Brazilians hold a demonstration with a banner that reads, “My party is my country,” in Sao Paulo June 22, 2013. (Reuters/Junior Lago)
Sepp Blatter, the all-powerful don of FIFA, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, and Pelé, the legendary soccer star are three extremely different people. But they all share the same perspective about the demonstrations rocking every major city in Brazil: Don’t even think about blaming the World Cup.
As Dilma said in her nationally televised address, “Brazil, the only country to have participated in every World Cup and a five-time world champion, has always been very well received everywhere. We must give our friends the same generous welcome we have received from them—with respect, love and joy. This is how we must treat our guests. Football and sport are symbols of peace and peaceful coexistence among peoples.”
Sepp Blatter, displaying his renowned empathy, was more blunt saying simply, “I can understand that people are not happy, but they should not use football to make their demands heard…. When the ball starts to roll, people will understand!”
And Pelé had to backtrack dramatically after saying that people should stop protesting and ”think about the national team.”
They are begging the people of Brazil to not turn the 2014 World Cup into a symbol of what ails the country. What frightens them is that clearly people don’t see the World Cup—not to mention the 2016 Olympics in Rio—as some sort of abstract, postmodern symbol of poor public services and high taxes. They see the World Cup as a literal tool of neoliberal plunder.
Neoliberalism at its core is about the transfer of wealth out of the public social safety net and into the hands of private capital. As anyone who has ever had to rely on public services—little things like schools or hospitals—would understand, this agenda is wildly unpopular with much of the world. But the IMF wants it. The World Bank wants it. Local elites want it. And international capital wants it. So how do they make it happen? One way is to unleash the police and simply smash institutions of popular economic self-defense such as trade unions, general assemblies and social movements. But that approach carries an attendant risk. As we’ve seen in Turkey, Brazil and even New York City in the early days of the Occupy movement, police repression can make demonstrations seem sympathetic and even wildly attractive to people who are fed up but have no outlet for their frustration.
The Olympics, World Cup, and other kinds of mega-events have over the last thirty years provided something that couldn’t be found at the end of a military-grade truncheon: consent of the masses to neoliberal policy goals. That’s why these events are best understood as “neoliberal Trojan Horses.” The walled city of Troy is the social safety net, and the Trojan Horse are the games people are initially proud to host, until the marauders of the free market descend from its hollowed out stomach and start taking their pound of flesh.