have been more active in democracies than dictatorships. They tend to be ordinary, middle-class people, not lobbies with lists of demands. Their mix of revelry and rage condemns the corruption, inefficiency and arrogance of the folk in charge.
Nobody can know how 2013 will change the world–if at all. In 1989 the Soviet empire teetered and fell. But Marx’s belief that 1848 was the first wave of a proletarian revolution was confounded by decades of flourishing capitalism and 1968, which felt so pleasurably radical at the time, did more to change sex than politics. Even now, though, the inchoate significance of 2013 is discernible. And for politicians who want to peddle the same old stuff, the news is not good.
Online and into the streets
The rhythm of protests has been accelerated by technology. V’s face turns up in both São Paulo and Istanbul because protest is organised through social networks, which spread information, encourage imitation and make causes fashionable (see “Internet protests: The digital demo”). Everyone with a smartphone spreads stories, though not always reliable ones. When the police set fire to the encampment in Gezi Park in Istanbul on May 31st, the event appeared instantly on Twitter. After Turks took to the streets to express their outrage, the flames were fanned by stories that protesters had died because of the police’s brutal treatment. Even though those first stories turned out to be wrong, it had already become the popular thing to demonstrate.
Protests are no longer organised by unions or other lobbies, as they once were. Some are initiated by small groups of purposeful people–like those who stood against the fare increases in São Paulo–but news gets about so fast that the organising core tends to get swamped. Spontaneity gives the protests an intoxicating sense of possibility. But, inevitably, the absence of organisation also blurs the agenda. Brazil’s fare protest became a condemnation of everything from corruption to public services (see “Brazil’s protests: The cries are answered”). In Bulgaria the government gave in to the crowd’s demand to ditch the newly appointed head of state security. But by then the crowd had stopped listening.
This ready supply of broad, fair-weather activism may vanish as fast as it appeared. That was the fate of the Occupy protesters, who pitched camp in Western cities in 2011. This time, however, the protests are fed by deep discontent. Egypt is suffering from the disastrous failure of government at every level. Protest there has become a substitute for opposition. In Europe the fight is over how to shrink the state. Each time the cuts reach a new target–most recently, Greece’s national broadcaster–they trigger another protest. Sometimes, as in the riots of young immigrants in Sweden’s suburbs in May and of British youths in 2011, entire groups feel excluded from the prosperity around them. Sweden has the highest ratio of youth unemployment to general unemployment in the OECD. Too many young Britons suffer from poor education and have prospects to match. In the emerging economies rapid real growth has led people to expect continuing improvements in their standard of living. This prosperity has paid for services and, in an unequal society like Brazil, narrowed the gap between rich and poor. But it is under threat. In Brazil GDP growth slowed from 7.5% in 2010 to only 0.9% last year. In Indonesia, where GDP is still below $5,000 a head, ordinary families will keenly feel the loss of fuel subsidies.
More potent still in the emerging world are the political expectations of a rapidly growing middle class (see “Prosperity and protest: Cry freedom”). At the end of last year young educated Indians took to the streets of several cities after the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student, to protest at the lack of protection that the state affords women. Even bigger protests had swept the country in 2011, as the middle class rose up against the corruption that infests almost every encounter with government officials. In Turkey the number of students graduating from university has increased by 8% a year since 1995. The young middle class this has created chafes against the religious conservatism of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants large families and controls on alcohol. The 40m Brazilians who clambered out of poverty in the past eight years are able for the first time to scrutinise the society that their taxes finance. They want decent public services, and get overpriced sports stadiums instead.
Trouble in Brussels and Beijing
How will this year of protest unfold? One dark conclusion is that democracy has become harder: allocating resources between competing interest groups is tougher if millions can turn out on the streets in days. That implies that the euro zone’s summer will surely get hotter. The continent’s politicians have got off lightly so far (the biggest demonstrations in Paris, for instance, were when “Frigide Barjot” led French Catholics in a bid to stop gay marriage). Yet social instability is twice as common when public spending falls by at least 5% of GDP as when it is growing. At some point European leaders must curb the chronic overspending on social welfare and grapple with the euro’s institutional weakness–and unrest will follow.
Happily, democracies are good at adapting. When politicians accept that the people expect better–and that votes lie in satisfying them–things can change. India’s anti-corruption protests did not lead to immediate change, but they raised graft up the national agenda, with the promise of gradual reform (see “Protest in India: The little man”). To her credit, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, wants a national debate on renewing politics. This will be neither easy nor quick. But protest could yet improve democracy in emerging countries–and even eventually the EU.
Democrats may envy the ability of dictators to shut down demonstrations. China has succeeded in preventing its many local protests from cohering into a national movement. Saudi Arabia has bribed its dissidents to be quiet; Russia has bullied them with the threats of fines and prison. But in the long run, the autocrats may pay a higher price. Using force to drive people off the streets can weaken governments fatally, as Sultan Erdogan may yet find (see “Turkey’s protests: Still out on the streets”); and as the Arab governments discovered two years ago, dictatorships lack the institutions through which to channel protesters’ anger. As they watch democracies struggle in 2013, the leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Riyadh should be feeling uncomfortable.
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