The paradoxes of inequality

Progress as a condition for rebellion

The series of startling events in June 2013 began with a movement against increasing public transportation costs in São Paulo. Until then, everything seemed business as usual, under the conservative media’s fire, with arrogant declarations made by the right-wing governor and the left-wing mayor, who both refused to even negotiate a reduction in transport fares. The scene was typical and the unfolding events were predictable. At that juncture, the protests seemed to be waning and likely to remain local. But, on the second day of the protests, the military police in São Paulo offered its invaluable contribution to the country’s history, acting with criminal brutality, also against journalists. It was enough to ignite Brazil’s collective spirit. Within a few days the proposed increase in transport costs had been revoked, but the inflamed masses did not retreat.

The starting point is justified. In Rio and São Paulo, workers spend up to four hours every day making their way across urban spaces jammed with cars, which have multiplied in the last decade due to the growth of the middle classes by 40,000 Brazilians. This crisis in urban mobility is the unanticipated and contradictory result of a decrease in inequality together with rapid growth – one of whose focal points has been the car industry. In addition, the combination of more consumers, more access to education, and the citizenry’s increased cultural appreciation creates a new context. Improvements have converged in such a way that certain situations that in the past would have been tolerated passively, have become unacceptable.

This apparent paradox is not new: in the nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville taught us that the social groups most willing to act and react are not the poorest and most powerless, but rather those that have something to lose. This means that the social improvements during Brazil’s last two decades (especially the last ten years) have broadened the slice of the population potentially willing to resist if faced with losing. Those who have risen will not surrender their gains without a fight. What gains, exactly, am I referring to?

Recent gains in Brazilian society

Using the Gini coefficient to measure income inequality, Brazil achieved its lowest level [representing less rather than more inequality, eds.] in 2011, the lowest for 51 years since this measurement was introduced in 1960. Between 1960 and 1990, inequality grew from 0.5367 to 0.6091. From that point it decreased until 2010, when it reached 0.5304. It continued to fall in 2011, when it reached the lowest number ever, 0.527. Even though the inequality coefficient was at its lowest ever two years ago, Brazil continues to be one of the twelve most unequal countries in the world.1 Yet luckily, a steady trend is beginning to reverse the inequality at a considerable rate.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the compound annual growth rate in income for the wealthiest 10 per cent of Brazilians was 10.03 per cent, while for the poorest 50 per cent it was 67.93 per cent. Ricardo Paes de Barros, director of social policy and research at Brazil’s National Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA), points out that the 10 per cent poorest obtained an increase in income per capita of about 7 per cent per year, between 2001 and 2009, only a little lower than the celebrated average growth in per-capita income in China. He estimates that few countries could achieve an outcome comparable to Brazil’s decrease of income inequality between 1999 and 2009. The 10 per cent wealthiest Brazilians held 47 per cent of national income, and that decreased to 43 per cent, while the 50 per cent poorest had 12.65 per cent of total income in 1999, and went on to earn 15 per cent by 2009.2

The fact that stands out most is that in 1993, the year before the implementation of the Plano Real (designed to control inflation), 23 per cent of Brazil’s people lived in extreme poverty. In other words, they did not have access to the income necessary to consume the minimum number of calories required for healthy survival. The Plano Real transformed that devastating situation in one year. In 1995, the first year of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s first term as President, the percentage of the population in extreme poverty decreased from 23 per cent to 17 per cent. By 2003, the proportion of people in extreme poverty had remained the same. In 2009 it fell to 8.4 per cent. While it is still an excessively high and unacceptable number, it is much lower than it was at the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1993, there were 51 million Brazilians with a monthly household income below R$752 (2011 value, US$450). In 2001, there were 46 million. By 2011, the number had decreased to 24 million. In 1993 there were 41 million Brazilians whose monthly household income was between R$752 and R$1,200, and dropped to 38 million by 2011. On the other hand, there were 45 million people in 1993 whose household income was between R$1,200 and R$5,147 and that figure more than doubled, reaching 105 million by 2011. Note that during the 18 years in question (1993 to 2011), Brazil’s population grew at a slower rate than previous decades. The accelerated growth, seen in the 1940s (when the average birth rate was 2.39) and the 1950s (when it reached 2.99), fell in the 1990s (to 1.64) and even further (to 1.17) in the first decade of the twenty-first century.3

