Rough notes and discussion on whether the Brazil protests really signify a new type of political engagement. Add your thoughts in the comments below!
C: What I find interesting about all of these protests is that they are mobilising huge numbers of people with no clear goal, demands, or leadership. This seems true in both Turkey and Brazil. This raises a few questions. Firstly, how can the political system react to this? How can they meet demands of protestors if these demands aren’t clear?
L: I think that this argument is to some extent misleading. Political movements are essential, but they can do just part of the job and we should not ask too much or dismiss them because they are not clear. Even if you take the Occupy movement,in my opinion of the hardest to read in recent history, they did have some clear points. At the very minimum, I would pick distributive justice and a political system accountable to people rather than financial institutions.
In the case of Brazil you can say that they have many asks, but not that they are not clear. The Passe Livre movement (the one that started the protest on bus fares) asked a stabiisation of bus prices and free transport. They got the first bit, not the second but are now working to build a national transport plan. Other asks are better public health and education, end of corruption. They are very broad asks, but they are quite clear.
The issue is how to get there and how to formulate specific demands. The issue is that, as in our societies, in Brazil traditional forms of political aggregation do not work very well or have been dismissed – take trade unions and political parties. As a consequence, there is a proliferation of individual participation and intermediaries, that sometimes converge in social movements, with no clear intermediaries able to transform broad asks in policy demands.
This somehow suggests that representative institutions can provide some answers, and in the case of Brazil it is actually trying. Dilma’s last discourse proposed 5 pacts for Brazil (fiscal responsability, political reform, health, education, transport). The discourse has been received very differently, and as I say in the article delivery is key. Words fly! Other key elements are political participation and accountability, potentially addressed under political reform.
C: Secondly, what does this say about people’s engagement with the political system? Is it really ‘nurturing a new sense of the nation as a political community’ (as the blog says) or is it promoting an anti-politics, where people express dissatisfaction but have no will or mechanism to turn this dissatisfaction into action?
L: I am not sure I get what anti-politics means. If this refers to a general discontent or mistrust in the political system, I would say that we did not need the movement to promote it, it is such a default position in Brazil (and elsewhere, to be sure). The movement has already started some new mechanism (see above) and how this will evolve is to see – I really do not know.
When I speak about a new sense of the nation as a political community I refer to the fact that people are experimenting new forms of political engagement, and they are doing it together. They are going to protests, they talk about politics, they listen to news and public announcements. This is all so new in Brazil and I suspect it is increasing the range of possibilities – what I can do as an individual to make my country better and what I can ask to institutions to make my life better. What legacy it will leave is, again, all to see. I think it can be very positive, although not necessarily tangible (e.g.: more political activists).
There is however a risk, as conservative actors in Brazil are channelling their demands through the movement too. This is how you make sense of demands for resignation of the current government. Some Latin America commentators highlight the role of media in this – at first dismissing the movement, then endorsing it when it became massive, but carefully selecting asks and working to make it more conservative. So, for example, I am aware that some components of the movement would like to discuss land reforms or evictions, but these themes simply do not get there as they are very controversial. Now, I do not believe in the mighty power of TV – but it has quite a big role in Brazilian society, so probably they are right.