The alternative to Lulism

February 23, 2016

In an article published by Jacobin, author and socialist activist Valério Arcary looks at the challenges for the left in Brazil as the economic and political crisis deepens.

"LOVE IS dead," say disillusioned Brazilian youth. They've lost faith in Brazil's Workers Party (PT), in their former champion Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, and in their government.

The militancy of the country's socialist left is being put to the test this year. The essential issue is the difficulty of defending the independence of working-class interests facing two foes: the current incarnation of the PT and its mainstream allies, and the PT's political opponents, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and its right-wing counterparts.

Some sectors of the right-wing opposition, led by Eduardo Cunha, president of the Chamber of Deputies, and Aécio Neves, the defeated 2014 PSDB presidential candidate, are rallying to impeach Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president and the PT's leader. Behind them are the 2 million people, mostly members of the middle class, who took to the streets to protest last March.

Contributing to the public's disillusionment with Rousseff is the Petrobras corruption scandal. In October 2014, Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run oil conglomerate, was found to be funneling money to political parties, including the PT. The scandal has severely shaken the public's confidence in Rousseff, who ran on a platform of eliminating corruption.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (Guga Marquez)

Political stability in Brazil started to unravel in June 2013, a decade after the birth of Lulism. Lulism--under which economic prosperity strengthened the public's faith in government, and large, previously disorganized sectors of the working class gravitated toward the PT--is fading as the social pact it maintained between workers and the ruling class disintegrates.

The elections and the 2014 World Cup temporarily relieved the government of public scrutiny; this year, however, social unrest aimed at the government seems nearly inevitable as people begin to feel the impacts of austerity. And neither of the clashing bourgeois political camps is willing to consider any solution to the country's economic woes but more austerity.

The Drive for Impeachment

The powerful Brazilian Social Democracy Party is leading the push for Rousseff's impeachment. Despite its name, the PSDB is a neoliberal formation that advocates right-of-center social and economic policies.

The party alleges that there were illegal donations from large corporations during the last presidential campaign, as well as illegal manipulation of the 2014 national budget. In October, Brazilian courts found Rousseff's government violated accounting rules in that budget. But in order to impeach the president, the National Congress will have to ratify petitions calling for Rousseff's ouster.

It's unclear whether the opposition can gather the 320 votes needed. It wants to draw out the impeachment process, as they expect Rousseff's public support to crumble in the next few months. Even if only a minority in the Congress (hardline PSDB politicians) supports ousting Rousseff, the allegations have divided public opinion into two camps, leaving socialists relatively isolated.

The relation of political forces has changed with the strengthening of right-wing opposition. The right is simultaneously mobilizing the middle class and succumbing to its pressure. The balance of forces between social classes is changing, too: There is a bigger division among the bourgeoisie, who are feeling pressure from an economy experiencing a 3 percent GDP decline this year.

It's becoming clearer that the ruling class is embracing impeachment, with the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (FIESP) announcing in December its support for deposing Rousseff. The biggest recession since 1990, with the official unemployment rate approaching 10 percent and the inflation rate nearing 10 percent, and another mega-scandal at Petrobras--PT senator Delcídio Amaral was arrested recently, along with the president of Brazil's most important investment bank, and police raided Cunha's property looking for evidence of his involvement--have riled the middle class.

Meanwhile, unusual confrontations between the federal government and the House of Representatives have signaled that Rousseff could be losing her ability to govern.

The August street demonstrations, though nationwide and massive, looked demographically identical to the March and April protests. Most of the protesters, who supported the right-wing opposition, were upper-middle-class, middle-aged white men with college educations. Though the demonstrations were enormous, the groups on the New Right and the PSDB haven't found much backing outside this demographic.

It is difficult to argue, then, that Brazil as a whole has moved rightward.

The country, perhaps because of its late industrialization, has been more conservative on issues of culture (drug use, abortion, the death penalty, gay marriage) than economics. Yet most people favor a large role for the state in the economy, and progressive measures such as equal pay for equal work, unemployment compensation, and publicly funded education, health and transportation.

For three decades, the streets have been occupied primarily by working-class and other progressive social forces. But something has changed. The March and August demonstrations gave visibility to an erratic right that had previously been underground and divided.

These mass demonstrations managed to move, on a large scale, middle-class people and, in small numbers, workers (mainly through conservative churches), dragging behind them the traditional right. And social polarization increased, leaving little room for the political center that has dominated for much of the last 20 years.

