‘The huge mobilizations in June 2013 in 353 cities and towns in Brazil came as much a surprise to the political system as to analysts and social bodies. Nobody expected so many demonstrations, so numerous, in so many cities and for so long. As happens in these cases, media analyses were quick off the mark. Initially they focused on the immediate problems highlighted by the actions: urban transport, rising fare prices and the poor quality of service for commuters. Slowly the analyses and perspectives expanded to include the day-to-day dissatisfaction felt by a large part of the population. While there was widespread acknowledgement that basic family income had risen during the last decade of economic growth, social commentators began to focus on economic inclusion through consumption as the root of the dissatisfaction, alongside the persistence of social inequality.
In this analysis, I would like to address the new forms of protest, organization, and mobilization from a social movement perspective. These new forms emerged within small activist groups composed mainly of young people that began organizing in 2003, the year Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took government. Unlike political parties, trade unions and other traditional organizations formed in the early eighties, the new social movements are key to the June mobilizations because of their ability to organize beyond their local scene, to involve the broadest sectors of society in the struggle, and to employ forms of action and organization that sets them apart from the groups that went before them.
In most cases, media coverage and analysis have been guilty of overgeneralizing, often giving an almost magical role to “social networks” in mobilizing the millions of people in the street. “With nimble fingers on their cell phones, youth have taken to the streets all around the world to protest, connected by social networks,” said former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (Da Silva, 2013) “Beyond social media, the people are unorganized,” said leading intellectual Luiz Werneck Vianna. (Vianna, 2013 : 9) Others analysts linked the “revolution 2.0” to a new middle class and argued that the June struggles in Brazil form part of the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados or indignants. (Cocco, 2013:17)
In this essay I assert — in tune with James C. Scott — that the key to what is happening in the public arena is to be found in the daily practices of the popular sectors and particularly in what Scott calls “hidden spaces” where the subordinated develop discourses antagonistic to power: “The acts of daring and haughtiness that so struck the authorities were perhaps improvised on the public stage, but they had been long and amply prepared in the hidden transcript of folk culture and practice.” (Scott, 2000:264) To focus on the continent behind and below the visible coast of the political, says Scott, is a necessary step to understand a new political culture. The new forms of protesting and organizing in Brazil can better be understood if we look closely at the practices of the small activist groups forged over the span of more than a decade. […]
Autonomous activism requires a greater level of dedication than is usually considered by observers like members of political parties. Furthermore, everything must be done without any institutional support so it relies heavily on collective work and creativity. Strong bonds of trust and solidarity emerge in these collective groups, to the extent that some activist groups could be considered living communities. Activists will often share a house or live within the same neighborhood and frequent the same social spaces, and this level of co-existence is a powerful cohesive factor which blurs the line between friendship and militancy, creating a climate of fraternity that is reaffirmed with the various regional or federal gatherings. Needless to say, this militant lifestyle goes together with a consistent ethic that does not separate words and action, the personal and the collective, or decision-makers and activists. It is a way of doing things that is counter to the hegemonic political culture, including the left parties.’