20 cent of Reais (approximately 0.07 dollars) was the amount of increase in the public transportation fare that flared a wave of protest around the country. Brazil has one of the most expensive public transportation fees of the world (consuming approximately a third of the household’s income) and, at the same time, a very precarious, overcrowded transportation system owned by a small group of businessman, an urban fabric nearly the collapse due the lack of planning and a public space hijacked by the private sector – roads and highways mugged by the automobile industry and the distribution of the city ground dictated by real state speculation. In this scenario, the fare increase is much more then 0.20 cents: it interferes directly in the mobility of the people and, in city with a population of 28 million as São Paulo, it becomes an issue of deprive the access of the population to basic rights such as the school, the hospital, the theater or the parent’s house
In response, the Free Fare Movement, known as MPL, called successive protests in the city, using direct action tactics, barricading main highways and avenues in the rush hour, to claim the revocation of the hike. The marches systematically met a disproportional, extreme and obscene police brutality. The Military Police used tear gas, rubber bullets and other so-called “non-lethal weapons” against the protesters. Immediately after the clashes, the Internet was flooded with reports, videos and images of wounded demonstrators and journalists, arbitrary arrestments, police verbal, physical and sexual abuses and rapidly the protests spread around the country. The information circulating in internet played a strong role in mobilizing more and more people, despite the mainstream media’s effort to diminish the struggle by, first, criminalizing and repeatedly calling the protests “vandals” and second by trying impose a vague and generic agenda to the popular uprisings, such as “protest to have the right to protest” or “against corruption”. It is evident that the more people joined the marches, the more profuse were the claims, but it is interesting to notice a common and profound level of discontent with the system as a whole and a general rejection of partisan politics. This context reveals, thus, that three levels of struggles are being undertaken at the same time: in one level there is the concrete direct fight against a political measure took by the government without the popular consultation, in another level there is a clear crisis of representation in the political sphere and finally there is a dispute for the narratives of these events.
Local issue, global problem
Surprising those who believed in the prosperity images of Brazil that stamped magazine’s cover all around the globe, the wave of protests had simply putted everything into check. All the narratives and myths of progress suddenly were in crisis. That’s because struggling against a small fare increase, involved a much more complex structural debate that it might seem. It questioned both public and private sector, exposing the promiscuous relation between the two. First, the protests directly confronted a State that is incapable of provide quality public services selling it to the private sector and operates in a logic that not only guarantee the profit of the businessmen but also use its coercive force, its police, to defend the profit of these elite when the population rise against it. Second, it confronted the interests of these conglomerates that owns and capitalizes public services – interests that are always prioritized when compared to the popular demands. The mobilization around the specific, ‘small’ as many say, issue of the transport had exposed a much more complex dynamic: a tendency of the global capitalism that commodify all the spheres of life, combined with the enclosure of the public space, the dismantle of public services (heath care, education, transport) and the increase of the authoritarian political power. In that sense, the struggle has showed that a specific problem appears as a symptom of the irrationality of the system as a whole. 0.20 cents were enough to show how irrational and incoherent is the system. So, as partial as it may seem, to stand up against the hike is, indeed, to push the system in its totality. A simple demand disturbed the hegemonic economic interests and stripped the deadlocks of structural problems that disclosed the inconsistency of an entire system. The popular insurrection around a tiny piece, unveiled the limits of the capitalism, problematizing a myth of prosperity that is based in tables, spreadsheets and ‘technical’ decisions. It questioned the very core of the problem: the combination of, much celebrated in Brazil, capitalist economical growth with a profound process of social disintegration.
