Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Ten Points about Brazilian Politics

Some quick thoughts about what's happening in Brazil.

1. Polling 46% is extremely rare for a hard right populist outfit, and tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Not even the Nazis managed this feat in their crooked March 1933 election. The question then is whether support for this kind of politics is about to enter a new dangerous phase, or is something proper to Brazil that doesn't travel beyond its borders.

2. The Brazilian economy has had a trying time. Like most major countries Brazil took a hit over the course of the crash but it bounded back very strongly. GDP was in negative territory only for the last three quarters of 2009 and by the second quarter of 2010 it already managed to climb above its pre-crisis peak. However, in 2014 economic activity collapsed and unemployment doubled from just under seven per cent to just shy of 13% by 2017. While the recession was sharp, growth - albeit more anaemic - has resumed and unemployment is falling more slowly.

3. The Brazilian economy's rapid expansion in the 00s was not of the same order as India and China's, despite often being bracketed with them. At an average GDP growth rate of 3.3%, it compares favourably with the decades immediately before and after, but is feeble vis Brazil's own post-war boom that saw average growth rates in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s of 7%, 6% and 9% respectively. Nevertheless, there was a real erosion of poverty with the incomes of the poorest increasing at a rate faster than the rest of the population.

4. This latter period of growth was overseen by the Workers' Party, which grew up in opposition to Brazil's military dictatorship. Unfortunately, like social democratic and official socialist parties elsewhere its economic programme was thoroughly neoliberal. Free capital flows, operational independence of the central bank, and prudent public expenditure. Where have we heard this story before? Accompanying the first term in office was public sector pension reform and putting up indirect taxes, hitting modest incomes the hardest. However, like Britain deepening the neoliberal infrastructure went along with some investment in public services and social security. In the PT's second period office we saw a lurch to a more hands-on industrial strategy with funds put into state-led programmes of housing, road and rail building, port expansion and electrification while, again, leaving markets supreme. This, if you like, was Brazil's 'Milibandist' phase. Then, latterly, with the third term and as recession started biting there was a retrenchment of neoliberalism - profit taking brought deindustrialisation, and state-led development was curtailed.

5. The 2014 crisis destroyed the PT's reputation for economic competence. But it was more than just the fact of crisis itself. Like all the other recent disastrous experiences social democratic and labour parties have had in presiding over the neoliberalisation of their economies, such as France's Socialists and The Netherlands, the pursuit of market fundamentalist policies always results in the same: the political immiseration of the constituent base of workers' parties. In the PT's case, what was a movement of opposition became part of the apparatus of governance. The anti-establishment became the new establishment, and the PT actively worked to demobilise its support as financialisation and privatisation did the rest. Unfortunately, like the old establishment too many sections of the PT became inured to the perks of position, which in Brazil means egregious corruption. A case of looking from pig to man, and from man to pig ...

6. Never let a good crisis go to waste, and since the PT's Dilma Rousseff was turned out of office in the 'constitutional' coup in 2016, the presidency was taken up by Michel Temer of the Brazilian Democratic Movement. Policy-wise it was the same old same old - cut public spending, curb workers' rights, attack pensions, and go on a privatisation spree of the infrastructure built up during the PT government.

7. According to our old muckers Deleuze and Guattari, capitalism is characterised by smooth and striated spaces. What this means is, in the first instance, social flows are unfixed, rapid, disembedded, decoded. In the second social relationships are pinned down, structured, manipulated, repressed. To simplify them, corresponding to the former are the dynamic movements of the economy, the latter the stabilisation of class relationships by the state. The move from neoliberalism to developmental neoliberalism and back again are simultaneously shifts in the politics of class management. Economic growth followed by an industrial strategy sucked in more labour, subjecting them to the striated space of the work place. But downturn and "freeing" the economy evacuated millions of people from employment and subjected them to the smooth space of dislocation: the radical uncertainty of joblessness and a collapse in incomes.

8. The relative absence of the solidarities the PT grew up out of, the association of the PT with corruption and economic incompetence, and their consequent implosion in the first round of the presidential elections leaves the scene convulsed by crisis but without a credible pro-worker alternative capable of filling the void.

