Partisan Publics: Communication and Contention across Brazilian Youth Activist Networksby Ann Mische
During the 1980s and 1990s, Brazil struggled to rebuild its democracy after twenty years of military dictatorship, experiencing financial crises, corruption scandals, political protest, and intense electoral contention. In the midst of this turmoil, Ann Mische argues in this remarkable book, youth activists of various stripes played a vital and unrecognized role,
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During the 1980s and 1990s, Brazil struggled to rebuild its democracy after twenty years of military dictatorship, experiencing financial crises, corruption scandals, political protest, and intense electoral contention. In the midst of this turmoil, Ann Mische argues in this remarkable book, youth activists of various stripes played a vital and unrecognized role, contributing new forms of political talk and action to Brazil's emerging democracy.
Drawing upon extensive and rich ethnography as well as formal network analysis, Mische tracks the lives of young activists through intersecting political networks, including student movements, church-based activism, political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and business and professional organizations. She probes the problems and possibilities they encountered in combining partisan activism with other kinds of civic involvement. In documenting activists' struggles to develop cross-partisan publics of various kinds, Mische explores the distinct styles of communication and leadership that emerged across organizations and among individuals.
Drawing on the ideas of Habermas, Gramsci, Dewey, and Machiavelli, Partisan Publics highlights political communication styles and the forms of mediation and leadership they give rise tofor democratic politics in Brazil and elsewhere. Insightful in its discussion of culture, methodology, and theory, Partisan Publics argues that partisanship can play a significant role in civic life, helping to build relations and institutions in an emerging democracy.
D. B. Tindall
"Partisan Publics is a remarkable book. It will make a mark in sociology, political science, and Latin American studies. It is smartly written, subtle, and packs an important theoretical punch."Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Mobilization
"I found Mische's qualitative analyses particularly enlightening and refreshing. . . . This book is a valuable addition to the social movements literature, as well as several allied literatures."D. B. Tindall, Canadian Journal of Sociology
"Partisan Publics is based on a truly multimethod research design. . . . By threading narratives of individual activists through the book, Mische effectively uses the individual biographies to illuminate the overall movement and national history. . . . There is much to be gained by comparing Mische's findings to classical classical research in the social movement's literature."Catherine Corrigall-Brown, Contemporary Sociology
Read an ExcerptPartisan Publics
By Ann Mische Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007 Princeton University Press
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Prologue Exploring Brazilian Youth Activism
"Partidarismo não!" With these chants against partisanship, a student rally ended in confusion and heated argument. The rally had been organized in July 1988 to pressure for the democratization of the schools, a theme that succeeded in pulling nearly a thousand teenagers out of night classes in ten schools of the Vila Prudente, a working-class neighborhood in the poorer Eastern Zone of São Paulo. The evening rally took place in a dusty parking lot outside a transit hub, with activists speaking from microphones atop a truck equipped with amplifiers. I was attending the rally with two young friends, Teresa and Miguel, who were both activists in the Workers' Party (PT) as well as in the Education Movement of the Eastern Zone. They were among those leading a movement to organize grêmios livres-autonomous high school student organizations-which had recently been relegalized after decades of prohibition by the former military regime.
The confusion at this rally was not about the grêmios themselves, but about the political groups in defense of them. Most of the students, new at such political happenings, were taken aback by what seemed to be a swarm of representatives from organized political groups pushing their way into the rally. Neighborhood militantsof the PT were passing out pamphlets proclaiming, "The PT supports the struggle of the students." Local organizers of CUT, the labor central linked to the PT, had unfurled their banners in the crowd. Representatives of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) were clamoring to speak from the podium. And when the student organizer leading the rally thanked the PT for use of the sound truck, a large number of students joined in shouting against partidarismo (partisanship), although I later found out that the leader of the chants was a militant of the PMDB (Party of Brazilian Democratic Movement).
For weeks prior to the rally, I had accompanied Teresa and Miguel on a flurry of visits to schools in the region to help students organize grêmios, often in the face of opposition by school administrators. I also went with them to meetings with teachers, parents, church leaders, party organizers, and other community activists engaged in the broader Education Movement of the Eastern Zone, formed to address precarious educational conditions in the urban periphery. In conversations after the rally, the young PT activists lamented what they saw as the "depoliticization" of the high school movement, which they attributed to Brazil's twenty years of authoritarian rule. They argued that partisan bickering along with skepticism toward political parties was stripping the movement of "true dialogue" about educational conditions in Brazil.
However, at the same time as they hoped that the student movement would become more political, they agreed with almost everyone else that the movement needed to stay "apartisan," despite their own intense partisan commitments. The confusion at the rally stemmed from several different ways in which the term apartisan was being used. Most high school students, along with Brazilians more generally, equated apartisan with "apolitical." This was based on the idea that politics is for the politicians, associated with ambition, corruption, and dirty power politics, as well as with electoral opportunism and broken promises. This understanding led to the assertion that politics did not belong in schools, churches, or workplaces, a view eagerly promoted by the military regime and still widespread among many school administrators. In this view, grêmios should stick to organizing dances and sports competitions and keep away from more combative debate about society or the functioning of the school.
