BRICS from below: counterpower movements in Brazil, India and South Africa

While movements in Brazil and South Africa have been fueled by unrealized socio-economic expectations and by explosive growth in India, what they have most in common is the subordination of democracy to money.

Patrick Heller
30 April 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Thousands of metalworkers go on strike in Johannesburg, 2014.

Thousands of metalworkers go on strike in Johannesburg, 2014. Demotix/ Reporter#7602815. All rights reserved.Much has been made of the recent wave of social movements against neo-liberalism and precarity. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements to the student protests against the educational system in Chile, commentators have detected a Polanyi-like wave of counter movements to neo-liberal globalization.

But what exactly do these movements have in common? The movements themselves are not specifically connected, are clearly rooted in domestic political fields, and have mobilized claims and framed grievances that are as diverse as they are localized. As the literature on moral economies has long argued, people don’t rise up against economic hardship but rather against injustice.

So, if there is clearly no mechanical logic that impels people to protest when economic conditions are tough, can we speak of a global counter-movement to neo-liberalism? Yes, but only if we can clearly identify the links between the politics of movements and the political conditions they respond to and specifically to the crises of legitimacy that drive contentious movements.

Counterpower movements

Recent protest waves in Brazil, India and South Africa reveal clear patterns of what can be called counterpower movements, movements that explicitly challenge the instrumentalization of political power.

The wave of protests that erupted in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, the “anti-corruption” movement in India and the spread of “service-delivery protests" in South Africa took varied forms and have traveled different paths, but have three defining characteristics.

First, all three movements erupted in highly consolidated democracies where the procedural dimensions of democracy enjoy widespread support. These movements cannot as such be confused with movements against authoritarian regimes. Second, all three are attacks against perceived injustices and in particular elite usurpation of the state. Third, all three have clearly articulated critiques of institutionalized political society and seek to mobilize civil society as a form of counterpower.

The oligarchialization of power

These are less movements against neo-liberalism than movement against the oligarchialization of power under democratic conditions.  In challenging the usurpation of power, these movements have reanimated the public sphere, re-thematized core democratic values of accountability, deliberation, consent and the public interest and pushed for more participatory forms of democracy that would shift the balance of power from political to civil society.

South Africa

Over the last decade South Africa has been swept by a wave of so-called “service delivery protests.” In the decade before 2005 (the first after the end of apartheid) local protests were rare, but beginning in 2005 escalated to thousands every year. In 2014 over 13,000 protests were recorded, with 1907 turning violent.

Highly sporadic and very localized, these protests usually consist of the urban poor protesting against poor service delivery in the informal settlements and townships of urban South Africa. Because of the apparently spontaneous and localized nature of the protests many have suggested that these are little more than populist moments of anger, and African National Congress (ANC) officials have routinely dismissed the protests as the work of “counter-revolutionaries” or local opportunists opposed to the ANC.

Yet despite the fact that these protests have indeed been rather inchoate and sporadic, and until recently were not linked to larger political forces, these local disturbances reveal an anti-systemic logic. Though the protests are nominally about “service delivery” they are also clearly about politics and power.

Service delivery in urban areas has actually expanded rapidly, but the sense of social exclusion has grown. Most telling is the fact that many of the protests have targeted ward level councillors and been triggered by reports of local government corruption, leading von Holdt to characterize the protests as “subaltern protests against the ANC in local government”. Pithouse (2007) also rejects an economistic interpretation and argues instead that the protests are about “citizenship” understood as “the material benefits of full social inclusion … as well as the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organization” (cited in Peter Alexander, “Rebellion of the Poor: south Africa’s Service Delivery Protests - A preliminary analysis.”)

More recently, there are signs that these protests might be foundational to a larger project.  Vish Satgar notes that the protests are taking place against a backdrop of a thickening web of overlapping activist networks that have spawned a wide range of issue campaigns around education reform, the environment and jobs.

Increasing tension between communities and the ruling ANC has now spread to the union movement, marked most dramatically by the decision of the metal workers union to break with the ANC, the first major cleavage in the ANC-organized labor alliance.

Satgar moreover points to the polyvalent character of the movement, its creative and flexible tactical repertoires and its democratic practices, and argues that this represents a new wave of contentions movements in South Africa, a wave that is explicitly challenging the vanguardism of the ANC-led alliance. 


Turning to India, the most visible movement of the past decade has been the anti-corruption movement. Led by a former civil servant and a renowned Gandhian activist, the movement burst onto the public scene in 2011 with creative social media campaigns and old-fashioned movement tactics of hunger strikes and large-scale protests in the capital city.

Demanding the creation of an independent body with the power to root out political corruption, the movement gained tremendous popular support among students and large swathes of India’s new urban middle class. To a large extent the movement tapped into popular discontent over endemic problems of governance but also reflected the rising sense of frustration that in a rapidly growing India upward mobility was being thwarted by the corrupt collusion of economic elites and the state. The movement cultivated a strong anti-political party message pointing to the complicity of all of India’s political parties in the organized rent-seeking racket that has become Indian politics. 