When the dynamics of demography are taken into account, the meaning behind the worthy process of inequality reduction is more effectively revealed. These figures enable Marcelo Neri, economist and former president of the IPEA, to affirm that ‘39.6 million Brazilians entered the tier of the so-called new middle class (class C) between 2003 and 2011 (59.8 million since 1993).’4

Plural agendas and the collapse of political representation

The agenda of this evolving political movement is not uniform, and each participant holds up his small sign with a proposal, a criticism, a demand, in formal language or with humour, whether it is against homophobia or the technocratic authoritarianism of governments. Meanwhile, in spite of the immense thematic spectrum, some topics are constant: public transportation, urban mobility, corruption, police brutality, unequal access to justice, more resources for education and health, and fewer resources for building lavish stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, or the 2016 Rio Olympics. In this way, the price of public transport ticket merely put a metonymic chain into circulation in Brazil’s individual and collective imaginary, connecting the most diverse contemporary national issues. And each individual felt motivated to contribute to this epic narrative their own description of what they find to be the fundamental and urgent drama. Note that the legitimacy of the federal government was never seriously questioned.

The common axis, however, underlying these diverse positions, is an indignant proclamation of the collapse of political representation. The protestors have lost faith in parties and politicians who renew their mandates through the electoral system without realising that a mere respect for the rules of the game is not enough to keep democracy on its feet. Since the establishment of the 1988 Constitution, following 21 years of military dictatorship and three hybrid years, Brazil has been a democratic state that follows the rule of law. But democratic institutionalisation came to be seen by the majority of society as a hollow shell, a form without content, taken over by unscrupulous political agents. The formal endorsement of members of parliament and political rulers through the electoral process, in a country where voting is obligatory, does not guarantee legitimacy from society’s point of view. The breakdown of political representation has occurred while the country’s leadership has demonstrated no sign of understanding the magnitude of the abyss that could open up – and swiftly deepen – between political institutionalism and the feeling of the majority.

The defining characteristic of the current movement is its intensity. The protests occur in the language of excess: many people, all day long, demonstrating about every possible theme and topic – and there is always the exalted and violent minority that defaces public property. On the fringes a few professional crooks go along for the ride, as well as those who enjoy destroying things for no reason. Why the passion and intensity? I suggest a hypothesis: the linked political problems and symbolic bonds are, as I explained, interrelated, accentuating one permanent feature: inequality. And this happens in an institutional and normative context, the democratic state under the rule of law, where equality is the declared and reiterated principle. For this reason, negative associations become aggravated, accentuating the emotional intensity with which they are experienced and communicated: anything that condones inequality stands out because it strongly contradicts the expectations created by the constitutional pact. In the end, is the dialogue about citizenship worth it or not?

Persistent historic inequities

Despite the very significant reduction in inequality, it persists in many forms. Just as violence and police brutality against the poor and blacks persist. The outrageous inequality between blacks and whites has been decreasing, but it endures, revealing structural racism within the country. Between 1950 and 1980, whites lived 7.5 years longer on average than blacks and mulattos – classifications used at that time. In 1980, the life expectancy of blacks remained at 59 years. In 1987 the white population lived on average until the age of 72, while the life expectancy of blacks was 64.5. Another lurid confirmation. In 1980 the infant mortality rate of blacks and mulattos was the same as the infant mortality of whites in 1960: 105 out of every 1000 live births. Skin colour, which means nothing according to those who believe in the myth of Brazil’s racial democracy, separated life expectancy among blacks and mulattos – by 20 years – from the social advances achieved by the white population, advances that would have been impossible without the labour of the non-whites.5

Marcelo Neri provides revealing data about three phenomena, the historical significance of which is profound. First, the demographic effect of the social construction of Brazilian identity: the portion of society that defines itself as black is growing dramatically. If you compare the last two censuses executed by Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, 2000 and 2010, the number of blacks in Brazil’s population increased by 22.6 per cent. In my mind, the main reason is the growing political consciousness of Afro-descendants, who increasingly acknowledge their colour and what it means with pride.

