What’s Behind Brazil’s Discontent?
By admin August 17, 2015

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As protests emerge once again across Brazil, with nearly 1 million demonstrating across 200 cities, we are left to examine the factors behind Brazil’s discontent.  Taking a step back, we should ask ourselves instead the bigger question: What is the source or instantaneous juncture that awakens slumbering grievances, and as a result, mobilize social and political unrest?

The theoretical and methodological underpinnings of social discontent have fascinated scholars and States alike for millennia, tracing back to antiquity and continually debated today. Conventionally, social uprisings, and in extreme cases, revolutions, have been seen as a response to grievous poverty and irreconcilable differences in the redistribution and concentration of wealth.

Charles Tilly, a renowned American sociologist of the 20th century, insisted that the immediate causes of social uprising “is supposed to be the discrepancy between the performance of the regime and the demands being made upon it.” In today’s understanding, if the State precipitates growing economic development without incorporating the social dimensions of economic growth, or the political representation that follows suit, the gap widens, between the aspirations generated by long-term past economic performances and dwindling expectations in light of short-run political development.

Another famous sociologist, James C. Davis, offered a crucial theory in political revolutions known as the “J curve”. Mr. Davis explains the rise of social discontent in terms of aspirations, achievements, and expectations, and asserts that social uprising is most likely to occur when “a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.” That sharp reversal can take shape in an economic recession or a political crisis that tests the legitimacy of the current government.

Correlation between rates of achievement, aspirations, and expectations (Modified from Tanter and Midlarsky)

Correlation between rates of achievement, aspirations, and expectations (Modified from Tanter and Midlarsky)

As a result, the basic notion that poverty is the parent to revolution or social unrest may be too simple of an explanation and, instead, it may possibly be economic development which paves the way for societies rising frustration and social unease.

This may perhaps explain the return of protestors to the streets of cities across Brazil on Sunday, in their attempt to express underlying grievances and widespread frustration of the performance of President Dilma Rousseff. Protestors called on the impeachment of the sitting president following a recent corruption scandal testing the credibility of the current administration, coupled with an economy bracing itself for recession, and subsequent harsh austerity measures that will severely cut social services while raising taxes.


But what exactly mobilized protestors to demand reform in what was Latin America’s most promising country?

Brazil’s economic turmoil and political crisis follow in the heels of a decade long commodity boom fueled by large investments from China and an increase in the overall price of commodity exports. Brazil is notably the world’s largest producer of coffee, soybean, and sugar. As demand from the international markets rose, so did prices, and with it, a middle-class on the move with higher aspirations and achievements than a decade before.

And in a twist of fate, Latin America’s largest economy and most promising emerging market went from enormous potential to an unfortunate case study.

What made matters worse in 2015 was the confluence of several factors that provided the short-term reversal to the long-term projected growth expected in the early 2000s. A decline in prices of important cash crops, a sinking currency – with inflation brining alarming flashbacks of the 1980s and 1990s – and a corruption scandal testing the legitimacy of a government in disarray, fuels the spark needed to ignite grievances into social action.

As we begin to see the frustrated masses pour out on the streets across Brazil, we return back to the theoretical causes of societal unrest, and its relation in particular to what is occurring in Brazil today. As aspirations generated by long-term past economic performances confronts dwindling expectations in light of short-run political and economic development, it is no surprise poverty in the streets is not what solely inflamed protestors grievances, but the reversal in economic prosperity that has now replaced aspirations with frustrations.

Although Brazil continues to disappoint in nearly every economic outlook and projection for the year, there may be a silver lining, where the political and economic crisis hitting home may begin a wider conversation of the ongoing corruption plaguing the country and its history; and ultimately, address the inequality that has left millions behind during the boom and even more after its bust.


Find out more:

Protests Across Brazil Raise Pressure on President Dilma Rousseff

Brazilian waxing and waning

Who’s Protesting in Brazil and Why?

Brazil Protests: What Next?

Thousands protest to oust Brazil’s embattled president

Thanks for sharing !

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