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Lula and Brazil: Tropical Blair or Axis of Hope?


Back from four days in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Time now to reflect on President Lula’s re-election for a second term.

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, 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 in the same corrupt way as all Brazilian parties and was buying political support in Congress in the ‘normal’ way (see Red Pepper, October 2005).

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 labour 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 having 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 each other, 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 self-conscious 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 an impressive 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, to return to from a new position of autonomous political strength.

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 as bases of inter-connected initiatives.

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 neighbourhood 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 and is reluctant to follow another leader. ‘There is a need for people to accept more responsibility for self-government.’ He thinks that 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. On 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 certainly 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.

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