2013-2016: polarization and protests in Brazil

The reduction of a broad and complex reconfiguration of Brazilian society to a matter of “Fascists” versus “Bolivarians” is a sign of the exasperation caused by the current conjuncture. Español Português

Breno Bringel
18 February 2016

Teachers protest in Sao Paulo. Levi Bianco/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The year 2016 began with a new round of protests in Brazil. The motives are manifold, however grievances related to the rising cost of public transportation, soaring costs of living and the right to the city in general. These upheavals are an omen that the mobilization begun in June 2013 are far from over. The opposite is true, they inaugurated a new political cycle in Brazil, breathing fresh air into society, with consequences that can be seen today in several spheres and not only in the streets. Since then, new spaces and actors have emerged leading to an increase of conflict in the public space and a questioning of the extant codes, actors and traditional actions since political redemocratization.

Although they embrace distinct (and usually opposing) visions and projects for Brazilian society, the individual and collective situate to the left and right of the government mobilized since 2013 until today are a fruit of the same sociopolitical opening. The forms of action and organization they adopted – proper to a transformation in the forms of activism and militant engagement in the country and the world – favored its swift emergence, media attention and the capacity to express and challenge, but also provoked tension and ambivalence in its own constitution and in the results in generates.

Between June 2013 and the beginning of this year the country has been through several different settings marked by heightened political radicalization and polarization. The outcome remains unclear, but we are living in a scenario of transition in which the “old” is still dying and the “new” still has not come to full blossom. In this process of sedimentation, it is fundamental to understand the emergence of new political actors, the immediate impacts of the protests, the realignment of political groups and their political and discursive constructions.  

June 2013: conflict and social overflow in Brazil

Diverse individuals and social groups from across the ideological spectrum took part in the 2013 mobilizations. It was immediately possible to discern the diffuse outrage, the ambivalence of discourses, the heterogeneous nature of grievances and the lack of mediation of other parties or traditional actors, the trademark of most contemporary mobilizations, such as those in Spain and the United States. The differentiation of the rhythms, composition and perspectives espoused by protests in the many places where they unfolded, underscores the importance of situating the mobilizations in different space-time coordinates. Although the locus of action of the demonstrations were public territories and spaces (through the massive occupation of squares and streets) there was a practical and symbolic connection with other scales of action and significations, whether national or global, resonating across movements and subjectivities, as well as dynamics of diffusion and feedback loops.

One of the most emblematic traits of June 2013 was its capillarity throughout the national territory. However, the logic of mobilization, the social composition of demonstrators and the correlation of forces varied considerably from city to city. The aftermath of June 2013 was also variegated within Brazil. In some places such as Rio de Janeiro, the protests continued in high intensity with the linking of mobilization and strikes (the largest one led by public school teachers, followed by other symbolic ones such as the city sweepers strike in February 2014) which ended on the eve of the World Cup in 2014, with the arrest of 23 activists. Several cities saw the continuation of occupations, mobilizations for rights and specific causes, new actions and grassroots actions and cultural experimentalism. In certain cases repression and post-Junta criminalization led to demobilization. Another result was the proliferation of underground experiences among individuals, communities, groups and collectivities. At the same time, given the continental dimension of the country, it is undeniable that June was also, in certain places, more a collective representation (signaling that change can come about with common people doing politics) than a process of continuous articulation and political organization.

In any case, it is crucial to understand June 2013 as a moment of social opening in the country. Once the ground was cleared and opened up for protests by the initial mobilizations and movements (such as the Movimento Passe Livre, determinant in São Paulo but not in other capital cities), other actors came together to make their own grievances, without necessarily keeping their ties to the actors that triggered them and/or repeating the forms, organizational cultures, ideological references and repertories of actions by the initiators. In fact, as Charles Tilly once proposed, the use of the same repertory of action does not necessarily imply we are dealing with the same movement, only a cultural and historical grammar that is available and that can be interpreted by society and social groups. Alonso and Mische aptly captured these social and cultural sources, as well as the ambivalence of the repertories present in June within what they defined as “socialist” repertories (familiar in the Brazilian left in the last decades), “autonomist” (akin to various libertarian groups and critiques of power and the State), and “patriotic” (which deploys a nationalist discourse and the color green and yellow with a very particular historical and situational meaning).