Crisis of representation
Beyond the object of the demands, the form of the mobilizations revealed an important political issue as significant as its agenda. Not isolated from the uprisings that have been taking place around the world, the protest in Brazil, in its form, had a very similar structure of organization. A part from the parties, in a horizontal and autonomous arrangement, the movement had been the biggest popular mobilization since the end of military dictatorship in Brazil. In streets, the clear rejection of parties revealed a fatigue with the modes of political representation that are institutionalized, not only the parties, but also sectors of the media that normally speak on our behalf. Sure enough that a democratic system requires modes of organization, but that does not mean that the political organizations should be, necessarily, the party. And what happened lately has proved that. Refusing the classical partisan organization, the streets had shown us that there is a crisis of representation. The massive popular mobilization, combined with the deflation of the parties, shows that the political participation mediated by parties and institutions as the agents who constitute narratives is, nowadays, clearly insufficient. It questions the notion of the party as the final horizon of political representation. Further, the protests created a collective conscious that the institutionalized form of representative democracy with multiple parties is not enough to face the irrationalities of the capital. Therefore, simultaneously with the struggle for the revocation of the hike, a new model of confrontation is being designed – a model of political experience much more direct and participatory that opposes the idea of the party as the only mode of representation. Maybe the rejection is provoked by the parties’ abandonment of a truly political and ideological project followed by an adoption of the supra-partisan agenda of neoliberalism, or maybe because of their transformation into merely bureaucratic institutions, fundamentally hierarchical, guided by a tactical logic completely devoid of political imagination. The party became a structure that no longer resonates the people’s discontents and, since long time, are not spaces of political creativity. The protests, in a sense, are also the claim to overcome the fear allowing the political invention with no restrains, to decolonize the desire, to reinvent democracy and rise against the sterile monopoly of the party as the one and only way of political representation.
Struggle for History
“Vandals” and “barbarians” were some of the adjectives used to qualify the protesters. Despite the brutal reaction of the Military Police (a military structure that remained in Brazil’s ‘democratic’ State), the press has insistently tried to criminalize the social movements, transforming a legitimate political struggle in a police case. After a series of police interventions that systematically violated human rights, the main newspapers of the country wrote claiming for a more “energetic” response by the police – an attitude that not only call for State intervention but also normalize their abuses. The promiscuous relationship between the political category, the oligarchs of the media and economical interests of the financial sector were exposed with no shame. Freedoms and constitutional guarantees were suspended due the threat of “vandalism” and “terror”, reinforcing once again how politics in Brazil is constituted by the legitimation of a permanent State of Exception. Serving the private capital, the State, who has the monopoly of the violence, institutionalizes its use – with the support of the media – and transforms Brazil in a real laboratory of neoliberal totalitarism. This criminal politics, that is also a supra-partisan agenda, authorizes the State violence and became the privileged way to deal with those who have no space in the consumer society. Not by coincidence, some of the protestors answered the police assault by destroying banks, doing barricades, burning buses and other “public” patrimonies in the city. In a society where the right to live is constantly being usurped by a gang of oligarchs, where to live is to be aggressed by a public sphere that is completely collapsed and where all the dimensions of life have been commodified, the destruction of property is almost a logic consequence. The basic rights became commodity and the population is forced to consume what was supposed to be guaranteed by the State. However, it is worth to say, the majority of the people cannot afford it. So in a country were 35% of its population cannot afford to pay regularly for the public transport, the destruction of private and the (privatized) public patrimony is, ultimately, a symbolic ritual of confrontation. It becomes a gesture that opposes the abstract violence of the capital by concretely destroying its commodity. It is the evidence of an ineffective democracy that, on the one hand, gathers the State, the dominant classes and the corporate media, and on the other, silently throw the majority of the people in the shadows of large invisibility zones. Beyond the simple discussion of vandalism, this is a struggle for visibility in a democracy so full of invisibilities.
It is important to say that despite the media’s effort in deeming the mobilizations and the circulation of a counter-information through Internet, the population increasingly joined the streets. And, again, as the protesters gained support from a large part of the population, Brazilian media tried to intervene, changing their own discourse. Pundits began calling the youth to go to the streets wearing white, ask for peace, fight for a “better country” and against “corruption” in a clear attempt to maneuver and depoliticize the demands of the revolts. The endorsement of the media with its abstract and vague agenda, doing proselytism of the country as an issue “above all” issues, had contribute to an increasingly nationalistic tone that came over the protests. In short, whether by criminalizing and disqualifying the uprisings calling them “vandals”, or by trying to impose a fabricated set of generic claims, the corporative media is trying to construct a narrative that resonate the interests of the elites. So, beyond the struggle for concrete political and economical issues, what is also at stake is an urgent struggle for the signification of these political events, which is constantly being hijacked by the media. It is a dispute over the meaning of the gesture, rejecting the monopoly of the media as the power who mediate reality and explain what it means and confronting the discursive frameworks that shape the way in which the phenomena is understood. It is a political contest for the narrative and for the signification of these struggles, in other words, it is a fight for the History.
Photo by Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/ ABr , cc, Wikimedia Commons