Brazil in Reverse

Over the last half-century, Brazil’s historical phases have spawned successive political generations. In the 1960s, a large cohort was radicalized by the struggle against the military dictatorship; in the 1990s, a younger stratum opposed Brazil’s entry to the neoliberal system; and in 2013, the outbreak of popular protests – which saw more than a million people gather in almost 400 cities across the country – marked the rise of a new social bloc, fighting back against increasing living costs, deteriorating public services and the centre-left’s accommodation with elites.

Yet the radicalization of June 2013 was different to that of the Diretas Já! and Fora Collor! movements of the eighties and nineties, both in its context and its outcomes. It did not fit into a broader pattern of revolutionary uprisings across Latin America, nor did it emerge in response to a neoliberal government. Instead, it followed a decade of rule by Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party (PT), which combined poverty alleviation with extensive financialization and corruption scandals. Moreover, this intense period of mass protests preceded a traumatic lurch to the right: first with the soft-coup against Dilma Rousseff in 2016, then with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. The process of generational formation thus took place in troubled waters. Unlike its antecedents, it was forced to contend with a confusing dynamic of ideological pivots and reversals, which almost ten years later have culminated in Lula’s return to the presidency – now in coalition with his onetime rival, Geraldo Alckmin.

How can we interpret the ambiguities of this period of radicalization? Why was a nationwide rebellion, driven mostly by young people and precarious popular sectors, and pitted against the political establishment, ultimately subsumed by forces of reaction? And what bearing does this have on the incoming PT administration? My view is that June 2013 represented an inflection point in Brazilian history, during which various political and ideological structures were exhausted, yet new ones failed to emerge.

Many on the left who participated in the 2013 protests were first politicized during the 2000s, when a number of radical initiatives – such as the alter-globo movement and World Social Forum – allowed a new layer of young people to agitate against neoliberalism outside the strictures of the PT. For them, the conciliatory approach of Lula’s administration and the Mensalão revelations confirmed the backward character of Lulismo compared to other Pink Tide experiments. They therefore poured their energies into aiding new social movements and building alternative left vehicles, such as the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), which was established in 2004 after several radical parliamentarians were expelled from the PT for voting against its social security reforms. The organization became a new home for political nonconformists: public sector workers, young people, intellectuals and social activists. Its foundational thesis declared the need to reconstitute the Brazilian left given the PT’s dogmatic gradualism and doomed attempts to curb inequalities without confronting capital.

When the social consensus built by PT administrations was destabilized by the delayed effects of the 2008 financial crisis, this new left was put to the test. The spark for the 2013 mobilizations was a seemingly modest campaign by the Free Fares Movement (MPL) to reverse a twenty-cent rise in bus fares which escalated into a full-scale uprising. Streets, squares, the National Congress and civic councils were occupied. Bus turnstiles were set on fire and bank windows smashed. Protesters scaled the Estaiada Bridge and saw themselves reflected in the postmodern skyscrapers of Faria Lima Avenue, the centre of high finance. Meanwhile, universities once again became sites of political-intellectual contestation. Marxist reading groups proliferated, along with podcasts, blogs, film clubs, rap battles. A new activist culture emerged, sensitive to issues such as police violence, the predations of the digital economy, social reproduction, structural racism, precaritized labour, decoloniality and environmental crises. And all this under a historically left-wing government which, as well as being buffeted by the upsurge of popular discontent, was also grappling with an economic slowdown caused by the fall in commodities prices, which threatened to derail its reformist and welfarist agenda.

This gave rise to an unsustainable situation. After the June mobilizations won their first concrete victory – the suspension of bus fare rises – their internal contradictions began to show. Now, the movement was no longer just about the extra twenty cents. A kaleidoscopic series of demands emanated from an increasingly heterogeneous coalition. There was no unified message, nor a clear strategic vision. Conservative forces emerged alongside the progressive activists who opposed the PT’s ‘rightward turn’. The former wanted to claim their place as the legitimate opposition to Rousseff’s administration, and in 2014 the neoliberal Free Brazil Movement (MBL) gained momentum by playing a leading role in her impeachment.

Brazil’s political life was thus uneasily posed between progressive and conservative ideologies. It became uncertain whether the demonstrations would deepen democracy or restore traditional values. The meaning of 2013 was disputed by these antithetical poles: MPL versus MBL; left-wing school occupations versus the right-wing School Without a Party project; trade union strikes versus the campaign for free-market labour reforms; the Feminist Spring versus the attacks on ‘gender ideology’; indigenous communities versus agribusiness. These variegated forces all emerged within the same conflictual sphere. Amid this flux, an unprecedented situation developed. The dispositions one would expect from certain societal groups and social classes were thrown into disarray. We witnessed the rise of paradoxical figures such as the worker-entrepreneur, the anti-fascist police officer, the far-right feminist, the football fans against the World Cup – who together formed the whirling ‘ideology comedy’ masterfully portrayed in Roberto Schwarz’s post-Brechtian play Rainha Lira.

