This post and its companion piece by Margaret Keck draw heavily upon an ongoing email conversation about the Brazilian protests between Rebecca Abers, Kathryn Hochstetler, Margaret Keck, and Marisa von Bülow, and these essays have benefited from all of their suggestions.
Brazilian blogs, talk shows, and op-ed sections have been flooded in recent weeks with attempts to make sense of the sudden wave of protests that swept the country in June. Most commentators interpret the protests as an outpouring of frustration on the part of ordinary Brazilians with the political system that has emerged since the transition from authoritarian rule in late 1980s. That interpretation is certainly correct. But the protests are also a message from organized civil society, which has undergone important changes in the last decade.
One unusual characteristic of Brazilian politics in the 1990s was the extent to which civil society groups participated in democratic institution building. In those years, professionalized non-governmental organizations appeared on the scene to help implement new policies in areas such as health care, education, women’s rights, and the environment. Some activists actually joined governments to run agencies created in response to social movement demands. Left-wing parties started to win local elections and began to implement innovative policies in which civil society groups had a seat at the decision-making table. These participatory institutions—such as the Participatory Budget and a variety of policy councils—were widely understood to be a means for deepening the democratic transition, taking Brazil beyond the elitist representative democracy that had been established in the 1980s.
The experiments in participatory democracy were for the most part spearheaded by the Workers´ Party and were one of the reasons that social movements broadly supported that party’s efforts to reach government office. The Workers´ Party represented something very exciting that was happening on the Brazilian Left. While the Left around the world wallowed without direction in the languor of the post-Berlin wall age, Brazil seemed to be inventing a new kind progressive politics, committed both to social rights and to radical democracy. Not all social movements jumped on the participatory band-wagon. Rural movements—such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra)—were more suspicious of government and stuck to older styles of protest, such as long marches to the capital. But housing and health activists, feminists, environmentalists, and many other groups actively defended the plethora of participatory councils and forums that governments created throughout the country.
When Lula, the ex-union leader who founded the Workers’ Party, became the nation’s president in 2003, the expectations were high from the movements who had helped build his party’s participatory project. The new government, they presumed, would do away with the neoliberal “state-retreat” of the 1990s, and bring in a new era of social policy, labor rights, environmental protection, racial and gender equality, and land reform, all with the participation of civil society. In the first years that Lula was in office, activists collaborated intensely with the federal administration, often by taking jobs as consultants or even as government appointees. Many wanted more than specific policy advances: they wanted to democratize the federal bureaucracy by scaling-up the kind of participatory innovations that the Workers’ Party had carried out more locally during the previous decade.
The Lula government did invest to some extent in that agenda, creating a number of national policy councils and making others more inclusive. The administration also promoted a mode of participation that had been fairly limited until then: the “national conferences”. These are nation-wide events in which participants discuss general policy guidelines in areas such as human rights, health care or the environment. They occur in stages, starting with weekend long meetings in municipalities throughout the country and ending with big events in the national capital. This bottom-up, short-term methodology allows for the mobilization of huge numbers. By 2010, when Lula left office, his administration was advertising that more than 5 million people had participated in one of more than 70 national conferences that had occurred since 2003.
Yet over time, it became increasingly hard to believe that such participatory institutions were actually producing a profound transformation in government decision-making. If in the 1990s, the Workers´ Party had operated as an important arena for articulating social movements throughout the country, as the Lula government progressed, those relations became increasingly strained. Corruption scandals and a conservative economic policy led many activists to distance themselves from the Workers’ Party, sometimes denouncing party politics all together. In this context, many groups who had previously devoted considerable energy to keeping the idea of participatory democracy alive (even when councils and other participatory arenas proved politically weak) were becoming skeptical about government created participatory arenas.
At the same time, over the course of the 2000s, new kinds of social movements discreetly began to appear on the scene, mostly attracting younger generations. Many of these were of the “new social movement” variety: such as LGBT, feminist, and middle-class environmental organizations; others (such as the Free Bus Ticket Movement and the anti-World Cup collectives) seemed more akin to the anti-globalization movements appearing around the globe. One interesting thing about these movements was that after an interregnum of almost two decades during which many activists worked closely with governments, these “new” movements were resuscitating older discourses of political autonomy and anti-institutionalization. Like some of the social movements in the U.S. and Europe of the 1960s, they distanced themselves from parties, avoided collaborating with governments and often refused to create formal organizations at all.
These changes can at least partly be explained by the fact that the Workers’ Party no longer holds the place it once had in the imagination of Brazilian activists. In the 1980s and 1990s, that party operated as a sort of clearing house that loosely integrated a diversity of movements around a transformative project aimed at deepening the transition to democracy. Today, after a decade in power, the Worker’ Party has lost the credibility it used to have to lead such a project.
A large portion of those who took to the streets in June had never participated in any kind of social movement before. But it would be a mistake to interpret the movements as utterly “spontaneous” uprisings. Groups such as the Free Pass Movement and the anti-World Cup collectives (among others) organized the early demonstrations, some of which they had been planning for months (such as the protests during the Confederations Cup soccer games). They quickly lost control of the process: in Brasilia, for example, one major protest occurred after thousands accepted an invitation on Facebook posted by a previously unknown high school student. But this decentralized mobilization may itself have been a reflection of new modes of organizing. The groups that started the protest process were deliberately unwilling to impose hierarchy and order on the demonstrations, helping to create an environment in which people defending a wide diversity of causes felt welcome. In the aftermath of the protests, those groups are stronger. But this invigorated younger generation of activists has few commitments to the institutional project that dominated the Brazilian Left of the 1990s.
For several decades, a good part of institution building in this country has been done with the help of activists committed to an ideal of participatory democracy that they believed could be made real through the construction of new kinds of government institutions. It is unclear whether a new generation will carry that project forward. Certainly, the organized groups involved in the June protests are much less optimistic than their predecessors about the possibility of building a more radical democracy from within the political system.