AND THEN THERE WAS JUNE 2013

The Tenth anniversary of an Insurrection whose Color was Black

Mas eles só querem paz e
mesmo assim é um sonho

“Fim de Semana no Parque”
Racionais MC’s

Weeks of commemoration, years of dispute. The countrywide protests of June 2013 have swamped the historical debate on society and security in Brazil this month. Meanwhile, President Lula da Silva’s government ventures into new pathways, while struggling against far-right spectacles in Congress. As the greatest insurrection the country has seen this century reaches its tenth anniversary, how one understands those days determines one’s conviction regarding Lula’s promises for economic redistribution. 

Some narratives try hard to present the Days of June as breaking with Lula’s prestige. They lower the achievements of his two terms in office from 2003 to 2012 to the utilitarian bargaining chips that profess to pass off as libertarian policies. Others select between what has continued from what has failed in the longer hindsight view regarding the hopes invested in the New Republic. With a novel rights-based Constitution enacted in 1988, it had broken out from the military dictatorship’s torture chambers and stifling of civil liberties. If June 2013 proved anything, it was how Congress and the Judiciary in this nation of continental dimensions serve to deflect the osmotic current between Public and President so strong it may flatten the country’s hierarchies. What June surely was not is a color revolution, at least not the green-yellow one that was to come. The Brazilian “Autumn” made apparent that the color providing energy, creativity, hope, and organization to the country’s future is Black.

The rebirth of history prompted by the Days of June strategically moved just below the surface, as if to spread a fluid the Bolsonaro alchemists would eventually make toxic. Back in 2013, what began as a working-class insurrection ended with the illusion of a PT (Workers’ Party) government hanging on by a thread. It was a popular uprising, sparked by unfair hikes in bus fare affecting dozens of municipalities from Porto Alegre to Macapá. 

As the cost of living in one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, the working classes commute from afar to reach the inner districts where work is found. Demonstrating against high public transport fare means something quite different for postgrads and academics than it does for those who clean their rooms and cook their dinners. Why it was the latter who swelled the streets when the government in power could partially be called their who may have been surprising, though it was far from unusual. By the time agitators and infiltrators began demanding a moratorium on the use of party flags and symbols, things got stranger. The demonstrations continued, but it became hard to contest that associating with Leftist ideals grew counter-strategic, to say the least. 

Prior to Lula, the cost of public transport was so high proportionately minimum wage many would prefer to spend the night sleeping on the streets. Rio de Janeiro’s distinctive tropical downtown architecture, as on the Avenida Presidente Vargas, had provided shelter to hundreds. Rare are the municipalities still today offering monthly discounts or free transfers, as the ruling class’s taste for hyperprivatization when convenient only to itself has multiple companies competing to provide service along the same lines. As for female workers, the bourgeoisie disgracefully provided them with the option of bed and breakfast in exchange for round the clock domestic service. With two laws enacted in 2012 by Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, most of that counter-contractual malpractice ended. Afro-Brazilian women had performed most of domestic labor. By 2013, with quotas ensuring admission to free higher education, some 30 percent of them had unsurprisingly opted for a change in occupation.

After fare hikes sparked demonstrations in Porto Alegre, the Movement for Free Fare (Movimento Passe Livre – MPL) soon faced off against police violence as masses surged forth on São Paulo’s monumental Paulista avenue. Mass media airtime opened to articulate spokespersons to denounce police actions otherwise reserved to massacring the poor. As usual, the police hesitated little to show their class contempt, just that now it was against what the bourgeoisie clamored for in demands to live according to “first world” quality control. Used to raging against inner-city young sporting hip-hop fashion and top-of-the-line Nikes, police now attacked the Europeanized jet-setters. Still, the masses held the chorus. 

