Istanbul to Brazil: neoliberalism, democracy and resistance

Three weeks ago, police moved in to clear a protest camp out of an inner-city park, to make way for a shopping mall.

The protesters were a mixed bunch: leftists, environmentalists, even architects,who felt they had no other option than direct action to stop the destruction of another piece of history, another park, another shared social space. The police moved in with brutality, with near-lethal force. Images of their violence were shared on the internet and instantly sparked outrage from hundreds of thousands of people, especially youth. After three weeks of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, the police have managed to clear and hold the city square and protests are quietening down. But after the police moved in, council workers followed, planting trees and flowers – a sign perhaps that the mall development has been abandoned.

Elsewhere, a demonstration against public transport fare rises was attacked by the police, sparking an outpouring of anger and copycat protests and riots. In one city, a police facility was burned and the City Hall was attacked. The government backed down and the price hikes were scrapped, but protests are continuing –  now against the spending of billions on hosting a sports event instead of funding health and education.

The first country is Turkey and the second is Brazil. The same events could have taken place in almost any developed country – in Auckland, Jo’burg, Paris, Beijing. Although each country has its own culture and history, there is a massive political convergence underway from Istanbul to Brazil.

One reason often suggested for this convergence is the internet. The ability to share not just messages but images, movies and music has eroded the traditional boundaries between young people in different countries and has broken the stranglehold of monopoly media.

But important though this new technology is, there is a deeper reason: neoliberalism has globalised production, meaning work and wages are similar across more countries than ever before, and neoliberalism has deprived democracy of real content because “there is no alternative” to the market and austerity. There are more supposedly democratic countries in the world than ever – but the range of political choices and citizen engagement is declining.

Both Brazil and Turkey are “new democracies”, which only emerged from military dictatorships in the 1980s. Both have booming economies. Brazil has emerged from Third World semi-colonial status to become the seventh largest economy in the world. It is often cited,  alongside Russia, India and China, as an emerging power. Turkey, although smaller, has also enjoyed double digit GDP growth recently but the benefit of this growth, as in Brazil, has been unevenly shared. It is now one of the most unequal countries in the OECD.

The protests in Brazil and Turkey show that all is not well. However, their governments are anxious to debunk any idea that the revolution is in the air. Turkish President Abdullah Gul recently assured anxious businessmen that these events were not comparable to the revolutions that erupted in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. Addressing a meeting of Turkey’s International Investors Association just a day after Istanbul’s stock market fell by 10.5 percent in response to the popular upheaval, Gul said: “Two years ago in London, cars were burned and shops were looted because of similar reasons.

“During revolts in Spain due to the economic crisis, people filled the squares.

“The Occupy Wall Street movement continued for months in the United States. What happens in Turkey is similar to these countries.”

Gul is anxious to prove that Turkey, which is a candidate country for EU membership, is more similar to the West than it is to Syria. This is accurate but it says more about the weakness of western democracy than the strength of Turkish democracy.

The New World Order: failed states and police states

During the Cold War, authoritarian, often militarised states were the rule everywhere – even in countries suffering civil war. Since the end of the Cold War, state collapse has become more common – in Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali, Congo, Yugoslavia, Iraq and most recently, Syria.

In the bipolar Cold War world, the collapse of a state was seen as an opportunity for the opposing side – either the US or the USSR to move in and establish a client regime. In the Third World, authoritarian regimes, whether pro-US or pro-USSR were encouraged and formal democracy suffered. Brazil and Turkey were pro-US authoritarian regimes. The military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s were established in reaction to the 1968 movement, the most recent worldwide rebellion of youth and workers to shake capitalism.

In France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, the popular movements succeeded in overthrowing authoritarian style governments and ushering in a more liberal era, but in Turkey and Brazil, democracy was seen as a luxury best done without, for fear elections would lead those countries to join the “Dark Side” – the USSR.

Brazil and Turkey, like Chile, became the testing ground for a new economic theory – neoliberalism – which preached privatisation and austerity instead of state-led industrial development and welfare. The military were able to smash trade union and peasant opposition and open up parts of the world economy to international finance – mainly US but also other players, such as NZ’s Fletcher Challenge.

