Decision Time in Brazil

In 2015 Brazil will celebrate 30 years of democracy, the longest cycle of democratic life in its history. This in itself is an important fact, at a time when Brazil has risen as a world power and therefore whatever happens in the country matters not only to Brazilians but also to the entire world. It has been a period of outstanding achievements that included the creation of democratic institutional structures more daring than those of the Eurocentric matrix itself, bringing together representative and participatory democracy; the establishment of an independent judiciary; the adoption of public policies leading to unprecedented levels of social redistribution; the redressing of a century-old historical wrong, through the granting of land to the indigenous peoples and quilombolas and the setting up of affirmative action policies in the education and potentially in the employment system as well; the efforts to extend the period of negotiated democratic transition as regards that latter-day wrong, the crimes of the military dictatorship; the establishment of a dynamic, socially responsible system of higher education and scientific research; the implementation of economic policies that brought stability and high levels of growth; and lastly, the devising of an international relations posture centered on a new understanding of the interests of the country and the region, seen as relatively autonomous vis-à-vis the geopolitical interests of the USA in the region, not to mention the world. These combined policies have caused Brazil’s international image to change so much that while back in 1985 the “Brazilianization” process seemed to speak of a doomed country, today’s situation is definitely suggestive of a country that has found deliverance.

Part of the credit for this transformation belongs to all the governments of the period, but a (very significant) part must also go to the governments the country has had since President Lula was first elected in 2003. What is being sought at present is the reelection, this October, of one of the latter governments, that of President Dilma Rousseff’s. Given the above, one might expect the coming elections to simply sanction the incumbent government. But that does not seem to be the case and one must find out why. Let us delve into some of the main reasons. I have to say flat out that, if I were Brazilian, I would vote for President Dilma without hesitation, but I would still give her a few pointers in the hope of giving my own hopes a better chance.


The India Syndrome

Last May conservative candidate Narenda Modi won the elections in India by a wide margin, thereby dislodging the Congress Party, center-left, in power since 2004. The Congress Party had embraced markedly neoliberal policies, only somewhat nuanced by the fact that, ever since Nehru, there has been in India a strong tradition of state intervention both in the economic and social spheres. Thus neoliberal measures had to contend with two particular circumstances: income redistribution policies that allowed a new middle class to be created and the domestic market to be expanded; constant negotiations with the state, which because of corruption had gradually given in to the dictates of the powerful economic groups. Those two circumstances paradoxically conspired to bring about the defeat of the Congress Party: a new middle class, too distraught upon finding out that the newly acquired status failed to meet its own expectations, became very critical of the shady deals and the squandering of public money some cabinet members and politicians were exposed for. This convergence reached a point where some commentators concluded that the party had been defeated at the polls by the very social groups it had benefited the most during its ten year rule.

In politics it is always risky to draw comparisons. Brazil and India are very different countries. Public policies had a lot more weight in Brazil than in India, and Modi’s election was helped by other factors (having to do with ethno-cultural policies, for instance) which fortunately do not apply here. All this notwithstanding, the June 2013 demonstrations and the climate of discontent, alternately fuzzy and well organized, over the World Cup investments showed that President Dilma’s government ought to heed two comments on the strengthening of social policies made many years ago by Albert Hirschman, a great economist who also happened to be a friend of Brazil. According to Hirschman, there are two situations in which the strengthening of social policies is likely to generate social frustration: when public services, once massified, lose quality and no longer meet the expectations of those social strata that had been eager to have access to them for the first time (compare, for example, the dramatic expansion of public higher education with the much lower increase of actual financial investment in the area); and when the services, because of their bureaucratic nature, are culturally monolithic and organizationally homogeneous, and therefore inadequate to the needs, both cultural and otherwise (e.g.with regard to indigenous health, peasant farming, urban and suburban transport, etc.), of various social groups.


Who’s in power?

