The social movements in Brazil, June 2013

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

We are publishing here an article by our comrades in Brazil, analysing the major social movement that took place there in June.


The crisis of capital and austerity unleash the indignation of the masses

A ‘spectre is haunting the world’: the spectre of indignation. Just over two years after the ‘Arab Spring’ which shook and surprised the countries of North Africa, and whose effects are still being felt; two years after the movement of the Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the USA; and at exactly the same time as the movement in Turkey, the wave of demonstrations in Brazil has mobilised millions of people in over a hundred cities and shown characteristics which are unprecedented for this country.

These movements, taking place in very different countries and very far apart geographically, nevertheless share some key common features: their spontaneity; their origins as a reaction brutal repression by the state; their massive nature; the fact that the majority of the participants are young people, especially via social networks. But the most important common element is the powerful feeling of indignation about the deterioration of living conditions provoked by a profound crisis which is sapping the bases of the capitalist system and which has significantly accelerated since 2007. This deterioration has taken the form of a growing level of precariousness throughout the proletariat and enormous uncertainty about the future among young people who have become proletarian or are in the process of proletarianisation. It is no accident that the movement in Spain took the name of ‘Indignados’ and that in this wave of massive social movements this was the one which went furthest in questioning the capitalist system and in its forms of organisation through massive general assemblies[1] .

A proletarian movement

The social movements of last June in Brazil, which we welcomed and in which we intervened as far as our means allowed, have a particular significance for the proletariat of Brazil, Latin America and the rest of the world, and a large extent went beyond the traditional regionalism of the country. These massive movements were radically different from the ‘social movements’ controlled by the state, by the PT (Workers’ Party) and other political parties, such as the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST); similarly, it is different from other movements which have arisen in various countries of the region in the last decade or so, like the one in Argentina at the beginning of the century , the ‘indigenous’ movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, the Zapatista movement in Mexico or Chavism in Venezuela, which were the result of confrontations between bourgeois or petty bourgeois factions, disputing control of the state and the defence of national capital.

In this sense, the June mobilisations in Brazil represent the most important spontaneous expression of the masses in this country and in Latin America over the past 30 years. This is why it’s crucial to draw the lessons of this movement from a class standpoint.

It is undeniable that this movement surprised the Brazilian and world bourgeoisie as well as revolutionary organisations[2] inside and outside Brazil and the groups and organisations which had initially facilitated it. The struggle against the public transport price rises (which are negotiated each year between the transport chiefs and the state ) was just the detonator of the movement. It crystallised all the indignation which had been brewing for some time in Brazilian society[3] and which took shape in 2012 with the struggles in public administration and in the universities, mainly in São Paulo and the big building sites in the programme for accelerating growth (PAC). There were also a number of strikes against wage cuts and insecure working conditions and against health and education cuts over the last few years.

Unlike the massive social movements in various countries since 2011, the one in Brazil was engendered and unified around a concrete demand, which made it possible for there to be a spontaneous mobilisation of wide sectors of the proletariat: against the rise in public transport fares[4]. The movement took on a massive character at the national level from the 13th June, when the demonstration in São Paulo against the fare increases called by the Movimento Passe Livre – Movement for Free Access to Transport[5] - was violently repressed by the police. However, for five weeks, as well as in São Paulo, there were demonstrations in many different towns and cities across the country, to the point where, in Porto Alegre, Goiãnia and other towns, this pressure forced the local governments to give in over the fare increases, after hard struggles and heavy state repression.

This was expressed clearly through the social movement in Goiãnia on 19.6.13:

In Goiãnia after five weeks of demonstrations, and one day before the sixth big gathering, which confirmed the presence of tens of thousands of people on the street, the Prefecture directed by Paulo Gracia (of the PT) and the governor Marconi Perillo (of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, the PSDB – centre right) held a joint meeting and decided to revoke the fare increases. We know that this decision was the product of the pressure of over a month of mobilisation and of the fear that things would escape the control of the provincial government and the contractual enterprises[6]