As a new cycle of protests emerged, a social overflow , as I have defined it recently, could be noticed. The term describes a moment in which protests spread from the more mobilized segments to other parts of society, overflowing, as it were, from the social movements that initiated the process. In the climax of this process, a wide spectrum of society is mobilized by a diffuse indignation, containing diverse perspectives and grievances which coexist in the same physical space and sometimes even under the same slogans (against corruption or against the government), although their constructions and horizons might be distinct from each other and disputed. There was an ambiguous confluence, marked by contradictory movements and centripetal forces (the externalization of indignation and symbolical and physical presence at the same time in streets and squares) and centrifugal forces (which, despite co-presence in the same spaces, indicated diverging motivations, forms of organization and horizons of expectation).

In this cathartic phase, which started in June 2013 and lasted some months, ideological polarization already existed (leading, for example, to the aggression of protesters carrying the flags, shirts or other symbols associated with the left), however it was diluted in mass indignation and experimentation in the streets.

The political scenario post June 2013

After a heterogeneous beginning, 2014 sees the beginning of a phase of decantation, as it became possible to discern more clearly between the main grievances left and right, although these notions (right and left) are increasingly considered by activists and society at large, as outdated, and meagerly capable of translating and channeling goals, expectations and concerns. One of the main motives for this is the straightforward association between “ideology” and groups and specific ideological groups (whether parties or “communism,” “socialism” or “liberalism”).  At the time being there have been no massive demonstrations in streets and squares, but there are ongoing smaller mobilizations, as well as a more invisible reorganization of individuals, networks and collectives. The confluence in the same public space has been gradually replaced by calls with more specific and well-defined objectives.

Although a good portion of these actions were not directed to the institutional or electoral field, whose logic and temporality are distinct from those of social mobilization, the pre-electoral scenario of 2014 as the presidential race approach ultimately led to a moment of furthering of polarizations which absorbed most political and social actors in 2015.

Despite the criticism inveighed against the Workers’ Party (PT) in particular and political parties in general, the 2014 elections massively mobilized Brazilians, with some even defending the incumbent party as “the lesser evil”.  Dilma’s win by a slim margin generated a climate of instability which was constantly fueled by sectors from the opposition in hopes of impeaching the president.

In the heat of the presidential debate, several analysts associated the PT’s loss of votes with the 2013 protests. Although there might have been in fact links between the protests and the vote, it is impossible to establish a direct causality. Furthermore, the main problem is that hegemonic interpretations concerning the impact of the 2013 protests insist on their belief that effects did not go beyond the institutional and electoral realms, as in the analysis of Marco Aurélio Nogueira in his piece recently published at openDemocracy.

In this same register, very much guided by “result-oriented politics”, one would expect clearly measurable political outcomes if we were to consider, for example, how the grievances voiced during the mobilizations were received (or ignored) by the political system. What comes to mind are concrete public policies, the inclusion of new issues in government agendas, the creation of new spaces and channels of mediation and/or participation, and true success – even if ephemeral or partial – for some of the more symbolic grievances, such as the price of bus fees.

With regard to the electoral scenario, the tumultuous presidential dispute of 2014 serves to illustrate some elements. Firstly, it is important to differentiate between the attempts to appropriate some of the protest’s agenda by certain candidates (the case of Marina Silva and her discourse of a “new” politics albeit blended with “old” practices) and political parties without true connections to mobilized sectors in processes in which there is in fact a historical relationship or tactical and strategic alliances between social and political groups (as the case of the PT as a party and not the government, given its internal heterogeneity and or other smaller parties on the left end of the spectrum). Secondly, it is interesting to notice how the discourse of “fear” was (and still is) deployed to oppose the “right” versus the “left”, reducing the latter to the government, consequently containing the spectrum of possibilities of change that emerged.  Finally, it is important to underscore the limits in the long and medium term, of the actual results for the understanding of the social transformations we are experiencing. On one hand, the creation of a rigid frontier between friends/enemies on the part of the government served to try to undermine (and at times delegitimize) the forces to the left; and on the other hand, the electoral outcomes do not invalidate the social mobilizations and do not necessarily point to the loss of their influence.

