24 June 2013

From Bread and Circuses to Plastic Surgery and Football

The question resonating around the world after the demonstrations in Brazil is why the dissatisfaction is emerging from the 'middle class', from those who have gained much from the economic boom that the country has enjoyed over the last 20 years. I would  like to claim that my rousing public speeches during my recent visit to Brazil were the catalyst that inspired the protests, but since I only spoke at the university in Sao Paulo this would be an outrageous lie. In fact I had no hint that these demonstrations were on their way. What I did experience was a horrifying level of advertising desperately trying to funnel the new wealth towards private, individualist consumption. Can it be that the demonstrations are proof of the ultimate dissatisfaction people feel with this as the end of a human life?

The erosion of democratic politics in the world after globalisation has led to a world where the young do not believe in the organised politics of the party. When all politicians look the same, espouse the same message and act as mouthpieces for corporate interests politics itself becomes tarnished. If the market is at the heart of all political ideologies what is the point of voting or attaching yourself to a party? Of course I have to say that I think the world's green parties are different, but that message is not being relayed though the media and is not reaching the people on the streets.

In Brazil the disillusion set in under Lula, the former trade-union unionist who had been in gaol under the dictatorship and was President for the first decade of this century. Although the evidence to support this is patchy at best, the suggestion made by radical critics to me was that Lula had made a deal with the denizens of global finance that he would not challenge the basic rules of capitalism in his country. Private enterprise would be allowed to flourish and people would be encouraged to content themselves with consumer goods rather than seeking to wrest control of the means of production from their betters. It is this deal that appears to be threatened by the demonstrations and the reaction from Dilma Rousseff, herself formerly a guerrilla fighter, is awaited with interest. Can she use the street mobilisations to increase the radical stance of her government? And does she wish to?

The mobilisation of political energy amongst the educated young of the world is exhilarating. It is the first step towards the next generation taking on the responsibility for building the world they want to inhabit and share. But at some stage economic and social demands need to be translated into political proposals that are agreed and implemented. The decision by pro-corporate politicians to encourage young people to see themselves as individualist consumers means that they have no tools, education or experience to make this next step. I am not seeking to criticise young people finding their own way of doing politics; in fact, I am rather excited about it. I am looking forward to discovering what they will propose.

The basic pattern of the politics I understand is threefold:

  • Demands need to be translated into a political programme that is consistent and coherent;
  • Platforms are preferably underpinned by and ethical and/or ideological commitment, e.g. equality for socialist parties, ecologism for green parties;
  • These platforms are then used to organise political mobilisation into legislative action by political parties.
 My own history of activity in the Green Party has convinced me that the second two requirements of a functional democracy are not working in the UK and many other countries. But for the young people demonstrating on the world's streets I think their problem lies more with the first requirement. I was alerted to this by watching the BBC3 programme Free Speech. Aimed at the young and politically disengaged, it assembles a panel of celebrities to make a political case on a certain topic. The panel is mixed between celebrities from various walks of life one of whom is probably a politician. Ok, I was feeling pretty snobby about the facile comments made by pop stars about revolving world poverty or tackling the civil war in Syria, but this was not the main problem. What got me really concerned was the way the audience was encouraged to celebrate entirely inconsistent proposals.

The result of this approach to politics is a world where young people feel disgruntled and take to the streets with a bewildering array of demands that cannot all be accommodated. While it makes sense to demand new shoes and a new sofa and a mini break to Venice - the only limit being the plasticity of the credit card - this simply is not true of political demands. If we abolish tuition  fees we will need to raise taxes, cut other spending or engage in some radical monetary policy; if we  fly more then we will need to cut our carbon emissions in another area. Politics is the art of the possible precisely because the skill lies in mediating conflicting demands rather than accepting then all. And of course this is all so much easier if you have an ideological  rudder and an organised and trusted party structure to undertake the negotiation. Dilma's request to meet the demonstration's leaders may be disingenuous, but perhaps, being of the same generation as I am, she has simply not caught up with the idea of a leaderless demonstration of discontent.

No doubt politics-as-consumption seemed very smart to Edward Bernays and his ilk, whose attempts to merge the worlds of advertising and PR with that of political debate and citizenship were dissected by the TV series The Century of the Self. They were reactionaries, concerned about the radical nature made by newly emancipated citizens, and fearing that open democracy would lead to alienation and chaos. I hope to be proved wrong, but it seems to me that the mobilisation of those who have grown up to demand three mutually incompatible things before breakfast faces politicians with a more challenging task than ever. I am waiting to see how the demonstrators devise their own way of turning their demands into a legislative platform that can change their society.

