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
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History