The movement straight away situated itself on a proletarian terrain. This was expressed through the extension and breadth of the movement and, although on a minority scale, by taking a distance from nationalist slogans. In the first place, we should underline that the majority of the participants belong to the working class, mainly young workers and students, mainly coming out of proletarian families or those undergoing proletarianisation. The bourgeois press has presented the movement as an expression of the ‘middle classes’, with the clear intention of creating a division among workers. In reality, the majority of those catalogued as middle class are workers who often receive lower wages than skilled workers in the country’s industrial zones. This explains the success of and the widespread sympathy with the movement against the transport increases, which represented a direct attack on the income of working class families. This also explains why this initial demand rapidly turned into the questioning of the state, given the dilapidation of sectors such as health, education and social assistance, and increasing protests against the colossal sums of public money invested in organising next year’s World Cup and in the 2016 Olympics[7]. For these events the Brazilian bourgeoisie has not hesitated to resort to the forced expulsion of people living near the stadia: at the Aldeia Maracanã in Rio in the first part of the year; in the zones chosen by construction firms in São Paulo, who have been burning down favelas in the way of their plans. This situation was expressed clearly by the Bloco de Lutas Pelo Transporte 100% in Porto Alegre on 20.6.13:

“The struggle is not just for a few centimes and is not only about Porto Alegre since the mobilisation has taken on a national dimension and goes beyond the demand about the fare increases. Today over ten cities have announced a reduction in transport fares. Now there are hundreds of thousands of us in the streets of Brazil, fighting for our rights. The theme of the World Cup is already present in the demonstrations. The same popular mass which is questioning the transport system is also questioning the investment of millions of public money in the stadia, in displacing families by urban planners for the needs of the World Cup, the power of FIFA and the state of emergency which is going to restrain the rights of the population[8]       

It is very significant that the movement organised demonstrations around the football stadia where Confederation Cup were being played, in order to get a lot of media attention and to reject the spectacle prepared by the Brazilian bourgeoisie; and also in response to the brutal repression of the demonstrations around the stadia, which resulted in a number of deaths. In a country where football is the national sport, which the bourgeoisie has obviously used as a safety valve for keeping society under control, the demonstrations of the Brazilian proletariat are an example for the world proletariat. The population of Brazil is known for its love of football, but this didn’t prevent it from rejecting austerity imposed to finance the sumptuous expenses devoted to the organisation of these sporting events, which the Brazilian bourgeoisie is using to show the world that it is capable of playing in the premier league of the world economy. The demonstrators demanded public services with a ‘FIFA type’ quality. The movements of June spoiled the party of the Brazilian bourgeoisie.

With regard to the demands, the movement showed its indignation about the effects of decomposition on the Brazilian bourgeoisie, attacking the most representative expressions of its corruption, indolence and arrogance: in Brasilia, the capital, they took over the installations of congress and attempted to enter the Itamaraty palace, the symbol of the state’s foreign policy; in Rio de Janeiro, they tried to enter the legislative assembly, and residents of the favelas, such as Rocinha, protested in front of the residence of the governor of Rio; in São Paulo, they tried to enter the Prefecture and the provincial legislative assembly and in Curitiba they tried to get into the seat of the provincial government. An extremely significant fact was that there was a massive rejection of the political parties (especially the PT) and union and student organisations that support the power: in São Paulo a number of their members were excluded from the demonstrations because they held up banners showing that they belonged to the PT or the CUT, or to other organisations and parties of the left, electoral or not, like the PSTU (Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificados), the PSOL (Partido Socialismo o Liberdade) , the Brazilian CP and various unions.

Other expressions of the class character of the movement were shown, even though in a minority. There were a number of assemblies held in the heat of the movement, although they were not the same as the ones in Spain. For example the one in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, which were called ‘popular and egalitarian assemblies’ which proposed to create a “new spontaneous, open and egalitarian space for debate”, in which over 1000 people took part.

These assemblies, although they demonstrated the vitality of the movement and the necessity for the self-organisation of the masses to impose their demands, revealed a number of weaknesses:

  • Even if several other groups and collectives took part in organising them, they were animated by the capitalist left, who mainly kept their activity to the periphery of the cities
  • Their mean aim was to be organs of pressure on and negotiation with the state, for particular demands for improvements in this or that community or town. They also tended to see themselves as permanent organs;
  • They claimed to be independent of the state and the parties, but they were very well infiltrated by the pro-government or leftist organisations which annihilated any spontaneous expressions;
  • They put forward a localist or national vision, struggling against the effects of problems rather than their causes, without questioning capitalism.

In the movement there were also explicit references to the social movements in other countries, especially Turkey, which also referred to Brazil. Despite the minority character of these expressions, they were still revealing about what was felt to be shared by the two movements.

