Unforeseen Outcomes For an Artificial Democracy or An Old Brazil for the 21st Century

March 14, 2018

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2018 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image in Contemporaneity

In recent years in Brazil, a number of political events have shown behavioral and ideological nuances that were not evident in the country’s heterogeneous social composition.

In 2013, with absolute perplexity, Brazilians saw an unforeseen popular uprising: a large crowd of young middle-class students, later supported by other demographics, invaded the streets of major capitals to demand specific structural changes, which involved low-cost public transportation and better services from Public Power. Although initially there were no indications of specific party affiliations, the demonstrations succumbed to the strong state apparatus that used its power to stop protests and persecute young people who were gradually becoming independent political leaders. There was no specific ideological alignment there, and the demands were directed without distinction to heads of government from north to south. This phenomenon still poses a great question for experts and for the entire Brazilian population: what exactly was it that happened so spontaneously that year?

The lack of clarity regarding these episodes may find an explanation in the inability of historically left-wing academicians and political scientists—at least since the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état—to understand that Brazilian society had begun to behave with such autonomy that it ignored the political playbook of complacency in a country that presented itself to the world as economically and politically resolved—after all, the PT (the Brazilian Workers’ Party) had ruled the nation, other states, and municipalities for more than a decade, and it occupied a significant number of seats in the National Congress, a project that, at that moment, started to sink in all spheres.

After 2013, there were numerous occasions in which left-wing Brazilians wanted to claim the status as herald of the country’s political battles, ignoring demonstrations and demonstrators that stood in an autonomous way against the political ideology of the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And here I refer to all protests for the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, which mostly comprised social groups of conservative view, although it has never been possible to argue that there were not also groups of the common middle class and working class, and not just the Brazilian elite. On the other hand, it would not be possible to state that the demonstrations organized by the left had a massive adherence of low-income populations, except for groups involved in organized trade union and party protest.

Since then, the political and ideological polarization in Brazil has reached levels of virulence and barbarism uncontested on social media, in bars, or in the National Congress, without, however, the active involvement of low-income Brazilians in these disputes.

Amidst heated public debate in the country, poverty has reached unknown levels in recent years, corruption is rampant in public power—it never stopped growing in Lula’s and Dilma’s governments, and perhaps has grown even faster—and a new social phenomenon gums up the cultural debate in Brazil: the emergence and alarming popular expansion of evangelical churches and neoconservatism.

But what had happened in Brazil that we were not able to see? Or what did we arbitrarily want to ignore?


In 2017, the artistic community was severely hit by organized groups that deliberately opposed artistic manifestations that brought into play and debated aspects of the equally diverse expression of human sexuality. The presentation (or representation) of the naked body, by itself, led to closed exhibitions and demonized artists and institutions. This fascist crusade broke out when the Queer Museum exhibition in Porto Alegre, hosted by Santander Cultural, received protests from the MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre; a highly reactionary group that supported Dilma’s impeachment). Santander decided to end the debate by closing the doors of the institution and its own exhibition—Adriana Varejão displayed a canvas portrait showing a man having sex with a goat (Cena do Interior II); Hudinilson Jr. had one of his B&W works included in the exhibition; and Bia Leite scandalized the MBL with her Criança Viada Travesti da Lambada. Other similar events, such as the performance at MAM, were held in São Paulo, where artist Wagner Schwartz stood naked before the public to be manipulated as if he were one of Lygia Clark’s bichos (what shocked people, however, was the fact that a little girl, with the permission of her own parents, had touched this body).

Adriana Varejão, Cena de interior II (1994). Photo: Eduardo Ortega / Acervo Atelier Adriana Varejão / Cortesia Atelier Adriana Varejão


Bia Leite, Adriano bafônica e Luiz França She-hà (from the series Criança viada)(2013). Photo: Laura Frais. Courtesy of the artist



Wagner Schwartz in his performance "La Bête." Photo: Através.tv/Reprodução


Once again perplexed, the Brazilian society (or part of it: namely, the intellectual elite) wondered: how could the country tolerate such censorship or, in addition to those cited above, how can the MBL obtain, in a matter of days, dozens of thousands of signatures for a petition to prohibit the intellectual Judith Butler from lecturing at SESC Pompéia while only a few thousand signatures defended institutions attacked by ultraconservative Brazilians? Perhaps the answer lies precisely in the fact that only the intellectual elite clamors for democracy and the freedom resulting from it, from the comfort of their more or less fortunate lives. But why should democracy and individual rights constitute a demand publicly expressed only by intellectual elites, demands that weaken in favor of an increasingly neo-Pentecostal low- or even middle-income population?

Artist and the LGBTQIA+ community protest the shutdown of the Queer Museum exhibition. Photo by Clara Godingo via Editorial J on Flickr

And now I will venture a possible answer to the dilemmas the Brazilian society has to deal with in the fractional and multidimensional political and philosophical context of the 21st century.

While the 20th century witnessed an alignment of the economic elite, the political elite, and the intellectual elite in their many and successive power projects, there is currently a clear mismatch in this equation, as the economic and political elites no longer correspond to the intellectual elite. If the dynamics of State occupation had already been perverse enough in its power project—completely excluding the voice of the people from its equation—now it has become even more deleterious.

No matter how perfidious and excluding the composition of power was in its earlier forms—that is, after the dictatorships of the 20th century—it was still imposing, and vertically oriented to cultural patterns imported from Europe. In recent history, it stood as a bastion of democracy, humanism, and individual rights, multiplying in the instances of the Democratic State of Law those same values, whether in the Old World or in Latin America, the heir of European values through its neocolonial practices. For the elites, democracy; for people, submission to the power projects of the elites.

But here is another question in this controversial theme: why are the intellectual elite no longer part of the political arrangement in the occupations of the Brazilian State?

To fully elucidate this issue, I need more space, but I would articulate a possible answer: the recent process of democratic consolidation, and the distribution of public services and wealth in Brazil did not take place on a real and transparent basis, concerned about creating a critical society with access to culture and education. Its democratic values were imposed on the aspirations of consumption that fueled the market during the last decades when Brazil still seemed to be the country of the future, just as Juscelino Kubitschek’s historical motto claimed “50 years in 5” when he ruled the nation in the 1950s. In addition, the absolutely unqualified mass media, also averse to critical thinking, has been subservient to the great interests of capital.

Perhaps Brazil has always been a predominantly conservative country as a result of its history of constant oppression, and that, precisely because it has never truly accessed democracy, has never identified in it a greater collective value.