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Before the January 2015 elections that brought Syriza to power in Greece, Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) was probably the best-known case of a left-wing government that emerged from the country’s social movements with a mandate to develop an alternative to neoliberalism on the basis of its extra-parliamentary strength.
Before their respective electoral victories, both parties were sceptical of what could be achieved through Parliament alone: the PT president, Olívio Dutra, famously talked about the need for “one foot in the struggle and the other in Parliament”; while Syriza’s Andreas Karitzis went further, saying that “80 per cent of social change cannot come from government”. But both were understandably elated when electoral victories bought them to power: thousands flooded out into the streets of Brazil, waving red flags, when the PT’s charismatic leader, former industrial worker Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was elected President of Brazil in October 2002; in Greece Syriza members were less euphoric, more aware of the difficult battle that lay ahead, when their party won a comfortable victory in January 2015.
Once in power, the two adopted very different strategies: Lula chose a conciliatory course from the outset, seeking both to placate foreign bankers, who were threatening to bankrupt the country by pulling out billions of dollars, and to work closely with other political parties; Tsipras, in contrast, relied on the scale of his popular backing to force concessions out of the troika.
Tsipras’s gamble failed: democratic credentials counted for little among the EU’s bureaucrats and finance ministers. In contrast, the PT’s approach seemed, at first, to be working, with the government achieving a marked reduction in extreme poverty and a considerable improvement in living standards for workers. Yet in recent months it has become increasingly clear that something is seriously wrong: the country is engulfed in a major corruption scandal, involving many of the country’s politicians, including leading members of the PT; and, even though Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, also from the PT, was re-elected in October 2014, she has been boxed into a corner by an increasingly belligerent and confident right-wing opposition.
Latin America Bureau (LAB) and Practical Action Publishing have just brought out a special report, titled Brazil under the Workers’ Party: from euphoria to despair, to examine what went wrong. Not surprisingly, not all Brazil watchers agree with everything in this report, so it’s a good topic to debate. To kick off the discussion, the LAB authors (Sue Branford and Jan Rocha) summarise their findings. This is followed by comments and alternative ideas from other Brazil experts. If you want to join the debate, leave a comment at the end of this article.
In the present climate of pessimism among the left in Brazil, it is easy to overlook what the PT governments have achieved. One of Lula’s first measures was to merge several social welfare initiatives into a single programme, called Bolsa Família, under which the poorest families receive monthly cash payments, provided they enrol their children at school. By 2012, the programme had 15 million beneficiaries – about one in every four families. Alongside this programme, the PT government also increased the real value of the minimum wage, the benchmark for the wages paid to poorer workers. It went up by almost 50% in a decade, compared with a 25% rise for the average wage over the same period.
These measures were enough to lift millions of people out of absolute poverty, with a significant reduction in the level of social inequality. This has created a solid bedrock of support for the PT among the poorest sectors of the population, particularly in the northeast, which helps explain why Dilma managed to be re-elected last year, despite the fierce campaign waged against her by the right.
However, these successes, admirable in themselves, were not accompanied by other more daring measures geared to creating an alternative to neoliberalism and to achieving long-term structural reform. The government decided to adopt strictly orthodox economic policies. In the first months, this was perhaps wise, because international bankers were extremely wary of the left-sounding PT government and could have pulled billions of dollars out of the country, “finishing off the government before it began”, as Lula put it. But later, as many PT activists have commented, there was scope for more daring policies, opportunities that successive PT governments failed to take.
At the same time, Lula appointed trade union officials, his most trusted allies, into key administrative positions. They became responsible for huge budgets, particularly in their key role within the BNDES, the world’s largest development bank, and in doing so they became de facto allies with Brazil’s economic elite. Many of the trade unionists weakened their links with the country’s poorest workers, often refusing to support strike action because of the economic harm they feared it would do to their new partners. This amounted to a shocking betrayal of Brazil’s long history of trade union struggle.
Perhaps the most serious disappointment of all was the PT’s failure to develop a strategy for political reform, the only way of breaking the right’s stranglehold over the country’s political institutions, particularly Congress, and of curbing the insidious impact of massive electoral financing by the country’s economic elite. It was all but impossible for the PT, a minority party, to achieve such reform through negotiations in Congress alone; to have a fighting chance of success, it needed to mobilise the public, which was something the PT refused to do. No doubt, this would have been a risky strategy but it was an option, given the groundswell of support that the PT enjoyed, particularly in the early days as a result of its redistributive programme.
