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A new Brazil, a new left

It is the end of Brazil as we know it. The left, both globally and nationally, has lost its way. How do we reconstruct the first, and how do we rediscover the second? Español

Vice President of Brazil Michel Temer, President Dilma Rousseff, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Marisa Letícia Lula da Silva at Rousseff's inaugural ceremony. Wikimedia Commons.

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Brazil underwent a long process of conservative modernization from the 1930s up to the 1980s. It was concluded with a social, political and cultural change that has led us to liberal democracy.

A country-wide project provided the foundations for development and industrialization, for gradual incorporation of the population to the structures of the state, amidst brutal tensions and contradictions.

A national culture, in which samba and football, “feijoada” and miscegenation, set the tone, with intellectuals imagining a modern and integrated country, universal in its tropical particularities and destined for a bright future, although for some not necessarily democratic.

Success, in spite of adversity, misery and oppression, was huge. The project waned under the governments of the Workers' Party (PT), under which is finally ceased.

Developmentalism has been wrecked – which is not to say that development is not possible and desirable. Democracy, always rather oligarchic in its liberal incarnation and even more so in Brazil, is moving towards more oligarchization, which does not imply that this tendency will necessarily prevail.

Politicians of the right have been displaced in favour of a social liberalism concerned exclusively with the poor, with broad coverage and an aspiration for universal rights. 

Culture has become pluralized and despite the creativity of the peripheries, it has become more traditional and commercial. It can be revitalized and sophisticated however.

Intellectuals have lost space in an already anti-intellectualist country. This is not to say however that it is not possible to relaunch the public sphere and renew an unavoidable debate, despite the contempt of the official media and of political parties.

If the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva demonstrated that we lived in a new country, since then the current social and political dynamics show us that we live under the aegis of a brand-new Brazil. 

Its construction has been going on chaotically, and it is in this context that we must intervene, as intellectual and political agents, thinking big.

The global left emerged from two and a half centuries of victories and defeats, yet it continues lacking a sense of identity. Many things have been tried, from Marxism and Marxism-Leninism to revolutionary anarchism, Stalinist and nationalist variants, reformist social-democracies, and liberating Christianity.

If for a time these alternatives were victorious, today they are all equally worn out. Above all, the world upon which they were based has changed.

On one hand, we find increasingly powerful states and  globalized capitalism, with great capacity to escape any attempts at reform; on the other, we find fluid and plural societies, with more democratic identities and demands, whose risk is getting caught up in their particularities.

The commodification and radicalization of the exploitation of everything in terms of profit, labour and nature, culture and even personal relationships, is clear. This is strongly resented by large sections of the population, all over the world.

The demands that created the left remain with us. Modernity promised that we would be equally free and that our solidarity would be cherished in the realization of this project.

That is, it promised that we would have the same power. This, however, stopped with the formalization of rights, including social ones. Communism was the project that ensured this equal power distribution was finally realized. Thus, we could all be free, whilst domination and oppression were crushed.

If it failed in part due to the repression and the weight of the state, the ends justify the means. That said, it must be acknowledged that the world is very different from what Marx and Bakunin knew.

In short, we must reinvent Brazil, we must reinvent the left. It is necessary to reinvent the Brazilian left.

There is no sense in returning to their relatively simple visions of the future and how to acchieve it, even though the sectors that fight for justice in their theories safe and stimulating guides. In short, we must reinvent Brazil, we must reinvent the left. It is necessary to reinvent the Brazilian left.

Since 2013, we know that the left is largely divorced from what society expects. Not that its defense of rights and attempt to organize the social struggle have not played a relevant role throughout difficult times recently.

Its mainstream project was already restricted, as its swift debacle at the head of the federal government demonstrated, and it continues to sink. We run the risk of drowning, although other currents try to articulate new solutions, although they are timid towards perspectives of renovation.

Neodevelopmentalism has hit the wall of economic reality; disrespect for democracy, despite limited participatory efforts, proved to be disastrous and undermined the system under the weight of the consequentialism that had been revealed in recent years, with means badly trumping ends.

