The Empire Strikes Back: On the recent general strike in Brazil

by | 18 May 2017

In a recent review of Alex Cuadros’ 2016 Brazzillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country (astonishingly, yet unsurprisingly, still unpublished in Portuguese and in Brazil) Patrick Iber, writing for the New Republic, declared that ‘if Brazil’s inequality shocks the conscience, we must recognize that, as a global community, we are all Brazil.’ Indeed, the fascination of Brazil, not least in the current ‘close to boiling point’ climate that has come to dominate the political weather across the globe, consists not in its being an exotic outlier but rather, as Iber concludes in his perceptive piece, a magnifying mirror that shows in sharp detail the ruptured macrocosm of neoliberal techno-capitalism, its violence and cruelty, but also the beauty that arises from dogged resistance to its naturalization.

One such act of resistance occurred on April 28, when a wide alliance of trade unions, professional associations, and left political parties called for a general strike. Its primary objective was to protest against a far-reaching package of labour market and social security reforms that are currently being enacted by the Brazilian Congress and that aim, amongst others, to weaken collective (labour) bargaining rights, make outsourcing of workers (much) easier, and significantly change the pension benefit structure, including, and most controversially, the pension age and the overall length of pension contributions. The measures are part of a hardcore structural adjustment programme pursued by the transitional regime that brought itself to power in 2016 through the removal, by impeachment, of the elected president Dilma Rousseff. Its first leg was introduced in late 2016 in form of a constitutional amendment mandating a twenty-year public spending freeze, a move which the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, called, with unprecedented candour, as akin to placing Brazil in a socially regressive category all of its own. It is now to be followed up by a further dismantling of the interventive capacity of the Brazilian state into labour relations, social security arrangements and, generally, economic affairs. Taken together with the coup-like power grab, as well as the parallel fallout over large-scale corporate corruption and the hard-edged prosecutor-driven clean up that has followed it, this has become a fight for the soul of Brazil.

The problem is that, here as elsewhere, the terms and categories through which that fight is articulated have themselves become so deeply contested that there is no longer any common ground, no common language, no shared description of the ‘facts’. Society is deeply ruptured, and so are the readings of the strike and its context. In fact, some, like the Federal Minister of Justice in a statement made on the morning of the 28th, denied that it was happening at all, insisting that it was going to be no more than a ‘mess’ (banderna) instigated by political vagabonds (vagabundos). In this post-factual age of epistemic fragmentation, the debate -if it can be called that- is not about assessing the strike and the reforms it was set up against through the lens of fundamental political categories, but about gaining definitional hegemony over reality itself. Which is why the narrative about this strike is about much more than mass protest against structural adjustment policies pursued by a neoliberal government. It is about the interpretation of Brazil’s recent political history and about the lessons that should be drawn from it. More specifically, it is about whether the neo-developmentalist experiment of the Lula/Dilma period is the cause for the country’s current economic (and political) woes and, thus, as the re-(self-)empowered right argues, for the austerity measures that now allegedly need to be imposed to salvage a sinking Brazilian economy; or, conversely, whether the right’s power grab is the result of the very success of a decade of broadly social democratic reforms that had simply started to structurally irritate both the stratified world view of (some of) the middle class as well as the ‘business model’ of the rentier capitalists who dominate Brazil’s economic sub-structure. To make things more complicated, these incommensurate meta-narratives have been cross-cut by an all-pervasive (anti-)corruption discourse unrelentingly aired by both a politically motivated mainstream media and parts of a -possibly also politically motivated- judiciary. It has mesmerized a heretofore largely unpolitical middle-class and it has divided the left – into a ‘corruption as a ploy to delegitimate the reformist Lula/Dilma legacy’-camp and a ‘corporativist developmentalism is inherently corrupt’-camp.

