The “explosion” of citizenship on the streets
Sociologist, director of Ibase
Nothing better for democracy than streets and avenues taken by citizens protesting. That is the evidence that the streets indeed set the public agenda. What was deemed as unthinkable a little while ago has actually happened: the mayors of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro reduced public transport fares. More than the immediate reasons, what really matters is the symbolism of the protests and the signals that they convey to the political arena. Once again it was up to the youth to open way for the ressurgence of insatisfactions and claims, through a cacophony of voices, some of them provocative in their own ways. I am not referring here to the opportunist riots, which were also present at these occasions. The dominant tone of the dispute for a new sense and direction of everyday Brazil is not violent, as it should be in order to be strongly anchored in democracy.
I mention “explosion” of citizenship to remember that a diffuse insatisfaction with the “emerging Brazil” (as the political and business elites like to call) was choked. Back in 2004, I wrote an article called “Cornered citizenship”, published in Ibase’s magazine Democracia Viva. Back then I reminded readers about the risk for democracy of silencing the diversity of citizenship claims, through a government who indeed dialogues, yes, but does not really listen or change anything. Thus the notion of being cornered.
Much has happened since then. Social policies for minimum protection of the poorest and excluded – Ibase itself through sociologist Betinho struggled for this in many years –, economic growth, job generation to millions, increase of minimum wage, expansion of access to universities and facilitated financial credit, among other political initiatives, have undoubtly brought much change. But no structural change that would transform the base of a destructive development, which concentrates wealth and generates deep inequality in society, with alarming social exclusion.
Many have argued, as myself, that the changes occurred in the short term are needed and welcome, but do not ensure sustainability, because they depend and rely on growth, on consummer inclusion, more than on citizenship inclusion.
This scenario explains the lack of priority to transformative policies towards the universalization of rights. To facilitate the purchase of a car is to satisfy a need for individual consumption, but does not solve the massive problem of urban mobility. On the contrary, it causes huge traffic jams and makes transport even worse. To set priority to football arenas and the transport to and from them is not to universalize rights. Even worse, to spend public money on pharaonic enterprises – which afterwards are privatized at bargain prices, like the famous Maracanã arena, which costed US$ 540 million to taxpayers and shall be offered for private management for 50 years at a price of around US$ 110 million to Odebrecht Corporation and oil-tycoon Eike Batista – and not having money to other priorities can only breed insatisfaction. To celebrate the acquisition of precarious private health plans by a supposedly “new middle class” is not to implement the universal public health system SUS. There are many other examples. Large enterprises are justified by the need of growth and accumulation, but instead of improving they may actually deteriorate the life quality of many people. Such as the indigenous peoples, those affected by mining, those expelled by force to give way to new football arenas and the “progress”, among many others.
As a democracy activist, I have been looking for the “signals” on where this cornered diffuse insatisfaction was likely to explode, in the cities or in the fields, to show the contradictions that Brazilian democracy must face, thus creating a new wave of substantial democracy. The only thing I was sure was that this would explode. And it did, where no one expected.
Even under pression from media, I will not analyse the circumstances. There is always a spark, a last drop. In the case of the recent protests, it was probably the increase of public transport fares in a context of visible quality deterioration. The disastrous and definitely anti-citizenship attitude of the Military Police, expressing extreme intolerance against protesters, only caused the irradiation of solidarity and mobilization around the youth groups that protested. Finally, coming from youth groups usually considered disorganized and unexperienced, the perfect choice of timing with FIFA’s Confederation Cup set the scenario to a gesture of citizenship so deeply critic to representative institutions and elected politicians. Another new feature of such mobilizations has been the use of new technologies and social networks as a tool for democratic action.
We salute the protests, because the streets are the cradle of democracy. In History, the streets are the place where struggles are born and end up not only reaching the epicenter of political power, but also alternating the arenas and political agendas, forcing everyone of us to revisit our practices and proposals. On democratic regimes, only mobilized citizenship has a constitutive power. It does not matter that citizenship is expressed on a confused way, it is part of its essence. Citizenship casts light and explodes contradictions; the subsequent public debate shall then settle the agenda. We shall solve the contradictions through democratic action. Solutions? Unpredictable, as the protests themselves. One never knows how or when they begin, nor how or when they stop. Political will must be created to face the contradictions turned visible. That is the secret of the power of mobilizations as a disruption of the imaginary, of shifting the ideas from the place where they were.
This moment is a cornerstone in democracy. We are seeing an uproar that wants to see the whole society, with all the democracy forces of Brazil, working towards reconnecting with a new social reality collectively created. Behind a healthy utopic veil that covers the claims that come from the streets, there is a society craving for more democracy.
Rio de Janeiro, June 19th 2013.
rasigan maharajh, phd.
institute for economic research on innovation
faculty of economics and finance
tshwane university of technology