A new culture was not envisioned beyond liberal individualism, its social policies focused on the poor, its growing confidence in a traditional re-industrialization (which, worse still, did not come) and the return to the reprimarization of the economy.

What is to be done then? Are we able to propose an alternative, a contemporary agenda? Above all, it is necessary to have a vision and a strategy – or visions and strategies, because it will do us good to determine what a new Brazil may look like. This cannot be, of course, a cake recipe. But we must boldly think beyond these 2018 elections, which will not significantly change our situation.

The democratic question has to regain centrality and its radical agenda. At a great cost, the left has learned of its importance, but often leaves it to one side due to a lack of commitment or consequentialism. It shows a total lack of confidence in the citizenry itself.

Transparency and the mechanisms that diminish the power of state apparatuses, of its parties, are essential. Throughout the world we see the emergence of what may be called the advanced liberal oligarchy.

It is a new type of regime that tends to replace liberal democracy, with a strong oligarchic nucleus, without any clear solution of continuity. In Brazil have observed this since the parliamentary coup of 2016, although its consolidation has not been easy. It is necessary to prevent its advancement, but we must go beyond this.

Can we reinvent democracy? or is liberal democracy the limit of our dreams? Undoubtedly, guaranteeing the rule of law and rights, democratizing, ensuring transparency within the judiciary, reducing the punitive nature that characterizes most of the world, would situate us within the framework of a democratized liberalism (although radical criminal abolitionisms are not very convincing).

Above all, police reform and the cessation of ongoing black and popular mass-murder is paramount. Free elections and freedom of opinion and organization are clearly the basic elements of such a regime.

On the other hand, we can increase the intensity of democracy, with plebiscites and referendums, by enlarging direct participation, by combating the monopolies of power within “civil society” itself. We must de-oligarquize democracy.

The mechanisms and institutions that will be instrumental in this democratic struggle will have to be clarified. In addition to the direct consultation of the population, there are things we already know: radical democratization of the media and open public debate, primary elections in parties, participatory budgets, the organization of what has been called the "commons" directly by citizens and social movements, the prohibition of the interference of money in politics and the de-centralisation of parties would all make a difference.

These aspects have to be democratized, otherwise even those who supposedly want to renew the left will fall into the common grave of oligarchies that monopolize power.

This monopoly opposes what a globally emerging citizenship demands and is the opposite of what anarchists, socialists and communists strived for at the beginning of their movements to challenge the modern political order. On the left, consequentialism has to be restricted to the maximum.

An advanced combination of universal rights and policies must be on our horizon. The left bowed to social liberalism and caring for the poor according to the aspirations of the World Bank.

It is certainly urgent to deal with acute destitution, as was sought after with the ‘Family Grant’ of the Worker’s Party. This is, however, very limited, divides society and does not present itself as a policy capable of gaining wider traction. Minimum income and a negative income tax, in the framework of an incisive and progressive tax reform, would have far greater social and political reach.

Radical democratization of the media and open public debate, primary elections in parties, participatory budgets, the organization of what has been called the "commons" directly by citizens and social movements, the prohibition of the interference of money in politics and the de-centralisation of parties would all make a difference.

Combating racism and sexism, defending the plurality of identities and lifestyles, is also crucial. They have to combine this with a project of universalization of rights regarding health, education, culture, housing and many other areas, as well as an inclusive and supportive conceptualization of the nation.

For decades whilst we have been talking about development, we have moved backwards, de-industrializing, re-primarising ourselves and increasing a backward tertiary sector.

Despite the relative development of university education and progress in some areas, we do not yet have great scientific and technological capacity. We once thought it was possible to have the whole industrial park but this is unworkable today. The way out is to look for niches where we can compete.

If a continued effort in the area of semiconductors and computing remains valid, our best bet is on technologies that are not yet fully developed – new fuels and energy, biotechnology, the use of the enormous resources that biodiversity offers us.

In particular, it is the coupling of scientific-technological development and a certain re-industrialization with the response to demands for rights and nature-friendly technologies that we must explore.

