English Τεύχος #11

Brazil: An Order Against Progress

There is something in Brazil Apart that goes way beyond Brazil. Anderson’s magisterial reconstruction of the country’s contemporary political history posits the reader, in a simple yet subtle manner, against a series of critical issues as to the strategy of social movements and the political left the world over; the precarious balance between realism and conformity; the advantages and pitfalls of charismatic leadership; the risky trade-off between a superficial but immediate accommodation of pressing social needs, on the one hand, and slow-moving structural change, on the other. These are political fault lines that need to be approached considerately and explain Anderson’s measured concluding remarks with regards to Lula and his tenure.

Brazil Apart:1964–2019
Perry Anderson
London; New York Verso 2019

The recent anti-quarantine protests instigated across Brazil by Jair Bolsonaro’s persistent indifference to the realities of the pandemic have once more put the country and its erratic president in the spotlight. As excavators worked overtime in Sao Paolo’s Vila Formosa cemetery, in anticipation of a death rate spike in Brazil’s most populous city, Bolsonaro not only fired his Health Minister but went on a full-out confrontation with regional governors that pushed for more comprehensive measures in response to the crisis. Such was his recklessness with regards to the virus management that by early April there were even rumours circulating in the web that the Brazilian Army is contemplating with the idea of a soft-coup to avert things from spiralling out of control. For long-time critics amid the Brazilian opposition and pragmatists within his own camp, his current ineptitude has been a cause of alarm but not of surprise. In the course of his decades-long political career Bolsonaro has changed party affiliations more than 9 times and has been infamous for his inability to articulate a stable and sound political agenda on most issues of substance. His only enduring political trace is his raw and flaunty reactionary authoritarianism. An outspoken advocate of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964–1985) and an amateur putschist himself, he has repeatedly made news with his sexist, racist, homophobic and conspiracy-prone remarks. Something that brings us head-on to the following questions.

How is it that such a man came to preside over the biggest country in South America; an emerging global power until a few years back and a beacon of social and political progressivism in the continent for much of the 2000s? What is the underlying structure of the Brazilian political system and what are the societal contradictions that laid the ground for such a reactionary current to take shape and dominate the country’s political scene? Seeking for answers we turn to Perry Anderson’s latest work, Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, published by Verso in September 2019.  The book is, in reality, a collection of essays written by the author for the London Review of Books between November 1994 and February 2019. Compilations of that sort usually lack internal coherence and thus do not make for highly stimulating reads. This is definitely not the case here. Following Anderson’s argumentation at different points in time enables the reader not only to evaluate better the validity of certain diagnoses and predictions but also to grasp the prevailing mood, the political atmosphere, of each given period.

The post-dictatorship consensus

As is many times the case with contemporary accounts of Brazil’s political history, Anderson’s starting point is the guided transition to democracy in the mid-80s. The military not only safeguarded its amnesty for years to come but made sure that the incremental democratization that took place would not challenge the country’s underlying power structures; radicalism needed to be curtailed and the masses to remain at the margins.[1] The predominance of centrist and, in most cases, ideologically amorphous political formations from the mid 1980s to the 2000s is a clear manifestation of that, as is the trajectory of Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Brazil’s president from 1995 to 2002 and patriarch of the country’s ‘modernization’ milieu. An acclaimed academic and communist in his early years, Cardoso was elected senator in 1986 on the PMDB ticket and two years later left the party to join the newly founded PSDB.[2] By now he had come close to euro-socialism and perceived his new home to be a potential equivalent of Mitterand’s Parti Socialiste; a modernizing force able to bridge the interests of an aggressively emerging financial capitalism with the egalitarian principles of social-democracy. In the long-run this was an unattainable goal. While in office, Cardoso -like many of his contemporary socialists in Europe- enacted a series of policies that were of socio-liberal rather than social-democratic nature (e.g. extensive privatizations, market deregulation, etc). True that as it may be, his ability to curb hyperinflation and implement measures that alleviated extreme poverty and illiteracy gave credit to his modernizing profile and underpinned his landslide victories against Lula in the presidential elections of 1994 and 1998.

