Let’s address the obvious first: Of course Turkey is special. Grievances in Istanbul and Ankara differ from those of Egyptians, or Greeks, or Spaniards. Protests are necessarily rooted in local contexts and direct experience, especially when they galvanize around the use and abuse of urban spaces. Taksim isn’t Tahrir, or Zuccotti, or Stuttgart21. Literal comparisons rarely capture the realities they purport to describe.
But this isn’t about literal comparisons; it’s about parallels and networks, and essentially about the question of why the pictures and reports that reach us from Cairo, Athens, Istanbul or New York bear such remarkable similarities despite their evident differences. In each case, a young generation is at the forefront of the protests. Guy Fawkes masks are ubiquitous. General assemblies are organized along non-hierarchical lines, tents are set up in public parks and camp infrastructures are raised from the ground up in a matter of hours. Armed with smartphones and hashtags, protesters march against riot police. The media might not always tell their side of the story, but the creation of a counter-narrative is well underway in the streets and online.
Shared infrastructure, shared symbols
The most evident explanation is infrastructural: digital technologies leave their unmistakable fingerprint on protest movements that rely on their widespread availability. When organizers in Cairo and Istanbul use the same digital platforms to disseminate their message and to organize information, it’s not entirely surprising that a cursory glance suggests far-reaching similarities across contexts. Facebook and Twitter are widespread enough throughout most of the world that we really can’t gain too many useful insights about particular circumstances from their use anymore – they have become central to any form of collective organizing, not just to anti-government protests. The Egyptian harassmap.org project and the Turkish occupygezimap.com are both predicated on the notion of linking digital maps with geo-data and secondary information.
The American sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has summarized the “social media fueled protest style” in a very readable blog post – but note that she, too, draws the comparison not between different localities but between today’s movements and pre-digital movements of previous years and decades. In effect, the communicative and infrastructural toolkit of social movements has been digitized and democratized since the turn of the century: Anyone with a reasonably stable internet connection and rudimentary knowledge about social networks can access and utilize them (with the obvious caveat of being more easily traceable and, in some cases, more exposed to ill-meaning henchmen of the government). Simplistic comparisons à la “Tahrir 2.0” might be the inevitable outgrowth of the globalization of communications infrastructure, but they reveal little about the actual movements.
The second explanation for the evident similarities is symbolic: The pitching of tents in a public park, the Guy Fawkes mask, or the #occupy hashtag have long become symbols for a new generation of activists for whom tales of alter-globalization protests and anti-WTO actions are the stuff of ancient history, and tales passed down from a earlier generation. Just as McDonald’s golden arches and the Coca Cola sign have become symbolic reminders of America’s soft power (but with a distinctly hegemonic aftertaste), Guy Fawkes has emerged as the symbol of choice for the proudly defiant: the Che Guevara poster of the early 21st century. No wonder, then, that Saudi Arabia recently declared that it would ban the import of the masks, for they were “instilling a culture of violence” and encouraged “young people to breach security and spread chaos in society.” There can hardly be a better illustration of symbolic power of a piece of plastic than an official denunciation from the rulers in Riyadh.
Yet it’s shortsighted to dismiss the protests as merely symbolic – all show, no substance – to explain their apparent likeness. All significant movements of the last years, in Egypt as well as in Tunisia or Greece, and for a brief period even in Spain and in the United States, were made strong by people who did not fit the narrative of semi-professional activists. By people who previously would not have dreamed about having to wash tear gas out of their eyes, or having to dash away from police to avoid arrest. Without the newly politicized masses, the protests would have quickly fizzled. Numbers matter, it’s as simple as that. They matter for the fight against advancing police lines, and they matter from the perspective of media coverage as well.
But here’s the thing: In each case, it’s possible to identify core groups of activists – some of them hardened by years of organizing, others diving into it for the first time – who met long before anyone else paid attention, who talked about strategies, forged alliances, and built up trust among themselves. And who talked to activists in other countries.
