Shared symbolism of global youth unrest

 
Anti-government protesters in Guy Fawkes masks in Ankara, Turkey (5 June 2013)

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The language and the time zone changes but, from Turkey and Bulgaria to Brazil, the symbolism of protest is increasingly the same.

The Guy Fawkes masks, the erection of tent camps, the gas masks and helmets improvised in response to the use of tear gas as a means of collective punishment. The handwritten signs - scrawled in defiance of the state's power and the uniformity of the old, collective protests of yesteryear.

And the youthfulness of the core protesters.

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This is the first generation whose lives, and psychology, have been shaped by ready access to information technology and social media”

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In Gezi Park, Istanbul, before it was cleared by police, I saw school-age teenagers turn up regularly, each afternoon in small groups, colonise what was left of the lawn and start their homework.

The pictures coming out of Sao Paulo tell a similar story.

Bypassing the state

In both cities, people born in a post-ideological era are using what symbols they can to tell a story of being modern, urban and discontented: the national flag and the shirt of the local football team are memes common to both Istanbul and Sao Paulo.

But what is driving the discontent?

When I covered the unrest in Britain and southern Europe in 2011, the answer was clear. A whole generation of young people has seen economic promises cancelled: they will work probably until their late sixties, come out of university with lifetime-crippling debts.

And, as American students famously complained in 2009, the jobs they get when they leave university are often the same jobs they did, part-time, when they were at university. I've met qualified civil engineers in Greece whose job was waiting table; the fact that I met them on a riot tells you all you need to know.

'Brazil is waking up' - BBC viewers on the unrest in their own words

With the Arab Spring, it seemed different - from the outside: these were fast-growing economies - in Libya's case spectacularly fast. But here you hit something that makes this wave of unrest unique: this is the first generation whose lives, and psychology, have been shaped by ready access to information technology and social media.

We know what this does: it makes state propaganda, censorship and a government-aligned mainstream media very easy to bypass. Egyptian state TV totally lost credibility during the first days of the uprisings against President Hosni Mubarak. This month, when Turkish TV stations tried to pull the same kind of non-reporting of unrest, they were bombarded with complaints.

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The effects of police action are magnified by ability of protesters to send images of brutality around the world immediately”

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"But," one politics professor told me, "most of the complaints were from people aged over 35. The youth don't watch TV, and in any case they have never believed what's on the news."

Social media makes it possible to organise protests fast, to react to repression fast, and to wage a quite successful propaganda war that makes the mainstream media and the spin machines of governments look foolish.

At the same time, it encourages a relatively "horizontal" structure to the protests themselves. Taksim Square in Istanbul was rare for having a 60-strong organising group; the protests in Sao Paulo have followed the more general pattern of several organising groups and an amorphous network of people who simply choose themselves where to turn up, what to write on their banners, and what to do.

As I arrived in Istanbul, some of my contacts in financial markets were mystified: why are they protesting when it is one of the fastest growing places on earth?

Get down to street level and the answer was clear. In the first place, many of the young educated people I spoke to complained that "the wealth is going to the corrupt elite"; many pointed out that despite being doctors, civil engineers, dotcom types etc, they could not afford a place to live.

'Perfectly ordinary people'

But then there was the bigger grievance: they felt the religious conservative government of the AK Party was impinging on their freedom. One Turkish fashion writer - no natural revolutionary - complained of "a growing, insidious hostility to the modern".

A police fires tear gas in Istanbul, Turkey (38 May 2013) Turkey's unrest began in late May as a small sit-in over the planned demolition of a park but spiralled into far wider anti-government protests after a police crackdown.
Protest march in Sao Paulo, Brazil (17 June 2013) People took to the streets in Brazil in mid-June to protest against the rising cost of public transport, poor public services and the amount being spent on the 2014 football World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
Protesters should slogans in Sofia, Bulgaria (14 June 2013) On 19 June, protesters in Bulgaria managed to convince Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski to scrap his controversial appointment of a new head of the national security agency.

And they saw the heavy police action against the original tent camp in Gezi Park - an environmental protest - as a symbol of this unfreedom.

In Sao Paulo, the grievances are more clearly social: "Fewer stadiums, more hospitals", reads one banner. The rising price of transport, combined with the government's determination to prioritise infrastructure and sports stadia, are what this has come to be about.

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The protesters seem to be frightened of what the government might do rather than what it actually has done.”

End Quote Caner Ozdemir Istanbul

But again, last week, it was an allegedly disproportionate police action - the arrest of a journalist for carrying vinegar (to dull the sting of tear gas), the shooting of four journalists with rubber bullets - which led to escalation.

In each case, the effects of police action are magnified by the ability of protesters to send images of brutality around the world immediately. And as a veteran of reporting more than 30 years' worth of "non-lethal" law enforcement, my impression is that the use of CS, baton rounds, water cannon is pushing police procedures all over the world towards "near lethal" levels that are increasingly unacceptable to protesters who go on the streets with no violent intent.

Though smaller by comparison, the Bulgarian protests that on Wednesday removed a controversial head of state security speak to the issues that unite those taking to the streets in many countries: it is not about poverty, say protesters, it is about corruption, the sham nature of democracy, clique politics and an elite prepared to grab the lion's share of the wealth generated by economic development.

In short, just as in 1989, when we found that people in East Europe preferred individual freedom to communism, today capitalism is becoming identified with the rule of unaccountable elites, lack of effective democratic accountability, and repressive policing.