Social, cultural and biographical impacts of the protests

These politico-institutional and political-electoral perspective restrict the vision of politics and the political and ignore other kinds of results, impacts and possible scenarios. We argue, inversely, that a broadened and multidimensional view of the impact is fundamental, since not all the consequence of the June 2013 mobilizations are easily measurable in these terms. At least two other types of impacts (the social and the cultural) must be considered.

Among the social impacts, two main ones can be identified: the reconfiguration of the social groups and the generation of new socio-political framings. In the first case, the recent mobilizations served to shake up the positions, visions and correlation of forces between the parties, unions, social movements and NGOS and other collectivities. Although it is still early to establish the reach and effect of all this, some actors have realigned or still try to do it (in many cases not very cleverly), while others have problematized their own trajectory and role, trying to resituate themselves in the new conjuncture.

In the second case, new individual and collective framings are included, related today mainly to the quality of life in Brazilian metropolises, media bias, violence (including State violence, which particularly affects women and poor black youth living in urban fringes) and sexism. Such are the processes of the re-elaboration of social experience that gradually produce a re-signification of semantic constellations of society, building upon different experiences of politicizing everyday life, most of which are invisible to the media and ivory tower intellectuals.

In the cultural realm it is possible to observe innovations in the logic of mobilization and in the relational and interactional mechanisms of activism. Marked by its conflictive nature, by viral diffusion, and multi-layered identities and by an expressiveness of the political mediated by culture, both fledgling militants as well as more consolidated movements challenge the political cultural of apathy. Although in some cases there is a distancing between a new generation of activists and a more seasoned base (which forces us to rethink the spaces and formulas of generational dialogue, in others some creative confluences emerge, as in the case of some synergies detected in underground networks and cultural/artistic initiatives in political engagement (notably in cities such as Belo Horizonte).

Associated to the social and cultural impacts, one can also point to an impact whose nature is more biographical. This regards the subjective impact of the mobilization in the trajectories of activists. It has been a recurring motif to hear many participants define the mobilizations of June 2013 as a “before and after moment”, an “inflection”,  a “beginning” or  “a new beginning”. For a generation of activists nowadays and for a young generation who does not necessarily self-define itself as activist, June 2013 was, in the words of a young activist, “a fire that cannot be extinguished with fire”. As ephemeral as they may be, the experiences lived in the mobilizations and in a protests leave deep “marks” in participants, reinforcing the propensity that they will become politically engaged in the future and be able, in addition, to transform their social identities and political values.

Social movements, societal movements and polarization

It is hence important to understand June 2013 not as an isolated “event”, but as a whole process. To this end, it is fundamental to always associate social movements to broader societal movements. In other words, to analyze how the mobilizations, social actors and their practices can be framed within the dynamics of the transformation of society.

This is central in Brazil’s current scenario of crisis, where there seems to be a reconfiguration of the forms of activism and political subjects vis-à-vis shifts in the structural and subjective elements of society as a whole. In this sense, in the same way the mass mobilizations of the 1970s and 1980s were depicted as a societal movement for the redefinition of democracy and rights, the recent mobilizations are associated with structural developments of the country (greater insertion internationally and geopolitically, albeit still a dependent nation and, in the domestic scene, the greater prominence of social policies, including the struggle to eradicate poverty), which spread particularly rapidly in the last decade.

