Scattered, small-scale protests are so common at Union Square in Manhattan that they seem part of the landscape. So when a few score people gathered there in mid-June, waving flags supporting Turkish, Mexican and Brazilian protestors, they were routinely ignored by passers-by and media alike.
In this case, that tiny symbolic protest was an early sign of the mass upsurge that swept through Egypt this week and Brazil the week before, even as analysts were still struggling to explain the earlier turmoil in Turkey. Meanwhile, a protest is brewing in Mexico, demanding greater democratization of the country and its media.
Other than a passionate disgust with and distrust of the status quo, it is not clear what a wide variety of protests across the world may have in common. There is a pattern of specific localised issues — a rape case in Delhi, a park in Istanbul, bus fares in Sao Paulo – triggering a mass upsurge.
But what lies beneath?
Listening to emerging voices can offer clues.
Vijay Pratap, founder of Delhi based think tank South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy, suggests the protests are a symptom of the crisis of democracy itself – not just bad governance. “Democracy as it developed in the 20th century has reached a dead-end, it is not delivering either full representation or justice – thus the frustrations,” says Pratap who has been part of various international activist formations, including the Helsinki Process on Globalisation and Democratization.
Paul Mason, the author of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, has described these scattered protests as the “human spring.” According to Mason, who is economics editor of BBC television’s Newsnight program, this is “a shift in human consciousness and behaviour as momentous as that triggered by the arrival of mass consumption and mass culture in the 1900s.”
And why is this happening now? The most common answer, one that Mason also offers, is that these seething crowds are a consequence of “the rise of the networked individual colliding with the economic crisis.”
Actually, the current phase of protest began in 1999, when massive street level demonstrations by a multi-national gathering of agitators discontent with the emerging model of globalisation, disrupted the Ministerial meeting of the WTO in Seattle. Those protesters later came together in a loose international coalition known as the World Social Forum (WSF) which held its first meet in 2001 at Porto Alegre in Brazil.
Since then WSF meetings have become an annual feature in different parts of the world – including Mumbai in 2004. They have been criticised for being a hodge-podge of competing ideologies, but the WSF has succeeded in serving as a platform for the aspiration that “another world is possible” -one based on solidarity, cooperation, and respect of nature.
“Dignity” – the slogan of this year’s WSF meeting held in April at Tunis may be the key element of what lies beneath the global protests. Underlying a plethora of specific grievances is a longing, a somewhat hapless quest, for a new paradigm of power – one that gives individuals and communities a greater sense of control over their own destiny.
Much more is at stake than poverty alleviation or better government services. This is starkly illustrated by the Brazilian protests where unemployment among the youth is quite low and a large segment of the population has benefited from a leap in living standards over the last decade. Something more fundamental is afoot – a challenge to the very structures of representation developed over the 20th century.
Definitions of leadership and associated forms of hierarchy are up for grabs. These are also challenges to the traditional gap, even within radical left-wing movements, between their “leadership” and the “rank and file.” Occupy Wall Street and other protests are revolting against those hierarchies and attempting to forge a different way of doing politics.
This is why leaderless protests seem to be the order of the day. Whatever the immediate grievance, protestors are demanding some form of ‘direct democracy.’ It explains why some of the agitations thrive on the re-creation of socio-political gatherings on the scale of the Athenian Agora or the little crowd gathered around a speaker on a soap box in the village square.
But just what would direct democracy mean in the context of large populations at a national level? What would be the mechanisms for social and political coherence at that scale?
Answering these questions may well be the most critical and universal project of the 21st century. In that case even the most incoherent, disparate protests are important because they give voice to that longing and their internal structures are a form of experimentation.
The World Social Forum is itself subject to creative discontent about the process of seeking or crafting answers. It was easy enough to posit the WSF as a forum for people to imagine ‘global justice from below’ and quite another to practise it without falling apart. This was starkly illustrated at the Tunis WSF where some Palestinians stamped on the flag of Israel and some Moroccans quarreled with Sahrawis to the point where discussions in the gathering came to a halt. But as Chico Whitaker, the Brazilian activist regarded as one of the founders of WSF, pointed out: “… there were also discussions with mutual respect, about the possibility of democratic coexistence, in Tunisia itself, between political Islam and the sectors of society independent of religious affiliations.”
For the moment the outrage spilling over in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere, seems spontaneous. But if even a fraction of the people drawn into these protests is politicised and become engaged in the struggle for transformation over the long term, then the future of democracy, liberty and the quest for dignity is bright.
Seeking a regime change is hard enough but seeking a new paradigm of power itself is an epochal undertaking that will paradoxically require both restless passion and tireless patience.
Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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