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Brazil: The Workers Party and
neo-liberalism

Andy Newman

Brazil's president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was recently heckled at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. His critics point out that average real wages in Brazil have dropped 6.1 per cent since he took office in January 2003 and the President has created only 2 per cent of the 250,000 jobs for young people that he promised by 2006. The Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) expelled a group of left wing deputies for opposing social security cuts in Congress during December 2003, and a new left Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSoL) was recently formed, led by Senator Heloisa Helena.

These developments in Brazil have wide implications for the left internationally. Andy Newman spoke to Alfredo Saad Filho about the political situation in Brazil. Alfredo teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and is the author of, "The Value of Marx: Political Economy for Contemporary Capitalism" and (with M Mollo), "Inflation and Stabilization in Brazil. A Political Economy Analysis".

Andy Newman: > In Brazil the Workers' Party (PT) have surprised many of us by adopting neo-liberal policies in government. Has that come as a big shock to the left in Brazil?

Alfredo Saad Filho: > No it did not come as a big shock. What was a shock was the extent to which the party abandoned its biggest commitments to a left wing platform. The shift of the PT to the right however had been going on for a number of years. The most significant marker to this change of trajectory was the first presidential election in which Lula participated in 1989, he was very narrowly defeated by a right wing populist, Fernando Collor. Now Collor was later impeached for corruption. The defeat and the polarisation within the campaign between right and left, and the narrow defeat of Lula was very traumatic to the ruling group of the PT around Lula, and apparently traumatic for Lula himself. The lesson they drew from this experience was that they had to go for the middle ground, they had to attract the middle class otherwise they would be forever aspiring to achieve power but never quite being able to be elected because they would be marginalised from the media and the most influential groups of society. That was a very important moment and the party from that moment started shifting, gradually but systematically towards the political centre. In 2002 most of the change had already been completed, but there were still remnants, if you look at the electoral programme of the PT in 2002, of left wing aspiration. But these remainders from a bygone age of the party were rapidly abandoned. The party has now become a neo-liberal organisation implementing a neo-liberal programme. But to a certain extent the left were prepared for what would come, but what exceeded expectations, certainly exceeded my personal expectations is how bad the government has turned out to be.

Andy: >  Did the left had an alternative strategy? If the PT had always seen itself as an electoral party wanting to achieve state power, then the strategy of the right perhaps made sense, but did the left raise an alternative?

Alfredo: > The dominant alternative was the institutional perspective, the parliamentary perspective, going for the middle ground in order to win elections. There is a  whole logic of electoral campaigning at work here; you have to go for where the money is, to obtain campaign funding, and try to look like nice, like you are competent administrators, and so on. The alternative would be a strategy based on social mobilisation. It would be a strategy of radicalisation of social development, trying to impose new realities and new imperatives for state policy on the ground. It is not at all certain whether this would have worked in terms of delivering state power; it would have produced political instability for sure. Brazil is a very unequal country at a number of different levels. The lesson for the left of this whole episode is that if you do not rock the boat then you will get nothing out of state power. Organisations looking for electoral strategies will tend to be co-opted very rapidly and very efficiently. Which is what happened to the PT, so a strategy that has its main axis outside of conventional politics, outside of parliamentary and electoral politics, which is what the landless peasants movement, the MST has been pursuing for many years now is much more promising from a left wing perspective.

Andy: >  The social base that the PT could have based itself on (you mention the landless peasants and the social movements), does that still exist or has it been demobilised? Has it become divorced from the PT now?

