Through the late 80s and 90s, protests everywhere from Berlin to Seattle revealed a common target of public unrest: globalization. Jobs and industries in rich countries were moving to emerging markets, and the free flow of capital led to concerns about financial instability and a competitive lowering of environmental standards.
Now, however, globalization has become an unsung champion of an empowered, rising global middle class that is more connected and has higher expectations politically. While Brazil’s super-rich have continued to get richer and the poor has received more social welfare, its growing middle class feels ignored, and they are demanding government accountability, as well as political voice and freedoms.
Like in Turkey, the majority of protesters in Brazil have been educated and are part of the middle class. When I was in Rio de Janeiro last month, where the protests had reached 300,000 strong, I heard none of the anti-globalization claptrap of previous decades. The iconic image was of protesters scaling the walls of government buildings, not destroying the property of foreign corporations. Many wore clown noses implying a message to their government: “Stop treating us like clowns!”
On June 20, as the sun was going down in downtown Rio, a small group of union representatives affiliated with the ruling Workers’ Party, were out (presumably to show their support for the protests as President Rousseff has done). The crowd began jeering at the union reps and several people lunged toward them, grabbing and destroying their signs and literature. As they threw the debris in the air, the crowd roared with excitement.
I was reassured by our hosts that this is protesting Brazilian style: “We want to make the demonstrations a kind of Carnival.” A political carnival. Welcome to the new politics of the day in which the middle class cannot be placated by socialist ideology, glimmering sports stadiums, or scapegoating foreigners. Newly empowered people demand more from their countries.
Complaints I heard on the street ranged from anger about PEC 37, a constitutional amendment that would stem public oversight, to the price of admission to cultural events. The Brazilian protesters are the beneficiaries of the rapid economic growth and poverty reduction their country has enjoyed in recent years derving from the demand for raw materials from China and elsewhere. The protesters’ demands stem from rising expectations that accompany economic gains from the global economy.
Brazil’s recent growth has led to a bigger middle class with corresponding greater expectations. Its leaders told voters during boom-times it had arrived as a developed country, and now that the boom has receded expectations are left unmet.
One of the slogans popular among activists in Brazil is, “First world stadiums but third world hospitals and schools.” One of the students I spoke to said that his aunt died at a hospital while in the waiting room. The health ministry estimates a shortage of 54,000 doctors nationwide.
People want an end to “the Brazilian way” of circumventing the rules or “jeitinho.” There is an aspiration toward global standards and norms in everything from law to health care.
The expectations that Brazil’s middle class has for itself are shaped by comparisons and knowledge of other countries. A common belief expressed in Brazil is that its government is not performing on par compared to other countries. If an official was convicted of corruption in the United States, I was told, at least there would be justice.
Brazilians also expressed solidarity with their middle class peers around the world in a variety of ways—from the silent protest, a nod to Turkey’s “standing man” to the ubiquitous donning of Guy Fawkes masks, which started in America’s “Occupy” movements. Protestors said this movement was “Brazil’s Arab Spring.”
These protests are about getting globalization right, not a fight against it. That means governments need to be accountable to their people. To compete globally, governments need to invest in education, provide quality services, and build infrastructure. A growing global middle class should demand no less.