Left movements in Latin America have proved resilient and powerful in 2020. Danny Pilkington reviews Perry Anderson’s Brazil Apart to explore the dilemmas faced by the left in power.
In a recent interview for Jacobin, Evo Morales asserted that:”The United States and capitalism think that they are sent by God to dominate the world, that the only sovereignty is for the United States.”
A truism, of course; and a timely one. As Bolivia overturns its right-wing, US-backed coup government and reinstates the Movement for Socialism, democracy is countering neoliberal imperial oppression. In Chile, the setting of the United States’ flagship ‘Chicago Boys’ experiment in neoliberalism, we have seen Pinochet’s constitution repudiated by the people. The left in Latin America are standing tall as a beacon of anti-imperial, anti-capitalist action, and their achievements should embolden socialist movements across the globe. In order to learn from these victories, we must understand their context.
A worthwhile case study, in this sense, would follow Brazil, and the left-right political trajectory there. Western liberal newsrooms looking at Brazil have, in recent times, tended to focus on far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and his conspiratorial and macho attempts at handling Covid-19. Whilst such coverage provides useful exposure, debates around Brazil’s volatile president must consider the global, Latin American, and domestic political realities which have informed such an ascendency.
Perry Anderson’s Brazil Apart (2019) offers a valuable contextualisation in this regard. It also invites us to consider the acute strategic questions facing the so called ‘Pink Tide’, of left governments and attendant movements which have proved so durable in parts of the continent.
Comprised of older articles previously published in the London Review of Books, as well as more recent unpublished notes on Bolsonaro’s first six months in the presidency, Anderson provides a detailed historical account of Brazilian politics between 1964-2019. Owing in part to being written in real time, the sober charting of centrist Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s forsaken intellectualism, the rise and fall of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) and the rambunctious arrival of Jair Bolsonaro has a highly lucid character. Crucial to Anderson’s overview is a penetrating insight into the consequences of neoliberalism, and a frank confrontation with the shortcomings of the left. His study of the subject of Brazilian corruption, and its weaponisation against left-wing movements, has global relevance for all those who wish to understand the responsibilities of international solidarity.
A decade before Chile and Argentina would experience the military dictatorships of Pinochet and Videla, Brazil saw its left-wing government ousted via a coup d’etat in 1964. Successive military dictatorships spanned over 20 years, and Brazil did not democratically elect another president until 1989. During the 1990s, Brazil emerged as a powerful global market under its then leader, Cardoso, a former Marxist intellectual who led the centre-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB). This political project was defined by neoliberalism and subordination to the economic hegemony of the United States, and subsequently failed to deliver on much of its perceived potential.
Upon electoral victory in 2002, Lula and his Workers’ Party (PT) rebranded Brazil as a ‘Pink Tide’ nation. A centre-left administration which brought about unprecedented improvement to the lives of the nation’s poorest, the PT put forward an economic model that accelerated growth yet exposed Brazil to many of the imperial influences and pressures of the United States.
After an establishment media-backed corruption scandal – with which the FBI have been linked – Dilma Rousseff, president of the PT in 2016, was removed from office. Titled ‘Lava Jato’, the ‘carwash’ anti-corruption probe endeavoured to criminalise left-wing figures and aid establishment candidates standing on ‘anti-political’ and ‘anti-corruption’ platforms. Enter Jair Bolsonaro.
Despite connections to militias, support for extra-judicial death squad killings, and mystery payments which have prompted allegations of family corruption, Bolsonaro recently ended Operation Car Wash. He did so on the basis that there is ‘‘no more corruption in the government’’.
PSDB to PT: Imperialism and Neoliberalism in Brazil
Chronicling Cardoso’s (President of Brazil 1995-2002) shift to the political centre, Anderson launches a scathing assault on a former Marxist intellectual who became an operative of neoliberal politics “in the periphery of world capitalism”. This legacy, which paved the way for the ascendancy of the PT and Lula, is ably summed up:
“The defining character of the Cardoso presidency has been a neo-liberalism ‘lite’, as Brazilians – pioneers of nicotine images of politics—would say. In other words, the kind that predominated throughout the developed capitalist world in the nineties, when doctrines of the Third Way and the New Centre—Clinton, Blair, Schroeder— ostensibly distanced themselves from the harder versions of neo-liberalism pioneered by Reagan and Thatcher in the eighties, while in practice continuing, indeed often accentuating, the original programme, but now accompanied by secondary social concessions and a more emollient rhetoric. Throughout this period the fundamental dynamic of neoliberalism has persisted, unabated: its two core principles—deregulation of markets and privatization of services (or industries, where still public)—setting the parameters of economic correctness.’’
