Blog: Did the Left Elect the Right in Brazil?
Rodrigo Campos explores and discusses the political, economic, and social dynamics of recent events in Brazilian politics in response to our seminar 'Political Crisis, Populism, and the Challenges of Progressivism in Brazil'.
By Rodrigo Campos
In February 2020, IGDC organized the event Political Crisis, Populism, and the Challenges of Progressivism in Brazil at the University of York, with the objective of unpacking the political, economic, and social dynamics of recent events in Brazilian politics.
Two prominent Brazilian politicians and academics delivered an IGDC seminar on the Brazilian political crisis and the reemergence of far-right populism after the election of Jair Bolsonaro, in October 2018. The first speaker was Cristovam Buarque – a former senator and a minister of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government (2003-2010) for a brief period – and the second was Maurício Rands – a former Partido dos Trabalhadores (Worker’s Party) congressman in the Chamber of Deputies.
Both put forth arguments for “how the left elected the right in Brazil” as Buarque’s recent book is tellingly titled. Buarque and Rands self-identify with a progressivist, center-left ideology which they believe is in a political crisis, mostly due to the misconduct of the center-left coalition they once supported. While bringing relevant insights for analysing the end of the ‘Pink Tide’ era (1998-2016) of progressive governments in South America and the misfortunes of Brazilian democracy, Buarque and Rands’ thesis offer only a partial version of the story.
To anyone following the headlines of Brazil’s “takeoff” in recent years, Bolsonaro may seem to have arrived like a lightning strike from a clear blue sky. The question of what has happened to Brazil is fascinating to foreign audiences. Interest has increased with Bolsonaro’s infamous declarations on the Amazon crisis and global warming as a “globalist” conspiracy advancing the interests of “cultural Marxism”. Recent events in Brazil have highlighted not only the intrinsically authoritarian nature of Bolsonaro’s government, but, perhaps more significantly, the increasing militarization of politics and the retrenchment of liberal institutions amidst the rapid escalation toward a quasi-fascist and militia state. Further, Bolsonaro’s ‘strategy of chaos’ and denialism in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak has turned Brazil into an epicenter of the pandemic.
Yet, less than a decade ago, Brazil was hailed as a model of solid economic growth coupled with redistributive policies that significantly reduced the country’s level of inequality, lifted millions out of poverty, and carved out global recognition under president Lula’s purposeful diplomacy. However, Lula, the uneducated metal-worker, union leader, and founder of Worker’s Party – one of the largest grassroots political parties in the world – was jailed on ambiguous corruption charges based on weak evidence. His successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), was ousted after an impeachment trial in Congress that is best characterised as a parliamentary coup.
Who is to blame for this crisis? It is revealing to sift through the claims which ‘moralizing’ liberals – such as Buarque and Rands – have come up with to justify their political program amidst the crumbling of the Brazilian Republic. In their presentations, both point to the shortcomings of Lula and Roussef’s governments in overlooking broad transformations occurring worldwide. Buarque spoke of the challenges of automation, the fragmentation of the labour force, and nearsighted concerns with elections, while Rands focused on the failure to anticipate rising threats to democracy - such as fake news, deep-seated inequality, and excessive bureaucracy. At first glance, their claims might suggest a sound diagnosis. But careful analysis shows the contradictions that their vision entails.
The liberal mainstream media, pundits, academics, and state officials alike have only recently come to realise the “threat” that Bolsonaro truly represents to Brazilian democracy. Attacking him for his erratic character and disregard for a free press, the liberal establishment has moved quickly to defend its own role as guardian of liberty and reason. But this has conveniently masked the liberal establishment’s own responsibility for eroding democracy, criminalizing social movements, and paving the way for a power-hungry thug to take over the country.
The tale liberals like to tell is, curiously, the same that empowers Bolsonaristas in their quest for purification of Brazil: “A culpa é do PT!”, blame the PT – the Workers’ Party. A trope for everything that went wrong in the country over the past years, this post-politics narrative contains three related discourses: first, the electoral strength of the antipetismo (anti-PT) tide since the 2014 elections that equated the Workers’ Party with corruption, and corruption with the state. As a result, politics became a morality tale in which anything related to state intervention was necessarily evil, constraining the benign forces of private markets. The antipetista discourse had to endorse a radical neoliberal agenda comprising market deregulation, privatization, and fiscal austerity if the country was not to “become another Cuba or Venezuela”.
Second, Bolsonarismo always contained the possibility of popular opposition from the left, especially in view of Lula’s high approval ratings even as he sat in jail. Soon, a false equivalence of Bolsonaro and Lula as two sides of the same coin emerged from the mainstream, outlining a preference for “tolerance” and “reason” amidst growing polarization in the country. Lula’s release last November, after the Supreme Court restored a constitutional principle whereby defendants can only be imprisoned after all appeals to higher courts had been exhausted, meant he would soon be travelling the country denouncing Bolsonaro’s war against the working class. Accordingly, this strand of the discourse positions the liberal establishment as much against a resurgence of ‘lulismo’ as a continuation of Bolsonarismo.