Two examples: Shortly after the fall of Mubarak in the spring of 2011, groups that were affiliated with the Egyptian April 6 Movement had already put together an English translation of a short activist “bible,” which quickly began to circulate online. Versions differed, but often covered the basics of ad-hoc organizing: How do you protect yourself against tear gas? (Answer: Wrap your face in a bandana soaked in lemon juice or vinegar.) How can you increase the chances of news going viral? (Agree on a Twitter hashtag early on, and get key people to adopt it.) How can you trace missing friends and collect information about other protesters? (Set up an online spreadsheet, then hit all local police stations to talk to the guards.) In October 2011, while students were still camping out on Spanish squares, a M15 working group with the slightly pretentious name “Spanish World Extension Team” also published a 22-page paper, which listed in great detail the strategies of non-hierarchical decision-making and consensus-based assemblies, and provided organizational charts for anyone interested in setting up a self-sustaining protest camp. Over the last years, a wealth of specialist knowledge has been recorded by activists and is now being shared freely across movements. If you want to know how the Zuccotti Park camp was organized, or how Egyptian activists managed to rally others during the early days of the #jan25 protests, it’s easy to find that information online.
Personal interaction is key as well. On Wednesday, activists from Istanbul met online with Occupy activists from New York to discuss common grievances and protest tactics during an hour-long open Youtube session. Members of the initial Occupy Wall Street working groups have appeared in camps in London and Athens; activists from Cairo and Tunis have traveled to Madrid to meet with protesters there. Grassroots organizing conferences have been held in Austria (in September 2012) or in Poland (in April 2013). Another big meeting is planned for this summer and will be held in Athens. Listservs remain mainstays of communication; important discussions happen outside of social media networks.
A movement, a fungus
The US sociologist Craig Calhoun has argued that a movement’s most crucial time often lies before and between periods of high visibility: What matters are the weeks and months before a big demonstration or between key actions, when structures are established, alliances are forged, and information is shared. A protest movement isn’t too different from the anatomical structure of a fungus: Underneath the protruding body sits a much larger and often invisible networks of fine filaments called the mycelium, which sustains the fungus and can spawn many different bodies. The visible part of the fungus may die and decompose, but the mycelium remains alive and active.
(This, by the way, is also a key reason why attempts to discredit a movement by denouncing, pars pro toto, the black bloc, the Anons, or unidentified “troublemakers” are bound to fail in most cases: Those who are only interested in protests as “happenings” and in inciting violence have little to contribute to the actual movement and don’t constitute a representative cross-section of activists.)
The transnational organizations of the Old Left are the stuff of history: Socialists have long cultivated internationalist aspirations, and many socialist organizations and trade unions maintain close contact with their counterparts in other countries (especially in Europe, where their legacy remains relatively strong). What has changed over the past few years is the degree to which de-centrally organized and autonomous groups have linked up with each other – not only in the innermost activist circles but as a general rule of low-threshold organizing. Most spontaneous and local protests are anything but: Neither are they entirely spontaneous, nor are they merely local. The goal of many organizers is not the celebration of isolation and marginality but, to dive into anarchist parlance for a second, the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” TAZs, that leave room for local experimentation and for ad-hoc alliances. Autonomy is understood not as the rejection of structures but as the possibility for fluid networks.
The shared DNA of protests in different countries can thus at least partially be explained by the simple fact that activists talk with each other and learn from each other. The average protester in Istanbul has more in common with Zuccotti Park occupiers and Greek anti-austerity activists than with the journalist who now praised the Turk as a brave champion of liberal democracy but dismissed the Greek and the American as “extremists” or troublemakers.
For the sake of completeness, one should also recognize that shared grievances do exist as well, despite the obvious and important local contexts. The BBC journalist Paul Mason published a list of twenty bullet points in 2011 that aimed to explain “why it’s kicking off everywhere” by highlighting some of the linkages between the debtors and the dispossessed in different countries. Youth activists in Spain or Greece aren’t just connected by fiberglass networks, but by the experience of being members of Europe’s “lost generation,” by a shared sense of disillusion and powerlessness against the invisible forces of the crisis. The quote of a Turkish activist – “All these top-down decisions disregarding planning and urban management principles are not approved by […] citizens. We don’t accept them.” – could easily have been said in Athens or Madrid as well. After years of globalizing the forces of capital, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see sores and bruises opening up across the globe.