Whether the privileged progressive class really understood its complicity in downpressing up to four fifths of the population is not clear. The younger set certainly got off on echoes from the flash mob internet-driven Occupy movement, Arab spring revolutions and Québécois student uprising. The whims of the Euro-vetted culture hawks were even savvy enough to call the bluff about sectors trying to deviate the protests into becoming full-scale attacks on President Rousseff’s government. By then, most of them chose to withdraw as the masses surged forward. 

In the heat of the violence, President Rousseff tested her coalition government’s resolve. The important Law 12.830/2013 was enacted on June 21, granting broader autonomy to police officers assigned to white-collar crimes, with legal powers similar to those beheld by prosecutors, magistrates, attorneys and legal counsel. There was nothing in this law in and of itself to suggest a plot was in the making against Rousseff herself. Within a few years’ time, it would be used to force her out of office and exclude former President Lula from the 2018 elections, throwing him in jail on trumped-up charges. 

The map of events has a straight line stretching from bus fare protests to denunciations of police violence, only to then veer toward a neck-and-neck battle between those calling for insurrection and others denouncing the PT for corruption. When considering how public spending looks in the books, the issue of corruption pales behind tax avoidance and evasion, a specialty of the ruling class. Yet, few issues can better convince the masses they are right to rise up than that of corruption. This tune soon blasted over consumer dissatisfaction as the leading banner while June moved into July with the preliminaries of the FIFA events. The weight of FIFA even led a year later to the persecution and arbitrary jailing of a group of activists, university professors and journalists. From there on, corporate media relentless pounded a connection into the public mind between the cost of living index and levels of political corruption in a bid to slice its support from the Workers’ Party. At first, the media failed. 

DRIPPING IN THE RIGHT PLACE

Quite different from the fantasy it is being portrayed as by the alt-right, for many on the Left the 2013 protests seem more like a bad trip. Still today, upper middle-class left intellectuals refuse to avow their disconnect with the events that followed and those who led them. By obsessively focusing on modes of organizing and forms of leadership, they omit to voice the single most productive and successful political drive to emerge from those days. For this was the time for the Black population to fill the streets. Obvious to the point of having to be silenced, 2013 materialized into further contradictions in a class conflict that proved to be insurmountable so long as race was not embraced as the overriding issue. The organized Black coalitions of those weeks ensured that the growing alt-right cells would not conquer memory over the events, at least not democratically. 

There is little doubt that a major part of being a consumer today is getting the education needed to make one autonomous and competent in the job market. However, the decision over how large that market becomes largely rests with finance and the land-based agribusiness and mining oligarchies, as well as their European Union godfathers. The toxic root of this mechanism is the Central Bank and its clientele of private firms, while its dirty bomb is the prime interest rate. Insofar as interest equates to debt production, this clan controls the size and scale of the national job market. When loosened and allowed to expand, Brazilian workers spontaneously follow market guidelines for advancement. To improve professional skills, they seek better education. When these conditions are allowed to arise, the success of a government is measured by how much they invest in what Karl Marx used to refer to as the “part of the total product intended to serve as means of consumption”. By which he meant that part tending to the “common satisfaction of needs”, namely education, health, mobility, and security. To be sure, these are unproductive sectors of sorts, but only insofar as they remain public property. Once privatized, they churn out hefty profits, albeit with services limited by how much of the public can actually afford them. With privatization, they become debt-producing machines. This is why class struggle in the consumer society aims to keep these products as inexpensive as possible. The challenge for the commons is to ensure the public investment to make them beam.

Notwithstanding the success of the Workers’ Party form of governance, the 2013 uprising was sparked by rising costs of living due to the country’s accelerated growth, in which the pace of real wages nonetheless lagged far behind.  If and where the PT governments had failed by 2013, it would plausibly be in their attempt to intensify large-scale funding of public education. Against head-on confrontation, Lula’s reformist spirit simultaneously sought to silently drown out the central role played by private education in reproducing the ruling class.

