Massimiliano Mollona: The Brazilian “June” revolution: Urban struggles, composite articulations, and new class analysis

The June 2013 revolution that shook Brazil last year took everybody by surprise. It started in Sao Paulo as a small gathering against a looming rise in the cost of public transport, and in two weeks it spread to 400 cities and towns, bringing millions of people (6 percent of the national population) to the streets and forcing President Dilma Rousseff to start a process of constitutional reform. For many political observers, this “movement of movements” was a labor movement, which brought together diverse forces of labor—the kind of Latin American “bricolage” socialist movements described by Göran Therborn (2012).1 But, are these bricolaged, working-class formations—to use the expression of Van der Linden—“atypical”? Atypical in relation to what? Are they not part of the same tradition of working-class “communing” described by Susser (2013) and Kalb (2014) for the United States and Europe? Contemporary urban struggles are complex and complicate traditional, factory-based, approaches to class. Below, I describe and analyze the struggles that took place in Rio de Janeiro in the summer 2013 and offer some ideas on how anthropology, geography, and political economy can be put in dialogue for a contemporary class analysis.2

Sketches of Brazilian class historiography
Cross-sectional politics is not new in Brazil, where collaborations between social movements and class movements led to the powerful “social unionism” discussed at length in the labor literature of the 1990s. Perhaps this interpenetration of civic and labor struggles is a legacy of slavery, which in Brazil fluidly brought together free and bonded labor. Elsewhere3 I have highlighted the following “atypicalities” of a Brazilian working-class town in relation to other Euro-American experiences: (1) the lack of a public space, (2) class emancipation without class struggle, and (3) anticolonialism as nationalism. A skeptical observer will argue against the atypicality of the Brazilian case. After all, did not the ex-metalworker-turned-president Lula da Silva subscribe to the neoliberal dogma of deindustrialization, financialization, and tertiarization in cahoots with the industrial working class and at the expense of precarious and informal workers? But even so, do we really believe that the North and the South are converging? Urban geography gives us a different picture. Pace Sassen4 the “slumification” of the South, of which Rio is such an iconic example, has imposed different trajectories of class struggle.

First, in urban peripheries, the deterritorialization of capital has been so deep that the urban poor are going through the same experience already lived by the rural poor in the 1970s—occupying land, organizing close to the territory, in small units, and on a day-to-day basis. Besides, urban peripheries have informal economies and family-based micro-entrepreneurship, which can be described as “counter-hegemonic.” Unlike Bauman’s dark vision of the Brazilianization of Europe, the mongrelization5 of cities in the South has empowered the so-called informal working class. Think workers’ management in Argentina, street markets of El Alto, Bolivia, or the new cooperativism in Sao Paulo and Cairo. Anthropologists6, including myself, tend to emphasize how petty capitalism, being an epiphenomenon of corporate financialization, is intrinsically exploitative. But the kind of cooperativism and small-scale production recently developed in the South7 seems to require new categories of analysis. Lastly, in Latin America, there is a powerful Right to the City movement, rooted in ideas of urban democracy and at least in the moment of its inception, independent form party politics.8

