In the Streets or in the Institutions?

By Jeffrey Rubin:

Social movements in Brazil have experienced a unique trajectory: they have grown and flourished during a twenty-year period of discernible and highly uneven democratic deepening. As a result, Brazilian activists face ongoing and urgent questions about the location of politics. Since the mid-1980s, many grassroots activists have opted to move from “the streets” to “the institutions,” seeing in elections or policymaking the possibility of advance for issues of equality and inclusion.

As some activists chose a more institutional path, others continued to work in local communities, in religious groups, in transnational protest networks, and in the streets, or to move back and forth or pursue both paths simultaneously. Ongoing engagement with political institutions has meant that many radicals replaced their notion of revolution with one of reform. Generally, they did so with the conviction that reform needed to be significant to justify the bet on the institutions. And most remain radically uncertain about the result of this bet and their own future strategies.


Looking backward, Lula’s electoral victory represents the culmination of twenty years of movement between the streets and the institutions. And indeed this is what democracy hopes and promises—that the animation of social movements will take up residence in institutions and that the quality of ordinary people’s lives will improve through the policymaking that results. However, it is now clear that Lula has not championed significant reform and that PT officials routinely bought votes in Congress and made use of illegal campaign contributions. Furthermore, it appears that PT leaders, despite the innovation they initiated or observed at the level of social movements and municipal government, have little conception of what a national government might say or do to exercise power in new ways to further equality and inclusion. Without such imagination, economic orthodoxy and political corruption can appear essential and even legitimate.


My fieldwork revealed that few Brazilian activists—and none of the many with whom I spoke at the grassroots—believe in democracy as a paramount good. Despite their partial embrace of democratic institutions and their awareness that these institutions at times provide protection for organizing, activists remain largely neutral or skeptical regarding the value of democracy for making headway on issues
of social justice.


The unevenness of citizenship. The notion of more developed and enduring citizenship parallels that of democratic deepening. However, while claims and practices of citizenship are an integral part of Brazilian social movements, my research suggests that such practices are always partial and uneven, not because one or another aspect of citizenship has not yet been fully realized, but rather because being a citizen who claims rights—what kind of citizen, which rights?—is just one aspect of the lives that people bring to politics. As a result, it doesn’t make sense to talk about pathways to deeper democracy or more participatory citizenship as if greater amounts or deeper qualities will lead to better results. The “thing” itself, citizenship or democracy, is always partial, gendered, constructed, etc. What is interesting and important are the particular ways in which citizenship or democracy in a given place become part of individuals and societies and what this makes possible.



I conclude with a question: how can scholars of social movements and politics “see and not see” compelling political forms and bring into our analyses the complexity and messiness that shape politics on the ground? The conventions of storytelling demand and encourage those facets of empirical reality I have described above: hidden spaces, explosiveness, unevenness, corruptions, ordinary passions, and paradox. We might better discern and enact movements-in-democracy and governingas- movement if we focused our attention consistently on these “other sides” of politics and developed new ways of representing them.

Read it at Lasa Forum 2006:


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