The second phenomenon studied by Neri is the shocking level of inequality. The probability that a person who calls themselves white is poor is 49 per cent less likely than someone who is black, and 56 per cent less likely than a mulatto. For example, a white illiterate middle-aged woman who lives in a favela in the city of Salvador is 29.4 per cent less likely to be poor than if she is non-white. The 2010 census made clear the colour of economic inequality, indicating that 70 per cent of extremely poor Brazilians are black. I can add other alarming figures regarding violence, public safety and the criminal justice system.6 The Mapa da Violência, published in 2011, reveals that in 2002 to 2008, the number of blacks who had been murdered grew by 20.2 per cent, while the number of white victims of the same crime decreased by 22.3 per cent. There is no doubt that blacks and the poor are the main victims of the worst crime – premeditated murder – just as they are the main victims of lethal policy brutality and illegal searches.

The third phenomenon is good news. Between 2001 and 2009, 44.6 per cent of income growth occurred among blacks, 48.2 per cent among mulattos and 21.6 per cent among whites. The growth of the proportion of the black population in Brazil and the extreme significance of increased access by black youths to university – thanks to the affirmative actions of policies such as the Programa Universidade para Todos (Prouni) and bank loans for blacks – has created a new scenario that bodes well for the future democratisation of Brazilian society. According to data released by IPEA in its Boletim Políticas Públicas: acompanhamento e análise (No. 19), the net rate of student enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds grew more than five-fold between 1992 and 2009. While in 1992 only 1.5 per cent of young blacks entered university, in 2009 8.3 per cent pursued higher education. In this period the net rate of enrolment of young whites jumped from 7.2 per cent to 21.3 per cent, and the contingent of black students grew from 20.8 per cent of the total white group in 1992 to 38.9 per cent in 2009.7

From invisibility to the fight for recognition

Another important dimension of the current political climate is captured by access to the Internet. In 2011, 115,433,000 Brazilians aged ten or older owned a mobile phone (in 2005, a little less than half, 56,105,000 Brazilians, had mobile phones) and 78,672,000 surfed the web. The growing participation in social networks made the June 2013 protests viable, which then began to depend on the conventional media itself. In addition, it has allowed Brazilians to identify themselves and put in practice the global model of taking over public spaces as a kind of direct democracy or political action not mediated by institutions, parties or representatives. The model recalls the classic idea of direct democracy as the ideal, while not achieving it entirely.

Once begun, the mediations never cease, connecting different institutionalised processes to the energy of the masses in the public squares. What matters in this dramatic scenario are idealised memories and common languages, as if these events were cited mutually creating a virtual constellation of hypertexts.

In this context, it becomes possible to feel included in the transnational narrative about new democracy; to feel pride for those who felt disrespected and invisible before public power; to promote the identification with the persona of the civic hero, where collective political experiences become cult entertainment for the anti-political (even if it involves the risking of one’s life); to engage in a fraternal and gregarious experience (before an enemy that is abstract and ghostlike while being obviously and immediately identified with the face of a police officer); and, to participate in an experience that fills one’s heart with joy, exalting the emotions and elevating them to an almost spiritual level.

This text, originally entitled ‘Ground-shakes in a country of inequalities and paradoxes’, was written just after the June 2013 protests that took place in many of Brazil major cities. It is an edited version of the text that was originally published in Los Angeles Review of Books on 1 July 2013; see for the full text. Original translation by Magdalena Edwards.

1 By comparison, the UK’s Gini coefficient is 0.34, while South Africa’s is 0.63, eds.
2 Paes de Barro cited by Rafael Cariello in ‘O liberal contra a miséria’, in Revista Piauí, No. 74, November 2012, p. 30.
3 Elza Berquó, ‘Evolução demográfica’, in Ignacy Sachs, Jorge Wilheim and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, eds., Brasil, um século de tranformações, São Paulo, Cia das Letras, 2001, p. 17.
4 Marcelo Neri, A Nova classe media. São Paulo, Saraiva, 2011, p. 26; PNAD – Pesquisa Nacional por Amostra Domiciliar, by IBGE, Instituo Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística.
5 C.H. Wood & P.L. Webster, Racial inequality and child mortality in Brazil. Mimeo, 1987, APUD; Berquó, op.cit., 27; Garcia Tamburo, E.M., “Mortalidade infantile da população negra brasileira,” Texto NEPO 11, Campinas, NEPO/UNICAMP, 1987, APUD.
6 Silvia Ramos and Leonarda Musumeci, Elemento suspeito, Rio de Janeiro, Civilização Brasileira, 2005.
7 For data on college attendance see:

Luiz E. Soares is anthropologist, film-writer and commentator, based in Rio de Janeiro.