Initially, these experiments seemed to meet with success. Massive wealth was created – for the elites – in a renewed round of primitive accumulation as wages were slashed, and environmental safety disregarded. Neoliberalism grew prolifically as it was watered with the blood of hundreds of thousands of opposition activists, peasants and workers.

Then there was a blowback into the first world as the Western financial and military advisors to military neoliberal regimes in the Third World – Negroponte for example – started to turn their attention to what could be achieved by neoliberalism in the First WOrld as well.

Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 in the United Kingdom and Ronald Reagan in 1980 in the United States. Both set their sights on destroying the union movement, rolling back welfare and privatising everything that moved. Their methods were copied throughout the first world, in New Zealand under David Lange.

The results have been a massive increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, and a gutting of democracy. Quite simply, in the past, a lot more of life was either under state control (for example the old NZ Electricity Board) or was not under either state or market control – people owned their own houses, grew more of their own food, participated in sports and community groups that were independent of the market or the state. This meant communities had a greater say over their lives than is the case now.

A classic illustration of neoliberalism is the National Government’s moves to force solo mothers into work. Women on the benefit who have another child are supposed to put their child into care after they turn one and go to work. The state forces women into privatised childcare and the job market.

Another effect has been the loss of jobs, in manufacturing especially, to the former Third World. Chinese, Turkish and Brazilian capitalists have all benefited from outsourcing of factories to low-wage economies.

The stability of the First World, with democracy, Labour Parties, trade unions and jobs for life is looking increasingly like a thing of the past. Meanwhile, in the developing countries, the material wealth that was supposed to guarantee a better standard of living and more freedom for all has instead been siphoned off by the wealthy – local and overseas.

This in turn has meant that the living standards of young people in all parts of the world start to look increasingly similar.


As a result, resistance looks more and more the same, from Wall St to Gezi Square. Not only are we using the same technology, we are also working in the same sort of jobs (even for the same companies), with increasingly similar job security, facing the same struggles to pay for food and housing, and keep our private debt under control.

Politically, while people in the former Third World have to deal with the anti-democratic legacy of authoritarianism – thousands of people have been arrested in Turkey in dawn raids – in NZ and elsewhere in the former First World we also have less and less control over politics.

In Turkey, the European Union Minister Egemen Bagis said “From now on the state will unfortunately have to consider everyone who remains there [in Gezi Square] a supporter or member of a terror organization.” In New Zealand, the Labour Government introduced anti-terror legislation claiming it would not be used against New Zealanders, but then used it (of course) against Maori.

We have less and less control of politics, party politics has declined and we are more of a police-state than ever – by any measure.

This means protests happen less often but when they do they are more explosive and unpredictable.

There are great dangers to this. So far I’ve been talking about authoritarian states that have morphed in the 80s into neoliberal democracies but in many other countries, the authoritarian states never morphe, they just collapsed.

Saddam Hussein, Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi all ruled capitalist or state capitalist regimes, and now all except Egypt seem to be slipping into chaos. The market madness that replaces trains with expensive and destructive private cars and trucks and fails again and again to deliver basic needs can lead to a more vicious, more atavistic kind of madness, where people rely on patronage and community networks to survive in a violent competition.

Much of Africa is kept in this condition, with little hope of an Occupy Wall Street or Tahrir Square breaking through oligarchic control, because of the level of violence and tribalism. This is not a cultural critique. It could happen anywhere.

Yugoslavia was once a prosperous, western-style economy, highly educated and industrialised, with well-integrated communities, which overnight descended into tribalist savagery. The combination of neoliberal austerity with nationalist politics proved too great for that nation state to bear.

The key, as ever, is the organised working class. In Egypt the revolution overthrew Mubarak quickly, because of the power of the organised working class. In Turkey, the organised working class, battered and bruised by years of repression and anti-union laws, was not able to mobilise in convincing numbers in support of the Gezi protests. Without the working class, we are left with the sight of the “Standing Man” a lone individual confronting the state in a very aesthetic, but purely symbolic way.

Andrew Tait delivered this talk to our Dunedin branch in June.