Just as a smooth, luminous pearl hardens around the irritant of a single grain of sand, many of the most magnificent acts of social unrest come as the result of local issues and incidents that are easily forgotten in the haze of tear gas and improvised folk music. Just this week, nearly a quarter million Brazilians swarmed the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to protest against an array of discontents—most famously, a ten-cent increase in public transportation charges across several cities. The uprising brought with it police confrontation, culminating in televised violence and, of course, renewed outrage and mass demonstrations.
In this, as in most such episodes, the trigger for direct action was merely the final grievance piled atop a festering mountain of perceived injustices. A dime’s worth of transit cost may seem like small beer, but the hikes represent just one instance of vital services either being slashed or rendered more expensive in a country that is simultaneously diverting billions of dollars to prepare for hosting the 2014 World Cup. This alone should give the government pause: Brazilians inveighing against soccer is a little like the Germans marching against charmless competence. Something is not as it should be.
More than anything else, the Commuter Rebellion was immediately reminiscent of the ongoing standoff between youthful protestors and the Turkish administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tableaus of civic strife in crowded Middle Eastern squares have become so commonplace over the last few years that it was jolting to discover that the roots of the disorder lie not with allegations of corruption or religious apostasy, but instead a contested development project in Gezi Park—a postage stamp of green in downtown Istanbul that has somehow ascended to the status of an indispensable community space.
Scrape away the stated reasons for these disturbances and you eventually run up against the urgent human desires that are going unsatisfied: The shortage of efficient, responsive government assistance, made worse by the looming disaster of boondoggle projects; the absence of accountability or transparency directed towards a leader who can seize and transform public property at will. These desires are never more keenly felt than when they revolve around basic necessities. According to a study conducted by the New England Complex Systems Institute, there is no more reliable predictor of societal instability than the price of food. What else could explain the groundswell of obloquy that rocked Israel in 2011 when a series of newspaper articles examined the kinda-high price of cottage cheese? It took a Tunisian fruit vendor immolating himself over his confiscated wares in 2010 to upset the autocratic apple cart there, leading to Arab Spring revolts all over the region.
Of course, turmoil is perfectly capable of arising out of more frivolous inequality—something the teetotalers among us would do well to remember. When Chicago’s Mayor Levi Boone, in a fit of puritanical nativism, sought to persecute his city’s German and Irish populations, he hit upon the truly horrifying idea of raising the price of liquor licenses and banning the sale of beer on Sundays. The result? A full-blown riot in 1855 that claimed sixty casualties. The lesson, as always: Give the people what they want—cheap soccer, booze, a dairy-based snack, and bus fare home.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled São Paulo.