Freedom vs. Free Markets, Part 1
Note: This is the first article in a three-part series scheduled to appear this week. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.
By NAVID FARNIA
Over the past few months, ongoing demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt have captured the world’s attention. While dissenters are risking their lives daily in the streets of Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo and countless other cities, their demands are also subject to our ideological imaginations. For interested outside observers, the very basic question arises: Why are they protesting? Journalists and commentators from all over are answering with their own interpretations, often drawing upon the protests’ commonalities.
In Turkey, government designs to overhaul Gezi Park, making way for a shopping center and a replica 18th century military barracks, caused a massive public outcry. Meanwhile, immense government expenditure in preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics has infuriated Brazilians. What began as protests specifically opposing the pay rise for public transportation in metropolitan areas became a nation-wide movement for better services and against rising costs. Finally, Egypt’s protests recently succeeded in ousting President Mohamed Morsi from power (a subject for debate though, as some call it a military coup). Seas of demonstrators flocked into the streets, angered that the Morsi government – elected after the 2011 revolution – did nothing to improve Egypt’s economy.
Each country’s events revolve around certain particularities that have spurred people to agitate against their own governments. However, the events and the specific issues signal a larger underlying cause that cannot be brushed aside. Economic deregulation and the opening up of markets to both internal and foreign interests is decimating Third World societies and widening the gap between the wealthy few and the countless exploited poor. Whether the conditions are directly regarding unemployment and poverty or they are about private takeovers of public spaces, the protests in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt have economic and racial foundations relating to neoliberal expansion in the Third World. Neoliberalism is an ideology and process that advocates free markets, free trade, privatization, deregulation and the overall diminishment of the public sector.
To be sure, the Turkish, Brazilian and Egyptian governments have done little or nothing to improve conditions because they hold neoliberal ideals. In fact, police and military violence against protesters is increasing as a result of government efforts to protect their economic principles – with the development of heavily enforced national security states being part of the neoliberal project.
Although the intelligentsia quickly recognized the demonstrations as reflecting resistance to capitalism’s global expansion through neoliberal policies, largely lost in critical analyses is the very real racial element. This is unsettling because capitalism’s influence around the world most potently impacts people of color. European colonial and imperial history is marred by the economic superexploitation of Third World peoples (this includes American history, where Europeans colonized Native lands and exploited African labor). Ignoring colonialism and imperialism’s influences undermine the demonstrators’ connections to parallel historical processes.
But protesters in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt are likely aware of imperialism’s historical weight, which attests to white supremacy’s central role in economic globalization. In free markets, people of color are unfree.
Egypt’s situation is perhaps the most fluid. Since the brutal Hosni Mubarak regime’s political ouster in the 2011 January 25th Revolution, the Egyptian economy has actually worsened. While the unemployment rate was at 9 percent before the revolution, it currently stands at over 13 percent less than three years later. This number does not even account for the unemployed who have stopped looking for work.
Poverty statistics paint an even gloomier picture. More than 40 percent of Egyptians live under the poverty line. Rising food, water, gas and electricity costs exacerbate the situation, especially as the government insists on slashing much-needed public subsidies for products like bread and fuel.
Rising costs and subsidy cuts are a result of the Morsi regime’s efforts to meet set standards for a $4.8 billion dollar loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), money that would almost surely never reach the working class and impoverished anyway. What is the loan for? To “help restore investor confidence in Egypt.” Meanwhile, many Egyptians believe costs will continue to rise even if Egypt receives the loan.
The recent protests underline Egyptians’ disgust with their country’s economic state and their disapproval with neoliberal policies, which only aggravate issues. Unfortunately, the military-installed interim government will likely maintain the same policies. Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi and Vice President for Foreign Affairs Mohamed El Baradei are staunch proponents of cutting public subsidies. Thus, their appointments represent attempts to attain the IMF loan and sustain foreign investments in Egypt.
Like the Morsi regime, the military-controlled interim government subscribes to neoliberal ideals and is aligned with foreign interests – receiving $12 billion in aid from other Arab states is an indicator. As such, despite multiple regime changes, the lack of ideological shift regarding economic policy likely means that mass protests will continue in post-Morsi Egypt.
The economic climate in Brazil is not nearly as bleak. Nonetheless, Brazilians suffer from related institutional problems. Heightened government spending has drained public funds and led to widespread inflation. While Brazil’s unemployment rate is relatively low, minimum wage only garners $313 per week in an economy already saddled with rising costs. Unsurprisingly, labor unions recently joined the demonstrations, solidifying the public’s political and economic demands.
Brazil’s situation is also unique because it involves race both through international processes and on local levels, as Afro-Brazilians are actually the slight majority in the country. There is also a substantial population of indigenous Brazilians, many of whom continue to protest for better transportation, education, health and security. And although Afro-Brazilians are marginalized from coverage of the protests, they are no doubt heavily involved.
Afro-Brazilians are especially impacted by neoliberal policies. Statistics gathered from 2005 show the poverty rate for Afro-Brazilians was over 30 percent, more than double that of white Brazilians. Moreover, favela (shantytown) communities, which disproportionately consist of Black and Brown residents, are being destroyed all over the country to build infrastructure for the World Cup and Olympics. Estimates reveal that up to 1.5 million residents will be displaced in the next few years. And the ones that remain already receive extremely poor services. Despite attempts to deracialize coverage of the protests, Brazil’s extremely racially diverse population makes racism a more easily identifiable factor in neoliberal projects.
Protests in Turkey meanwhile directly confront government efforts to privatize Gezi Park, a public space. This is contrary to media reports, which portray the outrage as mainly pertaining to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist policies. “This is a serious ideological struggle we need to win. We are against this government not because it is Islamic, but because it is conservative and neoliberal,” author and activist Ozan Tekin explains.
Like Brazil, Turkey’s economy is perceived to be thriving. Similar neoliberal projects however, undermine public interests. The use of state power (demonstrated in the violent repression of protesters) to maintain profits from foreign investments confirms government concerns with Turkey’s international appeal. State attacks on peaceful demonstrations exemplify the Turkish government’s desire to defend neoliberalism. Apparently, maintaining neoliberal policies is more a matter of national security than protecting the people’s right to protest.
While demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil and Egypt each boast their nuances, they collectively indicate growing worldwide resistance to neoliberalism. These movements are part of colonialism’s historical legacy because they particularly embody racialized peoples’ struggles against land confiscation and economic exploitation. The history of colonialism in the Third World reminds people of color how foreign economic interests imminently threaten their freedom. Race is behind capitalist ambitions in the Third World and as such, is a core factor in protests against neoliberal policies.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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