NEW YORK – Historians examining our era will marvel at the proliferation of street protests around the world. Blessed with hindsight, they will probably not struggle as much as we do to grasp their broader meaning — one that goes beyond specific provocations in each case (an increase in bus fares in Brazil, or the destruction of a landmark in Turkey).
On the face of it, protests against the creeping authoritarianism of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have next to nothing in common with demonstrations in India, where a quasi-Gandhian activist proclaimed a “second freedom struggle,” or Egypt’s Tahrir Square, site of a “second revolution” against the elected government of Mohammed Morsi.
The Turks appear to have even less in common with the tens of thousands of Israelis calling for “social justice” in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, or the hundreds of thousands of Japanese who, after the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, turned out, in their country’s biggest demonstrations since the late 1960s, to protest against an incompetent and mendacious government.
Local grievances and socioeconomic variations must not be suppressed in our eagerness to find broad patterns. Protesters in Greece and Spain live in nations that are being steadily impoverished. Those in India, Israel and Turkey belong to countries that have enjoyed high economic growth in recent years.
But the conjuncture of the protests cannot be ignored, as is evident in the mini-industry of explanations flourishing around it. The most common claim, from the Economist to Francis Fukuyama in the Wall Street Journal, is that the demonstrations are fueled by the rising expectations of a middle class demanding clean, transparent governance. In this variant on the modernization theory of the 1960s, the protests further advance the liberal democracy that grows in tandem with the worldwide spread of capitalism.
Indeed, “protest,” the Economist claims, “could yet improve democracy in emerging countries — and even eventually the EU,” adding that “dictatorships lack the institutions through which to channel protesters’ anger.”
Such Candide-like optimism raises the question: What kind of democracy is being improved? Certainly, the protesters seem to have no time for a political system that channels — only to defuse — their anger, while leaving their demands largely unmet.
The multiparty political systems and regular elections passed off as democracy have failed to mollify the restless millions — most vividly in Egypt. Indeed, if there is anything that binds protesters in different socioeconomic contexts, it is their shared frustration at being inadequately represented by elected governments.
For too long, merely formal and procedural aspects of democracy — elections, legislatures — have been confused with the thing itself.
Not surprisingly, these fail to satisfy increasingly politicized peoples who have come to identify their governments in recent years with business elites, and with “business-friendly” policies rather than public services.
In a previous column, I argued that mass democracy and capitalism, far from being natural partners, are antagonists in the age of globalization. It has become clearer since then that the demands and needs of the majority cannot be fulfilled by the assurances of private wealth creation. Gross domestic product growth rates, however impressive, have not made up for poor infrastructure, education and health care. And inequality, like corruption and nepotism among the elites, has become more intolerable.
The trickle-down miracle has repeatedly failed to materialize. The Indian Supreme Court is not wrong to blame increasing social violence in the country on the “false promises of ever-increasing spirals of consumption leading to economic growth that will lift everyone.”
It is not surprising that the protests are particularly intense in nation-states founded on ideas of equality and a shared destiny: Israel, where Zionism was once synonymous with egalitarianism, or India and Brazil, where democracy is linked to promises of social and economic justice.
With its guarantee of prosperity premised upon individual effort, global capitalism in these countries briefly replaced national projects of collective welfare. Having given up on redistribution, the state was supposed to create equality of opportunity for its underprivileged citizens.
But this, it seems, has not happened fast enough, if at all; Dilma Rousseff’s promises to invest more in public health and transportation come too late to change the impression of a state retreating from public services.
Social cohesion has frayed everywhere, resulting in a widespread sense of fragmentation and drift. Individuals — from Indian cotton farmers lethally exposed to fluctuations in international prices to Spanish graduates scanning a bleakly jobless landscape — find themselves buffeted by national and transnational economic forces as never before.
Their governments are helpless to a certain degree. Incessantly mobile labor and capital have eroded the power of national governments to devise policies to create an equitable society. Their frantic courting of investors and businessmen helps create the popular conviction that, according to a contributor to the well-known socialist tool Forbes, “the power structure, corporate and government, work together to screw the broad middle class.”
This belief became widespread at the end of a long cycle of high growth when a few people grew very rich and public services — education, health, security — were privatized to an unusual degree. For a while, the gated community in large parts of India seemed like a new political unit after the city-state, the nation and the empire. The secessionists or sovereign individuals inside them seemed to have attained the highest stage of liberal democracy: emancipation from politics.
But even the denizens of gated republics, it turns out, need the state to build and maintain roads and airports, supply power, and control rising crime rates.
As for the rest, who have yet to benefit from global capitalism, the chances of stable employment, or even affordable education, look even more remote against the background of a severe economic crisis. Hence, the classless quality of the protests where the rich and the poor commingle: their rage comes from a shared feeling of being cheated.
That said, the protesters phrase their grievances narrowly. Indian activists denouncing corruption or police brutality cannot risk any fellow-feeling for Kashmiris living under a military occupation; the ideals of justice invoked in Tel Aviv do not accommodate the Palestinians; the Turks in Taksim Square are far from pressing for Kurdish autonomy; and the protesting rich are not exactly proposing to share the fruits of capitalism with the poor.
The protesters are not even united domestically. That they could enter a new era of transnational “solidarity,” as the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek hopes, looks like a pipe dream at best.
Capital and labor have been successfully globalized; dissenters must settle for being globally televised.
But what the protests are defining is the appeal of political community in both old and new democracies — the underrated satisfaction of exercising one’s faculties of speech and action, and of communicating with other people’s experiences.
Early in the 19th century, Tocqueville presciently warned against the overly centralized democracy that leads to selfish and politically apathetic individualism. It became the rule rather than the exception in our time as policymaking was entrusted to technocratic elites, and the voting public retreated into the private sphere. For too long entrenched oligarchies or impersonal bureaucratic machines like the EU deprived ordinary people of the duties and pleasures of democratic citizenship.
What we witness today are citizens revolting against their own previous apathy. It remains to be seen what this fresh infusion of the masses into political life amounts to. But we have already made some progress when democracy begins to mean something more than routine elections and the retreat from political life.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. E-mail: email@example.com.