In a certain sense Cardoso was indeed a modernizer or at least tried to be. In his two tenures, he attempted to curtail corruption and increase the efficiency of the civil service. Developments that progressively weakened both the grip of the North-East oligarchy on the state apparatus and its clientelistic networks. These dynamics are not missed by Anderson but are critically framed. The economic orthodoxy of the Cardoso presidency increased the country’s dependency on the mechanisms of the Washington Consensus and after the down-turn of 1998 led to skyrocketing unemployment and an accelerated crisis of representation. In a similar vein, his attempted overhaul of the state apparatus aimed to create a more ‘favourable’ environment for the economic activities of the middle class and the big capital rather than to initiate wider socio-economic and political transformations. Simply put, his modernization endeavour was confined within the limits of liberal economic orthodoxy and the post-dictatorship social contract. An observation that relates not only to his policies but also to his way of doing politics, i.e. heavy reliance on big media conglomerates, backdoor agreements in Congress, absence of an organized social base, rapprochement with Brazil’s ‘deep-state’ power nexuses (e.g. his alliance with the PFL, a party with strong connections with the military regime).[3]

Lula da Silva and the rise of PT

In this regard, Anderson is convincing when stating that in the face of Fernando Henrique -as Cardoso is colloquially referred to- the Brazilian establishment found a man that “could be trusted as a barrier against Lula”;[4] that is to say as a barrier against radicalism and any serious challenge to the status quo. However, from this point onwards, his narrative becomes less clear cut and more intriguing. Constitutional requirements and a rather troublesome second tenure prevented Cardoso from contesting the 2002 presidential elections and paved the way for Lula’s landslide victory against Jose Serra; another PSDB member and Minister of Health from 1998 to 2002. In many ways, Lula da Silva was the exact opposite of his predecessor. Born to an almost penniless family from the North-East backlands and lacking any academic credentials, he spend years as a trade-unionist in the steel industry before climbing up the ranks of PT. In and of itself this made him a political outlier vis-à-vis the political establishment and combined with his charisma allowed him to captivate the imagination of broad segments of the populace amid the informal sector, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie. However, to infer political radicalism out of his personal trajectory is highly misleading; a mistake that Anderson himself is cautious to avoid.

Riding the wave of high commodity prices for the best part of the 2000s, Lula indeed undertook a series of auspicious social and economic projects, such as Fome Zero, Bolsa Familia and the PAC.[5] Initiatives that alleviated millions of Brazilians out of poverty, drastically reduced social inequalities and underpinned the country’s rapid economic development. In the timespan of eight years, Brazil was transformed from a big but geopolitically insignificant country to a leading peripheral power with global ambitions. By all accounts and measures this is no small feat and explains Lula’s enduring popularity to the present day. It also explains Anderson’s ambiguity as to the assessment of the man and his tenure. For the povão, the broad masses of the Brazilian poor, Lula’s presidency opened up a new horizon of expectations both in symbolic and material terms. This is hard to deny. Equally hard, though, is to overlook the ample continuities that his agenda shared with that of his predecessor.

Many of Lula’s programs, including the ones mentioned above, were built upon initiatives first introduced by Cardoso. The same holds true for his overall economic and developmental approach. The dominance of financial capital was never challenged, the labour code remained by and large the same,[6] fiscal policy remained confined to liberal economic orthodoxy. Lula never experimented neither with the heterodox economics nor with the grass-roots social-mobilization processes that characterized the governments of Chávez, Correa or even the Kirchners in Argentina. The only evident departure from the established consensus was his foreign policy. Unlike any of his predecessors, Lula envisioned Brazil as an independent actor in the world stage rather than a privileged interlocutor of U.S.’s regional strategy. This was important both for the emergence of a multipolar world order in the conjuncture of the late 2000s (e.g. BRICS) and the establishment of regional integration mechanisms that were antagonistic to U.S. interests (e.g. UNASUR).

By far the most consequential feature of Lula’s presidency, though, and to a great extent the actual measure of its legacy was its positioning with regards to the established way of doing politics in the country. Leading what Anderson describes as “Brazil’s first -and still only- modern political party”,[7] i.e. a true mass party “that was more than a collection of regional notables and their underlings”,[8] Lula had the ability to combine top-down reforms with grass-roots mobilization so as to enhance civil society organizations, increase popular self-confidence and challenge the deep-rooted networks of patronage upon which rested the power of the ‘traditional’ political elite. This was never to happen. Anderson’s explanation as to why this was the case revolves  around two main arguments; the one focusing on the institutional set up of the political system and the other on Lula’s own political strategy.

