A New “We” in Brazil’s Middle Class

June 2013 protests in Rio de Janeiro. Banner reads “We are the social network”.
Photo: author unknown. Source here.

In June 2013, as several Brazilian municipalities were getting ready to raise public transportation fares, citizens flocked to the streets in a movement of popular unrest that quickly grew nationwide. But what began as a unison chorus of protest for the right to the city, eventually turned into a cacophony of individual desires and aspirations of mute ideology, orchestrated by rubber bullets and riot police batons. It was the country’s middle class who took over the public space of the main cities, definitively revealing the existence of a new “we” in Brazilian society, for better or for worse.

After the control of the inflation rate in the ’90s, a decade of easy access to credit and policies of income inclusion followed, resulting in a sharp decline of poverty levels and the establishment of a solid “new middle class” in Brazil. Poor families arose to a new condition of consumption and have now access to goods and services inaccessible to previous generations, a circumstance that naturally conveyed a widespread optimism. But while in southwestern Europe the renewed community spirit is fed by the adversities of the financial crisis, how to understand the new “we” in the wake of Brazil’s economic prosperity?

In order to understand the mobilizing force behind the recent wave of protests in Brazil, one should avoid seeing it as a renewed form of collectivism, but rather as the late expression of an earlier one, developed throughout the crisis that afflicted the country in the ’80s when, much like today’s southwestern Europe, adversity gave rise to self-driven initiatives of civic association grounded on a strong network of community solidarity. But that mobilizing strength now faces the risk of wasting, as the new middle class, dazzled by consumerism, increasingly turns to individualization. If on the one hand the June upheaval in Brazil is revealing of the latent potential for collective mobilization, its chaos and unclear aims are telling of the tendency toward fragmentation. Such contradictions exemplify the paradoxes around the new middle class, a term that meanwhile has become something of a commonplace, widely exploited by both the media and politicians in affected speeches ranging from an alienating, illusory swelled-optimism to an inoperative, uncreative and prejudice-based pessimism.

But if one can argue that income raise instilled individualistic values in Brazilian society, one should also consider that the adversities caused by the very economic prosperity are triggering significant collective synergies, some of which were identified during the research project Nós Brasil! We Brazil![1].

In Porto Alegre, the residents’ association of Bairro Farrapos, one of the city’s poorest areas, mediates between population and public authorities in order to ensure the sustainable development of the community threatened by the land valorization that followed the completion of a nearby soccer stadium. This and several other self-driven associations refer to participatory budgeting, a municipal tool of micro-funding for local projects. In Salvador, on the other hand, processes of real estate speculation in a central neighborhood lead to the establishment of the civic movement “Nosso Bairro é Dois de Julho” that has been fueling a growing activism in defense of the right to the city.

Demonstration of DESOCUPA Movement in Salvador against the approval of the New Law of City Land Use.
Photo: Carlos Américo Barros. Source here.

It seems therefore important to undo the installed misconception that opposes “crisis” to “growth”. Actually, if combined together, these two terms even enclose the potential to elucidate on the question raised before: while in the countries of southwestern Europe it’s a “growing crisis” that is at the root of experimental initiatives of social cooperation, in Brazil, the most interesting results seem to be produced by a stance on “critical growth” — and “critical” here can mean both turning point and subject to judgment.

For the adversities of its past and taking into consideration its present opportunities, Brazilian society reveals a huge potential to strengthen a sense of community, especially considering the renewed connectivity brought by online social networks, to which a better informed “new media class” also has access, allowing for mobilization on an unprecedented scale. But although it is there, the potential alone is just not enough. As in southwestern Europe, good results depend on several factors, both in terms of the structures of power as of the actual involvement of the population.

Facing these changes, it seems we can speculate on two possible scenarios: either the new middle class unifies, understanding the process of social mobility as something collective, hence fostering community bonds — June demonstrations can be seen as a point of inflection suggesting this path — or else people see this promotion as a personal achievement, choosing the road of a growing individualization and pursuing ideals of consumption that surpass the car and homeownership, such as the experience of gated communities instead of the aggregating potential of public space, or even access to private education and healthcare and the consequent marginalization of public services. Whatever the future holds, it is important not to deny the potential of Brazil’s new middle class under the argument that it arose from a growth without development, or mystify and over-size its importance because, as in southwestern Europe there is much work to do across the Atlantic.

[1] The project Nós Brasil! We Brazil! was the German contribution to the X Bienal de Arquitetura de São Paulo. It documents three workshops held in Curitiba, Porto Alegre and Salvador. In each city, curator Matthias Böttger and artist/architect Luis Berríos-Negrón created a large Y-shaped table to discuss with local activists, artists, urban dwellers and architects: who creates the city?

This article is a reflection on the outcomes of the Weltstadt project Nós Brasil! We Brasil! focusing on the future of Brazilian cities in the wake of the emergence of a new middle class in the country. It was featured in the third issue of the Weltstadt newspaper We-Traders. Swapping Crisis for City, which focuses on collaborative synergies in the crisis-ridden cities of southwestern Europe.