Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Back from four days in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Time now to reflect on President Lula’s re-election for a second term in office.
In the face of a hostile right wing media, Lula’s election seems like a notable victory for the left. After an unexpected failure to win an outright majority in the first round, he campaigned strongly to win the support of the poor. The result was that over 60 million people, 59 per cent of the voting population, voted for a president who campaigned against privatisation and for social justice, and who stood with Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez against a free trade alliance with the US. Should Lula be considered part of the Latin American ‘axis of hope’ proposed recently by Tariq Ali, after all?
The ‘all’ includes Lula’s first-term acquiescence to everything demanded by the IMF, going along with agribusiness at the expense of land reform, and doing almost nothing to address the country’s gross inequalities. A student at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo laughed as he told me: ‘I voted for Lula, and then went to church to confess.’
I was at the university to launch a book based on interviews last summer with a wide range of petistas (supporters of the PT, the Brazilian Workers Party). The interviews took place as the petistas reeled in shock at revelations that the party’s leadership had financed Lula’s election campaign and was buying political support in Congress in the same corrupt way as all Brazilian parties (see Red Pepper, October 2005 and www.tni.org/reports/newpol/brasildossier.htm).
At the launch meeting everyone was mightily relieved that Lula had won. In other words, keeping out the right was the left’s first priority. ‘We voted for maintaining living conditions, not for Lula’s political project,’ said a post-election statement of the Co-ordination of Social Movements (CMS) – an influential body that brings together the main landless movement (the MST), perhaps the most effective social movement in the country, the more cautious trade union federation (CUT), the World March of Women and the radical student movement.
The second priority is to build up pressure on the government for such urgent needs as land reform, a significantly higher minimum wage and support for the social economy. But their efforts start with a problem. Most social movements in Brazil have been involved in some way in building or supporting the PT specifically as a means by which movements could exert pressure on political institutions. They now face the reality that this custom-built instrument stands before them bent and corroded. It’s not a complete write-off perhaps, but it’s certainly not the instrument they can use as they had intended.
Here it is it is useful to make distinctions and comparisons with our own political wreckage, the Labour Party, both in order to understand the specifics of Brazilian politics and also because this discussion of the Brazilian left in Lula’s second term could provide many insights for our own strategic thinking in Europe. Both parties were born to a significant extent out of the trade union movement, but there are several striking differences. First, the Labour Party was the result of an explicit division of responsibilities between the political and industrial ‘wings’ of the labour movement.
Moreover, it was shaped by the socially integrating experiences of war, especially the second world war.
The PT, on the other hand, was born out of a political struggle against the military dictatorship, which ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The movements that formed it always saw themselves as political in the sense of a responsibility for society as a whole. When the PT was formed, this tradition of social movements as political actors, taking the initiative on every issue, remained strong. So too did a belief in the necessity of conflict as a precondition of social change. Indeed, the party’s founders saw the role of electoral politics as being in part to strengthen and legitimise social movements.
Additionally, whereas the Labour party was first and foremost about representation, more or less uncritically, in the existing state, the circumstances of the birth of the PT were those of struggling for a new, democratic constitution for which they had their own visions.
These origins gave birth to two lasting and inter-related traditions in the culture of the Brazilian left: that social movements are political actors in themselves, and that democracy has to be constructed through popular participation. As the party’s leadership has focused increasingly narrowly on electoral success within an unreformed Brazilian state, these traditions have been weakened within the party itself, but they remain strong in most of the movements (less so in the trade unions). They have three lasting manifestations of significance for the renewal of the left internationally.
First, the social movements have always had a broad vision of social change beyond their particular focus; and they are in the habit of working with other movements, rather than primarily looking to politicians for society-wide solutions. They have always had a strong sense of the importance of their autonomy and their capacity to act independently even of the PT.
