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Today, with urban uprisings driven by leaderless social movements, the future of the would-be progressive agenda has been called into question. Inspired by Brazil’s “June Journeys”, Caio Teixeira explores how we might situate leaderless social movements and their forward-looking agenda within the context of the leftist political spectrum.

Series: Progressive Mayors and Urban Social Movements

The literature on urban politics has shown the enduring role of progressive social movements in shifting city policies to the left. Urban social movements have successfully held individual elected officials accountable for the implementation of progressive policies (Zirakzadeh 2006), while also taking a more structural and institutional approach through legal and electoral reform (Goldstone 2003). This article looks at how mayors popularly situated “on the left” have (or have not) been engaging with social movements’ claims in order to incorporate them into their governmental priorities, particularly as more recent social movements are increasingly characterized by the neo-anarchist ethos of horizontality and a lack of conventional leadership. Leaderless urban social movements can be simultaneously viewed as a problem for political bargaining and a solution for protesting and engaging in contentious politics. In what follows, I reflect on this issue, influenced by my own reading of the leaderless urban movement known as the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL; in English, the Free Fare Movement) within the “June Journeys” urban uprising.

People becoming space by acting: the June Journeys in Brazil

The “June Journeys” marked a dramatic period of large-scale social media–driven protest in urban public spaces. The starting point was the 7% bus-fare increase announced on June 2, 2013, by São Paulo’s mayor, Fernando Haddad, of Brazil’s center-left-leaning Workers’ Party. A few days later, a small non-violent street protest in the heart of São Paulo was organized by activists from the Free Fare Movement (FFM). Many of the activists were students from the university. Following police violence against these unarmed protesters, the demonstrations spread to several Brazilian cities, and included other movements with claims against government corruption, for better public education, for more investment in health services, and questioning public expenditure for the World Cup and the Olympics (Vainer et al. 2013; Thomas and Anjuli 2017).

The June Journeys constituted a period of widespread usage of social-networking sites to mobilize civil disobedience in order to pressure city government. The protests were largely influenced by the “globalized discourses of rights to the city by calling upon the government to address urban issues” (Thomas and Anjuli 2017, p. 1010). The right to the city offers a more pluralist view of city-making struggles as a lived and historical expression of collective power in shaping the urban domain, where “people become space by acting” (Merrifield 2011 p. 475). Although Brazil’s June Journeys cannot be reduced to the FFM alone, it is important to note that the FFM played an instrumental role in sparking people’s motivation to protest. Much like the emblematic events of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring or the Indignados, the use of social media platforms, exemplified by the web-based protest-joining tactics organized by the FFM, was vital to the success of Brazil’s June Journeys.

Social media and collective action

Digital activism has been reshaping the organizational structures of protest movements and the logic of protest (Gerbaudo 2012). Lievrouw (2011) shows how political engagement through everyday social-media use has reframed people’s agency, providing and supporting conditions for an alternative media for oppositional activism. Social media platforms have also influenced people’s discussions and worldviews through practices of information-sharing, shaping forms of recruitment and repertoires of action (Earl and Kimport 2011).

The use of social media has also allowed for social movements to move away from the time-consuming and hierarchical forms of decision-making found in the more traditional forms of collective action (Bennett and Segerberg 2013; Gerbaudo 2012). Social media has transformed the conditions for protest and collective action, which are deeply influenced by the interactivity logic of social media (Bennett and Segerberg 2013; Lievrouw 2011). However, little discussion has concerned itself with the extent to which it is possible to combine networked grassroots autonomy with the traditional hierarchical institutions of the state.

Grassroots autonomy meets the state

The FFM began in 2003 as an unaffiliated organization advocating for free public-transit fares for students. Over the years, their advocacy and mission have broadened to include free and high-quality public transportation for all as a strategy for the appropriation of urban space (Movimento Passe Livre 2013). By the time of Brazil’s June Protests, its claims were based on the reversal of the fare hikes that had triggered the protests in the first place.