The second use of "apartisan" was as a mask for partisan manipulation. Building on public distrust of politicians, partisan actors wielded the termas a call to arms against their partisan rivals. The PMDB activist who led the chants against partisanship was clearly hoping to discredit the PT, and thereby bring less politicized students under the wing of the more moderate centrist party. Likewise, the PT leaders themselves tried to prevent activists from their main competitor, the PCdoB, from speaking on the podium, arguing that the PCdoB was "just" out to recruit leaders into their more vanguard style of organizing, opportunistically taking advantage of the PT's hard work raising consciousness in the schools. Unfortunately, by excluding PCdoB students in the name of apartisanship, they reinforced the impression that they themselves were trying to maintain a monopoly for the PT. No one, least of all adolescents just starting out in political militancy, wants to feel like a pawn of someone else's opportunism.
The third use of the term apartisan was a more careful attempt to distinguish "politicization"-conceived as autonomous political consciousness-raising-from partisan manipulation. This is what Teresa, Miguel, and other young PT leaders meant when they said the movement should be both "political" and "apartisan," although it was trickier than it seemed. Most petistas (PT activists) openly admitted their partisan affiliation, insisting that there is a legitimate role for political parties in promoting institutional change and actively combating the idea the partisan politics is ugly. But they also insisted-at least in principle-that the student movement had to stay autonomous from the party. They promoted grêmios livres as autonomous student forums for strong and open debate, with the right to discuss social issues beginning with the schools and moving out into other areas of political questioning. However, this ideal of autonomy was much harder to pull off in practice. It involved a difficult balancing act in which student activists had to provisionally suppress their avid partisan passions-something they were not always successful in doing. While PT activists tried to distinguish themselves stylistically from what they saw as the vanguardist manipulation of traditional leftist parties, they were locked in partisan battles with these parties for control of local and national student organizations.
I begin with this story because it forms a backdrop for much of this book, posing many of the puzzles I wrestled with over many years of experience with Brazilian youth politics. I first arrived in Brazil in 1987, fresh out of college and the recipient of a journalistic fellowship that allowed me to immerse myself in Brazilian culture and politics and write about it for several years in an exploratory fashion. I was in São Paulo from late 1987 through mid-1990, an exciting period in Brazilian history. The country was moving to civilian rule after twenty years of dictatorship and wrestling with the challenges of writing a new constitution, reconstituting civic and political institutions, and staging its first direct presidential elections in thirty years.
While I had grown up among activists in the United States, mostly in the Catholic peace and justice tradition as well as the international NGO community, I found Brazilian opposition politics in the postauthoritarian period to be something of a mind-blower. Drawing on credentials from my family history (as well as some supportive local contacts), I immersed myself in the complex and contentious activist community of the Eastern Zone of São Paulo. Straddling the roles of journalist and participant, I lived with PT activists and accompanied them in wide variety of church-based, community, student, and labor activities in the region. I followed attempts to revive the high school student movement, helped to start a youth group at a Catholic base community, worked with children in a church at the side of a favela (shantytown slum), and helped to organize a program for adolescent children of activists at a labor union school. I was endlessly fascinated with a social movement community that was simultaneously more ideological and more grittily grass roots than anything I had experienced.
What astonished me during this period was that most people I knew were not just involved in one movement, but in five or six. The Eastern Zone of São Paulo, along with other periphery neighborhoods, was a dense network of intersecting movement activity. In the same day, I could accompany activists like Miguel and Teresa from an early morning pamphlet distribution outside a school to a mid-morning health movement assembly at a local clinic to an early afternoon popular culture workshop of the Catholic youth pastoral to a late afternoon meeting of a neighborhood PT "nucleus." We might end the day at an evening rally at an urban land occupation site, stopping at corner bars for snacks, beer, and camaraderie with other activists along the way.
I also went to many local, regional, and municipal meetings of the PT (and some of its factions) as militants vigorously debated the positions and policies of the new party. Founded by an alliance of labor leaders, church-based community activists, and leftist intellectuals, the PT was born in 1980 as Brazil returned to a multiparty system. It billed itself as an internally democratic socialist party, grounded in Brazilian reality rather than on foreign models. The party was organized through a network of local "nuclei" that engaged neighborhood activists in political discussion as well as in the mobilizing tasks of campaigns. Despite the conflicts described above, partisan engagement seemed to serve a bridging function for these activists. Parties like the PT were a source of inspiration and integration, knitting people together across the particularities of neighborhoods, movements, age groups, and community loyalties.
