In the largest anti-government demonstrations – dubbed the Tropical Spring – violent clashes broke out as people demanded improved public services and an end to corruption in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup. (Losh, 2013)
Is the world going to Hell in a handbasket? The answer probably depends which side of the class divide you stand on. For the world’s wealthy elites the protests in Brazil are another disturbing sign that the ungrateful wretches who survive on meagre table crumbs are restless, once again.
The issue is not so much whether the handbasket is being winched up or down; but rather: Why? If you were to rely only on the mainstream media for an answer you may just end up more confused than when you started.
There’s a mood for change sweeping many parts of the world today, but our understanding of its significance is not increased by most of the media coverage.
Since the Arab Spring of 2010 a wave of revolutionary struggle has erupted across parts of southern Europe and most recently it has spread to Turkey and to Brazil. However, our media tends to treat each of these uprisings as isolated events and attempts to explain them in terms of local and national issues. The global instability of neo-liberal late capitalism is hardly mentioned. Most journalists won’t even acknowledge it. Perhaps it’s too complicated; for some it is certainly too scary to think about.
Further, the news media’s debilitating fixation on the concept of balance means that these globe-shifting outbreaks of protest are reported with an even-handed ignorance. Simplistic explanations like social media equals more democracy are trotted out to give a sheen of analysis to what is actually intellectually threadbare coverage.
Protestors are routinely labelled as inchoerent, rudderless and violent; on the other hand, governments are portrayed as neutral arbiters of calm and order. This is a politically naïve representation that highlights the profound lack of real understanding on the part of journalists on the ground and of their media organisations. Simple vox pops are left to suffice for clear political commentary from the movement’s leaders and a seething mass of individuals ‘rioting’ provides the most telegenic images. It’s easier than trying to translate and understand the political tracts and speeches that inevitably accompany protest marches.
The problem is that most journalists are used to reporting politics as a game of ‘he said, she said’ in which claims and counter-claims are presented to the audience within a framework of parliamentary democracy. But you cannot report revolution within that framework. Revolutions do not follow that MSM script and most reporters, unfortunately, cannot see past their own faces to what is really going on.
Fundamental questions about the role of States and state-sponsored violence are sidelined, ignored or mis-interpreted.The history of social movements and the long-lived experience of people which finally draws them to the streets is underplayed or ignored altogether in favour of the sexy shots and simple sound bite.
It is not good enough.
The rest of this post concentrates on Brazil, but similar arguments can be made about Turkey and also the Arab Spring.
2013: A Tropical Spring, or Brazilian Autumn?
When it comes to coverage of events in Brazil over the past week, it is the immediacy of the demonstrations, the violence, barricades and tear gas that become the focus of the story in the mainstream news media.
An estimated 300,000 demonstrators swarmed through Rio de Janeiro, where running pitched battles played out between riot police and clusters of young men with T-shirts wrapped around their faces. Peaceful protesters were also caught in the crackdown as police fired tear gas canisters and indiscriminately used pepper spray. (Losh, 2013)
A distinction is usually made between the ‘peaceful’ protestors and the ‘clusters of young men’ who engage directly with the police violence; but there is little in the way of analysis. The exception is the more liberal press, such as The Guardian. But even here, the analysis is shallow and quietly determinist in its explanation.
Inevitably, everything is organised via social media; as happened in 2011, exactly what anyone wants seems less important than the general outlines of dissent, and the simple experience of being involved. (Harris, 2013)
Harris repeats an oft-heard argument that says the protests erupting in Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere, are the direct result of unmetered communications via social networks. It is a familiar trope: the digital revolution is causing this social revolution.
Its central tension is surely between a revolution in communication that is transforming people’s expectation of influence and voice, and closed networks of power that tie together corporations and government. (Harris, 2013)
It seems self-evident that this is the case, but mainly because proving the opposite is impossible. Social media networks are ubiquitous and they do create channels for ‘horizontal’ communication between peer groups. However, social media are the tools, not the root cause of any revolution.
A deeper issue is revealed by a close John Harris’ piece in The Guardian. His conceptualisation of the ‘left’ is mired in an inaccurate and historically displaced reading of social democracy and socialist politics today.
Brazil is a particularly fascinating case study, because it shines light on how awkwardly this new reality sits with even the most forward-looking parts of the mainstream left. (Harris, 2013)
I would argue that the opposite is true. The only media that is consistently attempting to analyse the social forces at play in Brazil (and elsewhere) is the small and marginal media of the international socialist left. But in Harris’ view the ‘mainstream’ left is the same thing as ‘social democracy’, which is not the case at all. Social democracy is the discredited reformist parties—like British Labour and the Workers’ Party in Brazil—the left is actually the much smaller and less influential groupings who adhere to a revolutionary Marxist tradition. Harris’ argument is therefore misleading.
