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UERJ 2015

Global protest grows as citizens lose faith in politics and the state
The demonstrations in Brazil began after a small rise in bus fares that triggered mass
protests. Within days this had become a nationwide movement whose concerns had
spread far beyond fares: more than a million people were on the streets shouting about
everything − from corruption to the cost of living to the amount of money being spent on
the World Cup.
In Turkey, it was a similar story. A protest over the future of a city park in Istanbul snowballed
too into something bigger, a wider-ranging political confrontation with prime minister.
If the recent scenes have seemed familiar, it is because they shared common features: viral,
loosely organised with fractured messages and mostly taking place in urban public locations.
Unlike the protest movement of 1968, or even the end of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe
in 1989, these are movements with few discernible leaders and often conflicting ideologies.
Their points of reference are not even necessarily ideological, but take inspiration from
other protests, including those of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The result
has seen a wave of social movements − sometimes short-lived − from Wall Street to Tel
Aviv and from Istanbul to Rio de Janeiro, often engaging younger, better educated and
wealthier members of society.
In Brazil, the varied banners underlined the difficulty of easy categorisation as protesters
held aloft signs expressing a range of demands from education reforms to free bus fares,
while denouncing the billions of public dollars spent on stadiums for the 2014 World Cup
and the Olympics.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22”, Rodrigues da Cunha, a 63-year-old protester told the Associated
Press. “On the one hand, we need some sort of leadership; on the other, we don’t want
this to be compromised by being affiliated with any political party.”
As the Economist pointed out, while mass movements in Britain, France, Sweden and Turkey
have been inspired by a variety of causes, including falling living standards, authoritarian
government and worries about immigration, Brazil does not fit the picture, with youth
unemployment at a record low and enjoying the biggest leap in living standards in the
country’s history.
So what’s going on? “This is a very peculiar moment”, Saskia Sassen, a sociology professor
at Columbia University, New York, told the Observer. She argues that one distinguishing
factor is that many of the protest movements of the past decade have been defined
by the involvement of what she calls “the modest middle class”, who have often been
beneficiaries of the systems they are protesting against, but whose positions have been
eroded by neoliberal economic policies that have seen both distribution of wealth and
opportunities captured by a narrowing minority. As people have come to feel more distant
from government and economic institutions, a large part of the new mass forms of dissent
has come to be seen as an opportunity to demonstrate ideas of “citizenship”.
Sassen’s belief that many of the recent protests are middle-class-driven appeared to be
confirmed overtly − in the case of Brazil, at least.



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