The French Revolution was a failure.
Of course NOT, no it wasn’t a failure, not exactly, and it all depends on who you ask, and their idea of success. But, generally, no one living through the French Revolution would have given an account of what it was for anywhere near what really ended up happening. Nevertheless, it shaped the world to come, deeply, in complicated ways for sure, but arguably for the better.
I believe the recent (june 2013) protests in São Paulo and the rest of Brazil are the same.
For anyone who was not informed, a brief recap: The bus fare in São Paulo was raised from 3.0BRL to 3.2BRL and a group called MPL (for Free Fare Movement in pt_BR) staged a series of marches to complain. The fourth of those was brutally repressed by the police, and after that the thing exploded and many other huge protests started happening all over the country.
So one of the very first issues is: Are the protests about 20¢? Or about something more?
This question popped up in many places, from handmade posters to big media, and the (very important) answer is: Neither.
From the point of view of the MPL, it is all about how we think of transportation. If you conceive it as business, it’s got to turn a profit. But you can also think of it as infrastructure. And if transportation is a need just like sanitation, suddenly it seems like price fluctuations interfere too much with the whole city. 20¢ forces a whole reshuffling of who goes where, when, how, and in the transportation as infrastructure mindset it is just too much ado.
Because 3BRL is still expensive, but even then, if it seems like raising the price will always be a problem, the prospect is diminishing profits, and it becomes hard to think of transportation as business. The protests are focused on the 20¢ because they think of transportation in much broader terms.
So, finally, what the protests are against is the raise, not the 20¢. It amounts to the same, but it is also totally different.
This is brilliant because it makes clear there is no bargaining. No one is in it for a negotiation. Even more so because 20¢ was actually a small raise, smaller than expected, that could be dressed as a generous offer from the government. Denying the bargain wholesale means the MPL refuses to be business as usual.
But this is also very confusing, even more so if you try to describe their work with the usual jargon of politics, where a movement has to either be “left” or “right”, and where success can only be measured in number of votes. That is why the establishment (at various levels) desperately wanted to extract “demands” from the protests: Because once you become part of the game, you respond to the usual levers of power.
Of course, much of the appeal of the protests came from this. Kinda negativelly, since it is not really enthusiam, but the lack of apathy. Lack of the same apathy that in the usual political discourse is both a moral ill and the reason society does not work, but that somehow always ends up meaning the common people have to give their money to some big shot. Since there is a huge sense that the political machine always serves the interests of someone, that it is not driven by common good, it feels useless to go to a protest unless one has some egotistical interest.
So when the MPL stubbornly avoids politics-as-usual it avoids the staleness of the old oppositional forms of protest, and gains some sympathy, but what really causes the large-scale engagement is, of course, the brutality of the police. Because it activates a US × THEM frame, a sense of personal danger, the realisation that a normal person would hardly find himself on the side of the rubber-bullet shooters but might easily have to bargain for 20¢ discount on the bus fare.
Most visceral of all, heavily armed personnel opening fire against common people is just too plainly wrong!
Some framed the above as the protests being about the right to protest. Sounds beautiful, but it is just too fancy. This is about a more basic, instinctive awareness of who is US and who is THEM.
So for example in the 60s the left did exactly the opposite, as it stated that the only true way to be pro-poor was to be marxist, effectively forcing a very erudite (and thus academic, priviledged, scholastic, and rich) point of view on people who did not live anything resembling that.
After the fact, a series of explanations were conjured up, assorted versions of “it’s not about 20¢”. Something to do with a general dissatisfaction with government, focused around the themes of corruption and overspending on the world soccer cup. Certainly corruption, and its exaggeration around the cup, are important sources of tension in Brazil, but left to themselves they wouldn’t cause anything special.
In a certain sense this interpretation became the main story, even to the point that when President Dilma Roussef tried to react she mostly reacted to it, amongst other things trying to start a reform of the Constitution.
But as we’ve seen, none of that had been enough to coalesce a movement around before, and even more importantly, the very framing of the issue as a political issue (dissatisfaction with government) would make it vulnerable to the levers of politics-as-usual: It was because the MPL avoided trying to bargain with the government that it was not met with apathy.
The error here is confusing how the protests felt with what generated them.
There was a feeling of being ripped off by the government (though more precisely by the bus companies which look like they have an unspecified something to do with the government). But there were also other feelings. For example, there was (even more so in the last and biggest protest, on June 17st) the feeling of a big party: Girls wore heavy green-and-yellow make up, people went in groups of friends happily chatting. In a way, it was more like “we are OK” than like “they are wrong”.