President Rousseff’s strategy was different. She has never submitted quietly to injustice. In 2013, she understood that rapid change through super-funding was time-critical to maintaining a vibrant and expanding job market. As a pragmatist, she was right on. Perhaps she took pride of the booing in July 2013 during the kick-off to the FIFA Confederations Cup, as internal polling had exposed a male ruling-class revolt fermenting against her. Whether Rousseff also aspired to nationalize higher education through alluring funding is debatable, given her misguided program called Science without Borders, which had excluded social science and humanities students. The program did offer short study periods abroad at the undergraduate level, a move that seemed to please the upper class. In fact, she tried to bypass the way São Paulo State guarantees success for its universities through a special state-level funding scheme, about which its ruling class complains little. Although in contradiction to its much-hyped libertarian meritocratic values, when policy works predominately in its favor, the ruling class might even accept communism. 

Rousseff’s recent statement, published in the collective volume A Rebelião Fantasma (Boitempo), in which she recognizes the ground-breaking events purportedly aimed against her, has become one of the highlights in the current narratives dispute. After all, a year after the insurrection, Rousseff would go on to be reelected with 51.6 percent of confirmed votes, despite 29 percent of the public abstaining. What she could not have predicted was the subsequent full-scale media onslaught waged to falsely accuse her of wrongdoings in budgetary matters. 

Rousseff could not predict, let alone control, the impressions her scholarship schemes and investment programs would leave on the minds of the privileged. Politics may be strategic, what it is not is visionary. Brazil’s upper-class indexes privilege to merit to such a degree its members believe it lies beyond democratic choice. So habituated are they to always getting their way, when arbitrary privilege comes into the scope of ethical deliberation, their reaction tends to leap into anti-constitutional misconduct. Law, Med and Business Schools are their playground. And it is where the right-wing youth plotted once she was re-elected.   

In and of itself, mass corruption allegations were not enough to bring down the PT, as the financial oligarchy and media fully noticed. President Rousseff’s prudent reaction to 2013 was not far off target. She was reelected based on wealth retribution plans coming from caps on electricity and bank account rates, as well as caps on credit card interest rates. In addition, she committed to redistributing the Pre-Salt oil profits to education and health. The icing on the proverbial coup d’état cake arose from her declared objectives to restructure the chain of command of the same military that had submitted to her brutal torture and prison in her youth. Back then, she fought to restore fundamental freedoms and human rights after they were abrogated in 1969. Whether her critics appreciate it or not, had she had time to complete her task, the generals today would have been singing another tune.  

The ire she provoked among the ruling and military caste is well documented. The penalty against her went far beyond thirst for her deposition. If she changed economic policy after being re-elected, it is because she was forced to. Nobody should underestimate to what extent she was cornered and misled by rivals and supposed allies alike. They had already ditched respect of the constitution and rights. Congress went straight for the jugular, taking advantage of a slump in international commodity prices to prompt a massive supply side shock. The liquidity trap that ensued was deliberately set, shrinking the job market and triggering mass unemployment by the end of 2015. Such malicious economic governance is also what proves Brazil’s golden boys to be anti-nationalist and willing to submit its own population to neocolonial dependence on the U.S.

CLASS CONFUSION

Some argue the cause for Rousseff’s loss of support in 2015 is that the “middle classes” felt they had to bear the brunt of a political program leaving them with the highest tax burden to pay. The social programs would have tended to the poor, while fiscal policy would have appeased the wealthy. Yet, in Brazil, those who use the term “middle class” with no qualifier are suspect. Their referential strategy lacks statistical transparency. Nothing apart from blind tradition justifies use of the term “classe média” to refer to what is none other than upper middle or even upper class. 

