Brazilian Revolt: An Interview with Giuseppe Cocco

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Patrícia Fachin: There were massive social demonstrations of discontent with politics and economics in the East, in Spain, Wall Street. Now they have reached Brazil. Why?  What do these protests represent? 

Giuseppe Cocco: We can start by saying that what characterizes these protests is that they represent exactly nothing, while, for a longer or shorter time, they express and constitute everything. They have an untimely dynamic, fleeing from any model of political organization (not only the old political parties and unions, but also from the third sector, NGOs) and affirming a radical democracy articulated between networks and the streets: self-convoking and debating in social networks, massive participation in street protests, capacity and determination to confront repression, and even the capacity to construct and self-manage urban spaces, such as what happened in Tahrir Square, the Spanish encampments, the Occupy Wall Street attempts, and, finally, Taksim Square in Istanbul. For each one of these waves and for each one of what we are calling “springs,”1 there was a specific trigger, but they all have the same social base (however they are differentiated by different countries’ socio-economic trajectories) and the same processes of subjectivation. In the case of Brazil, everyone knows that the trigger was the protest against the increase in public transportation fares. Like in the case of other marches, the protest in São Paulo was violently repressed by the military police. Only this time the spark did not go out with a “march for freedom” and it ignited São Paulo and all of the country. But knowing that this was the trigger does not allow us to advance in the analysis.

Why now? It is difficult to answer and maybe it is characteristic of this type of movement that nobody knows how to propose indisputable “objective” explanations. However, we can advance three explanations: the first takes the form of a second “trigger,” and it is the near coincidence between the repression of the march for the free fare in São Paulo and the renewal of the Arab Springs and the Spanish 15M in the Turkish multitude’s harsh struggles in Istanbul’s Taksim Square (not for nothing, in the second protest in Rio, which gathered ten thousand people, one of the chants was: “acabou a mordomia, o Rio vai virar uma Turquia” [The comfortable life is over, Rio is going to be another Turkey]); a second explanation resides in the fact that this cycle of “revolutions 2.0” starts having a consistent length (of more than three years) and has entered the imaginary, the language of generations of young people that no longer form their opinions through the media but directly in social networks; the third explanation is more consistent, and the most important, and it relates to the “new generations” of today’s Brazil, those generations of youth that have only known the Brazil of Lula. What is incredible and even ironic is that the PT itself did not predict it and until now has been incapable of realizing this very important fact.

What are the similarities and differences between the Brazilians protests and those taking place in other countries? 

The common points are more important than the differences, which only underscore the specific quality of each event.

On a first level, they share an articulation between networks and the streets as a process of self-convening marches that nobody manages to represent, not even the organizations that found themselves in the epicenter of the first call: the attempt to “empower” the kids of the Movement pelo Passe Livre [Free Fare Movement] in São Paulo (“officialized” by their presence in the Roda Vida [television program] and in negotiations with the Municipality and State of São Paulo) demonstrated that they do not control nor direct a movement that reproduces itself rhizomatically (protests occurred at the same time without respecting any type of “truce”).

On a second level, they share the exhaustion of political representation. In Brazil, this phenomenon was totally underestimated by the “left” and, above all, by the PT, because they didn’t (and don’t) understand it. Initially they thought that it was a problem of the North African autocracies (Tunisia and Egypt); later, that it was the Spanish socialists (the PSOE)’s incapacity to respond in a sovereign way to the interference of the international rating agencies and the European Central Bank. Later they believed that the Spanish 15M would not be able to find a new electoral dynamic, while Beppe Grillo’s party showed a completely new and ungovernable electoral phenomenon in Italy. Then, they thought that Egypt and Tunisia had been electorally normalized by conservative Islamism, when the Turkish uprising against a moderate Islamic government appeared. In Brazil, the PT and its government (and its coalition) thought that they were shielded by their recent electoral victories (Haddad’s election in the municipality of São Paulo, the almost plebiscitary reelection of Paes in the municipality of Rio), for being in the midst of a positive economic cycle, and for having believed, in short, that the new Holy Grail of the economic “new model” would really consist of reissuing the old national developmentalism, rebaptized as neo-developmentalism. What the left as a whole and the PT in Brazil did not understand was that the crisis of representation is general (even if it has different symptoms and manifestations) and that the uprisings of the multitude in Egypt, Tunisia, Spain, Turkey and now Brazil, are the expression, among other things, of a radical refusal of the self-referential way of thinking of governments and political parties.