In legislative terms the movement made little headway and a fraction in the movement opted to form a political party, aptly named the Aam Aadmi Party – AAP (the common man’s party). Dismissed by some as whimsical and by others as a betrayal of the movement’s anti-party message, AAP quickly demonstrated its political viability by making inroads in the Delhi state assembly elections in 2013 and then pulling off a stunning victory in February 2015 when it took 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi. This electoral victory came less than a year after the Hindu Nationalist BJP had swept to power in the national elections. Whether or not AAP will make much of a difference remains to be seen and already there are signs that electoral imperatives are eroding the party’s internal democracy. But the political ascendency of AAP has energized new debates in the public sphere that pose a frontal challenge to the established political regime. 

First, AAP is the first party to emerge from a social movement in decades and the first to break with the open appeals to caste or religious coalitions that have long been the bread-and-butter of Indian parties. With its roots in the corruption movement and its fierce attacks on money in politics, AAP has capitalized on growing disenchantment with a political class that is increasingly seen as a law unto itself. Second, the party’s electoral base is unique, combining progressive middle class elements (students and professionals) with the urban poor, a coalition that is reminiscent of the Worker’s Party in Brazil.

Third, AAP is the first party in India to ever explicitly call for decentralization and participatory democracy. Indeed, the party came to power in Delhi by painstakingly deploying volunteers in the slums of Delhi, holding public meetings to generate local development manifestos, and denouncing the classic clientelist politics that fuel urban political machines in India. That the urban poor voted en masse to reject patronage handouts for programmatic commitments is itself a dramatic political shift. 


Finally, we turn to Brazil. Nowhere has counterpower been more prominent in democratic politics than Brazil. The Partido dos Trabalhadores - PT (Worker’s Party), which has held the presidency for the last three terms, is itself the classic social movement party, born out of the progressive pro-democracy movements of the 1980s.  As part of the democratic transition, movements baked participation into the 1988 constitution, and Brazil probably has a wider and more effective array of participatory institutions than any large democracy in the world.

These range from the much celebrated cases of participatory budgeting to sectorial councils that allow for direct civil society participation in a range of policy arenas including education, health and urban planning. 

Broad-based, well-organized social movements and civil society organizations have, in effect, projected themselves onto the state, stamping their influence on environmental, labor, urban and social policies.

Yet despite the fact that PT governments have made significant strides in reducing inequality and promoting social development over the past two decades, the government was rocked by mass protests in 2013.

Broad cross-sections of Brazilians took to the streets to protest proposed cut backs in public services and in anger over corrupt and wasteful spending on sports infrastructure for the 2014 Football World Cup. The protests were large and raucous and only swelled when local police resorted to repressive tactics.

The protests were emphatically extra-political, that is specifically rejected any association with political parties despite the fact that the myriad local organizations that channeled the protest were left-leaning. Many of the participants identified as PT but as Breno Bringel has found were very critical of the limits of its policies and its logic of “class consensus”. Movement actors demanded more dialogue and participation, often as a critique of what were viewed as ineffective forms of institutionalized participation.

In demanding an increase in investment in public goods (including transport, education and social services) the movement not only re-affirmed the left’s redistributive agenda, but also reasserted civil society’s counterpower to a long-serving PT government that has distanced itself from the very social movements that brought it to life.

When the municipal governments quickly acceded to demands to reduce transport costs, protesters went back to the streets with slogan Não é por 20 centavos, é por direitos (Its not about 20 cents, its about rights).That the movement was about rebalancing the relationship between political power and civil society is also underscored by the fact that it successfully demanded the withdrawal of legislation (known as PEC 37) being considered in Congress that would have curtailed the powers of the Ministério Público, a ministry publicly revered for its prosecution of political corruption.

 A flourishing democracy

Numsa members on strike sing praise songs for Cosatu general secretary, 2014.

Numsa members on strike sing praise songs for Cosatu general secretary, 2014. Demotix/ Reporter #7602815. All rights reserved.What lessons can we draw from these three different protest movements? First, for all the talk of how neo-liberalism has hollowed out democracy or pacified civil society, these movements remind us that wherever basic democratic freedoms can be accessed, the possibility for counter-hegemonic politics remains very real.

Second, as much as recent social gains in development in Latin America have been linked to the electoral success of left-of-centre programmatic parties, it is important not to confuse necessary with sufficient conditions. The ANC in South Africa has been an extraordinary disappointment on the social front and in its determination to maintain control has been more than willing to compromise democratic principles. The PT in Brazil has remained much closer to its traditional redistributive politics, but its tenure in power has shifted the balance from the mobilizational to the organizational wing of the party.

In India, the anti-corruption movement dealt what in retrospect may have been the fatal blow – massive electoral repudiation in the 2014 national elections – to a Congress party that long represented itself as the party of the people but degenerated into a rent-seeking cabal. Whether the political scaling-up of the movement into a political formation will produce a permanent electoral shift remains to be seen. But the movement has demonstrated the capacity of civil society to stand up to the implacable forces of political domination that have slowly been subverting democratic life in India.

Third, while all three movements have been fueled by unrealized socio-economic expectations that accompanied democratic transitions in Brazil and South Africa and explosive growth in India, what they have most in common is a rejection of the increasing nexus of political and economic power and the subordination of democracy to money.

Democracy is always messy, always in flux and always constrained. But it is nothing if it cannot block the translation of economic power into political power. In this respect, a permanently organized counterpower is a necessary condition for a flourishing democracy.

How to cite:
Heller P. (2015) «BRICS from below: counterpower movements in Brazil, India and South Africa», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 30 April. https://opendemocracy.net/patrick-heller/brics-from-below-counterpower-movements-in-brazil-india-and-south-africa


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