Brazil’s constitution ascribes such powers to the president that in conjunction with its strong federalism make for a weak and highly fragmented party system. In this context, control of the congress is conditioned on Byzantine -and usually opportunistic- agreements either with the two principal parties of the establishment (i.e. PMDB and PSDB) or with the large pool of small political formations representing sectoral interests and local power nexuses. Trying to avoid the political repercussions of an alliance with the former, Lula initially opted for a grand coalition with the latter. But this was only possible if remittances were on offer; in other words, corruption. PT secured majorities through an elaborate system of backdoor payments that came to be known as the mensalão. A system that once revealed consumed much of the party’s political capital and led it straight to the arms of its nemesis; the PMDB. Instead of challenging the established order PT was soon consumed by it, undergoing a process of rapid ideologico-political deformation. Ex-exiles and guerrillas, such as Dirceu and Genoino, became intermediaries to payroll schemes and by the end of Lula’s second tenure, over a quarter of the congressmen in both Houses were under criminal indictment or facing charges. Institutional constrains were not the only dynamic at play here. Boosted by the economic boom of the 2000s, Lula saw an opportunity to affect meaningful and immediate change in the life of millions without challenging the power equilibriums underpinning the political system. He seized the moment but the conditions that allowed that to happen were conjunctural and the social gains thus achieved rather ephemeral. When the global economic crisis hit Brazil, PT was past its prime, bogged down by a series of scandals, with its ideological clout curtailed and its once vibrant social base being in a state of inertia.

From Rousseff to Bolsonaro

These were the conditions under which Rousseff assumed the presidency in early 2011. Trying to mitigate the impact of the crisis and safeguard the social gains hitherto achieved, she set forth a stronger version of reformism. Anderson, following André Singer, outlines two elements as its main features: developmentalism and republicanism. The first denoting greater state intervention in the economy, in an attempt to boost domestic industry and curtail the influence of financial capital, and the second an attempt to curb the grip of clientelistic networks through an anti-corruption drive. The accumulated effect was the collapse of Lula’s entente with the established power nexuses and a protracted war of attrition. By the time of her second tenure (2014-2016), Rousseff had not only backtracked on her strategy but resorted to a full-blown neoliberal turn that undercut her social support.[9] Her downfall was only a matter of time.

At this point Anderson’s narrative deviates from that of Singer and much of the Brazilian left that charge Rousseff not only for her policy about-turn but also a series of fatal political mistakes in the run up to her impeachment; first and foremost, her unwillingness to heed Lula’s advice to reach an agreement with Eduardo Cunha,[10] the PMDB affiliated Head of the Chamber of Deputies. A back-door deal of that kind would have alleviated some pressure in the sort-term but deliver a fatal blow to PT’s moral standing. This was a trade-off that neither she nor the party leadership were willing to accept. In a similar vein, Anderson is rather lenient as to her handling of the economy. The sharp decline of commodity prices rendered Lula’s socio-economic management unfeasible, while PT’s deformation –its key features being the detachment of its leadership from the party’s social  basis and its assimilation to the machinations of the status-quo forces– hindered her ability to tilt the scales leftwards, either through a decisive political intervention from the top or social mobilization from the bottom. In this regard, her ill-fated neoliberal turn was primarily dictated by ‘structural’ constraints rather than political mismanagement or lack of conviction.[11] Had Lula been in her place -with all his charisma and political capital-  when the Lava Jato scandal unfolded, he may not have been a sitting duck, as she was, but it’s highly unlikely that the outcome would be markedly different.

Lava Jato was the code name of a criminal investigation over embezzlement, money laundering and political corruption centring on Petrobras, Brazil’s semi-public oil company. It was spearheaded by Sérgio Moro, a politically ambitious judge that subsequently joined Bolsonaro’s cabinet as minister of justice. Supported by vested interests and big media conglomerates, such as the Globo empire, Moro transformed the case into the biggest political scandal in the country’s history and blazed the trail that finally led to the impeachment of Rousseff and Lula’s imprisonment.[12] In this toxic environment of economic recession and widespread political corruption, large segments of the povão and the middle class felt disoriented and feared as to the country’s trajectory and their own standard of living. In due course, this morphed into a kind of moral panic or in Anderson’s words “a desperate desire for order”.[13]  The meteoric rise of Jair Bolsonaro from the backbenches of the Chamber of Deputies to the presidency is a symptom of this dynamic. His idiosyncratic authoritarianism and his total contempt for anything seemingly close to political correctness created the impression of a strong-man able to break with formalities and deliver the country back to stability.

