First reflections on the mass movement that has shaken Brazil

 More than 1 million people protested across Brazil -- in at least 80 cities -- on June 20.

See also "Open letter to President Dilma Rousseff from Brazil’s social movements; A succinct report from the MST". For more on Brazil, click HERE.

By Emir Sader, translated by Federico Fuentes and Kiraz Janicke

June 22, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The mass movement, that began as a protest against increased public transport prices, was unprecedented and surprising. Those who believe that they can immediately capture all its dimensions and future projections will most probably have a reductionist view of this phenomena, forcing reality to fit into previously elaborated schemas, in order to confirm their arguments, without taking into account the multifaceted and surprising character of these mobilisations.

We will not attempt to do that in this article, our aim to is to draw some conclusions that we believe are clearly evident.

The cancellation of the increase (in public transport ticket prices) constitutes a victory for the movement and demonstrates the power of demonstrations, even more so when they are in support of just and achievable demands, so much so that they achieved their goal.

This victory, in the first place, concretely reinforces the idea that popular mobilisations are worthwhile, they raise awareness among people, they allow the whole of society to speak and serve as a strong point of pressure on governments. Moreover, the movement opened up a discussion on an essential question in the fight against neoliberalism: the polarisation between public and private interests, and the issue of who should finance the costs of essential public services which, unlike now, should not be subject the to interests of private companies, driven by profit.

Achieving the cancellation of the price hike results in a benefit for the poorest sectors of the population as they are the ones who usually use public transport, showing that a movement should seek to include not only the demands of particular sectors of society, but attend to broader demands, especially those having to do with the neediest sectors of society who have more difficulties mobilising themselves.

Perhaps the most essential aspect of the protests has been to enable broad sectors of youth to enter political life, sectors that were not taken into account by government policies and who, until now, had not found a specific form to politically express themselves. This may turn out to be the most permanent result of the protests.

It is also clear that the various levels of government run by different parties, some more (the right-wing ones) and some less (the left-wing ones), have difficulties relating to the popular demonstrations. They take major decisions without consulting and when they are confronted with popular protests, they tend to technocratically reaffirm their decisions – “there is no money”, “the numbers don’t add up”, etc. – without realising that they are dealing with a political issue, a just demand of the people that is supported by an immense social consensus, and that they must find political solutions, for which the governors were elected. Only after many protests and the wearing down of support for governing authorities are correct decisions taken. It is one thing is to say that we “dialogue” with the movements, it is another to deal effectively with the mobilisations, especially when they resist the decisions made by governments.

Certainly, a problem that the movement faces is attempts at external manipulation. One of them, is represented by the most extremist sectors, who seek to raise maximalist demands for a “popular uprising” against the state in order to justify their violent actions, which are nothing more than vandalism. They are very small sectors, external to the movement and in some cases infiltrated by the police. The media is very quick to highlight these sectors, but they were rejected by almost all of the movements.

The other attempt comes from the right, and is clearly expressed in the attitude of the traditional mass media. Initially, they were opposed to the movement, as they normally are with all popular protests. Then, when they realised that this could help wear down support for the government, they promoted the protests and tried to insert artificially their orientations directed against the federal government. These attempts were equally rejected by the leaders of the movement, despite the fact that a reactionary component began to make its presence felt, with the typical rancor of rightist extremism and magnified by the traditional media.

It is worth noting the surprise of the government and its inability to understand the explosive potential of the living conditions in urban areas and, in particular, the absence of policies directed towards youth on the part of the federal government. The traditional student entities were also taken by surprise and were absent from the movements.

Two attitudes have become apparent during the mobilisations: the first, the denunciation that they are being manipulated by the right – something that was evident given the actions of the traditional media – and the temptation to oppose the movement. And the second, to uncritically exalt the movement as if it embodied clear projects towards the future. Both are wrong. The movement emerged out of a just demand, promoted by young people with their existing state of consciousness, and with all the contradictions that a movement of that type has. The correct attitude is to learn from the movement and act together with it, in order to help it achieve a clear consciousness of its objectives, of its limitations, of the attempts to be utilised by the right, of the problems that have emerged and how to carry out a discussion regarding its significance and the best way to confront challenges.

The most significant aspect of the movement will become clear in time. The right is only interested in its narrow electoral concerns, in its desperate attempts to reach the second round in the presidential elections. Extremist sectors are seeking exaggerated interpretations that see the conditions as ripe to promote violent alternatives, which would quickly dissipate.

Most important are the lessons that the movement itself and the left – parties, popular movements, governments – can draw from the experience. No previous interpretation accounts for the complexity and unprecedented nature of the movement. Probably the biggest consequence of all this will be the introduction of the issue of the political significance of the youth and their actual living conditions and expectations in 21st century Brazil.

[Emir Sader is a leading left intellectual in Brazil. He is emeritus professor of political science at the University of São Paolo and director of the Latin American Social Science Research Council (CLACSO). This blog article first appeared at]