“Come to the streets, but without parties”: The challenges of the new Brazilian protests

By Ann Mische

As Mimi Keck and Rebecca Abers described in a thoughtful set of posts here last month, Brazil has recently experienced its biggest national protest wave since the impeachment movement in 1992.  Coming as they did on the heels of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, and beginning to ebb just as Egyptians were returning to the street in huge numbers (with tragic consequences), the June 2013 protests were, in equal measures, exhilarating, perplexing, and troubling.  Keck and Abers have provided excellent discussions of the historical context and political questions raised by the protest.  I’d like to take their discussion a step further to ponder some of the analytical and tactical issues that I saw in play, focusing in particular on the intense rejection of partisanship that was one of the hallmarks of these protests. In the process I hope to raise some broader questions about the relationship between social movements, political parties, and institutional politics the recent wave of global protest.

A caveat here—or rather, a point of analytical interest—is the fact that I followed the protest primarily on Facebook, or on news outlet links accessed via Facebook or through other online discussions.  In fact, one of the running tropes of the early rallies was that “saimos de Facebook” (“we came out of Facebook”).   I followed the protest through links, commentary, and online chats with friends and colleagues whom I knew from my previous work researching youth politics in the 1980s and 1990s.  Many of these friends were themselves participants in Brazil’s previous protest surges, including the urban popular movements, student movement, labor movement, feminist movement and partisan activism (especially within the Workers’ Party).  It’s extraordinary in itself the degree to which it was possible to get a blow by blow account of unfolding events in this way.

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That said, I first heard of the protests from a Brazilian friend in New Jersey, who was nearly in tears as she told me of the police violence the previous night in São Paulo against peaceful protesters marching against an increase in bus and metro fares.  This was the third in a series of protests organized by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), a small, flexible direct action style group that been staging innovative protests in several cities over the past decade, calling for free access to public transportation.  The group was explicitly “apartisan,” although it had formed alliances with some left-wing parties (to the left of the governing Worker’s Party).  While there had been many such small local protests during the previous year, these only entered the national stage after June 11, when disproportionate violent repression by the state police, captured on both social and mainstream media, created the first “media boom.”  The movement expanded rapidly over the next week in protest over police violence (along with solidarity protests by the Brazilian diaspora worldwide), and it became increasingly impossible for the mainstream media to classify the protesters as vandals and hooligans. The figure below describes this evolution through the explosion of nationwide protests on June 17, followed by huge nationwide protests on June 20 with millions of people in the streets in over 100 cities, just as the Confederation Cup was getting under way.

We should pause and note that this pattern (or “mechanism”) is familiar to social movement analysts: disproportionate police response to a relatively small, radical flank movement, captured on social as well as mainstream media sources, provokes indignation and anger among a broader swath of the population and generates “scale shift” (nicely pictured above) as the movement bursts the borders of the original claims and becomes home to a somewhat unruly, exuberant intermingling of actors and projects, including many people who have never engaged in protest before.  This is the exhilarating part of the recent wave of worldwide protests – from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park and more recently Taskim and São Paulo.

But let me pause now before I get too carried away with the exhilaration, as it is easy to do, perhaps especially when you are following it from afar on Facebook and seeing glorious, radiant posts of São Paulo and Rio lit up at night:

[Aerial shots of the June 20 protest on the main avenues of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.]

Even in the early stages of the protest, I began to sense disquietude among both my academic and activist friends.  The explicit rejection of partisanship (moving beyond “apartisanship” to “anti-partisanship”) has been a common theme in both the Turkish and Brazilian protests, with banners, chants and Facebook admonitions for the protests to be “sem partido” (without parties).  This attitude has been celebrated by some as a sign of the rejection of hierarchically organized political forms, part of the more “horizontalist” organizing strategy we have seen in Occupy and the Global Justice protests.  For many of the participants, it also seemed to be signaling a craving for unity as a “nation” above partisan divisions, and a sense that they did not feel represented by any of the existing parties.

[Anti-partisan manifestations:  “The people, united, do not need parties.” “Right? Left? I want to go forward!” “We don’t have a party.  We are Brazil!”]

But the ferocity of the rejections of partisanships seemed to signal something different – a repudiation of institutionalized politics (and politicians) altogether, along the lines of the chorus, “que se vayan todos” (the Spanish equivalent of “throw the bums out!”) that echoed through the Argentinian protests of 2001.   In the digital and media chatter in the days following the June 20 rallies, Brazil seemed suddenly thrust into a fierce national debate on the relationship between parties and movements, carried out in the streets, on social media, and reverberating into academic and pundit commentary.  In one segment of this commentary, partisan activists were cursed as opportunists, sell-outs, and manipulators, having their own corrupt power interests rather than the interests of the nation at heart.  Others pushed back, defending the right of partisan activists (and their flags and banners) to be present at the rallies.

