Ten points on the fall of the Workers Party

November 10, 2016

The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil's Workers Party (PT) on August 31 brought to an end of 13 years of center-left rule. Over the last few months, Michel Temer, the conservative who took office after Rousseff, has shifted economic policy toward austerity, but has thus far managed to focus widespread anger on Rousseff's alleged corruption and away from the new regime.

Born amid a massive strike wave in the late 1970s, the PT and its famous working-class leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva were seen as political champions of Brazil's working class. But the PT was already bureaucratized by the time Lula won the presidency in 2002--and after riding a decade-long export boom in agricultural and mineral commodities, the PT now finds itself trapped in a downward spiral. When the boom began to sputter as Rousseff began her second term in 2014, the party leadership doubled down on its partnership with Brazil's conservative political elite. But the ruling elite has turned on the PT, even as the party's working-class base has become disillusioned.

Municipal elections in October demonstrated the extent of the rout. The PT lost control of almost all of its previously held major municipal governments as in 2012. In São Paulo, millionaire right-winger João Doria of the misnamed Brazilian Social Democracy Party crushed the PT candidate, and in Rio de Janeiro, two-term PT mayor Eduardo Paes didn't even make it into the runoff against the eventual victor, a right-wing evangelical Christian named Marcelo Crivella. Some of the only good news for the left came when Marcelo Freixo of the left-wing Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) made it into the second round and won more than 40 percent of the votes cast.

Valério Arcary is a longtime socialist activist in Brazil and leading member of the recently formed Movement for an Independent and Socialist Alternative. In this article written for the Brazilian magazine Caros Amigos and translated into English by Todd Chretien, he explains how the once-mighty PT has come to this and points to prospects for the birth of a new left.

"Don't let your memories outweigh your hopes."
-- Old Persian saying

1. Thinking about the future of the left after Dilma Rousseff's impeachment and Lula's loss of influence within the working class requires taking a historical perspective. A political cycle of almost four decades is being brought to a close by two defeats that are occurring more or less simultaneously. However, they deserve to be analyzed separately because their meaning, proportions and direction are practically inverse.

The first was the political defeat of the PT's leading nucleus at the hands of its key social bases recently (October 2016), confirmed by the results of the municipal elections. Even more important was the unfavorable turn in the relation of social forces that allowed Michel Temer to take power and command a very broad coalition in support of the austerity plans advocated by Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles.

Anyone who considers both of these developments to be reactionary is deluding themselves dramatically, just as do those who consider both to be progressive. An error committed at the level of strategic assessment entails consequences distinct from those flowing from tactical errors. History provides compelling lessons on this score.

Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a Workers' Party convention
Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at a Workers' Party convention (Valter Campanato | Agencia Brasil)

2. Throughout this historic cycle, various oscillations in the balance of forces, some favorable, others not, have come and gone for the working class and its allies. Here is a periodization in outline:

(a) A rise in proletarian and student struggle took place between 1978 and 1981, followed by a fragile stabilization between 1981 and 1984 after the defeat of the ABC strikes, then a new wave of contagion erupted with the campaign for Diretas Já! ("Direct Elections Now!") that led to the negotiated end of the military dictatorship;

(b) A new stabilization occurred between 1985 and 1986 with the civilian administrations of Tancredo Neves and José Sarney and the anti-inflationary/austerity Plan Cruzado, then a new increase in popular mobilizations against hyperinflation that culminated in a electoral campaign carrying Lula into the second round of the presidential elections in 1989;

(c) A new, albeit brief, stabilization began based on the expectations produced by the Plano Collor (promoted by President Fernando Collor de Mello), then a new wave of struggle in May 1992 sparked by unemployment and hyperinflation that ended in a movement to demand "Fora Collor!" ("Collor Out!");

(d) A far more durable stabilization settled in after Franco Itamar's Plano Real tamed inflation and coincided with an unfavorable defensive situation after the defeat of the oil workers strike in 1995;

(e) Struggle resumed between 1995 and 1999, regaining the capacity for mobilization and growing enormously in August 1999 with a demonstration of 100,000 under the banner of "Fora HFC!" ("Out FHC!"), demanding the resignation of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, but this was cut short when the leadership of the PT and the CUT (Unified Workers Central trade union confederation) looked to an electoral victory on the horizon in 2002 that required political alliances that would not be forthcoming in a context of social radicalization;

(f) Social stabilization endured for an entire decade during the years of the PT's class-collaborationist governments between 2003 and June of 2013 (Lula was elected president in 2002) when an explosion of spontaneous popular protest brought millions into the streets, only to pause during the first half of 2014;

(g) Finally, a sharp, unfavorable political turn commenced with the rise of gigantic and reactionary middle-class mobilizations--inflamed by the Operation Lava Jato ("Operation Car Wash") corruption investigation charges--between March 2015 and March 2016, when some millions backed the juridical-parliamentary coup that brought down Rousseff, thereby closing this long historical cycle.

