Rebellion in the city: brazil

Seuls des groupes, classes ou fractions de classes sociales capables d’initiatives révolutionnaires peuvent prendre en charge et mener jusqu’à plein accomplissement les solutions aux problèmes urbains ; de ces forces sociales et politiques la ville rénovée deviendra l’œuvre.

Henri Lefebvre, Le droit à la ville

“Without collective transportation, no life exists in cities.”  But as this transportation is organised according to the ambitions of profit and the administrative control of populations, the “struggle for the right to transportation … means the struggle for freedom, for the right to the city in opposition to the control of public space.” (Colectivo Passa Palavra, “Lutas Socias pelo transporte: uma breve introdução”)

It is only in light of such claims that one can begin to understand the enormous social movement that has swept brazil in the month of June.  Ignited by the announcement, on the 2nd of June, of a twenty cent increase in the bus fare of the city of São Paulo (governed by the “left” PT), the movement quickly spread to all of the country’s major cities, protest after protest repeated, until at the end of the month (and after at least 6 dead and hundreds injured), the promised increase and other similar increases throughout the country were abandoned and the president of the country promised further investments in public services, as well as a referendum on the organisation of a national constituent assembly.

The animating organisation behind the movement is the Movimento Passe Livre – MPL (Free Passage Movement).  Its history goes back to a popular uprising against a similar effort to increase public transportation fares in Salvador de Bahía in 2003; protests repeated in 2004 and 2005 in Florianópolis.  And in 2005, at the World Social Forum of Porto Alégre, the MPL gained form, adopting as its principal goal, free public transportation.

In a country as large as brazil, and in cities whose size and scale almost defy the imagination, transportation is not a light matter.  Indeed, for almost forty million brazilians, transportation fares defy their modest means (, “Pensar a luta espacialmente”).  Not surprisingly, brazil’s June has been characterised as a movement for rights to the city, alluding thereby to the work of Henri Lefebvre, or more recently, to that of David Harvey.  Under its banner, various social movements organise around rights that are considered fundamental to human well being, but rights conceived of, and which very often only make sense, in the context of the city.

To this extent, the movement can be seen as simply a citizens’ movement, in the sense of demanding from the State the providing of the conditions necessary for the realisation of certain basic rights.  (The right to health, education or employment become purely fictional if one cannot afford to leave one’s residence.  This is a dependence on transportation made inevitable by the scale and social segregation of contemporary capitalist urbanisation).  But such concerns, raised in struggle against the authority of State-Capital quickly reveal their limits, for what is ultimately at stake in the brazil protests is the reign of private property over that of freedom and equality.  That is, in calling for free public transportation, what is demanded is the freedom of movement, the freedom of access to the city and a lifting of the barriers and borders that make this freedom possible; an overcoming of the interests of those who control and benefit from the marginalisation of vast segments of the population.

“It is not a matter, therefore, of a reformist measure that aims to guarantee access to the city without questioning the urban “peripherisation” that results from the commodification of land, but of a banner of struggle of the working class that questions, in the end, the essence of the organisation of the capitalist city.” (Diego Augusto Diehl, Greicy Rosa, Victor Alexander Mazura, “Direito à cidade: mobilidade urbana e tarifa zero”)

For many in the MPL, the movement is revolutionary; revolutionary in its capacity to challenge the domination of State-Capital, in its ability to force political change and in its potential to serve as a point of passage and as a catalyst for other, further struggles.

The MPL emerges from a sea of brazilian social movements.  Like latter day sans-culottes, they are the multitudes of the dispossessed, created around a desire for what they are deprived of:  Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), Frente Internacionalista dos Sem-Tecto (FIST), Coletivo Pela Moradia, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto (MTST), Movimento dos Trabalhadores Desempregados “Pela Base”, and the like.  Read superficially as movements simply advocating for State intervention in different areas of social life, they could all be described as fundamentally reformist.  But the distinction between reform and revolution in these instances is untenable, as demands for reform can unpredictably move towards more radical forms of contestation and creation.  In other words, demands for rights to the city can quickly move towards a making of the city.  And the awareness of this possibility is evident in the MPL, to take but this organization as an example.