In this landscape, ruling elites lost the ability to reflect the values and expectations of the public. The typical alternation between PT and Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) came to an end, yet attempts by newer parties such as PSOL and MBL to articulate a rival hegemonic project ran aground. Instead, the far right swooped in to fill the power vacuum, claiming that only an authoritarian figure could re-establish order and consensus by means of force. Bolsonarismo capitalized on the dynamic set in motion by 2013, presenting itself as the only genuinely new political phenomenon, while casting the left as nostalgic for an outdated ideal of progress.

Hence, one could claim that Bolsonaro’s regime was not merely regressive; it was rather a new variation on the dialectics of peripheral modernization in a post-colonial society. As Schwarz has long argued, a key feature of the Brazilian experience is the simultaneous presence of progressive and anachronistic tendencies. The country perpetually modernizes itself without ever overcoming archaism, which is always reinstated at a new level with updated forms of oppression and exploitation. Bolsonaro’s presidency expressed this developmental paradox: promising both unbridled capitalist accumulation to propel Brazil into the twenty-first century, and a reversion to the most antiquated racial, gender and regional hierarchies. In contemporary Brazil, the separation between old and new, regressive and progressive, backward and forward, has become hopelessly blurred.

Having spent years striving to become the ‘country of the future’, Brazil under Bolsonaro ended up as a vanguard of backwardness. Dark and previously dormant aspects of our social formation were brought to light. The military allied with religious groups and extractivists to drive a new phase of accumulation, combining environmental destruction with drastic cuts to public services. Bolsonaro reopened old social wounds and reinforced Brazil’s dependent and subordinate place in the global market, while revitalizing the Nation and Family. This progressive-regressive trend swallowed up the forces of the centre left. They could no longer present themselves as new, nor effectively challenge the president’s new oligarchic-patriarchal settlement; so instead they clung to the achievements of the past, seeking merely to defend the minimal democratic milestones of the 1988 pact.

In this sense, the modernizing potential opened by June 2013 was defanged and devoured by the reverse radicalism of Bolsonaro. Conservative elites came to be seen as anti-establishment figures – an image Lula legitimized by bringing various establishment parties into a broad alliance against the government. ‘Progressives’ now call for the reinstatement of the old, while the most reactionary parts of Brazilian society assume the guise of novelty. Lula’s return to office is a symptom of this conjuncture, in which large parts of the left have abandoned futurity for nostalgia.

Such realignments have been deeply disorientating for the generation forged in 2013. Since then, the process of organizing a left alternative to PTism has hit multiple roadblocks. PSOL has grown in terms of membership and parliamentary representation, but because Lulismo 2.0 appeared the only viable antidote to Bolsonarismo, virtually all opposition forces have now been sucked into its orbit. Yet one could argue that 2013’s legacy lives on in three primary domains where the left remains active: the electoral sphere, civil society and the world of ideas. A large section of the new left has focused on bringing the combative culture of street protest into Brazil’s political institutions. Since 2016, an unprecedented number of young candidates – Marielle Franco, Sâmia Bonfim, Guilherme Boulos, Erika Hilton, Talíria Petrone – have won significant majorities in federal elections, running on platforms that emerged from the diverse initiatives of 2013 (such as #EleNão and Black Lives Matter). These new voices continue to make significant interventions in an ossified and ageing congress – although they have also to some extent demonstrated the ability of the Brazilian state to capture and assimilate spontaneous movements.

Other legatees of June 2013 have sought to remedy the weakness of the left in marginal and working-class communities, many of which are dominated by conservative institutions such as neo-Pentecostal churches. This cohort has pursued a movementist strategy based on grassroots organizing in peripheral areas. Groups such as MTST, Antifascist Deliverers and Rede Emancipa have enhanced the political agency of homeless people, gig economy workers and popular educators, while taking on powerful interests such as real estate speculators, drug cartels, tech companies and the private education industry. Yet whether they can gain enough support to dislodge the Bolsonarista bloc remains uncertain.

Although the practical energies unleashed by June 2013 were not complemented by comparable theoretical advances, there is also a promising intersection of militant and intellectual activity in contemporary Brazil. Its practitioners are not just ‘radicals of occasion’, as Antônio Candido would call them, but members of the subaltern classes as well. This layer reflects the gradual democratization of higher education – thanks to the implementation of racial and social quotas – yet it is hampered by the increasing pressures of the neoliberal academy. Its precarious conditions have made scholarship more specialized and market-oriented, diminishing the scope for radical critical thought.

The development of a new left political and intellectual culture will continue to be a slow and arduous process. Bolsonaro proved difficult to defeat in the recent election, and the country he presided over remains highly unequal and politically polarized. Lula has once again opted for the pragmatist path of moderation by forming alliances with the centre and right. Although this enabled him to win the presidency, it will leave him little room for manoeuvre once he takes office. In retrospect, June 2013 still provides a qualified lesson in the complexities of creating social change. But ten years later, it seems likely that a new generation – one that did not experience the earlier PT administrations nor the protests against them, but was politicized by the street-level anti-fascist response to Bolsonarismo – will become the driving force.

Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Neo-Backwardness In Bolsonaro’s Brazil’, NLR 123.