And what the events of the last three years have shown is that perfectly ordinary people, with no ideological axe to grind, have found the means to resist it.

 
Paul Mason, Economics editor, Newsnight Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

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  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 60.

    Good on them! People in this country should be less apathetic and accepting of the status quo too. We are governed by public school boys with no idea what life is like for the masses. They govern in the interests of their own class and what do we do about it? We let them. Change has always had to be fought for and around the world people are doing so. You have nothing to lose but your chains!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 59.

    How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?. BM, Redemption Songs.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 58.

    It would come as no surprise if it was to happen in the UK more frequently. The baby-boomers have raped the UK; sold the utilities, sold the gas and oil, lived through lax planning years that saw building everywhere for nowt, presided over massive house price rises that enable them to now swan about in motorhomes in their retirement.

    What is left for future generations? Certainly no retirement.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 57.

    Power and greed has always been the weak spot of humanity and our leaders r proving once again this is the path they intend to follow. But why be so short sighted, do they not see that losing a bit today will benefit everyone tomorrow. Why risk a global wide unrest for short term profit and power, when they have the capacity to share a little power and wealth in order to sustain our future

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 56.

    If politicians used Police and tax payer money for the benefit of the tax payer, there is more trust between govt and people.

    what we have now is a small elite using both the police and tax payer money to protect their interests and line their pockets and their friends.

    this is not democracy......

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 55.

    Paul, you are the main reason I still read the BBC. All persistently restless societies share one common thing: they suffer a very uneven spread of wealth and opportunity to create wealth. Financial types consult macro indices (investment flow, GDP, # of jobs, % unemployed). Can't they see this is inept without the MISSING indicator: how even the spread of wealth and opportunity is.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 54.

    It's deeply ironic that Northern Ireland so peacefully hosted the G8. Massive overkill on the security front looks silly in hindsight. Fermanagh is just too far away for young revolutionaries it seems.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 53.

    The sham nature of democracy. Right on. What has taken the youth (and many others) so long to realise this?

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 52.

    I (and I am sure many others) have been considering increasing social unrest around the world since the beginnings of the Arab Spring. To find such a well written article which puts the socio-political situation in such an intelligent, clear way has helped greatly. An excellent piece of work Paul.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 51.

    This isn't State Communism. We are all complicit, entangled and dependent on systems of corruption and exploitation. We need to individually confront the new spirit of the age which was knocked into us with great effort and violence, the industrial feudalism mindset that is today voluntarily embedded within us and acted out as unspoken second nature, social norm and even aspirational.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 50.

    Excellent analysis. The middle class, world-wide, are beginning to believe they have nothing left to lose. Health & welfare services are being dismantled; the banks have turned thief and the police turned hooligan. Big business manipulates, the State spies, politicians lie, and the media go along. A tide of anger is flowing. Not just in Bulgaria, Turkey and Brazil; in Europe and N. America, too.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 49.

    Sorry, Guy Hardrock, but I'm afraid you've missed the point of the protests in Turkey and Brazil. When you speak of the "dole", you clearly speak from a British perspective which has nothing to do with what has been going on in Brazil.

  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 48.

    47: What a joke... There are very real political / social issues, but those who protest "capitalism" are simply unsatisfied 'takers' - and no dole will ever satisfy them. Media networks spreading their grievances around the globe, the cool phone to take the photos, the electric power behind the wall socket, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, every bit of what we take for granted: capitalism...

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 47.

    31. Boudicca12 - when I say the older generation need to get out of the way I mean from positions of leadership. The world has changed so rapidly that many cant keep up which explains why there is so little strategy for the future. If you left it to the young people we would re-instal a cradle to grave welfare state instead of renew Trident. We understand the benefits of working together as equals

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 46.

    Gwyn Williams

    Good article Paul, you must feel very lonely at the BBC. But, the protests in Brazil could lead to the right wing returning to power with policies that placate the middle classes, while cracking down even harder on the mass of working people. Poor Dilma, her SD policies helped grow the middle class which then turns around and bites her. Bit like the UKLP.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 45.

    The author, Paul Mason, explains the ultimate focus of the protest movements in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere: "capitalism is becoming identified with the rule of unaccountable elites, lack of effective democratic accountability, and repressive policing." I agree with this analysis. Sadly, the same issues are true also here in the United States. Remember the "Occupy Wall Street" protest!

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 44.

    This should be happening here! Only trouble is you get every media outlet condemning the actions and picking out a couple idiots and making it out as if its the actions of the whole crowd.

    More and more people are becoming angry, it is probably just a matter of time.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 43.

    When multinationals, governments and consumers go on a rampage the entire living organism of this planet is dying a death of a thousand lashes.
    Naturally, people don't like this as it is counterproductive to a sustainable future. Looks like the rich and powerful are on the hook as a witch hunt could loom large. Problem is, they have nowhere to run. Last i checked, Earth money was invalid on Mars.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 42.

    VictorM @40
    NOT new Tower of Babel, internet + search engine + social media has the potential to arm our young with understanding, NOT again to be led by exploitative fashion, to treat each other as real, to care for each other 'neighbour as self', to agree equal partnership, to be ready to argue & stand together against these in power who cheat & tax our present & future to pay for our repression

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 41.

    Doesn't anybody remember the sixties? Anti authoritarianism, anti hypocrisy and bigotry and general anti everything? We should rejoice that it is happening again, in different form but powered by the same energy of youth.

 

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