Lulism's Decline

The PT wasn't only the largest party of the Brazilian working class in the 20th century, but one of the world's most powerful leftist formations. After founding the PT in 1980, Lula and the leadership built an organization with a few thousand members into a party with a mass base in just a decade.

In 1982, PT candidates got 10 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial race in the state of São Paulo and averaged less than 3 percent of the vote nationwide. In 1989, funded entirely by individual contributions, they nearly won the presidency.

The PT of 2016 is almost unrecognizable, even though, for the most part, its old leaders remain in power. Over three decades, it has elected thousands of city councilors and several hundred state and federal deputies, and it is holding the presidency for the fourth time. The PT is now Brazil's most professional electoral machine, thoroughly integrated into government institutions and closely associated with some of the country's most powerful corporations.

The situation worsens for the party when the Rousseff government weakens, as it loses support in the institutions invested in its political machine. Though it has made concessions to Brazil's capitalist class through its policy of fiscal adjustment--austerity measures designed to assuage creditor concerns--Rousseff's standing hasn't improved.

The PT leadership watched the breakdown in middle-class support in the 2014 elections with bated breath. More recently, the erosion of support among workers caused the party to panic: Councilors in working-class cities have announced that they're changing parties as they seek re-election in 2016, reflecting their constituents' discontent.

The governmental left--mainly the PT and the Communist Party (PCdoB)--remains torn on what to do about Rousseff, who, with an approval rating of less than 10 percent, doesn't appear capable of rallying support.

The middle class's new allegiance to the right strengthens the project of replacing Rousseff with a government that seeks to impose an even more violently reactionary agenda. But the waning of Lulism in the working class also opens possibilities for the left.

Dilma's Shock Therapy

Last year, the new Rousseff government abandoned the countercyclical fiscal policies of 2011 and 2012 and engaged in a neoliberal program that the country's capitalists had been demanding for three years. For the 54 million people that voted for her, the move was a surprise: It was the same program that she had considered indefensible in the last presidential electoral campaign. She even accused her opponent, Aécio Neves, of cruelty when he denied the social consequences of the austerity measures the PSDB had advocated.

There is a method in this abrupt change, of course. Rousseff has been trying to make in 2015 the same magic trick Lula pulled in 2003--when, in spite of advocating unpopular public-sector pension reform, he was able to maintain popular support.

Rousseff and the PT share the (overly hopeful) expectation that after at least two years of monetary austerity and recession, the economy will improve before the next presidential election in 2018. If that happens, Lula might seek the presidency again, riding a wave of economic growth, decreased unemployment and wage recovery.

But the situation in the world market in 2015 is not the same as it was in 2003, and Rousseff is no Lula. The government and the right-wing opposition both support economic austerity. They agree competitiveness needs to be restored by reducing production costs, cutting public debt, and stockpiling higher primary surpluses. The issue behind the political struggle is who would be able to do it.

Rousseff's plan, designed by Joaquim Levy, an orthodox neoliberal economist and board member at one of the largest private banks in Brazil, involves increasing the basic interest rate; instituting new taxes, specifically a financial transaction tax; cutting the public budget for health, education, and housing; devaluing the currency; and privatizing state companies, among a slew of other measures.

This change in course is based on the idea that the public has moved to the right. Even many sectors of the left have adopted this assumption. It informs the political tactics of the PT and the Communist Party leadership, the Unique Workers' Central (CUT) and the National Students' Union (UNE), the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST), and even the Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST) and parts of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), such as the moderate wing led by the party's president, Ivan Valente.

The argument about the unfavorable relation of forces is used as an excuse for support, critical as it may be, for the Rousseff program. The demonstrations called by left parties in response to the right-wing movement, and supported by the majority of the PSOL and the MTST, were much smaller, even after the PT made an appeal on national television. The exception was São Paulo, where tens of thousands flocked to the streets to defend Rousseff's government. (The most combative demonstrators strongly denounced Levy's economic policy.)

The question is whether, under pressure from the left, Rousseff will move in a more progressive direction. At the moment, this seems unlikely. At a meeting of pro-Rousseff groups at the presidential palace, speeches called simultaneously for Cunha's firing and for Levy's termination (he resigned in December), as if the party's economic policies were not approved by Rousseff or were not supported by Lula and his majority within the PT.

The Homeless Workers' Movement, which had previously refused to participate in pro-government public events and had operated outside of the country's dominant parties, was represented by Guilherme Boulos at the meeting. That the MTST is now attending such gatherings only makes it more difficult to imagine a viable third political field opposed to both Rousseff and her right-wing opponents.

