Until June 2013, time seemed to be frozen in Brazil and the future, a mere copy of the unequal present. Transport price hikes changed that

Words by Luiz Eduardo Soares | 21 Sep, 2013

In June 2013, Brazilian society experienced the largest mobilization of people in its history when protestors, angry at increases in public transportation fares, took to the streets. Organised via social networks, with no leadership, centralised structure, partisan interests or even uniform agenda, these protests galvanised people in small towns and large urban centres—four out of five of Brazil’s nearly 200 million inhabitants live in urban areas. The international community curiously watched as the world’s sixth largest economy—Brazil has a steady market economy that has weathered the international financial crisis and maintained indicators of full employment, modest growth, reduction of inequality and record leadership approvals—was suddenly gripped by street protests.

In order to honestly describe what is happening in Brazil, one must recognise that old cognitive schemes exorcise novelty, tame difference and disguise intellectual insecurity, while also reasserting old beliefs and categories. The current moment requires humility from the interpreter, and the recognition that the traditional categories are also in check. The central dispute now involves understanding what is happening. When projecting conventional cognitive models of what is radically new and different, we are only able to see what the protest movement is not: it is “unorganized,” has “no leadership or centre,” is “devoid of ideology and goals,” is “irrational”, and so on. However, the protest movement does exist. How to capture and describe its positivity? Let’s begin by echoing its polyphony.

The protests began as a response to public transportation fare hikes. These fares, which affect most of the population, are however only the tip of the iceberg. An imaginary metonymic thread links the meanings of fare prices to the inhumane journeys that workers have to endure everyday; the thread is linked to other negative aspects of life in the cities: the precariousness of work, unequal conditions of housing, health, education, safety and access to justice. Symbolic and political contiguity links problems to each other, accentuating their permanent mark: inequality. And they do so in a context of norms and institutions, the democratic state governed by the rule of law, in which the principle praised is fairness. As a result, the negative meanings worsen, emphasising the emotional intensity with which they are grasped and communicated: they stand out because they refer to inequality, which contrasts strongly with the expectations of the constitutional pact.

The mostly young people who gathered in the streets represent a diverse constituency: they come from different social backgrounds, speak different ideological languages and voice varying accusations and claims. However, one thing is clear: political representation has collapsed. The protests have, however, also highlighted other, related insights:

1. Brazil’s economic model seems to have made development hostage to the automobile industry, contrary to what would be rational in order to reduce urban chaos, which obstructs mobility, affecting the interests of all, especially those who have fewer resources and alternatives;

2. the reputation of Brazil’s politicians is deteriorating and there is popular scepticism in the political institution of representation, particularly given that the country’s leaderships offer no sign that they understand the magnitude of the abyss that was opened—and is quickly widening—between political institutions and the populace;

3. the high public approval ratings that marked the terms of former president Lula da Silva and, until May 2013, Dilma Rousseff, his successor—both members of the Workers’ Party (PT), originally a leftist association but currently social democratic—are a thing of the past. The charismatic aura of the da Silva presidency, which helped stem the deterioration of the state, already advanced in its parliamentary aspect, has been severely eroded and is now challenged by a widespread rejection of all state institutions as legitimate, including the presidency;

4. Alexis de Tocqueville taught us that the social groups most willing to act and react are not the poorest or those with the least power, but those who have something to lose. The social advances from the last decades increased the number of people potentially willing to resist change; those who have ascended socially will not give up their achievements without struggling. And more: they will try to expand them;

5. the demonstrations are not a symptom of decline, but an affirmation of strength and faith in the future. An important factor for the outbreak of mass demonstrations is the co-optation of the PT and many unions and social movements by the federal government. History is full of examples of disasters caused by the overlapping of state, government and party. As a result, the PT has lost the streets. Another crucial aspect is internet access, participation in networks and the set-up of a globalised model for taking over public spaces as a method of direct democracy or political action, which is not mediated by institutions, parties or representatives. What counts in this dramatic scenario, which refers to the classic idea of direct democracy as the ideal form of democracy, are idealised memory and common language, as if the events were mutually citing each other, building up a virtual constellation of hyperlinks Brazil is set to host the football World Cup in 2014. Due to autocratic decisions, Brazilian society had been excluded from the benefits and economic flows of this sporting event. Public interest was confiscated by technocratic decision-makers, working in concert with contractors and those subservient to the arrogant (and ravenous) protection of the event’s custodian, FIFA: the so-called “great event” served to justify extraordinary profits and a bonanza of real estate speculation, under the rhetoric of social legacy, as urban mobility became more and more a contradiction in terms. By taking to the streets, hundreds of thousands of people, many wearing the Brazilian team shirt, shifted the contest from the football pitch to the middle of the street. The masses defied expectations and traditional apathy, and invented a movement that will be, due to its lessons and effects, the true legacy of the current historical moment.

Until June 2013, time seemed to be frozen and the future, a mere copy of the present. But collective human action restored freedom and, therefore, unpredictability onto history’s future horizon. Next year, political parties will seek to escape from their prodigious deterioration in the general elections; they will try and decipher the Sphinx, translating the protests into a manageable agenda, which will bring at least some change to the political scenario. However, the outcry for more democracy, transparency, citizenship, justice, equity and participation demands a more ambitious and radical agenda. Anyone who believes being able to predict what will happen next is probably unable to really grasp the immensity of the earthquake that has shaken Brazilian society.

Luiz Eduardo Soares is an anthropologist, philosopher and political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, where he is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences. He was Brazil’s National Secretary of Public Security between January and October, 2003