The events
The first wave of the June revolution was led by the Free Pass Movement (Movimento Passe Livre—MPL) in opposition to an impending rise in the cost of public transport. In 2000, the MPL emerged from the convergence of Workers’ Party (PT), anarchist and antiglobalization organizations, and the student movement, and it has been at the forefront of the struggle for free transport in Brazil ever since. This small protest—a few thousand demonstrators—quickly escalated due to violent repression by military police, leading to the second phase of the struggle, which reached its apex June 17–20. Then, the movement consisted of hundreds of thousands of people and coalesced around the opposition to the constitutional amendment proposal PEC 37, which would restrict the attorney general’s power to carry out independent investigations, de facto, eliminating an important anticorruption tool. The slogans focused on the corrupted practices of the PT in government, once an icon of utopianism and antihegemony. It was especially the government’s unethical pro-business stance in dealing with the planned sports mega-events—the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games—that generated public outrage. As for Argentina and Spain a few months earlier, the slogans did not touch specific issues or parties but rather the whole political system—“all that exists” (contra tudo que aí está). Symbolically, the movement moved in the same streets of the city center—Candelaria, Avenida Rio Branco, and Cinelândia—where antidictatorship organizations, led by the PT, marched in the 1980s. On June 20, one million people marched on Avenida Vargas, an avenue planned by modernist architect Lucio Costa in the 1940s to celebrate then–President Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorship. In parallel to this mainstream movement, horizontal flash mobs and direct actions targeted corporate and state buildings across the city. But, at the apex of its strength—with Rousseff proposing a constituent assembly devoted to political reform, more stringent punishments for corruption, and investments in transport, health, and education—the movement was furiously repressed. More than a hundred activists were jailed.

On that night, the protest entered into its third phase. Demands became more dispersed—the repeal of PEC 37, reduction of traffic tolls, the national contract of public sector lecturers and bankers—and articulated by middle-class organizations and traditional labor forces. On July 11, the National Day of Struggle, organized by the PT and the main industrial trade union (CUT) against the measures of labor deregulation proposed by the government, paralyzed the nation. But in Parliament, CUT never opposed the government’s Lei 4330 containing drastic labor deregulation measures.9 So why was it doing so now and in the street? Was it trying to co-opt the movement?

In hindsight, the June revolution was the culmination of a series of workers’ actions, especially of public workers (lecturers, bankers) and service workers (teleworkers), against the neoliberal turn the government had started in 2008. Perhaps, as my Brazilian colleagues like to stress, more than neoliberalism, the Brazilian model could be more accurately described as “social neoliberalism” combining redistribution toward the poorest social strata, labor deregulation, and disinvestment in health and education. In 2012, almost all state capitals elected opposition mayors in the municipal elections. The 2013 June revolution was a culmination of a political discontent brooding across the nation.

Scales of capitalist dispossession in the city
In order to understand why such brooding political discontent suddenly turned into a full-fledged urban revolution, some structural factors need to be considered. Historically, Brazil’s shift from the coffee economy to industry made Rio de Janeiro overdependent on the informal economy, commerce, real-estate speculation, and tourism, sectors historically linked to both extreme wealth and extreme inequality. These extremes still dominate Brazil’s “Wonderful City” made up of both street vendors and state managers, aristocrats and camelos, tourists and soldiers, financial tycoons and indentured workers of all kinds—cleaners, gardeners, nannies, porters, receptionists, butlers, drivers, sex workers, waiters, builders, and rubbish recyclers. In the past few years, thanks to the dealings of powerful Governor Sérgio Cabral, investments in urban infrastructures and real estate boomed in Rio, accompanied by processes of gentrification and forced relocations of poor neighborhoods—often dressed up as measures of police pacification. The following political and economic forces operating at different scales—global, national, and regional—happened to converge in Rio at the time of the protest, magnifying it and taking it well beyond the demonstrators’ original intentions (and hope).