In different demonstrations, you could also see banners proclaiming “We are Greeks, Turks, Mexicans, we have no country, we are revolutionaries” or placards saying “It’s not Turkey, it’s not Greece, it’s Brazil coming out of its inertia”.

In Goiãnia, the Frente de Luta Contra o Aumento, which regrouped various base organisations, underlined the need for solidarity and for debate between the different components of the movement:

“WE MUST NOT CONTRIBUTE TO THE CRIMINALISATION AND PACIFICATION OF THE MOVEMENT! WE MUST REMAIN FIRM AND UNITED! Despite disagreements, we must maintain our solidarity, our resistance, our fighting spirit, and deepen our organisation and our discussions. In the same way as in Turkey, peaceful and militant elements can co-exist and struggle together, we must follow this example[9]       

The great indignation which animated the Brazilian proletariat was concretised in the following reflections by the Rede Extremo Sul, a network of social movements on the outskirts of São Paulo:

“For these possibilities to become a reality, we can’t allow the indignation being expressed on the streets to be diverted into nationalist, conservative and moralist objectives; we can’t allow these struggles to be captured by the state and by the elites in order to empty them of their political content. The struggle against the fare increases and the deplorable state of services is directly linked to the struggle against the state and the big economic corporations, against the exploitation and humiliation of the workers, and against this form of life where money is everything and people are nothing”[10]

The political re-organisation of Brazilian capital

The Brazilian bourgeoisie, like all national bourgeoisies, has for decades been hoping that Brazil could become a continental or world power. To achieve this, it’s not enough to dispose of an immense territory which covers almost half of South America, or to count on its important natural resources. It has also been necessary to maintain social order, above all control over the workers, less through the military yoke than through the more sophisticated mechanisms of democracy. Thus in the 1980s it carried out a relatively smooth transition from military dictatorship to republican democracy. This objective was attained on the political level with the formation of two poles: one regrouping the forces of the right, formed by two parties set up in the 80s: the PSDB composed of intellectuals from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, and right wing groups linked to the dictatorship (PMDB, DEM, etc); the other of the centre left, structured round the PT, with an important popular influence, mainly among workers and peasants. In this way a kind of alternation between right and centre left governments was established, based on ‘free and democratic’ elections. All this was indispensable for strengthening Brazilian capital on the world arena.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie was thus better place to reinforce its productive apparatus and face up to the worst of the economic crisis of the 90s, while on the political level, it succeeded in creating a political force around the PT, which because of its youth as a party, was able to integrate union organisations and leaders, members of the Catholic church adept at ‘liberation theology’, Trotskyists who see the PT as a mass revolutionary party, intellectuals, artists and democrats. The PT was the response of the left wing of the Brazilian bourgeoisie after the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 which had weakened the left of capital on a global scale. It was able to do something which was the envy of the other bourgeoisies of the region: create a political force which could control the impoverished masses, but above all maintain social peace among the work force. This situation was consolidated with the accession of the PT to power in 2002, making use of the charisma and ‘working class’ image of Lula.

In this way, during the first decade of the new century, the Brazilian economy raised itself to seventh place on the world ladder, according to the World Bank. Today it is part of the ‘cream’ of the so-called ‘group of emerging countries’, the so-called BRICS[11]. The world bourgeoisie has hailed the ‘Brazilian miracle’ carried out under Lula’s presidency, which has supposedly pulled millions of Brazilians out of poverty and allowed more millions to enter this famous ‘middle class’. What no one ever mentions, neither the PT, nor Lula, nor the rest of the bourgeoisie, is that this ‘great success’ has been achieved by distributing a part of the surplus value as crumbs to the most impoverished, while at the same time the situation of the mass of workers has become ever more insecure.

The crisis at the roots

The acceleration of the economic crisis became evident in 2007 and this is still affecting the world economy six years later. Lula, like other regional leaders, declared that the Brazilian economy was ‘armoured’ against it. While the other economic powers faltered, the Brazilian economy was satisfied with its performance. But while Brazil is not at the eye of the economic storm, it is undeniable that given the interdependence of the world economy, no country can escape its effects, still less Brazil which is highly dependent on exports of its raw materials and services. We see the proof of this with China, Brazil’s great partner among the BRICS: the Chinese economy is now strongly affected by the world crisis.

