The Message of Protests

from Bloomberg Businessweek,

The anti-government uprisings in Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging economies illustrate the high price of progress.

What is happening in Brazil? Not so long ago, it was the toast of the global economy. More than 40 million Brazilians joined the middle class, the number of indigents plummeted, and the nation achieved the feat of reducing its legendary income inequality.

The Latin American giant was awarded both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. It seemed to have finally buried the old cliche: Brazil is the country of the future -- and always will be.

Now Brazil has hit turbulence. Since the middle of June, its biggest cities have been convulsed by rolling street protests. The initial spark was a nine-cent rise in bus fares, but the protests have since become wider, more clamorous expressions of anti-establishment anger. The day after the government backed down on the bus fare hike, 1 million demonstrators turned out in more than 100 cities to voice frustration with corruption, the inefficiency of the health-care and public transport systems, and runaway costs of hosting the World Cup.

Around the world, eruptions of mass rage are becoming increasingly common, often sparked by relatively minor incidents or grievances. In Chile, student protests about the high cost of education turned into violent clashes. In Turkey, the instigation was the government’s intention to raze a park in Istanbul.

In 2011 a Tunisian fruit vendor, exasperated by the constant harassment of the authorities, set himself on fire and started a revolution that ousted dictator Zina al-Abidine Ben Ali and ignited popular revolts throughout the Middle East.

n all the countries in which street riots erupted, the government was stunned by the rapid escalation of the protests. It didn’t expect them, didn’t understand their true nature, and was ill prepared to react effectively.

Governments have difficulty dealing with movements that lack a clear chain of command or a discernible organizational structure. In Brazil, for example, a survey found that 81 percent of those who participated in one of the massive rallies simply learned about it via Facebook or Twitter and decided to join.

The leaderless, spontaneous nature of the protests also makes it difficult for the government to find someone to blame - - or to decide whom to arrest in the hope of weakening the movement by cutting off its head. There is no head.

Just as nobody could anticipate the start of these protests, it’s equally impossible to predict how and when they will end. The political climate of these countries was radically changed by the protests, and their leadership has been weakened.

So why did thousands of citizens of Chile, Turkey, and Brazil take to the streets to protest, instead of celebrating the obvious and tangible progress of their respective countries? The answer may be found in a book that the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington published in 1968, “Political Order in Changing Societies.”

His thesis is that in societies experiencing rapid change, the public’s demand for public services grows at a faster clip than the government’s ability to satisfy it. His more general point is that institutions cannot develop at the pace required by the fast-growing expectations of a population recently empowered by prosperity, literacy, more information, and a newfound expectation -- indeed hunger -- to shape its own better future. In Huntington’s words, “The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social economic change.” That lag is what brings people into the streets.

In these three successful nations the current street protests will eventually abate. But that doesn’t mean their roots will disappear. In some countries the gap identified by Huntington is the source of debilitating turmoil and paralyzing political instability. In some lucky cases, Huntington’s gap propels society forward.

No government will be able to fully satisfy all the expectations of its people. Yet governments in the 21st century need to hear their people’s voices and offer something real in response. That means building a democracy that goes beyond holding free and fair elections.

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