The streets are talking a lot, but democracy advances very little

Participation in Brazil has grown, but so far it has not come with an increase in democratic quality through a more consistent public debate or a better functioning political system. Español Português

Marco Aurélio Nogueira
27 January 2016

Free Pass protest in Sao Paulo. Vinicius Pinheiro. Flickr. All rights reserved. 

Democracy is not only a "method" for making decisions and a set of rules for governing a political community. It is also a system of participation which depends on politically educated citizens, as well-organized as possible. It provides ethical and political guidelines for promoting the sharing of political power. In normative terms, it is a system where citizens rule through the allocation of responsibilities and power.

It is precisely because this is so, that democracy tends to be rocked when citizens and organizations change their pattern, driven by some great social transformation. This is what is happening today, in this age of speed, intensive technology, pervasive markets and entrenched individuality. Under conditions of global capitalism and "liquidity", democracy is challenged by a social demand for transformation that cannot be properly processed and attended. The will to "democratize democracy" often puts at odds participation and representation. While some claim to be ultra-democratic and are always requiring more spaces for protest and participation, the overwhelming role of markets and big business shifts democracy to the edge: it loses value, it becomes an ornament, it becomes something to be used and displayed, but not to be lived intensely.

It is therefore the very terms of the game set by global financial capitalism that holds back democracy. For democracy to prevail and show its strength, citizens need to counter the political, economic and institutional arrangements underway. The problem is that there are no actors, strictly speaking, who can carry out the task of aggregating citizens politically and take responsibility for the risks and effects derived from this action.

Brazilian democracy’s weaknesses

Brazil is a special case. The country has strived, throughout history, to get along with political democracy. It has known many periods of dictatorship and suspension of rights. This has prevented the assimilation of democratic culture by both the people and the state. Even after the economic modernization of the country and three uninterrupted decades of formal democracy, citizens are still politically uneducated, a fact that is aggravated by the inequality that splits society, the precariousness of the education system and the lack of a political reform aimed at oxygenating the communication channels between the state and society. The state itself has been slow and quite ineffective in providing basic services, and this has seriously compromised what might be called the Brazilian Welfare State. Successive governments have had an unguarded flank through which corruption and resource deviation strategies have wormed their way in. The political system favours the exchange of preferential treatment and money, so as to provide stability to governments, and to feed the electoral machinery of parties and coalitions. And the police apparatus has never been "democratized": it acts in an authoritarian way, incapable of coexisting with a population steeped in liquidity - dynamic, individually minded, actively connected to networks, averse to most forms of "solid" organization and action.

Reignited protests, police abuses

Since the beginning of the year, São Paulo (the main city in the country) has been the scene of successive street protests, encouraged by the Free Pass Movement (MPL), which advocates the end of public transportation fares. What triggered the demonstrations was the decision by the City Hall to increase the bus fare, from R $ 3.50 to R $ 3.80. As happened in June 2013, when mass demonstrations took over the main Brazilian cities, today’s protests have broader agendas, which is basically something that has to do with its open, non-organized character: everyone who has something to complain about, some skin-deep outrage to voice, a cause to fight for, come together in the streets and join the marches that cram the city. So far, the demonstrations in January have not gathered an impressive number of people, but they have shown a wide range of demands.

In 2013, police incompetence was shocking. To a large extent, the demonstrations swelled then due to the violent and disproportionate police repression. Today, the police are back in the streets and their performance is worse than ever, showing disregard for their own operational rules for dealing with riots and protests. The police have not learned how to talk to people, and they have not improved their ability to understand the context of demonstrations. They make things worse through their use of force. Even if they may have reasons to "harden" their reaction at times, this does not help the city to democratically come to terms and coexist with the demonstrations.

For no other reason than this did the rift between protesters and the security forces grow. Quite unprepared for democratic dialogue in complex societies, both the police and the protesters quarreled over whether or not to negotiate the path for the marches. While the police claim that this is essential if the city is not to come to a stop and to prevent citizens from being harmed, the MPL contends that it does not conform to any state authority and that its decisions are taken by the protesters in the streets. They would both stand to gain from negotiating previously about it, but negotiations cannot be enforced: they have to be built. And political will is clearly lacking, on both parts, for this to happen. The police want to impose certain paths for the demonstrations, but the MPL simply does not talk to the authorities, nor does it negotiate anything away from the public eye. The result is a true dialogue of the deaf, in which what is being discussed is the "performance" and the show that is going to be put up, and how much discomfort should be caused by the demonstration which, in theory, is a political means - that is, in the common interest - to oppose political power.

