/ 28 June 2013

Governance at the heart of global unrest

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets in several Brazilian cities recently.
Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets in several Brazilian cities recently.

Throughout 2012 and the first part of 2013, a comfy misapprehension seemed to have settled among those whose job it is to analyse 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. Such blighted eurozone countries 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. 

But in the United Kingdom and the United States, the demise of Occupy Wall Street fed into a banal but effective story – that camping in city squares and decrying the general state of things is so 2011, darling.

But now look, chiefly at Brazil, where protests have rippled through about 80 cities, with clear echoes of events two years ago. 

Inevitably, everything is organised through social media; as happened in 2011, exactly what anyone wants seems less important than the general outlines of dissent, and the 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. But 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,” runs 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Times report: “While much has changed in Brazil, the protests highlight those things that have not – repressive and outdated policing, an inefficient state, and an often corrupt and ineffective political class.”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 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 over two years is not about austerity, or the rest of the fallout from the crash of 2008. 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 haven’t read Paul Mason’s Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, I’d 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 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 on roughly the correct path. 

But 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 starkly obvious, as in countries where cuts are in full effect, and the government is 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 world view little changed since the early 20th century, which the top-down state can supposes be captured, and used to tame an inhuman market. But 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 emails and cellphone 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,” says one former hospital boss about the NHS; he may just as well have been talking about any part of the machinery of politics and the government. 

So it is that you arrive at what might tie South America and our small corner of northern Europe together: sitting on top of a tangle of problems, that self-same inefficient state, and ineffective political class. The latter is now the same tribe across the world: they wear nondescript suits, attend summits on “governance” and so fumble with social media that their unease with the new reality is obvious.

It is in the nature of protests that people are impatient for change. But 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; in more and more countries, protests will flare into life, and then go quiet. Ugly populism and the hard right could prosper; social democracy may spend a time in retreat. — © Guardian News & Media 2013

John Harris is a journalist and author who writes regularly for the Guardian.