You are here: Home / NEWS / The Meanings and Consequences of a Movement of Movements

The Meanings and Consequences of a Movement of Movements

by Richard Meckien - published Jul 24, 2013 03:25 PM - - last modified Aug 26, 2015 03:33 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa. Translation by Carlos Malferrari.

The demonstrations that erupted in June in several state capitals, in Brasília and in hundreds of other Brazilian cities, basically to demand lower public transport fares, stirred up not only the political climate, but also the perception – by government officials, parliamentarians, the media and social scientists – of the degree of dissatisfaction of significant portions of society.

Given the increase in the number and size of demonstrations since June 17, the IEA brought together on the same week, on the June 21, a dozen of its scholars for a comprehensive reflection on the significance of the protests.

What’s happening? [O que está acontecendo?] was the title of the first debate. The overtone of the discussion was the attempt to interpret the motives and profiles of those taking part in the protest demonstrations, particularly the Free Pass Movement (MPL), and of those who were later joining the manifestations.

With the reduction of transport fares in several cities and the end of the FIFA Confederations Cup, which had motivated protests in several cities hosting the games, both the frequency and the amplitude of the demonstrations abated. That was when the IEA decided to hold a second debate, What’s next [Como Avançar?], on July 3, to assess the prospects for the social and political issues brought to light by the rallies.

Como Avançar? - 1

Many doubts persisted in the new encounter regarding how to define this movement of movements. It was stressed that we must cultivate a certain analytical humility when dealing with such startling facts. In the final round of argumentation, participants presented their views on how society should advance in response to the demands of the protesters.

Unlike the first debate, when 14 researchers presented their views on the demonstrations, this time only four guests were interviewed: political scientist André Singer, professor at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH); journalist Eugênio Bucci, professor at the School of Communications and Arts (ECA); student Matheus Preis, member of the MPL; and anthropologist Maria Lucia Montes, retired professor from FFLCH.

Questions addressed the four were posed by Sergio Adorno, Renato Janine Ribeiro, Eda Tassara, Bernardo Sorj, Hernan Chaimovich, Pedro Jacobi, Lucia Maciel Barbosa de Oliveira, Graziela Kunsch, Arlene Clemesha, Renato Correa Baena and Martin Grossmann, who was also the moderator.

Janine began the interview with a question to Maria Lucia (both participating via internet) on the similarities between the current manifestations and those of May 1968 in Paris, which the scholar had experienced firsthand. In her written reply, Maria Lucia said she saw both differences and similarities: “The difference was the clear-cut leftist focus and direction there, which remain undefined here; the similarity is the problem of organization, flawed there and, apparently, here as well, at least until now.”

Janine’s other question went to Singer, on the situation of Lulism [partisans of former president Lula] vis-à-vis the events. For Singer, Lulism would not be completely superseded by what was happening, “in part because its politics are aimed toward what I call the subproletariat, people with very low income, who are not present in the demonstrations and remain in dire need of the social programs that were implemented.” He stressed that the one common demand of everyone who took part in the demonstrations was the need for better public services. This, however, implies more public spending and goes counter the pressure from the so-called marketplace to restrict such expenditures: “This poses an enormous challenge for Lulism. It is a new challenge and I don’t know how will be faced.”

Arlene Clemesha asked Bucci what ideas the media in general and the social networks via Internet were offering in response to the crisis of representation. Bucci believes that what is new in the demonstrations is their form: “These movements learned to speak the language of the spectacle.” In his view, the use of the national anthem and of the Brazilian flag is an appropriation of signs typical of the language of the spectacle, whereby protesters knowingly act before the cameras. He mentioned that, according to the advertising market, the media coverage of the demonstrations captivated a noteworthy audience, rivaling the broadcasts of the games of Confederations Cup.

Eda Tassara asked Preis to what he attributed the genesis of corruption and whether there is any hope regarding this issue. Preis said the MPL does not sound the trumpet against corruption; they consider corruption an overly abstract agenda, with no practical goals that might lead the government to do something about it: “Everyone is against corruption, but must be done to put an end to it?” Preis took the opportunity to comment on the language of the spectacle mentioned by Bucci. In his view, there is indeed a unity of form in the demonstrations, but it is not that of the spectacle. Rather, it is the possibility of affecting directly the workings of the city, “insofar as blocking streets allows you to change how the city works and grants you the power to engage in a more horizontal dialogue with the power that be.”

Bernardo Sorj (who also participated via internet) asked Singer what could be done to recover the critical tradition that was lost over the last decade, “When we fell into a kind of zealotry over Brazil getting a better and accepted the notion that citizens limit their demands to purely economic issues.” Singer said the chauvinism mentioned by Sorj is a mistaken assessment of the past ten years and that he does not share it: “We are in the process of a weak reformism, that is, changes are being made in Brazil that go towards the redistribution of income, but they are slow changes, especially in the face of the existing inequality.” For him, while there is a question of values, the economic problem and the inequality remain central. On the other hand, Singer said he also agreed with Sorj on how much the social sciences must advance and with Eda Tassara’s comment about the need to approach the events with a lot of intellectual humility.

