Imagem por Marlon Anjos
Imagem por Marlon Anjos

Brazil: for an interpretation worthy of June

(Leia em português.)

Ruy Braga

In mid-June 2013, a survey conducted by the Ibope Institute revealed that the popularity of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff had reached a historic level of approval: 63% of respondents considered her administration excellent or good, and 79% approved her personal performance.[1] Even in comparison with the popular approval of 59% achieved by former President Lula da Silva at the end of his second term, Dilma Rousseff’s figures were really spectacular.

However, only two months after the publication of that survey, something unprecedented in the history of our country, the popularity of the government plummeted to 30% of respondents. [2]  Throughout the month of June 2013, in little more than two weeks of street demonstrations, a true social earthquake shook the Brazilian political scene, leaving a trail of destruction to the popularity of numerous local and state governments, as well as the federal government.

We will present the main interpretations of the recent resumption of popular uprisings in the country, and will then elaborate an alternative hypothesis. This hypothesis draws on the critical, reflexive and militant sociological style, targeting non-academic audiences, which was developed by the Centre for the Study of Citizenship Rights [Centro de Estudos dos Direitos da Cidadania] (Cenedic) of the University of Sao Paulo (USP). We will maintain that the protagonists of the protests were young, educated, and underpaid workers, under precarious working and living conditions, who have been surveyed by Cenedic for nearly two decades.

The June enigma

Supported by 75% of the people, according to Ibope [the Brazilian Public Opinion and Statistics Institute], the “June Days,” as the wave of protests initially triggered by the increase in public transport fares became known, brought to the streets, at its peak on June 17th, more than two million people.[3] Still According to Ibope, protests took place in 407 municipalities across all regions of the country.

Needless to say the mass media were taken completely unawares by the gigantic dimensions of the spontaneous movement. Most political analysts had focused only on opinion polls, neglecting important undercurrents rippling since 2008.

Shortly after the beginning of the great demonstrations, some journalists aligned to the federal government were quick to declare that the June Days were nothing more than an attempted coup planned by the conservative media.[4] The repositioning of media coverage toward support of the protests and the presence participation in the protests of traditional middle classes disgruntled with the Workers Party government would confirm these journalists’  suspicions.

However, this coup theory failed to explain both the massive nature of the protests and the popular defence of public investments for public education and health. Finally, the protests were not narrowly focused on the federal government, directed against practically the entire Brazilian political mainstream.

Aware of the how unconvincing the coup theory was, Workers Party leaders became less accusatory, moving from “far right coup” to “success of the current development model.” According to the Workers Party’s re-elaboration, the federal government’s public policies have redistributed so much income, raising the popular expectations to such an extent in relation to the quality of public services, that the “new middle class” created under the two Workers Party administrations took to the streets to demand even more federal government initiatives.[5] Without getting into the issue of the existence or not of a “new middle class” in the country[6], the truth is that this theory does not really explain the timing of the protests. After all, what happened specifically in June to trigger the largest popular revolt in Brazilian history? Why would increased popular expectations result in a wave of more than two million outraged people on the streets?

A third explanation sought to place the June Days under the same category as the cycle of protests that have swept across Spain (2011), Portugal (2012), and Turkey (2013). In short, a stiff hierarchical political system, fundamentally unresponsive to popular participation, was clashing against a vibrant and democratic political culture fermented from below by online social networks.[7] Largely convincing in its generality, the excessive dependence of this hypothesis on the changes in the political culture left in the shadows both the trigger event and the national reach of the June Days. After all, could a sudden large-scale demonstration be understood as something simply explained by the ripening of an alternative political culture?

In our view, all these hypotheses contain a grain of truth: no doubt, many took to the streets summoned by the conservative media, expectations regarding public services had increased in the wake of income redistribution among those who live from labour income, and a new democratic political culture developed in Brazil over the last decade.

However, the main problem with these explanations is their excessive emphasis on the political dimension of the protests. Without getting into the social dialectics existing between the form taken on by the June political struggle and the transformation of the country’s class structure over the last decade, such theses end up suffering from a certain one-sidedness in addressing the demonstrations, obscuring the understanding of their current developments.

