Lessons of Autonomy From Brazil’s Bus Fare Struggle

Brazil's bus fare increase was the spark that unleashed a larger political process that had been simmering for years.
September 25, 2014


No one expected the unprecedented eruption of mass discontent seen in the streets of Brazil in June of 2013. Before the eruption, there had been a certain sense of optimism in the economic sphere, with economists and political commentators pointing to Brazil’s growing middle class that was consuming more than ever. The country’s everlasting structural problems, however, had not improved much in years. In this context, little to no popular outrage was anticipated after a public transportation fare increase of $0.20, an amount below inflation levels (with prior increases having been much higher).

But this fare increase was the spark that was needed to unleash a larger political process that had been simmering for some years, and that has brought about victories and important lessons for horizontalism and autonomy.

One of the most militant groups driving the protest, the Free Fare Movement (MPL) emerged after a long history of autonomous fights for free and decent transportation. The movement took shape during the World Social Forum of 2005 in the city of Porto Alegre, and then spread throughout the country. The movement has always defined itself as horizontal and autonomous. Its strategic decisions are usually made in an amplified assembly called “Frente de Lutas” (Struggles Front), where activists from other movements and political party members participate.

This format was strategically modified on the eve of the June 2013 campaign, as they began implementing lessons from prior experiences. After extensive direct actions and public propaganda campaigns, they came to the conclusion that the influence of political parties on their internal decision-making had denied the movement potential victories when previous fare hikes had taken place. Political party members who had tried to get involved in their organizing were all too often adhering to party lines, imposing their groups’ own political strategies on the MLP, thus making the demands of the MPL unwieldy and unfocused. There were also many attempts to co-opt and dominate the movement.

With this in mind, in 2013 when the most recent attempted fare hike was implemented, the movement did not accept any other guidelines for its struggle: the only answer it would accept from the city, was the revocation of the hike. Members refused to let their strategy be derailed by different political interests, and maintained their autonomy, in part by closing their strategic meetings, and only allowing independent members of the movements to participate. And they won.

There are many ways the members guarantee the horizontality of the movement: they rotate roles and responsibilities, and they do not allow one person to occupy a role in the same activity or position for too long. The important political decisions for the movement are, as always, decided using the consensus process. Movement members describe their meetings as exhausting and long, but it is only after sufficient conversation that they can be sure they have reached the best decision for the group. Smaller details, like the color of their T-shirt, go through a more conventional majority-vote system.

To prop up these horizontal structures, the movement prioritizes the creation of a culture in which participants can gain confidence in their own opinions and those of their co-organizers: they facilitate political education for movement members and non-members alike, and hold open workshops for high school students in neighborhoods throughout the city .

In the larger campaigns the movement relies on other left wing political forces and parties as strategic allies, such as the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), United Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU), and even sectors of the Workers Party (PT), or movements such as the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), the Subway Workers Union, and the Popular Committees for the World Cup.

When the conservative media attempted to shift the conversation during the demonstrations, saying that in the streets there was a cry against the Workers Party (PT) or against the other left wing parties, MPL made clear public statements that the movement was apartidário (non-partisan) and not antipartidário (anti-party), as the media and some extreme right demonstrators were claiming.

This differentiation is crucial in understanding many nuances of Brazilian politics. Philosopher and São Paulo University Professor Pablo Ortellado explains in his book Vinte Centavos: A Luta Contra o Aumento, that the year 2013 exposed a strong dichotomy between process and results, and that prefigurative politics—the embodiment of ultimate political goals in the current day to day organizing of a movement—has to be combined with a mature understanding that politics is measured by results. For Ortellado, MPL’s victory, finally forcing the city to revoke the fare hike, brings us to a new political paradigm, an “action model that combines horizontalist and countercultural politics of the new social movements with a more mature sense of strategy.” 

Vanessa Zettler graduated with a Bachelor of Science at The New School for Social Engagement. During her years living in New York she took part in the Occupy Wall Street movement since its early stages. She currently lives in her hometown, São Paulo. 

Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Fall Issue: Horizontalism & Autonomy



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