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Global Express

Brazil within the Geopolitics of Global Outrage

July 01, 2013

Indignation or outrage is not a social movement. It is a state of being. As such, it can be expressed in a variety of ways. In Southern Europe, for example, the feeling of social indignation over the last two years had multiple sources, but one of the main themes was the refusal to pay for the direct consequences of the crisis, which should instead be assumed by those responsible. Bankers and speculators thus became the main targets of the social mobilizations. In the United States, “occupiers” directed their outrage at these same actors, bolstered by the argument that the 1%— far removed from the concerns of the general populace—ought not determine the future of the 99%.

In Brazil today (and the state of affairs is changing rapidly every day), the indignation is still extremely diffuse and increasingly polarized. Diverse and contradictory feelings, arguments, and meanings coexist in the streets, actions, and demonstrations. Some express their discontent with public transportation and public services in general (primarily education and health); others invoke the astronomical costs (not only economic, but also social, environmental, cultural, and political) of the World Cup and the megaevents that will take place throughout the country; lower middle-class youth are indignant at the persistence of profound inequality; some are indignant at more specific and sector-based questions, which are no less important, including PEC37, the criminalization of abortion, the bill approved by the Human Rights Commission and now under consideration by Congress for the so-called “gay cure,” etc.

Young people represent the largest contingent of the recent social mobilizations. They have a less-well articulated sense of political indignation, because for most, it is their “political baptism”. In other words, the indignation, the ire, the anger, and the hate has not yet crystallized in a politically structured act. These youth, along with the large part of the global wave of indignation that has traveled through diverse countries throughout the world in the past few years, associate their dissatisfaction with a rejection of political systems, of the traditional political parties, and of the conventional forms of political organization. They want to participate in the political life, but they have not found adequate channels. Before criticizing young people for this fact, we should ask what (and why) the system doesn’t work. Further, we should take advantage of this rupture of apathy and the broken wall of silence in order to conquer socially transformative rights and advances.

Social mobilizations are thermometers of society, and they don’t always reveal pleasant ways forward. They tend to emanate from the more mobilized and organized sectors (in this case, primarily the Free Fare Movement) into those that are less well mobilized and organized, making the groups that initiated the protests appear completely outdated and inadequate. Mass mobilizations are not always controlled by social and political organizations, and even less so during our current day and age, which is characterized by a new form of viral and diffuse politics. This is a great political challenge, because it demands adaptation and a renewal of our modes of action.

Considered within the contemporary global wave of indignation, the Brazilian case has several specificities that should be taken into account. Placing it in this comparative perspective, it is crucial to first understand the spatialities of the protests in at least three dimensions. First, unlike some of the processes in Europe, Africa, or the United States of late, in spite of solidarity in various places on the planet (particularly among Brazilians who live abroad), and although protesters have a common set of tools, there is a limited transnational diffusion of the frameworks, forms and repertoires of action. This is important, because it reflects a scarcity of shared learning experiences among recent social struggles that could contribute a great deal to the current moment in Brazil.

Second, unlike the other contemporary protests based on indignation, which brought more complex and large-scale dynamics into question by linking the local to the global (with an emphasis in world regions in the case of Europe), in our mobilizations, the national scale serves as a political safeguard which has, in some cases, enlivened the nationalistic right. Third, place matters. Each demonstration, in any capital or small Brazilian city, tailored its particular demands and specific criticisms to the local and regional politics, as well as its particular political culture. This is common to the wave of indignation and protests in general. Thus, these local specificities also reveal changes in the profile of the demands and the social composition of the demonstrators. This meant that certain interest groups that did not take to the streets in São Paulo or in Ribeirão Preto, for example, were present in Rio or in São Gonçalo and vice-versa; but it also meant that the power alliances were distinct in different places.

In this last dimension, the acts of vandalism and violence also speak to the fractures, the depth of inequality, the segmentations and the classism of Brazilian society. Opportunists and infiltrators abound (whether looters, police and ex-police, racist, xenophobics, homophobics, and ultra-rightists), but it is also necessary to consider how indignation at classism and oppression undergirds the diffuse critiques. We could even talk about a renewal of the differentiation between middle-class movements and popular movements, with different agendas, demands and presence in the public space.

The key question that we confront is: how do we channel the indignation into a transformative social movement? The answer is not easy, given the deep disagreements on the meanings of the recent protests. The first barrier comes in the form of hegemonic means of communication, which, in the absence of pluralistic information, has defined the interpretation of the events. Social networks are an important tool for horizontal communication, staging events, and disseminating messages, but they are insufficient, because in general, they do not generate or produce systematic counter-information and wide-ranging interpretations in Brazil. This demands the creation of broader-based, alternative information platforms that reach a wider contingent of the population.

At the same time, the investment in pedagogical activities and political formation becomes increasingly urgent within the context of the current mobilization process. To give indignation a transformative meaning demands training and political awareness. This element is central to stopping the right’s cooptation of the protests through simple and conservative ideas, many of them rooted in quasi-naturalized forms (reproduced, of course, by education and by the conventional means of communication) in Brazilian society. Furthermore, in the current context of new forms of domination and (re) appropriations and disputes of the social, urges renew an important tradition of Brazilian and Latin American Left: the grassroots education.

As a consequence of this, it is worth looking to, once again, the wave of global indignation. In all of these confrontations, they created spaces of convergence, macroassemblies, and discussion forums in which the people began to do politics in another way: debating, sharing, and evolving their ideas. We also can and should have our own Puerta del Sol and permanent occupations in Brazil that allow us to deepen and refine the open-ended process on the streets. We should not only fight for but also expand the collective spaces of construction. In recent years, Brazil has been an important example for the world, a “democratic laboratory” which expressed itself in diverse channels of participation and deliberation of society. The majority of them were institutional. We ought to reinvent and deepen this in the public sphere as well. Converting our cities into great agoras could be the first step toward channeling fragmented indignation into a transformative force. It is also a good opportunity to renew our leftist forms and forces, as well as our commitment to social justice and emancipation.

(Translated by Elizabeth McKenna. The original version in Portuguese was published in Jornal Brasil de Fato: http://www.brasildefato.com.br/node/13374)

Breno Bringel, Institute of Social and Political Studies, State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ), Brazil, and Editor of Dados – Revista de Ciências Sociais (http://www.scielo.br/revistas/dados/iaboutj.htm)
for Global Express July 1, 2013

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