    1. The unjust and racist planning of three major sport eventsthe FIFA Confederations Cup, the FIFA World Cup, and the Olympic Games—to be held in Rio between 2012 and 2016. Discontent started to arise in 2012 when the newly formed International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its plans of infrastructural investments in the city. Transport and housing improvements focused mainly on Barra da Tijuca, a high-income area with a mix of multinational businesses and middle-class housing (representing only 4.76 percent of residents of Rio de Janeiro), while buses and the train network for low-income families were substantially scaled down. Besides, people had been protesting against the bourgeoisification and “whitening” of Brazilian football for some time. In 2012, when FIFA set the price of football tickets above the financial possibility of even middle-class fans, discontent turned into anger, fueled further by revelations of FIFA’s corrupt deals.
    2. The municipality’s increased military repression. In order to enforce the plans of FIFA and the IOC,  the municipality stepped up evictions and police occupations of favelas (also known as Police Pacification Units—UPP). In theory, UPPs are aimed at reducing the drug factions’ armed violence and community control. In practice, they empower corrupt state militias and clear the ground for private developments and gentrification of favelas in the rich, southern part of the city. Poor favelas are not targeted for UPP. In 2012, a leaked report showed that the IOC had already completed hundreds of forced relocations in the area of the old port, justified on the ground of the development of transport and touristic infrastructures. Besides, thousands of families, samba schools, quilombos communities, and indigenous centers and squats located nearby the Maracanã Stadium were forcedly relocated by the police, following the example set by Olympic committees in other cities.10 In addition, the special bodies Security Force for Mega-Events, Security for Tourism, and Special Force for Order were created to curb fans’ violence, drug trade, and homelessness. These paramilitary bodies were given special powers, including that of holding guns, preventive detention, and destruction of identification documents. The pacification of favelas and the pacification of the city slowly blurred into each other. On June 20, the “lawless Friday,” the armored tank used by the special police unit to invade favelas was used to disperse the demonstration. Public teachers gathered outside the parliament in protest against the proposed reduction of the national wage were cordoned off and violently dispersed. The municipal police with the help of military personnel trained in urban warfare attacked street vendors in the centro and around Maracanã, where Law 11 had made street selling and advertising around stadiums illegal.11 After an officer was shot dead during a protest in March, special forces stormed the Complexo da Maré, killing nine people, at least two of them bystanders. Following security concerns by FIFA, the Navy had even installed missiles on the rooftops surrounding Maracanã.
    3. Perhaps in normal circumstances, the violence of the police might have passed unnoticed. But these heavy repressive measures coincided with the public debates on the military regime and on Brazil’s unfinished transition to democracy generated by the work of the National Commission of Truth (CNV). The CNV was established in 2011 to explore various aspects of repression and corruption during dictatorship, whose epicenters were Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In June, when the military police moved its armored tank from the favelas to the centro and bit up and jailed hundreds of demonstrators, antidictatorship slogans and photos emerged from everywhere. Connections between past and present forms of state repression were made. Graffiti reading “no to dictatorship” emerged on the building of the new image center of the state security department. The Legislative Assembly was stormed. MPs inside the building were inundated with text messages saying “Cabral dictator” or “Happy 1968.” Thousands of photos superimposing street fights in 1968 and the present demonstration were distributed outside the building.
    4. Regional politics and the infamous story of Governor Cabral. As governor of Rio de Janeiro, Cabral created a powerful regional block against the federal government. He reached the height of his popularity in 2011 when, with a coalition of businesses, parties, municipalities unions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), he organized the “oil rebellion” against the federal government, forcing Rousseff to increase Rio’s stakes in oil royalties. When announced he would run for the presidency in 2014, Cabral had a very good chance of winning. But, at the time of the demonstration, it emerged that Cabral’s good friend developer Norberto Odebrecht (who donated R$200 million to Cabral’s electoral campaign two years earlier) had won several major bids for developing the Olympic village. Besides, Cabral had taken big cuts on deals he brokered with global hoteliers and constructions groups—Hyatt, Hilton, and the Delta groups—and with national crony capitalists. It also emerged that he used seven helicopters as transport for nannies, friends of his children, and even to walk his dog. Suddenly, Cabral and Edoardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, and by extension their Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), became symbols of national corruption. “Occupy Cabral” involved hundreds of people camping outside the governor’s mansion in the affluent Leblon area for weeks, demanding his resignation and persecution for corruption and misuse of public funds. After desperately pleading on public television for the occupants to leave him alone, Cabral resigned, looking weak and defeated. Started by the left-of-center coalition, the moral campaign against the PMDB served the purposes of those right-wing forces aiming at bringing down the PT/PMDB governmental coalition.