At a third level, there is a central common point between all these movements: the social base of this production of subjectivity is the new type of work that characterizes cognitive capitalism. The networks protesting and constituting themselves in the streets of Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, New York and now all the Brazilian cities are formed by immaterial labor: students, university students, precarious youth, immigrants, the poor, the indigenous… in other words, the heterogeneous composition of metropolitan labor. Not coincidentally, on the one hand, one of its principal forms of struggle was the “acampada” or “occupy” and, on the other, the Turkish and Brazilian uprisings were triggered by the defense of the forms of life of the multitude and metropolitan labor: the defense of the park against real estate speculation (the construction of a shopping mall) in Istanbul and the struggle against rising transportation costs in the case of Brazil.

In comparison with these common points, the differences are minor, although they exist (and are even obvious). We can comprehend these differences from the perspective of each country’s objective conditions and from the point of view of how each movement transformed (or didn’t) the destituent phase into a constituent moment. Thus, the Spanish 15M comes as the experience that managed to last the longest, despite having not reversed economic policies. The Arab revolutions were normalized by conservative electoral victories but the uprisings become endemic. In Turkey and even in Brazil, we – literally – do not know what will happen. In the plane of objective conditions we find the greatest difference: in Spain and the Mediterranean in general, the revolutions are marked by processes of the “declassification” of the middle classes. In Brazil it is exactly the opposite: all of this takes place in the environment and in the moment of the emergence of the “new middle class.” Only that this new composition of class is, in reality, the new composition of metropolitan labor, which struggles for parks or for public transportation: socially ascending, the Brazilian poor turn into that which the European middle classes become by descending: the new technical composition of immaterial labor in the metropolis.

Besides the increase in ticket prices, what other motives set off the protests? 

We can put forth two responses.

The first is that, if you think about it, the question finds its answer in a simple reformulation: “why are there not more struggles and uprisings in the Brazilian cities and metropolises given the innumerable amount of motives to justify them?” There is no shortage of reasons in Brazil! Once it “stuck,” you could simply choose: the list is infinite. I’m just going to give one example, with an anecdote: one day I went to a Forum of the Social UPP [Police Pacification Unit] (that no longer exists) in two small, very precarious, favelas in the north of Rio. All of the paraphernalia of the state and municipal governments were there to make sense of the pacification. The few favela residents that spoke referred to two essential problems: first, they said, we live in the middle of the sewers; second, the police act violently and arbitrarily. The dozens of secretaries and other public servants present were not able to say anything about how they were going to resolve that basic problem of sanitation. Leaving the favela, I walked by a hundred adolescents in the entrance not doing anything, and on the way back to the center of Rio, five minutes away by car, I passed by a gigantic, pharaonic construction work: the Maracanã! The question above finds the same answer as Keynes in 1919: “people will not always die quietly.” There were (and still are) in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil an innumerable amount of protest and resistance movements, particularly because of the effects of the mega-events, and today these movements came together, converging with the multitude of the new new composition of metropolitan labor: in Rio, the protesters always join to direct heavy tirades at the governor Sergio Cabral and the mayor Eduardo Paes.

Thus we arrive at the second answer: Yes, the movement came together to prevent the 20 cent increase!  Only that this “little” is really “a lot.” Why? Because the question of transportation and more generally services is strategic for metropolitan labor. Fordist workers fought over wages and hours. Immaterial workers have the metropolis as their factory and struggle for a quality of life that will depend on their insertion in work that is not longer employment but rather “employability.” Fordist workers struggled to reduce the part of the working day that was embedded as profit in the cars they produced; immaterial workers in the city divert an automaker’s advertising slogans (“Vem Pra Rua” [Come to the street]) to resignify the productive assemblages that are designed in circulation. Fordist workers struggled against work. Immaterial workers struggle in the terrain of the production of subjectivity. It is in circulation that subjectivity is produced and produces value.

