Brazilian protests: inequality and its consequences

In this guest post, Kênia Parsons of LSE/University of New South Wales explores the continuing, inequality-fuelled protests in her home country of Brazil.

“It’s not only about cents, it’s about billions in inequality”

“It’s not only about cents, it’s about billions in inequality”

A wave of protests has invaded the Brazilian streets. An increase in bus fares was the spark needed to ignite the street protests.  Brazilians are protesting about public transport, health services, education, the blow out costs of the World Cup, the high price of living, violence, corruption and the list goes on and on. These protests are not only about the lack of basic infrastructure but also about the quality of the existing infrastructure. A proposal to amend the Constitution (PEC 37) – popularly called the “impunity amendment”- seizing the Public Prosecution’s power of criminal investigation, has contributed to fuelling this sentiment of anger and dissatisfaction against public authorities (1).  In this post, I consider the nature of the protests and how far they show us the harmful effects of inequality in the Brazilian society.

Brazilians have always lived with striking inequality.  With one of the highest inequalities of the world, the Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro once wrote that “He [the man in the dominant classes] is sick with inequality”. Brazilian history is filled with events and institutions that perpetuate the privilege of classes. The various laws to abolish of slavery in the 19th century (2), the “coronelism” practices of purchasing votes, the gradual transition from military dictatorship to democracy at the end of the 20th century and even the popular “Brazilian way”(jeitinho) of dealing with the law, show that corruption is wide-spread and deeply embedded. Social inequality is observed in the day-to-day of Brazilian lives.

The vices of inequality in social relations have already been pointed out by the 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

“Insatiable ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, not so much from real want as from the desire to surpass others, inspired all men with a vile propensity to injure one another, and with a secret jealousy, which is the more dangerous, as it puts on the mask of benevolence, to carry its point with greater security. In a word, there arose rivalry and competition on the one hand, and conflicting interests on the other, together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. All these evils were the first effects of property, and the inseparable attendants of growing inequality.”

Notwithstanding its historical path, inequality in Brazil has been reducing in recent years. Researchers have pointed out to the role of economic growth followed by the increase in basic education, formal jobs, the minimum wage and the reconstruction of the Brazilian welfare state with programmes like the conditional cash transfer Bolsa Família as some of the causes for the reduction in inequality. Thus, these protests would appear to be a paradox given the improvements that have been made in recent years.

It is interesting to observe that the protesters were not only those who take buses or use the public services – the “sub-proletariat” but also the middle class youth. Even more interesting is to see the international support from Brazilians living overseas protesting in major capitals like New York, London and Sydney. Therefore, the outdated and poor-quality of services, the violence and the increase in inflation rates are not the main reasons, but there is a sentiment of indignation over the political and societal status quo, resulting in the ambitious apolitical characterisation of the movement.

It is ambitious because although the protesters question the political system of party representation, the street outcry is deeply political when it uses new forms of participatory democracy to article their demands for their basic needs. Manuel Castells believes that the strength of these new contemporary social movements is their spontaneity and their freedom. In a way, each individual is his/her own leader.

However, this lack of organisation, which makes the protest belonging to everyone but at the same time to no one, unites various political ideologies. The streets are the stage of a political-ideological battle, which may divert attention from the demands for a more equal society. The extreme political ideologies demand closure of the congress or its ‘cleansing of corrupt politicians’. The extreme-right secretly hopes to have a pre-coup d’état; whereas, the extreme-left a pre-revolutionary moment. The mid-right hopes for a collapse of the government, reaping the benefits in the 2014 election. There is also the mid-left who split from the Worker’s Party due to corruption scandals and the political alliances of the previous administration. But all of them, including Dilma’s Government, support the protests and aim to profit from it in their own way.

Brazilians say that “the voice of the people is the voice of God” (“A voz do povo é a voz de Deus”), and, therefore, must be heard. But what do the people really say? Will they be able to consolidate their requests for a society more just and equal? Or will the protest only be capitalised by the demands of specific sectors of society? Are the dominant classes starting to understand the effects of their “sickness”? Or will they just put on a “mask of benevolence”? It is very unlikely that President Dilma’s call for a referendum and a plebiscite on political reform will solve the topic that involves a range of issues including taxation, the democratisation of the media, land reform, public pensions, wage inequality and the inequality of service provision to cite but a few. These issues demand time, continuous effort and effective policies.

No doubt this is a historic moment for Brazil. Democracy in Brazil is relatively young and the power of social media in the latest events is a powerful tool facilitating democratic participation. But that alone is not enough.


(1) This proposal was then rejected by the House of Representatives as a result of the protests.

(2) Including the “Lei dos Sexagenários” in 1885, which freed slaves who were 65 years old or older.

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