The protests come more from a general (and messy) feeling about how to live life, than from actual ideas about politics, about what politics should be about, or about what is wrong with current political practices.
This is a minefield, since it seems offensive to suggest that corruption might not be so bad, but i am grasping at what makes it feel like a common person has to go to the street. Certainly everyone would like less corruption, but this does not make it a personal problem, one that people feel deserves or requires their own direct efforts. First because it is all so big and distant — 500 million, 3 billion, what do the numbers in the corruption news stories even mean? — that hardly it can be a few bad politicians to blame, this can’t be a problem solvable by finding a handful of culprits. But also, i believe there is a feeling that the system at least somehow works: Certainly this little country is not what Voltaire or Rousseau (or you know, whoever) would call a perfect democracy, but if life is good why bother? Preguiça!
That is why things like the Trello to find solutions for Brazil are a waste of time: If you frame things as problems you have already lost the real action. In the exact same way, the idea of “Constituinte” (a big Constitution reform meeting) is guaranteed to not change anything that matters. All of this would be a discussion of “perfect democracy” which is important to no one. They are working at the level of concepts and morality, instead of bellies and legs. This is not what people live. This is not what they breath and feel. The bus fare is.
Not that we should not think about political issues. The whole potency of the MPL comes exactly from a very subtle and sophisticated understanding of the city. It’s just that the political issues do not happen in the realm of laws and policy. It happens in the level of the ethos of society: How we want to live.
I used to think that you could not be really apolitical, that any kind of action (and expectation) would certainly have effects on other people’s lives, and that was already political. That anything ethical had to be political.
But politics is somewhat different from ethics, and the protests show exactly how much.
Politics is this, but inside the machinery of a military state (and all states are a way to organise violence!). The issues of how-to-live-life do not acquire enough energy as to become ideology except when you have people whose jobs are to lobby other people into taking specific decisions. Which means politics literally can’t avoid being politics-as-usual. Politics becomes something more than just folks living life (and thus, actually becomes something you can talk about) only when this society has enough surplus energy that it can feed a group of people that doesn’t do anything besides deciding “policy”: But of course it is the energy that is important, not the policy. And since it is surplus energy that is being managed, there isn’t a natural way to manage it, and thus no moral B&W answer to political issues.
That is why “what is really at stake” on the Brazilian June protests doesn’t even make sense in the traditional terms. The MPL tried to avoid this level of dispute, and in doing so it somehow evaded the very world of politics: Once you enter the realm of ethos-making you become invisible to politics (and politicians!).
So, anyway, what is it all about? Of course, part of it is that the rising price of oil is fastly making the whole Industrial Society thing impossible, so we’ve been in permanent crisis since 2008, and will keep on being for much longer than 5 years, and then we will gradually have to rethink all of life. But i do suspect that we, as a society, are learning some new tricks at the ethos-making level. We are learning to live.
To conclude, i’d like to tell a completely unrelated story.
When i was in college (or something, it was called Escola Técnica) for some reason there happened something called Congresso Curricular, which was supposed to be the big meeting with everyone in the school to discuss everything and solve all the problems. The “Constituinte” at a School level. In 3 days. Anyway.
The thing is, in the first day, 200+ people inside this big auditorium, a woman named Sônia sat at the table on the stage and coordinated the discussions. At the end of the day, the sense of accomplishment, of possibility, was vast. We had done so much, and we felt we could do so much more. It was breathtaking.
But then the next days were just fruitless arguments and feet-dragging. A few things did change, a little progress here and there, but very little. Sônia was not coordinating.
Maybe the optimism of the first day was foolish. And maybe everything we hoped for was not really possible. But i was very impressed by Sônia’s work on the first day.
The way she organized the proceeding allowed people to agree and understand each other. Not that she would tell people how to act or what to say, or manipulate anyone in any way. She not even tried to convince anyone of anything, it was not like she was trying to impose her ideas or positions. She just somehow created a space where people could come together and work together. People that in the following day would hate each other’s guts.
What exactly did she do? To this day i am not completely sure. But my guess is she had a gut feeling, something very deep and very fast, for the many different perspectives and conceptions at play. Not that she knew the truth or understood everything, but that she was aware of how each faction was trying to understand and think, and she would then reach for a frame broad enough for all of the points of view. Because of her work, everyone was able to express their own ideas and fight for their own goals, more than they could if they were the sole dictators in that meeting. Sônia’s fierce coordination enhanced everyone’s freedom.
And maybe this is a trick we can learn.