In Brazil, a dual struggle against neoliberalism

by Peter Storm on June 17, 2013

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In Brazil, students and the indigenous may be fighting different fights, but they are ultimately part of the same struggle against the neoliberal state.

While the world has been watching Turkey, another country is experiencing revolt: Brazil. Just like Turkey, Brazil has recently experienced relative success in economic terms. But just as in Turkey, the spoils of this economic growth are divided extremely unequally. Just like in Turkey, a relatively small provocation has sparked a much more widespread chain reaction. Unlike in Turkey, that provocation is a direct attack on living standards. But the anger exploding as a result of it appears to run just as deep.

Brazil has seen strong economic growth in the past decade, although this is slowing. In 2010, the economy grew 7.5 percent; for 2011, the official IMF estimate is 2.7 percent. This temporary slowdown is supposed to be followed by stronger growth in 2013, although, with IMF statistics, you can never tell. However, the parallel with Turkey — also a rapidly developing economy gradually moving into slowdown — is striking. Economies like Turkey and Brazil are becoming quite an important force in the world economy. What happens there matters to the rest of the world. Better watch out — and better be prepared to extend the hand of solidarity when it is needed.

Right now, what is happening in Brazil and Turkey is revolt. In Turkey it was the defence of Gezi park that provided the spark. In Brazil, it is transport fares that drive people to the streets in anger. On 2 June, authorities in the metropolis of Sao Paulo raised the price of a single fare from $1.40 USD to $1.50. This hike, moreover, is being made in a context of 15.5 percent inflation. And for thousands of Brazilians, it proved to be the proverbial last straw. From June 10 onwards, the city was rocked by four consecutive days of demonstrations and riots. On June 13, 5.000 people took to the streets and clashed violently with police.

According to the BBC, “the demonstrators were mostly university students, but the authorities said there were also groups of anarchists looking for a fight.” The idea that some students might be anarchists by conviction, and that some anarchists go to college because they like to learn, apparently does not occur to either “authorities” or the BBC. And the ones “looking for a fight” were above all the rabid police troops themselves, who used excessive amounts of teargas and rubber bullets against mostly unarmed demonstrators, some of whom did attack shops and set fire to tyres. But that’s what desperate people do if you make their lives even harder by rising the prices of public amenities in a context of rapid inflation.

Overall, more than 50 people were left injured and the number of arrests exceeded 200. According to the BBC, “police say they seized petrol bombs, knives, and drugs.” Sure. And yes, “police acted with professionalism”, according to the state governor. Obviously. After all, repression is their profession.

All of this was reported on the BBC website on June 14. The next day, the Guardian had more. Demonstrations in Sao Paolo, Rio the Janeiro, Porto Alegre and the capital Brasilia itself; 130 people detained; at least 100 demonstrators hurt; 12 police officers injured as well. At times, police attacked entirely non-violent crowds. At times, demonstrators displayed their anger by painting graffiti onto walls, smashing shop windows, setting garbage on fire, and so on.

According to police, they decided to attack because the protesters took a different route from the one agreed upon with authorities, and because they threw objects at police. The police charges themselves were ferocious, replete with rubber bullets, tear gas and truncheons. Even the mayor of Sao Paulo was forced to admit that police have not been following “protocol” and announced an official investigation.

Why the anger? Of course there’s the price hike for subway and bus tickets — but there is more. “It’s about a society that is sick of corrupt politicians not making good on its promises to make improvements…” said one 24-year-old protester. “We want decent education, healthcare and transportation. That’s what the fight is all about.” It is the same story all over again: while the state pushes for economic growth, inequality grows. People protest, the police attack, and the revolt deepens and broadens.

But there’s more going on in Brazil than protests against the rising price of transportation. There is revolt in the countryside as well. The fact remains that Brazil has built its neoliberal capitalist economy on the back of slavery, land robbery and downright genocide of its indigenous population. The struggle against colonialism and for indigenous liberation continues unabated. In this struggle, communities clash with all kinds of resource exploitation and infrastructural projects that form the building blocks of neoliberal development.

In recent years, numerous actions have taken place against a giant dam project at Belo Monte. This project threatens to harm the lands and ecosystems on which indigenous communities depend in order to make a living. On May 28, there was an occupation of the building site — not the first of its kind. On June 6, meanwhile, there was yet another major protest rally in the capital of Brasilia.

