Each day, growing crowds of young, college-educated Brazilians are taking to the urban streets. Their grievances seem disparate and unrelated, which leaves the question of why and what they are protesting.
The marches began as modest affairs in opposition to a nominal increase in the public-bus fare. But the higher rate has since been rescinded and the protests keep growing, so perhaps that was never really the reason so many people joined the rallies in the first place.
There is, of course, a lengthy catalog of other complaints: Too much public money was spent on soccer stadiums and sports facilities before next year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics; taxes are high; roads, schools and health care are shoddy; politicians who break the law are tried and convicted, yet manage to stay in office; violent crime is endemic and thepolice are either ineffective or complicit with the criminal gangs that control the narcotics trade and dominate many of the slums known as favelas that ring Brazilian cities. These all contribute, as does the slowing of an economy that once seemed so promising.
But something less tangible may be at play, what might be called the middle-class illusion.
Millions of Brazilians have indeed made it into the middle class and enjoy the trappings of a lifestyle that would be recognized by their economic peers in the U.S., Japan, Canada and most of Europe. They have iPhones and SUVs, Nike sneakers, Oakley sunglasses, take overseas vacations, enjoy imported delicacies, get braces to straighten teeth and plastic surgery to mask the wear of time.
They enjoy much of this material plenty, though, inside a personal-security bubble. Houses are fortified behind high walls topped by broken glass and barbed wire, while iron bars seal windows. Apartment complexes are similarly ring-fenced, with entranceways secured by guards, often bearing arms. These are needed not just to keep out robbers, but also so much else of what’s on the other side.
Indeed, the middle-class illusion ends at the first step outside the front door. At that moment, the average person whose income might earn them a place in the middle class can be subject to the same chaos, frustrations and danger that confront Brazilians who still number among the poor.
This can manifest itself in hours-long commutes; bureaucracy that stifles both government and business; high prices for consumer goods and usurious interest rates for credit; and the omnipresent threat of violent crime that alters behavior in ways that would be unfamiliar to residents of developed nations.
This disparity between the good life behind the walls and the mess that is public life in Brazil is a powerful source of dissatisfaction.
Brazil has made huge strides in the past two decade, growing to become the world’s sixth-biggest economy. That growth created its modern middle class. But Brazil still has a long way to go before it becomes a middle-class nation.
(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View’s editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)