The Mass Protests in Brazil in June-July 2013

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 851, by Alfredo Saad Filho, July 15, 2013.

The mass movements starting in June 2013 were the largest and most significant protests in Brazil in a generation, and they have shaken up the country’s political system. Their explosive growth, size and extraordinary reach caught everyone – the left, the right, and the government – by surprise. This article examines these movements in light of the achievements and shortcomings of the democratic transition, in the mid-1980s, and the experience of the federal administrations led by the Workers’ Party since 2003.

A Summary of the Facts: … //

… Three Lessons:

The first lesson from the movements is that they have confirmed the unremitting rejection of former president Lula da Silva, president Dilma Rousseff and the PT by large segments of the upper and middle classes, and the mainstream media. Their hatred, which has been displayed prominently in the marches and in the accompanying press coverage, is not due to narrow economic concerns. Lula has plausibly insisted that the Brazilian elite never made so much money as they did during his administration, and this may still hold true under Dilma. Nevertheless, fractions of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes resent their loss of privilege because of the expansion of citizenship since the democratization of the country and, especially, under the federal administrations led by the PT. To their profound irritation, the Brazilian elites have realized that they can no longer drive Brazilian politics alone.

The redistribution of income and the expansion of social programmes in the last ten years, marginal as they have been, have benefitted tens of millions of people, while consumer credit, perverse as it is, has allowed many poor people to visit shopping centres, fly across the country, and buy a small car. The left ought to criticize some of these aspirations, and point out that they may be socially undesirable, environmentally unsustainable, or both, that they have not been accompanied by the expanded provision of infrastructure, and that they were often promoted by the government in order to support large capital – but, at this point in time, they express the demands and aspirations of tens of millions of people. The result is that Brazilian roads and airports are full, and their previous (elite) users complain bitterly about the lack of space to accommodate all those poor people moving about, and now with a sense of entitlement.

While large capital did well economically in the last decade, and even longer, the middle class did not. So-called ‘good jobs’ in the private and public sectors are relatively scarce, higher education is no longer a guarantee of ‘good’ income, and the young find it hard to do better economically than their parents did. Middle class groups desperately want economic growth, but they remain ideologically attached to a neoliberal-globalist project which slows down growth. They are also frightened by the supposed ‘radicalism’ of the government, despite the PT’s extraordinary moderation, and terrified of Brazil becoming another Venezuela.

The second lesson from the protests is that, under favourable economic circumstances the ‘left neoliberal’ policies implemented by the PT, and the greater legitimacy of the state which has accompanied Lula’s election, can disarm the political right and disconnect the radical left from the masses of the population. Lula ended his second administration, in 2010, with approval rates touching on 90%, and Dilma Rousseff had 60-70% approval rates until recently, which had never happened to any Brazilian president in their third year in office. No party has ever prospered to the left of the PT and, until recently, the right-wing opposition was hopelessly disorganized. For a brief period, the PT achieved something close to political hegemony in Brazil. Now the PT and the country are locked in political confusion.

The third lesson is that the achievements of the PT administrations have raised expectations as well as incomes. The emerging poor want to consume more, larger masses of people want social inclusion, and both want better public services. The middle classes oscillate between indifference and open hostility to the poor, but would like to benefit from good public services at some point in the future. They are, however, absolutely opposed to paying higher taxes in order to have them. They claim that they pay too much already, that corruption spirits away a large chunk of the government’s revenues, and that ‘their’ taxes have been supporting a parasitic mass of undeserving poor through the federal transfer programmes. At the same time, the press and the middle class completely disregard the fact that nearly half of the federal budget is committed to servicing the domestic public debt – effectively a welfare programme for the rich – and that this dwarfs the cost of social spending and federal transfer programmes.

These enormous demands upon the state come in the wake of the decomposition of the traditional working-class and the demoralization and disorganization of the left parties and trade unions, after the transition to democracy, the transition to neoliberalism, and the elections of Lula and Dilma. Their outcome is that, while the middle class is confused, angry and disorganized, the workers are unhappy, mostly for different reasons, marginalized, and also disorganized. This is a recipe for political volatility, and it poses difficult problems for the left.

