In June 2013, Brazilian cities were occupied by street demonstrations sparked by the protest against the increase in public transportation fares in the city of São Paulo. Over the course of weeks, these demonstrations grew, a vast array of claims was incorporated, and new types of protesters emerged, eventually taking a direction the initial organizers hadn’t anticipated. Nationally known as the June 2013 “happenings,” “demonstrations,” “revolts,” and even “June journeys[1],” they are one of the most important events in the recent political history of the country, with consequences that continue to influence Brazilian political behavior today.

Many attempts have been made to understand what happened in that period of time. As remarked by the Brazilian political scientist André Singer’s play with the words “June journeys” and “Juno journeys,” each sees “in the clouds arisen above the streets a different form of Goddess.”[2] Each of these forms, indeed, had its own potential in the unfolding of the events. As a result, a dispute was also fought beyond the streets which sought to give an interpretation to the happenings — an interpretation that would also determine the direction of the events while they were happening.

Despite their different and even opposed arguments, these interpretations agree on two points. First, there were two distinct moments in the protests. While in the first moment the demonstrations were led by the Movimento Passe Livre — MPL[3] (Free Fare Movement) and demanded the reversal of the recent rise in bus fare in São Paulo, in the second moment was the massive participation in the demonstrations initiated by MPL and the thousands who marched in the streets of Brazilian cities made a broader range of claims. The huge demonstration of June 17th, 2013 shows the metamorphosis in the protests, and inaugurates this second moment. The second point of convergence is that the main target of growing signs of popular dissatisfaction was the government. From the initial demand for fairer transportation fares, the protests attracted a heterogeneous crowd that had a long list of demands and a much broader dissatisfaction. These include urban issues and the affirmation of the right to the city, dissatisfaction with the precarious quality of public services, criticism against corruption in government, and disillusionment with representative democracy. MPL’s initial demand focused on the municipal and state governments — the ones in charge of public transportation in the city of São Paulo — but the changes in the second moment of demonstrations made the federal government the target of criticisms. The federal government was blamed for not being able to deliver quality public services in accordance with the needs of growing urban centers, being mired in corruption, and even for promoting social rights but failing to expand them enough. The government was also blamed for police brutality in response to the demonstrations, and for acting erratically in general, not having initially paid sufficient attention to the protests and subsequently, when the array of demands broadened, wavering between the promise of a commitment to improving public services and a broader political reform. Thus, criticisms to the government are both the cause and consequence of the events, and the events can be interpreted as the result of profound popular discontentment with the state of affairs.

The first phase of the demonstrations was indeed ignored by the government and the mainstream media, but not by the police. As police brutality was employed in the attempt to contain the growing of the movement, media professionals covering the events on June 13th were also victims of this brutality. This in turn gave more visibility to the fight against the fare hike, and it was the catalyst for the new cycle of demonstrations that, at the first sight, seemed to boost popular support to MPL. However, this trend was reverted, and the marches were appropriated by demonstrators who advocated for different causes. Ironically, at the same time that the masses that joined the demonstrations gave the necessary support for MPL to achieve its goal — the government reversed the fare increase on June 19th due to popular pressure — the same masses irreversibly transformed the nature of the protests, which were originally grounded on citizenship claims and particularly focused on the improvement of public transportation. Since then, the mainstream media has been shaping the hegemonic interpretation of the happenings with a narrative centered on the spectacle of politics and fused with the topic of corruption in government. It is also at that moment that advertising slogans became the most heard chorus in the street demonstrations; the main ones are “vem pra rua” [come out to the streets] and “o gigante acordou” [the giant has awoken][4]. According to the Brazilian journalist Leonardo Sakamoto, these slogans had been present in the virtual debate on Facebook and Twitter, suggesting that “the call for action via social media brought the social media to the street”.[5]

The appropriation of advertising slogans shows how the demonstrations took the form of a movement of citizen-consumers, not only in its most immediate meaning — the use of the advertising language — but also in the most profound sense of the term — that of the logic of the state and politics functioning under neoliberal governance. This is the logic of a normative system that functions in accordance to the ideology of autonomy and freedom of choice, thus the consumer is its ideal type as these words belong to the market ethos and the marketing strategies widely promoted by the media. Yet, this logic extends to the public space and subjugates the state itself to the norm of competition, which results in the consumerist conception of public service. In this context emerges the “’citizen-consumer’ responsible for arbitrating between competing ‘political offers’”[6].