Instead, the PT decided to play by the existing rules of the game, including the widespread use of corruption. But, in its way, this was an equally hazardous tactic, if only because the right was so much more experienced in these dark arts than the PT. Indeed, the media, most of which is controlled by the right, seized on the evidence of PT involvement in corruption and now portrays the PT as even more venal than the other parties, which is blatantly unfair and very destructive of the PT.
It was clear from the beginning that the PT would have to make concessions to the right, if only because it had to work through coalition governments, but there should have been red lines. Such a tactic might have shortened the life of the PT government but, defeated in this way, the PT would have stepped down from government, its head held high. As it is, the PT has destroyed itself, at least as a radical, leftwing party. This is unforgivable and it may well take another generation to build another radical alternative to the status quo.
The book by Sue Branford and Jan Rocha is lively, imaginative and provocative. It will spark debate about the recent political history and possible futures of Brazil.
The problem I have with the argument of the book is the implicit counterfactual embedded within it. This is that the PT could have used the “enormous groundswell of support its welfare programmes generated” (p52) to mobilise the poor, build up social movements, and then use this grassroots support to enact radical economic, social, and political change. According to Branford and Rocha, under the peaceful conditions of a capitalist democracy, the PT could have stripped the dominant class of much of its wealth and power and created a “new Brazilian” dreamed of by Darcy Ribeiro (p52) and a “new Brazil” characterised by greater equality and justice, and more respect for the environment, the indigenous, women, Afro-Brazilians, and the human rights of all.
However, because the PT didn’t really want this to happen, it didn’t.
I believe that this is a fantasy. As the authors themselves admit at one point, such a movement would have been impossible (p51). It is unrealistic to imagine that the recipients of Bolsa Família, struggling to survive, could have been mobilised as a sort of advanced guard of the PT. Even if this had been possible, engaging in this sort of tactic would probably have resulted in the destruction of the PT government. Brazil is a country in which the mainstream media, the armed forces, the judiciary, the national Congress, most state governments, industry, finance and agribusiness, and most of the upper class are right wing and powerful.
The PT governments have always been seriously constrained. Look at the fuss that has been made by mildly redistributive social policies. The PT has been accused of being totalitarian! One thing that is important to emphasise is that Lula’s election to the presidency in 2002 was primarily a victory for Lula as a presidential candidate, running in coalition with a vice-presidential candidate from the centre-right Partido Liberal (Liberal Party). It was not a wholehearted endorsement of the PT. PT candidates received roughly half the votes that Lula did in 2002.
In power, the PT tried to democratise access to the media, as well as strengthen the enforcement of human rights through the national human rights plans and the creation of the Secretariat of Public Security (SENASP) in the Ministry of Justice and the Truth Commission. It also tried to promote racial equality through quotas in Federal universities.
The fact that in these and other areas the PT was less than successful has a lot to do with the way that coalitional presidentialism works in Brazil. Powerful and well-organised groups had and have ample space in the political system to effectively oppose PT reforms. Change was incremental not because the PT didn’t want more reform, but because the opposition blocked it.
Another question that has to be asked is, if the Branford and Rocha critique of the PT is widely shared by citizens in Brazil, why didn’t parties to the left of the PT do better in the 2014 elections? The candidate of the PSOL party (the Party of Socialism and Liberty), Luciana Genro, received 1.55% of the popular vote in the 2014 presidential election.
Branford and Rocha may be right that in the future, the “challenge of transforming Brazil” will probably be left to people “not associated with the PT” (p53). But we need an accurate assessment of the constraints on the PT governments. If we fail to accurately analyse these constraints, if we fail to inject an appropriate amount of realism and objectivity into our analyses, we will doom future leftist governments to repeated failure.
Luis Fernando Verissimo wrote an interesting article in O Estado de S. Paulo on 25 June 2015 (“Ódio”). He writes that anti-PTismo began with the PT, but hatred of the PT was born before the PT, because it is innate in Brazil’s dominant class, which attacks any threat to its own domination. The PT governments redistributed income, lifted people out of misery and poverty, and reduced social inequality. They also, unfortunately, engaged in corruption in order to finance their campaigns and manage Congress. For some reason this corruption is viewed by the mainstream media as more noxious to Brazilian democracy than ordinary, not-PT corruption. Perhaps this is because it is party corruption, a means to the end of party domination, rather than primarily personal.
Verissimo asks, is the PT is dead? (I am not entirely convinced that it is.) And if it is, was it suicide or an assassination? Branford and Rocha argue that it was suicide, a tragic and totally unnecessary process of self-destruction. I question that conclusion. If the PT really is dead, perhaps it was murdered.