3. This 40-year cycle was the last stage of a delayed and then accelerated transformation of agrarian Brazil into an urban society, one which marked the transition from military dictatorship to a democratic-electoral regime. Additionally, it encompasses the story of the genesis, rise, peak and decline of the influence of the PT (petismo), which was then transfigured into Lula's personal influence (lulismo) in the working class.

Over the course of these three developments (urbanization, democratization, the decline and fall of petismo), the ruling class managed, through give and take, to avoid opening a revolutionary situation in Brazil like those that arose in Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia. More than one pre-revolutionary situation did develop over these years, but each time, its development was deftly blocked and contorted, and the ruling class restored governability.

4. The 2002 election of a president with working-class roots in a semi-peripheral capitalist state like Brazil was an atypical event. But it wasn't a surprise. The PT no longer worried the ruling class as it had in 1989. An assessment of the 13 years of the PT in power is irrefutable: Brazilian capitalism was never threatened by the PT.

The PT governments were class-collaborationist. They supported some minor, progressive reforms, such as reducing unemployment, increasing the minimum wage, providing the Bolsa-Família (welfare), and expanding Federal universities and institutes. But it was the rich who benefited most of all from the PT maintaining three important (neo)liberal macroeconomic pillars: a guaranteed primary accounts surplus of at least 3 percent of GDP, the floating exchange rate that kept the currency around 2 Brazilian Reals to the dollar, and inflation targets at less than 6.5 percent per year.

Given all this, we shouldn't be surprised that the bourgeois opposition remained silent for so long, nor is it hard to explain the unconcealed support the government enjoyed from bankers, industrialists, landowners and international investors--so long, that is, as the international situation remained favorable. When that changed, as it did in 2011 and 2012, under the impact of the 2008 global economic crisis, unconditional support for the PT by the ruling class evaporated.

5. For all this, if Brazil is less impoverished and uneducated than it was 10 years ago, it is no less unjust. The historical balance sheet is devastating: the lulista leadership fell prey to Operation Lava Jato, discredited itself before the working class and youth, delivered the enraged middle classes into the hands of the financial and industrial lords of the Avenida Paulista--Sao Paulo's Fifth Avenue--and opened the door to Temer's ultra-reactionary government. These were not the goals for which an entire generation fought so hard.

Between 1978 and 1989, Lula won the confidence of the immense majority of the vanguard of the working class and popular sectors. Lula's prominence was an expression of the social grandeur of the Brazilian proletariat and, paradoxically, of its simplicity and political innocence. He won their allegiance through his courageous leadership of their strikes.

This was a young working class with little education, recently dislocated from the miserable confines of the poorest regions of the country, lacking previous union experience, without traditions of political independence, yet concentrated in great metropolitan centers and, among its best-organized sectors, bearing a indomitable will to struggle.

Reformist illusions that it would be possible to change society without large-scale conflicts, without a break with the ruling classes, were held by a majority of workers, and the strategy of "Lula lá" (put "Lula there" in the presidency) was intertwined with the hopes and expectations of a generation.

6. The working class was not able to maintain control over its organizations and its leaders after the unfavorable turn in the balance of forces in 1995 in the wake of FHC's electoral victory, capped by the Plano Real, and the terrible defeat of the oil workers' strike. Left unattended by the rank and file, the trade union bureaucratic apparatus grew to enormous--really monstrous--proportions, and the PT's apparatus adapted itself electorally to the regime, becoming unrecognizable.

The PT's elected officials had already demonstrated in municipal and state governments, as well as in the National Congress, that they would play an opposition role out of duty, but were not an enemy of the "presidentialist," liberal-democratic regime that arose after 1985. It was not even an irreconcilable enemy of the presidential "re-election statute," an anti-republican and especially reactionary measure.

At least since 1994, the PT had already admitted to the bourgeoisie that it was a party that would take its turn in power, available to govern should a more serious economic or social crisis arise. Lula and his chief of staff, Zé Dirceu, publicly assured the ruling class, more than once, of their commitment to safeguarding institutional governability, in pursuit of which they exerted pressure to control social movements under their influence.

Lula's rise to power was not an improvisation as Néstor Kirchner's had been in Argentina after the economic crash in 2001. Lula wasn't a surprise like Evo Morales' election in Bolivia in 2006. Lula was not considered an enemy like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

7. We must distinguish the reality of the PT governments from perceptions and illusions, which are already playing to Lula's benefit in opinion polls for the 2018 presidential contest.