Orthodox social democracy would have you believe that the essential relations between citizen and state can remain largely unchanged, so long as money goes from rich to poor, and society is understood to be on roughly the correct path. (Harris, 2013)
That much of Harris’ argument is not controversial. The reformist position has always been that the State structures can be captured and, in the hands of social democrats, be effectively used to replace the harshest elements of capitalism with a system of private enterprise with a human face. As the recent events in Brazil show, this is a dead-end that inevitably leads even the most well-intentioned social democrats into the hands of big business and cronyism.
On the other hand, the Marxist tradition has always argued for socialism from below. We have never suggested that it is enough to capture the power of the capitalist state. The bourgeois state must be smashed. It is the bourgeois state—under the control of the social democrats—that is tear-gassing the protestors in Brazil. The bourgeois state is the organising committee of the ruling class; its monopoly of arms is there for one reason—to protect the capitalists and their investments from revolutionary overthrow. That is why this statement from John Harris is utterly wrong and misleading—perhaps the product of his own middle class background of privilege.
On the left, most people remain in thrall to a worldview little changed since the early 20th century, whereby the top-down state can supposedly be captured, and used to tame an inhuman market. (Harris, 2013)
Harris has to believe this because it is the only reading of ‘history’ allowable in his narrative because it is the only one that justifies his technological determinism around social media and the Brazil protests. To Harris, and to many other western journalists covering Brazil, the protest movement seems to be leaderless and without historical precedent. Therefore, it must be the product of social media. This is rubbish. If you read more widely than The Guardian it is clear that several social movements, with a long history of campaigning, have helped to build and guide the protest movement.
The spontaneous nature and surprising size of the current rounds of protests is certainly unprecedented; but the anger that it represents has not just arisen because of Twitter and Facebook. It has deep-seated causes and the spark that set this anger alight can only create a flame if there is the right mix of combustible fuel and tinder available already. The fire must be laid before it can be lit.
Alternative media, particularly the online socialist press, does provide some more political insights into the situation on the ground.
From an interview with university lecturer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Miguel Borba de Sa, conducted by Mark Bergfeld in the online Jacobin magazine.
Last Sunday [16 July, 2013] was a huge turning point. The middle classes started to mobilize with their anti-corruption platform. Alongside their buddies in the media they called for a demonstration for this following Monday. They tried to split the movement and the assemblies, which had called for yesterday’s demonstration. Luckily, they were unsuccessful. The movement had gained so much momentum that they had to come in behind Thursday’s protests…
It is more and more the case that the middle classes and the media-savvy anti-corruption parties are the dominant voices in the movement. With the media at their disposal they appear to be successful. In many towns and cities they’ve managed to sideline the demands of more radical elements.
In its own right the media has mastered an historic shift. For a long time they kept quiet. Then a journalist from Sao Paulo’s biggest newspaper lost his eye and six other journalists were heavily injured. That changed the situation. Some circles within the ruling class altered their strategy. The media started to support the protest – and even call on people to march. This gave the protests a greater sense of legitimacy but represents a clear attempt to hijack the protests. (Bergfeld, 2013)
In some media outlets the protesters are given a voice, such as this piece, which appeared in the New York Times.
The bigger issue behind the dissatisfaction, however, is that Brazilians are still getting used to democracy. Two decades of fierce military dictatorship formally ended only in 1985. We still have a military police force to maintain public order. We still fear them. That is why these protests are so important.
Not all Brazilians agree. Many think the demonstrations lack focus, are useless or even harmful. The press sometimes calls the protesters “vandals,” “delinquents” and “terrorists.” And there have been some acts of vandalism by the crowds. But that is no excuse to stay home. (Barbara, 2013)
Vanessa Barbara edits the literary Web site A Hortaliça and is a columnist for the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
Analysis from socialist groups is more realistic and detailed bout the protests and leadership, rather than just relying on vox-pops from random individual protestors.
…the movement can already count some impressive achievements. Firstly, it has stared down police brutality and attempts by the mainstream media and politicians to characterise the protests as vandalism by a deranged minority. The dismissal by the media in particular galvanised people into action, and has produced cringe-worthy back-pedalling by some media organisations. (Melo & Windle, 2013)
The Guardian is providing commentary on Brazlian news coverage of the protests, but the paper’s liberal fig leaf is just that, a cover for its basically pro-capital politics.
