Throughout 2012 and the first part of 2013, a comfy misapprehension seemed to have settled among those whose job is to analyse world events: that, aside from continuing turbulence in the Arab world, the huge surge of protest that defined 2011 had died.
However, eurozone countries like Spain and Italy have hardly been models of quiet and obedience, and protest movements in such wildly diverse countries as Chile and Israel have not gone away. But in the UK and US, the demise of Occupy fed into a banal but effective story: that camping in city squares and decrying the general state of things is so 2011.
Look at Brazil where protests have rippled through around 80 cities with clear echoes of events two years ago. Everything is organised via social media; as happened in 2011, exactly what anyone wants seems less important than the general outlines of dissent, and the simple experience of being involved.
There has been surprise that such convulsive events have happened in a country where unemployment is at an all-time low. But therein lies proof that deeper factors are at work.
Fundamentally, what has been popping up around the planet for over two years is not about austerity, or the rest of the fallout from the crash of 2008, as important as they remain.
Its central tension is surely between a revolution in communication that is transforming people’s expectation of influence and voice, and closed networks of power that tie together corporations and government. If you haven’t read Paul Mason’s ‘Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere’, I’d suggest you do so — and begin with a quote halfway through, from the Internet theorist Clay Shirky: “Most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without those barriers we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.”
Brazil is a particularly fascinating case study, because it shines light on how awkwardly this new reality sits with even the most forward-looking parts of the mainstream left.
Orthodox social democracy would have you believe that the essential relations between citizen and State can remain largely unchanged, so long as money goes from rich to poor, and society is understood to be on roughly the correct path. But the politics that has flashed to life since 2011 proves that this is increasingly insufficient. The State is a massive part of the problem — whether that is masked by progressive intentions, as in Brazil; or stark-staringly obvious, as in countries where cuts are in full effect.
This is why, irrespective of election results, there will be many more flashpoints around the planet, and politics will have to be reinvented.
Across the world, parties of both left and right will either be transformed or disappear; in more and more countries, protests will flare into life, and then go quiet. Ugly populism and the hard right could very well prosper; social democracy may spend a long time in retreat. For good or ill, it’s going to be a very interesting century.