6. The Lumpenization of Politics and the Facebookization of Protest
The class analysis sketched in the previous sections can help to contextualize the Brazilian protests in June-July 2013. This can be done in two stages; first, a brief review of the demonstrations and, second, an analysis of the new modalities of protest emerging in the country.
On 6 June, the Free Fare Movement (Movimento Passe Livre, MPL), an autonomist organization, led a small demonstration demanding the reversal of a recent increase in public transport fares in São Paulo (a similar fare increase had also been introduced in Rio de Janeiro). The movement was criticized by the press for obstructing the roads and making unrealistic demands, and their demonstration was attacked by the police. The MPL returned in larger numbers in the following days, and the police responded with increasing brutality, beating up scores of people and shooting demonstrators and journalists with rubber bullets.
Suddenly, however, the main press and TV networks changed sides, and started supporting the movement. The media provided abundant coverage of the demonstrations, effectively calling people to the streets, and it sponsored the multiplication and de-radicalization of demands towards a cacophony focusing on citizenship issues, state inefficiency and corruption. The demonstrations spread across the country; they also became much more white and middle-class in composition. In less than two weeks they involved well over one million people in hundreds of cities, mostly young workers, students and the middle class, categories of workers with corporative demands (bus drivers, lorry drivers, health sector workers, and so on), and working class neighbourhoods seeking local improvements.
In common with recent mass movements elsewhere, the Brazilian demonstrations were highly heterogeneous, including a multiplicity of groups and movements with unrelated demands, and organized primarily through social media and TV. Interestingly, the Brazilian demonstrations often had no clear leaders and no speeches. Groups of people would often organize themselves on Facebook and Twitter, meet somewhere, and then march in directions that were frequently unclear, depending on decisions made by unknown persons more or less on the spot.
Anyone could come up with their own demand or call their own demonstration, and if they were anti-political and humorous this would increase their chances of appearing on TV. Police repression was sometimes accompanied by riots, and then the police pulled back, partly because of concerns with their public image; at other times, the police would attack the demonstrators while leaving the rioters alone. Infiltration by the police and the far-right was both evident and widespread. Some marches were, somehow, declared ‘party-free’, and left-wing militants and trade unionists were harassed and beaten up by thugs shouting ‘my party is my country’. As the mobilizations grew, they did so, they became more radicalized and more fragmented. When the federal government finally pushed São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to reverse the transport fare increases, the mobilizations were already out of control.
In late June, the left made a co-ordinated effort to regain the leadership of the movement, while the federal government, after considerable hesitation, sought left support for the first time. In a meeting with state governors and mayors of the major cities, on 24 June, Dilma Rousseff proposed a ‘national pact’ to reduce corruption, introduce political reforms and expand public service provision, especially in health, education and public transport, to be part-funded by the revenues flowing from the country’s new deep water oilfields. In the meantime, eight trade union confederations, the MST and a broad range of popular organizations organized a ‘day of action’ on 11 July, demanding the reduction of the working week from 44 to 40 hours, higher state pensions and other improvements for the workers. The demonstrations and strikes taking place on that day included several hundred thousand workers, but media coverage was modest.
The Brazilian protests were closely associated with the evacuation of neoliberal democracy. Brazilian democracy includes basic freedoms and competitive elections, supplemented by the insulation of the economic domain from these democratic processes in order to shelter the neoliberal economic policies and institutions from majority pressure. The outcome has been that, while political democracy expanded, the horizons of economic policy debate were narrowed. Despite these tendencies, Brazil also shows important counter-tendencies. Social mobilizations have secured the election of three center-left federal administrations since 2002, the continuing expansion of citizenship and social provision and, since 2006, mildly expansionary economic policies have supported income distribution, economic and employment growth and the formalization of the labour markets. The result has been the strengthening of a reformist political agenda at national level, but its social base of support has weakened because of the erosion of the political capacities of the organized workers and their trade unions, political parties and social movements.
The transformations of the broad working class and the ensuing changes in their modalities of political representation have extensively destroyed the perception of a common working class culture and the sense of collectivity based on shared material circumstances. The ‘new’ working class is both structurally disorganized and distrustful of structures of representation that, from its point of view, are ineffective. By the same token, the workers can now use direct modalities of communication through the web and social media, and they tend to feel less need for representation, including by the traditional media, which is widely perceived to be biased. Aspirations and desires can, now, be articulated directly and expressed in an unmediated form. When groups organized in this way appear in the ‘real world’, they tend to perform as in a spectacle which can be relayed back to their ‘friends’ in the ether, creating incentives for the individualization of demands and the personalization of the means of delivery through humour, colourful disguises, and so on. Facebook becomes the world, and the world becomes a larger- than-life Facebook. Unsurprisingly, then, the Brazilian demonstrations were media-friendly, and many demonstrators were more intent on taking pictures of one another than on doing anything else: social protest was facebookized.
Direct forms of communication and social organization do not lend themselves easily to class- or workplace-based organization. Instead, they foster the formulation of demands in the broadest terms, that is, the language of ‘rights’ (to transport, housing, work, health, education, drugs, abortion, and so on), and, closely related, demands for ‘respect’ for any self-identified group (women, gays, teachers, truck drivers, inhabitants of specific neighbourhoods, etc.). In other words, the decomposition of the working class under neoliberalism has channelled social discontent towards a universalist (classless) ethics.
The structural inability of the existing classes to express their demands cogently, and to find appropriate channels of political representation under neoliberalism, has led social protest to become subsumed by the political forms of representation of the lumpen-proletariat: politics in general, and protest specifically, have been lumpenized . Social protests become infrequent but, when they emerge, they tend to be unfocused and destructive, rather than coalescing around lasting organizations and movements that can accumulate successes and experiences. Just as the demands of the lumpen-proletariat are highly vulnerable to capture by the bourgeoisie, the social movements under neoliberalism tend to become individualistic and vulnerable to capture by the political right.
The lumpenization of politics and the facebookization of protest are limited at four levels. First, the aggregation of individual (spontaneous) demands does not necessarily generate cogent programmes or viable platforms for social change. Second, the direct expression of individual demands on the web favours simplification, superficialit and ‘common sense’, rather than sophisticated, ambitious and historically-informed transformative projects. Third, web-based media can support mobilization, but it is not a suitable means for debate or the build-up of trust, which is essential for the consolidation, broadening and radicalization of protest movements. Fourth, direct representation and ‘horizontality’ (i.e., the lack of hierarchies in the movement) fosters individualism and disorganization. However, dissatisfaction without organization tends to explode and then evaporate, and spontaneous mass movements with a mixed class base and fuelled by unfocused anger can be destabilising for the political system, but they tend to achieve little and leave behind unsatisfied demands which can fuel further waves of unfocused protest. Although their repetition can erode the political edifice of bourgeois rule, they do not help to create feasible alternatives.
The need for organization, delegation of power and compromise within the movement and with outside institutions in complex capitalist societies suggests that recomposing the working class, and overcoming its material fragmentation and the cultural separations imposed by neoliberalism, requires collectivity in practice. This means talking and doing things together, more than interacting through web-based media. Twitter and Facebook are good ways to exchange discrete morsels of information, but they do not allow the exchange of ideas and the formation of the personal and collective links which, alone, can sustain social mobilizations.