Alfredo: > There are two processes going on. One is a process of disillusion. The MST is disillusioned with the PT, and the organised and active working class is also to a certain extent disillusioned with the PT, as are the left wing militants and so on. Alternatives are not clear at this time. But there is an underlying process that is much more serious. This is the decomposition of the traditional sources of support for the PT. Neo-liberalism in Brazil, as in many parts of the world, has been extremely damaging for the organised and skilled. The level of unemployment amongst this class, and the destruction of the material basis on which this class existed has gone very far; not as far as in Argentina or Chile. But level of unemployment, the lack of economic perspectives for this vast social groups means that opportunities for political expression and the possibility of exercising pressure upon capitalists and upon the state are much reduced for material reasons. The class does not exist. The organisers of the workers movement are unemployed, the workers that are in employment are afraid for their jobs and for their financial future, which is totally understandable and reasonable. It is extremely difficult to recompose a political left under these circumstances. The problem in Brazil, and in many countries, is how we can reconstruct an active social movement that demands traditional and new ideas and imposes a new left programme under these very adverse economic circumstances. Capital has achieved a lot of what it set out to do in the late 1970s, and we have got a very serious problem on our hands.

Andy: >  So the class struggle in Brazil, in terms of strikes and other activity is at a much lower level than before?

Alfredo: > A much a lower level than it was in the early and mid 1980s, for example, there has been much less scope for industrial action, There have been minor changes in legislation, but the most important thing that has happened is a lack of a perspective of victory by the trade unions and the social movements. It is very difficult for workers to demand more when the immediate prospect is that they will get less anyway. They are going to become unemployed, factories are going to become economically uncompetitive, banks are laying off people and so on. These groups of people, the organised working class, and the organised middle and lower ranking civil servants who were the backbone of support for the PT - all of them have been very badly affected by neo-liberal economic policies.

Andy: >  And also ideologically? It seems that the leadership of the PT have surrendered to neo-liberalism? From what you are saying there is very little industrial challenge to neo-liberalism, but also no political or ideological challenge from the PT?

Alfredo: > This is correct. There is an image that the PT was a very militant party defending the rights of the working class. This is true to a certain extent but not entirely: a large part of the leaders of the PT were based in the trade union movement. They were defending the working class, but defending the particular, specific interests of their workers in the first place. This is totally understandable, but it is also dangerous to the extent that they were prepared to strike deals that might benefit workers who are currently employed and affiliated to their trade union but at the expense of everybody else. This has happened in a number of industrial sectors. When the political and economic conditions took a turn for the worse, the rational short term strategy for this type of trade union leader is to do all they can to protect jobs, at the expense of wage increases, at the expense of working conditions, at the expense of pension arrangements at the expense of everything. And they moved gradually to a type of North American results oriented trade unionism, which is not what the PT was about in the 1970s and 1980s when economic circumstances were more favourable. The trade union movement as a whole has shifted downwards its demands and it lacks political direction. There are still areas of the trade union movement that are still very active but it is definitely not that same as it used to be.

Andy: >  What alternatives exist? Is there still a vocal left wing in the PT that has a different strategy to the Lula leadership?

Alfredo: > There is still a left within the PT, but far from being the majority and they are increasingly marginalised within the party. It is not clear to what extent they can survive within the party for very long. They are being very heavily pressurised by the government either to shut up or leave. I think a historical cycle of the Brazilian left has closed. The form of organisation of workers through the PT worked extremely well for the Brazilian working class for perhaps 15 years. It is gone now. And new forms of organisation of the working class will need to be discovered and developed over time. But they will not involve the PT, which is lost for the left, and what remains of the left in the PT should leave and start considering new forms of organisation and activity. The PT itself is unrecoverable.

Andy: >  So how do you regard the formation of the Party of Socialism and Liberty (PSoL)? Is that a viable alternative?

Alfredo: > You cannot will a party of the working class into existence. A political party is indispensable for working class activity at a number of levels, but it is not something that a small number of people can sit down and decide to create. You end up with further fragmentation of the left. There are already a large number of left wing organisations in Brazil, as in many countries. The more adequate process would be to evolve new forms of political participation through debate and dialogue and through militant actions on the ground as well, and gradually evolve towards a new political party. Now this is not what happens, and while you cannot will a party into existence, and you cannot will them out of existence. PSoL exists; it is what exists of more advanced political organisations within the Brazilian left at the moment, and the most promising for organisation of the Brazilian working class. So it deserves support, but it is a support for its further political evolution, not as a completed project, and it should be seen like that. PSoL is not a completed project it is a programme for action for the workers in Brazil.