The protesters made it clear that they are non-partisan, they don’t want violence and they don’t have leaders. How can we interpret this discourse? How can we think of a new political model based on these characteristics? 

Certainly, one of the constitutive dimensions of the Revolution 2.0 is the crisis of representation and this is a central question. We must remember that the revolution 2.0 was anticipated by the radical critique of representation in South America. The Argentine “they all must go” pre-dated the Spanish “they don’t represent us” by ten years. Only that the dimensions of this crisis are processed by the official – that is, partisan – discourse in an inverted form. And this inversion is not fortuitous. Certainly, the movement’s last articulations (the aggression against the leftist parties in the protests on June 20) demonstrate very well how this inversion works. The parties (above all those in the government) say that the movements are limited because they reject political parties, they are not “organic,” because they have an “ideology” of refusal and therefore are potentially anti-democratic. Obviously, that is correct, but it hides two pretty falsifications. The first is also obvious: the “groups” praying for a fundamentalist critique of representation have little social consistency and no capacity to determine, or even to influence, movements of this size. The second falsification is a consequence of the first: the parties attribute the crisis of representation to a process and a critique that comes from outside, when in fact they are the only ones responsible for the crisis! The responsibility lies in not differentiating the right/left distinction, that is, in the fact that governments change and continue doing the same things, even recycling the same political figures. Thus, the Spanish PSOE attributed its electoral defeat to the 15M, when in reality the 15M was merely a consequence of the fact that the Spanish socialists had the same economic policies as the right. It is exactly what ended up happening in Lula’s Brazil, and, above all, with Dilma. The movement that began with the struggle against fare increases rejects the authoritarian and arrogant dimensions of the coalitions and consensuses that unite left with right in the reproduction of the same interests as always. It was Haddad who had to represent the new and who went along with Alkmin saying the same thing: the fare reduction will have a cost (sic!) It is the conservative coalition that governs the state and municipality of Rio and where the PT plans and executes removals of the poor not respecting its own LOM. It is a leftist minister’s spurious alliances with the ruralists. It is the authoritative conduction of the mega-projects and mega-events. It is handing over the House’s Human Rights Commission to a fundamentalist, who, exactly one day after a large march on Monday, put to vote a law that would define homosexuality as a disease.

The extreme left and the radical left err when they think they are “safe” in this situation. The leftist parties are incapable of understanding that this movement is based on the refusal – the confused, floating, ambiguous and even dangerous refusal – of the party, of separated organization, of flags. It is because the rejection is general, it does not differentiate and functions as the rejection of any ideological platform prepared and determined by the logic of separated apparatuses: that in this there is a perception that one of the problems of politics is building apparatus that tend, above all else, to reproduce themselves.

The aggression of an organized group against the blocks of PSTU [Unified Socialist Workers Party], PSOL [Socialism and Freedom Party] and PCB [Brazilian Communist Party] flags in the march on Thursday, June 20, broke the illusion that the crisis would only belong to the PT and scared everyone. However, in that unfortunate episode we once again find the perverse working of the logic of representation. The groups of aggressors were clearly organized and had those objectives so clear that the organization process indicates the most rotten manipulations. All the analysis and complaints that were made immediately identified those groups (which were clearly acting with the intent to provoke the situation) with the protest in general. In reality, the youth’s general support of the slogan “no parties!” does not have a lineal, and much less a fascist, meaning. Paradoxically, the rejection of parties, including the “radical” ones and their flags, is the rejection – clearly confused and contradictory – of the similarity between right and left and a demand for a “real left.” This demand is not idealistic and it cannot be blocked by obsolete languages and symbols (for example, red flags). To raise the red flags again, it is necessary to leave them at home for a good while! The red flag has to abandon its ideal and transcendent (that is, empty) aspect and go back to being internal (immanent) to the languages of the struggles just as they are. In that terrain it is possible and necessary to construct another representation, and, above all, to strengthen democracy.

