‘There will have been no World Cup’

The World Cup has become the focal point of Brazilians’ anger over corruption, poverty and social injustice.

On May 15 anti-government protests were held across Brazil [AFP/Getty Images]

There were two ways to interpret the chant and hashtag #NaoVaiTerCopa (“There will be no World Cup”) which first emerged during the protests that rocked the Confederations Cup in Brazil last June.

One was conditional. If there was no response to the issues drawing millions to the streets – poor public transport and social services, rampant property speculation, police brutality, lack of political accountability – authorities should expect even greater resistance in 2014. Given that very little was done to address those issues, the threat still stands, and the next weeks will show to what extent it can be upheld. Yet it is doubtful that anyone truly believes that the World Cup can be stopped. In that sense, the slogan’s promise was probably never meant to be fulfilled.

In another way, however, the slogan was perfectly performative: It did what it said. What it communicated was that the World Cup wasn’t going to be a feast of national unity in which Brazilians would set all grievances aside and put on a great show. That is exactly what recent polls demonstrate: Consensus around the tournament has fallen apart, and it has become a lightning rod for diffusing dissatisfaction rather than a feel-good moment of national pride.

The party was over before it even began. One year in advance, the Brazil World Cup became a toxic brand, which curbed the extent to which it could be exploited commercially and politically and made the run-up to the event eerily low key by the country’s football-loving standards. In that sense, regardless of what happens between now and the final match, the slogan’s promise has been fully accomplished: It is already the case that there will have been no World Cup.

Few winners, many losers

In general terms, the object of people’s anger is the vast amount of public money that has been poured into hosting the most expensive ever edition of the tournament, and the failure to complete even 50 percent of its promised infrastructure projects and corruption. But to the social movements and the newly radicalised youth who demonstrated in 14 Brazilian state capitals on May 15, the World Cup represents more: It condenses into one symbol a fundamental flaw in the Workers’ Party (PT) project.

Unlike the less politicised middle classes who briefly joined the peak days of last June’s demonstrations, those protesting now are mobilised not so much by the naive notion that the money spent on stadiums could solve the country’s problems, or the catch-all theme of corruption than the so-called legal corruption taking place in broad daylight. 

Viewfinder – Occupying Brazil

These are the fortunes being funnelled into construction companies – the largest campaign donors in the country – to build unnecessary new stadiums; by the forcible eviction of poor communities so that land is handed over to developers; or indeed by the fact that an event whose cost was essentially born by the state stands to be FIFA’s most lucrative ever.

In short, what irks protesters is the blatant rapaciousness of the privatisation of profit and socialisation of costs that is the basic business model of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – two private bodies that are not accountable and travel the world selling state of exception (a state’s power to suspend the rule of law) packages to preferably undemocratic investment-hungry nations, in what’s undoubtedly the most continuously victorious example of shock doctrine capitalism.

What is symbolic about the falsity of selling this as a big opportunity for the country is that it reveals an ugly truth about the formula behind PT’s political triumph. From former Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s first term, the party seized the occasion offered by a buoyant international commodities market to create a win-win situation in which the rich would get a lot richer and the poor would get less poor. The resulting success in raising living standards and reducing inequality is beyond question; but it’s also what allowed PT to avoid serious battles, leaving the deeper structures that make Brazil the world’s 17th most unequal country relatively untouched.

In short: it did what it could within the existing constraints, but it did very little to create the conditions in which those constraints could be changed. As the global economic slowdown finally hit Brazil, wriggle room has shrunk and tensions are building up again. What’s more, the compromises PT has made, and the contraction and demobilisation of its organised social base, have left it in the paradoxical position of having less leverage to change those constraints than it had before, while remaining virtually unbeatable at the ballot box.

Evidence of this is the fact that, having reacted to last year’s uprising by proposing a programme of reforms, President Dilma Rousseff watched in silence as her own coalition immediately torpedoed it. 

Symptoms of political stagnation

What the World Cup reveals, then, is that, if structural questions aren’t addressed, “everyone wins” can slip into “some of the poor lose everything, so that some of rich win big, so that some of the poor can win something”.

The World Cup and the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant are extreme examples of this, but the pattern appears elsewhere in more moderate forms, too. One can see it in the the car industry subsidies that worsen congestion and pollution while public transport remains underfunded; or in the commendably ambitious initiative to address the country’s housing deficit, whose construction and industry-friendly design nevertheless reinforces the trend pushing the poor to distant areas with deficient infrastructure.

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Opposition to the World Cup is thus also symbolic: A temporary focal point for social dissent, a mutation of the virus that started making the rounds last year.

June 2013 represents an irreversible subjective shift – “the love affair is over”, demonstrators chanted. This, rather than the desperate deterioration of the country that the right-wing opposition would like to depict, explains what’s happening. Even if there haven’t been crowds of hundreds of thousands since, protests have become much more widespread and varied in their social and political composition.

Favelas or slums are seeing increasingly common demonstrations against police abuses; strike activity is going up after the lull of the Lula years; squatting is on the rise; and more traditional movements, like the Homeless Workers’ (MTST), have joined the anti-World Cup wave.

It is a looser, much more fragmentary situation than in the days when PT’s hegemony over the left was incontestable. And precisely because, for the first time since the 1980s, the party has lost the monopoly over social mobilisation – it is now on the back foot. After years of justifying its choices as a consequence of an unfavourable balance of forces, PT felt threatened when finally it faced something that could tilt that balance in another direction,.

The upshot is an erratic mode of crisis management that totters between conciliatory gestures towards targeted movements, tone-deaf jingoism, thankfully now-discarded plans for special “anti-terrorism” legislation, the militarisation of host citiesfoolish antagonising of demonstrators (including a short-lived “There Will Be a World Cup” campaign), and labelling opposition to the World Cup as international jealousy, national defeatism, leftist agitation and right-wing destabilisation.

Symptomatically, there’s only one approach that hasn’t been tried: reclaiming political initiative and seizing the moment with a fresh programme of reforms and policies. On the contrary, seemingly incapable of interpreting events outside the logic of electoral competition, PT has displayed a haughty recalcitrance in acknowledging that there could be legitimate motives to criticise the government. Its discourse has become conservative in a literal sense: stressing the fear of losing what has been done rather than offering a vision of what happens next – let alone of how the limits of previous terms could be overcome. That ultimately does nothing but confirm it in the eyes of those in the streets that PT has gone too far to swing back.

Whether mobilisations during the World Cup can be as large as last June’s depends on such contingencies as the level of police violence and the national team’s campaign. If that happens, the impact on Rousseff’s re-election hopes is anyone’s guess.

What is safer to predict is that, if it does win, PT will have to either renew itself by learning how to engage these new social forces in dialogue and action, or see the rift between the party and the streets grow ever larger.       

Rodrigo Nunes is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). He is the author of Organisation of the Organisationless: Collective Action After Networks (Mute Books).