The crisis still remains at the root of the situation in Brazil. To try to attenuate its effects, the Brazilian bourgeoisie has been stimulating the internal economy through a policy of major works, provoking a construction boom in both the public and private sectors, extending to the renovations and new builds of the sporting infrastructure for 2014 and 2016. At the same time it has been facilitating credit and debt among families to stimulate internal consumption, especially in the area of housing and electronic goods. This policy has led to an increase in public expenditure and a rise in taxes.

The limits of this are already tangible at the level of economic indicators: a balance of payments deficit estimated at 3 billion US dollars in the first quarter of this year – the worst result since 1995 – and a slow-down in growth (predicted at 6.7% in 2013). But it can be felt above all in the deterioration of the buying power and living conditions of the working class as a result of the rising prices of consumer goods and of services (including transport). There has also been a strong tendency towards the reduction of jobs and an increase in unemployment.

Thus, the protest movement in Brazil doesn’t come from nowhere. There are a whole number of causes which lie behind it, and they are being aggravated by the development of the economic crisis. As a result of the protests the state has been forced to augment social spending at a time when the economic crisis is obliging it to take measures to reduce such spending. President of the republic Dilma Rousseff has already declared that such spending has to be cut.

The traps of the bourgeoisie

As we might expect, the Brazilian bourgeoisie has not stood with its arms folded in the face of the social crisis which, although it has eased off, remains latent. The only result obtained by mass pressure was the suspension of the very elevated fare increases[12] which the state has made up for by using other means to finance the transport enterprises.

At the beginning of the wave of protests, to calm things down while the government worked out a strategy to control the movement, president Rousseff declared, via one of her mouthpieces, that she considered the population’s protests as “legitimate and compatible with democracy”. Lula meanwhile criticised the “excesses” of the police. But state repression didn’t stop, and neither have street demonstrations.

One of the most elaborate traps against the movement was the propagation of the myth of a right wing coup, a rumour spread not only by the PT and the Stalinist party, but also by the Trotskyists of the PSOL and the PSTU. This was a way of derailing the movement and turning it towards supporting the Rousseff government, which has been severely weakened and discredited. In reality the facts show precisely that the ferocious repression against the protests in June by the left government led by the PT was equally if not more brutal than that of the military regimes. The left and extreme left of Brazilian capital are trying to obscure this reality by identifying repression with fascism or right wing regimes. There is also the smokescreen of ‘political reform’ put forward by Rousseff, with the aim of combating corruption in the political parties and imprisoning the population on the democratic terrain by calling for a vote on the proposed reforms.

To try to regain an influence within the movement on the street, the political parties of the left of capital and the trade unions announced, several weeks in advance, a ‘National Day of Struggle’ for the 11 July, presented as a way of protesting against the failure of the collective labour agreements. In this simulated mobilisation, all the trade union organisations and those both close to government and opposition lent a helping hand.           

Similarly, Lula, showing his considerable anti-working class experience, called on 25 June for a meeting of the leaders of movements controlled by the PT and the Stalinist party, including youth and student organisations allied with the government, with the explicit aim neutralising the street protests.

The strengths and weaknesses of the movement

The great strength of the movement was that, from the beginning, it affirmed itself as a movement against the state, not only through the central demand against the fare increases but also as a mobilisation against the abandonment of public services and the orientation of spending towards the sporting spectacles. At the same time the breadth and determination of the protest forced the bourgeoisie to take a step back and annul the fare increases in a number of cities.

The crystallisation of the movement around a concrete demand, while being a strength of the movement, also put limits on it as soon as it was unable to go any further. Obtaining the suspension of the fare increases marked a step forward, but the movement did not on the whole see itself as challenging the capitalist order, something which was much more present in the Indignados movement in Spain.

The distrust towards the bourgeoisie’s main forces of social control took the form of the rejection of the political parties and the trade unions, and this represented a weakness for the bourgeoisie on the ideological level, the exhaustion of the political strategies which have emerged since the end of the dictatorship, the discrediting of the teams which have succeeded each other at the head of the state, in particular as a result of their notoriously corrupt character. However, behind this undifferentiated rejection of politics stands the danger of the apoliticism, which was an important weakness of the movement. Without political debate, there is no possibility of taking the struggle forward, since it can only grow in the soil of discussion which is aimed at understanding the roots of the problems you are fighting against, and which cannot evade a critique of the foundations of the capital.

