Petismo's sunset (Part 1)

The current Brazilian left, opposed both to the government and to the offensive from the right, needs to break the pernicious dualism in which it has been been locked. Español Português

José Carlos Freire
5 April 2016

PT meeting in 2013. Cesar Ogata/Flickr. All rights reserved.

At dinner, someone asked the time from the Swiss guard on duty. Looking at his watch and seeing that it had passed midnight, he said, “It's already tomorrow, gentlemen”.

This anecdote was chosen by the Brazilian political and social thinker Alberto Torres when, in the early twentieth century, he faced the task of conceiving of the limits of the Republica Velha (First Brazilian Republic) and, as such, of proposing ways to overcome its fundamental problems. Historical context and ideological positions excepted, this phrase could apply today to a meeting of the Brazilian left in the current context.

The agenda of that meeting of the left would have two fundamental points. First, the fact that the disruption that petismo (ie, the domain of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers' Party) in Brazil) represented within the bourgeois hegemonic and historical bloc has come to an end. And the second point: which path to take moving forward?

It is clear that in politics, as in life, nothing is simple. The decline of petismo presents urgent challenges, including how to deal with the intensification of the offensive led by the right, especially through the media. Now is the time to maintain composure and prudence in the debate because, even though the immediate challenge is great, the challenges presented to the left in the coming years will be greater: rebuilding a popular project for a Brazil already moving away from petismo.

The urgent matter at hand seems to be to separate the immediate tactics of combat against this kind of bourgeois "mediocracy" from the strategic actions of constructing a people's project for a participatory and democratic Brazil, to rescue the ideas of socialism kidnapped by petismo and confined to the limits of the state bureaucracy, political pragmatism and the preservation of power.

Understanding the end of petismo

As I watch the news to find out what's new in the spectacle that Brazilian politics has become, I continue listening to the sound of the hoes of the workers who clean the streets of stone and mud. Thankless and hard work, without the minimum conditions of protection against the sun and heat, without the slightest assistance from the government, who throw them into the streets in the same way that the mining companies launched the miners into the mountains, relying only on the goodwill of neighbours for a glass of water or to use their bathroom. The cleaners are still working hard, resisting with courage.

The situation of these workers today resembles that of those who, in a state of semi-slavery, were used for cane cultivation in the past. They are workers who swing between unemployment, the result of the automation of the coffee, milk and fruit picking agriculture business, and the prospect of killing themselves for a miserable salary in the capitals of Brazil. The real conditions of these workers, the same as those of these cleaners that wipe away their sweat under the abrasive sun of Teofilo Otoni, did not change substantially during the interval that Governments of the PT represented. This is not to say that there hasn't been social progress. The decisive factor is that, structurally, Brazil did not change. Hence the difficulty of criticising petismo, which presented itself so brilliantly come election time in 2006, in 2010 and 2014. Did it change or not change? Binary thinking - which is exemplified also by the "PT or the PSDB", "Dilma or Aécio", "Lula or Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC)" and so many other dichotomies that the media has sold us and petismo helped feed - does not help us. Brazil changed and did not change. And in this amalgam of change and permanence (the soul of history), at no time did bourgeois hegemony see itself threatened. What little that changed did not change the essentials. The subtle difference between the governments of Lula and Dilma's first term, in relation to the previous governments of the post-re-democratization period, did not alter the essentials. We continue in an underdeveloped country, with alarming social segregation, growing economic dependence, not only with low industrialization, but with deindustrialization; and a facade of democracy, which transforms the popular into audience stalls and the parliamentary into the box seats.

In this interpretive register, four approaches stand out: Fernando Silva, in his text "We need to build another project for the country, far from that of the governistas "; Fabio Nassif, on how "It is possible to fight the right and bid farewell to lulismo"; Mauro Iasi, with the "PT Crisis: the arrival of the metamorphosis"; and Valerio Arcary in the 2015 text "Is it possible to rebuild a revolutionary left after the destruction of the PT, or will that end up burying the entire left?". I have decided to freely tie together some of the points in these analyses that seem to me convergent with each other, and that can provide us with ways to understand the process, beyond the avalanche of elements that the situation gives us daily.

As follows, I detail nine points:

Those primarily responsible for us to have reached this situation are the petista governments. The development model (neo-development, social-development, ultimately, words used to hide one same essence), its extractivist agro-exploitation  and timid income distribution that avoids touching those incomes from financial capital, represents a form of class conciliation. In addition, the option of conciliation with the nefarious bourgeoisie that we have in Brazil necessarily implies a betrayal of class. In a specific context of market expansion to peripheral actors, an increase of available capital and ample room for manoeuvre, Lula was accepted into the fold of global capitalism. Grateful, he thus applied the necessary measures - already provided for in the Letter to the Brazilian People of 2002 - and by convincing the masses that some of the rules of the game in play could be effected. The tragic side-effect of this was the depoliticization of the popular classes. In dismantling the social movements of their necessary autonomy, rendering agrarian reform static through agribusiness, in dealing with the repression and murder of young people and black people in the periphery and the left as the domain of the police to be administered by the Anti-Terrorism Act, among many other acts over these 13 years, the PT disrupted the working classes and shifted the battlefield against the state, to where the bourgeoisie has control of the field, has the uniforms, the ball, hires the referee and charges the entrance fee.

