Why protests are kicking off everywhere

Small protests in Turkey and Brazil quickly escalated into mass movements, a seeming echo of everything from the Arab Spring to Occupy. What’s going on? Simon Wilson explains.

What's happened?

This month's mass protests in Brazil, hard on the heels of unrest in Turkey, are just the latest in a wave of global protest by demonstrators in countries from Chile to Israel, India to Indonesia. Brazil's protests began with a protest in Sao Paulo over a rise in bus fares, and grew into mass protests in about 100 cities after a brutal police response. Brazil's long period of economic expansion has come to a shuddering end, so the demonstrations appear to be a cry of anger at state corruption, inefficient governance, and lavish spending on prestige projects (the World Cup in Brazil). While Brazilians pay tax at rich world rates (36% of GDP), they suffer abysmal public services.

And Turkey?

In Turkey, there's a more explicitly political and personal dimension to the protests. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has shown arrogant disdain for the protestors and for their worries over the creeping Islamisation of the political sphere which has confirmed the worst fears of many and fuelled their anger. But at root, there are big similarities between Brazil and Turkey. Both were essentially local protests (Sao Paulo, Istanbul) that rapidly spiralled after the use of excessive state force. And both are countries where one party (PT in Brazil; AKP in Turkey) has overseen a long economic expansion that has led to a booming middle class and rising expectations.

Who are the protesters?

According to one Brazilian poll (by Datafolha), 77% of those attending a key Sao Paulo demo were college educated, and 71% were protesting for the first time. The global middle class is growing (see box) and it's getting restless everywhere. Stefan Wagstyl in the FT argues that the current wave of protests are akin to those in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s, when authoritarian regimes were forced by mass middle-class pressure to liberalise their political structures. As Chilean President Sebastin Piera put it, when announcing an extra $4bn investment in state education, "our institutions, our leadership, are being tested by citizens who are more empowered, who are demanding greater participation and, above all, greater equality".

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What other factors are causing the unrest?

Rapid economic and social changes are also to blame. Paul Mason, economics editor of Newsnight and the author of a book-length analysis of the global wave of protests, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere, argues that the global unrest of recent years is being driven by three core factors. First, the collapse of the neoliberal economic model, made worse by the subsequent attempts by austerity-obsessed policymakers to go on trying to make neoliberalism work. Second,the revolution in technology that has made "horizontal networks" of online social media the default mode of activism and protest. And third a global shift in human behaviour, psychology and thought patterns. The result is a tendency to prioritise personal freedoms and weaken deference to authority.

Even if you don't accept all of Mason's ideas, his points about the sheer speed and scale of the technological changes that have taken place recently are undeniable. If you watch TV reports of the collapse of Lehman Brothers in New York on 15 September 2008, you see passersby filming shell-shocked Lehman bankers on Nokias, Motorolas and Sony Ericssons that already look like museum pieces. On that day Facebook had about 100 million users; it now has a billion. Twitter had four million accounts; it now has 100 million. What this explosion means in terms of political activism is, to quote the internet theorist Clay Shirky, that "most of the barriers to group action have collapsed and with those barriers we are free to explore new ways of getting together and getting things done".

How does this relate to Brazil?

In Brazil, the initial protest over the 20 centavo bus fare rise grew out of a campaign on Twitter, and after the brutal police response, the mass demonstrations that followed were organised on social media. Similarly, in Egypt, the mainly secular youth movement that began the uprising that ousted the dictator Mubarak in February 2011 grew out of the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said'.

In Israel, the mass middle-class protests over inflation, housing and social justice that began in the summer of 2011 sprang from a Facebook campaign. In Turkey this month, protestors again organised online, while popular anger at the mainstream media for ignoring the Taksim Square crisis helped the protests to snowball.

Powerful images and videos ignored or censored by state or corporate media are freely and instantaneously exchanged as Twitpics or similar. The revolution might not be televised but then who needs television when you have an iPhone or Android?

Who's middle class?

Defining the middle class as those with an income between $6,000 and $30,000, Goldman Sachs estimates that over the past decade 500 million people entered the category in the past ten years in Brazil, Russia, India and China alone and that the same countries will add a further 800 million by 2020. According to data cited by the FT's Stefan Wagstyl, middle-class incomes in Brazil and Turkey like those in South Africa and Russia are in the range of $12,000 to $18,000. This is "the upper end of the range for emerging economies, and the level at which the rising middle classes begin to make more wide-ranging demands".

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.