You recently tweeted “the struggles of the multitude in São Paulo and Rio are the best result of Lula’s governments. So good that nobody in the PT was able to predict them.” Can you explain this idea to us? Is it about politics entering into collapse? 

Let’s start at the end: we are not faced with the “collapse of politics.” On the contrary, it is about the persistence of politics! Faced with everything the leftist parties do to provide ammunition to the old anti-democratic and moralist discourse of the elites, these movements demonstrate that politics are alive, despite the Felicianos, the Aldos, the neo-developmentalist technocracy and corruption! Being against the right’s moralism does not mean that the immoral behaviors of the left in power are “funny.” It is only about not falling into the right’s traps, but rather making an effort at the ethical conjunction of the ends and means.

This movement, whatever its outcome, is the movement of the multitude of metropolitan labor, the purest product of ten years of PT government. We are going to deepen and clarify this affirmation in two moments. In the first moment, this affirmation is a positive valorization of the Lula-Dilma government. A positive evaluation not because they have been “leftist” or socialist, but rather because they let themselves – without meaning to – be crossed by a number of lines of changes: policies of access, affirmative action, social policies, creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, expansion of credit. The radical left judges these policies exactly like they now judge the question of “flags”: ideally. “Is Lula implementing another model, another socialist society?” they asked and they criticized. Now, nobody implements an alternative model, even when they are in government. They can only have the sensibility to comprehend the real dynamics in society that could broaden and produce something new.  The Lula-Dilma governments associated government of the globalization of interdependence with the, timid and real, production of a new generation of rights and productive inclusion. Statistically, this resulted in the upward mobility of income levels of more than 50 million Brazilians and by a new generations’ entry into technical schools and universities. Lula did not want to hear anything about flags and even declared that he “had never been socialist.” He remained within society going behind languages, symbols and politics that he understood. Going into the decade of 2010, that process consolidated into two major phenomenons: the first is electoral and has the name of “Lulism,” that is the capacity that Lula has to win and, above all, to make the party win majority elections: starting with President Dilma and reaching Mayor Haddad; the second is the discursive regime of the emergence of a “new middle class,” based on the work of economist Marcelo Neri. With the crisis of global capitalism (2007/8) and Dilma’s arrival to power, the discourse of the “New Middle Class” went beyond electoral marketing concerns, to become the social base of a turn that sees in the role of the state along with the Great Companies the alpha and omega of a new developmentalist (neo-developmentalist) model. Sociologically, the objective of neo-developmentalism is to transform the poor into the “middle class,” and for this it needs a Bigger Brazil, capable of reindustrializing 2. Dilma’s government ended up lowering interest rates and multiplied subsidies to industries producing durable consumer goods, in particular cars and construction. The movement affirmed and certified the illusory dimension of this supposed model (which does not mean that the model will not be implemented, but simply that it lost the patina of consensus that legitimated it and now must reveal itself as increasingly authoritarian). At the macro-economic level, the technocratic turn did not work, the tentative attempt to intervene in interest levels resulted in the return of price inflation (which is the basis of the revolt). Interest and price inflation came back to present themselves as two sides of a renewed impasse that only a productive mobilization (of which there are no signs) can resolve.3 In the sociological plane, the “new middle class” does not exist, because what is constituted is a new social composition whose technical characteristics are those of working directly in the metropolis’s networks of circulation and services. The economic figure (the “average” income level) hides the sociological content of a productive inclusion that no longer goes through its previous implementation in the wage relation. This labor of the included as excluded is a different type of work: it is precarious (from the perspective of the employment relation); immaterial (from the perspective that it depends on the subjective and communicative recomposition of manual and intellectual labor); and tertiary (from the point of view of the production chain: that of services). The quality of productive insertion of this work depends directly on the previous rights to which they have access and at the same time produces: for example, the ability to circulate in the metropolis. It is exactly this technical and social composition of metropolitan labor that constitutes the other face of the “new middle class” native to the period of Lula. As it was the electoral base of the successive defeats of neoliberalism, it opposes today, in its political recomposition, neo-developmentalism: for it, the question of urban mobility has the same aspect as the wage for Fordist workers, while the strategic segment is that of services. The Brazilian cities and metropolises, and not reindustrialization, constitute the biggest, simultaneously social, political and economic, bottleneck. The ideology and coalition of interests that are with Dilma so far have not demonstrated the slightest capacity to perceive this fact. Furthermore, this new composition of immaterial and metropolitan labor produces, based on forms of life, other forms of life. Therefore, the free fare movement, like the movement defending a park in Istanbul, has gathered all the pockets of resistance that exist in the metropolis, to spread – like it is doing now, dramatically and astonishingly – to the peripheries where there had never been mass demonstrations. What this “uprising” of the multitude of immaterial labor shows us is that the “legacy” of Lula’s ten years of government is in dispute and that the most interesting option is to stay within those alternatives, instead of wanting to raise one flag or another. Politics and the movements are within and against. Let’s think about, for example, the question of the mega-events, the Confederation Cup, the World Cup, and the Olympics. Many of the focal points of resistance in the metropolises are movements that critique spending in construction, in stadiums, favelas resisting removal, etc. In turn, the possibility that movement has taken place without brutal repression, for now, is also owed to the Confederation Cup. Once again, the conflict is within and against.

