Brazil is in crisis. This crisis, and agreeing upon a unified course of action in response, was the topic of a plenary of broad left forces that included over 320 people coming from over 60 leftist formations last Friday evening.
João Pedro Stedile, the renown progressive economist and a founder of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, characterized the current period as a three-pronged crisis never seen in Brazil since redemocratization: economic crisis, political crisis, and social crisis.
The declining economy has been the immediate major source of tension in recent years. Following a decade-long economic boom, Brazil’s economy has been shrinking since 2012, unemployment reached 6.9% in June on this year, the highest since July 2010, while inflation reached 9.56% in July, the highest since November 2003. The bleak economic situation has caused a wave of rich Brazilians to leave the country in favor of relocating their homes and businesses in the United States, and there has been a chilling effect on middle class consumption. As always, though, the most grave effect has been on the basic sectors. Workers from various industries – from school teachers to civil servants to bank employees – have conducted protracted strikes, budgets for public services that low-income earners rely on, like education and health, have been frozen, workers’ benefits are stricter, and the price of public transportation has increased. As in most economic recessions, while the capitalists claim that they are losing vast amounts of money, it is the families that were once barely making it that have slipped back into poverty, and the poor who have found their much relied-on public services diminishing.
This economic crisis is a, if not the, major driver of the unfolding political crisis. Many analysts agree that President Dilma Rousseauf’s first electoral victory could largely be credited to her robust endorsement by the still widely popular outgoing president, Luis “Lula” Da Silva, and a strong ruling party in the PT. Dilma, however, has had the extreme misfortune of 1: governing at a time of recession, as opposed to Lula who was elected at the end of a steep economic decline and governed during an economic boom, and 2: lacking the personal charisma and political skill that Lula so famously possessed. (It is worth noting that, as in most proportional representation systems, the PT has never controlled a majority of seats in the Congress. It has always ruled in coalition and these coalitions have always included progressive to centrist and traditional elements. Lula’s ability to manage the coalition – some would say through too much compromise – was a key factor that contributed to his governments’ stabilities. Dilma is less charismatic and less skilled at coalition management.) Add to this mix some hardy corruption scandals (though in my opinion, nothing more outrageous than scandals from past administrations), and you have a government very much more vulnerable to opposition and especially attacks from the right.
This vulnerability was acutely illustrated during the 2014 elections. The election began as a three-way race between Dilma, Acéio Neves Cunha, a traditional politician from the center-right Partido Socialista do Brasil (PSDB), and Eduardo Campos of the Partido Socialista Brasileria (PSB).
While it was expected that the PT’s main challenge would come from the PSDB, Brazil’s second largest party, Campos of the PSB was an interesting development. Since the PT was founded, and particularly since it assumed the presidency in 2002, various small tendencies from within the party have split. Some groups split for personal reasons and some for ideological reasons. Several of the groups that split, like the Partido da Causa Operária (PCO), Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado (PSTU), and Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (PSOL), had fielded their own presidential candidates in past elections but received nearly negligible vote percentages. In the 2010 presidential elections, these parties received a combined vote of about 1%.
In 2014, however, the PSB, which was never part of the PT but was part of its electoral coalition in 2010, split from the coalition and fielded its own candidate in Eduardo Campos. Formerly a Science and Technology Minister under Lula, Campos portrayed himself as a leftist who was simultaneously business-friendly – he campaigned for increased spending on education, health and universal public services (including the Bolsa Familia) while reducing the size of government, reducing government intervention in Brazil’s various semi-state-owned companies (a version of GOCCs), reducing red tape for business and aggressively investing in alternative energy. His running mate, Marina Silva, was a well-known environmental advocate who had an impressive run under the Green Party in the 2010 presidential elections, coming in third place with 19% of the vote (in the first round). Silva had also previously been a cabinet minister (of environment) during a Lula government and she remained a PT member until 2009.
Not insignificantly, much of Campos’ campaign messaging focused on a “third way,” or attempting to convince voters that they had an option that was not the PT or the PSDB. Every Brazilian presidential election since 1994 has essentially been a contest between the PT and the PSDB, with these parties gaining over 80% of first round votes. Additionally, much of Brazilian political life has been painted, especially by the Globo media monopoly, as a polarizing dichotomy between the PT and the PSDB. There are two meaningful insights to note about Campos’s campaign: First, his strategy involved painting the PT as the “establishment”, and no longer as a party of economic and social transformation. Second, his candidacy provided a focus for those who still considered themselves left – or at least those that supported the PT’s social welfare programs – but were frustrated with Dilma’s performance.
Campos tragically died in a plane crash less than two months before the elections and Marina Silva took on the mantle of being the PSB’s presidential candidate. Silva was doing well, consistently outpolling Cunha and even tying Dilma around five weeks before the elections. At the end, however, her ranked position and the overall hype surrounding her campaign (along, of course, with a plethora of other factors) made her the logical main target of both the PT and the PSDB’s offensives. Silva ended up coming in third falling only two points behind Cunha with 22% to Cunha’s 24%. Accordingly, she was not included in the 2nd round.
