The Brazilian experience over the last 10 years under its progressive governments (of first Lula and now Dilma) has been characterized by what Gramsci called “passive revolution:” a modernization process driven from the top, which only partially incorporates the demands of those from below, and is thus able to ensure their passivity and their silence. But not their complicity.
From this apparently contradictory formula we can understand how Brazil built an edifice that was precariously balanced but surprisingly effective and, moreover, durable. Always following the insights of Gramsci, it relied on a progressive “Caesarism” (the presence of a charismatic figure who catalyzed and channeled the tensions and embodied welfare paternalism) and “transformismo” (the displacement of popular movement leaders by incorporating them into conservative positions within state institutions).
Thus, what is striking about the country’s recent history is not today’s sudden eruption of protest, but of its absence in previous years. In fact, Brazil’s leaders have received impressive praise for the country’s high economic growth, its inclusive social policies, and the emergence of an impressive middle class consumership. Brazil has been envied and widely admired for a governance model of social and political control based on welfare programs and the mediation of a party – the Workers Party (PT) – and union – Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) – with massive hold, guaranteeing minimal costs in terms of repression and the criminalization of protest. Those resisting this Lulista hegemony existed and exist as fronts both from the right and from the left, but were contained and were relatively marginalized. This included the Landless Workers' Movement (MST), which maintained a cautious attitude of retreat with the exception of some major, but isolated conflicts (such as university strikes and indigenous struggles in defense of territory).
The protests of recent days, then, are inevitably something that was to emerge in the fissures or in the very exhaustion of this passive revolution process. Fissures are mismatches that generate inequalities that continue marking Brazilian society: those gaps that separate social classes in a context of capitalist modernization which, while the size of the pie increases and the slices that are distributed grow, they are ones that accumulate wealth and generate political and social powers that take over productive circuits in public institutions and ideological apparatuses. The governments of the Workers’ Party (PT) held a paradox: they generated oligarchization processes instead of democratizing wealth and opening up spaces for participation – spaces that in the past had themselves served to make this party arise and win elections. The exhaustion of this process is related to physiological wear after 10 years, but above all, it is related to the loss of progressive impulses and the increasingly conservative characteristics of Lula’s social and political coalition, which similarly sustain Dilma’s government today.
In Saudia Arabia, thieves are amputated (amputados), in Brazil they become members of Parliament (deputados)
It is also not surprising that the protests take diffused forms and are led principally by youth labeled as middle class. The current shape of Brazil’s popular classes includes this youth sector, which has emerged amid the relative social mobility in the past decade – from poverty to higher levels of consumption and education – but were not removed from their placement in the field of working-class (whether blue- or white-collar) which they were born into and on which Brazil’s growth patterns inevitably depend. The protests’ diffuse forms correspond just as much to the rejection of the parties and unions as to a budding construction of new political cultures, in particular those of the so-called indignados (the indignants). These political cultures bring together a number of identities, claims, and diverse forms of struggle that have yet to fully define themselves, but continue to manifest themselves worldwide through a dispersed but recurrent and forceful manner.
With these protests, we are witnessing the end of Brazil’s passive revolution. They have lifted the veil and have shown the contradictory reality and misery hidden behind the myth of the Brazilian miracle, which had functioned decades ago and reappeared in recent years. Moreover, the passivity on which the Lulista hegemony stood now unravels in the streets. People might go back home, the streets might return their calm, and polls might show consensus on the PT model. But the visibility reached once the tear gas began to dissipate is extraordinarily revealing, and will remain etched in the memory of a generation.
A Brazil for all