Lessons from Brazil: Building Popular Power

Popular Protest in Brazil

Popular Protest in Brazil

Members of the Organização Anarquista Socialismo Libertário (Libertarian Socialism Anarchist Organization, OASL) have participated in the recent struggles in Brazil against the rising transportation tariffs, in Sao Paulo, in Brasilia and in cities like Mogi das Cruzes, Marilia and Franca. Members of other organizations linked to the Coordenação Anarquista Brasileira (Brazilian Anarchist Coordination, CAB) have, in other states, also contributed to the struggle.

Below, two militants of OASL, Pablo Pamplona and Thiago Calixto, who have been participating in the struggles, respond to a few questions from Jonathan Bane of Anarkismo about the recent process of popular street mobilizations in the country. They emphasize the need to create ongoing grassroots organizations through which people can take control of their daily lives. For the full interview, click here.

Brazil MovimentoPasseLivre

The Free Pass Movement (MPL)

The struggles against the tariff increase [in Brazil] have been organized mainly by Movimento Passe Libre (Free Pass Movement, MPL), which has been organizing and convening struggles around the question of transport since 2006. The movement – with which we have great affinity and proximity – retains an autonomous and combative character. It builds its struggles independently through general and horizontal participation. It doesn’t bring sound cars to the streets, the statements are always passed around in minstrel form (someone shouts out the notices and the people around them repeat the same words, so that a greater number of people can hear) and the passivity of protesters is never encouraged; on the contrary, broad participation and action is always encouraged. This character, quite characteristic of the struggle against the rise [in tariffs], has earned strong support from the population, which, in our view, is tired of demonstrations in the traditional model of the left, around podiums and worn out speeches. Civil disobedience and direct action, as well as grassroots work, have been consistently practiced by the movement. At the same time, the fact that opposition to [political] parties has, to a large extent, been appropriated by a conservative and nationalist sector, sometimes stimulated by the extreme right, and has extended to the left as a whole, including trade union and social movements, should be cause for concern. The mainstream media has also contributed to this advance of conservative forces and to the weakening of the demands relating to transport.

When the protests against the last [tariff] increase stopped in 2011, the MPL discussed the amplification of their discussion. They made an assessment that this should continue with the struggle at another level of discussion and raised a campaign for Tarifa Zero (Zero Tariff). The movement took the discussion on public transport to a political discussion, of the public management of resources and the right to the city, arguing that real public transport, as well as other rights such as health and education, should not be charged for, but guaranteed by the government and paid for with incremental taxes: who has more pays more, who has less pays less, who doesn’t have doesn’t pay. With this new campaign, the movement could sustain the internal political discussion and external grassroots work in schools and communities that, in our view, was very positive, for two years. We believe that this contributed to qualifying the militants for the construction of a new, bigger and bolder phase of struggle, as it in fact was, even since before the first big action. They just weren’t expecting that the mobilizations would grow so much and, largely, completely bypass what had been planned.

Brazil Tariff Zero

Another factor that could have contributed is that, after eight years and for the first time in the struggle against the increase in Sao Paulo, we have a mayor from the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers Party, PT). The struggle also interested strong conservative sectors further to the right, which have been trying to erode the image of the new mayor, and with it, that of the federal government. A key element was the position of the media that, at first, positioned itself against the movement. As the protests grew, as well as the popular support – coupled with massive repression which reached a significant part of the reporters from the large media companies – the media started changing its position and moving to defend the movement. They preferred, however, to promote their own agendas and encourage pacifism, civility and nationalism, criminalizing the more radical sectors. Finally, we can identify that technology in general (cameras on cellular phones, for example), notably the internet, allowed for the dissemination of what was happening in the protests and that this was boosted by social networks. This variable is also relevant.

None of this would be possible without the movement’s years of building struggle, or without this feeling of revolt against state repression. However, social networks also play a key role, as we said. Facebook is one important tool for MPL, and its main point of reference. The call to the actions was done through “events”, public notes have been released making clarifications about the struggle and, especially, it is through them that the vehicles of mass communication are debunked.

