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  Number 384 | Julio 2013
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The masses in the streets

“The demonstrations in the streets of Brazil are bringing political analysts and scientists to the fore,” muses the Brazilian Dominican friar known as Frei Betto. And he answers himself: “The message of the streets is simple: Our governments have removed themselves from the social base. To use a Marxist term, political society is separated from civil society.” In this brief piece, former Franciscan priest Leonard Boff also poses questions and gives answers, and they echo in today’s Nicaragua.

Leonardo Boff

An insurrectional spirit is spreading among the masses around the world and they’re occupying the only spaces left to them: the streets and squares. The movement is just getting started, first in North Africa, then with the “Indignants” movement in Spain, followed by the “Occupy” protests in England and the United States, and now with young people and other social movements in Brazil.

Nobody refers to the classic clarion calls: socialism, the Left, a liberating party or revolution. All these proposals are either exhausted or no longer attractive enough to move the masses. They are far more interested in issues related to citizens’ everyday life: participatory work; democracy for all; human, personal and social rights; women’s active presence; government transparency: clear rejection of all kinds of corruption; and a possible and much needed new world. Nobody feels represented by the instituted powers that are creating a palace political world while turning their backs on or directly manipulating the citizenry.

How to interpret it?

Interpreting this phenomenon presents a challenge to any analyst. Pure reason isn’t enough; it requires a holistic reason that incorporates other forms of intelligence; non-rational, emotional and archetypal data; and events that are part of the historical process and even of the origin or evolution of the universe. Only then will we have a more or less complete way to do justice to the uniqueness of this phenomenon.

To start with, we must recognize that this is the first major phenomenon resulting from a new phase of completely open human communication, democracy at ground zero, expressed through social networks. Any citizen can emerge from anonymity; have his or her say; find like-minded people to share ideas with; organize groups and meetings; raise a banner and go out into the street. Suddenly, networks of networks are formed that move thousands of people outside the boundaries of space and time. This phenomenon must be carefully analyzed, because it could represent a leap in civilization that will mark a new direction to the history not just of a country but of all humanity.

The Brazilian demonstrations prompted solidarity demonstrations in dozens upon dozens of other cities in the world, especially in Europe. Suddenly Brazil is no longer just about Brazilians. It’s a part of humanity that identifies itself as a species sharing a common home made up of collective universal causes.

Why in Brazil and why now?

Why have these mass movements exploded in Brazil now? There’re many reasons, but I’ll focus on just one. My sense of the world tells me that it’s primarily about a saturation effect: people are sick of the kind of politics practiced in Brazil, even by the leaders of the Workers’ Party (PT)—with the exception of municipal politics, where they still maintain the old grassroots fervor. People have benefited from the social welfare programs: Family Allowance, Light for All, My House My Life, acquired credit… and moved into the consumer society. Now what?

Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar put it rather well: “Human beings have two hungers: hunger for bread, which is satiable, and hunger for beauty, which is insatiable.” Beauty means education, culture, recognition of human dignity, personal and social rights, quality health care and a less inhuman basic transport system. This second hunger hasn’t been adequately addressed by the powers that be, whether the PT or other parties. Those who have sated their physical hunger want to see these other hungers addressed, not the least of which is hunger for culture and participation. It is increasing awareness of the profound social inequalities that are Brazilian society’s great stigma. As public awareness and real democracy grows, this situation becomes increasingly intolerable.

This charade isn’t cemocracy

Democracy is purely formal in such profoundly unequal societies as ours. It’s only practiced in the act of voting, which ultimately amounts to being able to choose your “dictator” every four years because, once elected, the victorious candidates turn their back on the people and practice palace party politics that seem like a collective charade. But this charade is being unmasked. The masses want a voice in the decisions about major projects that affect them and about which they aren’t consulted at all. The worst example of this is the indigenous peoples, whose lands are seized for agri-businesses or hydroelectric industries.

This phenomenon of masses in the streets reminds me of the 1975 prize-winning Brazilian play by Chico Buarque de Hollanda and Paulo Pontes: “The drop of water.” We’ve reached the drop that overflows the glass. In some ways the authors intuited today’s situation when they said in the book’s preface: “The key is that Brazilian life can be returned, on stage, to the Brazilian public... Our tragedy is a tragedy of Brazilian life.”

This tragedy is now being denounced by the masses shouting in the streets. The Brazil we have isn’t ours; we aren’t included in the social pact that always ensures the lion’s share to the elites. The masses in the streets want a Brazilian Brazil where the people count for something and want to help reconstruct the country based on other, less evil and more democratic, participatory, ethical social relationships.

This cry can’t fail to be heard, understood and followed. Politics can be different in the future.

Leonard Boff is a Brazilian renowned for his writing on Liberation Theology and currently Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

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