Street Protests and Class Power: Reflections on Current Events in Turkey, Egypt, and Brazil and the Aftermath of the Arab Spring

The ongoing events that set fire to Turkey from the end of May, the mass demonstrations in Brazil during the Confederations Cup, and the current events in Egypt with Tahrir Square once again full of demonstrators calling for the overthrown of the President, show very clearly that we still live in a world dominated by the events that were unleashed by a young man burning himself to death in Tunisia on 17th December 2010, which have become widely known as the 'Arab Spring'.

At the end of May, demonstrations against the development of a shopping centre and the demolition of a park in the centre of Istanbul exploded into a movement which brought millions of people into the streets in 79 of Turkey's 81 provinces. Then, while the world's eyes were turned towards the football tournament in Brazil demonstrations against public transport fare rises in São Paulo quickly spread across the country capturing the front pages and pushing the football to the sidelines. In Egypt demonstrations successfully demanding the removal of President Mohammed Morsi occurred across the country apparently bring even larger numbers of people into the streets than those of two years ago. In addition, though less well reported in the media, Indonesia has been rocked by demonstrations against a 44% increase in petrol prices.

Obviously this is a movement, if indeed it can be called a 'movement' that has gone far beyond any specifically Arab roots, and has also, at least on a superficial level, gone beyond protests against 'dictators' and for 'democracy' if only in that the countries currently affected are all democracies. What then, overriding all of the local detail, can be said to characterise these movements.

Demographics of Demonstrations

The most striking thing about this movement is how it is primarily of young people. The anarchist media may show pictures of a grandmother firing a catapult at the police in Taksim but such exceptions are merely proof of the rule. Of course, it is no surprise that young people make up the shock troops of any social struggle. What is more interesting is that these struggles are taking place in countries with an overwhelmingly young demographic. In Turkey, for example, 43.3% of the population are 24 or under. The comparative figures for Egypt, Brazil, and Indonesia are 40.7%, 41.5%, and 44.1% respectively. When you compare these figures with the statistics for countries in the 'West', the difference is very stark. The same figures for Germany, the UK, the US, and Japan are 24.1%, 30.3%, 33.8%, and 23.3%.

The countries where these events are taking place not only experience the global trends that are effecting young people across the whole world but also these trends are amplified by the much larger proportion of young people within the population. The expansion of university education is a worldwide phenomenon. In Turkey for example the number of university graduates has increased by 5% every year since 1995. As in Western countries there are an increasing number of graduates coming out of university and finding that compared to their parents generation their qualifications have much less chance of leading them into a job. This of course has been made even worse by the effects of the latest outbreak of the international economic crisis since 2008. According to the left-wing trade union DİSK unemployment is running at 17%. Obviously this affects not just university students, but also all young people who are caught up in the same dynamic of studying, exams, and cramming schools. It is the overwhelming mass of young people caught up in an education system which fails to fulfil any of its promises in terms of being able to offer people a future 'other than low paid and precarious jobs that is the social dynamic which is powering these sort of movements'.

Class Composition

The fact that the protesters are on the whole young is, though, hardly surprising. What is more important is to understand the class nature of these movements. Various different analysis have outlined how they see these movements according to their own ideological slant. This has ranged in Turkey from Erdoğan's supporters who would typify the movement as one of elites protesting against a government democratically elected by the countries poor, to the Turkish left, for some of whom, this is a completely proletarian movement. What is undoubtedly true is that many of the people who make up these sorts of movements come from the working class. That is unsurprising though. The majority of urban dwellers in these countries are working class, and no effective political movement, be it communist, fascist, religious, or nationalist, can exist if it doesn't get support from the working class. Certainly the composition of the pro-government rallies organised by Tayyip Erdoğan's AKP has also been working class, indeed one could even make an argument that they were even more so.

The question that needs to be asked before even trying to determine the class nature of these movements is what determines the class nature of a movement in general. The sociological composition of a movement alone is not enough to judge its nature. Workers can be mobilised behind completely reactionary movements, nor are the methods of the working class sufficient to make a judgement, as is shown by the Powell strikes in the UK in the 60s and the Ulster Workers' Council in 1974. Equally important are the aims, demands, and direction of a movement. In making this sort of judgement on a movement all of these factors need to be taken into consideration.

When looking at these considerations then how can we evaluate these movements. Certainly a certain section of the working class is predominant in them. As previously stated though, this is to be expected in any movement. The methods used, massive demonstrations, assemblies, and even some strikes are consistent with the methods of the working class. There is, though, a striking lack of activity in the workplace, which is a crucial part of any working class movement. Even in Turkey where there seems to have been the highest number of strikes, involving around half a million workers, the majority of unionised workers were not involved in strikes. As for the demands and aims of the movements, they have been a mixed bag. Certainly there have been demands relating to working class living standards such as those against public transport fare increases in Brazil, and opposition to state repression of demonstrators, but equally so there have been non-class demands such as those from the demonstrators in Egypt who were calling on the army to intervene and make a coup. If the Turkish army hadn't suffered a historic defeat over the last decade at the hands of the AKP government, it wouldn't have been a surprise to have heard some sections of the demonstrators raising similar demands there.