On the evening of the massive June 20 protests, I went eagerly to Facebook to see if I could catch a blow-by-blow account from my friends whom I knew were out on the street.  To my surprise some of them had returned home early, disgusted with what they saw as the right wing elements in the rallies.   In São Paulo, Rio, and other cities, identifiable partisan activists (i.e., those carrying flags or banners, or wearing party T-shirts) had been harassed, shouted down, and in some cases physically beaten or chased off the streets.  In São Paulo activists had to form a human chain to protect themselves from attack, as party flags were seized and burned by hostile protestors.

[Hostility toward partisan activists at the protests, erupting into flag-burning during the June 20 protests.]

This aggressive response may have exacerbated by the fact that the night before the June 20 protests, the national president of the Worker’s Party (PT) had urged its militants to proudly reassert their right to the streets by wearing red.  To many first time protestors, this (familiar) display signaled the “same old, same old.”  This is not to say, however, that “most” of the protestors were physically attacking party activists —the vast majority of participants were non-violent, peaceful and festive, despite the generalized anti-partisan sentiment.  Calls for the rallies to be “sem violencia” were just as strong as the call for them to be “sem partido.”  Just who was responsible for the violence was not clear—candidates included Brazil’s (small) integralist skinhead youth contingent (long violently hostile to leftist parties), as well as alienated marginal youth from the urban peripheries, perhaps mobilized by Brazil’s right-leaning high bourgeoisie, which fiercely opposed the PT government.

In any case, these actions were quickly denounced by many on the left as “fascist” and “right-wing.”   Many long-time progressive activists began to withdraw from the rallies.  The Free Fare Movement denounced the anti-partisan aggression and declared that, having won a fare reduction, it would stop organizing protests (only to reappear a few days later calling for protests focusing on health and housing alongside popular movements in São Paulo’s poor periphery).  Other groups of varying political persuasions vowed to continue the mobilizations, but after that point the movement began to split and fragment into a number of smaller, more thematic protests, some focusing on corruption and taxes, some focusing on improving social services (transportation, health care, education, housing), other focusing on as LGBTQ rights and gender equity (a fascinating side story of these protests, in both the Brazilian and Turkish protests).

To be clear, there are lots of good reasons to be frustrated with political parties, in Brazil and elsewhere.  Brazil has a long history of ambivalence toward parties and partisanship, given the history of corporatism, cronyism, cooptation, and corruption throughout the political system.  On the left (as I argue in my book, Partisan Publics), parties have played crucial roles in the movements for democracy, workers’ rights, public services, education and land reform since the 1980s.  But they have also struggled with a tendency toward sectarianism, opportunism, and bureaucratism, and this divisive style has come under critique from within the progressive sector. More recently, there has been widespread disappointment with the corruption that some PT leaders have engaged in, as well as with many government projects and policies (including the costly mega-projects of the World Cup and Olympics, and the fact that the government appointed a blatantly racist, gay-bashing pastor to head the congressional human rights commission).  A general apoliticism on the part of much of the population intensifies this hostility toward parties, legacy of the dictatorship.   People were simply fed up, and exhilarated by the chance to protest all of the myriad injustices they saw around them.

Nevertheless, many on the left were badly shaken by the partisan attacks, fearful that this signaled that Brazil’s right wing was now “disputing the streets, ” capitalizing on the generalized anti-partisan sentiment in order to intensify opposition to President Dilma Roussef (and the PT).  A key target of ire and concern among progressive commentators was the widespread popularity of “Anonymous Brasil” (and its signature Guy Fawkes masks).  A local manifestation of the worldwide “Anonymous” hackers’ movement, its Facebook page quickly surpassed that of the Free Fare movement, hitting about a million likes at the time of the June 20 protests.  The site served as a distribution point for information on many of the local protests, and (from what I could see) seemed to veer between revolutionary and libertarian slogans, denunciations of government corruption, anti-politician rhetoric (particularly, but not exclusively, hostile to the PT government), and broad criticisms of the indignities of Brazilian life, including poor social services in the areas of health care, education, and transportation.  Guy Fawkes masks made frequent appearances at the rallies, contributing to the unease on the left.  If these weren’t exactly “fascist,” they appeared to many to be a masked manifestation of the right—but who exactly was “responsible” for this slippery and many-pronged component of the movement was not at all clear.