Branford and Rocha’s book provides a very valuable review of the rise and decline of the PT as the main political party of the Brazilian left and one of the most influential representatives of a new left in Latin America. The ‘early’ PT was not limited by the accommodating reformism, the stultifying Stalinism, the mortifying populism or the corrupt clientelism that were typical of the previous generation of the left in Latin America. The PT was, instead, refreshingly decentralised, democratic and open while, at the same time, being grounded in broad-based mass movements firmly opposed to the military dictatorship and to various aspects of bourgeois rule in Brazil. Branford and Rocha offer an insightful examination of the party’s dizzying growth in its early years and its destabilising impact on rival political forces.
Yet, after the PT’s narrow defeat in the first presidential elections after the restoration of democracy in 1989, the party set itself a new strategy focusing on ‘governability’: it decided that, in order to win elections and govern effectively, it would have to make political alliances, manage competently at local level, and abide by the constraints of ‘normal politics’, including strict respect for the rules of the game, the avoidance of extra-parliamentary action, and participation in increasingly expensive elections. The alternative was likely political marginalisation, growing irrelevance and, ultimately, disintegration (Anthony Pereira has usefully reminded us of the lack of political traction of the organisations to the left of the PT).
Once the PT was locked into this route the party capitalised from Lula’s charisma, the growth of cross-class opposition to neoliberalism during the 1990s, and the commitment of a wide range of social groups in Brazil to a bolder national development strategy. None of this was a given, and it took the PT a considerable amount of talent, determination and luck, but Lula was eventually elected President in his fourth attempt, in 2002. This unquestionable achievement – well examined by Branford and Rocha – came after the economic meltdown of neoliberalism, the disintegration of the base of support of the previous administration, led by F.H. Cardoso, and the consolidation of the broadest imaginable set of political alliances by the PT, accompanied by the wholesale dilution of the party’s historic commitments.
What followed is well known: Lula’s first administration was narrowly circumscribed by neoliberal macroeconomic policies plus a range of modest but effective social policy initiatives, symbolised by Bolsa Família; in his second administration the government adopted bolder economic policies, based on a hybrid of neoliberalism and selected elements of neodevelopmentalism. His chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, extended the heterodox policy elements in her early years, but the global crisis created a highly adverse policy environment. The economy slowed down, and the political coalition supporting the government increasingly fragmented. Today, Dilma’s government is isolated socially, politically and institutionally, and there is a real prospect that she may not be able to complete her term of office. Even if she does, Dilma may be forced to implement strongly neoliberal policies that contradict everything that the PT has stood for.
This brief overview of the tribulations of the party can help us address the question raised by Anthony Pereira: is the PT dead and, if so, was it suicide or murder? The answer is that the ‘original’ PT committed an understandable but no less lethal suicide many years ago. The party rose again as a nationalist and developmentalist social democratic organisation, and this incarnation was killed by the global crisis, the neoliberal alliance including finance, transnational capital, the upper middle class and the media, and by domestic opposition to social integration in a deeply divided country.
Can the PT rise from the dead a second time, perhaps with Dilma hanging on by her fingernails until Lula is re-elected in 2018? That remains to be seen. A more difficult question is whether or not the Brazilian left – understood as the forces striving for equality and political and economic democratisation – can thrive in Brazil, with or without the PT, in the coming years. I am very pessimistic, but desperately want to be proved wrong.
At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2003, shortly after he had been elected president, Lula spoke at a huge open-air rally to an enthusiastic, at times ecstatic, crowd. In his speech, he listed his familiar commitments to the Brazilian people: Bolsa Família, zero poverty, land reform, expansion of education at all levels, and so on. But then, more significantly he declared (and I don’t have his exact words): “we will need your active support. We will need you to take action.” It was this statement, even though it was rather minimal – no sense of how, and in what combination with governmental action – that led me to join the enthusiasm, if not the ecstasy.
For many western leftists, myself included, vested great hopes in the PT, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet system and at around the same time, the impasse faced by social democracy. We were particularly interested in the PT’s historic strategy of building popular movements at the same time as occupying spaces in the political system and deploying municipal resources to deepen democracy and meet social needs.
We saw this as a strategy for socialist change more powerful than the failing parliamentarism of west European social democracy, yet building on struggles for the franchise and other liberal political rights in a way that the Leninist tradition rarely did. The disaster of the Lula government is not just a repeat of the classic scenario of a social democratic party that talks left in opposition and is pressured into compliance when it gets to office. The PT’s particular origins in mass movements resisting the military dictatorship of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, along with strong traditions of popular education and self-organisation, produced something new.
