Participation and its Discontents

A Blog in Collaboration with the ASA Political Sociology Section

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Brazil’s Decade of Participation and its Spring of Unrest

By Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ana Cláudia Teixeira

For some time this last June Brazil occupied the headlines for its own version of “Occupy,” when the Free Bus Pass Movement catalyzed a national wave of protests comparable to the global Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring.  What began as a relatively small dispute over a bus-fare hike in São Paulo later escalated into mass protests involving millions of Brazilians around the country, mobilizing protestors in at least 140 cities.  In city after city, police batons and tear gas were met with Facebook and Twitter, and by month’s end the country had come to a near stand-still as an amorphous movement made demands ranging from access to transportation and health to protests against lavish World Cup expenditures and campaign financing reform. 

It was a self-described “horizontalist” and internally democratic movement led by young people independent from all political parties that lacked a clear agenda, ideology, or even specific proposals.  The fares were reduced, the national government proposed some specific responses on items like healthcare, and an ambitious political reform was discussed for a moment before disappearing into congressional morass.

The amorphous movement—the “June Protests”—had repercussions in other sectors as well before it fizzled by year’s end.  Anti-privatization protesters took to the streets in October to protest the privatization of oil, and at one point oil workers in 16 states across Brazil went on strike while bank-tellers forced the closure of some 12,000 bank branches in October. Meanwhile, the Movement Against Dams occupied the construction sites of two hydroelectric projects, while the Landless Workers Movement and Small Producers Movement mobilized national protests with a focus on food sovereignty.   Public school teachers and their allies in several cities across the country staged militant strikes, at one point exchanging rocks with the police in Rio.

Together, these protests have occasioned a fair bit of rethinking about Brazilian democracy. Does police violence justify violence in response?  What are the limits of civil discourse?  

But, what has happened in the country since June?  Events certainly point to the limits of the Workers’ Party national rule, in power since 2003.  The Workers’ Party is, in principle, very different from the European Social Democrats and Latin America’s Old Left.  The Workers’ Party’s history is also deeply connected to radical democratic currents, from liberation theology to the New Unionism to the World Social Forum.  For a long time it was known as the “party of social movements,” which was able to translate the street mobilization into innovative institutional action and novel public policies for so long by channeling social grievances. 

What is unique now, perhaps for the first time since the country’s transition to democracy, is the recognition on the part of social movements that their assumed partner in institution, the Workers’ Party, in government, is unable or unwilling to channel those demands.  

Institutional participation in Brazil had followed a steady pace of increase since its return to democracy (1985), but the first Lula administration opened up significant new spaces.  Despite not responding to many of the expectations from social movements and organized civil society, including the creation of a national participatory budget, the Lula administration created 25 national new councils for citizen dialogue and revived several of the existing ones.  It promoted countless public hearings, workshops and forums, and national conferences.  

It is difficult to overestimate the sheer institutional investment in this participation.  Over the first eight years, the national administration held conferences on forty different themes, twenty-eight of which were novel, including conferences on the rights of the elderly, on cities, on the youth, on culture, on the environment, on LGBT, among many others.  The best estimates are that conferences mobilized at least five million participants, leading to more than 14,000 proposals and 1,100 motions.  And these figures do not include myriad local efforts.  Scholars have come to the conclusion that participation has become central to the legal language of the Brazilian State.

Yet the question remains: did participatory channels give voice to demands?  While these channels are diverse and robust, the demonstrations reflect the limits of representation in Brazilian democracy.

A first part of the answer has to do with actual limits of participation.  Despite the numerical expansion, there persists a large gap between organized sectors involved with institutional channels of dialogue and a large uninvolved population.  Over the last decade, a million new students joined universities, but most of them have not joined the student movement; there are 1.2 million low-income families who now have homes but have not joined neighborhood associations; 22 million people have joined the labor market, but the number of union members has not increased.

A second, more profound, part of the answer has to do with what participation has come to mean in the national administration.  Before coming to national power, the PT had ruled some 200 municipalities in the 1990s and early 2000s.  PT administrations promoted participatory budgets, and many other forms of institutional participation. A central component of this participation was that it was connected to real decision-making and was seen as part of a broader strategy of social transformation.  Participatory mechanisms were able to develop redistributive policies that would have been near impossible through the traditional mechanisms of city councils.

In the federal government, however, participation came to mean something else.  Real policy decisions were made somewhere else, compromises were hatched in congress, and participation was translated into “listening” to popular voices.  “Popular empowerment” gave way to a new model of governance based on congressional compromise and consultative practices of “dialogue. ” As a result, participation in the federal government is limited in its policy areas and its decision-making power.  There is very little participation in the economic decisions of the country or on issues of infrastructure.  Participatory channels largely focus on social policies and their implementation.  Transportation, for example, (the very first target of demonstrations) is not discussed in any institutional instance.  The municipal government of São Paulo recently announced a council on transportation, with elections in in March 2014.  And several issues—privatization, economic development and mega-projects, are completely off the table.

In one way the protests are very much a story of “participation and its discontents,” as is the theme of our forum.  As we consider the events in Brazil, and the seeming contradiction between so much institutional participation and the evident popular dissatisfaction expressed by the protests, it is not clear that the country actually needs more participation, more conferences, or more proverbial “voices at the table.”  But it is interesting that protesters in some instances were calling for institutional participation: a different kind of participation, perhaps, one more linked to empowerment and more utopian in its conception. 


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