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The Vinegar Revolts and the Diverse Faces of Democracy in Brazil

Since June of 2013, over one million Brazilians have taken to the streets in cities throughout the country. They’re calling for change across a range of issues including urban transportation, health and education services, and corruption. Given Brazil’s economic prosperity under the last ten years of Workers’ Party (PT) rule, as well as its diminishing poverty and inequality, what accounts for these recent “Vinegar Revolts” (named for the protesters’ use of vinegar to protect them from police tear gas)? Here I argue that one answer lies in the relationship between the protesters’ demographic profile and the PT’s social policies. This relationship explains the protesters’ motives and their quick policy successes. It also sheds light on general changes to the democratic imagination in Brazil that could signal a move towards “truly public” social services (MPL n.d.) and the decommodification of the electoral process (PT n.d.).

To hone in on the protesters’ orientation to the PT administration, it is useful to compare the Vinegar Revolts to the lesser-known unrest triggered by a tweeted rumor that the government was set to do away with its primary anti-poverty policy. In May of 2013, thousands of people whose families earn less than US$31 per month rushed to government banks to draw what they feared would be their final installment of the cash grant, Bolsa Família. They didn’t march, chant, destroy property, or clash with police . . . because they weren’t protesting. These were throngs of individuals who feared getting cut off, but who were otherwise grateful to the state. In fact, during the last ten years, the traditionally conservative Brazilian poor have thrown their support behind PT executives (Zucco and Power 2013). Unlike the Vinegar protesters, they generally recognize that they’ve benefitted from the PT’s anti-poverty policies.

The Vinegar Revolts, by contrast, draws mainly from the “new middle class,” (Surowiecki 2013). The expansion of this “C Class” (earning US$464–2010 per month) to over fifty percent of the total population reflects the economic successes of Presidents Lula and Dilma; during their administrations, “around 29 million Brazilians escaped poverty and moved into the Class C,” even if they continued to live in poor neighborhoods (Arbix and Martin 2011, 74; Costas 2013). It is tempting to attribute the Vinegar Protests to a generic, ascendant, middle class mindset: “as people do better, they are often less content” with long-standing deficiencies in transport, education and health services (Surowiecki 2013). But this generic approach risks overlooking the historically specific relationship between the PT-run state and those who now comprise this new middle class.

First, members of the C Class watch their neighbors collect Bolsa Família, but they themselves earn too much to qualify for such stipends. In fact, they can’t point to any single government initiative that is directly responsible for their improved life conditions. The state’s role in their lives is far more indirect and mysterious, the product of myriad policies that quietly assemble an environment in which these families have been able to ascend. The state mostly manifests itself to this C Class through its impositions (income taxes and fare hikes) and failures (oversubscribed services, urban violence and corruption scandals). Unlike wealthier Brazilians, the C Class can’t circumvent state failure with private schools, doctors, and bulletproof cars.

Second, unlike the traditional middle class or high-end organized labor, the C Class is not a traditional constituency of leftist parties. They have less exposure to the discourses that frame current events within a history of Brazilian redemocratization, and their parents may not have been active in the struggles of the 1970s and 80s. From what I gather, the protesters’ discourse lacks certain features typical of Brazilian leftist rhetoric. Protesters don’t frame their struggle as a continuation of the fight against the military dictatorship (1964–1985) and the “institutions inherited from the conservative transition to democracy” (PT n.d.). They locate themselves in spatial, not temporal, terms i.e. as the Brazilian version of contemporary direct action movements in the United States, Turkey, Egypt, etc. (Note their use of Guy Fawkes masks, “V” graffiti, and other Occupy icons.) The affinity between their direct action and the PT’s (post Berlin Wall) objective of “radicalizing democracy” is off their radar. They do not demand participatory budgets (a PT hallmark), nor do they condemn Lula and Dilma as “traitors” (as do the PT’s disaffected militants). Many of them came of age during the 2005 corruption scandal (the mensalão) that implicated the PT as well as a fistful of other parties. Thus, to them, Dilma and Lula appear no different from other politicians.

None of this suggests that the protesters are reactionary, but it does put their votes up for grabs. Unlike the right-wing condemnation of the Occupy Movement in the United States, Brazil’s centrist and center-right politicians are vying to champion the protesters’ demands and wrest the presidency from the PT in 2014. Mayors of all parties have bowed to the Free Fare Movement (the organization that articulated much of the protests) by lowering fares. Even conservative politicians have agreed to end secret voting in the legislatures, support stiffer punishment for corruption, and devote more oil royalties to social services. As for the PT, many see this moment as a chance for the Party to redeem its mission to radicalize Brazilian democracy. Dilma called for a plebiscite on a list of “political reforms”: the criminalization of corporate campaign financing strengthened public broadcasting, and the regulation of a notoriously clientelistic party system. Her public approval rose after she suggested it (Barrocal 2013b).

Jodi Dean (2009, 76) writes, “It’s no wonder that the wealthy and privileged evoke democracy as a political ideal. It can’t hurt them.” We’ll see. Regardless of which party takes power in 2014, Brazil’s liberal democratic imagination has undergone a shift in emphasis. The passion for private economic freedom is yielding to concerns about equal access to the public sphere. For the protesters, this presupposes healthy, well fed, safe, educated subjects whose bodies can transit urban spaces without sacrificing their livelihood.


Arbix, Glaucio, and Scott B. Martin. 2011. “New Directions in Public Policy and State-Society Relations.” In The Brazilian State: Debate and Agenda, edited by Mauricio Font and Laura Randall. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Barrocal, André. 2013a. “Candidato à Presidência do PT Defende ‘Autocrítica.’” Carta Capital, July 4. Accessed August 4, 2013.

Barrocal, André. 2013b. “Plebiscito: Derrota é Vitória da Dilma.” Carta Capital, July 10. Accessed August 9, 2013.

Costas, Ruth. 2013. “Conquistas da Nova Classe Média Devem Sobreviver à Desaceleração.” Accessed August 1, 2013.

Dean, Jodi. 2009. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

MPL-SP (Movimento Passe Livre—São Paulo). N.d. “Carta Aberta do MPL—SP à Presidenta. Movimento Passe Live São Paulo.” Accessed August 5, 2013.

PT. 2013. N.d. “Resolução Sobre a Situação Política.” July 29, Diretório Nacional do PT. Accessed August 2, 2013.

Ricci, Rudá. N.d. “O Maior Fenômeno Sociológico do Brasil: A Nova Classe Média.” Accessed August 4, 2013.

Surowiecki, James. 2013. “Brazil’s Middle-Class Protesters.” New Yorker, July 8. Accessed August 5, 2013.

Zucco, Cesar, and Timothy Power. 2013. “Bolsa Família and the Shift in Lula’s Electoral Base, 200–2006.” Latin American Research Review 48, no. 2: 3–24.