“We believe in a new way of doing politics and we do not organise ourselves for elections.  We pressure the government on public policies, but we defend in our daily practice that there exists a politics beyond voting.”  (Movimento Passe Livre)

Should brazil’s protest movement wane before government promises, the MPL and the other many collectives and movements opposed to State-Capital will not pass away.  Indeed, brazil’s June has served as a school for many, even beyond brazil, in which we have been reminded that power can be taken by a people united.  As the Brazilian writer Julián Fuks wrote of the joyful movement, “A flower was born in the street!  One cannot see its colour.  Its petals do not open.  Its name is unrecorded in books.  She is ugly.  But it is truly a flower.” (Le Monde 28/06/2013)

On the 17th of June, the national congress building of the country was taken by many of the inhabitants of Brasília.  If Niemeyer’s utopia was until then purely formal, those who filled his city’s streets made it their city.  And as their shadows danced against the white of the structure’s inverted dome, one could make out the dancing curves of a living utopia that Niemeyer had endeavoured to fix in the stillness of cement.

Who is not a utopian today?  Only narrowly specialized practitioners working to order without the slightest critical examination of the stipulated norms and constraints, only those not very interesting people escape utopianism.  All are utopians….  But there are several utopianisms.  Would not the worst be that utopianism which does not utter its name, covers itself with positivism and on this basis imposes the harshest constraints and the most derisory absence of technicity?

                                                                        Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City


An enormous body of material associated with the MPL can be found at the website


Video from Brasil’s rebellion …



A last or first word, song, by Chico Buarque: Apesar de você …

Apesar De Você

Hoje você é quem manda
Falou, tá falado
Não tem discussão
A minha gente hoje anda
Falando de lado
E olhando pro chão, viu
Você que inventou esse estado
E inventou de inventar
Toda a escuridão
Você que inventou o pecado
Esqueceu-se de inventar
O perdão

Apesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Eu pergunto a você
Onde vai se esconder
Da enorme euforia
Como vai proibir
Quando o galo insistir
Em cantar
Água nova brotando
E a gente se amando
Sem parar

Quando chegar o momento
Esse meu sofrimento
Vou cobrar com juros, juro
Todo esse amor reprimido
Esse grito contido
Este samba no escuro
Você que inventou a tristeza
Ora, tenha a fineza
De desinventar
Você vai pagar e é dobrado
Cada lágrima rolada
Nesse meu penar

Apesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Inda pago pra ver
O jardim florescer
Qual você não queria
Você vai se amargar
Vendo o dia raiar
Sem lhe pedir licença
E eu vou morrer de rir
Que esse dia há de vir
Antes do que você pensa

Apesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Você vai ter que ver
A manhã renascer
E esbanjar poesia

Como vai se explicar
Vendo o céu clarear
De repente, impunemente
Como vai abafar
Nosso coro a cantar
Na sua frente

Apesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Você vai se dar mal
Etc. e tal
La, laiá, la laiá, la laiá


In Spite of You (Tomrrow Will be Another Day)

Today, you’re the one who calls the shots
That’s it,  it’s been spoken
There’s no arguing
My people walk around today
Speaking to the side and looking toward the ground
Got it?
You, who invented this State,
Invented by inventing
All darkness
You who invented sin
Forgot to invent forgiveness

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
I ask you, where will you hide
From the great euphoria?
How will you prohibit
When the rooster insists on crowing?
New water flowing,
And our people loving one another, without stopping

When the moment arrives
This suffering of mine
I’m going to charge with interest, I swear
All this love repressed
This scream contained
This samba in the dark

You who invented sadness
Now kindly “disinvent” it
You’re going to pay – and doubled
Every tear that rolled
In this anguish of mine

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
I will still pay to see
The garden bloom
The one you didn’t want to

You’re going to become embittered
Seeing the day break
Without asking your permission
And I’m going to die of laughter
And that day is bound to come
Sooner than you think

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
You will have to see
The morning reborn
And pour out poetry

How will you explain to yourself
Seeing the sky clear, suddenly
With impunity?

How are you going to stifle
Our chorus singing
Right in front of you

In spite of you
Tomorrow is going to be another day
You’re going to be out of luck
Etcetera and so on
La la-ya, la la-ya, la….

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