In the meantime, a shrill light is shed on a colonial and genocidal past that, sadly enough, continues today. Recently, a previously unpublished report by the state institution responsible for indigenous relations surfaced detailing the state’s treatment of indigenous people, and containing a chilling series of horror stories — ranging from thirty villagers being attacked and killed from the air with dynamite, to the purposeful spreading of smallpox, a deadly disease, in order to get rid of people. The list goes on, exceeding 1,000 crimes specifically mentioned in a 7,000 page text.

The report was submitted in 1967, but “disappeared”, as did so many of the victims. Only this spring, it reappeared, a fate that was not granted to the victims themselves. In the meantime, the military dictatorship has gone, but the terror instigated by landowners and agricultural capitalists against indigenous people and landless peasants continues regardless. So, fortunately, does the resistance.

In Brazil, the indigenous people are confronting an enemy that is not just colonial but neoliberal. They are attacked and murdered because they are in the way of profitable export-oriented agriculture, and of the giant infrastructure needed to feed energy to Brazil’s rapidly developing industries. The same neoliberal monster that drives the prices of subway and bus tickets to unbearable heights is driving the indigenous people from their lands; marginalizing the poor in the favelas; and keeping millions of young people out of university and out of work — just as it prioritizes investment into useless World Cup stadiums over investment in much-needed schools and hospitals.

In this sense, demonstrating university students and occupying indigenous peoples may be fighting different fights, but they are ultimately part of the same struggle — the struggle of humanity against neoliberalism, and of the self-liberating people against an oppressive state apparatus built on racist and colonial foundations. Better keep an eye on how that dual struggle unfolds in the coming weeks, months and years.

Peter Storm blogs on Ravotr.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Rafael June 17, 2013 at 22:18

Neoliberal? Are you guys out of your mind? This government has created in two years FIVE state-runned companies, the same amount its predecessor (from the same party, the Workers Party) had created in the eight previous years. In summary, instead of fostering business and capitalism those governors just hindered both. Tax collection is sky high, government intervention sky rocketing, and you dare to say people struggles against neoliberalism? Are you mentally handicapped or just intentionally disonest?
The problem in Brazil (and most countries in South America – pick Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina) is that we are governed by a bunch of left wing nuts, and people still believe in comunism and its lies, as such free lunch, free transportation, healthcare… Those guys in the riots are just a bunch of puppets of the leftmost parties in the country (such as PSTU, PSOL and PCO) that demands the government to take an even more extreme left turn on politics. I hope that doesn’t happen, or else I’ll be building a boat and trying to get refuge in Miami, just like Cuban fellows.


Raposo June 18, 2013 at 02:47

Don’t believe him. There is nothing about puppets. Many voted for this government and still they are protesting.

Too much corruption from years past, and finishing with a hijacking of people’s money to spend double or triple the necessary to build stadium for World Cup and the Olympics led to this struggle. On top of all that came the raise in bus fares and the people could not stand it.

Just go hide in Miami and don’t come back. We don’t need liars like you. How can you call 100k people puppets?? You really think micro-parties like PSTU, PCO, would have this kind of power. You are the one being dishonest. Those parties summed up together don’t stand from 1% of all votes in any election.

Thanks for the coverage. This is just the beginning. There is more to come.