This is not to say that there were not tensions, disputes, and frequent complaints of "depoliticization," as described in the story above. These were part and parcel of these activists' daily lives, which were often exhausting, stressful, and personally costly in terms of finances and family life. At the same time, there was a sense of exhilaration in the late 1980s, as activists were simultaneously building the party, the popular movements, and civic institutions like student organizations, labor unions, health councils, church groups, and community associations. This grassroots enthusiasm carried over into the election campaigns that occurred every few years: for state governments and the national legislature in 1982, the constitutional assembly in 1986, municipal governments in 1985 and 1988, and finally for president in 1989. This intense electoral schedule was sometimes at the expense of the popular movements, as activists were sucked out of local communities into campaign activities (and when the PT won legislative or executive seats, into government bureaucracy). Election activity rose to a fever pitch in the 1989 presidential campaign for the PT's candidate, Luis Inácio (Lula) da Silva, who came within few percentage points of winning the presidency.
And then, following Lula's narrow defeat in 1989 by Fernando Collor de Melo, some of the air seemed to go out of the activist community. Perhaps, as many claimed, they were exhausted by so many years of intense, full-time, self-sacrificing activism. Perhaps there was a generational effect, as young activists got older and decided it was finally time to get their own lives in order. Or perhaps, with the installation of a directly elected president, a new period had begun in Brazilian politics, as the country moved from democratic "transition"-dominated by regime/ challenger polarities-to "consolidation," with elite and opposition groups sorting out more complex institutional roles. In any case, between the time I left Brazil in 1990 to begin my graduate studies and returned in 1994 for two years of systematic research, there was a marked change in activist mood and rhythm. "It's not like '89," I was told mournfully by activist friends from the Eastern Zone. They lamented the "crisis" of the popular movements and described the reshuffled internal politics of the PT, which was increasingly polarized between factions advocating more institutionalized paths to "democratic socialism" and those demanding a return to the PT's more radical challenges to capitalism and neoliberal reforms.
Shifts in the Civic-Partisan Link
In the mid-1990s, I changed the focus of my research from grassroots organizing in the urban periphery to student activism of various types, based mostly in the universities. While I maintained contact with some youth organizations linked to popular movements-particularly sectors of the Catholic youth pastoral-I was interested in the expansion and diversification of student activism as Brazilian democracy consolidated. While urban popular movements were in a self-described crisis, the student movement had received an infusion of energy during the exuberant 1992 movement to impeach President Collor de Melo on corruption charges. High school and college students hit the streets in unexpectedly large numbers as part of a broad civic movement for "ethics in politics." Following Collor's impeachment, there was a surge in student organizations across the country. At the same time, Brazil's traditional, partisan student movement faced challenges from innovative new forms of student associations which were self-consciously "apartisan," including groups organized around race and gender, professional identities, and business involvements. Once again, many student activists participated in several kinds of activism at once.
In this more diversified field of student politics, the arguments about partisanship and politicization that I had witnessed in the late 1980s were back, but in a new guise. Most activists-even those from the PT-no longer wore their partisan identities on their chests as a badge of honor. While factional competition still dominated traditional institutional venues like student or party congresses, other more emergent forms of student organizing tiptoed around issues of partisan identity, pushing references to parties underground. There seemed to be a wedge driven between the ideas of being "civic" and being "partisan," which had previously been seen by activists as closely linked. This put partisan activists who had come of age in the late 1980s on the defensive as they moved on to new roles in university activism. In some cases, I witnessed an odd form of civic one-upmanship, as partisan factions competed to seize the moral high ground and present themselves as more "ethical," "democratic" and "nonsectarian" than their rivals. This led to an unexpected (and sometimes deceptive) veneer of cross-partisan collaboration.
An example can be seen in a national student seminar on science and technology that I attended in May 1996. The seminar was organized in the northeastern state of Bahia under the auspices of the National Student Union (UNE). During most of the 1990s, UNE was controlled by students linked to the PCdoB, although other parties participated in UNE's directorate under a system of proportional representation. The seminar was organized by UNE directors linked to the moderate wing of the PT. The goal of the seminar, according to the PT organizers, was to create a space to discuss the future of the university that would be "elaborative," not "deliberative," that is, oriented toward discussing ideas rather than making policy decisions or disputing organizational control. They explicitly wanted to avoid the highly competitive partisan dynamics of most student movement events, which made such discussion very difficult.
At the same time, the PT leaders admitted, they were trying to expand the influence of their particular camp in the student movement. To this end, they neglected to include other political forces-including rival PT factions as well as the PCdoB-in the organization of the seminar. The leaders of UNE from the PCdoB were furious when they learned of the seminar, and promptly sent UNE's president, Renato, as well as local PCdoB leaders to participate at the last minute (much to the chagrin of the PT organizers). In behind-the-scenes conversations, both PT and PCdoB leaders told me that they were expecting a mudslinging partisan showdown, in which each side attempted to publicly discredit the other in the eyes of less militant students.
Excerpted from Partisan Publics by Ann Mische
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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John W. Mohr, University of California, Santa Barbara
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Meet the Author
Ann Mische is associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University. Her work examines the relationship between culture, politics, and social interaction in complex social networks.
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