[The Guy Fawkes mask of the international Anonymous movement, adapted for the Brazilian protests.  They often went together with a strong anti-partisan sentiment, as in the sign, “Parties do not represent us.”]

More traditional activists began to fight back on a number of fronts, holding meetings on how to unite the left (a very challenging task!), strategizing on how to bring Dilma “back to the left,” and discussing ways in which to contest the negative conceptualization of organized political groups. A “battle of the cartoons” emerged on Facebook and other online media, in which hostility to parties (and institutionalized politics in general) was equated with fascism and dictatorship, as is clear in the posters below.  These posts also sought to remind the population that organized groups (popular movements, labor unions, and civic organizations, in addition to political parties) had been struggling for many of these same demands (transportation, education, health care) in the street and in government for many decades now.

[The three images above make historical analogies to the opposition to political parties by Brazil’s military dictatorship as well as by Mussolini, equating the popular image of the “waking giant” to a “fascist giant,” and urging people to look back at history.]

[These posts defend the long history of progressive engagement in Brazil.  In the first, social movements welcome the newcomers, but are dismayed to find themselves denounced and attacked as useless opportunists.  The second lists the major parties, social movements, and civil society organizations that had been active in Brazil during the previous decades.]

Not everyone, however, accepted the equation of anti-partisanship with fascist tendencies.  Note the dueling images below.  The first shows protesters concerned with transportation costs returning in disgust (“Turn back, it has turned to shit!”) in response to the right wing tendencies in the movement.  The second, circulating afterwards, lumps right and left together in one small but (ugly) stew, while the masses protest for fare reductions without parties, echoing the popular refrain, “The people woke up!”

Another source of pushback came from within the progressive sector itself.  The “Occupy Brazil” Facebook site posted a series of images challenging the equation of anti-partisanship with fascism, and arguing that there is an alternative model, called “direct democracy.”  This group championed a more direct, flexible, non-hierarchical form of political intervention, aligned with the consensus-oriented internal process of the World Social Forums and Occupy movement worldwide. Participatory assemblies sprang up in a number of cities, including Belo Horizonte, Rio and São Paulo, seeming to combine traditional movement actors with newer arrivals.  In Belo Horizonte, the “Assembleia Popular Horizontal” spun off multiple thematic working groups, carried out an extended occupation of the Municipal Council building, and has been campaigning for a state investigation of the public transportation sector (among other issues).  These initiatives have remained rather limited in scope, however, not self-replicating and diffusing to the extent that the neighborhood assemblies did in Argentina in 2001.  [We should keep in mind, however, that in Argentina these eventually petered out, due to a) exhaustion; b) the lack of a viable pathway to the state; and c) colonization by organized groups, which in many cases came to dominate despite the initial anti-partisan impetus.]

[The first image suggests that the equation of parties with dictatorship is a “lie,” and says there is “a model of government that does not possess flags or parties, called direct democracy or pure democracy.”  The second is a picture of the occupation of the municipal council by the Participatory Assembly of Belo Horizonte.]

The partisan ambivalence and rejection expressed in these protests represents a real challenge to progressive movements, which need to rethink how they respond to a population that is brimming with social and political criticism, but deeply suspicious of institutional politics and organized groups of all sorts.   As I have argued in my own work, political parties can play an important role in transformative democratic politics and projects of social and economic justice. They can build bridges between popular movements and the state, articulate ties across diverse movement sectors, and formulate counterhegemonic projects and projects of institutional reform.  The absolutist rejection of parties (and institutional politics more generally)—whether coming from the right or the left—risks leaving power in the hands of the most elite, corporatist (and corporate) sectors, reinforcing neoliberal tendencies and generating further disconnection and alienation from the broader population.

The challenge is how to rethink parties, making them more dialogic, flexible, and responsive to emergent movements, with more of what Brazilians call “jogo de cintura,” or the ability to move nimbly between confrontational and collaborative modes of political interaction. This is not to say that movements should be “controlled by” political parties, or even instigated by them. Colonization, corporatism and opportunism are real problems, in Brazil and elsewhere. Movements such as these this should maintain their relative autonomy; they should be “supra-partisan” while also respecting and encouraging the participation of those who don’t identity with parties at all. Likewise, parties need to be self-restrained and adopt a more humble role, relinquishing the self-promotional urge to always to be at the forefront as the “representative” of the people. Yet as “articulators”—i.e., as channelers of discursive and institutional mediations—they can be essential players in a broader movement field.

