The age of global mass protests: Modernisation Thesis disproved?

It is too early to tell what the affects of the Arab Spring will be. However, what is clear is that these protests seem to be spreading beyond the Middle East and North Africa and into the world’s emerging markets. Brazil is supposed to be a rising world power – it puts the B in BRICs. Yet, we see unprecedented protests. These follow protests in Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, India, South Africa and the UK. On the face of it, events in Tunisia at the end of 2010 have had an unprecedented impact, starting what looks like a very unpredictable chain of events. The reasons for these protests are all different, but it would appear that an new age of mass protest has emerged, aided by the organisational abilities of social media and technological innovations. Protests breed protests, as the text message has become as mighty as the sword. Technology has provided protests with a strategic advantage.

Yet, despite all the technology and organisational apparatus, what appears to be motivating these protests – the common theme throughout – is an objection to economic inequality and the political power it maintains. During my time in Tahrir Square in 2011, one of the most common reasons protesters cited for occupying the square was economic inequality – “look at these hotels, and fancy cars and watches” … “look at the price of bread” … “no jobs” … “fuel costs” …

This tells us something interesting about neoliberalism as an economic paradigm within emerging markets. Tunisia and Egypt were moving towards privatisation from 2008 at an incredible rate, with enviable economic growth to show for it. However, it was clear that rising tidies do not float all boats, and wealth does not trickle down. In places like Morocco increased privatisation led to poor health care for the poorer population as public practices shut up shop, moved across the road and set up unaffordable health care facilities. In Egypt, bread subsidies were cut; in Brazil, we are now seeing objections to money being spent on the World Cup prestige project rather than pubic goods and health. The global financial crisis has clearly exacerbated these problems around the globe. Faster growth in emerging markets isn’t solving mass youth unemployment, isn’t being shared and isn’t alleviating social problems. As these countries modernise, a new more stable middle class isn’t being established and therefore you don’t appear to be having the sort of modernisation processes occurring that you would expect to see under modernisation thesis. What’s troubling about this is that for at least a decade US and EU policy has been predicated on a neoliberal-security paradigm; the policy space where economics-security-development overlap in the hope of producing stable transformations to democracy and development throughout the globe. These protests are telling us that our policy-paradigm is faulty and that to develop a better security policy approach we need to develop better approaches to development and international political economy.

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Oz Hassan is  an assistant professor in U.S. national security at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Globalization and Regionalization and its Centre for Studies in Democratization. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Oz has published widely on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, European foreign policy, transatlantic relations, civil society development, assistance programs, counterterrorism and counterproliferation strategies, and democratization.

This post originally appeared on 26 June 2013 on Oz Hassan’s blog.

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