Probably more than at any other time since the second European war, capital these days only trusts rulers who are themselves capitalists or capital’s servile offshoots, people who view maximization of profit as the fundamental goal of public governance. Over the centuries capital became accustomed to dealing with forces that were very hostile at times, as was the case in immediate post-war Europe. It fact, capital proved capable of doing it in an extremely flexible manner, but always grudgingly, and since the 1980s it has been shaping the global economy so as to make it increasingly autonomous in relation to national or regional policies (a case in point being that of the European Union), in the hope, when the time is ripe, of making them bow to its own interests, which are none other than the infinite maximization of profit. For over two decades now, some Latin American governments have reinstated negotiation conditions that might seem obsolete in the global arena. Capital acted with the accustomed flexibility, now grounded in the notion that loss of political power would not amount to a loss of economic power. And since capitalists are much firmer believers in economic determinism than Marxists ever were, they viewed the loss as quite relative and, in any event, only temporary. The governments of the last decade saw capital amass large profits, although no more than the “monotony of economic relations” permitted, as Marx would put it. The extra profits derived from primitive accumulation and major privatizations as well as from graft – which, by force of its sheer size and banality, becomes synonymous with good governance (too big to fail) – were not to be had. It is precisely the loss of these extra profits that accounts for the vicious, vulgar way in which capital, speaking through the voice of its lackey the mainstream media and of the political class, has attacked President Dilma’s government, as exemplified by the quasi-racist, caste-based abuse hurled at her in public. It is their way of letting her know that however close to them she may make herself appear to be, she will never be one of them. What they, in a vulgar affirmation of domestic colonialism, are saying without actually saying it, is: “It doesn’t matter if we have accumulated a lot of money with you people in power, because we shall never accept the PT, nor Lula, nor anyone of your ilk!”

What about the people? Was it for nothing that the governments of these last twelve years were called popular governments? Power was never literally in the hands of the popular classes, although it was held by their representatives and allies. Given the anachronistic, anti-democratic nature of the Brazilian political system, however, the latter entered into alliances with conservative political forces which have been historically groomed to rule and which therefore found ways of extorting increasingly larger concessions and thus mishandling or totally doing away with those programs that had shown greater potential to transform social relations of power. They even caused scandalous setbacks, as was the case with the new Forest Code. More importantly, they gradually mounted a whole logic of governance that was hostile to democratic participation and democratic decision-making, favoring a technocratic, instrumentalist, national-developmentalist logic instead. The thing with unnatural alliances, of course, is that they are always bound to affect the parties involved with different levels of intensity. When Dilma’s cabinet took over from Lula’s, it became all too obvious that the popular classes had lost access to the rulers they had voted for. President Dilma made a point of keeping her distance from the social movements and trade unions, a gesture that seemed meant to signal her autonomy in relation to Lulism but that was generally perceived as a message of how close she was to the dominant classes. On the other hand, the tools of participatory democracy that had been the hallmark of popular government (participatory budgeting, sectoral policy councils, national conferences) ran out of steam and lost their capacity for renewal, but most of all, they were more and more called upon to decide on less and less important issues. The larger projects and major investments were beyond the scope of participatory democracy. The gap between rulers and the ruled, between representatives and the represented, grew wider and was skillfully explored by the mainstream media, the major opposition party against progressive governments in all of Latin America. These governments have been slow to realize that, given the continent’s circumstances, their mistakes, no matter how small or justifiable, cost dearly. Hence the need for extreme political vigilance among the parties that support those governments. For the truth is that the iron law of party oligarchies hit those parties massively, as their best members turned into the worst kind of party officials. None of this is irreversible, though. The reform of the political system is going to be on the agenda, and in a stroke of political creativity (that could have been more effective, had not the government distanced itself so much from the social movements in the past) President Dilma has gone so far as to propose a Constituent Assembly, in the image of what has been proposed in the streets and squares of so many countries all across the world (in the case of Brazil, a referendum on political reform). It is possible to reenergize participatory democracy and popular participation, and the government has recently shown that it takes that possibility seriously beyond electoral conveniences. The re-founding of the Workers’ Party is likely to be the most difficult task of all. And if I could give President Lula some advise, I would tell him that this goal would be best served if leveraged by his magnificent biography, the pride not just of Brazilians but of citizens of the left across the planet.