Economic growth between 2004 and 2008 (interrupted in 2009 before recovering exuberantly in in 2010) has been below average compared to neighboring countries, although inflation has also been lower. Since 2011, Rousseff presided over a phase of stagnation in the Brazilian economy that witnessed a return to reliance on raw material production (agriculture, minerals, etc.).

Countercyclical measures were attempted to no avail. A little of everything was tried: reduction of the Selic rate [a tax on overnight, interbank loans]; Development Bank of Brazil (BNDES) financing for projects by major contractors through the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC), including building hydroelectric dams in the Amazon, new Abreu, Lima and Comperj refineries, and probes for the exploration of subsalt offshore oil; tax exemptions; privatization of airports on generous terms; new and ambitious public-private partnerships, such as stadiums and airports; favoritism and redoubled guarantees for foreign investment; and, finally, a willingness to embark on new labor and social security reforms.

Despite all this, the bourgeoisie was moving slowly, hesitantly, into opposition.

8. The keys to the PT's success in government--until 2015 when Dilma adopted the centrist Brazilian Social Democratic Party's (PSDB) program and turned on the social base of lulismo--were as follows: reduction of unemployment to rates of less than half those prevailing over the previous 90 years; recovery in average wages so that salaries in 2011 reached their 1990 value; increased social mobility, including both the personal and functional distribution of income, although these returned only to 1990s levels, which were scandalously unjust to begin with; a real increase in the minimum wage above inflation; and the extension of Bolsa Família.

These measures aside, it was a government that implemented very few progressive reforms (while putting in place many reactionary ones), but it governed more smoothly than its predecessors.

For all this, these 10 years did not pass in vain. There has been a trade union and political reorganization to the left of the government and its old organizations like the CUT and the PT, even if the process has been a slow experience. The undeniable strengthening of the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in the 2016 elections points to what may be in store, but is still up for grabs.

9. Something fundamental changed in 2016, undermining the balance of social forces.

The mass demonstration on the Aveninda Paulista that started in March 2015 made visible an almost subterranean nucleus, still divided very much among itself, of an erratic right wing located within the movement. This movement was on the scale of millions, comprised of the middle and even (although as a minority) popular classes (articulated predominantly through the evangelical sects); it carried the institutional right along behind it.

All this opened a defensive situation from the point of view of the interests of the working class. Lula's trial will be as political as Rousseff's. Any illusion in the neutrality of Operation Lava Jato is fatal. Therefore, we must presume that Lula will be convicted and will not be allowed to run in 2018. And it is unlikely that it will be possible to inspire the working class to take to the streets in his defense, just as it was not possible to mobilize to stop the impeachment.

Regardless, no one on the left should remain neutral with respect to this juridical-political maneuver aimed at preventing Lula from standing as a candidate. This operation is a continuation of an offensive that began in March of 2015 and culminated in impeachment.

We, the revolutionary left, can only bring out criticisms of the PT before the workers, taking stock of its thirteen years in government, if we have the courage to defend Lula against this attack by our class enemies.

10. The combative trade union left and the parties of the socialist left, as well as all revolutionary organizations remain, unfortunately, fragmented. At the same time, these forces command a significant space in which an important discussion can be prepared between the youth and the more organized sectors of the working class where we an argue against backing the PT's candidate in 2018, whoever it may be.

It is already possible to build an alternative in social struggles and during elections. It is possible to overcome this phase of divisions and open one of reorganization through unifications and blocs. This has been shown in practice in Rio de Janeiro with the spectacular mobilization of new militancy connected to PSOL mayoral candidate Marcelo Freixo, who made it into a runoff in October and won over 40 percent of the vote, or 1,632,662 votes.

Some say that the crisis in the PT will lead to tremendous demoralization and that we will have to wait for a whole generation to pass, 25 or 30 years, before an alternative to lulismo on the left will gain influence among the workers. This is the most common argument used against the anti-capitalist left. It ends up as a lament: there is no point in being correct in our criticisms of the PT if we can't break out of our condition as a minority.

It is not difficult to respond to this: yes, it is possible; but there is one big pre-condition. It can only happen when workers and the youth rise up in a great wave of struggle. Anti-capitalist proposals do not gain mass influence outside of revolutionary situations, or at least transitional ones.

Yet an avalanche has already begun. The rupture with petismo will not take place at some uncertain point in the future--there are many millions who have already broken with it. And an enormous part of the youngest generation of workers has already lost hope in lulismo. What's old, rotten and corrupted in the workers' movement and among the youth must be pushed aside to open a path.

As it happens, the rhythm of these two processes is not the same: the collapse of petismo's influence has proceeded more quickly than the construction of new instruments of struggle to replace it. The question is whether or not those breaking with lulismo will find something outside the PT, a force that is irreconcilably opposed to the Temer government, a united left-wing poll of attraction that is sufficiently powerful to serve as a starting point for defending their own interests.

Translated by Todd Chretien

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