opinion
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Net-born revolts

Modern social protests mobilize the masses like never before. Efficacy of such grassroots movements is questionable

A new kind of politics is afoot. The new kind functions without leaders, infrastructure, big money, or the support of major parties and unions. It is not built on organizational structures, or leaders or coordinators who give it a voice, and can be neutralized by arresting them. Nor does it involve concrete programs, though it does start from a spark of clear popular discontent.

It expresses itself in sudden and massive urban mobilizations, occupying symbolic, central spaces in the cities, which normally take the authorities by surprise, and test the government's capacity to handle them.

It matters little whether the regime is dictatorial or democratic; whether the country belongs to the rich elite or is only "emerging;" or whether the prevailing culture is Christian or Islamic. Everywhere we see the same divorce between the street and the institutions, the same denunciation of corruption and enrichment at public expense, the same weariness of a system of decision-making that compromises the future in disregard of the people.

Everywhere we see the same divorce between the street and the institutions, the same denunciation of corruption and enrichment at public expense"

The present spate of protests in Turkey and Brazil sheds new light on a phenomenon that has been going on since 2008 in many countries, each one in its own particular circumstances. Its most spectacular moment was the Arab Spring of 2011, which led to the fall of three dictatorships, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The list extends to Iran, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Chile, Mexico, the US and Russia, besides the Indignant movement in Spain.

Power is shifting before our eyes from the old Western world to that of Asia, but also within each country. Everywhere new middle classes are emerging, with growing demands in terms of wealth, education, housing, consumption and, naturally, of individual liberty. The general upward trends in living standards, far from moderating their demands, raise their expectations and, when these are not fulfilled, exacerbate their demands and their irritation.

These young people, who have had access to education and to jobs, have cellphones and tablets with which to communicate their discontent and organize the expression of it. Unlike the old news media, slow and cumbersome, these new tools are instantaneous, act virally, accelerate the protest and are a form of organization in themselves. According to a close student of the phenomenon, the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, they create a "space of autonomy," a mixture of the cyberspace of the networks and the urban space they occupy, which constitutes the "new spatial form of movements on the networks."

Just as interesting as the new movements are the responses made by governments. Herein lies the difference between Erdogan's Turkey and Dilma Rousseff's Brazil. While the Turkish government plans to go ahead with the shopping mall in the Gezi park that sparked the protests, many Brazilian cities have already bowed to pressure to lower the price of public transport.

In both cases, the concrete demand tests the capacity for absorption of protest on the part of the respective governments. The Turkish prime minister has called out his own partisans to confront the demonstrators, denouncing the latter as terrorists, and wants to control the social networks. The Brazilian president has termed the protests eloquent proof of her country's "democratic energy," and calls for everyone "to hear these voices that go beyond traditional mechanisms, political parties and media."

These new net-organized social movements have so far demonstrated a dramatic capacity for moving and transforming the chessboard, but very little for capitalizing on their successes in the form of any real political power - whose possession, after all, is still decided on an electoral stage, and in parliaments that live with their backs turned to the new movements. Now, for the moment, they are going to be decisive factors in the immediate future of democracy in Turkey and Brazil.

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