Getting away from it all?

18 May 2010

A few days ago, a friend of Chang Noi decided she had to get away from it all. To escape the turmoil in Bangkok, she took a foreign holiday.

On the day she arrived in Greece, demonstrators fought an hours-long battle with police ending with three dead and scores injured. She had contemplated neighbouring Turkey as an alternative getaway. There on the same day, police with batons had clashed with protesters hurling bricks and fire bombs. Just across the Mediterranean, the dispossessed of Cairo decided to occupy the city centre, sleeping on the streets. Further afield, other cities were in turmoil. The Maoists staged a massive protest in Kathmandu. In the capital of Kyrgyzstan, an urban mob attacked the residence of the president, tore up the plants in his garden, and drove him from power.

It's tempting to see Thailand's turmoil, the red stockade in Rajprasong, and the whole contorted colour-coded battle of the past four years as something unique, with special causes rooted in Thaksin's extraordinary career and worries over succession. All these other cases have special circumstances too. The Greek riots are an offshoot of the country's financial collapse. The Kathmandu demo is just one more stage in the country's transition from monarchy. The Kyrgystani president had been elected to power on a surge of popularity, but turned out to be spectacularly corrupt. And so on. But what is really striking about all these incidents are the similarities. Big urban mobs. Fierce defiance. Security forces overstretched. States rattled. Middle class urbanites wringing their hands.

Perhaps the last time there was such a wave of protests across different countries was the summer of 1968. But the particular cities, the type of people on the streets, and the demands were very different then. The contrast helps to understand what is happening today.

In 1968, the drivers of protest were an odd mixture of anger against the Vietnam war, left-wing rejection of capitalism, and anarchic utopianism bound up with drugs and rock music. The rallying call was revolution, a word with many, many different meanings. The people on the streets were mostly students and factory workers. The locations were cities in the most advanced countries of the world, France, Germany, US, UK and Japan. It took another five years for the ripples to reach places like Thailand. The protests were a revolt against the affluence and complacency of the great post-war boom in the west.

Today's protests are not in the advanced capitals but in the bloated mega-cities of the developing world and the ragged underbelly of Europe. Among protesters, students and factory workers are hardly to be seen. Instead, there are all sorts of people who in one way or another feel they are being left out. In Greece and Portugal, almost one in five of the working population is now unemployed. They are angry at the government for not protecting them - from the competition of places like China, and from the migrants escaping poverty in Africa or war in the Middle East. In cities like Cairo and Bangkok, many protesters are small farmers, victims of agrarian decline, and an urban underclass struggling in the rat race of the informal economy. Many of these protests are taking place right at the commercial core of these cities. Not in the villages. Not in the suburbs. Not on the campuses and in the government districts as in 1968.

Over the past generation, cities like Cairo, Bangkok and Kathmandu have been utterly transformed. They have grown in size, often several times. Born by globalisation, their centres have become not so different from the rich cities of the west. Their middle classes now think of themselves as part of a global middle class. They buy the same brands, watch the same movies, grasp the same ideas. For the third-world peasant a generation ago, such shiny affluence was beyond sight, beyond imagination. Now with globalisation's shrinking of space and time, it's on display every day, from street level, or in the virtual worlds of television and the Web. The sense of unfairness is a mix of aspiration, frustration, and comparison.

The division is not between classes in the old sense, but between those who have done well and those who have done badly from globalisation. Everywhere, the rallying call is not revolution, just a better deal, something not so obviously unfair.

As Chang Noi's travelling friend found, many of these eruptions are happening in places where people like to go on holidays. Why? These are parts of the world which have a great stock of natural or cultural resources - beaches and sun and islands and temples and ancient monuments and pretty dances and festivals and colourful clothing. They also have lots of people who will work for low pay and learn to adopt a good service attitude. The governments and economic elites of such blessed parts of the world have tended to take the easy way out. They have sold off these plentiful resources and cheap people on the expanding globalised market. Resource-strapped countries like Japan, Korea or Taiwan did not have this easy option, and so put more effort into making their people more productive through education, skill and technology. Resource-stressed countries like India and China are now following a similar route. The resource-lucky countries now find they have environmental crises, which drive people into the cities, and increasing difficulty competing on the world market because of low levels of skill. They have more people who feel more left out.

As the red movement has grown, some people have tried to imagine it away. They argue that the protest is unreal because there is no social basis, no such thing as class, no reason for complaint, nothing behind it but Thaksin's money, some geriatric activists and the third hand. But in truth, the Bangkok turmoil is just a small part of something that is happening in many parts of the world. And there's no getting away from it all.