Andy: >  One of the characteristics of PSoL is that they have three parliamentary deputies, Baba, Joao Fontes and Luciana Genro, and they have a senator, Heloisa Helena. Do you think that is making them feel more important or influential than they are? After all they were elected as representatives of the PT, who have later joined PSoL, and that doesn't necessarily reflect the support PSol would have if they stood in elections under their own name.

Alfredo: > That is unfortunately true. It is not a question of support, the Brazilian left continues to be very large, but it is a question of translating this support into viable candidacies, and this is very difficult to achieve. I think there is no way that PSoL would be able to get elected 4 deputies in the next election, there is a possibility that no one would be elected. Which is a problem because you lose access to the media; and in fact when they left the PT to found PSoL they already lost a lot of access to the media that they had before. So there is a possibility that there could be an eclipse of the far left in Brazilian politics. This already exists but it could become further aggravated after the next general election in 2006.  It is hard to predict how the left will emerge out of this in the adverse political and economic circumstances.

Andy: >  So you are saying that PSoL exists, so it needs to be supported. But the real way forward for the Brazilian left is to try to engage with militant trade unionists and the active social movements? And to try and build up a new dialogue about what sort of organisation is needed?

Alfredo: > I think so yes. This is very far from a recipe for the left, it is more a collection of preoccupations that I have. But simply to believe that founding a new party will resolve the problems of the left, and that you can recreate the PT,  25 years after the first foundation of the PT, this is impossible. The material conditions of the working class in Brazil, and the international conditions under which the PT flourished are not present any more.

Andy: >  It seems that on a continental basis there is a shift to the left in Latin America? Not so long ago most of the governments in South America were right wing, and that is no longer the case. Does that reflect a general popular mood - a rejection of neo-liberalism?

Alfredo: > I think it reflects a popular mood, it reflects a political exhaustion of neo-liberalism. At the beginning of the 1990s neo-liberalism was absolutely hegemonic and there was no space to talk about anything else. Now it is very clear that neo-liberalism is unable to deliver what it originally promised. Now the difficulty is twofold. One is that the political exhaustion of neo-liberalism and its political rejection across Latin America have not been matched by a shift in economic policy in most countries. So there is a tension between the discourse and what is happening on the ground. One of the symptoms of this tension is the repeated election across the continent of government that are supposed to be alternatives to neo-liberalism, and when they achieve power they implement a neo-liberal programme. This is not simply an issue of the majority of the population or electorate being fooled, but it also raises a question about the relationship between political democracy and economic democracy, which is potentially a very serious source of tension in these countries.  Another aspect of this difficulty is that the implementation of neo-liberalism has created the material basis upon which neo-liberalism reproduces itself. Neo-liberalism starts always from the state - the state takes the initiative to change institutional arrangements with the support of international capital and the diplomatic bourgeoisie, and so on. Once you have liberalised trade, privatised the state enterprise, changed the trade union laws, etc. it becomes very difficult to prevent neo-liberalism from reproducing itself over time. That is the material basis for the continuation of the regime. How you undercut that and how you shift the political and economic status quo is very difficult to know, and it has not been achieved in most of Latin America. These tensions remain, in Argentina most clearly, but in Brazil as well.

Andy: >  It seems the situation is complex, but surely there is an element of hope that neo-liberalism is discredited and there are no longer military regimes, who in the past were killing activists in their thousands? A space has opened for the left, but at the moment we do not have the political, organisational and ideological tools to grasp the opportunities open to us?