When trying to draw up a balance sheet of these movements, with their lack of activity at the point of production, mixed demands, and composition not made upon a class basis, but more on a demographic basis of the young, it is clear that they are cross-class movements. More to the point though, they are real mass movements, not small cross-class campaigns. Within these movements there are workers fighting for their own class demands. This was very evident in Egypt in 2011, when it was almost as if the strike wave in the factories was taking advantage of the 'Tahrir Square movement' to press its own interests. Equally so within these movements there are also workers on demonstrations backing all sorts of bourgeois demands.

It is important to understand what this means though. Just because a movement is a cross-class movement it doesn't mean that communist organisations should dismiss it and stand back highhandedly refusing to have anything to do with it. Of course communist organisations have a duty to be involved in these sort of movements, always working to encourage class autonomy and independence. Conversely, it is also important not to get carried away seeing some sort of pure proletarian movement, or pulled behind various bourgeois factions. These two things are closely interlinked as if you can't recognise and understand what sort of movement it is, and what tendencies are operating within it, it is possible to end up putting forth all sorts of nonsense.

'Occupy' and Assemblies

One thing that is quite clear is that while the movements of this summer are in continuity with the 'Arab Spring', and the 'Green movement' in Iran, the 'Occupy' movement has very little in common with these events, and was at most a very pale reflection of the events of the 'Arab Spring'. The most obvious level that this can be seen on is that while these movements are shaking societies, bringing in all sectors of the population, rocking governments (and in cases causing them to be toppled), and are genuinely massive movements, the Occupy movement essentially never went beyond a movement of activists. That it received the amount of media attention that it did, both in the mainstream and left press, is as much to do with it taking place in America, which is both the focus of the world's media, and a country where the working class is very weak, and where the level of struggle is extremely low. The US is obviously an important country, and communists can't ignore it. Nevertheless, understanding is, as ever, important. The amount of coverage given to these events by an American dominated world media, and the excitement felt by the American left after years of struggles being scarce are not sufficient data to judge the size of this movement. Of course 'Occupy' and even more so the events in Wisconsin are important, but their importance lies in the fact that they show the potential start of a resurgence in America, however small at the moment, and not in the events themselves.

One of the features of the 'Occupy' movement that has been trumpeted by many on the left has been its use of assemblies to 'run' the movement. These types of assemblies have also been seen in various countries in the 'Arab Spring', and in Turkey, and Brazil today. Many on the left seem to be eulogising these movements as if they are some sort of proto-Soviets. They are not.

The most important difference between these assemblies, and mass meetings held by workers is, who they represent. The mass meeting in a workplace clearly represents the people who work there. These assemblies aren't based upon workplaces. More often than not, although there have been some of them in working class neighbourhoods, they represent nobody but the demonstrators themselves, rather than being a class body, they are bodies of activists. How the demonstrators are represented varies from 'Taksim Solidarity', which is a top down amalgamation of mainstream and left political parties with NGOs and left trade unions to the worst of 'Occupy' which was a couple of dozen hippies in a circle discussing the report of the 'spiritual commission'. Of course, this doesn't mean that communists shouldn't try to present their arguments in these situations. It doesn't mean that they are the organisational form of the coming revolution either.

From Demonstration to Strikes

Nowhere has the nature of these assemblies been clearer than in their attempts to call strikes. An attempt during the 'Occupy' movement to call a general strike in Oakland, California failed to bring out masses of workers, and even in places where it had support amongst workers (port of Oakland, and teachers) only resulted in people taking a holiday, a personal day, or phoning in sick. What is clear from this is that committees of activists can't call the working class out on strike at will. Only workers themselves can do this, and while many of the activists in these sort of movements are workers, they tend to work, as many young people do today, in small workplaces, often in precarious jobs. However, the driving force behind large scale strike movements is not these sort of workplaces. It is in the large work places where movements of workers have the greatest influence.

To speak in very general terms, the demonstrators are not the same part of the working class as the part that is necessary to make a successful mass strike. In contrast to thirty plus years ago when these sort of young people would have gone into large workplaces either in factories, or the state sector, today there are less of those jobs, young people are much more likely to be university-educated, and when they graduate are less likely to go into those jobs anyway. Indeed even where these jobs still exist many of them are 'downsizing' and not recruiting new workers. In the TEKEL (a state monopoly) struggle in Turkey over the winter of 2009-10, young workers were noticeable by their absence, which was explained by the fact that no new workers had been recruited in the last 12 years. Statistics concerning the demonstrations in Brazil have suggested that nearly three quarters of the demonstrators are university-educated. This in a country where only 19% of the population have set foot in a university classroom, and even though college attendance rates amongst young people have almost doubled over recent years, this three quarters is well above the level in the general population let alone the working class. There is clearly a gap. The question is how to bridge it.