Anderson acknowledges the modest achievements of Cardoso. Hyperinflation had been stifled by the introduction of the new ‘Real’ currency, and this benefited the poorest in society. But Cardoso over-estimated the value of the Real, and delivered a definitive brand of neoliberalism to Brazilian politics. The economy was opened up to – and relied on – foreign investment, but when it came, this just meant large chunks of the public sector disappearing into the hands of foreign private firms. Brazil was subsequently wounded by crashes in international markets, and the economy plunged further into debt. Operating a market driven economy that functions at the behest of stronger external forces is fraught with danger, yet this was Brazil’s plight under Cardoso, who came to power on a platform which had promised economic stability. Anderson frames the ensuing disaster of mass unemployment as a fall from grace, as Cardoso, a former critic of economic dependency in the underdeveloped world, careered into his role as a purveyor of instability, through a panicked commitment to an open market and privatisation.
The PT were able to make gains in the wake of such a period of despair for Brazilian people. After initial continuity measures to stabilise the economy, Lula introduced public-focused reforms and substantially increased the minimum wage. This gave people greater consumption capability and was an investment in the domestic market that led to the creation of jobs. The PT focused on Brazilian markets, and established trade relationships with China; not the US. This distinction is key in Anderson’s critical analysis of Cardoso and Brazilian manifestations of established transatlantic neoliberal programmes.
Recording immense economic growth under Lula in the late 2000s due to a strong export economy, Brazil was catapulted onto the world stage as a member of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) quartet. Anderson notes that: ‘‘on paper, the four largest powers outside the Euro-American imperium would appear to represent, if not an alternative, at least some check to its dominion.’’
The PT were building power of their own rather than asking the United States for a slice in return for political and economic subordination. Lula promoted Mercosur (a common market organisation) with Latin American neighbours, acknowledged Venezuela and Cuba, recognised Palestine as a state, and refused to engage in the blockade of Iran. These actions constituted an unwillingness to fall in line with the strategic interests of Washington. The significance of such a move cannot be understated, given the United States’ history of intervention in Latin American affairs which threaten their imperial expansion.
On a domestic level, the party brought about tangible change for society’s poorest; yet allowed the wealthiest to prosper too. Anderson observes that: “From the start, Lula had been committed to helping the poor from whom he came. Accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, but misery had to be tackled more seriously than in the past”.
Lula understood that it did not cost a lot to bring millions out of despair through state intervention measures that enabled personal consumption. With the conditional cash transfer (CCT) ‘Bolsa Familia’ (PBF) policy, for example, he identified households with the lowest income and administered a monthly cash payment; contingent on mothers making sure children attended school. Although small, these payments came direct from the state and reached a quarter of the population. Dramatic increases to the minimum wage too benefited the pensions of the lowest earners; some 18 million people. But regressive taxation persisted, and the Brazilian export economy was flourishing. The rich were by all accounts accommodated.
Criticism of the PBF policy, however, frames it within an assessment of CCTs that highlight some inevitable limitations. A vital and necessary relief measure for offsetting the most damaging consequences of neoliberalism, yes, but CCTs create consumers; they don’t redistribute assets. Increasing the purchasing power of society’s poorest creates a duel outcome in that extreme poverty is reduced in the immediate term, yet the market is the only entity truly empowered. Therefore socio-economic conditions which re-produce poverty can proliferate. Agency, under CCTs, is given out in small chunks, to be spent at the local supermarket. Additionally, the conditional nature of such a policy can be alienating as it is not universal.
Anderson acknowledges these limitations; “There was no redistribution of wealth or income: the infamously regressive tax structure bequeathed by Cardoso to Lula, penalizing the poor to pamper the rich, was left untouched. Distribution there was, appreciably raising the living standards of the least well-off, but it was individualized in form. With the Bolsa Família, disbursements to mothers of school-age children, this could not have been otherwise.”