The FFM has a non-hierarchical organizing rule, or horizontality. It is also participatory – in that consensus-based decision is made on pragmatic grounds, built up in assemblies driven by direct political engagement. The FFM is also non-partisan, without any direct or indirect connection to the flags or symbols of any political party or interest group (Movimento Passe Livre 2013). It typifies a leaderless urban social movement that uses social platforms to communicate their actions.

Street protests versus state policies

In mid-June 2013, Mayor Haddad invited the FFM to debate their claims in the city council, the process by which urban policies are shaped. This was the most important state effort to negotiate with the FFM. However, the leaderless organizational structure of FFM significantly diminished the capacity for the group to bargain successfully with the government in this situation. Despite the fact that the city council is a consultative body, the FFM refused to appoint a representative to negotiate political agreements on behalf of the group; the very act of bargaining with the state, mediated by a leader, was not part of their political strategy to influence the decisions of power-holders. A formal leadership is counter to the organization’s consensual collective engagement style for decision-making based on a horizontal, participatory, and non-partisan structure. It is also seemed to be a tactic for resisting co-option.

Conversely, the city administration is hierarchically structured by democratic representative government made up of elites within partisan politics (Higley and Burton 2006; Ruscio 2004) working within incremental policymaking decisions. Perhaps most importantly, the political negotiation failed in city council and subsequently Mayor Haddad took an oppositional position to engaging with FFM, reducing the institutional odds for mutual accommodation of interests through agreements or deals. Given this organizational difference of modes of negotiation, consensus-building was difficult.

Although part of São Paulo’s city government priorities included initiatives with goals of greater inclusiveness, revoking the fare hikes was fiscally and politically unfeasible for Mayor Haddad. This became a debate that was played out in public. In the city council, Haddad argued that the rising fare was technically justified (Marsiglia 2017) because of inflation and to maintain the former price would be financially unsustainable. At the same time, the FFM made their organizational commitment explicit to the public, explaining their reasons for public protest. Both sides viewed the fare issue as a zero-sum game between Mayor Haddad and the FFM, inhibiting any efforts for coalition-building in support of the claim.

Movement-led protest and government response

At a time of “the end of representative politics” (Tormey 2015), the idea of leaderless, participatory, “partisan-free democracy” sounds fascinating, evoking a people-centered style of doing politics. During the June protests, more than 80% of protesters declared they did not have a political-party preference (Datafolha 2013). Leaderless movements seem like a solution for recruiting ordinary people to participate without linking them to partisan politics. But for the very same reason, this lack of representation make bargaining and negotiating with state representatives virtually impossible. By keeping a safe distance from institutionalized politics, the FFM was able to “politicize” the use of public space but managed to depoliticize their claims within the traditional realm of policymaking.

The problem of political negotiation between the FFM and the city government suggests that negotiating agreement in politics still depends and relies upon political power associated with leadership, in which electoral and policy coalitions for an agenda of policy change is informed and influenced by partisan priorities and their political brands. As a result, governing institutions need to be innovative in reaching different audiences, exploring new pragmatic solutions to pressing policy outcomes, fostering better channels of cooperation through political negotiation, and diversifying ideas in the practice of city building.

Perhaps the FFM should be seen as a convenient example of how far non-representative politics or “immediate or non-mediated politics” (Tormey 2015, p. 2) can go outside institutionalized environments. Liberal democracies depend heavily on leaders as bargainers to address trenchant public issues. And left-wing governments have been responding to leaderless urban social movements, by reinforcing the very need for (its) leadership apparatus.

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To cite this article:

Caio Teixeira, “The Leaderless Urban Social Movement as Problem and Solution”, Metropolitics, 25 September 2018. URL: https://www.metropolitiques.eu/The-Leaderless-Urban-Social-Movement-as-Problem-and-Solution.html
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