Pi Attitude Zone: Self-Fulfilment

Brazil’s New Middle Class [3]: Menaced... And Menacing

The last two Pi blogposts looked at the historical background to the recent “middle-class upheaval” in Brazil, and the ways that upheaval is changing Brazilian society.  This third post in the series looks further at the implications.

The enormous street marches and demonstrations that erupted in Brazil recently seem particularly difficult to explain, happening against a decade-long background of rising overall prosperity in the country.  Those in the forefront of the protests are the new middle-class people who have, in theory at least, benefited most from recent change.  

One key reason is that living conditions have not kept pace with rising incomes.  Public infrastructure is still comparatively primitive, and public services are poor.  In São Paulo, a daily commute can take two hours each way.  Policing is patchily corrupt and widely ineffective, spreading fear of crime and violence.

While the rich continue to insulate themselves from prevailing conditions, middle-class people are having to pay high prices for their goods and services, and for the first time are being taxed heavily on their growing incomes (Brazilians pay over a third of their earnings in taxes).  Televisions, tablet computers, sport-shoes and cars can cost three times more than in the USA.  The banks that fed the credit boom when times were good now want their money back as economic growth falters.  Servicing personal debt can take up 20% of a middle-class income, double the US percentage.

A paradox is at work here:  as people do better, they expect more.  But if their upward mobility results only in higher costs and unmet expectations, they will soon be voicing their discontent.  The sight of rich Brazilians continuing to lead lives of affluence and luxury, whether flaunted or not, only aggravates feelings of resentment.  But the logical target for anger is the Brazilian state.

President Dilma Rousseff says she “takes seriously the voices in the street”, and has hastily pulled together proposals for reform, while criticizing “hothead” elements among the protesters.  Opportunistic political pressure-groups certainly endeavored to hijack the protest wave as it was building,  and a few militants tried to cause anarchy to publicize their cause (with some success).  It is not clear how much of this is "political engineering" -- there is a national election due in 2014 -- but much of the protest is clearly a spontaneous expression of democratic opinion.   

The next election could be a big confrontation between entrenched moneyed, political and business elites, demanding  a “return to normal” (but how to define ‘normal’ after the Lula years?) and on the other side the people who want finally to put an end to patronage and crooked politics, and run the country for the greater benefit of the “new middle class”.  The situation remains volatile in the short term, and nerves are fraying.  

Neither side seems particularly “internationalist”, by the way.  There seems to be a strong and very Brazilian desire to internalize everything, and hide social and political tension and conflict from the eyes of the world .  This will be extremely difficult while hosting the world’s two biggest sporting events, the World Cup football and the Olympic Games.

Zone: Self-Fulfilment Country: Latin America Product – Communications