Yet, Lula’s success in registering material change for society’s poorest cannot be overlooked, and not a single state enterprise was privatised during his presidency. We must understand the line walked by Lula. His ability to deliver social reforms was contingent on making macroeconomic decisions on interest rates, for example, that suited the rich. Ruling class appeasement was deemed a necessity, but contrary to ‘Third Way’ superpowers or Cardoso’s PSDB, the PT saw profits rise without a retreat of state presence. Brazil’s lowest earners experienced improvements in their lives and could attribute this to the state; not market fortune alone. On an ideological level, this of course contradicts neoliberal endeavour. In practice, Lula’s economic decisions offer an insight into the challenges faced by left-wing projects that operate within the confines of capitalism.
Corruption and moralism; lessons for the left
Anderson’s handling of corruption in Brazil Apart challenges the confused and often absurd moral conflicts pervasive to liberal status-quo analysis of the subject. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached amid a corruption scandal that ruined the PT. Yet, as Anderson has noted, years earlier “buying votes in Congress was no novelty. It was well known that Cardoso had greased the
palms of deputies”. Bribes are common to Brazilian and Latin American politics in general. And vital to understanding this political culture is acknowledging why politicians feel obligated to bribe, and noticing when and how the action is highlighted as, in itself, a threat to society.
Lula opted for an administration that appeased elites rather than built the kind of power required to threaten them. Thus, the ‘undemocratic’ or ‘immoral’ act of bribery was determined by a political strategy intent on delivering social change without a full-on assault on the system. Certain realities of the system were understood and absorbed. When the PT were obliterated by a media campaign – endorsed by their opponents – that undermined their political achievements or public approval by positing corruption as the cause of social problems, moral factors achieved irrational prominence.
Referencing Andre Singer, Anderson relays that: “Lula would bend, but not break; Dilma would break rather than bend. Blackmailers are never satisfied, she said: yield, and they will always come back for more.”
Here, Lula interprets corruption as required in politics, whereas Dilma finds it incompatible. Did her reluctance to engage in corruption contribute toward the PT’s collapse under media and political bombardment? For Brazilian and international audiences, Anderson tenders an important proposition to the left; up against capitalist hierarchies, we must measure politicians against their record. We must uphold the political instead of the personal. Surely the scale of the task at hand for the left is perfectly embodied by this strategic conflict over the best way to subvert oppressive forces.
The importance of administering material change cannot be undermined by moral discussions around corruption. A demand for purity insinuates that political action happens on a level playing field to begin with. Criticisms of global capitalist hegemonic powers must recognise them as just that; powerful. They are largely in control and deliver policy which entrenches disparity in power of various agents. Thus, the left must recognise that it is systems which are truly corrupt; not left-wing politicians who operate at the behest of these systems’ legal and illegal mechanisms. Bribery reflects the failures to generate a wider social mobilisation which can challenge and break these mechanisms.
Bolsonaro and ‘fascism’
Jeffrey Webber’s Late Fascism in Brazil: Theoretical Reflections (2020) lays out an analysis of fascism which provides some much-needed appraisal for the common, arguably flippant, liberal-left uses of the term in modern times. Considering the historical contexts through which fascist regimes have been able to permeate, he poses that Bolsonaro – although perhaps capable of fascism – is better understood as a weak political project, ultimately reflecting the absence of a strong left rather than a reaction to the threat of a strong left, as was the case with fascist uprisings in the past. Anderson’s attitude follows a similar vein: “Fascism was a reaction to the danger of social revolution, in a time of economic dislocation or depression. It commanded dedicated cadres, organized mass movements and possessed an articulated ideology. Brazil had its version in the thirties … In Brazil today, nothing remotely comparable to either a danger to the established order from the Left, or a disciplined mass force on the Right, exists.”
Bolsonaro’s ascendency can in great part be attributed to his ‘anti-corruption’ platform being supported by the mass public demonstrations of the period; but this does not constitute the backing of an organised mass movement. He has won over sections of the middle class, and this has drawn comparisons with the make-up of classical fascist regimes, yet there are distinct differences. Rather than being anti-communist due to a rising communist movement, Bolsonaro channels most of his energy into waging a vicious war on minority groups and ‘Cultural Marxism’, representing a disdain for social liberalism. Instead of replicating classical fascist movements and seeking the advancement of Brazil as a nation and a power, his vitriolic brand of nationalism focuses largely on these cultural issues. The Brazilian economy under Bolsonaro is up for grabs. Anderson understands these dilemmas: “Hyperbolic enough, [Bolsonaro’s nationalism] essentially takes the form of virulent tropes of anti-socialism, anti-feminism and homophobia as so many excrescences alien to the Brazilian soul. But it has no quarrel with free markets. In local parlance, it offers the paradox of a populismo entreguista—one perfectly willing, in principle at least, to hand over national assets to global banks and corporations.”