There have, of course, been moments where this gap has been bridged. To go back to the 'Green movement' in Iran there was a point when workers at Khodro, Iran's largest factory, came out in solidarity with demonstrators suffering from state repression. During the 'Arab Spring' there were workers' strikes particularly in Tunisia, and Egypt. In Turkey the left unions called for 'general strikes', and around half a million workers took part in them. In Brazil at the moment the main union confederations are talking about holding a day of 'protests, strikes, and marches' on the 11th July.

In Turkey, which has previously seen one-day 'general strikes' organised by the left unions, there seems to be a growing recognition that these strikes are neither widespread enough in terms of the amount of workers participating, nor long enough in terms of their limited duration to effectively challenge the state. A similar situation has been seen in Greece during the union organised one day strikes against the implementation of austerity programmes.

While the question of how to move beyond these strikes remains, the question of how to even call a one day strike is something that challenges the demonstrators. In all of these movements there have been calls for general strikes made over social media. Like in Oakland these have been largely unsuccessful. That is not to say that there is nothing at all positive here. It shows at least that there is a recognition that strikes are needed to push this sort of movement forward. In Brazil a Facebook call out for a general strike got more than half a million supporters, which shows that there is a level of support for strikes. However, there are problems with this approach in evidence from the fact that it has failed to be successful. Firstly, the demographic gap is something that is reflected in the usage of computers. Older workers are less likely to use computers than younger university-educated ones, and even where they do use computers they are less likely to use social media sites. Calls for a general strike on Facebook and Twitter are not even connecting to many of the people that they need to be aimed at.

This is not to disparage the use of the Internet. It is today an important means of communication. The Turkish state certainly thinks that it is a dangerous one, given the amount of people that have been raided, and arrested for tweeting. They certainly realise its potential, and don't look condescendingly at 'keyboard revolutionaries' as some on the left do. They lock them up. It nevertheless remains that while these media can bring people out onto the street for demonstrations it is far less effective at calling people out on strike. As well as the fact that these media don't connect to many of the people that they need to, the fact is that it is easier to turn up to a demonstration than to go on strike at work.

The first reason for this is that going to a demonstration is a decision that can be made individually. Of course there have been cases of people attending these protests collectively from their workplaces, schools or universities, it is not the majority experience. People can and do decide to go to them on their own. You can't decide to go on strike on your own, and it takes a lot more to decide to lose money and risk your job than it foes to turn up at a demonstration, which brings us the central question, the lack of experience, confidence, and consciousness within the workplace.

While there has been a resurgence in workplaces struggle on an international scale over the past decade or so, it is nevertheless a very small one. The fact that the last decade hasn't been as terrible as the 1990s were reflects more on how bad that decade was rather than how good the past one has been. Workplace struggles today are not at the level that they were in the eighties, let alone the seventies. The continuity with that period has gone. Workers with the experience of those struggles are already drawing their pensions, or at best approaching retirement. The experience has been lost, and newer workers are finding that they have to relearn things for themselves. In workplaces where they once held regular mass meetings to discuss things, these traditions have been lost and workers find themselves waiting for the unions to do something.

Future Expectations

It seems very clear that these sort of movements can be expected to continue to break out. The state has no solutions to offer. The removal of President Morsi in Egypt will not change the economic reality confronting any new government. The problems that are the underlining cause behind these movements can't be swept away. More specifically world capitalism does not have well paid secure jobs to give to the young people that it is churning out of its universities, and other educational establishments. Even though these movements may continue to explode, there is no way for them to move forward without activity in the workplace. Without that power, street movements will tend to burn themselves out, or even worse get transformed into conflicts turning workers against workers such as in Syria. The possibility of similar developments in Egypt, following the clashes caused by the military coup, are worrying to say the least.

Workers, while being involved in these movements as individuals, have nowhere been able to stamp their authority upon them as workers. With the development of class struggle there is the possibility that they might be able to assert themselves in future outbreaks. Also possible, especially in the Middle East, is the possibility that working class people will be dragged into killing each other on behalf of different ideologies, such as sectarianism, religion, and nationalism. If the road on Egypt leads to civil war it would be a disaster not just for workers in Egypt, but across the entire region. The self-activity of the working class is the first step in determining which road will be taken. This self-activity has not only to find adequate organisational forms for mass participation but also give rise to a political instrument which gives voice to the need not just to change the government but the entire economic and political system which spawned it. Ultimately the idea that capitalism can be made fairer has to give way to the idea that it has to be superseded.

D.Valerian 6/7/2013

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.