So this, then, is the scenario within which the strike took place. As was to be expected, the mainstream media was poised from the beginning to downplay its impact and reduce it to isolated acts of disruption and wanton violence by protesters a priori labelled as vandals. Police intervention, where it happened, was uniformly described as reactive and reasonable. By contrast, the picture that could be gleaned from social media and part of the international press showed a sizeable adherence across the country, probably significant enough to make it the largest general strike in Brazil’s history, and a sign for the continued ability of trade unions and social movements to mobilize and organize acts of mass resistance. These news sources also conveyed the considerable violence committed by police in some places, not least in Rio de Janeiro – which is where this contributor experienced events on the day.

Rio is, within Brazil, a special case and in a certain sense it is a mirror within the mirror, a place that symbolizes the Brazilian predicament in its totality, from its crassly public inequality to its irresistible creativity, its daily side-by-side of violence and beauty, brutality and humanity. Having lost its capital status to Brasília in the mid-60s, and never, like its eternal rival São Paulo, an economic powerhouse, it has lingered on as Brazil’s national trademark city, beset by abysmally bad state and municipal governments and a treacherous reliance on offshore oil. It was made into a symbol of Brazil’s international ascendancy during the Lula/Dilma period by becoming South America’s first Olympic host city (in 2016) and a co-host of the FIFA World Cup (in 2014), which brought some welcome new infrastructure but also bitter social conflict and financial bankruptcy to the state (though not the municipality). Since then, Rio has shown (to Brazil) where enforced austerity leads to: a near breakdown of public institutions, non- or only partial payment of (state) civil servants, including police, hospital staff, school teachers and university lecturers, the selling off of the few remaining public assets (such as water provision) at undervalued prices, and a significant rise in (organized) crime and the (here always) concomitant police violence.

And all of this was, in its own way, reflected in the strike as it unfolded here: early in the morning relatively small pickets managed to blockade both the main bridge and the ferry terminal connecting downtown Rio with its neighbouring city Niteroi, thus causing major commuter congestion. Other acts throughout the city led to further shutdowns, with especially public schools (and many private ones, too) having adhered to the strike. Overall the picture displayed that slightly surreal mixture typical of this city: one could walk along busy shopping streets that would look just like on ordinary workdays, one could encounter, on public squares, small(ish) groups of protesters representing particular constituencies or institutions, and one could, later in the afternoon, congregate towards the Cinelandia square right in the historical city center to attend the main rally of the day, organised by the principal trade unions and a host of civil society organizations around a central stage, quite like any May Day event across the world . Yet, as if to rub in that things are different now, that there is not only a new government and a new politics, but a new ruling episteme, things unfolded rather differently: early on, during an otherwise peaceful march towards the Cinelandia meeting grounds, a small group of, perhaps, twenty individuals had apparently started to turn violent against (some) police and adjacent properties – in its reporting of the incident, the mainstream press has uniformly tended to frame it as police legitimately reacting against ‘black blocs’ a priori intent on committing acts of violence. That they, instead, might have been agents provocateurs -as has happened here before-, or simply a pretext for police to violently dissolve the rally was not reflected in (mainstream) news coverage. That the latter might well have been the case was, however, borne out by the facts as they unfolded thereafter, for police immediately reacted with heavy use of teargas and plastic bullets against the main body of the march, which was partially dispersed though managed to regroup to eventually arrive at the designated square. There it encountered a heavy presence of riot police, but otherwise the situation seemed to have calmed down, not least in the main body of demonstrators, which reflected a colourful cross-section of Brazilian society. For a short moment the crowd radiated the calm confidence that organized labour in Europe and, to an extent, North America, had attained, after a century of struggle, during the post-War ‘economic compromise’ and which, in turn, served as one of the models for labour relations during the Lula/Dilma period. It was like a flashback to another time, when union rallies were (almost) stately affairs, when the freedom of assembly felt like the historical achievement of a distant past, and when the police could be relied upon to actually protect that freedom by ensuring that its public exercise could go ahead. This vision was, of course, an illusion, and has been one, in Brazil, since at least the heavy-handed reaction to the 2013 mass protests which happened yet under Dilma’s watch. However, as many especially elderly demonstrators would affirm later on, what happened on April 28 on Cinelandia square went a step further, so far, in fact, that the most frequent comparison by those old enough to know was with the suppression of dissent by successive military governments after the (hot) coup of 1964.