A 2022 Revista (Harvard Review of Latin America) study based on data provided by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística, or IBGE) classifies the middle class as earning from USD 118.12 up to roughly USD 730.00 per month. Below that is poor. Above, the socioeconomic class pyramid funnels down quickly enough for the term “upper class” to best refer to it. At only 6 percent of the population, whatever might be “upper middle” is actually only upper. These indicators are not comparative between G7 countries and Brazil. They refer to the country’s objective class structure, giving some idea of wealth concentration without having to subdivide further still the 1 percent into the 0.1. And while the cut-off points can be contested as too low to be considered upper class, the fact of the matter is that most endowed with the bon ton will be making over 10 times the minimum wage and paying less than a quarter of that in income tax. 

The upshot of these indicators is that the overwhelming majority of left-wing intellectuals in the country stems from the upper class. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of Brazilians of the real scale middle class self-declared themselves to be Afro-Brazilian (“black” and “pardo”), according to the 2022 IBGE study Desigualdades Sociais por Cor ou Raça no Brasil (Social Inequalities by Color or Race in Brazil)

Brazil’s development tensions are indeed similar to most consumer-based societies. People want to consume. They want quality products, services, and machines. They do not want to go into debt just because they want to live a satisfying life as consumers. They do not see debt as an obligatory fine, let alone punishment, due to succumbing to the dreams prompted by commercial advertising. Those who groan about vulgar marketing and puff about the culture industry do little else than betray their upper-class values. What the majority does not tolerate is the free-for-all from which violence seen and unseen unremittingly unleashes against its aspirations for the good life. And if their criticism and complaints are perceived by the ruling sectors as communist, then so be it, communists they shall become. Failing that, they are ready to negotiate, leaving bargaining far behind. And if they perceive left upper middle-class intellectuals as obstacles, then they answer to fascists and threaten unrest to achieve their marketing-provoked pursuits until the Central Bank-orchestrated debt crunches them into a time bomb of another sort. Can Brazil be compared to another country in this regard? Nigeria and South Africa do come to mind, perhaps Senegal today on a smaller scale.

BACK FROM JUNE

In the end, the Days of 2013 can be confirmed as initially channeled by the left-wing Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). Credit is due. The party was formed by PT dissidents expelled for challenging the economic and political compromises made by Lula da Silva in his first government. Slow to gather broader public support, the PSOL met even further difficulties than the PT to rid itself from a predominantly upper class and progressive academic rank and file. When he took office in 2003, Lula dismissed the broader intellectual group that had supported him through the 1990s. In return, he was often bullied by representations of him as a high-school dropout and short-sighted trade-unionist reactionary. Less than five years later, barely into his second term, he had opened more new public universities, provided greater expansion to the structure and attendance of existing ones, funded the ability of more lower income families to study in the private universities of excellence, even at the post-graduate level, than all presidents, whether democratic or dictatorial, had in the history of the country. 

By contrast, the 2015 white supremacist song and dance routines calling for the ouster of Dilma Rousseff and a return to military rule do show all of the traits of a color revolution. The discomforting conflict over narratives today is to see the actors of that moment also claiming, in a sleight of hand, that 2013 was one as well. Nobody contests the more than justified working-class uprising by which the Days began. The next step grows more controversial as Black movements especially were prevented from using their banners during the demonstrations that were meant to go beyond political party divides. 

Besides, in 2013, rare were those who understood the strategy behind color revolutions. Typical to all color revolutions is the insistence on uniform unity above ideological divisions, calls for liberty against perceptions of populism or authoritarian and state-controlled rule, and an expression of nationalism based solely on the values of the United States. Quite cleverly, the architects of the color revolutions refer to precedence. Tiananmen Square would represent the prototype, the original idea, while Euromaidan would be one of its greatest achievements. Fake news drives the dynamic in what Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman referred to in the propaganda model they present in Manufacturing Consent as “flak”. Flak plays a fundamental role in color revolutions. It packages a media event such as Tiananmen Square for it to associate spontaneously with a bloody massacre destroying the aspirations of a generation of democratic activists, and anyone in the West contesting this narrative would basically be a traitor. Another type of flak regards the Ukrainian Banderite’s Euromaidan moment. Any doubt as to how it would have ushered in an ethnical homogenous nation, profoundly Western in its values, and eternally crushed by the brutality of the Russian boot, would equate one to being a Putin altar boy or fascist longing for a post-communist mafia state. Yet no facts support either of these claims entirely, neither a massacre in Beijing, let alone an ethnically homogenous nation arising from the doctrine of racial purity that had already tried to destroy Russia in World War II. Quite to the contrary, recorded evidence points to explicit American involved in both coup attempts, the second of which was ultimately successful.