Second, they possess a distinct and resilient concept of democracy as having two equally important dimensions. These are: the principle of the universal vote by which everyone, whether or not they are active or engaged in politics, has an equal say; and, as a condition for making the vote more than a formality, a principle of popular participation by which people have both a right and a responsibility to be active custodians of democracy and to build participatory forms of democracy by which they can organise themselves to exert control over public institutions.
There are no pretensions to have invented a particular model of participatory institutions. But it is clear that the struggle against the dictatorship gave birth to a strong concept of ‘active citizenship’, teaching a painful lesson that liberal democracy is too weak to defend itself against the intervention of the vested interests that any genuine democracy threatens, whether those interests are the military rulers of the past or the multinationals of the present.
The third tradition that is apparent in many social movements in Brazil, and has been a vital influence in the PT, is that of popular education. Of course, conditions of mass illiteracy made adult education an important part of any project of social change, but the influence of Paulo Freire has produced a form of education that is about people becoming conscious of their latent power to change the world rather than simply learning about it.
Formação is a common word on the left in Brazil, literally translating as ‘formation’ but in practice meaning ‘developing people’s innate potential as part of a selfconscious process of social change’. For the millions of people who helped to build the PT over the past 20 years, the first term of Lula’s presidency was a kind of formação, weakening illusions that, in the words of MST leader Gilmar Mauro, ‘a big leader would provide the solution’.
As I visited the MST school in the countryside round Sao Paulo, listened to the reflections of a shrewd activist in CUT, heard the frustration and the elation of people who campaigned for the P-SOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade, whose candidate won 7 per cent of the vote against Lula in the first round) and recorded the new hopes of a veteran founder of the PT, it felt as if people were renewing the core traditions that shaped the PT but putting the issue of political parties on hold.
Take the tradition of social movements as political actors. A particularly impressive example is the National Popular Assembly. It is a process based on open assemblies in over 200 towns and cities, which last year worked to prepare proposals and ideas for ‘O Brasil que queremos’, the Brazil we want.
These culminated in a national assembly and then a popular education document, which not only sums up the agreed proposals but also maps out the initiatives to make them a reality.
Bodies such as the CMS are now proposing that this work should become a common basis for mobilisation. What is impressive about it is that, by all accounts, it is the product of a self-regulated process.
No one organisation leads or ‘owns’ it. A variety of organisations facilitate the process but all those involved have accepted a transparent, shared procedure for proposing and agreeing ideas.
This commitment to create a form of self-regulating participatory democracy is widespread. It’s visible in the ‘participatory budget’ processes pioneered by the left in parts of local government in Brazil, where delegates elected by neighbour-hood assemblies negotiate priorities for new investment through a set of transparent, fine-tuned rules that are agreed annually.
But there’s a paradox in all this. Why is it that the country that has produced some of the most developed forms of democracy also places such reliance on an individual leader?
‘This reliance on leaders is the Achilles heel of the Brazilian left,’ says Geraldo Campos, a young petista who left the PT in sadness and anger. ‘There is a need for people to accept more responsibility for self-government.’ He says the experience of Lula’s first term has begun to teach people that ‘proposals and pressure depend on their effort. If they don’t take responsibility, nothing will happen.’
The early signs are that Brazil’s social movements are entering the second term with an urgent sense of responsibility. But will their initiatives gain popular support? Lula speaks two languages. The day after winning the election with a campaign stressing social justice, he disclaimed the declarations of his campaign manager that his economic policies would change in the second term. The millions who voted for him won’t be reading such statements.
They’ll just hear his television addresses, in which he expresses his commitment to the needs of the poor. They see him as one of them. And certainly he constantly stresses his memories of poverty.
But they are just memories and the danger is that, while his gestures and his sentiments keep society calm, ‘the multinationals and banks will suck the country dry’, as Marcos Arruda, one of the animators of the National Popular Assembly, put it. Lula himself is not a reliable link in an axis of hope. But the movements that put him there, if they can assert their autonomous strength, certainly are.
Thanks to Melissa Pomeroy and Evelina Dagnino, and also to the Transnational Institute for funding my trip to Brazil
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite