Up Against Neoliberalism in Turkey and Brazil

The neoliberal political-economic model has failed in its own terms. This was true in 2008 when the global financial system nearly collapsed. Five years and many bailouts later, it is still true. And yet, the national and global leaders who make decisions about economic policy continue to act as though neo-liberalism works.

A lot of people, in many parts of the world, aren’t buying it anymore. Thanks to technological shifts, they have access to more critical sources of information and analysis, and they have horizontal networks through which they can share ideas and organize seemingly spontaneous actions. With these tools, and with their desire to move beyond current economic and political constraints, activists can turn a localized event into something much bigger than it would have been a few years ago.

This is one way of looking at events in Istanbul. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken neoliberal commonsense to its logical conclusion: he thinks that, because he was legitimately elected to office, he has a license to sell off Turkey’s resources to the highest bidders. Because a majority of Turks supported his party in the last election, he talks and acts as though he does not have to deal with the concerns of religious minorities or secularists or communities that would prefer to make their own decisions about developing and sustaining their neighborhoods. And in the name of security, stability and prosperity, he is taking measures to make sure his party stays in power for the long-term. The ‘commonsense’ to which he appeals allows him to claim that his actions are in keeping with democratic principles because, well, he was elected. It is a very narrow vision of democracy, in keeping with the need to maintain an illusion that the majority consents to the neoliberal project. Erdogan does not hesitate to use religion as a wedge. In this, our own benign tendencies (in the US and Europe) to see the protests as secular v. religious serves Erdogan’s purposes all too well.

Meanwhile in Brazil, discontent with corruption and with development decisions that do not reflect the interests of local communities is erupting into widespread protests. The genesis of this, and the kinds of leadership that is engaged, may look different than what we’ve seen in Turkey, in part because there are localities in Brazil where people have had some taste of participatory democracy. And the governing Workers Party has made some progress in improving living standards and moving toward social equity in the face of international pressures to get in line with neoliberal constraints on public investments. And perhaps because people have seen what they can accomplish through collective action, they are not sitting idly by while political operatives divert precious resources toward corruption-tainted stadium projects and other investments involved with hosting the World Cup. This seems to have taken many Brazilian officials by surprise: the people love soccer; aren't they proud to host the World Cup (and the Olympics, too)? Looks like the people aren't as numbed by Big-business sports machines as officials thought they would be. The protesters are clear: they prefer healthcare, education, decent housing (and lower bus fares, too).

So far, the way in which Brazil’s President is responding sounds very different from that of the Turkish Prime Minister. President Dilma Rousseff, who was an activist during the dictatorship, has avoided labeling the protesters as 'other': “these voices, which go beyond traditional mechanisms, political parties and the media itself, need to be heard. The greatness of yesterday’s demonstrations were proof of the energy of our democracy.” In other words, this is what democracy looks like. And already, protesters appear to be winning a roll-back of fare hikes in some cities. Of course, this does not mean that her government will consistently do the right thing. It also does not mean that protesters will be treated with decency –– the front page photo on today’s New York Times –– in which a police officer is applying pepper spray to a protester’s unprotected face –– suggests otherwise.

Back in Turkey, the Prime Minister calls the protestors bums, vandals, foreign agents and terrorists. This latter label allows him to justify all manner of repression. Unfortunately, it seems that both here and elsewhere, majority of people are willing to tolerate a lot of coercive activities against ‘others’ in the name of fighting terrorists.

The Turkish government’s response to the uprisings that have spread to several cities illustrates the hollowness of the neoliberal version of democracy, and the heavy hand of coercion that rests in the shadows, waiting to be deployed if consent breaks down. We may eventually see similar responses in Brazil, given the sway that neoliberalism holds over every nation’s political economy. Still we can hope that the more participatory-democratic experiences have taken root, and will be able to absorb the creative energy unleashed by the protests. Stay tuned….