Antonio Pele | Two Comments

By Antonio Pele

After the extremely challenging 3/13 Uprising seminar, I would like to make two brief comments: One related to the influence of past international interventions and their impact on the protests, and one regarding the role of ordinary people in such political events.

 

Concerning the first point, during the debate, Bernard suggested that the long history of citizens mobilizing in reaction to foreign interventions – imperialism, colonialism, and decolonization – has crafted their civil societies and prepared them for protests. This experience of negotiating the spaces between the grass root mobilizations and the international interventions was crucial for the later protests. One can add the insight of Lenin in his April theses that after a first bourgeois revolution, a second proletariat revolution can be unleashed. It seems to me that the different waves of class mobilization in contemporary protests might precisely (but not exclusively) define those very spaces of negotiation suggested by Bernard. The relationships between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and more particularly, their distinctive moments in the protests can also be understood in accordance with the “longer history” of international interventions. To put it in others words, it is because of this past (the conscious and the practice of this internal past) that different waves of class mobilization might have taken form and as a consequence, defined the outcome of a protest. The pace, the rhythm and the stages of a protest (i.e first the bourgeoisie, then the peasants/proletariat and vice versa) are in some ways articulated around this history of international interventions. In order to illustrate this idea, I will take the example of Brazil.

 

In June 2013, massive protests broke out throughout the major cities of Brazil. They started in response to the fare hike of public transportation, and particularly thanks to the calls for manifestation from the Free Pass Movement (MPL).[1] Thus, initially part of the Brazilian middle classes were brought into the protests in order to defend broader social rights and a decent welfare State. Following this, other forms of protests started to emerge against corruption and the political system as a whole. In this second wave, protestors were from the middle and upper classes, and were often pushing for a conservative agenda. Whereas the majority of the Brazilian mass media despised the first wave of protestors, they suddenly came to support the second wave of protestors, seeing the opportunity to weaken Dilma’s Government. Throughout June 2013, Brazilian public opinion was molded to favor peaceful and patriotic manifestations, and slowly but surely, the first motives of the protests (social rights) were displaced by the new imperative to demand a new (conservative) government. The social emancipation movement was further discredited when it was immediately associated with the acts of violence committed by the so-called black blocs.

The main point here, which enables us to see these events through Lenin’s April theses, is to highlight the absent actor of June 2013: the poorest and lower classes of Brazilians, which still constitute the essential part of the population. The first demands of June 2013 might have represented their interests but these aims were quickly crushed in favor of another political agenda. Moreover, few individuals of the poorest social Brazilian classes actually took part in the protests. As a consequence, beyond the political struggle between the progressive and conservative Brazilian middle-class, the protest of June 2013 in Brazil remained stuck within the frame of the Brazilian bourgeoisie/middles-class. It excluded the people in most dire need of social and political emancipation. Those people, living in the favelas, who are mostly black working-poor individuals, were excluded from these protests just like they are constantly excluded from wealthy-middle-class Brazilian society. This exclusion can be explained in part by the pervasive effects of colonization and decolonization in Brazil, including racism. Insofar as slavery was only abolished in 1888 for example, its effects are still entrenched into the Brazilian society and legitimize strong social inequalities. As a consequence the “space of negotiation” throughout the Brazilian grass-roots mobilization was limited by this longer history and defined by colonial-era divisions, excluding consequently a large part of the Brazilian population from the protests of June 2013. To summarize the point I wanted to make, it is possible to conceive the different class mobilization brought into a protest in accordance with this internal history of international intervention.

 

The other point I would like to address concerns the engagement of non-political actors in the protests, such as the example of doctors described by Soha during the uprisings (or better, the thawrah) in Egypt. She not only demonstrates how social and political demands are intertwined but also how the outcome of a protest depends on the engagement of “ordinary people.” I think the figure of these previously non-political actors might have some interesting epistemic dimensions that could help us grasp the political dimensions of the revolt. Indeed, it seems that we need, as scholars, to go outside, or at least on the side, of the homogenous revolted masses in order, on the one hand, to grasp the making of political subjectivities, and on the other, to inoculate this political dimension within the revolts. It is almost as if the traditional masses of protests were not seen as political enough (showing precisely the need to redefine this category of “political”) and as a consequence, new subjects were needed in order to keep the political dimensions of the protests. The circumstances are very different, but it reminds me of the diagnostic of Kristin Ross concerning the traditional historiography of May 68. She considers that from a general point of view, the “memory industry in contemporary scholarship” largely relies on categories such as “trauma,” “repression,” “massacre,” and “genocide,” which prevents us from understanding a collective event that does not fit into those categories. As a consequence, following Ross’ words: “Masses (…) have come to mean masses of dead bodies, not masses of people working together to take charge of their collective lives.”[2] I think the intent of Soha might be similar as it aims to reintroduce and to maintain a new political impulse within the revolts. Whereas Ross might focus on the political dimension within the very masses of the protests (May 68), Soha seems to go outside the visible forms of protests in order to extend its political significance. Also, focusing on the professional and creative activities that shaped the protests goes against the tendency to analyze the revolutionary subjectivities as martyrs. It forces us to go beyond this “historiography of the vanquished” as Didier Fassin and Richard Reitchman quote Koselleck at the end of the Empire of Trauma.[3] Thus, it is only by overcoming the strict category of victimhood in their analysis of past and current protests that scholars can instill hope and courage.

 

 

[1] See Leonardo Avritzer “Participation in Democratic Brazil: from popular hegemony and innovation to middle-class protest”, Opinião Pública, 23 (1), 2017: 43-59.

[2] Kristin Ross, May 68 and its Afterlives, (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 2

[3] Didier Fassin & Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma. An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, (Oxford and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 275.

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