Adorno said he identifies a new language in the protests, which embodies violence in one form or another. He wanted to know from Preis how the MPL construed the issue of violence and whether it points to toward a new kind of legitimacy. Preis said violence in the demonstrations came from a minority, but that he does not see it as illegitimate or somehow reprehensible: “Violence represents the existence of a conflict, the awareness that what is being done against the people is not fair, that people will not accept it and will retaliate. Unfortunately, this more philosophical and political analysis of violence was not addressed by the media.”

Como Avançar? - 2

Lucia Maciel was concerned with the role of intellectuals (“if they actually have one in this exercise of political reinvention”) in her question to Bucci. He said that one of the most embarrassing facts in the avalanche of protests was that every consolidated leadership was trampled by the masses – political parties, unions and even NGOs strove limit the damage and show some service. “Where were these leaders and, by extension, where were the intellectuals? Why did the intelligentsia dedicate so much time protecting the powers that be? The better the power, the more powerful should be the critique of the intellectuals. They may have neglected to problematize the issue. This movement is a wake-up call for the anachronism of the old power structures and for the accommodation of intellectual activity.”

Chaimovich Singer’s question involved the silence of former President Lula and the hypothesis that he was perhaps articulating with the labor movement “to become once again the hero of 1978 with the 2014 elections in mind.” Singer thought it very important that unions called for a “Day of Struggle,” because it was a centralized decision and, therefore, unprecedented. As for the former president, he said he does not believe Lula is getting involved in actions such as the Day of Struggle to prepare his return to an electoral dispute: “In light of the results of surveys, it is evident that his name is mentioned, because the rapidly falling approval rates of the Dilma administration and of all executive branches. Depending on how this situation evolves, the name of the former president will be better placed yet. But I have no way to assess whether he would accept a candidacy or not.”

Graziela Kunsch asked Preis if he would consider another composition and another function for the new Municipal Traffic and Transportation Advisory Commission, created by the São Paulo city government two days before the debate, comprising 39 members: 13 municipal agencies, 13 organizations connected with transport operators (unions and associations) and 13 representatives from the civil society elected by direct vote. Preis said that a proposal that would meet the wishes of the population would be the creation of an advisory board with most members coming from the general population. For him, the board created by mayor Haddad is an attempt by City Hall to preserve the commoditization of public transportation.

Baena asked Singer if the proposal for political reform presented by president Dilma might solve the problem of political representation and make it possible to fight corruption and social inequality. Singer said he believed that political reform could help in controlling corruption, “because one of its causes is campaign financing, which is extraordinarily expensive and financed by the economic powers, who do not give money for free; they will want something back later.” He also believes that a reform might promote “a more authentic representation, less influenced by economic power, that advances social justice, as long as Congress becomes less conservative.”

Jacobi observed that social urban movements of the 1970s and 1980s led to the emergence of participatory democracy, which was later incorporated into the 1988 Constitution, and asked Singer how to extend the participation mechanisms. For Singer, it’s time to resume the experiences of that period and participatory budgeting is a good example: “There is even a proposal for a national system of participatory budgeting and a national system of popular participation.”

Grossmann’s question went to Bucci and dealt with the fact that the movements in Brazil and around the world suggest a virtuality that is difficult to analyze from the social, anthropological and cultural viewpoints, in a framework that seems to indicate a doorway into something that might be called a new nature. Bucci answered that the movements bring a new place within the urban discourse: “They problematize, cause short circuits or clog the arteries.” Thus, according to Bucci, to the ordering of social life may be added a second nature, an artificial nature, and the confrontation of signs gains material existence: “There is an overflow, not from the public sphere, but from another category of the living world, directly into the political scene. Personal issues, private and intimate questions, very subjective indignations step in, trampling the known mediations of the public sphere.”

Questions from the audience

Claudia Moraes, from UNESP Marilia, asked Preis if the MPL has assessed the transgressions to the initial agenda of the demonstrations and if there is any chance that the movement itself will be institutionalized. Preis said the movement achieved what it wanted – repeal the fare increase – and has now withdrawn to develop a new process: “We won the fight. You can’t simply put up a new agenda artificially. That is not how the movement works. We will continue our struggle for zero-fare public transport, for the municipalization of public transport and for a government by the people.”

Adami Campos wanted to know from Singer what stance political parties should adopt in face of the crisis of representation to address the gap between the State and society. Singer said the parties should embark on a process of reflection and transformation aimed at reduced bureaucracy, deprofessionalization and true openness to grassroots movements. But he also said he was not optimistic about it, “because in fact the parties perform electoral and governmental functions that are working; this makes it difficult for them to carry out this operation. Nevertheless, it is what they should do. However, between what should be done and what will be done lies reality.”

Como Avançar3 - 3

Gustavo Venturi, from FFLCH, asked Bucci if the crisis of representation also affected the corporate media and if the destruction of TV station vehicles and the demonstrations against reporters were a reflection of this. Bucci said that the history of contacts between the movements and the media was full of contradictions, ranging from solidarity toward journalists who were victims of police violence to rejection of the media organizations, as when TV station vehicles were vandalized and burned. “There is no doubt that, from a certain perspective, the representatives of mass media also represent the powers that be or, somehow, the prevailing political pact. That is why they were attacked. On the other hand, the protesters themselves were supplied with information by combination of practical experiences (in the case of transport) and investigative reporting by journalists.”

