Notes from Brazil, June 2013

This post was contributed by Belinda Mandelbaum, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Psychology of the University of São Paulo. The Department has a partnership arrangement with Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies, involving exchanges of staff and students.

Brazil is undergoing something unheard of in its history. A series of protests that began in São Paulo, due to the increase in public transportation fees, spread to various cities in the country, taking hundreds of thousands of people into the streets at the most unthinkable moment:  the beginning of the Confederations Cup, a sort of general rehearsal for the most eagerly awaited event ever – the World Cup – that will be held this coming year in this country. This popular uprising had not been foreseen by anyone here, and certainly not at this specific moment. The truth is that nobody can explain the phenomenon we are undergoing. And, given the heterogeneity of demands that characterize this movement, what we see now is a sort of a war of interpretations, in attempts to take “ownership” of the phenomenon and offer a specific political determinant to characterize it.

One reading of the situation is that there is a type of generic indignation, with no clear goal decisively defined.  Understood as a whole, we might comprehend it as a sort of collapse in the state of things as they have been up to present. In this sense, what we are living through in Brazil comes very close to what happened in Spain in May of 2011 (movement 15M), in the United States also in 2011 (Occupy Wall Street) and even with the protests in London in the wake of Mark Duggan´s death, between the 6th and 10th of August of that same year. There is also perhaps something that resonates with the so-called Arab Spring. The form the protests take emerges from electronic media as this is the tool used most broadly to mobilize participants; it reflects the breaking out into public spaces of people used to electronic virtual reality. The content of the protests tends to be as fragmented as the electronic media and takes on the characteristic of a rebellion which generates perplexity and unrest.  Media analysts are struggling to separate the wheat from the chaff, trying to legitimate what in truth is characteristic of a peaceful and just protest for enhancements in health, education and the way the public apparatus is managed, whilst separating this from the acts of violence that have been present, such as looting in stores, attacks on public buildings, bank branches, churches and cultural institutions, calling these acts of vandalism. What the media still does not seem to want to comprehend is that this violence is inherent to the phenomenon, that this vandalism is also political, that violence is part of these so called horizontal movements.

Freud has a text that has a title that is deeply appropriate nowadays in Brazil: Civilization and its Discontents. It is precisely this we are witnessing: a sort of discontent,  an outbreak of what has been repressed, not due to one thing or another, but looking at the situation at large. Looking at the way things unravel in a globalized routine that sets forth mega events – such as the World Cup, which in the case of Brazil represents the wastefulness of enormous resources in the construction of opulent stadiums – the bureaucratized administration of life, its forms of entertainment and means of communication. The phenomenon seems to be inherent to the way we live nowadays, globally.  What nobody expected is that it would burst out as it did in Brazil. The fact is it did, and at a moment in which the economic model which had been highly successful for an entire decade now seems to be collapsing. And all of this poses something profoundly unknown for the Brazilian reality.

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