It is an irony of fate that the demonstrations which were motivated by the fight for the improvement of public transportation were transformed into protests mobilized mainly under an automobile manufacturer’s advertising slogan. Yet, the criticism shown in the streets was not to cars, brands or big corporations, but to an inefficient and corrupt government that was unable to fulfill the population’s will. It is at this point that the media began to portray the demonstrations as positive actions led by citizens who pay their taxes, stand for their rights, and seek to hold the state accountable by standards of market actors – the citizen-consumers.

Different movements co-existed in June 2013, and it was not determined from the outset that they would eventually take the shape of a citizen-consumers movement. This outcome was delineated throughout the process, and resulted from facts that reoriented the direction of the events, such as the media’s incitement for people uninterested in politics to join the demonstrations – and who identify themselves with the center-right wing, according to surveys carried out in the occasion of the demonstrations by the main Brazilian research institutes. Dressed in national colors, and acting in the name of the nation and for “ethics in politics,” these demonstrators added a new meaning to the list of popular discontents, ultimately culminating in the moralistic logic of citizen-consumers against the corrupt government.

Demonstrations continued after June 2013, and they took on diverse forms and smaller sizes. In 2014, the metamorphosed movement of citizen-consumers reappears under a new guise: the slogan Vem pra Rua [Come Out to the Streets] becomes the name of a liberal movement whose goal is “to organize and recruit people based on the economic, political, and social situation of the country.” [7] This social movement self-identifies as non-partisan, against corruption, and favoring ethics in politics and an efficient, minimal state. Funded by corporations, its leader is a young man who admitted in an important Brazilian TV show that he had not been interested in politics until participating in the June 2013 demonstrations. Also founded in 2014, the Movimento Brasil Livre – MBL (Free Brazil Movement) is named in clear reference to MPL. Self-identifying as a right wing political movement, MBL has a clear position about the role of the state – at the point of being described by The Economist as a movement composed by followers of Thatcherism[8]. MBL advocates for economic freedom, the unconditional freedom of private propriety, the freedom of choice for the individual, a drastic cut in taxes, and an end to any type of affirmative action. Its leaders are two polemical young men: a former college student and an entrepreneur who has been accused of corruption. Both Vem pra rua and MBL are products of the June 2013 demonstrations, and were shaped by the unfolding of the events. In the following two years, they were the protagonists of several manifestations in which thousands went to the streets to demand, this time, the impeachment of the President. Such manifestations mobilized once again the same moralistic discourse against corruption in government that had been the hallmark of the transformations of the 2013 demonstrations in its second phase. Though these movements deserve further investigation, they are taken here as another example to substantiate my argument that the 2013 protests were transformed into citizen-consumers movements in the neoliberal sense that I am attributing to the concept.

The June 2013 demonstrations had undoubtedly an emancipatory potential, as reminded by even the most pessimistic analysts of the future of democracy under neoliberalism, such as the political scientist Wendy Brown’s argument[9] that the demonstrations in Brazil signaled the reclamation of public space, the fight against the subjugation of citizenship to the sacred power of neoliberal capitalism, and the recovery of the political voice which had been silenced. But the metamorphosis of the demonstrations into citizen-consumers might perhaps be the answer to Brown’s question about the future of politics under neoliberalism: “what happens to rule by and for the people when neoliberal reason configures both soul and city as contemporary firms, rather than polities?”



[1] The demonstrations were dubbed “June journeys” [jornadas de junho] alluding to Marx’s analysis of the 1848’s June Insurrection in Paris (cf. Marx, Karl. O 18 Brumário de Luís Bonaparte. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011, p. 35).

[2] Singer, André. Brasil, junho de 2013: classes e ideologias cruzadas. Novos estudos Cebrap, 2013.

[3] MPL is a non-partisan social movement founded in 2005 with the initial demand for free fare for students, which was later extended to free public transportation for all users. In the June 2013 protests, however, the demand was specifically for the reversal of that year’s fare increase in multiple Brazilian cities. The protests began in São Paulo.

[4] These are the slogans of two advertising campaigns launched in 2013 in Brazil, the first by the Italian automobile manufacturer FIAT, and the second by the Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker. Videos circulating in the internet blended, in a sort of cultural jamming, images of the campaigns with real scenes of the protests. These videos predominantly showed images of police brutality in retaliation to the demonstrations and overcrowded buses, conveying the precariousness of public services such as transportation.

[5] Sakamoto, L. Em São Paulo, o Facebook e o Twitter foram às ruas. In: MARICATO, Ermínia et al. Cidades Rebeldes: Passe Livre a as manifestações que tomaram as ruas do Brasil. São Paulo: Boitempo/Carta Maior, 2013. (p.97)

[6] Dardot and Laval. The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society. New York: Verso Books, 2014.



[9] Brown, Wend. Undoing the demos: neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. MIT Press, 2015.