Brazil’s news media, which had blasted Rousseff in recent days for her lack of response to the protests, seemed largely unimpressed with her careful speech but noted the difficult situation facing a government trying to understand a mass movement with no central leaders and a flood of demands. With “no objective information about the nature of the organisation of the protests”, wrote Igor Gielow in a column for Brazil’s biggest newspaper, Folha de S Paulo, “Dilma resorted to an innocuous speech to cool down spirits”. (AP, 2013)
Any mass movement has leaders, to suggest otherwise is arrant nonsense, but in many cases, the mainstream media does not give any indication of who might be leading the protests in Brazil. The overwhelming impression is that these mass demonstrations emerge from nowhere and coalesce into a rabble that inevitably leads to small groups becoming violent and creating situations that require police intervention. It is only be looking for alternative sources that interested onlookers outside Brazil can get a sense of any organisation behind the protests. In the midst of the largest street demonstrations Brazil has seen in decades, some of the country’s most important social movements – including the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) and the National Union of Students (UNE) – sent an open letter to Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff on June 20, 2013.
The media is trying to portray the movement as anti-Dilma, as against corrupt politicians, against the wasting of public money and other demands that would impose the return of neoliberalism. We believe that there are many demands, just as there are many opinions and visions of the world present in society. We are dealing with a cry of indignation from a people historically excluded from national political life and accustomed to seeing politics as something that is damaging to society. (MST, CUT, & UNE, 2013)
The role of Brazilian media
Academics sympathetic to the protests provide the clearest insight into the role of the Brazilian mass media in what is a very complex political situation. The government is led by the Workers’ Party (PT) that came to power in the 1990s with the election of popular president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, on a platform of resisting the worst of neo-liberal policies and promises that it would address inequality and social issues. By 2013, however, the progressive policies of ‘Lula’ had been replaced by a business-as-usual state of affairs in which the powerful economic interests of Brazil’s ruling class again came to dominate social and political culture.
Since Dilma Rousseff’s election as president, popular participation has decreased. Negotiations take place in the corridors of Brasilia, and while political and economic elites inevitably get their way, social movements and the PT’s base are invited to put up or shut up. Maintaining the coalition created by Lula comes at an ever higher cost. In the last two years, the Brazilian government has repeatedly acted as a progressive cover for profoundly reactionary interests, such as those of landowners and the Christian right. (Nunes, 2013)
The major media companies in Brazil are, like everywhere, owned by families linked to the nation’s rich elites; their interests are not aligned with those of the protestors. According to observers this accounts for the vacillations in the national press over how to characterise the unrest.
Brazil’s mainstream media initially portrayed the demonstrations as carried out by rowdy trouble-makers following clashes between protesters and police and some acts of vandalism. That narrative has begun to shift, however. Still, many in Brazil’s press remain uncomfortable with the upheaval, according to [sociologist and editor-in-chief of Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil, Silvio] Caccia Bava.
“What the media have done reflects the distribution of power in this country as well,” he said. “The powerful families that own some of the main newspapers and TV networks are afraid of social movements, so they have a tendency to criminalize them. They have shifted in their narrative just because of the momentum, nothing else has changed.” (Alves, 2013)
Brazil and the global crisis
What we will not hear from the capitalist media—in Brazil or outside it—is an explanation of the unrest that explores the deep-seated problems of capitalism in crisis. Over the past decades we have heard about Brazil, Russia, India and China, the so-called BRIC nations as being the new engines of expansion in global capitalism. They may well represent untapped wealth for investors, but their growth is at the expense of social services and democratic reform. The unrest in Brazil is a manifestation of the failure of the BRIC countries to achieve rising living standards alongside growth in investment, GDP and exports. The BRIC nations, plus South Africa, met in Durban in March 2013 and announced the formation of a global bloc to rival the World Bank. Dilma Rousseff was there, representing Brazil, her social democrat credentials carefully hidden away for the occasion.
Of course, we should not be surprised by the uprising in Brazil; it has been brewing for sometime. The police death squads have been operating with impunity for many years, including under Rousseff, who was elected in January 2011. An Amnesty International report in 2011 was largely ignored in the mainstream media outside Brazil. So today reporters can claim that the riots have come from nowhere because the actively ignore such mundane events as an AI situation report. But even a cursory glance at Amnesty’s report on Brazil provides evidence of deep-seated problems.
When Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty visited Brazil in April , he met with families who had lost their homes in police operations carried out without prior warning. Residents were made to sign documents relinquishing their homes in exchange for apartments in distant housing projects. (Ortiz, 2011)
This report, by Inter Press Service reporter Fabiola Ortiz, was republished by Al Jazeera, but had little play in western media. Despite the lack of coverage, it is events like this forced removal of poor residents, to make way for freeways and development related to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic summer games that speak more to why protests have erupted today than any nebulous idealism about the power of social media. The repression of the Brazilian police and military (still ingrained with the methods and ethos of the previous military dictatorships) has been a factor, but it is not new ‘news’. The Amnesty report of 2011 clearly shows a sustained pattern of abuse, corrupt police actions and the operation of ruthless state-sanctioned death squads in the many favelas around all of Brazil’s major urban centres.
Human Rights Watch has also documented official abuses, but these reports do not make the news very often.
Many Rio communities formerly controlled by drug dealers are now in the hands of militias composed of police, jail guards, firefighters, and others who coerce residents to pay for illegal utility hookups, transportation, and security. These militias have been implicated in execution-style killings, far-reaching extortion schemes, and the kidnapping and torture of a group of journalists investigating their activities. In October 2011 Rio Congressman Marcelo Freixo announced his decision to leave Brazil temporarily due to escalating death threats. He presided over a parliamentary commission of inquiry that investigated militia activity in Rio in 2008 and has been outspoken in denouncing links between certain militia groups and local elected officials. (Human Rights Watch, 2012)
If you’re looking for reasons why Brazil is erupting today, don’t look to Twitter and Facebook, they are no more than middle class toys. Look to the grim reality on the streets of Rio and Sao Paolo. That is where the problems began and that is where they will be solved.
Some final quick notes on the media doesn’t get it thesis
1. The capitalist press was born in an age of revolutions in the 16th to 19th centuries. From the time of Gutenberg till the age of ‘industrial journalism’ defined initially by Joseph Pulitzer around the turn of the 19th-20th century, journalism (partisan-style) was an important tool of agitation for the bourgeoisie in its revolution against feudalism.
2. The bourgeoisie today is decidedly against revolution and it is fighting to maintain State power. It no longer needs agitation or propaganda for revolution. It requires, instead, social control (as we well know). This is more explicitly the case in a time of global crisis
3. The professional ideology of journalism, based on balance and objectivity, prevents reporters from coming to terms with revolution and social unrest. Instead it is examined from the position that promotes the power of the State as somehow neutral and ‘right’
4. Various types of determinism and reification of a ‘continuous present’ also contribute to the poor understanding that reporters have of how revolutions are fomented and how they work. Journalists work mainly in the ‘now’ and care little for history. History gets in the way of a short, sharp narrative about violence in the streets and burning barricades.
5. The class location and class position of journalists – I call them ‘grey collar intellectuals‘ is contradictory. Economically many are proletarian and proletarianised (as per Poulantzas, Carchedi and Braverman) However, ideologically and socially they are closer to the bourgeoisie..
6. We are living in an age of revolution again (similar to the bourgois revolutionary period, but obviously different too) as witnessed by events over the past 5-10 years (or maybe a bit longer). However, you wouldn’t know this if you only relied on the MSM for your information because they don’t get it and thus mis-inform.
Alves, H. (2013). Breaking down Brazil’s protests. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/06/2013619134555233454.html
AP. (2013). Latest Brazil protests bring 250,000 on to streets. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/23/latest-brazil-protest-draws-streets
Barbara, V. (2013). Brazil’s vinegar uprising. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com website: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/opinion/brazils-vinegar-uprising.html
Bergfeld, M. (2013). A Brazilian autumn? Jacobin / a magzine of culture and polemic. Retrieved from Jacobin / a magzine of culture and polemic website: http://jacobinmag.com/2013/06/a-brazilian-autumn/
Harris, J. (2013). Protests around the world are keeping the spirit of Occupy alive. The Guardian. Retrieved from The Guardian website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/23/protests-spirit-of-occupy-alive-istanbul-rio
Losh, J. (2013). Brazil rocked by violent protests. The Sun. Retrieved from thesun.co.uk website: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4978474/Brazil-rocked-by-violent-protests.html
Melo, R., & Windle, J. (2013). Brazil burns. Socialist Alternative. Retrieved from Socialist Alternative website: http://sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7788%3Abrazil-burns&Itemid=387
MST, CUT, & UNE. (2013). Open letter to President Dilma Rousseff from Brazil’s social movements; A succinct report from the MST. LINKS: International journal of socialist renewal. Retrieved from LINKS website: http://links.org.au/node/3403
Ortiz, F. (2011). BRAZIL: Amnesty Highlights ‘Entrenched Inequalities’. Inter Press Service News Agency. Retrieved from Inter Press Service website: http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/05/brazil-amnesty-highlights-entrenched-inequalities/