On the sixteenth of April, 1984 the final demonstration of the Diretas Já campaign brought one and a half million Brazilians into the streets of São Paulo. The phrase “I want to vote for president” could be read on the protesters’ yellow t-shirts and posters. To understand the recent wave of demonstrations in Brazil, we will have to begin with the history of this reformist movement, animated by the protesters’ belief that their country had been degraded by the greed and incompetence of the politicians—a constant theme in the efforts to make our institutions more responsive to the “real Brazil.”
Dreaming of the impending demise of the military régime, in power for decades, many of the protesters of 1984 evoked the famous verses of a song by Chico Buarque de Holanda:
In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day.
I ask you where will you hide
From the enormous euphoria?
How will you prohibit
When the rooster insists on crowing?
New water flowing,
And the people loving without rest.
–Chico Buarque de Holanda, “Apesar de Você” (1970)
Nine days later, however, the constitutional amendment which would reestablish democratic elections for the president of Brazil could not be sanctioned. One hundred and thirteen pro-dictatorship parliamentarians refused to attend the session of April 25, 1984, thus thwarting the enactment of the amendment, which required the support of at least two-thirds of the 320 members of the Chamber of Deputies. Adding grief to disappointment, Tancredo Neves—a moderate member of the opposition to the military régime who had been, despite everything, indirectly elected president—could not be inaugurated due to an abdominal illness which killed him on April 21 of the following year. Hence, José Sarney, the vice-president-elect and a former supporter of the dictators, became the first civilian to be sworn in as president of Brazil after a period of more than two decades.
Notwithstanding administrative incompetence, devastating inflation, corruption scandals, and the impeachment of Fernando Collor de Mello, the first democratically elected president since the 1960s, Brazil reached economic and political stability by the mid-1990s. Sadly, however, the new Brazilian democracy was based on a political agenda which placated the anxieties of the old elites through the distribution of governmental favors, while handing over the economy to neoliberal puppeteers. The nightmare of one of the most brilliant Brazilian political theorists seemed to once again come to life.
Power—nominally popular sovereignty—has owners, who do not emanate from the nation, from society, from the poor and ignorant rabble. The chief is not a delegate, but a business manager, and not a representative… The law, rhetorical and elegant, does not awaken interest. Elections, even if formally free, provide the people with a choice between options that they did not formulate.1
The two parties which came to dominate national politics after the process of redemocratization—PT, the Workers’ Party, and PSDB, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party—had very similar origins. While PT claims to speak to the mass of Brazilian workers and PSDB is considered the party of the middle class, both originated from a very similar analysis of Brazilian politics, one that emerged within the University of São Paulo (USP). Opposed to the military dictatorship as well as to the populist democracy which prevailed from the mid-1940s until the military coup of 1964, the USP intellectuals sought to build the political culture of the Brazilian Left from scratch. Rejecting a so-called authoritarian capitalism, which solved class conflict within the structure of the nation-state, the new Left (or rather a center-Left) promised to let social interests play freely in the new Brazil.
As it happened, however, the world in which the Brazilian social classes had to freely compete against each other was the world created under the shadow of Reagan and Thatcher. As in the rest of the global economy, an ill-defined but all-powerful entity called the “free market” became supreme ruler of Brazil between the 1980s and the 2000s. Within this context, PSDB and PT did their job with great competence, and Brazil became a paradise—not for its people, but for bankers and speculators. From the process of redemocratization until now, social movements and class organizations have had little to do in Brazil but humbly collect the crumbles that fall from the banquet table at which a privileged few can sit.
Contrary to what most analysts say, Brazilian society did not remain quiescent throughout all these years. Rather, the brutal concentration of wealth and the shameless weakening of the public institutions caused by the neoliberal order led society to explode in chaos. The peripheries of the major Brazilian cities became war zones. The élite and the ascending middle class enclosed themselves behind concrete walls, electric fences, private guards, and vigilance cameras. The police specialized in terrorizing and slaughtering the miserable. Drug dealers took advantage of the opportunity and transformed the peripheries into their playground. Political leaders, the mainstream media, and intellectuals remained speechless: no privileged group of Brazilian society seemed capable of articulating what was happening.