21 June 2013

There are No Borders to Democracy

A guest post from Rodrigo Silva de Souza, originally from Salvador de Bahia and currently studying for a PhD in London

The recent demonstrations in Brazil began completely unexpectedly and took local and global commentators entirely by surprise. Why should a country that is experiencing its best greatest economic success for a generation, that has addressed its historic problem with hyperinflation and become the sixth largest economy in the world, and which is almost simultaneously hosting the World Cup and the Olympics Games, be faced with such a degree of popular unrest? Considering that football is a national passion, why should the people revolt against their government with demonstrations of popular dissatisfaction inside and outside its frontiers?

The answer lies in the paradoxical model of growth and progress that Brazil has adopted. In spite of being the sixth largest economy in the world, Brazil is also the third most unequal country, with a Gini coefficient of 0.56 (UNDP, 2010); graphic thanks to The Economist. So, although local newspapers want to link current events to the minor issue of an increase of just R$ 0.20 (6 pence) in the standard bus fare, the explanation for the huge scale of the demonstrations clearly lies elsewhere.

Those 20 cents were merely the last straw. People are suffering from corruption; urban violence matched by a failure to enforce the law; the largest rate of tax amongst undeveloped countries without a commensurate standard of public services such as education, health and public transport. Brazil’s popular fear a return of inflation and resent the high salaries of politicians (averaging R$ 17,000.00) compared to the wage of a minimum-wage worker (R$ 600.00) or a teacher (R$ 800.00). The doubling in the cost of the new stadia being built for the World Cup has exacerbated dissatisfaction.

In a country renowned for its peaceful and welcoming people, the national mood is ‘they do not represent us’. Since the period of the dictatorship Brazil’s media has been biased and corrupt, and it now shamefully tries to manipulate the population, conveying the protests in Turkey as ‘revolutionary acts’, while protests in Brazil were reported as ‘vandalism’. Meanwhile, the police tried to quell the demonstrations with excessive violence used against nonviolent protesters who carried flowers through the streets of Sao Paulo’s with banners proclaiming ‘no violence’. They were met with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The movement was dispersed momentarily, but what the rulers did not realize was that images and videos, never conveyed by the official media, would be shared on Facebook, and people would not allow the football to distract them from their political purpose. The movement took to the streets of Brazil and has been supported all over the world. The Brazilian people have seen through the illusion of democracy they have been living through and shouted ‘ENOUGH! We are tired of being spectators watching the farce of life in Brazil!’

As a Brazilian I have to say that I have never felt so proud of the Brazilian people. I do not know exactly how far these manifestations will take us, and they cause me anxiety, but I think this is an important first step towards a better future. ‘No more impunity! No more corruption! Change Brazil! We want a better future for our children!’ These claims have invaded the web and the streets of Brazil.

On Wednesday I joined several friends and linked up with Brazilians across the world to support the protests and proclaiming that ‘although distant, we are not apart’ and that there are no borders to democracy. Unfortunately, many things needs to change. The fear is that politicians will silence the resistance in Brazil in a subtle and therefore more threatening way: attending to one or two of the movement’s shallow demands requirements, such as the bus fare reduction, and the movement disperses.

These political demonstrations have been observed with suspicion by a part of the population who no longer believes in change and in their power. Moreover, the official media continues to convey images of graffiti and vandalism of some protesters (who are, according to the leaders of the movement, government and police infiltrators). Thus, comments like ‘Why are we doing this now?’, ‘But we always hear news about corruption and thievery’ or ‘Brazil has never grown so much’  illustrate the identity of a people who have learned to be content with small rewards and no longer recognize their strength.

The important thing is that the people are dissatisfied and have perceived that nothing has changed even after a huge demonstration of public opposition, even when they have reached Congress. A prominent example is Renan Calheiros (a corrupt politician who has become President of the Congress): he is still in post in spite of a Facebook petition signed by many thousands. We have been battered again and again for too long. For me personally the overpriced World Cup was the last straw, for the residents of Sao Paulo it was the 20 cent fair rise and police violence.

This current Brazilian democracy is nothing more than an illusion of people power. Even after the demonstrations, absurd laws continued to be approved in Congress to satisfy the lobbyists working for large companies. FIFA has already overpowered the democratic government of Brazil in arrangements for the World Cup: the streets near stadiums are recognized as FIFA territory within Brazil. Moreover, every politician and minister now receives the benefit of a ‘Cup Assistance’ to watch the World Cup games, which costs the equivalent of a working person’s montly wage for each day for each politician who attends the World Cup and is paid for from taxes.

In spite of all this, I have hope in the future and the possibility of change. Democracy is not made only on polling day or during the election period. It will be good for Brazilians to become more politicized, because for so long we have been led to believe that politics is dirty word and we should keep ourselves far from it, and this is just one more discourse to maintain the domination of the rich and powerful. I have hope if the people stay on the streets and show their strength; if they demand that the media broadcast these demonstration or, better still, if they take control of social media to proclaim: ‘Yes, we can change!’ That is the reason I was here demonstrating on the streets of London yesterday.