Commentary | Inequality and Poverty

Brazilian Protests: Could They Happen Here?

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

“Bread and Circuses” were the means by which ancient Rome’s elite diverted the attention of ordinary citizens from the corruption and folly that eventually destroyed the Republic. Throughout history, self-proclaimed democratic leaders have pursued variations on this theme to placate, rather than empower, the people. The protests that have rocked Brazil these past two weeks suggest that treating the people like children has its limits.

Like so many Western left-of-center governments, the Workers Party of Brazil came to power via a Faustian bargain with the country’s upper class. The Party gave up its demand for radical change and big business agreed to tolerate some greater equality as long as the rich kept their economic privileges. The deal was cemented in place by accelerated economic growth. As a result, over the last ten years the average Brazilian, including the poor, enjoyed higher living standards, i.e., more Bread.

But the risk to elites of such bargains is the danger that ordinary people will start taking democracy seriously and demand more than the meager share allotted to them by the governing class. Therefore, to take their minds off continuing injustice, incompetence and corruption: the need for Circuses.

In Roman times, people were entertained with chariot racing, gladiators fighting to the death, and Christians being thrown to lions. In modern Brazil, the public passion is soccer. So the government poured $14 billion into preparations for the 2014 World Cup. It is also financing more sports arenas for hosting the 2016 Olympics, and still more for an extravagant celebration for the Pope’s visit this summer. Spending on these public spectacles has a double political payoff; it channels profits to business supporters and it pumps up national pride in the country’s apparent emergence as a world power. At the same time, other public needs – schools, hospitals, public transportation – were neglected.

Until now, it worked. The people seemed happy watching their athletes and politicians strut on the world stage. And the media reinforced the stereotype – for both domestic and foreign consumption — of a somewhat infantile culture absorbed with soccer, samba and sexy fiestas.

Now it turns out that the people have been simmering with anger. When growth slowed down and fares for shoddy transit service were hiked, the lid blew off. The protesters who have flooded into the streets have a variety of specific complaints, but they boil down to frustration with the priorities of a “workers’ party” that enriched the county’s investors, contractors, and bankers while short-changing the public infrastructure and services – including public safety — that affect the lives of ordinary citizens.

It is too early to know how exactly how this will end. Over a million people have taken to the streets and the President has acknowledged the validity of the protests, promising to change priorities. But there has been a backlash against the violence done by a few thugs, which has been magnified by the rightwing media. Even so, the protests have permanently changed Brazilian politics, cracking apart the governing class’ comfortable assumption that injustice and democracy are compatible if you keep the people amused. Lincoln was right: you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

So, what about the United States? We too have an ostensible left-of-center President who has made a bargain with the financial elite. Five years after the crash of 2008, Americans are still beset with high unemployment, falling incomes and deteriorating schools and hospitals while the government coddles the financial speculator class that drove the economy into the ground.

And we too have our version of the Roman circus that diverts attention away from that reality. Our citizens are, of course, dutifully passionate about big-time sports. So, municipalities that are closing public schools and laying off teachers are still financing stadiums where millionaire players earn profits for billionaire owners.

But the most effective diversion of the people’s political energies is the nonstop 7/24 delivery of addictive electronic entertainment. The average American spends over 34 hours a week watching television, the Internet is continuously flooded with digital enticements to kill time, and real news is being relentlessly replaced with celebrity oriented “infotainment.” The average household has some 25 electronic devices – many of them mobile –that funnel music, movies, sports, and “reality” shows into our brains via sophisticated advertising packages that promise us personal freedom, but leave little room for thinking about who actually controls our lives

Those who ask, “Where is the outrage?” over the relentless upward redistribution of income, wealth and power in America can look for a large part of the answer to our entertainment-addicted culture.

Given its pervasive presence, breaking that addiction seems hopeless. But few, if any, in Brazil, including those who had been trying to organize protests for years, predicted the sudden massive eruption of anger that occurred there. So, the cries of revolt from the streets of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro suggest that all may not be lost. If Brazilians, whose political awareness was thought to be safely asleep with dreams of “soccer, samba and sex,” can wake up to reality, perhaps it’s not to late for us.

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