It was thus no accident that one of the weaknesses of the movement was the absence of street assemblies open to all participants, where you could discuss the problems of society, the actions to carry out, the organisation of the movement, its balance sheet and its objectives. The social networks were an important means of mobilisation, a way of breaking out of isolation. But they can never replace open and living debate in the assemblies.

The poison of nationalism was not absent from the movement, as could be seen from the number of Brazilian flags displayed on the demonstrations and the raising of nationalist slogans. It was quite common to hear the national anthem in the processions. This was not the case with the Indignados in Spain. In this sense the June movement in Brazil presented the same weaknesses as the mobilisations in Greece and in the Arab countries, where the bourgeoisie succeeded in drowning the huge vitality of the movements in a national project for reforming and safeguarding the state. Nationalism is a dead-end for the proletarian struggle, a violation of international class solidarity. In this context, the focus on corruption in the last analysis also worked for the benefit of the bourgeoisie and its political parties, especially those in opposition, and gave a certain credibility to the perspective of the next elections..

Despite the majority of participants in the movement being proletarians, they were involved in an atomised way. The movement didn’t manage to mobilise the workers of the industrial centres who have an important weight, especially in the São Paulo region. It wasn’t even proposed. The working class, which certainly welcomed the movement and even identified with it, because it was struggling for a demand which it saw was in its interest, did not manage to mobilise as such. This question of class identity is not only a weakness at the level of the working class in Brazil, but on a world scale. It’s a characteristic of the period that the working class is finding it hard to affirm its class identity; in Brazil this has been aggravated by decades of immobility resulting from the action of the political parties and the unions, mainly the PT and the CUT.

This situation explains to some extent the emergence of social movements we have seen in Brazil, Turkey, Spain, Egypt etc, where new generations of proletarians, many of them without work, have revolted with the understanding that capitalism is shutting off any possibility of having a decent life, and feel in their bones the insecurity of their daily lives.

Nevertheless, the mobilisations in Brazil are a source of inspiration and contain many lessons for the future unity of the Brazilian and world proletariat. They show that there is no solution to our problems within capitalism and that the proletariat must assume its historic responsibility of struggling against capital; that the proletariat in Brazil must seek its class identity not only through solidarity at the level of the country, but worldwide. In this way its struggle will converge with that of all the young proletarians who are now mobilising against capital.

Revolução Internacional (ICC in Brazil) 9.8.13      



[2] By this we means groups that defend the idea that the proletariat is the subject of the revolution, who oppose all forms of nationalism and who fight for the proletarian revolution and a communist society as the only alternative to capitalism. These are basically the positions of the communist left.

[3] At a public meeting organised by the ICC and other comrades at the Federal University of Santa Catarina in April 2012, around the theme of the Indignados movement in Spain, a meeting which gave rise to a great deal of discussion and questions about the nature of the movement – its origins, goals, the social forces involved, its way of organising etc – one student asked the following question: “can you explain why in Brazil, there hasn’t been a movement like the one in Spain when we too are also very indignant?”. The Brazilian proletariat, especially its younger generation, did not take long to come up with an answer.

[4] See our first article ‘Police repression provokes the anger of youth’, http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201306/8281/brazil-police-repression-provokes-anger-youth

[5] The MPL is an organisation with a reformist programme, since it considers that the capitalist state can guarantee the right to free transport for the whole population.

[6] See the article by Frente de Luta Contra o Aumento : http://passapalavra.info/2013/06/79588

[7] According to predictions, these two events will cost the Brazilian government 31.3 billion dollars, or 1.6% of GNP, whereas the family supplement programme which is being heralded as a beacon social measure of Lula’s government only represents 0.5% of GNP

[11] Apart from Brazil, the BRICS are comprised of Russia, China, India, and more recently South Africa

[12] Here is a comparison of transport fares in Brazil and elsewhere, showing the price per passenger for buses, trams or tubes. Source: cliquer ici

 

Country/City

Fare in US dollars

New Delhi

0.25

Beijing

0.26

Buenos Aires

0.28

Caracas

0.35

Mexico City

0.37

Lima

0.47

Moscow

0.85

Istanbul

0.95

Santiago

1.17

Johannesburg

1.25

Hong Kong

1.33

Los Angeles

1.50

São Paulo

1.53

Rio de Janeiro

1.56