Middle-class or precariat?
Class analyzes of the June revolution vary between those who see it as a predominantly middle-class phenomenon and those who read it as a movement of the “precariat”—made up mainly of those young, unskilled and semiskilled workers who gained formal employment when the PT was in power but who suffer from low-wage, high-turnover, and exploitative working conditions. In its first mandate, the PT government increased minimum wage and workers’ welfare and formalized the labor market, also thanks to the favorable economic context. During the second mandate, starting in 2008, Lula introduced labor market flexibility and cut social expenses. Sixty percent of the employment created during the governments of Lula and Rousseff were taken by workers between 18 and 24 years old, and 94 percent of them are currently on the poverty line.12

Nonetheless, neither positions capture the complex class composition of the movement, which included: (1) the anticapitalist group MPL, based on a collective and leaderless organizations and operating through forms of direct action and situationist interventions; (2) precarious public university lecturers who had already led a series of successful strikes in 2012; (3) an umbrella of left-of-center parties and unions, such as the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), the Unified Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU), and the industrial trade union confederation CSP-Conlutas, split from the hegemonic CUT (CSP-Conlutas had the important role of bringing together the traditional working-class—auto- and metalworkers—and civic organizations; for instance, it supported the protests by LGBT organizations against the absurd parliamentary proposal to give psychiatric assistance to gay people); (4) anarchist groups Black Blocs, the Independent Popular Front of Rio de Janeiro (RJ-FIP), and the Popular Revolutionary Student Movement (MEPR) consisting mainly of university students working during the day and studying at night; (5) subaltern formation of street vendors and Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) militants (street vendors had been resisting relocation form the centro by the municipal police for some time, and the MST, which has a strong presence in rural favelas and urban farms in north of the city, brought to the fore the voices of indigenous and black communities in antigentrification struggles); (6) service workers, especially teleworkers13 who since 2000 had strongly opposed government proposal of labor deregulation contained in Lei 4330; and (7) the Popular Committee for the World Cup and Olympics—an umbrella of NGOs, academics, neighborhood associations, human-rights organizations, and legal activists formed in 2012 (the committee gathered confidential data and information on forced relocation, municipal budgets, and extraordinary legislation, organized high-profile debates and campaigns, and during the protest led urban actions with the disenfranchised population of favelas and urban peripheries).

Yet, in spite of such a diverse coalition, the movement seemed to oscillate between middle-class and working-class demands, identities, and self-perceptions. First, the middle class and the working class were joined together against the same enemies, namely inflation and corruption. Both agendas have a strong populist appeal. In fact, right-wing parties appropriated the anticorruption campaign against Cabral to topple the PT/PMDB governmental coalition. Second, the middle class and the working class are both equally well educated and equally poor.14 Third, 70 percent of the demonstrators classified themselves as either center-left or center-right.

Was the June revolution the outcome of the proletarianization of the middle class (the 99 percent) or of the bourgeoisification of the working class—a symptom of “postmaterialist politics”? There is no easy answer. To me, what matters is that the June events radically changed the way class is understood in and outside of Brazil and emphasized the challenges we anthropologists face in analyzing class in the contemporary world. Below are some sketchy notes as a way of conclusion:

Notes for class analysis

  • Urban struggles are multiscalar, emerging from nested layers of political and economic forces—global, national, regional, and local.
  • Unlike traditional factories, where people and capital stand against each other, the “urban factory” blurs human spaces and the abstract forces of the economy calling for an anthropology of class informed by both radical geography and political economy.
  • In order to appreciate the economies underlying urban struggles, mapping incomes or rent is not enough. Invisible labor infrastructures and grassroots economies—informal trade, small and illegal production, street markets—need to be unveiled as well.
  • Class struggles are also moments of intellectual and material production. How can anthropology capture these processes, at once material and intellectual, without objectifying them and reducing them to abstract categories, such as “horizontalism,” “workerism,” or “class”? Can our fieldworks combine participant observation with moments of reflection, taking place in the immediate and with our informants, on the life forms emerging in moments of political struggles?
  • The centrality of rent in the postindustrial scenario has brought back old questions of political economy, including the “land grab” issue. There is a suggestion that postcolonial struggles are typically place-based, as opposed to the time-based struggles of Western countries and orthodox Marxism. If these different worldviews ever truly existed, with land returning to being a central category of political economy across the world, these two worldviews may be converging

