With global protests continuing in Egypt as the latest wave of the so-called and ongoing ‘Arab Spring’, as well as in Turkey recently, this eleventh contribution to the Thesis Pieces series, by Philip Roberts, turns attention to the social protests in Brazil. Can the institutional Left organically connect with the popular demonstrations and mount a real challenge to capitalism in Brazil?

The most surprising thing about the protests that accompanied the Confederations Cup is that they were so unexpected. Political and economic tensions in Brazil have been simmering for some time now. The rate of growth of Brazil’s economy is declining, whilst inflation gathers pace. Basic foodstuffs, in particular, have risen drastically in price. This has led Brazil’s political satirists to parody the situation, with cartoons showing tomatoes as a luxury item. Meanwhile, at the global level, protests and civil unrest are fast becoming more the expectation than the exception. Starting with the Greek protests and the Arab Spring in 2010, and continuing through events in Egypt, Syria, Bulgaria and Turkey, mass mobilisations have become a familiar fixture. A glance at the headlines suggests that it really is “kicking off everywhere”.

quem tem medo de vinagreThis June, as the Seleção Brasileira followed the path to victory at the Maracana, Brazil’s middle class took to the streets. Their aim was to demand social goods which appeared threatened by state sponsorship of mega-events. Although the initial demand of the protesters was to freeze the price of public transport, reversing a recent increase of R$0.20, a melange of other priorities soon surfaced. These included better health and education, and an end to corruption in formal politics. Events initially ran beyond the control of the authorities, and the police began to use teargas and rubber bullets against popular demonstrations which accounted for around 2 million participants at the high point. Those on the streets soon learned to use vinegar-soaked cloths to counteract the teargas. The police once again overreacted: their practice of arresting anyone found in possession of vinegar led some to call the protests Brazil’s “salad revolution.”

Whilst the global situation offers ample opportunity to assess how Brazil fits into a synchronous or sequential analysis of global protest, this overlooks the specifics of the Brazilian case. The recent and ongoing protests in the country must be understood as particular and unique, even if they can only be understood with reference to a more general analytical framework.

I have discussed elsewhere, on Andreas Bieler’s blog on trade unions and global restructuring, the specifically urban political-economic process which propelled Brazil’s protests during the Confederations Cup, see here. At the heart of this piece was recognition that the protesters had gathered force at a pace unanticipated not only by the Brazilian government but also by the traditional Left. As the organised Brazilian Left struggled to mobilise their activists, domestic and foreign commentators sought to mobilise the resources of critique. A broad spectrum of analyses has emerged, each presenting their own insights and lacunae. Hanging in the air is the question of how popular protest in Brazil relates to the institutional left, or what has been called with a wider Latin American lens the izquierda permitida (the authorised Left) by Jeffrey Webber and Barry Carr in The New Latin American Left.

O povo unido nao precisa de partidoWriting for Ceasefire Magazine, Sara Motta offers the most historically comprehensive analysis of the protests, see here. Situating them in the context of the ascent, and subsequent corruption, of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), Motta suggests that popular forces have now come unstuck from their historical adhesion to the PT leadership. The new protests, therefore, are cast as a chance to create a new politics “from below”.

João Pedro Stédile, one of the founders of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), offered a tight analysis of the underlying problems in Brazil’s economy, see here. In this recent interview, he highlighted the pressures derived from financial speculation, the decay of public services and the domination of the capitalist class within formal politics. However, his acute analysis lost its edge when the question of MST involvement was raised. As the most formidable organisation of the Brazilian Left, why have the Landless Workers Movement not been more involved in directing the protests?

Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci, Massimo Modonesi writes in the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada of this popular mobilisation as confounding Brazil’s passive revolution. This analysis speaks to those aspects of Gramsci which inspired Subaltern Studies: the study of those whom capitalist modernity has attempted to render “passive”. The sudden and extensive mobilisation suggests that indeed “passivity” has fallen away, replaced by an activism in search of concrete form. However, Modonesi only notes the shift of the Brazilian middle class from a condition of “passivity” to one of activity. The specific nature (and indeed the origin) of their demands is left unexamined. Moreover, Modonesi’s commentary neglects the other central aspect of Gramsci’s analysis. As Gramsci outlined in his Prison Notebooks (Q19§24):

The methodological criterion on which our own study must be based is the following: that the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as “domination” and as “intellectual and moral leadership”.

However, since the PT won the presidential elections in 2002, Brazil’s political situation seems to have not been a passive revolution rather but a full-blown hegemony. A closer analysis of the recent popular protests provides evidence for this claim.

A piece by Jérôme E. Roos for ROAR Magazine, here, attempts to situate the Brazilian protests within the framework of a global shift towards horizontal politics, suggesting that the time for “autonomy” has finally come. However, Roos tends to consider spontaneity in isolation, counterposed to leadership, hierarchy or traditional politics. Gramsci encourages us, instead, to read spontaneity and organisation as a relation, arguing that ‘. . . every “spontaneous” movement contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline’ (Q19§24).

policeman protestorThe immediate impression given by the demonstrations during the Confederations Cup is one of spontaneous protest. However, if we ask who has exercised leadership over the protesters, i.e. whose political programme has shaped their demands, we are forced to conclude that it is the dominant class. The demands posed are mostly phrased in the language of neodevelopmentalism, the guiding political-economic approach of the PT since 2007. This includes calls for a strong state guiding investment, creation of infrastructure, and support for education, transport and healthcare. The protesters rejected affiliation with any political party in particular, whilst supporting the program of government in general. Their demands aimed only to accentuate and to exaggerate certain aspects of what was already proposed. As pointed out in the Economist, the freezing of bus fares in major cities was far from exceptional. In both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, this is common practice during an election year.

Accordingly, whilst the popular mobilisations in June won significant victories, they failed to challenge the political and economic logic of the ruling group. Only from the margins of the protests came the outlines of a real challenge to Brazil’s model of capitalism, and these were quickly passed over. In particular, the demands for an end to evictions of poor populations at the behest of real-estate speculators were roundly ignored. Given the centrality of property speculation to Brazil’s model of capital accumulation, such a concession would be unthinkable.

greve geralIt would be a mistake to contrast a mobilised and rising middle class to a weak and passing institutional Left. The empirical evidence contradicts such claims. On the 11th of July, an alliance of labour unions and social movements called a day of strikes and mobilisations. As graphically indicated, these actions were carried out by at least 100,000 participants (see here) across the length and breadth of Brazil, closing factories, blockading highways and occupying public buildings (a photo diary is available here). The izquierda permitida (or esquierda permitida) in Brazil retains considerable organisational power and can still translate such influence into political force. It is rather more troubling to observe that the large scale protests of both aspects of the popular mobilisation could not be made to coincide.  

The overall picture of this double-protest is difficult to summarise. Brazil clearly contains all of the elements necessary to enact a radical change. If the force of the popular demonstrations can somehow be wedded to the organisational resources of the institutional Left, a real challenge to capitalism may be mounted. However, for this to be possible the Left must prove itself an apt leader for popular forces. On the evidence provided in the last month, this will prove a considerable challenge. 

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