Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Inquilab Zindabad ? No ! _____ (fill in the blanks) Murdabad .

What is common between a park demolition and a raise in bus fares. Well, something profound , I believe. Because in the last one month, I dare suggest that these were the two most important events in the world (NSA be damned ; as if that was a surprise)

The park issue was the first and it happened in Istanbul, Turkey.  The government had planned to demolish the Taksim Gezi Park and use the space to reconstruct the historic Taksim military barracks. About 50 environmentalists occupied the Park in protest. The police , predictably evicted them. That snowballed into massive nationwide protests and a huge Occupy Taksim Square movement started.  The issue of demolition of the Park has now given way to a protest against all sorts of unrelated issues and drawing crowds numbering in the tens of thousands. It is now an anti government protest without a coherent theme or leaders. A big section of the population is just protesting without a clear understanding of what they are protesting against and what the solution is. This mind you, in a country where the President Erdogan has won repeated elections with a strong mandate.

In Brazil, the government decided to raise some bus , train and metro fares. A few protested, notably the  Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement). The police broke up the protests. Again this has snowballed into a nationwide protest movement, involving millions of people. The government quickly withdrew the bus fare hike, but the protests have snowballed into something bigger - a whole range of issues, including protests against the Football World Cup and the Olympics all scheduled to be held in Brazil in the near future.  If Brazilians are protesting against football, something serious is happening. Again this is in a country where Dilma Rousseff won a resounding mandate in the elections and is the chosen successor of the extremely popular Lula.

As of today, both these protests are going on. You can see parallels with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US and a few other places. In all these protests, there is no coherent theme, there is no leadership organising the protests. But these protests have been massive, cover a whole range of grievances and are significantly aided by social media.  They largely cover the middle class, not the poor. They tend to die down because they are not coherent and not "organised". But they are symptoms of a deep underlying problem.

This is a profound sociological change and one that should be researched deeply.  I believe the underlying issue is economic. Despite a big economic improvement globally across the last two decades, there is deep resentment. Large swathes of the population do not believe that there is a bright economic future ahead of them. This, despite the fact that the future is significantly brighter than what our parents, grandparents and forefathers ever had. And that is the problem governments and societies cannot ignore. There is no easy solution, and aspects of the solution will be different for different societies. But the root of the solution is economic. We have to have economic growth.

PS - In the title of the post - Inquilab Zindabad means Long live the revolution, in Urdu, a favourite phrase of protests of the past in the Indian subcontinent. Murdabad means "Down with".


Sriram Khé said...

I am with you until ...

Ok, first on why I am with you. Yes, the OWS, and Turkey, and Brazil, and ... are all variations of the same theme of people expressing their dissatisfaction with economic matters. And the neatest thing about all these is how they seem to happen quite leaderless. Nobody seems to be explicitly orchestrating these events.

So, where do I branch away from you? When you write at the end "We have to have economic growth."

I don't think it is about economic growth as much as it is a disagreement over how the growth ought to be shared. It will be easier if only it were about economic growth alone. Turkey has had some fantastic growth over the years. It is really not about wanting more growth there. OWS was not about more growth, and neither are the protests in Brazil.

In a few previous posts, here and at my blog, we have agreed, while disagreeing, that the time is ripe, or even overripe, in terms of rewriting various aspects of the social contract that exists within each country. Mere economic growth does not seem to be sufficient, though at least modest rates might be necessary.

I suspect that these issues will not go away any time soon because rewriting those contracts won't be easy.

Deepa said...

I don't think its just economic matters. In India we have had these big ones for the Lokpal bill and then the Delhi rape case. But to be honest, I have always wondered about the futility of these mass upsurges. Even when the underlying issues were so grave, the government got away with it and almost make a mockery of the public involved in these movements. I wonder what really is the key to bring change.

Ramesh said...

@sriram - Yes, the issue is also the distribution of the economic gains, but the first problem is to create the growth. There isn't enough growth to go around. If employment opportunities are good; the ability to create wealth (legally and ethically) are good, the standard of living rises, then there is much less disaffection and angst. The example in China supports this hypothesis. There is some, but not much envy of the rich. As the general standard of living of everybody has risen, there is much less disaffection. The protest capital of the world (yes, that is indeed China) has problems with corruption on a big scale, has land grabs, and social issues to contend with, given their system of governance. But the underlying economic problem has been largely tackled, which is why we do not see a revolution in that country.

@Shachi - yes, there are social issues like corruption (India), religion (Turkey), but I believe the underlying malaise is economic. If there was good economic opportunity for a large section of the population, there will be much less angst.

Deepa said...

It was me :(

Sriram Khé said...

LOL, Shachi!
er, Nancy, er, Deepa ... ;)

If you feel ignored and neglected, well, join my club. Actually, Rodney Dangerfield's club of "I don't get no respect" ;)

Deepa said...

@ Sriram- No no no! you ain't part of no such club Mr! What are you complaining about.. that he didn't use a CAP for the first letter of you name?! Stop mocking the small fry! :D :D

Sriram Khé said...


this line to let you know that the previous all caps was not an accident ;)

Ramesh said...

@Deepa- Grrr. I am getting old. I had just come from reading Shachi's post and ..... gentle nudge to resume blogging :)

@The Rt' Hon'ble Lord SRIRAM KHE III, Second Viscount of Eugene - Your Lordship - shall henceforth address you by your full title :)

Shachi said...

