Review: The PT, Bolsonaro and Lula’s comeback

Perry Anderson, Brazil Apart, 1964–2019, Verso, 2021.

Richard Lapper, Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of Bolsonaro, Manchester University Press, 2021.

As author Perry Anderson notes, Brazil has often been a country “apart” in many senses. With a population of over 200 million, the eighth largest economy globally, but with a (very unequally divided) per capita income of $9,270, it is a large but still impoverished capitalist state. Somewhat insular and separated from most of Latin America by language, its political life emerged as a major topic of international interest since the election of “right populist” Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018. Bolsonaro’s election also came after a decade and a half of Partido dos Trabalhadores [Workers’ Party] (PT) rule.

The PT was considered by many to be the archetype “broad party” of the left that other countries should emulate. Yet as Mick Armstrong pointed out in this journal, its rule ended in the “disaster” of Jair Bolsonaro,[1] which has subsequently become defined by its appalling management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have collapsed in the polls. In March 2021, the country’s supreme court quashed the corruption convictions against the principal historical leader of the PT and ex-President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Lula announced he will run against Bolsonaro for President in 2022 and is currently the most popular challenger.

It remains to be seen what will occur. Bolsonaro’s rule was the result, arguably, of combined economic and political crises that broke apart the main political blocs in Brazil that had emerged after military rule. The problem was that the left – through the PT – allowed itself to get embroiled in the system. These two books give important insights into these problems, and why many will be rightly sceptical of another Lula presidency.

“Beef, bible and bullets”

Both texts provide a wealth of information. While Anderson, long-time editor of New Left Review, continues his aristocratic disdain for economical sentences, the analysis is sharper. Lapper’s prose is crisper, though as an “ex-lefty” Financial Times journalist, he too often falls into lazy cliches.

The authors have a long history of engagement with Brazil’s culture and history. The title of Lapper’s book is an often-used phrase that describes much of the established political class. Oligarchic in character, the political and electoral systems owe much to the country’s poorer and more remote north and east. A combination of violence and resource-intensive development keep much of the poor dependent on big landowners and other elite patrons, while appeals to religion consummate the system.

These political machines persist by doling out favours to a poor and fragmented electorate. As Anderson explains, although class had long emerged as a major theme in Brazilian politics,

conflict between them was always overdetermined by a vast sub-proletariat, urban and rural, living in pre-modern conditions whose existence skewed the system away from a class confrontation to a populist opposition between the rich and poor, in which the poor were as available for demagogic or clientelist capture by politicians of conservative as they were of radical stamp. (p.145)[2]

The PT originally emerged as a break from this system during a mass upturn in social and political struggles that marked the end of a long period of military rule between 1964 and 1988. Founded in 1980 by trade union militants, the PT initially advanced independent class politics. Its election results were modest, but it increasingly became clear that Lula’s huge popularity was one of its biggest assets.

The military eventually negotiated a return to civilian rule after mass protests erupted in 1984 demanding direct elections. With a new constitution adopted in 1988, the first direct election for president occurred the following year. Lula came second, though the winner – the “playboy demagogue from one of the country’s oldest and richest political families” Fernando Collor de Melo – quickly floundered. With the PT leading large popular mobilisations, Brazil’s Congress impeached Collor for corruption in 1992.

However, it set the scene for the consolidation of a new regime for managing Brazil’s society and economy, under the neoliberal presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. While Lula and Collor came from marginal political organisations, Cordosso headed the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira [Brazilian Social Democratic Party] (PSDB). The PSDB, founded in 1988, was a break from the main bourgeois party, the Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, PMDB.[3]

The PMDB and the PSDB emerged as the two main players in bourgeois politics, gathering the largest share of congressional seats and governorships. Brazil’s party system, however, had little discipline or coherence, with many smaller (mostly right-wing) parties represented.

Cardoso resoundingly won the presidency in 1994 in the wake of his key role in introducing the new currency, the Real, slashing inflation and temporarily boosting the income of Brazilians. Still fearful of a Lula presidency, most of the country’s business class embraced Cardoso. The cost of the immediate gain was a long period of neoliberal restructuring. By 1998 growing indebtedness resulted in another economic crisis.

PT in government

By 2002, it was Lula’s turn to govern. The PT, however, had long evolved into an electoral machine and it ran in alliance with a minor bourgeois party.