To overcome these limitations, we need to rely on a sociology that understands the value and centrality of the knowledge of the subaltern classes, — that is, a critical, reflexive, and militant sociology able to grasp the interplay between the conflicts typical of the different social forces present and the reproduction of the current Brazilian development model.[8] We argue that Cendedic’s sociological approach is able to explain how the loss of effectiveness of former president Lula’s mode of regulation associated with in confronting the obstacles faced by the accumulation regime in Brazil in times of international crisis fostered the current cycle of democratic mobilization. Can the sentence end here

Cenedic’s combat sociology

Since 2008, Cenedic has published books and articles arguing that the the current development model stimulated a more or less permanent state of social unrest that could turn into popular outrage. Cendeic buttresses this argument with ethnographies of workers who live in low-income suburbs  and with analyses of the recent changes in the Brazilian social and occupational structure and of case studies of workers in poor conditions, who, instead of consolidating the hegemony of the Workers Party (PT), rebelled against its policies..[9] Heir to an investigative tradition guided by immersion in and critical dialogue with urban social movements, especially the labour movement, Cenedic was created in 1995 by sociologist Francisco de Oliveira to study the economic, political, and ideological effects of the “neoliberal dismantling” promoted by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration on Brazil’s subaltern classes.[10] Welcoming researchers from a wide range of areas, such as sociologists, political scientists, urban planners, film critics, anthropologists, and philosophers, Cenedic has structured its research agenda around the tensions and conflicts through which social rights (called “citizenship rights”) were permanently disputed over by the subalterns. In order to develop this agenda, the study centre had to get involved with (and sometimes against) social movements on at least three main fronts:

I. The critique of sociological positivism, which is unable to grasp the process of permanent construction-deconstruction of the political praxis of subalterns in their transition from the fragmented policy of cultural identities towards the universalist policy of citizenship rights.[11]

II. The front of the critique of the corporatism of social movements, particularly the trade union movement, as well as the programmatic ambivalence of the main articulator of the political praxis of subalterns in Brazil until at least 2013, that is, the PT.[12]

III. The front of the critique of the relationship between State and civil society as it is manifested in the material reproduction of subaltern groups, in the struggle of these groups for symbolic and social recognition and in systematic military violence raised to the status of being the main mechanism of regulation of urban territoriality.[13] The totalising articulation of these dimensions of social critique both gave a backbone to the different collective research projects of the study centre developed in these almost twenty years of existence – such as “Os sentidos da democracia” [“The Meanings of Democracy”] (1996), “A era da indeterminação” [“The Age of Indeterminacy”] (2001), “Hegemonia às avessas” [“Upside Down Hegemony”] (2005), and “Desigual e combinado” [“Unequal and Combined”] (2012) –, and influenced the politically explosive relationship between Francisco de Oliveira, one of PT’s founders, and one of its most renowned intellectuals, with the party he helped to create.[14] Besides this critical project has also equally delimited the linkages between researchers and social movements, especially the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), The Homeless Workers Movement (MTST) the Urban Homeless Movement (MUST), the Cultural Workers Movement (MTC), and the Trade and People’s Union (CSP-Conlutas). Cenedic’s critical dialogue with social movements is a constitutive feature not only of the identity of the study centre, but also of the kind of research conducted by its researchers.

Perhaps for this reason the June Days have emerged for Cenedic as a rather predictable result of the historical situation marked by the social unrest of subaltern groups the limitations of the current development model. In 2006, inspired by the challenge proposed by Francisco de Oliveira, that is, in order to investigate PT’s micro-foundations and macro-hegemony, Cenedic had already begun field research, above all in the São Paulo neighbourhood of Cidade Tiradentes.[15] Located in the far eastern periphery of the city with a population of approximately 300,000, including a a large favela and  one of the largest housing projects in Latin America.

In short, it is a neighbourhood that allows us to observe the way of life of those who know the drawbacks of the “other side” of the PT’s hegemony. In the words of Francisco de Oliveira, the ethnographies conducted by Cenedic researchers in the east of São Paulo reveal not just local people’s electoral proclivities  but their “everyday life” (Kafkianly) experienced “as insects in the capitalist order of the São Paulo metropolis.” [16]

Cracking the puzzle

The vicissitudes of the daily lives of the working families of Cidade Tiradentes, a neighbourhood where 65% of the residents live with an individual average income of no more than $80 per month, revealed themselves abundantly in the ethnographies of informal labour, drug trafficking, subcontracting, the precarious nature of domestic work, illicit trade, police violence, illegal settlements, the homeless, and the lives of female heads of families in the neighbourhood. Thus, a myriad of private dramas was transformed into fertile material for public debate.

Through the ethnographic description of the everyday life of the families in the neighbourhood, the research captured the everyday dialectics between private space and public space, moving towards the resumption of collective action, no longer mediated by unions or traditional political parties, but by neo-Pentecostal churches.

In parallel, between 2005 and 2009 we conducted a case study on the São Paulo call centre industry in order to accompany the occupational move of the daughters of maids from informal work of their mothers to formal telemarketing work.[17] Thus, we observed that it was not only the dynamics of access to social rights that marked the 2000s, but also the attempt of these female workers to reach higher levels of professional qualification.