In the 2nd round of the elections, where Dilma faced Cunha head-on was the tightest presidential race in recent history. Despite rampant and outspoken criticisms of Dilma’s government, the left unified and mobilized to support Dilma, with the position that a Dilma/PT-led government, for all its faults, would be better than a rightist Cunha-led government. Dilma’s campaign, in turn, moved to the left, including promising to use Petrobras revenues to dramatically augment health and education budgets, in response to and acknowledgement of who the party’s core constituency was and who would deliver the PT to victory.
Following the election, Dilma’s policies nearly immediately moved back towards the right. Despite this, rightist political forces have maintained their attacks. Rightist groups have organized three national protests so far this year, including a national day of action on August 16 that gathered almost 200,000 people in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasilia, and other cities to call for Dilma and the PT’s ouster. Dilma has weathered a seemingly constant threat of impeachment. These are expected to continue until the end of her term.
The economic crisis has also bred a general tension and discomfort that is palpable in daily life. Economic and political insecurity are common topics of conversation even in social functions with non-political people. Economic tension tends to accentuate other social tensions such as racial, class, and regional divisions, and rightist attacks on the PT’s social welfare programs often also come with characterizations of traditionally marginalized populations (especially people from the north, poor people, Blacks, and immigrants) as lazy, ill-intentioned and parasitic.
Social movements, for their part, are far from their apex. The height of social movement activity was in the latter part of the military dictatorship until the 1990s. Despite a reinvigoration of large public manifestations in recent years, which arguably peaked in 2013, social movements are having difficulty inspiring and recruiting this new population of outraged citizens into an organized force. As Stedile characterized in Friday’s event:
“Most working people come home and watch the political crisis from their sofas like they watch a tennis match. Dilma says something and then Cunha [the right-wing lower house speaker who Dilma narrowly defeated for the presidency in 2014] says something and then the PT responds…”
When the audience laughed at this characterization, Stedile quickly retorted, “I don’t know why you are laughing. This is our problem. The people are watching politics like a game instead of going to the streets.” Like the Philippines, NGOs are also in crisis as donors are pulling out of Brazil in favor of less “democratically developed” countries.
The Plenary meeting had three stated objectives. The first was to forge unity (the perennial left problem). Second was to approve a joint manifesto to oppose any impeachment attempts, which they referred to as coups, and oppose the government’s fiscal adjustment policies, which include cutting social investments and increasing taxes on basic services such as electricity and water. Third was to agree to mobilize their bases for a large manifestation on August 20 wherein these demands will be voiced.
While the left forces in attendance were overwhelmingly unsatisfied and angry with the current government, their stand is to prevent Dilma’s ouster. This stand is based on the analysis that an ouster would result in a Cunha-led government, which would be infinitely worse than Dilma’s government. The second, and I think more important stand, is to show Dilma and the PT that the left is the only force saving them from a right-wing coup. Essentially, the intention is to consolidate and raise to public consciousness a political force that carries the message: “We are the ones who got you elected, we are the ones protecting you from a coup, you must move your policies to the left because if we leave you will be left with nothing.”
Points to Ponder
Watching these events unfold has made me ponder some issues I think are relative to our own struggle:
What happens when party supporters are not happy with the party’s performance in government?
Many of us have been observers of the PT for many years, seeking to extrapolate lessons that could inform a leftist, social movements-based party rise to power in the Philippines. We have witnessed changes within the PT, and heard many of our long-time and respected friends and comrades from Brazil criticize the PT for various versions of “going neoliberal”, “acquiescing too much to elites and the Washington Consensus”, and even “becoming the new elite.” Since Akbayan entered into coalition with the LP, it has faced many of the same important questions, from both within and without. “Will Akbayan be tainted by elites?” “Will Akbayan compromise its values as a leftist party?” and even “Will Akbayan be corrupted by its proximity to power?” and “What will be the role of social movements in and with Akbayan?” There are also similarities with how internal dynamics within the two parties have developed. There are, broadly speaking, those who want to split and create a new party, those who struggle from the inside to pull the PT to the left, and those more willing to compromise with traditional politics. The struggle to answer these questions is an ongoing process that will continue to determine Akbayan’s nature as a party. After 12 years as the ruling party, the PT and allied social movements are still struggling with the question, which are a reflection of the different tendencies and internal democracy that comprise the PT. I consider this tolerance for different left tendencies and internal debate, and especially the presence of those who actively criticize the party within left circles but defend it outwardly because of their investment in the PT project, to be the main source of the party’s strength.
Parallel, yet independent force
In this (like the Philippines) highly personalistic political culture, there is a tendency among the many disappointed leftists to attribute the policies that have unfolded over the past few years, at least in part, to Dilma’s personal characteristics: “Dilma no longer cares for the working class.” “Dilma has forgotten her ideals as an activist.” I do not know Dilma Rousseauf. These accusations may very well be true. However, I choose to take a more structural viewpoint. Dilma heads a minority government. The right is strong and the left is weak. The right, naturally, is using its position of strength to negotiate for rightist policies, and they are getting them. Even if Dilma was personally the most radical leftist conceivable, she would have to compromise in order to hold onto the presidency and prevent someone from the extreme right from taking over. Thus, I tend to think the adoption of rightist policies reflects the weakness of the left more than they reflect Dilma’s political will (or lack thereof).
