Were he alive today, Alexis de Tocqueville would believe he understood the massive demonstrations in Turkey and Brazil, for he was the observer and thinker who fathered the idea of the revolution of rising expectations.
In the early 19th century, de Toqueville noted that areas of France where economic conditions had been improving were among the strongest bastions of revolutionary fervour. If not prosperity, then sniffs of it seemed to encourage people to dream and then agitate for something even better. Relative deprivation, more than absolute deprivation, produced insurrection.
Today, his theory is much contested but the idea still resonates, as in Turkey and Brazil, where the demonstrations were not led by rural peasants or those who dwell in the hillside favelas. Rather, it appears to have been middle-income people in countries that had been experiencing solid economic growth expressing their frustrations. With what?
Each case is different, of course. Opposition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moves away from a secular Turkey, coupled with his increasingly imperious attitudes, provoked his opponents. They arrived in the streets to be joined by others with a disparate number of grievances.
In Brazil, where political corruption has always been widespread, new revelations against the backdrop of crummy public services and lavish stadiums for the Olympics and World Cup of soccer angered many people enough that they flooded into the streets in a kind of cri de coeur against misgovernance.
If you were sitting in the Chinese Communist Party, where centralized, authoritarian rule is the modus operandi of government, you would look at events in Turkey and Brazil and redouble your determination to oppress free speech and political assembly.
China, of course, has produced the largest middle class in history in the shortest period of time – a ripe place, therefore, for the working out of de Tocqueville’s old theory.
The Chinese authorities are determined to forge more economic prosperity without yielding to the political or journalistic freedoms now widely experienced throughout Asia, a tension that cannot be reconciled over the long haul.
As Odd Arne Westaad has written in his superb book Restless Empire, China will eventually experience internal upheaval of some sort, go the way of Hong Kong with limited political freedoms, or go the way of Taiwan with a market economy and political freedom. It might take a long time for one of these futures to be reached, but the status quo cannot forever endure.
But then, looking at events in Turkey and Brazil reminds us how the unexpected is to be expected. No one foresaw these demonstrations in countries that were thought to be marching toward better economic futures that would supposedly produce national satisfaction and political quiescence.
A recent book by Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, looks at seminal events in that year – the arrival of Deng Xiaoping as Chinese leader and of Karol Wojtyla as pope, the end of the Shah’s regime in Iran and the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister of Britain.
A few years before these events that would change the world, none were foreseen. Indeed, “experts” on China, Eastern Europe and Iran all pronounced in diplomatic dispatches, academic treatises, journalistic writings and public speeches that revolutionary changes of the kind that unfolded were unthinkable.
A decade later, the West Germans, with intelligence information, political contacts and monitoring of everything supposedly happening in East Germany, failed almost to an “expert” to predict the stunning and rapid collapse of the East German regime – even when demonstrations and political dissent were shaking the regimes of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Did anyone foresee the recent riots in placid Sweden, where cars were set alight and stores torched in communities with large immigrant populations, whose inhabitants quite likely live in better economic circumstances than they did in their native countries? And how many observers predicted the Arab Spring movement?
Once asked what worried him the most, British prime minister Harold Macmillan replied in a response that has almost become a cliché: “Events, dear boy, events.” He was laconically right.