Despite the perception of occupational progress, the reality of low wages, , of salaries of no more than $450, harsh working conditions, high turnover rates in the sector and the consequent routine illness caused by speed-up has led telemarketers to seek out unions for help.  Unionists in turn helped them  access the federal government offerings, including access to consigned credit and the “University for All Programme” [Programa Universidade para Todos] (Prouni).

From 2008 onward, these measures no longer sufficed,  and a strike wave motivated by dissatisfaction with the low wages and poor working conditions in the telemarketing industry grew yearly.  Our field research showed the strike activism of this group, which was most pronounced in the banking sector.[18] This militancy is part of a national trend: data collected by the Monitoring System of Strikes of the Inter-Trade Union Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies Department [Sistema de Acompanhamento de Greves do Departamento Intersindical de Estatística e Estudos Socioeconômicos] (SAG-DIEESE) revealed that, in 2012, the country experienced a record number of strikes, topped only by the tumultuous years 1989 and 1990.

We must not forget that, between 2003 and 2010, the country created 2.1 million formal jobs annually. However, 94% of those jobs pay very low wages (up to no more than $ 430.00), while from 2009 to 2012, the average duration of employment fell from 18 to 16 months, which refleted the deterioration in working conditions.[19] In addition, the supply of formal jobs has decreased continuously since 2010, a fact plaguing young people seeking their first job.

In short, since 2008, the country has experienced a moment which combines economic slowdown, strike mobilisations, and erosion of the development model whose redistributive limitations become clearer.

According to data collected by André Singer, current Cenedic director most of June’s protesters were young and educated, — but underpaid —  workers. That should be no surprise.

Captura de Tela 2015-06-28 às 17.06.40
That is, the subaltern group with which the study centre engaged scientifically and strategically since its foundation:

“Those were, therefore, on the whole, protests of highly educated youth and young adults. But as noted by sociologist Gustavo Venturi, because of ‘the relatively steep schooling process over the last decade and a half,’ it is reasonable to think that the new proletariat has a high level of education. As a result, we must consider the possibility that a portion of young people whose education is higher than their income were present at the demonstrations. This is, incidentally, the characterisation of telemarketers, who tend to have completed secondary school, and, sometimes, university, with average wages less than 150 percent of the minimum wage.”[21]

Unlike other theories about the current cycle of popular uprisings, Cenedic has targeted the “trigger event” of the June Days as the growth of militarised police violence. Once used episodically, it’s now  the prime mechanism for regulating  urban conflicts.

Whether as an excuse for the infamous war on drugs, or as an eviction force at the service of great real estate developers in city areas occupied by the homeless, it is clear the military police brutalizes and murders with impunity, particularly  black and poor young workers living on the outskirts of Brazil’s large urban centres.

Of all institutions created by the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1986), the only one remaining untouched by the democratic regime was the military police, who repressed with extreme cruelty the Movimento Passe Livre [“Free Fare Movement”] (MPL) protest of June 13th against public transport fare hikes in São Paulo. Police violence helped turn a latent state of social unrest into a cascading wave of popular outrage.

For Cenedic, it was not hard to conclude that, by violently repressing MPL, the police behaved in Avenida Paulista as they do every day in poor neighbourhoods in the São Paulo suburbs. Laid bare by newspapers, the military brutality committed against a demand deemed fair by the people arose in the working youth the need for  exploding the continuum of history” (Benjamin).

From protests against the urban transport fare hikes, the demonstrations moved on to slaming the outsized public spending on the Fifa World Cup, the quality of public education and, above all, the poor conditions of the public health system (SUS). As the movement developed, protesters rose up against the very structure of federal government spending that bizarrely reserves 42% of the state budget for the payment of interest and repayments of public debt while alooting jusr 4% for health, 3% for education, and 1% for transport.

Final considerations

Extrapolating the limits of the current mode of regulation known as “Lulism” [“lulismo”],[22] named for former president and Workers Party leader Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, the June Days rose up against the foundations of the regime of predominantly financial accumulation that dominates the social structure of the country. By doing so, they earned a special place in the history of popular resistance in Brazil, requiring an interpretation worthy of their legacy.

“To brush history against the grain,” as Walter Benjamin would say, the critical, reflexive, and militant sociology practiced by Cenedic took on this task, standing out from other theses which faced the June enigma by presenting a globalising explanation, supported by critical analysis of  the ethnographic data. A sociology that is combatant and open to non-academic audiences, resistant to the seductions of mainstream public policies, refractory to the excesses of disciplinary specialization and, for this very reason, located at the point of convergence between scientific and strategic knowledge. Only a sociology that is aware that its own path is an inseparable part of the historical goal of the Brazilian subaltern classes can be scientifically objective and politically engaged.


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