The current situation is not the product of demise of the PT, but instead the consequence of the path the party chose. Having linked of the conquest of space in power, for one, and building a mass movement, for another, as a model that is at the origin of the PT, the party has gradually moved towards an emphasis on the fight for power, to then move afterwards towards socialism. An anti-landlord, anti-imperialist and anti-monopoly party programme gradually demanded increasingly accommodating and flexible tactics to reach government. Once there, the old linking of the pursuit of power with the advance of the organised masses gave way to the strict conservation of power, reduced to parliamentary alliances and electoral behaviour. Aims: to expand alliances, win elections and ensure governance. From the point of view of a "party" this is technically acceptable; from the point of view "of the workers", this is called co-optation.

The right does not need more intermediaries, it prefers to govern directly. When trying to free themselves of Lula, the bourgeoisie set their sights on stability. Not because Lula represents a confrontational socialist project, which would make the electoral scene in 2018 uncertain. But, because, taking into account the needs to consolidate the model imposed by the neoliberal offensive, there is no room for any concession to the popular classes, not even those with whom the conciliation model managed to gain a foothold. The room for manoeuvre that the situation of 2003 provided no longer exists. It is with the aim of making advances in the neoliberal model and regaining  governance directly that the current media circus takes up its weapons: not because Lula or the PT represent the left or socialism.

The left's defence of the government of Dilma and that of Lula is an error. Despite the organized legal-media landscape, the left, effectively committed to social transformation, cannot support these expressions of committment. These expressions deliberately mix the denunciations of the campaign organized by the right with a staunch defence of Dilma and Lula. They are different things. In addition, the unconditional defense of the Lula government, as  the petista sectors present it, and which seduces much of the left, implies an almost fatal silence regarding corruption, the financial gains of the leaders, the way in which it has abandoned ethics or a republican spirit, reducing everything to the coup thesis.

Defending Lulismo means accepting the conditions of bourgeois hegemony. Rescuing Lulismo, in the messianic form proposed by sectors more to the right of the PT, is the same as defending peace with the corrupt Brazilian bourgeoisie, which has no national social project that can effect profound civilizational changes, and much less in alliance with the working class. Believing that this bourgeoisie can defend the flags of anti-imperialism, anti-monopolism and anti-landownerism is a naivete that the Brazilian left should, as a whole, have overcome long ago. Resteering class conciliation through Lulismo, despite being hypothetically possible, means accepting the current rules of play, which are worse than those of 2003: an attack against workers and against their basic rights. The price of governance, in the current context, is not the flexibilization or mystification of a popular democratic programme but a radical renunciation without limits.

It is necessary to defend the critical form of the Democratic rule of law and denounce the role of the media. We can not keep silent before judicial methods used in recent times, which besides being questionable and based on political rather than legal interpretations, establish a direct line of connection between the Federal Police and big media, especially the Globo Network. We live in a political spectacle that combines the principle of panem et circenses of the secular models of domination with sophisticated selective information tools. It happens that the bourgeois media and the Brazilian elite have always been reactionary, which does not mean we should exonerate of responsibility those who have allied with them. The PT spreads the illusion that it could have them as allies, it negotiated with them and ruled for them. The defense of the democratic State must be based on the guarantee of legality, so that what is being done with Lula and the PT is not naturalised within political culture.

It is necessary to be very careful with the coup thesis. The hasty manner in which the government supporters interpreted the moment as a coup, unmitigatedly associating it with the context of 1964, is dangerous. Empowered by social networks, the coup thesis gains ground and followers. Despite the obvious manipulation of interests and information, we still do not have a process that outlaws parties, trades unions and social movements, prohibits freedom of expression or exiles politicians.

Not even Lula can save the petista project for power. There is a direct link between the worsening social and economic crisis, which affects workers, on the one hand, and the dissatisfaction of sections of the ruling class - part of the financial markets and large corporate media - on the other. This impedes us from thinking of the "Lula effect" as a magical solution. Not with all the political alchemy in the world could Lula, in this current context, which differs radially from that of his first term, bring together interests as disparate as those of big capital and the working class. There is no room for manoeuvre. But the political capacity of Lula should not be underestimated. It may even be that his project can be rebuilt, and that he then returns to the presidential seat. But it will be at another time, another Lula, not a exact  reissue of him in 2003.

While the right articulates itself with ease, the left is heterogeneous. Although we could formulate a configuration of the left - either by dividing it between reformists, centrists and revolutionaries, or between moderates and radicals, the reality is that, in different junctures, the left presents different behaviours. Simplifying it, we could speak of a Brazilian left which opposes petismo and one that still has faith in it. As in the last presidential elections, when the real threat of the return of a rightist government was evident (arguing that, from this perspective, the PT would be leftist), now the hegemonic trend in the left is pursuing reformism. It would be expected that progressive actors and sectors would abandon the government to their fate to build a platform of a more combative left. But what happens is that many sectors hesitate, feining a rupture so as to end up, afterwards, getting back on the government bandwagon. In short, the left that opposes the government needs a lot of work, discussion, patience, networking and organization to move about in the marshland that reduces the game to a dispute between the good (pro-government) and the bad (anti- government).

Obviously the situation requires a much more detailed analysis, but the above elements seem sufficient to think that the challenge that the current Brazilian left faces (understood here as a set of social forces that, committed to defending the working classes, is opposed both to the government as to the offensive from the right) is the need to break the pernicious dualism in which we have been locked.


Translated from Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of Democracia Abierta's Volunteer Program.


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