Back in 2011 when the Arab world exploded with popular uprisings, the Western media’s first response was confusion. Was this a good or bad thing? The media appeared paralysed in the face of these developments which did not conform to the stereo type of the Barbarian Arab Jihadists we’ve been used to for the past decade. To boot, Tunisian president Ben Ali and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak were Western allies, strongmen who could control their unruly populations for us. Should we have been celebrating their removal?
Eventually a narrative began to emerge which wouldn’t be too disruptive to our collective worldview: the Arabs now wanted to be like us. They had seen how awesome it was to be Western, and now wanted the same lives we had. The common re-labelling of the Arab Spring as ‘the Facebook revolutions‘ not only over emphasized the role that these Western social media sites had played in these revolutions but also meant that these events could be retold in a way in which the powers-that-be still had control. The idea of revolution, of popular uprising is always a uncomfortable one when you are the global hegemon. The U.S.A, a country itself borne of revolution, has historical seen the only legitimate anti-government action in other countries to be when foreigners are calling to remake their state in the American image.
In the last month, popular mass protests have erupted in the streets of Brazil and Turkey in a manner that was not predicted by the same experts wrong-footed by the Arab Spring’s arrival. Of all the countries outside the Euro-American nexus, Brazil and Turkey are two nations that were supposed to be filed under ‘already sorted’. They are not repressive dictatorships in which the people’s frustrated desires for a Big Mac had finally driven them into the streets. They are both free-market capitalist democracies. In fact as Europe and America has been drowning in the post-2008 recession, Brazil and Turkey have been going through golden periods, at least according to the standard economic indicators. The Turkish economy grew 11% in the first six months of 2010 making it the country in OECD with the biggest growth. This was after a decade long boom which led to Turkey being hailed as an ‘economic miracle’ and with its secular tradition, it was held up as the role model for Islamic democracies across the world to copy. And Brazil, a country on the verge of the most elusive of developing nations dreams, has been on route to attaining a Cinderella transformation from third-world nation to economic and political superpower. PricewaterhouseCooper has even predicted that Brazil will overtake the U.S and U.K in GDP by 2050. Brazil was supposed to be excitedly preparing for her coming-out party, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, events which would not only show her rich culture to the world but also evidence the country’s technological and administrative capabilities. It would join the mighty U.S.A, the only other country to have staged back-to-back World Cups and Olympic Games.
However, against such an optimistic backdrop, riots and occupations have suddenly become the main news coming out of these ‘success story’ countries, leaving the West to ask: “what are the protestors complaining about?”
While as always the reasons for mass public anger are multi-faceted, in Brazil a clear line of causation can be drawn from the protests to the plans for the World cup and Rio games. Its not that Brazilians have suddenly fallen out of love with watching world-class sports, but they have become tired of the constant yielding to the desires of international capital that are required to put on these events. Former President Lula da Silva tried to develop Brazil with policies of social inclusion, much to the anger of the elite. President Dilma Rousseff has tried to continue along this path, demanding the wealthy share the spoils of Brazil’s growth, but is finding out along with her people that this conflicts with the big sporting events. It is a painful lesson that Londoners are learning from last year’s Olympics. These events are sold to the general public with a re-telling of the old trickle-down economics tale: ‘the World Cup/Olympics will bring jobs and money for everyone’. However, as is often the case, the money tends to trickle-up rather than down, and the big money is made by the corporate sponsors, the FIFA and IOC delegates, the private security firms and the bureaucrats whose job it is to whitewash the city before the world’s cameras arrive. In East London, where I work, the much-vaunted Olympic legacy is barely visible. The local community find themselves still struggling with the same problems as before, while those who benefited most from the Games flew out in first-class after the closing ceremony. It seems the people of Brazil saw where the story was heading for them and have decided to make their feelings heard.
In Turkey, as well, the protestors began by opposing the imposition of what was meant to be sign of modernization and development, the construction of a shopping mall with luxury flats in Gezi park. Like Brazil, the protests have been propelled by committed, educated young people who appear unfazed by the brutal backlash they have received at the hands of their police force. These uprisings have provided an interesting epilogue to the events of 2011, a year so tumultuous that even a mainstream publication like Time magazine had to name ‘the protestor’ as the person the year. That year was not aberrance but perhaps the start of a new epoch in which mass protest now demand ‘democracy’, not in the American sense but in the substantive sense. In his book ‘Why its Kicking Off Everywhere’, Paul Mason articulates the reasons why there are suddenly all these pockets of revolt popping up across the globe. He cites the tension between a wealth equality line that is becoming evermore vertical and a society that in its values is becoming evermore horizontal as the cause. A loss of faith in political representatives of all types means that now when people call for democracy, they don’t mean Western-style “democracy,” that is still completely subject to the authority of Capital, they are looking to re-create the word so it can fit the autonomous citizen of the 21st Century. As these uprisings become more frequent it will be increasingly hard for the West to co-opt them into their safe, familiar world view as it did with the Arab Spring. The only question is then: where next?