The development model

While making concessions at the political level and in terms of relinquishing extra profits, neoliberalism managed to have more and more control over the governance matrix of the country’s successive governments, entrapping them between the need for economic growth to finance social and infrastructural policies and capitulation before a logic of accumulation led by capital’s most antisocial sector (the financial sector). This logic relies on the ecologically disastrous exploitation of natural resources (agribusiness, mining and megadams). It is also criminal on account of the unspeakable sacrifices it imposes on peasant and riverine communities as well as on the indigenous peoples and quilombolas, expelling them from their land and territories and letting their leaders be persecuted and murdered. Popular resistance against this unprecedented barrage (unheard of even in colonial times) or such international forums as the ILO Convention 169 with its stipulation of the right to free, prior and informed participation, are summarily declared to be obstacles to development. This process has become widespread in the entire continent (and outside of it), and Brazil is no exception. All the achievements of the last decade with regard to historical justice are at risk of being lost in the orgy of extractivism.

The indigenous communities of Brazil that I work with and to whom I extend my solidarity stand perplexed. They know that the oligarchic regional forces are behind all these unpunished crimes against them, but they also suffer under the hostility of the government of the Union and are outraged by the fact that non-popular governments in the past have granted far more land than President Dilma’s has. They are also outraged to see how the government’s complicity with the representatives of the ruralist bench – with Katia Abreu at their head – is all but flaunted. They are shocked by the fact that the demarcation processes have been brought to a halt, by the passivity in the face of the illegal, violent raids and by the criminalization of the oppressed peoples who are fighting for their rights. Young environmentalists, human rights activists, peasant and urban movements that support agroecology and food sovereignty, are all rising against the narrow capitalist view that sees land as one factor of capital, for such a view tends to destroy the environment and to obliterate whole populations as well as their traditional ways of life and the biodiversity which they defend and we all depend on.

The perplexity will only increase now that candidate Marina Silva, a well known environmental activist, entered the scene. I was with with Marina Silva in many a session of the World Social Forum and I share many of her environmental concerns. But I do think that she keeps bad company these days, in a party where the interests of big capital and agribusiness loom large. Marina has become the necessary detour for the conservative forces to come back to power. And with them, the most conservative version of evangelism to which Marina has converted. In any event, none of this will be enough to assuage the perplexity if President Dilma does not give a strong indication that a policy shift has been set in motion toward a development model that is more fair both socially and ecologically, and that such a policy is already there to be seen in concrete measures. With that in mind, courage will be needed to reopen the debate on a project for the country’s future. This will be a unifying debate, out of which well-informed, resilient majorities shall emerge. Without it, President Dilma may find herself with plenty of people who would like to see her re-elected, but not people enough to fight actively for her reelection.


North-American imperialism

It is an irony of contemporary Brazilian history that it was under its popular governments that the country became a world power with a face. It established a system of international relations that is not Washington-centered; it helped define a regional policy that, while evincing some sub-imperialist traits – to use the phrase coined by the great sociologist Ruy Mauro Marini –, made room for an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist space of solidarity and complicity; and it became actively involved in the network of emerging countries (South Africa, China, India and Russia) that are seeking to affirm their autonomy with regard to the dollar, the IMF and the World Bank, as illustrated by the recent creation of the New Development Bank. One can hardly imagine the USA just standing back and watching the unfolding of these developments, which may potentially affect their interests. Spying on President Dilma is but the tip of the iceberg, and the Pacific Alliance is far from being an effective counterbalance to Brazil’s alleged regional intentions. In fact, interference nowdays comes in a much more subtle guise than the military interventions of the past. It comes in the shape of counseling activities to deal with extreme events or social protest, the fight against terrorism, or false non-governmental charities. One thing is certain: just like domestic financial capitalism, international capitalism does not trust President Dilma, and with the aid of powerful local allies it will do everything within its reach to discredit her government in the eyes of public opinion.

Brazilians are now facing choices whose repercussions will be felt for decades. Whoever is capable of showing with greater clarity what those choices are and how they are made to coalesce in a truly inclusive, fair and intercultural project for the country’s future, pointing out in the most consistent and credible manner the means to carry out this collective project, will be the winner of the elections. Beware of moralistic, vague and beguiling messages of the type “We shall not give up the country”, for they conceal all that is abject and sinister in the old oligarchic power block. Notwithstanding their limitations, which have to be acknowledged and overcome, the Lula-Dilma governments embody all that is truly new, decent and luminous in contemporary Brazil.


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