9. Any political conjuncture marked by uncertainty begets a yearning for fixity, a striated space of ontological security and knowing one's place. And all too often it assumes authoritarian forms - as we've seen enough in Europe. Jair Bolsonaro is little different from the demagogues that have rode to popular attention elsewhere. His programme - reasserting fragile masculinity in face of the growing political strength of women, attacking gay people and non-straight sexualities, attacking ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, singing the praises of the old junta, threatening bloody violence - appeal to petit bourgeois people, the millions lumpenised by recession, the posh constituencies who found the PT's "inclusivity" too much to bear, the land owners worried the PT could always come for their property, and significant sections of the bourgeoisie whose interests are bound up with seeing neoliberalism through. Here we have a toxic coalition of the usual material who comprise fascist formations, exacerbated by social dislocation and significant numbers of bourgeois party voters (centrist and conservative) falling in behind Bolsonaro as an anyone-but-the-PT candidate and a promise to "restore order". Even if that order means curtailments of democracy and a return of state-sanctioned torture.

10. Brazil is the eye of a perfect storm for a far right breakthrough. The sorts of difficulties contributing to Bolsonaro's rise are not unique to Brazil, but how they have fallen together are. We've seen centre left collapses in Europe but these have mostly been well after the crisis point of the economic crash. In Brazil, growth might be back but unemployment is still incredibly large - a particularly fortuitous moment for an ambitious rabble rouser like Bolsonaro. But what Brazil has that we haven't seen elsewhere, except in the US and Hungary, is a collapsing of traditional bourgeois politics into the far right train. Despite serving their interests faithfully in 13 years of government, significant sections of business - an alliance of mostly landed interests and those tied up with finance and the internationalisation of capital - would rather see a violent and threatening authoritarian in power than the mildest of social democratic governments. That underlines the political bankruptcy of the Brazilian ruing class, but comes as a warning to the rest of us. If they can, the rich and powerful elites of Western nations could more than live with such a political settlement.


Anonymous said...

This is a fine enough post, but I don't think you fully appreciate just how bad an extreme-right Brazil has been for global social democracy, and how bad a quasi-fascist Brazil could be. Remember that Brazil was the first Latin American country to go the Pinochet route.

In other words, I'm calling for panic, I suppose.

Phil said...

Yes, it's certainly a qualitative break through that will help normalise this kind of politics further. Reaction everywhere is going to draw strength from this.

Re: the 10 points, as someone has pointed out on Facebook I have missed out soaring crime. This has to be properly considered too.

Tmb said...

We haven't really seen the left collapse, it has merely been infiltrated by fake privileged 'lefties' who have undermined working class left politics and so emboldened the right. This has been done purposefully to create a hard right global neoliberal economy, that benefits the very wealthy and the affluent middle class. The danger of course is that as the right have been emboldened by a purposefully fractured left, there has been a rise in some places of right wing parties that are getting votes, more because people are disillusioned with the whole political system and economic system than because of a real belief in right wing politics.

We live in an age sheisters, crooks, the unprincipled and political pygmies, and the more unprincipled and money oriented they are, the higher they rise.

Jill said...

It would seem to me that the UK result must to a certain extent rely on finding a way to educate - and pluck an unselfish, responsible media out of the Hat of Truth. There are enough people who would to wish it to be done. Are there, however, enough potentially unselfish, fearless and honest journalists willing to stand tall, wearing and talking through such a revolutionary hat; and to be recognised -even lauded - for their achievement?


1729torus said...

Because of geography, Brazil has problems with infrastructure and inflation. Any economic growth can result in roads becoming clogged with trucks etc and so on. If you look at pictures of Rio de Janerio, you can see that it literally has no space to grow because of cliffs.

So a hard money policy can be defended from a leftwing perspective if the aim is to protect people on lower incomes from price rises.

The same factors resulted in Brazil being dominated by low-productivity and economic inequality.

Blissex said...

«Are there, however, enough potentially unselfish, fearless and honest journalists willing to stand tall, wearing and talking through such a revolutionary hat; and to be recognised -even lauded - for their achievement?»

Rather than recognise them and laud them, are you willing to pay their salaries?

The big business and property interests are very willing to do that, because who pays the piper calls the tunes.

If enough less rich people were willing to pay a little each to get good journalism it would be nice, but recognition and lauds don't support a family...

Blissex said...

«If they can, the rich and powerful elites of Western nations could more than live with such a political settlement.»

That's exactly what happened in Italy with Mussolini and in Spain with Franco and in Chile with Pinochet. So indeed.

The political problem is that the right has created a strong alliance between upper class property and business rentiers, and upper-middle and some middle class property rentiers, and at the same time infiltrated the parties of workers/proletarians with upper-middle class allies. That alliance is indeed usually the bedrock of authoritarian and fascist regimes.

What can the middle and lower classes do to break that alliance? The political problem of mass rentierism is not something that the "left" has very much confronted.
G Radice used to talk about "southern discomfort", but the lesson the mandelsonians drew from thinking about mass rentierism is that New Labour should become "quasi-Conservative" and champion the “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”.

Is there an alternative?

Tmb said...

There is always an alternative.