But a voice emerged from the southern slums of São Paulo. By the early-1990s, a group of young rappers started speaking a dialect that deeply troubled the dominant classes of Brazil. The Racionais Mc’s represented many other groups of young and poor Brazilians who decided to tell the story of exclusion and violence afflicting millions of citizens manipulated by the caprices of the “free market.”
Balanced on a shanty
Uncomfortable, poorly finished, and dirty
His only home, however, his good and his refuge.
A horrible smell of sewage on the backyard,
From above or below,
If it rains it will be fatal.
A piece of hell,
Here it is where I am.
Even the census came by and never came back.
They numbered the shacks, made several questions,
Soon after forgot,
Yes, to make money, to finally get rich:
I want my son never to remember this place,
To have a safe life,
I don’t want him to grow up with a .38 in his belt and a pistol on his head.
And through the rest of the night sleepless he thinks:
What to do to get out of this situation?
With a bad reputation,
He lived in detention,
No one trusts him anymore.
This man’s life was forever damaged…
A man on the road…
–Mano Brown, “Homem na Estrada” (1993)
How can order and growth be maintained in such a society? How can a state secure political and economic stability while ignoring the most basic needs of the citizenry? For the Brazilian ruling élite, it seemed very easy. While the “free market” dictated all the rules (or lack thereof), PSDB and PT bargained with the very political groups they once said they would overcome. Fernando Henrique Cardoso side by side with Antonio Carlos Magalhães, the “father of Bahia” and former ally of the military dictatorship, Lula rubbing shoulders with José Sarney, the “owner of Maranhão” and another former supporter of the military—these were among so many orgiastic scenes that disgusted the Brazilian people from the 1990s through the 2010s. “Governability”: this motto has dominated the politics of PSDB and PT during the two decades they have been fighting for the highest national offices. This word, which came to grate harshly on Brazilian ears, meant that local political clans would be free to continue to suck blood from the people while finance capital played freely with the institutions of the country.
Despite widespread corruption and inequality, Brazilian redemocratization did represent progress. Our country is no longer a dictatorship: there is no more political persecution, torture, or censorship. Unlike many other underdeveloped countries recently rocked by protests, Brazil is a functional democratic régime which guarantees its people’s right to vote and freely demonstrate. Understanding this, hundreds of thousands of angry young protesters have taken to the streets of the major Brazilian cities to show their discontent with the local as well as federal government. But their predominant goal is not a revolutionary one: the changes the protesters seek are changes within the existing order. The initiators of the movement—members of the ascending Brazilian middle class with access to higher education—understand the meaning of political representation and act accordingly.
The protesters stop the traffic; they carry around posters with humorous or poetic sayings; they wear Guy Fawkes masks; they use Facebook and Twitter to communicate their messages and organize themselves. “A representative government,” writes political theorist Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, “requires that there be machinery for the expression of the wishes of the represented, and that the government respond to these wishes unless there are good reasons to the contrary.”2 There are no good reasons for the representatives to fail to respond to the represented, and the protesters know this very well.
Spontaneous demonstrations pop up, and the young Brazilian middle class, inspired by an anarcho-technological vision of the future, already begins to savor the sweet taste of victory. Some changes begin to take place in the Brazilian parliament and politicians begin to act in order to improve some public services. But realistic observers will ask the fundamental question: how can the current movement avoid the fate of those who fought for democracy in Brazil before them?
There are many reasons to pass from realism to pessimism. True, the digital age facilitates the gathering of the discontented, amplifies contempt for the old, emboldens sarcastic attitudes towards power, and pulverizes traditional structures; but it has not yet provided a path to substantive change, it has failed to formulate a perspective of a new political order. The current protests in Brazil add cultural iconoclasm to a traditional middle-class reformist agenda; both elements are multiplied by the disseminating power of the social media.