Bolsonaro’s tidal wave of hatred is running in parallel with neoliberalism; not juxtaposition. A prevailing message here is that the beneficiaries of neoliberal hegemony have the potential to enable a hostile and authoritarian state if it offers continuity and stability for their economic interests. Yes, Jair Bolsonaro’s election represents a dangerous political reality. But he represents an organic threat to social justice and democracy; not a counter-systemic movement. The PT’s democratically elected left-wing administration was ousted by a media backed parliamentary coup, as it was decided that they could no longer fulfil their full role in protecting the interests of ruling class neoliberals under the PT. Should Bolsonaro prove too volatile, too disruptive, or too inept to fulfil this role; he too can be replaced. It is only with an organised mass movement that undemocratic interventions like this can be resisted. The task for the left in Brazil is to ensure that the prominent mass movement is a socialist one.
Movements and [de]-mobilisation
According to Anderson, for Cardoso’s centrists: “Lula embodies the most regressive traditions of the continent, his rule just another variant of the demagogic populism of a charismatic leader, contemptuous at once of democracy and civility, purchasing the favour of the masses with charity and flattery.”
Such perceptions carry weight throughout middle class Latin America. In Argentina, Peronistas and Kirchneristas are deemed naïve and irresponsible wishful thinkers if they are middle class; idiotic and malleable if they are working class. Cohorts of young, wealthier Venezuelans who have left their country feel contempt for Chavez and Maduro. Yet, analyses like these tend only to de-politicise, and put individuals under scrutiny. What is required is a political project which transcends the importance of its leader. Anderson addresses the limitations of the PT in this sense, pointing out that, “Lula neither mobilized nor even incorporated the electorate that acclaimed him. No new structural forms gave shape to popular life. The signature of his rule was, if anything, demobilization.”
Herein lies his most useful critique of Lula. The PT in power functioned without a broader, more demanding social movement. Had such a movement been nurtured – something more than possible under the command of someone with Lula’s relatability and charisma – elites could have been pressured rather than paid-off.
We often hear fascism referred to as capitalism in decay, but fascism has too been attributed to failed attempts at revolution. Arguably, this lesson holds true for at least some of the shortcomings of the PT. Although sabotaged by powerful forces in the end, there is no escaping that an abject failure of the PT was its demobilising effect. Their success, and public adoration of Lula, can be ascribed to the deliverance of material change in conditions for society’s poorest. However, upon deeper reflection, these victories have a sense of ‘almost’ about them. The story of Lula’s PT is the story of a left-wing project which missed an opportunity to mobilise a large-scale, organised, working-class movement that fostered anti-capitalist theoretical understandings of domestic and foreign policy. Had such a thing been achieved, President Bolsonaro may well have never come to be. Regardless; the left would have been better equipped to crush his or any attempts at far-right insurgency.
Since Brazil Apart
As was mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Bolsonaro has recently dismantled the very anti-corruption probe that paved the way for his presidency. This is just one expression of his contempt for democratic (however nominally) institutions. He is governing ‘without a party’, recklessly leading Brazil through a global pandemic (the Brazilian death toll is in excess of 150,000), and fostering vitriolic yet de-politicising scepticism among his base, thus potentially hampering its capacity or likelihood of mobilising behind any firm ideology. In this, there is hope.
The thuggish western-backed right in the region, and hegemonic neoliberal capitalism alike will be most effectively resisted by an organised left-wing movement, immune to the impact of media-constructed moral inquests. Actualising such a force, with robust and uncompromising political action, is the greatest task of the modern left in Brazil and elsewhere. With the victories carried in Chile and Bolivia by mass, combative movements, here too there is hope.
Brazil Apart: 1964 – 2019 by Perry Anderson is available from Verso.
Image Juliano Rocha