In the wake of Lula’s election, he appointed an “unblinkingly orthodox economic team at the Central Bank and Finance Ministry” that implemented even more extreme austerity. The resulting “weak reformism” was based upon an “entente with financial capital and a pact with clientelism”. (p.145)

Anderson explains that – much like Italy – Brazil’s political system is “serpentine”. There are undercurrents of corruption in all facets of political life. The PT lacked a majority in the Congress, so Lula stitched together an alliance with a patchwork of smaller parties through a mensalão, a monthly payment to secure votes from these deputies.

By 2005, a scandal broke over these payments. The PT had already undergone a small split, with the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade [Party of Socialism and Liberation] (PSOL) breaking away. Lula survived, however, despite the alienation of some of the PT’s better-off voters in the country’s south. Lula and the PT even scored a second term in 2006 with an increased share of the vote.

Two factors helped to ensure this. First, “a super-cycle of commodity prices” started in 2005. Demand for Brazil’s raw materials increased export income and tax revenue. Second and accordingly, there was a massive expansion in domestic consumption. (p.103)

The PT boosted consumption further through mild social reforms. Increases to minimum wages and pensions, combined with the expansion of cash transfers to the poor through the Bolsa Família program, further lifted incomes. With a cost equivalent to less than 0.5 percent of gross domestic product, the latter resulted in the country’s Gini index (measure of inequality) falling from the astronomical 0.58 to the merely catastrophically high 0.538 in a few years. As Jennings notes, there was an enormous expansion of formal sector jobs. Spending on travel and education expanded, with increased access for poorer Brazilians. (Lapper 2021, pp.62-64)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Anderson’s book are his discussions of Portuguese-language sources analysing the Lula years. Daniel Singer argued that Brazil’s “sub-proletariat, comprising nearly half – 48 percent – of the population, [was] moved by two principal emotions: hope that the state might moderate inequality, and fear that social movements might create disorder”. (p.69) Lula provided stability and passive increases in living standards for the countries’ poor that allowed the PT to break through and win the support of the country’s more impoverished north and east.

However, Chico de Oliveira provides a darker analysis. Olivera is a veteran Marxist sociologist and was among the founders of the PT, who broke with the party in 2003. He was linked to the current phase of global capitalism and the forestalling of any “meaningful national development project”. There was, instead, “a regression, taking Brazil back to earlier cycles of reliance on primary commodities for growth”. (p.78) These temporary boom conditions hastened the transformation in the character of the PT:

[T]he party and the trade-unions…became the apparatus of power on which it rested. The leadership of the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores [Unified Workers’ Centre]), …was put in charge of the country’s largest pension fund. The cadres of the PT colonised the federal administration, where a Brazilian president has the right of nomination to over 20,000 well-paid jobs… (p.79)

As Anderson notes, the PT “achieved the consent of the dominant to their leadership of society, only to ratify the structures of their own exploitation”.

Eventually, Lula’s handover of the reins of power to Dilma Rousseff corresponded with the end of the economic boom and a new round of corruption scandals. Upon election, Rousseff made matters worse by introducing austerity measures that “plunged the country into a full-blown recession”[4] and her popularity collapsed.

Yet, the seeds of her political demise had already been laid in 2013. An investigation into suspicious foreign exchange transactions at the Lava Jato (car wash) in Brasilia revealed a massive scale of political corruption. The resulting scandal revealed a systematic system of bribery that involved the PMDB, PSDB, the PT and a host of business sector entities.

Utilising a model of judicial activism derived from Italy in the early 1990s, a team of investigators prosecuted a selective anti-corruption campaign. They drip-fed a series of leaks to the media. In the aftermath of the elections, a narrative emerged that Rousseff had relied on corrupt sources to finance her election campaign. By early 2015, 80 percent of the population supported her removal. A right wing-led mass movement emerged on the streets. The base of these groups was among the growing numbers of evangelical protestant followers among Brazil’s middle classes. (p.120)

Rousseff’s running mate for vice-president in 2014 was Michel Temer – the former PMDB Congress speaker. In early 2016, the Lava Jato investigators began to implicate Lula in their investigation, and he was taken into custody. The PMDB abandoned any support for Rousseff’s government. On April 17 the Congress voted to impeach her.