Evaluations and proposals

In the last part of the meeting, interviewers and interviewees offered their closing remarks, many of them on the prospects for Brazil after the demonstrations and on the stance to be adopted by various segments of society.

Sorj ended his participation by identifying a unity in the movement: “We want a more decent country.” He framed the current moment as a struggle for a renewed civic nationalism. “Brazil has improved in the last 20 years, but this improvement did not bring an identification with the political system and its institutions.”

To advance the matter of public transport in São Paulo, Graziela Kunsch advocated three actions: support for the zero-fare draft bill, which needs 500,000 signatures to be presented to the City Council; a municipal advisory commission on transport fares, with a lean membership, charged with defining the industry’s cost spreadsheet; and the replacement of the current Secretary of Transportation, Jilmar Tatto, “because his actions and statements suggest he has an intense relationship with the transportation industry.”

Horizontality is the unifying factor of the movements that have taken to the streets in the opinion of Arlene Camecha. She said this factor calls for a new paradigm of political action and asked whether “the proposed political reform is not failing precisely because it was unable to interpret this movement, seeing it was put forth it the most vertical manner possible, by the president’s office.”

Three aspects called Adorno’s attention: the unfeasibility of conventional explanations, challenging the intelligentsia as much as anyone else and requiring intellectuals “to step out of their comfort zone and apply their wisdom to the facts”; the need to bring back a classical theme – civic courage – because “the demonstrations have shown that there are voices in the underlayers of society that need to be heard and that have burst forth quite civically”; and the political mise-en-scène, “which goes beyond the culture of the spectacle mentioned by Bucci.” He said that, “a group of masked protesters is like a theater chorus; we must analyze the role of the chorus, which is to criticize, to announce the end of times and to herald new times. In terms of the political mise-en-scène, I see only three possibilities: tragedy, drama or comedy.”

Jacobi argued that governments should have transparent policies, because there are powerful lobbies and billionaire contracts in transportation and solid waste disposal. He also advocated strengthening the mechanisms of participatory democracy, so that we may know “where the money comes from and how to spend it.” Within the university and among public players, Jacobi expects them to further develop the issue of social learning and the dialogue between the various social players.

Baena said he does not believe in the emergence of a new way of doing politics and providing representativeness: “We, the civilized, must believe that the proper path is institutional and that we can improve the institutions we have. I believe that we should invest in political reform and that this is not merely a matter of campaign financing. We have never experimented with single-member constituencies, never tried other ways to approach our representatives. We must try this out in Brazil. And discuss the next budget as well.”

Como Avançar? - 4

“We find it difficult to understand what is happening in terms of images and of strategies,” said Eda Tassara. In terms of images, she believes we are witnessing “a new form of urban performance art, where people customize themselves and attempt to represent things that are not quite clear but reflect the issues of mass media via the network media. It’s almost like a Dada underground working on problematic policies.” For her, representativeness and participation do not work because the political system is permeable to strategic interests of certain sectors that are adversarial to the representation of society.

For Lucia Maciel, the manifestations should be thought of as a global movement: “Some evoke May 1968 as a template for a new way of doing politics, but I think the 1990s were richer in movements against neoliberal globalization – see the Global Days of Action, the Zapatista movement and other events that are not part of our reflection. Those movements already provided a new political template that included direct action, life-as-performance, the loss of political seriousness, the use of the internet. These were the essential germs for us to understand what is happening today.”

Hernan Chaimovich pleaded for a greater participation of the University of São Paulo in debates on issues of interest to society: “This university must take on responsibility out of respect for São Paulo’s taxpayers. Either USP begins speaking as we are speaking here today, or the alleged role of the intellectual will never become a political reality. On the other hand, I must say that Occupy Wall Street had a melodramatic ending, that is, it came to nothing. And this is a possibility that we did not addressed here.”

Preis advocated expanding the spaces for direct participation of the people, such as neighborhood councils, and questioned the role of the press: “What service has the press rendered society by stifling all political manifestations of the protest movements against the established order that occur daily in the country? Will we have to take hundreds of thousands of people to the streets to stop this media embargo?” He also championed the demilitarization of the police.

Singer said he maintained his initial position of perplexity in face of the events, and said that the possibility, suggested by Chaimovich, of everything ending abruptly is not absurd, “because this is actually a trait of movements convened by social networks: they are easy to convoke, but are less organized, less permanent.” He stressed that either society organizes itself or no advance will occur, but it is necessary to analyze very carefully the possible lines of advancement to accelerate the process: “While I understand that we are facing new realities, I insist that the old divisions of class, especially in a country like Brazil, remain very important.”

For Bucci, the aging of Brazil’s political parties has to do with surrendering the party machines to more or less corrupt managing methods, making them efficient within a system of negotiating improper interests. He defended reducing the privileges of politicians, accepting other forms of representation than the parties, “however necessary they may be,” and measuring the quality of public services.

Photos: Mauro Bellesa/IEA-USP