Despite how Anglo-American media seek to package politics in Latin America, the moniker of Leftist or Left-leaning government is a misnomer. What lies at stake is the ability of Global South economies to grow. When they grow too much, the G7 tends to disrupt, invade and even colonize countries according to their norms of civilization and their rule-based international order. Non-European countries are simply not meant to prosper based on the model of harmonious social existence with quality services offered to all. Why Russia and China have proved to be valid and valuable alternatives to the Pax Americana is precisely for the quality of commercial relations being proposed. As far as we are concerned, those who dogmatically oppose this option, those who equate Russian and Chinese interests abroad with spreading dictatorships, might just as well be paid agents by American NGOs. 

On June 19, 2013, two hundred cities cut the tariff of public transport. Some had done so earlier. But the protests did not stop, as the tide now reached for broader rights. Who supported Dilma was no oligarchy, as events would soon bear out. It was the working non-propertied classes, what the IBGE classifies as Classes C, D and E. They were workers who own neither stocks, options nor means of production, let alone land. They were the poor, and following four years of the Bolsonaro generals’ pillaging of the State these three-quarters of the population are very poor once again. They did not seek to overthrow the government, as the last thing they wanted was less than what they had received from the only party that sought to give them anything. What they wanted was more. More rights, better services, more democratic power, more wealth, and an end to the genocide – whether through police violence or agrotoxin poisoning. 

If there is one differential line pointing to what sustained the spirit of 2013, it was the grassroots Black organizations generally working at a distance from institutions and political parties. From there, they were able to grow even after 2018 despite the State apparatus’ embrace of white supremacy. Emerging in its most organized form in São Paulo, joining with the Quilombola movement in Rio Grande do Sul, and artistic, religious and hip-hop movements throughout the country, Afro-Brazilians drove the movement beyond 2013. Still, in those days, the Black organization UNEafro confronted violence from within the demonstrations, seeing its flags torn and torched on June 20. Since then, Afro-Brazilians have entered university programs in even greater numbers than during the all too-short and truncated years of Rousseff’s second mandate. 

Affirmative action quotas also led to the 2022 election of Afro-Brazilians to office at municipal, state, and federal levels in numbers never seen. In 1993, the hip-hop group Racionais MC’s intoned that freedom of speech was one of the few rights left to Afro Brazilians. For the country’s majority, June 2013 was a demand for more rights, not the overthrow of the government. Today, the Coalizão Negra por Direitos (Black Coalition for Rights) assembles over 250 Black organizations, groups and movements, celebrating a social ascension only affirmative action quotas could have secured.

Whether the Left once represented wide scale hopes for emancipation or not, the events of 2013 witnessed its break with Afro-Brazilian movements. We have decidedly reached a point where race is not an option to class, but produces it. The majority now prevents the Left from representing it in a form the names Lula and Rousseff do not filter beforehand. What happened ten years ago might no longer be of such importance anymore, for what is at stake lies on the table now. And Afro-Brazilian “protagonismo” is the only name appropriate for this present. As for the cultured upper class, it must learn at least to step aside. As philosopher and organic intellectual, Sueli Carneiro has unconditionally asserted, “As long as racism exists, there will be no democracy. And this statement is also fundamental to understanding 2013.”

Norman Madarasz, Ph.D., is professor of political and economic philosophy and literature at PUC-RS.

    

 

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