While recognizing the problems with the anti-partisan stance, we should also note the tactical (and not just analytical) danger in being too quick to wield the label of fascism in relation to the recent protests.  There were many first-time protestors on the street who felt that they were asserting their rights as “citizens” and rejecting deeply entrenched corruption and other social problems.  These folks were (justifiably) offended at being labeled as “fascists.”  The perceived disrespect from partisan activists may have intensified their distaste for political parties and organized political groups, which were seen as “not representing me.”

We should also note that while these protests were primarily driven by the “middle class,” it’s not at all clear what that means. Given the country’s recent growth (coming in part from PT policies), many poorer and working class families have edged into the lower end of the “middle class.” They have made progress, but are still feeling the strain of precarious infrastructure and ragged public services, as well as general insecurity and mounting urban violence.  They want more effective state administration of services such as transportation, health care, and education.  This is a big distance between this sector and the high bourgeoisie (also in the streets), who complained about high taxes, corruption, and swollen government spending. This sector wants less state, not more state, and they tend to be virulently anti-Dilma.  These varied class segments share some of the same frustrations, but not all of the same demands.

Moreover, not all of the protests (or grievances) in Brazil have come from the middle class—with important differences in repressive response.  In late June, a protest in a Rio favela culminated in a police occupation and massacre of 13 people, leading to further protests against police violence against the poor, usually black inhabitants of Brazil’s slum neighborhoods (currently undergoing a controversial program of “pacification” in conjunction with preparation for the World Cup and Olympics).   The pictures below mark the discrepancy between popular indignation over police repression of middle class protesters and the relative indifference, even support, in response to police violence against favelados.

[Asking difficult questions: “Why do rubber bullets on white skin move people more than the real bullets that kill the black population every day?”  “The police that represses on the avenue is the same that kills in the favela.”   “Say no to the criminalization of blacks, poor people, and social movements.”]

While the Brazilian mobilizations have not regained the peak of the June 20 rallies, they have not disappeared; smaller scale local protests have continued on a range of issues, with the anti-corruption rallies largely splitting off from those mobilizing around issues of public services, police violence, gender equity and labor rights (including a major teacher’s strike in Rio right now).  The Anonymous Brasil movement, for its part, is calling for a massive return to the streets on September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day.  Meanwhile, I have heard reports that the street clashes between the sem partido” and the “com partido” have receded; I am not sure whether this is because the latter have become more restrained (backgrounding or suppressing their partisan identities); whether the former have become more accepting (much more more dubious), or whether the two groups are now largely attending separate rallies.

Within the left, the “crisis of representativity” of traditional partisan organizations has come under intense discussion, leading to the formation of some new movement groups affirming a “classist” identity, but asserting their autonomy from parties. Where these diverse (and contending) groups will take this newly stirred up mobilizing energy is not clear.  Nor it is clear what relationship these challenger movements will develop with institutional politics; will they continue to reject these links, or will they develop a flexible, multi-pronged repertoire capable of working both inside and outside of the state?

I hope to have given you a sense of the internally complex and contested nature of the June protests in Brazil, while also raising broader questions about the relationship between social movements, political parties, and institutional politics.  The fierce debates provoked by the chants of “sem partido” continue to reverberate, not only in Brazil but in other protests arenas around the world.  After you throw the bums out, what then? As activists and analysts, how can we reconceive of the link between challenger movements and political institutions, amidst populations that, quite justifiably, feel deeply skeptical of and even betrayed by them?  What are the limits to the radical horizontalism of recent transnational movements, if we want to generate durable institutional change?  At the same time, how can we take seriously the critique of partisanship coming from the streets of São Paulo and Taskim Square, and use it to rethink the role of parties as potential mediators—even if not drivers—in calls for deeper democracy and for social and economic justice?  These are some of the challenges that the recent protest waves place on the global agenda.

2 Comments

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

2 responses to ““Come to the streets, but without parties”: The challenges of the new Brazilian protests

  1. Reblogueó esto en Antropología y Movimientos Socialesy comentado:
    Movilization and political organizations in Brazil.

  2. You are incredibly well informed, it seems to me a very precise account of the protests. Do you know if there is anybody that has studied the relationship of this turn to “anti-partisanship” and a mess-media (typo on purpose) manipulation of the street energy as an opportunistic move against Dilma and PT? Denial favors to change, so even though they call themselves “anti-partisans”, during elections they have to vote (obligatory in Brasil), so they must choose or vote blank or null.

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