Why anti-capitalist protests are not happening in the BRICs - yet
The founders of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, launched last September, must be rather gleeful. What was at first an obscure, little student gathering has grown up into a worldwide protest in less than a month, and bank-lashing campers have now pitched their tents across Europe, East Asia, South America, and South Africa.
Not that such contagion should come as a surprise. In a global context of scarce jobs, persistent inflation, and gaping inequalities, the moods of the increasingly frustrated middle class have become highly flammable. The New York protests are just the sparkle they needed to ignite. And whilst the resulting ‘Indignant’ movements have developed in different shapes and places, they all have the same point to make: the business elites, and the system that breeds them, are the ones to blame for this mess.
What’s more surprising is that the BRICs themselves are not joining in the fun. As large, fast-growing economies, you would think they count fewer winners, poorer losers, bolder display of personal wealth and higher barriers to social mobility than developed ones; on top of which come regular corruption scandals involving senior executives. Surely that’s enough to make the less well-off loathe their impenitent elites. So why are the BRIC’s silent majorities staying mostly, well, silent?
The club, in fact, does count one country where the climate is more feverish these days. Tens of thousands have recently taken to the streets in Rio, Brazilia and other Brazilian cities; other gatherings of this scale are expected this month. But following several scandals involving ministers, and the day-to-day hassle imposed by a self-serving bureaucracy, Brazil’s discontent has crystallised on one issue: endemic corruption of the political system. This has left little ground for the broader recriminations of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, and as a result corporate executives have rarely been the prime target - even if a lost bullet could end up hurting a few.
This is also true in India. Most people living in Delhi or Mumbai, earning less than $2 a day, are not really worried about whatever fat salaries the bankers are paid. They’re more focused on meeting their basic needs, and if any resentment they have, it will be directed at those failing to deliver - the government and the bureaucracy. Most of them, furthermore, are rather oblivious to the gyrations of the stock exchange. Retail participation in the stock market is very limited, so they don’t deal as much with money managers and bankers as Western savers do. So they don’t really blame them for mismanaging their savings when the stocks go down.
In China the story is different. Whilst initially using the protest as a golden opportunity to mock the West and lecture America, the Communist party rapidly took fright. What was first a New York banker-bashing reunion suddenly turned into a catch-all movement against wild capitalism, corruption, inequality and the excesses of power - and got too close to home. The authorities reacted by gagging the media, with TV and press told not to report on the topic anymore, and the Occupy brand was deprived crucial publicity from the beginning.
That leaves us with Russia. The country counts the World’s largest group of billionaires, yet nobody’s camping on the Red Square so far. Putin says it’s down to (his) good policy: his latest budget, channelling increasing money to social expenditure, helps defuse tensions and provides what the street elsewhere demands. And there’s probably some truth in this. But another likely cause is that for Russians the biggest robbers are not bankers in London, New York, or even Moscow - they are the tycoons who filled their pockets in the 90s, mostly by grabbing the nation’s energy resources, or the politicians themselves, who manage (and tax) the whole show. Their long-standing feeling of injustice has turned into resignation; and rather than bursting in anger they dream of leaving the country.
Yet maybe the factor uniting them all is that, so far, emerging economies had bright prospects in front of them. The government provided growth and welfare, the companies offered multiple jobs, and for many life was becoming increasingly comfortable. But with possible turbulences ahead for each of them - stagnation in Russia, slowdown in Brazil, leadership crisis in India, and bursting bubbles in China - the implicit pact between the BRIC’s middle class and their elites may soon prove very fragile indeed. Illegal camping has billions of potential new fans in the waiting.