By Mark McConaghy
For the last couple of years we have heard nothing but glowing news reports about Brazil’s rapid economic growth. This was South America’s answer to China- a regional dominant that was growing into a global economic powerhouse, replete with double digit GDP expansion and a sky rocketing demand for commodities of all kinds. Like in the Chinese case, the international community flocked to bask in the headwinds of economic development, with Brazil getting to host both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. All seemed well, as story after story told us that market growth was working to increase the wealth of the country. It was just another liberalizing success story for free market ideologues to celebrate.
And then this week happened.
Approximately a million Brazilians swarmed the streets of more then 80 cities to protest a litany of public grievances. The size and scale of the protests have caught both Brazilian politicians and the international community by surprise. People of all ages, but especially young people, have taken to public space to voice their anger over everything from the cost of public transportation to high taxes to outrage over the billions of dollars that have been spent on infrastructure for the upcoming World Cup.
People around the world who care about social justice should take heart at what we are witnessing in Brazil this week. Finally, a people are stepping onto the historical stage and announcing their own perspective on the society they live in. This is not the Brazil of the glowing news reports from Western media eager to recount to us another free market economic miracle. Nor is this the Brazil that the country’s own government wants us to see: stable, productive, unified in the common nationalist causes of wealth production and mass consumption.
No, this is the Brazil behind the headlines. The Brazil of people who are fed up with very real social problems they face every single day. This is the Brazil of people angry over increases in the cost of public transportation. The Brazil of people fed up with tax dollars magically disappearing into a cesspool of corruption. The Brazil of people outraged over the billions of dollars spent lavishly for global sporting events, while schools and hospitals remain in dire need of funding.
This is a common Brazil, represented in the carnival on the streets, speaking in a million different voices, but unified by a sense that something has to change within their political and economic system.
While the media has not stopped stressing how shocking the suddenness of this eruption of civic disobedience is, more informed scholars will certainly paint a more comprehensive picture in the days to come. Instead of a tale of relative economic growth disrupted by sudden civil unrest, what will likely emerge is a narrative that tracks how the tensions expressed this week have been simmering just beneath the surface for a long time now. Behind the shiny reports of economic boom, the grim realities of quotidian hardship will emerge as a forcefully disruptive undercurrent.
And Brazil is not alone. Since 2010 we have seen mass movements for social change against corrupt regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, while major protests against social inequality have raged across the world, from the fight against education cuts in Quebec to anti-austerity protests in Europe to the current fight for freedom of expression in Turkey. None of these movements were predicted before they broke out. Like some cosmic flash-flood, they seemed to erupt out of nowhere, bursting through what seemed to be intractable political situations to radically alter the ideological landscapes before them.
The fact that these movements appear to us as “surprising,” when in fact the seeds of their development were planted long before, is an important reminder of how little we know about the on-the-ground situations in so many countries around the world. It is imperative that we question the facile news reporting most media outlets provide about the national situations of various countries. I see this all the time in the Chinese context, of which I’m most familiar: foreign journalists arrive in the country, rely on native-speaking interpreters, produce stories that fit in with a familiar narrative (economic growth, growing global dominance, etc.), and utterly miss the very real social contradictions that exist just under their noses. Nobody can go to Beijing and see the masses of migrant laborers who camp out just at the edge of the city- the cheaply commodified labor force crucial to the swift accumulation of surplus value in the country- and not understand the grave social inequalities that undermine any facile sense of China’s harmonious developmental trajectory.
And when social protests erupt, we are all expected to be shocked at their ferocity, as if they emerged from the void. And yet they do not emerge from nothing. They are not accidental or random. They emerge from contradictions imbedded within specific social situations, ranging from intractable government corruption to rising social inequality to basic travesties in human fairness. In so much as capitalism has a structural tendency to exacerbate these contradictions, rather than solve them, protests are not likely to go away any time soon.
The mass protests in Brazil, Quebec, and elsewhere have so far taken on the character of what Karl Polanyi brilliantly called movements for society’s own self-protection. That is, in the face of violence committed against real people- be it in rising costs of food, transport, or education, or the terrible precariousness created by unemployment- people have no choice but to band together and try somehow to protect themselves. Polanyi brilliantly charted how these 19th and 20th century social movements were responses to the conditions of life under industrial capitalism. They emerged out of a basic human interest in the welfare of the social fabric itself, which was being brutally rend by a radically new form of economic life.
The movements we have seen across the world in the last five years are, like the historical examples charted by Polanyi, reactive in nature. They are angry responses to corruption and inequality, yet they have so far had little to say about how a society could be constructed in which these problems are definitively addressed.
What creative function will these movements take? How will they move away from simple reactive anger towards some kind of productive program for the construction of a new world? Ultimately, the angered momentum that has pushed people of every race, color, and creed out onto the streets, from Montreal to Istanbul to Sao Paulo, will need to be channeled, harnessed in some way, or risk being lost once again to the humdrum of commodified life.
These protests are powerful flashes that have risen up to break the ossification of routinized political processes. For that, they should be celebrated. But the flash needs to be captured, elongated, and strengthened. It needs to be transformed from a momentary block party to an organized mass-movement, a consistent swelling on the ground, like rough grass spread out across a landscape, knotty and dense, ever present and flourishing, cutting across national borders and cultural fabrics, intractable in its proliferation.
What would we call this new movement? What language would we use to describe it?
Is this socialism? After all the ideological mud that has been thrown at that word- and indeed, the entire academic, intellectual, and bureaucratic systems of the Euro-American world for the last 60 years have been erected to defame and discredit that word- do we dare use it?
Or do we need another word designating a new concept, one that would more properly fit the political movements we see proliferating in front of us? While the practice of the new global mass politics has certainly preceded this word, in naming this practice would we not give it impetus to develop, would we not give it some new identity that it is has so far been lacking?
What would this new word be? What is this new identity which these mass movements must take on if they are to be effective over the historical long-term?
This is a question we all need to ponder, for whatever it is that we are witnessing, it may just decide the fate of our world in the 21st century. We can either choose to harness it or let it slip away.
It is this new name, this new collective identity, that we need to direct all of our efforts at theorizing and enacting. For in the dizzying cacophony of the street protests across the world, we are being given a glimpse of some new ontology, a new mode of being, that may just be able to save us from the crippled identities and fallen societies we now are forced to endure.
Redemption may not be lost just yet. If we are brave enough and smart enough to harness it.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he his integrating his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.