Brazil: Massive protests fuelled by majority's lost expectations

Real News network report, June 24, 2013. More at The Real News.

[For more on Brazil, click HERE.]

By Charmain Levy

June 22, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The massive protests across Brazil have taken everyone – even the instigating group, the Movimento do Passe Livre (MPL, Free Fare Movement) – by surprise. Some international lefties and political analysts have repeated mainstream Brazilian journalists’ claim that they are the most important protests since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. This is false.

Massive protests of the “caras pintadas” took place in 1992 demanding the impeachment of the then president and now senator Fernando Collor. Different types of social movement protests took place in 1997, when the MST mobilised more than a 100,000 people to march on Brasilia. In 1998-99, the occupation of abandoned buildings in the centre of Sao Paulo and other capital cities took place; in July 2003 urban and rural social movements occupied land and buildings asking for land reform. Every week there are protests in Brasilia and other state capitals. One cannot deny the vibrancy of 21st century Brazilian civil society.

However, what has taken place in the last couple of weeks is significant because of the scale of the protests, and also considering who organised them and who came out into the streets. What started out as a “traditional” demonstration organised by the MPL, a small organisation composed of young students and recently graduated middle-class professionals, gathered attention and sympathy from the general population after the traditional media tried to portray them as vandals and aggressive riff raff, when in fact they were being violently repressed by state police forces.

This police brutality struck an important cord with the general population, especially middle-class youth who are not the usual victims of police violence and expect the rule of law to apply to everyone. They learned the hard way that in Brazil the “rule of law” depends on who you are (your race, class, ethnic background), where you are and what you are doing. The forces of order are not there to serve and protect the general public, but to obey government orders even against the public.

The treatment usually reserved for the lower classes that protesters received in the streets mortified the general population. Images of police brutality that even the mainstream media could not ignore sent hundreds of thousands into the streets to claim their right to protest. At this point, the protests were no longer about a simple 10-cent hike in public transportation fares but about a state and its governments at all levels that are not accountable to its population.

Luck would have it that these protests took place at the same moment as massive demonstrations in Turkey, the Sao Paulo bid for the World Expo and during the FIFA Confederation Cup taking place in several Brazilian capital cities. In this context, the disgruntled claims of the general population counter the image that the Brazilian political elite has cultivated over the years of an emerging power (the “B” in BRICS), a model democracy that includes the home of the World Social Forum, participatory budgeting and countless public policies to reduce poverty to one third of what it was a few years ago.

This throws the spotlight on the contradiction between the Brazil as a model -- for both the left and the right -- of economic success, progress, poverty reduction and democracy, and the not so easy reality that most Brazilians live through on a daily basis.

Have things been worse in the past? Sure. But now more is expected of the state and its governments, and ordinary citizens are fed up with the hypocrisy of the image the Brazilian federal government projects internationally and in the national media. There is also a certain element of class struggle in that the “old middle class” feels intimidated and uncomfortable sharing airplanes and movie theatres with their maids and plumbers as well as being governed by former trade unionists.

An important reason that the MPL protests resonated with the general population, from the youth to the middle aged, from big cities to small towns is the issue of expectations of a new, what some call, “middle” class that is more educated and expects a state that redistributes wealth for the good of the greater population and not just a minority. Everyone someway feels like an outsider. Certain media “studies” show that most of the protesters are not affiliated nor have any sympathies with political parties and have never participated in demonstrations. Most would not bother voting if it was not mandatory. In times of economic growth and prosperity, citizens expect more in terms of public goods and services such as security, health, transportation, education and urbanisation. They simply feel that as citizens, who pay their taxes and work hard, they deserve better and the state has the capacity to provide them with that. What is missing – and the protests have demonstrated this – is political will.

