Brazil’s protests: (English) literature review

Brazil’s evolving protests and protest movement continue to be a topic of intense interest, and every day sees not just new developments – like presidente Dilma embracing the protest movement as an impetus to constitutional reforms – but new and interesting analyses and interpretations around the web. As such, I’ve been reading furiously just to keep up; presented below are some of the more thoughtful things I’m reading. I do not attempt to offer here not too many new perspectives, as these are proliferating swiftly from the pens of writers with a great deal more experience and proximity in this arena. Rather, this is a sort of literature review of recent analyses published around the web in English.

The catalyst for this piece comes out of Brazil, from Paulista writer Vanessa Barbara. The New York Times performed a nice public service by running a piece of hers on the editorial page on Saturday. The essay chronicles Barbara’s experience attending protests with the foot soldiers of the “vinegar rebellion,” many of whom are first-time protesters and young people. Many of the protests are sloppy; some of the slogans are deliberately surreal; and all this only makes the wide-ranging mobilization more beautiful to behold. Barbara makes a compelling case that a big part of these protests is simply the act of reclaiming democratic space in a country where public political expression has remained somewhat chilled since “re-democratization” in 1985. Protesters are laying claim to the right to assemble, and “the right to be ineffective and foolish,” and to “[learn] to protest.” That assertion of basic political rights is what makes the demonstrations so heartening, and at bottom a phenomenon of democratic deepening.

As one damn thing after the other keeps happening in Brazil, analysts continue to try to chart the possible directions and political ramifications of the protest movement. The eponymous Boz blogs insightfully on Dilma’s potential game-changer of a speech pledging to push for constitutional reforms and to push forward a progressive agenda that has been stymied at the state level and in the legislature. The key quote is here:

“…Rousseff now believes these protests are an opportunity to overhaul Brazil’s dysfunctional political system. The protesters have given her a potential mechanism to go around the broken Congress and opponents in state governments and try to work with the people directly. For a president who is as tired of corruption and political gridlock as many of the protesters, it’s at least worth the attempt.”

This connects to a key democratic deficit in Brazil – lack of representativeness and tinges of authoritarianism at the local level. Brazilian local politics is characterized to a great extent by patronage politics and clientelistic arrangements which have remained resilient despite reforms, sometimes with armed and illicit actors playing a role, and murky campaign finances. Vested interests run rampant over the accountability agenda that the protest movement demands. Dilma’s “political jujitsu” may offer a chance to dismantle authoritarian vestiges that have remained in place since the military dictatorship and long before.

At the same time, Rio Gringa has a great piece up charting the “hopes and fears” of Brazilians who are watching the protest movement, and invested in it. She finds fear that the protest movement will be appropriated by right-wing elements and by conservative opponents of the current government; to me this echoes what has occurred with anti-corruption protests in another BRIC country that I follow, India. Right-wing appropriation is surely a common threat in movements targeting progressive but hapless governments in this global protest era. Indeed, this is a risk with almost any nascent social movement – these are never monolithic, and the Brazilian version seems particularly diffuse. Indeed, the hopes that Rio Gringa points out are related to this heterogeneity and diversity within the movement, as progressive forces have pledged to mobilize and push back against rightist currents. If this continues, Brazil may indeed wind up with a progressive and politicized youth movement that “knows how to protest.” This would also surely strengthen Dilma’s hand in pushing forward a progressive agenda.

The great political science blog The Monkey Cage has put up a couple guest pieces on Brazil. One of them, from the redoubtable Brazil expert David Samuels, focuses on “a growing disconnect between taxation and representation.” It’s a solid piece, with Samuels concluding that the protests are essentially a middle class-drive tax revolt:

“As Brazilians move into or climb up the middle class, they inevitably pay more in taxes – yet they also inevitably grow increasingly aware that they do not get their money’s worth. One commonly hears Brazilians complain that they pay “1st world taxes” – about 36% of GDP – but receive “3rd world services” in return. The protests thus represent growing frustration that established political parties are unwilling to implement reforms on both sides of the fiscal coin – to improve public services (particularly healthcare, education, and public safety) and reduce corruption.”

This is great stuff, and it gets right to the heart of Brazilian grievances. Yet to my eye (and as I ended up arguing in the comments section of Samuels’ piece a couple days ago) it lacks the amplitude of analysis that a sharper focus on accountability might bring to the piece. Indeed, the very title – “Brazil is a Stable and Growing Democracy – And We’re Not Going to Take It Any More!!!” – threatens to obscure more than it illuminates via its characterization of a “stable and growing democracy.” This paradigm does not miss – Samuels is too fine a scholar for that surely – but at any rate overlooks the democratic deficits, and the gap between elections and accountability, that are an integral feature of Brazil’s low-intensity democracy.

Greg Michener at Observing Brazil, with Chris Gaffney, tries to add some of this depth by focusing more on the missing representation piece of Samuels’ argument:

“Samuels, however, paid little attention to the question of representation, a theme which is also central to our piece. In the article, we stress how parties lack national programs and apart from parties that represent specific interests, e.g. evangelicals, they simply lack ties to the electorate.”

Michener and Gaffney are fleshing out this argument further for Al Jazeera; I’ll add an addendum when they do, for documentation’s sake. But it’s worth noting already that the nonexistent linkages that they describe is a clearly deficient environment for democratic politics. As long as elections persist as profoundly imperfect arbiters of the national policy process, and as long as mechanisms for enforcing accountability post-election are scant, Brazilians will be driven to head into the streets to demand these missing components of the democratic lived experience. Any account of the protests has to take into account the inadequacies of mere electoralism and the disjunction between taxes paid in and services received.

As explanations and predictions swirl about, interpretavistic takes that attempt to diagnose Brazilian discontent with formal democracy by reference to other signs and symbols of national portent hold more than a little allure. Enter a stellar piece by political theorist Diego von Vacano, “Political Futebol: The World Cup and Brazilian Democracy,” also up at The Monkey Cage. Von Vacano argues that discontent with Brazilian democracy parallels a discontent with Brazilian soccer. He diagnoses a profound malaise in Brazilian soccer culture, the contrast implicit between wealthy stars sporting diamond studs and the “Brazilian futebol in the 1970s and 1980s: full of creativity, eccentric characters, and politically engaged soccer stars.” In this reading, growth and wealth cannot compensate for mediocrity in the symbolic sphere.

Von Vacano gets taken to task in the comments section for stretching his argument too far and presenting an explanatory variable that can’t possibly explain the protests, but he is not presenting a medical etiology or an account of causation. Rather, he presents an etiological myth, containing interpretive power without lines of causality. In this sense, his piece pivots with plenty of jogo bonito from the demise of democratic cacophony within the soccer world to the disenchantments of formal democracy without direct accountability or a sense of connection between political elites and semi-mobilized masses:

“The mismanagement of clubs by wealthy elites runs parallel to the way governments are often seen to be mismanaged by political elites. Formal democracy prevails in almost all Latin American states, but the mass-elite tension is as ardent as ever. Soccer is the mirror of Latin American nations: it reflects deep social currents, but can sometimes be the instrument to start fires like those in Brazil this past week.”

Like the protest movement itself, the appeal of the reams of writing on Brazil’s protests lies in its diversity. We can hope that this will continue, and that debate on these correlates of democracy will contribute to an enhanced understanding of citizen engagement and accountability – that is, the marrow of a robust, inclusive, and substantive practice of democratic politics.


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