What can we discern of the political scenario from these demonstrations? 

I think that the event is so powerful and unexpected that no one knows how to respond. Above all in this moment: every day, and sometimes from hour to hour, some fundamental facts change. What we can say is that the 2014-2018 electoral scene had been designed and the visible variables were those macro-economic ones. The movement invited itself to that discussion. Only there is nobody that can sit down at an eventual table saying that it represents the movement. The earth shook and continues shaking, only that the smoke that lifted still does not allow us to see which buildings fell and which ones are still standing. In this scenario, we can make two conjectures. In the first, President Dilma can open to the left, for example, with a ministerial reform that would put qualified and highly progressive people in key ministries like Justice, City and Transportation, Culture and Education and call on society to constitute itself – in all possible levels – in participatory assemblies to discuss metropolitan emergencies. In the second (which, seems to me, is what was announced in the speech on June 21), she limits herself to recognizing the existence of another social composition in the movement and constructing a deal regarding public services, but did not announce anything new, except for some long-term flags (like allocating 100% of oil royalties to education) and emphasizing the question of order: repression of the “violent ones” and respect for the mega-events (that is, more repression). And that after Thursday’s rather bleak events (the appearance of groups paid to assault political parties and, in Rio, generalized repression of the protests, with the persecution of hundreds of thousands of participants throughout the dispersion). I envision a pessimistic scenario: it seems to me that a good number of leftist militants are falling into the “flags” trap, that this really will end up handing the movement over to the right and, on top of that, there will be repression, eventually also of opinions. In this very likely scenario, in order to save themselves and avoid a general renovation, the bureaucracies and other patronages entrenched in the different governments and coalitions, will be destroying the possibilities of a major renovation of the left and pulling everyone into the black hole that will be the 2014 electoral result. But I would like very much to be wrong. If it turns out that I am wrong, the struggles of the multitude will make it known. But the scenario they have to face is very, very complex.

Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

1. See Giuseppe Cocco y Sarita Albagli (orgs.), Revolução 2.0, Garamond, Rio de Janeiro, 2013.

2. See Giuseppe Cocco, “Não existe amor no Brasil Maior,” Le Monde Diplomatique/Brasil, mayo de 2013.

3. And that which Antonio Negri and I talk about in GlobAL:biopoder e luta em uma América Latina globalizada, Record, Rio de Janeiro, 2005.

Author of the article

is Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and a part of the Multitudes collective.