The recent mass uprisings led mainly by young people in Brazil and Turkey – two very different and newly emerging powers – represent a new participatory democracy stage in the evolution of social movements, which deserves the close attention of progressives. These movements follow the example of the Arab Spring, and suggest that the Occupy movement in the United States was only a preview of revolts to come.
Both Brazil and Turkey, despite cultural differences, were the scenes of radical upheavals against old orders in which serious reform coalitions came to power by electoral means in the past decade. There were significant gains for domestic constituencies who previously were marginalized in both countries; a new pride surged in both countries as military oligarchies faded; both governments played roles in altering the global balance of power away from Western neo-liberalism and military oligarchies.
But the coalitions that came to power with massive popular support – led at first by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey – stagnated after entering the institutional mainstream and took on characteristics of corruption and privilege that antagonized millions of people who were left out. In Brazil, the new elite became obsessed with building opulent soccer stadiums, while in Turkey Erdogan was intent on building a massive mosque and Islamic center where there had been a recreational commons of green space. The revolts in both places started with specific grievances but quickly escalated into challenges to the newly established social order. In both places, the perceived failure and corruption of the existing electoral system gave rise to action in the streets and a burst of participatory democracy demanding more open and accountable decision making processes.
The movements in both countries are experiencing many of the same divisions and weaknesses of movements struggling to transition beyond the streets without returning to the old and ossified channels of expression. President Dilma Vana Rousseff in Brazil and Erdogan in Turkey have chosen opposite responses, the first trying to welcome and accommodate the protests, the second taking a suppressive route, but neither offering a path to peaceful transformation. In Brazil, the Free Fare Movement was successful in blocking a significant increase in transit fares, but not in reversing budget priorities, nor the culture of political cronyism. In Turkey, the battle to save the park from the mosque is not yet over, and is evolving into a generalized resistance to Erdogan’s Islamic coalition, which until now has branded itself secular and modern.
What if anything does this have to do with Occupy and the US? There is a parallel. Movements from below were instrumental in bringing new, more progressive elites to power in Brazil and Turkey. Those new elites brought both hope and significant change for several years. But while raising the hopes of the popular majorities, and especially the expectations of the younger social media generation, for a significant time, those same hopes turned to angry frustration as the possibilities of reform appeared exhausted.
A similar pattern arose in the United States after the Wall Street financial crisis. Obama was elected on a wave of hope in 2008-2009. The Occupy movement rose in 2011 when reform failed to materialize rapidly enough. In 2012, millions of Americans mobilized to re-elect Obama, not from their original idealism but from fear of Romney. With that battle won, with Wall Street bankers and their derivatives still immune from democracy, with Citizens United corrupting democracy with secret money, with the Republican Supreme Court striking down the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, with the House of Representatives belonging to the Tea Party troglodytes, is it not only a matter of time before Americans create new ways to revolt against the institutional dinosaurs?
For more, please see "The Meaning and Prospects of the Street Mobilizations: An Interview with João Pedro Stedile."