Fırat Nar June 18, 2013 at 00:33

Hi Rafael,

Neoliberalism is not just the name of a bunch of economic policies, it’s a perspective on the government of society, just like liberalism, from which it claims legacy. As such, it is not simply free-market capitalism of the 19th century being tried to be brought back, it is also an attack on welfare state at the same time ( both because it also claims novelty, and has to defeat its predecessor to establish itself). This comes in the form of the so-called “structural reforms” (sure you know this stuff, just attempting a line of argument, so wont go to details here) enforced by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and their affiliates, membership to, and receiving the praise of which institutions are perceived as signs of safe places for investment on the part of big international business, foreign investors etc.
Now, what does all this mean for left-wing governments? Let us remember Margaret Thatcher’s (the queen of the neoliberals) response to the question, “what is your biggest achievement?” Her reply was “the new left!” This new left is now everywhere, and its exemplary case is Brazil, while the Thatcher&Reagan-type new right finds its example in Turkey. To relate to my first point, neoliberalism is not just right wing economics, it is a perspective on government which can take many forms, but does the same horrible job of making the poor much poorer, and the rich richer. Looked at it on this way, Brazil and Turkey are the two sides of the same coin.
The main disappointment with Obama both in the USA and the world in general can, in my opinion, also be explained in this way (the new left). At home, he is being criticized for creating a big government, much like the way you criticize the Brazilian left-wing government, although on different accounts (e.g. corruption). Tony Blair posed as a socialist for many many years, yet he turned out to be just what Thatcher was speaking about. So did Clinton. So did Obama.

Governments at all times have different views on how to govern, but there are also certain temporal paradigms (e.g. liberalism, welfarism, socialism, neoliberalism etc.) that need to be taken into account to implement what they have in mind. That’s why there is no one single role model of neoliberalism, it can very well take many forms, and it has also proved compatible with oppressive domestic rule and corruption, as we can observe in Brazil and Turkey, precisely because of the global status of this paradigm. One might add China to the list as well.


Steffen Larsen June 18, 2013 at 02:21

This has to be the dumbest I have ever read.

Brazil is a socialist, interventionist state with huge government programs, protectionism and socialism as it hall-marks.

And somehow the socialist policestate og Brazil is now neo-liberal? How do you figure that? It is one of the most socialistic countries in the world – its economy is run by strong unions with close ties to the workers party.

It is everything neo-liberals are opposed to.

Either you are on purpose misleading people with this blog or you are really not aware of what neo-liberal policies and capitalism is all about.


C.Dias June 18, 2013 at 03:16

And, sorry, but YOU are obviously not at all aware of what Brazil is all about. To call this country ‘socialist’ has got to be the joke of the century. Seriously, get your facts straight.


Patricia June 18, 2013 at 17:32

Brazil is socialist????? Are you drunk?? The State couldn’t be more neoliberal, the idea that the state is socialist is so ludicrous that for a second there a believed that you were joking. I am an economics student but you don’t have to be one to realize just how stupid you are. Brazil has embraced the neoliberal project for decades and the result is a country with a severe social and economical inequality. The speech that the State is socialist and controlled by syndicates, is from a elite , that absurdly tries to convey the imagine that they suffer on the hands of the poor .The Pt government is just as neoliberal e conservative as its predecessors , you seriously think projects like bolsa familia are socialist ??? They cost almost nothing to the State, especially with the millions of reais that are used to build stadiums for the world cup. You are probably a son of a wealthy family that is afraid to lose your money or position in the society, I can’t understand how someone, even if has a good economic situation, can overlook the situation in his own country and disregard it. Buy the way as a economics student I can say for sure that you have absolutely no notion of what neoliberalism or socialism is, so go study so you don’t make a ass of yourself


RV June 18, 2013 at 03:40

Foreign Friends, please help Brazilian people!


Adam Larsson June 18, 2013 at 03:44

The neosocialist narrative is very confusing. Government spending shitloads of money on sportevents, and beeing unable to stop a crazy inflation is neoliberalism? Do you revolutionaries even know the 101 of liberal monetary policy and general theory?


H. B. June 18, 2013 at 09:04

Turkey is with you guys!!!! Be strong and never give up!!!


xanthellae June 18, 2013 at 10:59

It is fascinating that these same liberals that rushes to explain that Brazi is so infested with socialism has the same liberal ‘friends’ that always want to point out that x or y number of people have been lifted out of poverty in this and that country thanks to the neoliberal market economy, often with Brazil as an example!


Markus Grass June 18, 2013 at 16:01

@ Adam Larsson: Could it be that the “general theory” that you mention is nothing but ideological crap?


Jerome Roos June 18, 2013 at 16:03

Haha, most likely.


Adam Larsson June 18, 2013 at 17:24

It could be, in the sense that most governments in the free world are synthesised by ideas from different ideological origins. It defintely isn’t in the sense that the term ‘neoliberalism’ seems to have been reduced to a pejorative term for everything that leftists dont like, rather than a description of an actual ideology…


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