Lessons not learned

Memories of 2013 are fleeting. Not much has been learnt. The security forces have stopped considering that violence always tends to generate reactions of solidarity. People today may fear police repression and choose to stay at home not to expose themselves to it, but they are voicing their anger on social networks, which is another way to make the protest grow and reverberate, causing the country’s political temperature to rise. The protesters, however, are failing to promote consistent democratic advances, even when they achieve timely victories - that is, they lack the necessary organization and strength to expand socially and corner the system.

Given its small size and its "unorganized" nature, the MPL moves about a lot and can give the impression of being larger than it actually is. It is definitely a key player in the political dynamics of a city like São Paulo, an actor who deserves respect and careful analysis. But it could be undermined by its own characteristics: its typical reliance on voluntary action, the idea that it is the masses that make all the decisions and even choose the path to take, its refusal of any explicit leadership, its constant desire to present the protest in a sensational manner, and to "stop the city". All this may cause the movement to stop adding support and to even put it on a collision course with the public at large, or at any rate with the people who need transportation and freedom to move. The risk of isolating itself is high, as there are no provisions for the MPL to act in conjunction with other parties and organized forces. It is as if the movement wanted to experience democracy without accepting some of the rules of democracy itself and showing disregard for the values ​​of the democratic left.

Growing participation, scarce political incidence

Brazil has been the scene of a seething desire to participate. The social protest, although not a new thing in a country that has found historical difficulties to democratize, has grown in recent years. The biggest novelty is the fact that the protests are not being led by unions and its causes are not "material": the people in the streets are demanding better public policies, less corruption, and more responsibility on the part of the people in charge. Over the past year, high school students demonstrated against the reform plans of the school system proposed by the state government of Sao Paulo, and managed to stop them; and thousands of people marched through the city demanding President Dilma Rousseff’s resignation, forcing her supporters to stage a similar show of force.

Participation has grown, but so far it has not come with an increase in democratic quality through a more consistent public debate or a better functioning of the political system. Activism is intense, diffuse and frantic, highly performing and powered by networks, but it lacks organization and a political project. There is little dialogue with the parties and these, in turn, are unable to act in tune with the streets, let alone lead them. Which comes to show the disorganization and lack of leadership of the Brazilian left.

From the protests in 2016, a new June 2013 will not be born. The climate is now quite different. People are more interested in the outcome of the political crisis affecting the government, with the threat of impeachment still hanging above Dilma Rousseff’s head. The economic crisis has not been announced and yet it is being decoded, and people are choosing to wait and see where it all ends up. It is unclear what impact the increase in transportation fares will have and there has not yet been a transition from fighting the 30 cents increase to a fight that includes other public rates (electricity, fuel, gas ) and government policies, at least the most important ones (above all, health and education).

Protest is a political action that does not favour those who want to cool down a crisis. If there is an expansion of the protests both in time and space, political representation will eventually be affected, as well as sub-national governments, states and municipalities. The parties which have barely managed to keep standing will be further hampered in their efforts to establish communication links with social movements. The political crisis, serious enough as it is already, will gain momentum. All of this happening in a year where municipal elections are due.

Small groups can always produce multiplied effects by making use of social networks, which today are indeed very active. It cannot be ruled out that protests such as the MPL’s can feed back on the demonstrations against Rousseff, which are being planned after Carnival. But the people who are planning to take to the streets in each of them are, however, quite different. On the one hand, there are young people inflamed by anarchist ideals that puts them "out of control" and potentially pits them against everybody else. On the other hand, there are citizens who focus on questioning a particular government, and a specific political practice. It is difficult to see any articulation coming out of this.

The Brazilian scene shows that the streets can move and talk a lot, but this is not producing, immediately and necessarily, more and better democracy.

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