Polarization and protests

Brasil Observer - Mar 10 2016
13/12/2015- São Paulo- SP, Brasil- Manisfestantes reúnem-se na avenida Paulista, em ato contra o governo Dilma Rousseff. Foto: André Tambucci/ Fotos Públicas
Demonstrations in favour and against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff will happen again in March

(Leia em Português)


It’s crucial to understand the movements of June 2013 as a moment of social opening, as the demonstrations continue


By Breno Bringel, at Open Democracy | www.opendemocracy.net

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 mobilizations that begun in June 2013 are far from over. Quite the contrary, 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 socio-political 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 – favoured 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 it 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.



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 the different space-time coordinates. Although the locus of action of the demonstrations was 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.

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 and mobilizations and movements (such as the Movimento Passe Livre, in São Paulo), other participants came together to make their own grievances, without necessarily keeping their ties with those who triggered them and/or repeated the forms, organizational cultures, ideological references and repertories of actions of the initiators. Alonso and Mische aptly captured the 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 colour 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 mottos (against corruption or against the government), although their constructions and horizons might be far from each other and disputed.

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 to the left); however it was diluted in mass indignation and experimentation in the streets.



After a slow beginning, 2014 sees the beginning of a phase of decantation, as it became possible to discern more clearly between the main grievances to the left and right. 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 levied 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 fuelled 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 in their belief that effects did not go beyond the institutional and electoral realms.

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 and other smaller parties on the left end of the spectrum).



These politico-institutional and political-electoral perspectives restrict the vision of politics and the politicians 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 collectivises.

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.

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, 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).



It is hence important to understand June 2013 not as an isolated “event” put as a whole process. To this end, it is fundamental to always associate social movements to broader societal movements. 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. 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 to structural developments of the country, which were particularly swift in the last decade.

In a society as unequal as Brazil, 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.

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 favours a radicalization of democracy and acts based on values such as equality, justice, plurality, difference and the good life. On the other hand, there is a reactionary camp, marked by authoritarianism, certain fascist and anti-democratic traits, favouring the defence of class privilege, private property and a vision of liberty that is elusive.

The first pole encompasses a diverse layer of young people, collectivises, platforms and movements that have been active in the exposure (and attempt to eliminate) of 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 socio-political 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 with the support and collusion 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.

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.

Breno Bringel is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). The article was edited by the Brasil Observer