But as events developed, Bolsonaro’s political aims and links to militias became ever clearer to liberal circles – whose unease had previously been mitigated by their support for the government’s pro-market reforms. Under the leadership of the Minister of the Economy and “Chicago boy” Paulo Guedes - an admirer of the Pinochet dictatorship, who suggested opposition to his reforms could be met with authoritarian measures – liberal moralizers found a third scapegoat. They began to argue that Lula and the Worker’s Party are the root cause of Bolsonaro; the rise of the far-right was the predictable outcome of all the things the left did wrong.
This was the framework for both Buarque‘s and Rands’ talks in York. In their view, the Worker’s Party had become a fully-fledged corruption machine with the sole purpose of reproducing its hegemonic power. Lula’s alleged paternalism was to blame for this, alongside the Worker’s Party voters as blind worshipers, revealing a “tribalist” mind-set that prevented them from addressing the transformations occurring worldwide. According to Rands, this atavistic “tendency to follow the charismatic leader” prevented Brazilians from “taking precautions of left-wing populism”, a claim that finds resonance in current liberal works conflating left and right-wing populism.
Certainly, there are many criticisms to be made of the Worker’s Party and its gradual transformation into an establishment party: its attempts at reconciling contradictory class interests; the regressive alliance with the corrupt MDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) party to secure a parliamentary majority; the lack of an effective response to growing social demands and new forms of political participation emerging from the June 2013 mass protests. The hollowing out of any significant difference between centre-left and centre-right parties in the West under the doctrine of TINA (“There is no alternative” – to neoliberalism) also affects Brazil, with the economic policy of Lula and Rousseff described as weak reformism. This approach left untouched the structural mechanisms perpetuating social insecurity and staggering rates of violent crime.
But criticism of the Worker’s Party on the left is incomparable to the common-sense, populist electoral sloganeering that agitates the right – and to which the speakers appear attracted. Curiously, neither Buarque nor Rands entertained the possibility that the far-right was elected by virtue of what the Worker’s Party did right – or could have done better. Revolt against these successes was at the heart of the racialized hatred the white middle class directed towards poorer citizens who began experiencing rapid upward social mobility. This began even before the 2014 economic slowdown started squeezing the higher ranks of the middle class.
Bolsonaro is not the accidental outcome of bad politics. On the contrary, he is the result of a political project that began long before his election. This project can be characterized as a preemptive counterrevolution of the powerful against the working class. Dismantling the social security network created by Lula and Rousseff’s governments on the one hand, and criminalizing social movements on the other, is the perfect expression of the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism, a process of shielding unpopular economic reforms from democratic accountability.
In 2016, the parliamentary coup that ousted Rousseff led to a liberal-conservative coalition take over. Interim President Michel Temer pushed for the approval of labour reforms and a public spending cap in order to “modernize” Brazil, attract foreign investments, and tackle unemployment. The reforms achieved none of these goals. As a senator, Buarque voted to oust Rousseff, and in favour of the major neoliberal reforms advanced by Temer, now continued under Bolsonaro. Rands also appears to approve of such measures, saying that the Brazilian left “failed to create sound economic reforms” at the macro and micro levels, and that such reforms should have “less state intervention” to allow for market effectiveness.
This political turmoil in Brazil happened on the back of Operation Car Wash, an investigation which revealed a massive corruption scandal - linking bribery by Big Business of state officials at the oil-giant Petrobrás. This corruption probe soon saw the judiciary adopt a political stance against the Worker’s Party by selectively leaking material under investigation to the media. Heading this operation was judge Sérgio Moro, who became a Justice Minister under Bolsonaro. This position was a political reward for having Lula jailed in April 2018, preventing him from running in the October elections. Moro has been found to have secretly colluded with the Car Wash task force of prosecutors, illegally directing lines of investigation to frame Lula while dismissing important accusations against other powerful people, as leaked documents show. Like many who consider Moro the liberal hero of Brazil, Rands omitted those facts, instead of bemoaning Bolsonaro’s attempts to undermine Moro as the “symbol of the fight against corruption”. It took over a year before Moro, the most popular figure in the far-right administration, decided to resign after accusing Bolsonaro of attempting to frustrate Federal Police investigations against his family.
It seems absolutely necessary for the left, not only in Brazil but worldwide, to reorganize itself against the neoliberal dismantling of social welfare and the associated rise of far-right politics. But there is also a need to critically apprehend the conjuncture of intensified class struggle in which we live.
Disciplined self-critique over the limits of conciliatory politics, in a country riven by inequalities and political clientelism such as Brazil, is a necessary ingredient for the reinvention of a radical left politics. This is what Buarque calls the need for a “new utopia”. But “self-critique”, in the manner proposed by Buarque and Rands, can also be self-defeating – welcomed by the ruling class in its thirst to destroy Lula’s legacy. The liberal establishment has undertaken no similar “self-critique”. Nor should we expect any from them. For they, alongside the far-right, are very aware of their class position and political project: to criminalize the poor and bury any prospects of popular, participatory democracy.