My argument then involves a different emphasis from that of both Anthony and Alfredo, and is closer to Sue’s (though I don’t share with her the idea that Bolsa Família etc provided a basis, let alone a ‘groundswell’, for popular mobilisation). I think there are good grounds for believing that the PT had in its DNA the potential for this deeper mobilisation (I explain how I come to this conclusion in an article written in 2005 after the revelation of the PT’s probable involvement in corruption.)
I’m thinking especially of the potential that was evident in the participatory budgets and other experiments in radical, participatory democracy in PT-controlled municipalities across the country, from Porto Alegre in the south, Santo André in the southeast near São Paulo, and Recife and Forteleza in the northeast.
Even though these PT mayors usually gained a strong popular mandate, they were faced, like Lula and now Dilma, with legislative assemblies dominated by hostile parties. Rather than do deals, involving compromise and often bribes with other, hostile parties, these radical mayors sought to “share power with the movements from whence we came” – in the words of Celso Daniel, the mayor of Santo André, who was murdered in 2001 for trying to stop corruption. PT mayors sought to share power (and, by doing so, to bypass the necessity of bribing or compromising with the hostile councillors to get legislative support for their policies) by opening up the finances of the municipality to a transparent process of participatory decision-making through which local people had real power.
One of the main driving motives behind this experiment was to expose and eliminate corruption. The idea was that, instead of bribery and patronage, the mayor or governor (and, it was imagined, eventually the president) would rely on a process of shared decision-making. This would be underpinned by a process of direct and delegate democracy that councillors and regional deputies would be unable to ignore because their voters were part of it. A visit to Porto Alegre confirmed this. “We ruled for 16 years without bribery,” said Uribitan de Souza, one of the architects of the participatory budget, both in Porto Alegre and for the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
The essential principle guiding Uribitan, Olívio Dutra and the other pioneers of participatory budgeting was the recognition that electoral success does not on its own bring sufficient power even to initiate a process of social transformation but that an electoral victory can be used to activate a deeper popular power by which citizens themselves become protagonists in government, effectively renewing corrupted institutions of representative democracy.
In itself, participatory budgeting did not provide a template that could be transferred to be the basis of much-needed reform of the political system at a national level. But these were principles on which radical forms of democracy could be developed both for the PT itself and federal processes of government: sharing power between different levels of government and organisations of civil society; designing processes of democracy on the basis of a recognition of citizens’ capacities for self-government and the importance following the inspiration of Paulo Freire of a culture that favoured the release of these capacities; methods of leadership that diffuse, delegate and rotate power rather than concentrating it for long periods in the hands of a single person.
Certainly these ideas could have been applied to the party itself which would have meant that the party would have had a real autonomy from the government and potentially the capacity to exert and even to mobilise a strong counter-power on the PT government thereby strengthening its ability to resist corrupt and reactionary pressures.
But a significant part of the party leadership had very different ideas in mind, as Sue and Jan report. José Dirceu and José Genuíno believed so strongly that getting into office overrode all else that, independently of any notion of building popular power (office was power in their thinking), they were prepared to adopt any means necessary. This meant ruthlessly playing the existing rules of the political game and shaping the party for this purpose. The increasingly tight cúpula (top leadership) increasingly centralised the party, at the expense of the local nuclei, in the name of achieving a Lula victory. In election campaigns, political campaigning in the market places and street corners gave way to marketing on the conventional model, activist campaigning gave way to paid leafleteers – paid for by corrupt deals with companies getting contracts from PT municipalities. Any petista who blew the whistle on such deals was marginalised. The PT had established Brazil’s first mass political party according to its own ethics of popular democracy, but after the disappointment of 1994 – and even more so of 1998 – it accepted the rules of Brazil’s corrupt political system.
The steady strangling of democracy – which is, after all, what corruption is about – meant that the party lost all autonomy from the government. It also meant that all the mechanisms linking the party to the social movements and therefore acting as a political channel for their expectations, their pressure and their anger had been closed down.
The PT first got involved in the dirty game of Brazilian politics for purely pragmatic reasons, seeing it as the only route to government. But then, just as rock stars can become dependent on lethal drugs, they got hooked on these methods, not seeing that they were destroying their ability to bring about a new form of political participation that would transform Brazilian society. There is perhaps a lesson here for other would-be left parties, such as Greece’s Syriza – that their only chance of transforming society is by developing and maintaining strong channels of popular participation.