Temer easily stitched together a coalition with the PSDB and assumed power that immediately unleashed a torrent of austerity measures. Anderson explains:

[T]he new regime passed three classical pieces of neo-liberal statecraft in short order [with] legislation freezing social expenditures for twenty years… No sooner was it passed with a two-thirds majority than the country’s labour code was comprehensively scrapped… The new rules gave a generalised green light to outsourcing of employment and zero-hour contracts… Next up was radical pension reform, increasing contributions and raising retirement ages, to bring down the costs of constitutionally mandated social security in the name of reducing the national debt. (p.164)

The PT was out of power. The party’s membership and base of support had also become demoralised and atomised. Lula had long rejected using popular mobilisation to back up his government’s measures in favour of a “pact” with the traditional parties. (p.194) The base that the PT developed amongst the country’s poor, moreover, remained “passive beneficiaries of PT rule, which had never educated or organised, let alone mobilised…as a collective force”. (p.105)

However, Temer and other PMDB and PSDB leaders could not hide their role in the corruption scandals for long. By 2017 Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a wider indictment against Temer and other PMDB leaders. They set the scene for the emergence of Jair Bolsonaro as president.

Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro had previously been a marginal political player in Brazil’s Congress. Circumstances, however, created an unprecedented political opening for him.

An ex-military officer, he had built an electoral base in Rio de Janeiro, among current and former military members. He developed a reputation for controversial speeches, often glorifying the country’s dictatorship years. He boosted his evangelical credibility by being baptised in Israel. Like Donald Trump, his family – especially his four sons – were the core of his political machine.

He took over the largely moribund Partido Social Liberal and crafted a campaign harnessing fear of insecurity. As the long-running recession ate away at the PT’s support base, Bolsonaro deployed a moralistic rhetoric. The sharper end of Bolsonaro’s message focused on “law and order”. The deterioration of economic conditions corresponded with an epidemic of crime and violence in the north-east costing some 60,000 lives a year. This was fertile ground for political demagoguery.

The PT attempted to run Lula as its presidential candidate in 2018, pretending until the last moment that he could win. Despite still appealing his convictions, the country’s senior judges eventually voted to bar him from running. The PT’s new candidate Fernando Haddad lost to Bolsonaro, with the latter winning 55 percent of the vote.

The PMDB and PSDB also lost out. By 2018 they were even more mired in the same catastrophe. The PSDB’s candidate (along with a plethora of smaller parties) attracted less than 5 percent support. The PMDB candidate scored barely above 1 percent. In Congress, both parties lost many seats.

Anderson only provides some initial analysis on the likely character of the regime. There is more discussion in Lapper’s book, but it too only covers part of 2020.

What happened next?

Overall, for all Bolsonaro’s bluster, his regime quickly deteriorated into farce.

While Bolsonaro may well be characterised as a fascist, his regime quickly became mired in crisis and possessed little ability to implement his full program. That is not to say Bolsonaro was and is no threat at all. The government’s policies continued Temer’s regressive changes, with large cuts to education spending and pensions in 2019. Although there was considerable mass resistance, the PT and other left and centre-left parties often played an ambivalent role.

However, the regime’s defining issue has been its chaotic mismanagement of the COVID-19 epidemic, with Bolsonaro famously dismissing it as a “little flu”. In November 2020, he claimed that “All of us are going to die one day… There is no point in escaping from that, in escaping from reality. We have to stop being a country of sissies”.[5]

Brazilians did die, with 21 million cases and 519,518 fatalities at the time of writing.[6] Brazil ranks number three among countries with COVID case numbers and second overall for deaths, amounting to a “campaign of terror against black and Indigenous people”.[7]

However, Brazil’s elites would not overlook the fiasco for long. Anderson warned gravely, in 2019, that Bolsonaro enacted a “return of the Armed Forces to the front of the political stage”. (p.181) However, faced with the COVID fiasco, much of the armed forces hierarchy remained aloof from the regime.

By August 2021, 54 percent of Brazilians rated Bolsonaro as “bad or terrible” compared to just 23 percent as “good or great”.[8] Bolsonaro turned to desperate remedies to hold on to power. Despite previously scaling back Bolsa Familia, he recently proposed increasing them by 50 percent.

