Emerging demands for post-neoliberal citizenship in Latin America

By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

The past two weeks saw an unexpected wave of massive protests by Brazilians demanding better public services and cleaner government. Social mobilisation in Brazil was a sign of many fault lines in the political economy emerging markets, and more critically in the political economy of the New Left in Latin America. Brazil was shocked by a new cycle of contention led by a mix of sectors from the new middle classes as well as those at the bottom of the social scale.  After a few confusing episodes of disproportionate policy repression, the government reacted in a positive political way: Dilma Rousseff promptly gathered state governors and proposed a series of decisive measures, namely to embark in a sweeping political reform; to guarantee economic stability with controlled inflation; to accelerate investment in health care and hire foreign doctors for public hospitals; to spend 100 per cent of oil royalties on public education; and to invest US$24 billion in improving public-transportation infrastructure.

Despite these positive responses Rousseff faces a staggering political reality: last week the outcome of what was the first poll after the wave of demonstrations showed that levels of government approval had collapsed from 57 to 30 per cent. That means that if the elections programmed for October 2014 were held today, Dilma Rousseff would be forced to compete in a second round, against an opposition that although still fragmented could capitalise on social discontent.

There is still room for Rousseff’s government to regain lost ground. Brazil remains a growing economy with an enormous presence in the regional and global political economy. But this confident, well-resourced nation is facing questions that go beyond distributional effects. Brazil’s politico-institutional framework reproduces a culture of political privilege and unequal distribution of resources and opportunities underpinning both an oligarchic state and social apartheid. This has been the case despite the Constitutional reform in 1988 which broadened the terms of participatory democracy. What this means is that contentious actions are contextual but, importantly, also historically constituted. What Brazil is experiencing in other words goes beyond the anecdotal increase in the price of transport or the large sums of money spent in preparations for the World Cup.

Protest and mass insurrection in general are integral to the Latin America’s socio-political fabric. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the region entered the process of re-democratisation, the challenge for social movements was to enhance human rights, influence policy outcomes in favour of more inclusive forms of citizenship, and to hold states accountable for their economic decisions. These demands were often constrained by a context of austerity. However, since the early 2000s a new cycle of growth started a new cycle of contention politics where new social groups such as students in Chile, unemployed workers in Argentina, lower middle class in Brazil, and ethnic minorities in the Andean countries, are exercising voice and agency claiming rights and demands that were otherwise unavailable during the period of austerity and open markets. What Brazil is mirroring, in other words, is the fact that the new political economy in Latin America is giving rise to ‘post-neoliberal’ expressions of citizenship questioning traditional models of state-society relations.

For an extended discussion of the issues addressed by this blog, read this paper.

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