Shared symbolism of global youth unrest
Paul Mason Economics editor, for bbc.co.uk
The language and the time zone changes but, from Turkey and Bulgaria to Brazil, the symbolism of protest is increasingly the same.
The Guy Fawkes masks, the erection of tent camps, the gas masks and helmets improvised in response to the use of tear gas as a means of collective punishment. The handwritten signs – scrawled in defiance of the state’s power and the uniformity of the old, collective protests of yesteryear.
And the youthfulness of the core protesters.
In Gezi Park, Istanbul, before it was cleared by police, I saw school-age teenagers turn up regularly, each afternoon in small groups, colonise what was left of the lawn and start their homework.
The pictures coming out of Sao Paulo tell a similar story.
Bypassing the state
In both cities, people born in a post-ideological era are using what symbols they can to tell a story of being modern, urban and discontented: the national flag and the shirt of the local football team are memes common to both Istanbul and Sao Paulo.
But what is driving the discontent?
When I covered the unrest in Britain and southern Europe in 2011, the answer was clear. A whole generation of young people has seen economic promises cancelled: they will work probably until their late sixties, come out of university with lifetime-crippling debts.
And, as American students famously complained in 2009, the jobs they get when they leave university are often the same jobs they did, part-time, when they were at university. I’ve met qualified civil engineers in Greece whose job was waiting table; the fact that I met them on a riot tells you all you need to know.
With the Arab Spring, it seemed different – from the outside: these were fast-growing economies – in Libya’s case spectacularly fast. But here you hit something that makes this wave of unrest unique: this is the first generation whose lives, and psychology, have been shaped by ready access to information technology and social media.
We know what this does: it makes state propaganda, censorship and a government-aligned mainstream media very easy to bypass. Egyptian state TV totally lost credibility during the first days of the uprisings against President Hosni Mubarak. This month, when Turkish TV stations tried to pull the same kind of non-reporting of unrest, they were bombarded with complaints.
“But,” one politics professor told me, “most of the complaints were from people aged over 35. The youth don’t watch TV, and in any case they have never believed what’s on the news.”
Social media makes it possible to organise protests fast, to react to repression fast, and to wage a quite successful propaganda war that makes the mainstream media and the spin machines of governments look foolish.
At the same time, it encourages a relatively “horizontal” structure to the protests themselves. Taksim Square in Istanbul was rare for having a 60-strong organising group; the protests in Sao Paulo have followed the more general pattern of several organising groups and an amorphous network of people who simply choose themselves where to turn up, what to write on their banners, and what to do.
As I arrived in Istanbul, some of my contacts in financial markets were mystified: why are they protesting when it is one of the fastest growing places on earth?
Get down to street level and the answer was clear. In the first place, many of the young educated people I spoke to complained that “the wealth is going to the corrupt elite”; many pointed out that despite being doctors, civil engineers, dotcom types etc, they could not afford a place to live.
‘Perfectly ordinary people’
But then there was the bigger grievance: they felt the religious conservative government of the AK Party was impinging on their freedom. One Turkish fashion writer – no natural revolutionary – complained of “a growing, insidious hostility to the modern”.
And they saw the heavy police action against the original tent camp in Gezi Park – an environmental protest – as a symbol of this unfreedom.
In Sao Paulo, the grievances are more clearly social: “Fewer stadiums, more hospitals”, reads one banner. The rising price of transport, combined with the government’s determination to prioritise infrastructure and sports stadia, are what this has come to be about.
But again, last week, it was an allegedly disproportionate police action – the arrest of a journalist for carrying vinegar (to dull the sting of tear gas), the shooting of four journalists with rubber bullets – which led to escalation.
In each case, the effects of police action are magnified by the ability of protesters to send images of brutality around the world immediately. And as a veteran of reporting more than 30 years’ worth of “non-lethal” law enforcement, my impression is that the use of CS, baton rounds, water cannon is pushing police procedures all over the world towards “near lethal” levels that are increasingly unacceptable to protesters who go on the streets with no violent intent.
Though smaller by comparison, the Bulgarian protests that on Wednesday removed a controversial head of state security speak to the issues that unite those taking to the streets in many countries: it is not about poverty, say protesters, it is about corruption, the sham nature of democracy, clique politics and an elite prepared to grab the lion’s share of the wealth generated by economic development.
In short, just as in 1989, when we found that people in East Europe preferred individual freedom to communism, today capitalism is becoming identified with the rule of unaccountable elites, lack of effective democratic accountability, and repressive policing.
And what the events of the last three years have shown is that perfectly ordinary people, with no ideological axe to grind, have found the means to resist it.