Left Dilemmas: … //

… Summing Up:

The protest movements in Brazil express deep frustrations and even despair, because it has become impossible to channel discontent through the traditional forms of social representation, which are either tightly controlled by the elite or have been disempowered by the neoliberal reforms. Yet, dissatisfaction without organization tends to be fruitless, and spontaneous mass movements with a mixed class base and fuelled by unfocused anger can be destabilizing without being constructive.

The need for organization, delegation of power and compromise within the movement and with outside institutions suggests that recomposing the working-class, and overcoming its material fragmentation and the cultural separations imposed by neoliberalism, requires collectivity in practice. This means talking and doing things together, more than interacting through web-based media. Twitter and Facebook are good ways to exchange discrete morsels of information, but they do not allow the exchange of ideas and the formation of bonds of trust.

The Brazilian left has reacted with maturity to the challenges posed by the protests and by the attempted kidnap of the movement by the mainstream media and the far-right. Left initiatives have been focusing on the convergence of sectional programmes, especially through common activities and a national co-ordination of movements, organizations and parties, to propose specific goals for the movement around political reform, the limitation of working hours, state investment in health, transport and education, the decommodification of public services, democratization of the media, and reform of the police. The point, now, is to identify platforms which can bring together the workers and the poor, marginalize and fragment the middle class and the right, and put pressure on the federal government, while allowing a radical working-class movement to work together with some state institutions in order to raise, from below, its influence over policy formulation and implementation.

The left ought to stick to this approach instead of falling into an infantile (and, fortunately, marginal) radicalism, targeting the federal government and, inevitably – because of their insufficient weight – joining in a subordinate position the destabilization campaign being led by the political right, the middle class, and the right-wing media. There is no doubt that left-wing administrations tend to implement more progressive policies and be more accommodating of mass movements than right-wing ones. If the current government lost coherence and became paralysed, this is extremely unlikely to foster a socialist revolution in Brazil, because there is no ideological, organizational, social, material or international basis for it to happen now. It would, instead, almost certainly facilitate a right-wing victory in the presidential elections next year, and contribute to the demoralization and disorganization of the Brazilian left.

The response of the federal government to the movements, after considerable hesitation, was precisely to seek left support, and propose a programme of political reforms and expansion of public service provision which could bring concrete gains to the workers and the poor. The left should engage in a dialogue with the government, while insisting that a predominantly parliamentary strategy to effect these Constitutional reforms is bound to fail. The government must, instead, align itself with the workers’ organizations and the left, in order to push through democratic reforms including state funding for the political parties, the break-up of the media monopolies, and improved education, health and public transport services.

It is disappointing, but also sobering, to conclude that Brazil is not going through a revolutionary crisis, and that the current political mobilizations are unlikely to trigger one. Nevertheless, this is unquestionably the most important social movement in Brazil in the last thirty years. The point, now, is to continue to fight on the streets, workplaces and schools, continue to broaden and radicalize the movement, bring out the working-class with its specific demands, defeat the right and disorganize and attract part of the middle classes, and push for progressive constitutional and policy changes. If this can be achieved, it would shift the political balance in the country, and it could lead to concrete long-term gains to the workers and the left in Brazil.

Alfredo Saad Filho teaches in the Department of Development Studies at SOAS, University of London.

(full text).


U.S. Must Stop Obstructing Edward Snowden’s Ability to Claim Asylum, on Amnesty International, by Widney Brown, July 15, 2013 (see also video, 1.10 min);

Whistleblower Blues: Snowden Puts US-Russia Ties On Ice, on Spiegel Online International, by Marc Hujer, Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp, July 15, 2013 (Photo Gallery):
Edward Snowden has asked for the Kremlin’s help to avoid arrest by US authorities. The case is a godsend for President Vladimir Putin because it is distracting from domestic Russian problems. But it will worsen the country’s already strained ties with America …;

Other Photo Gallery on Spiegel Online International: Timeline of the NSA Spying Scandal, 15 photos;

Putin: Snowden will leave Russia at earliest opportunity, on Russia Today RT, July 15, 2013;

Heroic effort at great personal cost: Edward Snowden nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, on Russia Today RT, July 15, 2013.

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