The first demonstration had about 5000 people, and already had live coverage on Jornal Nacional, the country’s main television news. The same was to continue with the following actions: the mainstream media kept talking of struggle (even before the tariff reduction, it was already on the cover of many of the country’s major newspapers and magazines). Initially, the protesters were labelled as vandals, youth without a cause and other positions trying to delegitimize the movement. So the whole country was talking about the demonstrations, which was fundamental, and through social networks shared videos and information that showed another side of the story.

Brazil Police Movimento-Passe-Livre

The repression, contrary to causing fear, encouraged the revolt of the population and, in Sao Paulo, the government halted the most massive repressions by the Tropa de Choque (Shock Troop). The demonstrators, heavily influenced by the mainstream media, began denouncing any acts of violence and “pacifism” became one of the main common senses of the protests.

In our assessment, recent events confirm what the anarchists have always advocated: it is not enough that the people take to the streets; it is necessary that the people conquer power, from the bottom up, at their own rhythm and organization, not by taking the state, but through the construction of participatory and popular organizations. For this, grassroots work is indispensable. If there is no prior preparation, political discussion is abstracted and co-opted by the more organized sectors of society. In the current case, the big capitalists and the state. A large part of the population that is in the streets have no accumulation in political discussions and just reproduce what they have seen for a long time through the lens of the dominant ideology. They were conditioned to convert the demands to issues that matter to the right, like the “pride of being Brazilian”, “less taxes”, “less impunity,” etc.

Social networks are not good in and of themselves and don’t, in any way, replace the importance and necessity for popular organization and permanent grassroots work.

Bus Fare is Theft

Bus Fare is Theft

MPL maintains that any bus fare is theft, since it is a public service and, as such, should be free. The movement believes that the question of urban mobility is directly related to other basic rights, such as health, education and culture. In addition it defends that the right to come and go not be restricted to getting to and from work. The right to the city, that every citizen can enjoy the things that the city offers, is then a central and very profound point. Decriminalization of social movements is also an important issue and should gain momentum with the arrival of the World Cup.

But in any case MPL maintained before the repeal of the increases, and we share this analysis, that the agenda of the struggle should continue being the immediate reduction in tariffs. We are concerned that a struggle for everything would end up as a conquest of nothing. Therefore we support the focus on tariff reduction. From the moment that the reduction is won, the fight could advance to the next steps and, through the accumulation of short- and medium-term gains, the movement could be increasingly strengthened. This point of view was shared by virtually the whole left.

However, with the winning of the reduction, other demands have been raised. Some by the left, such as the need for zero tariffs, an end to the repression of social movements, the advance of struggles for rights, etc. Others by the more conservative right, or even by much of the common sense that pervades many people who are on the streets. The size of the demonstrations led the population towards optimism, to thinking that “Brazil is changing” and to the will to demand everything that comes to mind. In our view, it is important that our sector, that seeks to build autonomous and combative popular struggles, resumes this continuity of issues.

Brazil MPL2

In recent days the struggles have won over a more plural crowd. In the central regions of the city we have noticed a collection of forces composed more or less as follows. A more autonomous and combative sector, linked to MPL, which is strong and spearheaded the beginning of the movement. A more traditional left sector, with parties and movements, which had significant involvement since the beginning of the protests. A majority sector of new people who have taken to the streets (research has shown that most people had never taken to the streets before), and that reproduce a lot of the common sense; they are mainly conservatives and support demands linked to the conservative agenda. The repudiation of political parties, which ended up being a repudiation of the whole left, comes from this wing. Finally, there is a sector, certainly the minority, that combines the extreme right, in some cases linked to military sectors, of big capital and landlords. The question that is still not clear is what the capacity of these new people that are the majority is to adhere to proposals of combative class struggle, though independent of political parties and the state.