Ideally, social movements allied with the PT intended to pursue a strategy of organizing independently from the PT in order to maintain pressure the party and other political forces at large. At times, however, this has proven difficult in practice. Many observers have criticized PT-aligned social movements, and the MST in particular, for being less militant and vocally critical of the government since the PT came into power. (It is worth noting that evidence suggests that the Lula government settled more families than the preceding Cardoso administration, though, some agrarian reform advocates have argued that his administration merely regularized/formalized existing occupations.) Observers I have spoken to characterized left social movements as being in a somewhat sluggish phase since the PT took power. Movements slowed down organizing, recruitment, education, and research, relying on the PT instead to simply deliver demands. While PT governments delivered significant victories on social welfare and economic development fronts, they have certainly not approximated achieving the socialist revolution or fundamental change of the established predatory social and economic system.
Nevertheless, the call on Friday was clear. The left is no longer to rely on just having a supposed ally in the presidential office, nor is it to call for blanket support or ouster. It must grow and consolidate its own independent force of militants while drawing unorganized public opinion to its side in order to negotiate specific policy concessions with the government.
To quote an interview Stedile gave in 2007:
“Deep down the government is like a mirror that reflects society. And if in society the working class is weak, if it’s in reflux, a leftist government can’t advance its agenda…
“I’m not absolving him of his responsibility, but Lula’s administration hasn’t been able to make changes because of the reflux in the proletariat that hasn’t yet reversed. We didn’t count on this. We thought that a simple electoral victory would give a shock to the masses…We thought this was it, the time had come! And it hadn’t. It was really frustrating…This is the greatest challenge that we face today: we’re waiting around, seeing if the government will do this or that instead of just acting on our own. And of course it’s better that Lula will be reelected than to have Alckmin [of the PSDB] win. Obviously we’ll vote for Lula, but real change will only come with the process of organization among the people and the rising of the proletariat. That is the only chance we have.”
It’s not about the individual, it’s about the system / Elections are but one of many fronts
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard “we need to go back to organizing the base.” Nearly every meeting on left strategy that I have attended in the past near-decade has inevitably come down to this point. However, watching the unfolding events in Brazil makes the need to organize, maintain, and grow a base that much more evident.
The Partido dos Trabalhadores and Akbayan are political parties and one of the purposes of a political party is to gain elected office. However, gaining office is not akin to winning the revolution. Revolution is about a fundamental change in society and economy, and the electoral front is but one means of accessing power that would later enable this fundamental change.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that although both Brazil and the Philippines are strong presidentialist systems, the president is not as powerful as we often think. The vast majority of politicians come from established landed or capitalist interests and so have their own personal power bases independent of party politics, especially national politics. As a result, national figures depend on the local elites for vote delivery and often even program administration. Furthermore, our fight is no longer contained to the proletariat versus the domestic elite. As a comrade from the MST reminded me, the left in the developing world must also deal with the pressure predatory transnational capital places on government and the alliances they forge with domestic capital.
We would be foolish to think that “getting a good president elected” would be enough to effectively fight off capitalism. Even if, by some particularly plucky electoral strategy, we were able to elect “true leftists” (whatever that means) to the highest positions, this would still be insufficient to take on traditional elites, the various industrial syndicates, and transnational capital without a strong popular backing.
Any government the left would participate in, even lead, in our systems within the foreseeable future would necessarily include elements from the center and right in order to maintain some kind of stability. In the face of immeasurable money and institutions biased towards the status quo, the organized masses are the political power necessary to both support the progressives in government, especially when they take the radical steps we so desire, as well as to shame and isolate the reactionaries.
Thus, the fronts we must engage in are as numerous as there are sources of power. Legal-electoral, yes, but also educational, identity-cultural (including pop culture), media, developmental, resource accumulation, and of course, membership and militancy. We are not merely fighting against reactionary politicians. We are fighting against a political-economic-social system. An empowered society with socialist values that is ready to take various forms of action when necessary is the only assurance of victory.
This is not to say that we should give up pursuing electoral and even governmental coalitions with non-progressive forces for fear of getting our hands dirty. Something the left is an expert at, much more expert than the right, is splitting our forces and trading judgmental accusations about who “more left” and is a “true, pure socialist.” For a group that claims to value diversity and open thought we sure do seem to have dogmatic tendencies. Many of the groups who attended last Friday’s plenary were groups that attacked the PT for this exact reason. They even included parties and organizations that count themselves among the left-wing opposition to the PT. Yet, they saw the need to support, while engaging the government at this conjuncture, even if it hurt their ideological sensibilities.
The struggle that we engage in is not merely about being correct. We are not conducting an academic exercise where being correct is enough to feel proud of ourselves and say we did our job. The stakes are simply too high to treat it as such. The struggle we engage in, no, that we live, is about gaining real political power in a system where compromise is inevitable. It is about being honest about our own strengths and especially our weaknesses, taking responsibility for such, and realizing that sometimes choosing the lesser evil is the best we can do today, while we lay the conditions for tomorrow.