The demonstrations in Brazil began after a small rise in bus fares triggered mass protests. Within days this had become a nationwide movement whose concerns had spread far beyond fares: more than a million people were on the streets shouting about everything from corruption to the cost of living to the amount of money being spent on the World Cup. In Turkey, it was a similar story. A protest over the future of a city park in Istanbul – violently disrupted by police – snowballed too into something bigger, a wider-ranging political confrontation with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has scarcely been brought to a close by the clearing of Gezi Park. If the scenes have seemed familiar, it is because they shared common features: viral, loosely organized with fractured messages and mostly taking place in urban public locations. Unlike the protest movement of 1968 or even the end of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe in 1989, these are movements with few discernible leaders and with often conflicting ideologies. Their points of reference are not even necessarily ideological but take inspiration from other protests, including those of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The result has been a wave of social movements – sometimes short-lived – from Wall St to Tel Aviv and from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, often engaging younger, better educated and wealthier members of society. What is striking for those who, like myself, have covered these protests is how discursive and open-ended they often are.
People go not necessarily to hear a message but to take over a location and discuss their discontents (even if the stunning consequence can be the fall of an autocratic leader such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak). If the “new protest” can be summed up, it is not in specifics of the complaints but in a wider idea about organization encapsulated on a banner spotted in Brazil last week: “We are the social network.” In Brazil, the varied banners underlined the difficulty of easy categorization as protesters held aloft signs expressing a range of demands from education reforms to free bus fares while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics two years later. “It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old protester, said. “On the one hand we need some sort of leadership, on the other we don’t want this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party.” As the Economist pointed out last week, while mass movements in Britain, France, Sweden and Turkey have been inspired by a variety of causes, including falling living standards, authoritarian government and worries about immigration, Brazil does not fit the picture, with youth unemployment at a record low and the country enjoying the biggest leap in living standards in its history. Paul Mason, economics editor of BBC2′s Newsnight and author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, has argued that a key factor, largely driven by new communication technologies, is that people have not only a better understanding of power but are more aware of its abuse, both economically and politically. Mason believes we are in the midst of a “revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation” – but not everyone is so convinced. What does ring true, however, is his assertion that a driving force from Tahrir Square to Occupy is a redefinition of notions of both what “freedom” means and its relationship to governments that seem ever more distant. –NZ Herald
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