This quest for order at all costs that Bolsonaro came to embody is by itself a dangerous phenomenon; a clear sign of democratic decay. However, what makes it truly regressive in today’s context is the underlying transformations of the political system within which it took shape and gained prominence. According to Anderson, by far the most significant of them were the “political rehabilitation and re-entry onto the political system of the military”.[14] Taking full advantage of PT’s decline, the Brazilian army not only turned the screws against Lula but made sure to secure key positions in Bolsonaro’s cabinet; currently one of the most heavily ‘militarized’ administrations the world over.[15] For Anderson, the responsibility for such an assertive reappearance of Brazil’s deep-state structures lies squarely with the PT. This is so for two main reasons: a) the party’s assimilation to the established power nexuses through a process -namely corruption- that irreparably discredited the political class and b) Lula’s handling of MINUSTAH; the United Nations Stabilization Mission send to Haiti in 2004 after the US-orchestrated removal of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s democratically elected president. Under Lula’s oversight, the Brazilian army assumed the effective command of MINUSTAH forces, underwent a wide-ranging modernization and re-acquainted itself with the tasks of civilian administration. In other words, it learned how to operate as a shadow government. Equally important, and this is something that is underplayed by Anderson, Rousseff assigned policing functions to the military in the course of the 2014 World Cup in a move that not only legitimized military presence in urban environments but also invested the military high-command with political capital.[16]  Hence, once the Lava Jato scandal hit PT with force, it was time for the generals to seize the moment.[17]

In this regard, what is happening today in Brazil is not the emergence of a neo-fascist regime but rather a reactionary reaffirmation of the authority of the established power bloc under the cover of an ideologically incoherent and organizationally weak far-right current. Shall Bolsonaro being impeached at some point under the weight of his incompetence, the presidency will fall on the hands of general Hamilton Mourão, the country’s vice-president. If that happens, Anderson argues, “the parabola of 1964 would have come to a yet more perfect landing”.[18] Today this seems more than a mere possibility. On the 25th of April, Sérgio Moro resigned from the cabinet on the basis of Bolsonaro’s decision to fire the federal police chief. A move that was widely perceived as an attempt to meddle with the investigation over the murder of activist and councilwoman Marielle Franco[19] in which members of the president’s family seem to be involved. How far this investigation will go and what contradictions does Moro’s resignation reveal is yet hard to tell. It seems, though, that with the left still being in disarray Bolsonaro’s looming failure will only strengthen the hand and autonomy of power centres outside of the political system, in the strict sense of the term. The post-democratic order, i.e. the progressive debilitation of national democratic institutions under the multifaceted pressure of globalized financial capitalism, may thus effectively coalesce with the pre-democratic one, i.e. the deep-state structures, to make a fig leaf out of Brazilian democracy.

Brazil as a paradigm and a metaphor

That being said, it seems to us that there is something in Brazil Apart that goes way beyond Brazil. Anderson’s magisterial reconstruction of the country’s contemporary political history posits the reader, in a simple yet subtle manner, against a series of critical issues as to the strategy of social movements and the political left the world over; the precarious balance between realism and conformity; the advantages and pitfalls of charismatic leadership; the risky trade-off between a superficial but immediate accommodation of pressing social needs, on the one hand, and slow-moving structural change, on the other. These are political fault lines that need to be approached considerately and explain Anderson’s measured concluding remarks with regards to Lula and his tenure. The latter, he contends,  remains PT’s “most important political asset; yet now one in danger of becoming, almost equally a liability”.[20] Lula still commands unparalleled loyalty both within and outside of his party due to his ability to deliver tangible results as to the opportunities, the rights and the standards of living of the subaltern classes. This, however, was made possible by a strategy of co-optation of the established power nexuses; a kind of modus vivendi that could not but hinder long-term structural reforms. Was that really necessary? Wasn’t there an alternative course of action, a different method to the same ends? These are counterfactuals that cannot be answered in the affirmative. Had Lula and the PT opted for a direct clash with the status-quo, it is likely that Brazil would have spent the commodity boom years bogged down by a political crisis. In a similar vein, it is unquestionable to argue that Lula was wrong for not mobilizing the social base of the PT in support of more thorough reforms on welfare, labour rights and the reform of the country’s developmental model, but this does not necessarily mean that the outcome would be different if he had acted differently. Recent developments in Bolivia and Ecuador are quite telling, in this regard. Even in Venezuela, the country that had initiated the most auspicious social reforms during the 2000s, the socio-economic situation today is rather dire. PSUV is, of course, still in power but at the cost of ever growing polarization, a dysfunctional parliamentarian system and a heavily ‘militarized’ cabinet. Does this mean that between the pitfalls of political radicalism and the perils of ‘weak’ reformism there can only lie the virtue of a supposedly ‘strong’ reformism? Definitely not. It means, though, that time, opportunities and pressing social needs are of the essence and do not necessarily follow the political imagination or the strategies of the left. For those that devote themselves to the cause of a different, more just, society the road is always, up to a certain extent, unknown and history is no more than an incomplete guide. In this regard, Anderson’s concluding remark in chapter five is of particular value: “The Left has always been inclined to make predictions of its preferences. It would be an error to count on defeat self-correcting itself with time”.[21]


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