In terms of class, the demonstrations in the central region of the city are composed, mostly, of who is or has been in higher education. However, it is possible to notice the participation of workers and residents of the periphery; the majority outside of the organized left. In the peripheries social movements have held very important demonstrations of markedly popular character and with positions further to the left. Perhaps the continuity of the protests should be sought in these initiatives, by those who actually want to build alternatives of popular power.

In terms of numbers, the country has come to mobilize over one million people (0.5% of the population); in Sao Paulo we reached a few hundred thousand in a few days.

Tariffs Are Violence

Tariffs Are Violence

There is a very large division in the general reaction [to the protests]. In the first demonstrations we had the following picture: there were those that denounced the demonstrators as freeloading vandals, but even then it was not a majority position. There were those who argued that the demonstrations were peaceful, and those that denounced state violence. However, given the widespread manipulation of the media and the lack of preparation of the left to respond to the accusations, today we have a large number of people that accuse any more radical direct action of vandalism. It is an attempt to separate the peaceful protesters from the violent ones and, unfortunately, in a few cases, the government has tried to place the blame for the violent actions on the anarchists. This was the case in Rio Grande do Sul (RS), with the invasion by the police of the local of the Federação Anarquista Gaúcha (Gaucho Anarchist Federation, FAG) and the attempt to blame them not only for the acts of vandalism, but for the accumulation of support for right-wing initiatives. This is really absurd.

First of all, violence is directly propagated by the system in which we live. Violence is using daily the precarious transport system that we have, violence is dying in the queues of public hospitals, violence is the education of our public schools, violence is the exploitation that we suffer daily when we work. This has to be clear. Capitalism is a system based on violence. We are violated every day. And when the people complain, mobilize, they are again violated by the state, as has been the case with respect to repression throughout the country. The violence of the demonstrations is in response to this situation to which the population is subjected every day.

Still, we must remember that the last demonstrations in Sao Paulo showed cases of violence between the protesters themselves, stimulated by sectors of the extreme right and led by the inexperienced and conservatives that are in the streets. Violence against party militants, social movements and the whole organized left. And it was not a rejection by the left, but by the right, in fascist speeches and attitudes. A lot of the advocates of non-violence acceded to that, a fact that the media hardly addressed…

Organizing from the grassroots

Organizing from the grassroots

We think it is important to emphasize the importance of organized and continuous grassroots work. The image of hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously occupying the streets brought new optimistic airs, of the possibility of concrete change outside of the polls. For the social imagination, the occupation of the streets became the new terrain for doing politics. But, thanks to the distortion of the facts, it has also become the only terrain. The right is trying to construct the idea that all political organization is inherently opportunist and corrupt, while grassroots work is supposedly unnecessary, since, as the protesters chanted, “the people have awoken” (and when were they asleep)?

The streets are a fundamental tool to make the struggle public, but it is not in them that the public debate and political training will be completely carried out. It is through daily struggle in the social, student, trade union and community movements that the people build the necessary power to win their emancipation. What we are seeing today is that, if on the one hand the left has the potential to mobilize, some of its ways are very worn. It is necessary, in our view, to emphasize grassroots work and to adopt a strategy that contributes to this emancipatory project. In our view, in the demonstrations, in the popular movements stimulating class struggle, combativeness, independence, democratic participation; in short, trying to build popular power. We should not leave aside the symbolic struggle.

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

Brazilian Anarchist Coordination (CAB)

The key point is that this potential must be converted into a social force that contributes to our project of a new society; and this is not by way of the state or agreements with capitalists. The people need their own alternative. If there is no popular organization, struggles will continue to be lost. As anarchists, we maintain that this organization will be better prepared if it is built from the bottom up, with a strong base and capable of taking the struggle towards paths that interest it as a class.

We live in a historic moment, a turning point in the mood of the population. We have had an immense quantitative advance in the struggle, and if we want to advance even further we need to focus on grassroots work where, with daily struggle, we can learn from our mistakes and successes.

Forward in the building of popular power!
Arriba los que luchan!

brazil mural

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on August 4, 2013 at 9:05 am  Comments (1)
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