Alfredo: > This is true, it is a question of organisation and ideology, but there is an underlying problem that people are afraid, people are disoriented and afraid of getting involved in politics, no longer because they will be shot, but because they will lose their jobs. Their economic needs are pressing, real wages have declined in Latin America over the last 20 or 25 years and that imposes additional hours of work, and forces more members of the family into work, at the same time that unemployment is rising. The economic tensions within the household that are generated by this type of economic organisation founded on neo-liberalism, this is extremely bad for political organisation and political militancy. And then of course, in the inability of the political system to respond to the concerns of the majority breeds lack of hope, lack of hope that political participation can lead anywhere. And this is one of the consequences of the election of the PT in Brazil, the disappointment caused by the decision of the PT not to do anything about neo-liberalism, but to continue implementing a neo-liberal programme. A large number of the supporters of the PT have abandoned political participation and political militancy altogether, because politics doesn't help, if it doesn't do anything for you then why waste your time going to meetings or doing this or that. This is terrible, there is a whole generation of activists who are disillusioned at a number of levels; from shop floor trade union activist right up to some relatively prominent political activists as well. This is quite similar to what happened in South Africa ten years ago. It is a generational problem; it is very difficult to persuade these activists to come back to political militancy. If you cannot do that - which I think you really cannot - then it is a question of creating a new generation of activists which is a process that takes a long time.

Andy: >  You talk of people dropping out of political activity, does that also affect trade union organisation at the shop floor?

Alfredo: > Yes it does. Shop floor organisation is much weaker than it was a few years ago, because of unemployment, lower wages, disillusionment, etc. It is much more diffuse, much more diluted. One element that is collateral to this is the disillusion of the progressive Catholic Church in Brazil. the progressive Catholic Church had a number of base organisations in which community activists would sit down and discuss local problems, national and international problems. that played a very important role in the process of emergence from the period of the military dictatorship in the late 1970s, and these foundations do not exist any more. The hierarchy of the church captained by the pope in Rome, have been very determined that they would destroy the progressive church in Brazil, and they have by and large succeeded, and that is another level of the popular movement that has been neutralised, from the point of view of the right.

Andy: >  So how do you account for the relatively large number who have been participating in the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre?

Alfredo: > That is enthusiasm, enthusiasm for left ideals, and enthusiasm for the search for alternatives. But these are to a large extent disorganised social groups and social movements. Now when I say disorganised I mean disorganised by the standards of Brazil a few years ago. We have much greater resources, and a much greater level of political understanding and participation and experience than the left in many other countries. The Brazilian left has existed and has fought and struggled and got to organise many years ago, it has been relatively large for a long time, and it hasn't been destroyed. Whereas in Argentina for example the left has been disarticulated, the left in Chile has been physically destroyed. So there is still a large left on Brazil, but it is much smaller than it used to be, and also profoundly disoriented.

Andy: >  So the situation is not a happy one, but it is not a desperate one either?

Alfredo: > No, No, It is not desperate. There is a search for alternatives; people are alert to the problems. And the reaction has been very quick to the disappointment caused by the shift of the PT. If you look at other experiences of left wing parties coming to power and implementing right wing policies, in many cases this has been a complete tragedy for the left and led to their complete destruction. It took 10 years, 20 years for the left to even understand what was going on. In contrast the left in Brazil has reacted very quickly. And there is still a large number of left wing militants around the country, and people with left wing ideals. One of the characteristics of Brazil of course is that inequality is very much in your face. You can see wealth and you can see poverty immediately. It is staring at you. And that creates an immediate ethical appeal for socialist ideals and an imperative to search for an alternative to the politics of neo-liberalism. The same is not true everywhere. That is not to say that inequality will always lead to a socialist feeling among large numbers of people. But in Brazil it has worked in this way. You have to build on the basis of what you have got, and try to do the best you can under those circumstances; and there are reasons for hope. Very serious reasons for worry, but also reasons for hope for the left in Brazil.

 

 

February 2005

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Further reading:
 
PSoL
 
Left debates new party
 
Interview with PSoL deputy Baba
 
A new beginning for the Brazilian left?
 
Statement by Socialist Democracy Tendency
in PT
 
Interview with Heloisa Helena
 
ISG statement on Brazil
 
DS member of PT elected mayor
 
Brazil in the eye of
the storm
 
A continent rocked by new forces

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