Why are we seeing so many massive street revolts in electoral democracies like Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Chile, and – last year, at least – the United States? The New York Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman asks the question and then almost answers it. Almost, but not really, since the author of The World is Flat is led astray, as is his wont, by a deeply uncritical appreciation of the effects of global corporate capitalism.
Even so, in a nation whose academic experts seem unable even to ask this question, much less answer it, Friedman at least provides a starting point. Three factors, says he, are responsible for the upsurge in street demonstrations. Politically, we witness “the rise and proliferation of illiberal ‘majoritarian’ democracies.” Economically, “middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market.” And technologically, we have “the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, Twitter, Facebook, and blogging.”
Not bad. One has to admire Friedman’s decision not to picture the street revolts as exotic manifestations of Third World immaturity or as the result of some other single factor. But the edifice he has constructed is shaky, to say the least.
Politics: Egypt and Turkey may be “illiberal majoritarian democracies,” but Brazil and the United States are not, nor are nations like Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which the columnist does not mention despite recent massive street protests. Friedman’s error here is to focus on a particular form of government, when what is germane is a relationship between government and society. Where social divisions run very deep, as they do in the countries that have experienced major street revolts, all “majoritarian democracies”seem illberal. Serious conflicts between alienated social classes, ethnic groups, generations, or religious and secular forces cannot be resolved through ordinary political processes, democratic or otherwise. This sort of crisis is constitutional in the sense that working out deep differences is a precondition for establishing any form of legitimate and workable government.
This is why it makes little sense, in my view, to blame Turkey’s Erdogan or Egypt’s Morsi for not being more conciliatory toward their defeated opponents. Mere gestures will be viewed by the opposition as . . . mere gestures, while the majority will consider significant concessions a betrayal of the people. More than conciliation is needed. As Brazil’s Dilma Roussef alone seems to recognize, a renegotiation of the social contract – a constituent assembly or other constitutional gathering — is what is required. The job of the conflict resolver, in situations like this, is to convince all major parties, especially the electoral victors, that they will not be able to enjoy their power without a process of thoroughgoing national reconciliation.
Economics: Friedman is quite right to emphasize the economic causes of the street revolts, although the story he tells – that of working people, losing welfare benefits, who cannot meet the new demands of the high-tech job market – has by now been thoroughly discredited. The notion that this particular “structural” issue accounts for most unemployment and economic insecurity has been refuted by economists like nobelist Paul Krugman, who rails against what he calls the “structural obsession” (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/08/the-structural-obsession/?_r=0). Nor is there anything inevitable about the decline of the welfare state or commonsensical about the need for austerity.
In fact, what workers from Turkey and Egypt to Southern Europe, Latin America, and the United States have been dealing with is a long-term capitalist crisis that has depressed wages, deepened poverty, exacerbated social and cultural divisions, annihilated small farms and businesses, enriched a plutocratic minority, and driven the Gini coefficient of inequality to levels not seen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s. Initially, those feeling most outraged by the failures of economic opportunity were those with high expectations based on their youth, level of education, and (pace Friedman) technical skills. But the greatly increased number of protestors attacking austerity regimes, demanding jobs, and advocating that infrastructures be modernized suggest that the protests are moving beyond the “middle-class workers” to include a more heterogeneous population.
Technology: As Friedman says, citing Leon Aron, use of smartphones and the social media has shortened the “turnaround time” between grievance and action. Well, yes. Personal technological devices are also a marker of relatively youthful and privileged protest groups and – as recent exposes make clear – a source of information and potential social control on the part of the authorities. But, technology aside, what is the likely direction of these unforeseen street protests?
The Times columnist concludes his analysis by remarking, rather complacently, that democracies will probably be “more volatile than ever.” But what we need to know is whether the revolts will continue to reflect the (still relatively unformed) feelings and demands of ambitious, middle-class urbanites, or whether they will expand to embrace the urban poor and workers beyond the capital, as well as people struggling to survive in the rural districts and small towns of these highly divided societies.
Another way to state the alternative is: reform or revolution? Street protests, in their current incoherent form, are an invitation to “authoritarian democrats” like Erdogan and Morsi to contemplate minimal reforms as a way of attempting to buy time and improve public relations. To the extent that protestors come into contact with the realities of deepening social divisions, the limitations of neo-liberal economic development, and the incapability of politics-as-usual to emancipate their people, however, the question of revolution – and the possibility of a nonviolent reconstruction of their societies – will be posed. Meanwhile, in the United States, it will not take much, I think, for a movement of mass resistance inspired by other protests to revive.