The Unique Workers Central (CUT) is still the country's strongest labor union, with 1,500 affiliated unions, but it is experiencing a sharp decline and remains controlled by the PT. It therefore maintains a relationship of strong collaboration with the government. The National Union of Students (UNE) is a bureaucratized organization also financed by the government and has had close ties with the Communist Party for the last 30 years. The Communist Party itself has Maoist roots, but has become increasingly social-democratic over the past 25 years.

The Landless Rural Workers' Movement is a popular organization that was founded in the early 1980s amid the struggle for land reform in southern Brazil. It achieved prominence on a national level due to its capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of families in the 1990s during the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002). And it obtained international recognition due to its role in forming the Via Campesina, the International Peasant Movement.

All these organizations claim the PT administrations are worthy of some level of support, although they also make public critiques and demands on the government. All of them believe, to a degree, that defending Rousseff's democratic mandate should be their main political aim. But with all major left parties on the defensive, trying desperately to hold onto the presidency, there's little room for the necessary criticisms of the Rousseff austerity plan.

Some on the Brazilian left argue the point is not to support Rousseff per se, but democracy itself. But it is not democratic freedoms that are being disputed. Though we have seen in the streets an extreme right that is nostalgic for dictatorship, protesters carrying grotesque banners, and statements implying violence, these are the exceptions--not the rule. What the right-wing opposition is challenging is not the democratic-electoral political system generally, but the Rousseff government specifically.

Toward a Left Opposition

If Rousseff remains in power with the help of Vice President Michel Temer and his centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), the next three years will be a period of a long recession, sacrifices and an emergency program known as the "Brazil Agenda."

The Brazil Agenda is a collection of reactionary horrors: a minimum retirement age for private-sector workers, which means retiring older with lower wages; free rein for outsourcing; privatization of assets, starting with Petrobras oil reserves and other public corporations; the selling of navy's coastal lands; and the shielding of private health care companies. In signaling her openness to the plan, Rousseff has acceded to the PMBD and Brazilian capital.

The PMDB leadership has begun quietly negotiating with the PSDB over the Brazil Agenda, indicating an openness to a future coalition with their right-wing opponents and their waning support for Rousseff. Things are looking quite bad for the president. If Rousseff is impeached, Temer would take office in a transitional government with the participation of the PSDB.

The left opposition to Rousseff's government knows how disastrous it would be to unite with the right-wing opposition to impeach--but also that it is wrong to back a pro-austerity government that has lost most of its support among workers and the youth.

But how this left opposition will take shape is unclear: the Brazilian Workers' Confederation (COB), the oldest trade union in the country, is as pompous as it is frail. Its social base and political initiative is so lacking that the Brazilian bourgeoisie had no difficulty absorbing them into the regime's governability.

Most of the COB's affiliates represent only a fraction of the Brazilian working class--one of the youngest, most concentrated in the world and much better educated than it was when the PT was founded. Most of these unions and confederations have been supporting the government for the last 12 years.

The left opposition is represented primarily by two parties: the PSOL and the Unified Socialist Workers' Party (PSTU). The PSOL has about 100,000 affiliates and five representatives in Congress; its presidential candidate garnered roughly 1.6 million votes.

Founded several decades ago, these organizations were part of the PT until Lula's election in 2002. They are split into two camps. The reformist Unidade Socialista (Socialist Unity) has a tiny majority, the president, and the support of the majority of the members of parliament. The left opposition is mainly of different Trotskyist traditions. Nevertheless, trying to build a third camp, a left opposition one, was the purpose of last September's National March called by CSP-Conlutas in São Paulo: 15,000 activists came to affirm an independent camp opposed to both the Rousseff government and reactionary forces.

There has been a recent surge in militancy, exemplified by the increasing number of strikes since 2012. Postal workers walked out in September, followed by bank workers and oil industry workers in October. Secondary and high school teachers went on strike in several states, and a national professors strike in federal universities lasted over one hundred days.

So far, this popular unrest has not been enough to make the left opposition a viable third political camp, as credible as the two groups fighting over Rousseff's presidency. The weakness of this left is its division. As in the 2014 presidential election, when many of its most leaders vocally supported Rousseff, the majority of the left opposition--particularly the PSOL majority leadership and the MTST--is still inclined to consider the government camp the lesser evil.

Brazil needs a credible, powerful left opposition capable of articulating the nuanced position of resisting impeachment while opposing austerity. Until then, a progressive alternative to Lulism will remain inchoate.

First published at Jacobin.

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