Health care, universalized rather than dedicated to broad but selective and incomplete coverage of the poor, is crucial in this regard. Directing the capacity of other areas of the economy to produce food without pesticides, basic sanitation and housing, is also fundamental.

These are simple areas in which we can perhaps invent new processes and use new materials and technologies. We must also leave behind the brutal concentration within the automotive industry that dominates the Brazilian industrial sphere. Collective transportation is a must.

If Pre-Salt is a national patrimony, it is not possible to expect national redemption through the oil industry, nor through the re-industrialization of the country.

If mining cannot be ruled out as a source of wealth, it has to be restricted in relation to the destruction of territories, natural landscapes and more traditional ways of life. It can never be emphasized too much that education must receive full priority.

One can call this sustainable development or something else. This is essentially a way of combining economic and social development, which includes growth and the expansion of the consumption of the popular classes and of the internal market, without subordination to the financial system, whilst consolidating a new relationship with nature that is less predatory and regenerative.

A powerful left that is not capable of proposing, in any way, a new civilization, while at the same time seeking to represent the desires and demands of the popular classes and workers is implausible.

The state must strongly intervene in these economic and social processes, likewise across the world. On the other hand, we should move towards networks within the market economy, promoting small and medium-sized enterprises.

This becomes even more relevant if we are able to articulate such networks by bring together technological advancement with the struggle for equality and inclusion.

A new type of cooperative can come from this. At the same time, if we want to relaunch Mercosur, it will have to be via effective integration with the other countries of the subcontinent.

We need a generous vision that will help the industrial and scientific-technological development of these countries in order to make their economies complementary to ours. There cannot be in this regard anything like anti-statist liberalism.

Culture was the area, perhaps more so than politics, in which Brazil defined its project as a nation. Samba, football, feijoada, regionalisms, "racial democracy"; the country of joy, warmth and the future.

Today we are the country of violence and intolerance; the future has come, crooked, we are totally modern, but it is as if a diffuse postmodernism has now robbed us of change. We dream of the past, to a large extent. The educated, cultured of the middle classes seems to have evaporated. The market and commodification are sovereign.

Young people of the popular classes and the middle classes remain at odds with these changes and are restless as a result. A new popular culture has emerged, with a new discourse and new actors, less submissive and "cordial" than in the past, that seem to give in to immediacy, becoming easy prey of commerce and cooptation.

University education has developed unevenly and has privileged specialization. Moreover, it has not been given access to the media and the public sphere is severely reduced.

Brazil has always been a very anti-intellectualist country – neither education nor knowledge has ever been highly valued among us. Let's face it, today this has reached a very serious peak. The low level of culture in general and of the intellectual debate attests to it.

We need innovation in all these areas. Recreating the public sphere, bridging the gap between university and non-university intellectuals, with the creation of a new peripheral intellectualism, rebuilding critical and rigorous thinking, weaving together the traces of a new national identity that might allow us to exchange sadness for joy, to regain hope and reinvent our future.

Emotions and rational thoughts of a new kind free from discrimination, propped up against anti-intellectualism and elitism, exclusivism and commodification, are the order of the day. A new cultured civilization capable of disputing the future, with a new relationship with nature and life has to be on the horizon for the left.

If we can continue progressing, perhaps a pragmatic left can get back in to power. It is impossible, however, to resume what has been done in the past.

It is a project that has been exhausted, in the face of a society that, although confused and left void of defined projects, wants something different. The global scenario is increasingly complicated and only with creativity can we navigate through it.

There are several lefts and its unit has to be worked on substantively. With defined programs and strategies, they can ally themselves with the political centre, which we hope will also be able to renew itself for the good of all Brazilians and Brazilian society.

But a left of radicalism must combine strategy of alliances and tactical flexibility with a conception of the world and ultimate goals in which the equal power of all is on the horizon. Only then can we really face the question of capitalism in the long run. There are many legacies to collect, there are many legacies to renounce.

About the author

José Maurício Domingues is Professor of Sociology at IESP-UERJ and Associated Researcher at CEE Fiocruz. Author of the book O Brasil entre o passado e o futuro (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2015, 2nd edition).


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