For, after about ten minutes, during which nothing violent had occurred within the large main body of demonstrators massed in front of the main stage, the police, without warning and obvious provocation, simply started to shoot teargas right into that very main body as well as directly onto the stage. Unsurprisingly this sent everyone running, resulting in a generalized dispersal into adjacent streets and squares; every so often the now fragmented crowd would stop, whereupon the police would close in and launch further teargas salvoes, block after block, until, well a kilometre from the original venue, people would literally escape into the metro and head home. In this generalized ‘clearing out’ strategy, police went as far as firing teargas into restaurants, shops, and metro stations into which groups of demonstrators had fled. The feeling that pervaded during this collective retreat, inscribed on people’s faces and occasionally vented in spontaneous chanting, was a mixture of incredulity (of the fact that the police had, in fact, just simply broken up a legal and legitimate, and, in the main, peaceful rally) and a rage so strong that it made some simply cry.

Yet, in these disjointed times, even this story is not quite as unidimensional as it might appear. In those places of the global North where the fallout brought about by finance capitalism and its successive crises has not yet sunken in, an episode such as this might simply be discussed as an issue of incompetent police tactics, it might lead to the dismissal of a local police chief, perhaps even of a government minister – after all, the pretense that the postwar economic compromise still holds, that everyone is still (somewhat) ‘in’, that the democratic-constitutional state is still in control, has been characteristic of the collective denial that has gripped many in the global North. In Brazil, that pretense has become impossible to sustain, giving way to a polyphonic jumble of voices, worldviews, and interests, which makes it hard to settle for any one overarching causal narrative or to discern any unambiguous structural drivers. There is, for instance, the view of the police: they feel under severe pressure, as the state’s fiscal crisis has negatively affected their pay deal and, perhaps more gravely, has emboldened the drug cartels, always out to reconquer the profitable selling points from which they were evicted by the state government’s community policing scheme introduced in 2008, to launch a kill-on-sight war against police to which more than sixty officers have fallen victim up to May 2017 alone. In addition, police are fragmented by association with different (illegal) vigilante groups (milícias) which vie for income-enhancing access to ‘extracurricular’ opportunities. They now have a (para-fascist) voice in the local leader (with national aspirations) of a new political movement that readily associates ‘the left’ with anti-police sympathies for human rights and ‘bandits’ (i.e. drug dealers as well as any non-conformists such as trade unionists). There is also the wider perspective of Rio’s political establishment, with the state’s governor, who stands at the nominal top of the chain of responsibility for police conduct, having an eminent interest in showing the federal government his utter commitment to seeing austerity policies through in return for federal bailout funds. It is, thus, not at all implausible to assume that the state government had, from the beginning, connived to violently supress this most public part of the strike, an undertaking for which it could count on the willing support of Rio police – there is ample precedent for such a strategy dating back to the way anti-World Cup and anti-Olympic Game protests were handled in the city. Yet, many of those who witnessed the action on the 28th felt that this ‘in the face’ negation of the freedom of assembly went a step further and crossed a line even seasoned Cariocas had thought to be uncrossable.

Lastly, there is, again, the bubble vision of said transitional federal government, an unlikely coalition brought together less by any coherent ideology than by a shared grudge against the Brazil that had emerged (if imperfectly and only tentatively) during the Lula/Dilma period. Many here have been tempted, despite the deep ambivalence of that terminology, to describe this emergent Brazil as simply ‘more modern’ (economically, socially, culturally, perhaps, for a time, even politically), which has, however, additionally offended those who have traditionally claimed the exclusive definitional authority over what counts as ‘modern’ here – and who are now back in power with a vengeance. It came, thus, as no surprise that President Michel Temer, at the end of that long strike day, lamented some isolated acts of violence but vowed to continue his fight for the ‘modernization’ of the country.

The fight is on, then, and though its outcome is uncertain, the experience of this general strike shows that despite all repression and epistemic violence, the emancipated spirit that had begun to emerge over the past decade has not been and will not be broken. The recent past cannot be undone, nor can the more distant past again be made to serve as a template for the future. There is reason for hope!


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