Then, in April 2021, Brazil’s supreme court effectively overturned Lula’s convictions for corruption, suddenly sweeping away the basis for the “judicial coup” that helped bring Bolsonaro to power. Two factors enabled the reversal. First, it was clear that Lula and the PT were minor players in the affair compared to the traditional parties in Congress. The press now published thousands of leaked messages, also revealing the extensive and illegal involvement of the United States through the FBI.[9] Second, the growing social crisis meant that sectors of the elite now wanted “anybody but Bolsonaro”.

Bolsonaro has hit back, staging a mass rally of 120,000 in São Paulo on 7 September. He has increased his defiant rhetoric, declaring: “I have only three possible fates: arrest, death, or victory. And tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested”.[10]

It is not clear what direction the struggle will take. Many are now passively waiting for Lula’s re-election.

Where is Brazil going?

Both books are valuable English-language contributions to understanding recent political events. Understandably though, they focus more on how Bolsonaro’s regime emerged than what comes next.

With Brazil possibly heading for another Lula presidency, the books make for sobering reading. Compromises with bourgeois political forces dominated the PT’s decade and a half in executive power and it only implemented modest social reforms. Moreover, the PT did not organise its hard-won support base among the country’s poor. Alongside two waves of corruption scandals, these factors opened an opportunity for the elite opposition to depose Lula and his successor, at the cost of discrediting much of the political class. While the country’s supreme court has now acknowledged that the legal campaign against Lula was flawed, the hard right will not be so easily settled.

On the other hand, evidence suggests that contemporary “right-wing populism” in developed and developing capitalist democracies alike seems unable to implement its more ambitious goals. Once in power, it reverts to the standard neoliberal formula for governing, except even more incompetently.

Where does this leave Brazil’s class-struggle left and the worker-peasant masses? Neither book mentions much about the left opposition within and (now largely) outside the PT. More of a federation of factions than a party, it is unclear how much PSOL can play cohering an extra-parliamentary opposition. The party, however, has grown, with its congressional vote increasing to over 2 million, and it has recruited mass movement leaders. Yet even its success has appeared to come at a cost, with some elements appearing to want to give free rein to supporting Lula in 2022.

It is with the struggle on the streets that hope for a left solution to Brazil’s interminable political and economic crisis resides.

References

Anderson, Perry 2019, Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, Verso.

Armstrong, Mick 2019, “Learning from disaster: The Workers’ Party and the left in Brazil”, Marxist Left Review, 18, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/learning-from-disaster-the-workers-party-and-the-left-in-brazil/

Belano, Robert 2020, “Bolsonaro’s Coronavirus Response is a Campaign of Terror Against Black and Indigenous People”, Left Voice, June 3. https://www.leftvoice.org/bolsonaros-coronavirus-response-is-a-campaign-of-terror-against-black-and-indigenous-people/

Bourcier, Nicolas and Gaspard Estrada 2021, “‘Lava Jato’, the Brazilian trap”, Le Monde, 3 November. https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/04/11/lava-jato-the-brazilian-trap_6076361_3210.html

Harris, B and M Pooler 2021, “Bolsonaro tests Brazilian democracy: ‘Only God can take me from presidency’”, Financial Times, 27 September. https://www.ft.com/content/1770b0f8-3740-45db-a032-eedfdb0f8920

Lapper, Richard 2021, Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the age of Bolsonaro, Manchester University Press.

Rosati, Andrew 2021, “Bolsonaro’s Disapproval Reaches Record With Lula Gaining Ground”, Bloomberg, 18 August. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-08-17/more-than-half-of-brazilians-disapprove-of-bolsonaro-poll-shows

Stone, Judy 2021, “Covid-19, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, And Herd Immunity”, Forbes, 6 November. https://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2021/11/06/covid-19-brazils-bolsonaro-and-herd-immunity/?sh=42c1f06a5af6

World Bank 2021, “World Development Indicators”. https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators (accessed 15 September 2021)

Worldometer 2021, “COVID Live Update: 230,362,559 Cases and 4,723,957 Deaths from the Coronavirus”. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (accessed 22 September 2021)

[1] Armstrong 2019.

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, page numbers in the text refer to Anderson 2019.

[3] Originally just the MDB, it was the main “big tent” opposition party to the military regime. It added “party” to its name in 1980, before dropping it again in 2017.

[4] World Bank 2021.

[5] Quoted in Stone 2021.

[6] Worldometer 2021.

[7] Belano 2020.

[8] Rosati 2021.

[9] Bourcier and Estrada 2021.

[10] Harris and Pooler 2021.

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