In a society as unequal as the Brazilian, these changes affected social classes differently, leading to frustrations that, although convergent in many cases, were ideologically opposed. The rich became richer, while a layer of the population was lifted from poverty and started accessing certain services, spaces and rights once reserved for an upper middles class that suddenly saw their “privileges” and lifestyle threatened. Class-based divides, but also racial, gender and place-of-origin divides are as well fundamental in this regard, in order to question whether these mobilizations and the emerging activism will in fact be able to permeate with greater density the popular layers of society, something that has not been very visible so far.

In the current situation of polarization, it is possible to clearly identify in Brazil two radically antagonistic poles, with a diversity of possible intermediary situations. On one hand, a progressive camp that also favors a radicalization of democracy and acts based on values such as equality, justice, plurality, difference and the good life. On the other hand, a reactionary camp, marked by authoritarianism, certain fascist and anti-democratic traits, favoring the defense of class privilege, private property and a vision of liberty that is elusive.

The first pole encompasses a diverse layer of young people, collectivities, platforms and movements that have been active in the exposure of (and attempt to eliminate) hierarchies, oppression and abuses conducted by the State – mainly violence, institutionalized racism and criminalization – and who also espouse a diverse set of grievances, such as the improvement of public services and human-friendly cities. They engage on territorialized and/or cultural disputes and conceive of democracy in its broadest sense, and not as a synonym for institutions, representation or elections, but rather as a sociopolitical creation and a subjective experience.

The latter pole perpetuates in its discourse and daily practices the structures of domination and forms of oppression. It accepts the high levels of social inequality in the country based on the discourse of inevitability and/or meritocracy. It preaches, in some cases, the return of a better past (dictatorship), to which end it is not coy in calling for military intervention. It generally counts on the support and colludes with the economic and media elites. It also commonly acts behind the scenes of politics, although these strategies are now combined with one new element: street mobilization and direct actions.

Between these two poles, in the political center, there sit the government and several other more traditional sectors. The exhaustion of win-win politics and the class consensus established by the government during the terms of Lula and Dilma, in addition to the exhaustion of its political agenda challenged by the 2013 mobilizations, led the government to abort its reformist agenda that would bring it closer to the first pole.

The direct consequence is a right that is increasingly more reactive and conservative, something that intensified with the 2014 elections and the right-wing protests (not all of them, one must note, authoritarian and reactionary) in 2015. Pressured not only domestically but also abroad by the global political elite and financial institutions, one of the more dramatic developments in the last months is the Executive branch’s proposal of an absurd antiterrorist bill, in late 2015, (PL 2016/2015). Using the subterfuge of creating a “safe environment” for investments in the country and for citizens during the year of the Olympic Games, the bill has only contributed to generating more mechanisms for the criminalization of protests and the more radical social movements. Once again, this is another iteration of the State’s selectivity, in which social actors with more in common are invited to dialogue, while those prone to bring about rupture are strongly repressed or controlled.

The reduction of a broad and complex reconfiguration of Brazilian society to a matter of “Fascists” pitted against “Bolivarians” is a sign of the exasperation being caused by the current conjuncture. In this configuration, the “right” is depicted by the sectors from the more traditional progressive camp as “the enemy to be combatted”- even, contradictorily, when this might be done by the government – forcing some actors aligned to the left to defend, even if ambivalently, the government. Obviously, one must qualify this by saying that not all ranks of the Workers’ Party are in this camp and adhere to this unwavering defense of governability, which is increasingly threatened by the political crisis which has also already affected the economy.

The array of positions that transcend these positions is wide-ranging, but the polarization in Brazilian society today ultimately causes most interpretations to reduce all conflict to these two poles, blurring the potential of more transformative voices emerging from June 2013. In these surging attempts and in the re-articulation of the popular layers of society lie the hopes of generating alternatives to the current scenario.


Note: The author would like to thank Geoffrey Pleyers for his comments and academic partnership.



How to cite:
Bringel.B. (2016) «2013-2016: polarization and protests in Brazil», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 18 February.


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