Coda (a note of optimism)
In spite of widespread skepticism, Brazil is one of the few countries in the world where inequalities are decreasing and social movements and the working class are joined in struggle. Besides, new forms of labor internationalism, in which anarchists and antiglobalization movements play an important role, are connecting those successful movements in the South with those in the North. In fact, it does not matter if “the movement” of today is middle-class or working-class, coming from the North or the South. What matters is that the movement has started!

Massimiliano Mollona is Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has published widely on labor and working-class activism in Europe and Brazil.

1. Therborn describes them as “drawing support from many layers of society—the urban poor, people of indigenous or African descent, progressive element of the middle strata—and in which industrial workers are rarely in the vanguard” (16).

2. This article has benefited from a long conversation that I had with my colleague Marco Santana of Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

3. Carrier and Kalb (forthcoming)

4. Sassen argues that a “new geography of centrality cuts across the old North–South divide” (2014: 9).

5. I am using the term of Merrifield (2013).

6. Smart and Smart (2005) and Kalb (2014)

7. See Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2013).

8. For an analysis of these contemporary urban movements in Brazil, see Santana and Mollona (2013).

9. The proposal would allow companies to outsource core workers and, hence, to operate with a workforce of zero full-time or permanent workers, relying instead on a reserve pool of workers provided by “contact centers”labor brokers and temporary hiring agencies.

10. In 2007, the United Nations–funded Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) concluded that over the past twenty years, the Olympic Games have forced two million evictions. The Olympics were listed as one of the top causes of displacement and real-estate inflation in the world.

11. Law 11 gave FIFA exclusive selling, advertising, and distribution rights for the World Cup.

12. They earn 1.5 minimum wage, equivalent to the poverty level of R$1,000.

13. These workers’ conditions have been analyzed in depth by Ruy Braga.

14. Based on the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), Andre Singer (2014) discusses how the demonstrators in Rio and Sao Paulo had a mix of high education and low income. For a critical discussion of the middle class, see also Kalb (2013) and Therborn (2014).


Braga, Ruy. 2014. As jornadas de junho no Brasil: Crônica de um mês inesquecível. Unpublished manuscript.

Kalb, Don. 2014. Class: The urban commons and the empty sign of “the middle class” in the twenty-first century. In Donald M. Nonini, ed., A companion to urban anthropology, pp. 220–249. Oxford: Wily-Blackwell.

Merrifield, Andy, 2013. The politics of the encounter: Urban theory and protest under planetary urbanization. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Mollona, Massimiliano. Forthcoming. Anthropology and class analysis: Working-class politics in a Brazilian steel-town. In James G. Carrier and Don Kalb, eds., Class and anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Santana, Marco Aurélio, and Massimiliano Mollona. 2013. Trabalho e ação coletiva: Memória, espaço e identidades sociais na cidade do aço. Horizontes Antropologicos 19(39): 12–148.

Sassen, Saskia. 2014. Expulsions: Brutality and complexity in the global economy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Singer, André. 2014. Rebellion in Brazil: Social and political complexion of the June events. New Left Review 85: 19–37.

Sousa Santos, Boaventura de. 2012. Another production is possible: Beyond the capitalist canon. London: Verso.

Susser, Ida, and Stéphane Tonnelat. 2013. Transformative cities: The three urban commons. Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 66: 105.

Therborn, Göran. 2012. Class in the 21st century. New Left Review 78: 5–29.

Therborn, Göran. 2014. New masses? Social bases of resistance. New Left Review 85: 7–16.

Cite as: Mollona, Massimiliano. 2014. “The Brazilian ‘June’ revolution: Urban struggles, composite articulations, and new class analysis,” FocaalBlog, October 28,