LOL- I was going to comment and could not. What happens is if I'm reading on my iPhone at night I don't feel like typing on the small screen. So my thoughts on the post don't make it as a comment here.

Ramesh said...

@Shachi - Send your thoughts over telepathy and , or better still invent the technology that will capture them without the need to type :):)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: I would hazard that the issue is lack of economic participation and not a lack of economic growth per se. Turkey has actually doubled GDP in the last dozen years. I travelled extensively there a year ago and the prosperity was visible. Even in Istanbul. Inequalities have always existed in society, and perhaps the metrics indicate more inequality today (incomes, wealth, opportunity) as compared to the previous generation.

What frustrates young people is that the opportunity to participate shrinks either due to rent-seeking, or because the cost of participation is too high (e.g. if you wish to sell a car at 10000 dollars you have to pay wages at 1 dollar an hour - and the minimum wage is 6). In the latter case there is no way you can "pay" to work.

The latter are strains introduced by globalization. Globalization of manufacture and services is facilitated by the entry of large amounts of low cost labour into the economy. So either the average European learns new skills or watches his standard of living suffer.

China is a poor example because it fails to address what will happen to approximately 50m young Europeans and God knows how many young Americans and Turks and Brazilians. True, Brazil and Turkey have relatively lower costs and I am sure cars get made there. In their case rent seeking frustrates participation.

Our common friend who you know has recently been asked to set up a platform to find the next generation of Mittelstands in his European country that could be expected to put enough economic growth to generate jobs with a per capita income of 20,000 Euros per annum. The platform is being funded by banks. The Ministry of Industry believes that unless this happens over the next five years, this country will face severe social problems and will be forced to leave the EU. Its a plan, an example of forward thinking, and much needed in the world today.

Now, in our beloved homeland of India that is Bharat, can someone look at this kind of endeavour. Absolutely not. Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Yes and No. Conventional wisdom is that this is all about inequality of income and the growing disparity between rich and poor. I think not. All of Turkey's and Brazil's growth happened before the financial crisis hit - last 5 years growth is not adequate. Five years ago, there was little disaffection - Erdogan was winning every election handsomely and Lula was a hero. I still think the disaffection is due to anaemic growth over the last 4 years.

The China example is valid in my view. In most other cpuntries, show a rich man and the general reaction is jealousy or envy. Even now, in China a rich man is an icon to follow - a whole generation has been brought up on what used to be the American dream.

As for Old Blighty, good luck to establishing Mittelstands. We shall agree to diagree on the relative merits of Her Majesty's land verus her former colony.

RamMmm said...

This reminds me of the riots in UK last year sparked off for no strong reason or the riots in France sometime back. There is discontent below the surface, possibly economic inequality or no clue of what the future holds and therefore the reactions spark off with some inane trigger and also die because there is no one to lead.

Ramesh said...

@RamMmm - Yes, there have been sporadic demonstrations in other countries as well, although the French case is a different one - that country has a long history of street protests whether they are feeling good or not !! There is a lot of discontent below the surface - history shows us that when the discontent keeps simmering revolutions and wars erupt. Governments, and societies ignore them at their peril.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: I was talking about Spain.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - Oh ; misread it completely.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Ramesh: I do not want you or your readers to think I am some kind of "Coconut" Raj-Apologist- Niraj Chaudhury clone. Far from it.

However our complete failure to execute well on ANYTHING, the hypocrisy between our public pronouncements and actions, the total lack of engagement from the middle class, are all beginning to wear me down in my dotage. And if you wish a more scholarly view of all this , read Jean Dreze (the Belgian-turned-Indian economist and writer).

Vishal said...

Quite an insight, Ramesh! Very true that the today that we are living in is much better than the yesterday that our parents lived in. I think that the expectations have multiplied manifold though and that is where the resentment is setting in. No wonder that this resentment is showing up in streets as the growth has to come from somewhere.

Sriram Khé said...

The conversations never end ;)

One of my favorite commentators, James Surowiecki, writes in the New Yorker (http://t.co/JoKMmQfodD):

"There’s a basic paradox of economic growth: as people do better, they are often less content, because they expect more. ...
Higher expectations don’t guarantee change, but history suggests that the uprisings they lead to can be powerful engines of reform. In the U.S., at the turn of the twentieth century, an anxious middle class—frustrated with government corruption and inefficiency—drove the Progressive movement. The impetus gave us campaign-finance regulations, antitrust laws, food and drug legislation, direct election of senators, and, eventually, women’s suffrage. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff has already offered a host of reform proposals in response to the demonstrators. The stereotypical image of the middle class is that it’s dull and complacent. But when it rises, turmoil follows. "

Ramesh said...

@sriram - Wonderful that they never end. Long may it be so !

Yes, that is true, the more the economic advancement, the more the opportunity for discontent. However, as long as the growth keeps happening, the discontent releases itself in bursts of steam. Its when the growth stops, that the possibilities of turmoil increase.

Sriram Khé said...

And on the need for rewriting the "social contract" ...

Here is from an op-ed by Kemal Derviş (former Minister of Economic Affairs of Turkey and former Administrator for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), is Vice President of the Brookings Institution.)

"The new social contract for the first half of the twenty-first century must be one that combines fiscal realism, significant room for individual preferences, and strong social solidarity and protection against shocks stemming from personal circumstances or a volatile economy. Many countries are taking steps in this direction. They are too timid. We need a comprehensive and revolutionary reframing of education, work, retirement, and leisure time."

Easier said than done, right?


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