The protesters also wanted to send a message to the political elite now made up by the Workers Party (PT), a socio-democratic party in power for the last 10 years, and the older traditional elites. Although the PT began as the party of social movements, in the past 25 years it has taken after European social democrats, socialist in name but heterogeneous in composition and supportive of both social programs and neoliberal macroeconomics. The PT still has the support of what is becoming more and more “old” social movements which have their own particular orbits and publics, but gather less sympathy and recognition from the general public and are still very supportive of the PT as a party and of its governments, although they often contest its neoliberal policies and old-school politics.

What is interesting about these protests is that these “old” social movements and their PT leftist allies within the party were completely out of the loop, even though for years these movements have been calling for more and better public goods and services, contesting the displacement of the poor and the questionable allocation of resources for major sporting events in the name of the nation.

Since the PT took power nationally, they had continued to demonstrate and negotiate with government on a routinised calendar of protests, which made the government aware of their demands but didn’t rock the boat enough to destabilise their allies in power. The question the social movements should be asking themselves is why can they no longer manage to reach and mobilise the general public as the MPL has done these past weeks?

Indeed, at first no one completely understood what was going on. Once things heated up, traditional social movements did come out into the streets with their own demands, but they continued to support the PT and defend it against calls from the upper middle class and traditional political elite to impeach President Dilma Rousseff and weaken other PT governments, such as the administration in Sao Paulo.

How to explain these protests? On a structural level, Brazil’s heritage of skewed wealth distribution coupled with 25 years of the neoliberal economics that the PT has accepted, while implementing government-sponsored revenue transfers, are not redistributing wealth or creating a providence-state type wellbeing among the general population. As it stands, the past few years of economic growth have translated into much more for the wealthy, a little for the middle classes and crumbs for the poor.

Lula himself understood that the state can give disproportionately to all classes within the same economic and political system without major changes. It demonstrates that even at high levels of economic growth, bigger salaries and more jobs, government intervention is needed to redistribute wealth through government-sponsored social programs aimed at the 80% who are less wealthy.

In terms of the political system that was decentralised in the late 1980s, municipalities and states (provinces) are responsible for more social services, including health, transportation and education. Even so, the federal government often intervenes and disputes policies with other levels of government in order to maintain its political hegemony in a political culture that still revolves around governing elite pacts and private use (both individual and partisan) of public funds. In the case of the issue of public transportation, responsibility is shared between the municipal and state governments. They belong to opposing parties -- respectively the PT and the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira, PSDB) -- vying for the presidency in the 2014 elections.

The reaction to the protests is almost as interesting as the protests themselves. The political right has tried capitalise from the protests against the PT, portraying the PT as corrupt and not governing in the interests of the population. The extreme left sees the protests as the fire that will ignite a revolutionary spirit and their potential to mobilise the population for future rebellion against the political and economic system. Segments of the PT are trying to make contact with the protest organisers to draft them into their circles in order to get back to business as usual. Fernando Haddad, the PT mayor of Sao Paulo, has given in and cancelled the public transportation fare hikes, although questioning the legitimacy of the protests, reasoning that his election by citizens through formal election counts for more than spontaneous acts of collective disgruntlement.

What is taking place are street battles for the hearts and minds of the protesters by different political formations. This has led to much violence among protesters. Only time will tell if the MPL will develop into a “real” social movement or represents a new type of social movement.

The PT governments also seems open to understanding the calls of the protesters and conceding small concessions to get them back to their homes and jobs. Without major upheaval, it does not seem that there will be a change of course of any government, just a few concessions to targeted groups that will allow for at least short-term social peace. One thing is sure, governments are beginning to understand that just bread and circuses won’t cut it anymore. The question is, how many concessions will they have to make?

Another outcome could be more class polarisation, especially if governments opt to use force or if there are multiple tragic deaths from confrontations between protesters and police. As for any long-term social impact, the protests do indicate that it only takes a spark to light the fire of indignation by people calling for better government policies and for a politics that is in the interests of the majority of citizens and not only the aspirations of the political and economic elite disconnected from the reality of the masses.

[Charmain Levy is a professor at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, where she lectures on international development studies. She is co-author of the book Collective Action and Radicalism in Brazil and of numerous articles on the Sao Paulo housing movement.]