Samba, Soccer and the Limits of Social Democracy

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I reflect on the summer protests in Brazil and the upcoming World Cup of soccer.

During its coverage of the summer demonstrations in Brazil, the New York Times ran a clever little online feature: they posted photographs of two marches, one in Sao Paulo and another in the city of Recife. Each image captured hundreds of protest signs—move your computer cursor over a given sign and an English translation of its contents appeared on the screen.

Slogans ranged from the general: “Come take to the streets to change Brazil!” to the particular, “I’d exchange a congressman for 334 teachers.”

Some seemed like they’d been thought up by a policy wonk caught up in the crowds on their lunch break:  “10% of the GDP for education!”, “Put 10 cents in the public health system!”

The politically ambiguous, “No right or left, we’re all Brazilians!”, “Too many reasons to fit here!” were uneasily juxtaposed with the rallying cries of revolution: “Workers, come take to the streets!” and the perennial “Smash the capitalist state!”

Such was the cacophony of cir de coeurs rising up from the Brazilian streets.

Yet if there was a single collective grievance prioritized by the masses, it was the World Cup of Soccer, due to be hosted by Brazil next summer: “Wake up Brazil! Teachers are worth more than [soccer star] Neymar!”, “Lower the bus fare and put it in FIFA’s check!”, “I want health and education on FIFA’s standards!” (FIFA being the bloated, corrupt world governing body of the beautiful game).

Brazilians frustrated with public transit fare hikes or dismayed at dilapidated hospitals and schools, see the billions being spent on new stadiums, security, and Cup-related luxuries (e.g. inflatable mascots guarding the entrance of public venues) and ask “can we afford this?” Among those stuck in Sao Paulo or Rio’s infamous traffic jams or public transit queues, a unified chorus emerged: “imagina na copa” or “imagine during the cup”.  

In Brazil, soccer is a national religion. The country has won the World Cup more times than any other nation. Brazil is home to the great Pele and a breeding ground for the game’s most skilled, creative…and mononomous players: Ronaldo, Fred, Hulk, Ronaldinho, Kaka. The national team prides itself on fast-paced, rhythmic, technically complex style of play inspired by Samba, the music and dance that permeates Brazilian life.  

And soccer is woven into the country’s political fabric. Take the figure of Socrates, a stylish attacking midfielder who captained the club Corinthians during the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the team of Sao Paulo’s working class, counting former president Lula da Silva amongst their fans, yet ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites.  From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the ruling junta.  The movement eventually wrestled control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy.

In perhaps one of the bravest acts in politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players decided to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians–and particularly Corinthians’ working class fans–to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and the Corinthians Democracy movement is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

As the mass protests of this summer suggest, some thirteen years after the historic election of Lula, Brazil’s social democratic experiment is pushing up against its internal limits.  Under Lula and now Dilma Rouseff, the governing Workers’ Party has sought to massage big capital, reduce poverty, please its working class base, and keep the middle class on side. But now no one seems happy: the middle class don’t like mixing with the newly mobile poor; the poor want better housing and more social programs; the rich, lower taxes; teachers, a raise; doctors, a vacation; rural peasants, land reform; urban workers, higher wages; and students, free transit. And absolutely no one seems in the mood for a game of soccer. For the country’s political class, that may be the most disturbing trend of all.

 Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2013 Issue

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