The ideologically mild character of the current movement was made explicit at a recent public lecture organized by the Movimento Passé Livre. University of São Paulo Professor Paulo Arantes rejected the notion that the social media is the central force propelling the current protests in Brazil. Building on Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 article for The New Yorker, the philosopher proposed that the protest of our petty bourgeoisie is a form of “high-risk activism” based on “strong-tie connections.” High-risk activism, Professor Arantes? What the Brazilian protesters are doing at this moment has nothing to do with the heroic actions of African Americans in the US of the 1960s, Gladwell’s primary example of high-risk activism. The highest-risk activism in Brazil today is simply the daily struggle for survival in the periphery, not pretending to change the world by replacing political programs with computer programs. Arantes also claimed that, during the last few decades, the Brazilian population has been “asleep and narcotized… hypnotized by charismatic leaders.” Only someone who has never set foot in the slums—a typical attitude of Brazilian intellectuals—could make such a claim. Professor Arantes concluded his lecture by saying that it is up to the protesters to decipher the daydreams of the common people, “instead of trying to resurrect ideological watchwords such as class this or class that… conservative, reactionary, fascist…” No ideology, no politics, no class struggle: just the comfortable romanticism of college students trying to interpret the miserables’ daydreams.3 Any reason for optimism now?
Unwittingly, however, the middle-class Brazilian protesters—these Facebook rebels—may be opening a door for a more drastic transformation. “The favela is tired of so much injustice, of so many things done wrong,” a favela tour guide told the New York Times during a protest in Rio de Janeiro.4 Although it is still early to make predictions, it seems that a truly radical force can take over the protests happening in Brazil—a force emanating from those who have nothing to lose, who have until now been blocked from participating in Brazilian democracy thanks to misery and exclusion. The masses begin to speak of their own sense of exploitation, inequality, and coercion; and their language is very different from that of people who dream of an interconnected world without centers of power. The Brazilian poor—a mass of unemployed people and unskilled workers—defend their dignity against the state and the market. Not surprisingly, when the protests explode, becoming uncontrollable riots affecting private property and public works, the educated strata panic. The radicalism of those who have been forgotten overwhelms the reformism of our middle class. Confronted with a political actor that has apparently—and only apparently—been inactive for so long, the privileged groups of Brazil don’t know what to do.
The movement Periferia Ativa, which is now organizing demonstrations among poverty-ridden communities of São Paulo, adopts as its first principle the right to life over profit:
We are, as laborers and inhabitants of the periphery, the worst affected by a system which places money above life. In capitalism, the gains of an élite cause the misery which affects the peripheries of the world. Their right to profit runs over our right to live… Thanks to the millionaire profits of contractors and landowners we are forced to live in holes, without any structure, being humiliated when depending on the favor of others to have a place to live, or spend the money we don’t have on abusive rent. Ultimately, our rights are treated like a commodity: you only have rights if you can pay for them. The system kills us a little each day. That is when it doesn’t kill our children at once, when the police and their extermination groups act, treating the youth of the periphery as cattle to be slaughtered.5
There is nothing new in this document. “The poor and ignorant rabble” of Raymundo Faoro’s nightmare is just singing its own song: a song that doesn’t resemble at all the ballads of Chico Buarque de Holanda, that wasn’t composed on the corridors of the University of São Paulo, that doesn’t echo the anarcho-technological utopia of the digital age. The inhabitants of the periphery have been singing this song for a long time. While the elites and the middle class were blindly trying to preserve the world they created, the common people were awake and conscious. We can’t know for sure what will happen in the near future. But whatever direction the current movement takes us, the voices of the periphery will continue to crudely remind the world that, in a country where the “free market” dictates the rules and the old elites remain sovereign, class struggle is a cruel and inescapable reality.
1. Raymundo Faoro, Os Donos do Poder: Formação do Patronato Político Brasileiro (Porto Alegre: Globo, 1976), 748.
2. Hannah F. Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: Universtity of California Press, 1997), 232.