FÓRUM || A longa crise brasileira - Historical Materialism

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The Long Brazilian Crisis: A Forum
Edited and Introduced by Juan Grigera and Jeffery R. Webber. Contributors: Ludmila Abilio, Ricardo Antunes, Marcelo Badaró Mattos, Sabrina Fernandes, Rodrigo Nunes, Leda Paulani, and Sean Purdy.
Brazil has returned to world headlines. This time because Jair Bolsonaro, a grotesque and until now marginal, far-right politician, won 55.7 percent of the vote in the second round general elections in October 2018. Perhaps most striking about this latest triumph of reaction is that it took place in the world’s fifth largest country by area and population, and sixth largest economy. What is more, Bolsonaro’s ascent comes on the heels of 14 years of rule by the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) – one of the most mature and institutionalized social democratic parties of the twenty-first century. With this symposium, Historical materialism historically and theoretically situates the current Brazilian conjuncture and contributes to the debate within the left on the international impact of these events, inviting further reflection on the moment of danger opening up before us.
[Jair Bolsonaro]Jair Bolsonaro
The victory of Bolsonaro brings to a close a series of political manoeuvers and manipulations by the Brazilian right and centre, designed to reverse the modestly reformist legacy of the PT government, and particularly the two administrations of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula (2003-2010).  The parliamentary coup of 2016, which ousted Lula’s presidential successor, Dilma Rousseff, or Dilma (also of the PT), was the inaugural act of this retrogressive drama, allowing Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice-president-turned-foe, to step in as placeholder president until the latest elections. 
During the 2018 campaign, Lula once again assumed the mantle of the PT’s leadership and was leading the polls by a significant margin when arrested and imprisoned under dubious charges of corruption. Lula had lost the support of the Brazilian ruling class as far back as the popular uprising of June 2013, which was catalysed initially by left-wing social movements fighting transit tariff increases and the redirection of public revenue toward the World Cup and away from social services, but was eventually captured by conservative political forces and their allies in the mainstream media. Fragmentary political forces on the right and centre managed to cohere behind a shared banner of anti-corruption, an old card of the traditional Brazilian elite, played repeatedly throughout the late-twentieth century; the US-backed military removal of João Goulart in 1964 was, for example, a dress rehearsal in this sense for the impeachment of Dilma and the jailing of Lula. The straightforwardly political character of the judiciary’s bold move against Lula was but the latest and most lucid exhibition of the extraordinary – if temporary – unity achieved by the Brazilian ruling class in its collective opposition to any renewal of Lula’s PT. 
While Lula himself remained popular even after his incarceration, support for the PT had been in decline for years. The party was simultaneously unable and unwilling to mobilize extra-parliamentary forces to counter the extra-constitutional tactics of a reinvigorated Brazilian right. The ruling party between 2002 and 2015, the PT had long since departed from its trade unionist and social movement origins. Indeed, its decade and a half in government witnessed the debilitation of independent class struggle form below, including even the demobilization of social movements closely allied with the PT, such as the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (Movimiento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, MST) and the Unified Workers’ Central (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, CUT).
The seemingly precipitous breakdown of the twenty-first century’s posterchild for social democratic viability had, in fact, been some time in the making. Its unravelling began somewhere between 2012 and 2013. The first crack was economic, as the international environment deteriorated in the slow wake of the global crisis of 2008, which reached Brazilian shores in 2012 via the collapse in international commodity prices. In the midst of those deteriorating conditions, Dilma marked the beginning of her second term in office with the appointment of a neoliberal banker, Joaquim Levy, to the finance ministry. The party’s wager that it could survive the implementation of austerity measures was ill-conceived, inducing as it did the dual alienation of its erstwhile social base among the popular classes – who witnessed the livelihood gains of the last decade being clawed back –  and of foreign and domestic capital – which had learned to live with the PT while it was profitable to do so, but which saw Dilma’s monetarist turn as encompassing too little, too late.  The second fissure was political. Here, the aforementioned rebellions of 2013 drove a further wedge between the PT and the popular class forces which were behind the relatively spontaneous expression of growing discontent, while at the same time providing an opportunity for right-wing rearticulation.
The social struggles engulfing Brazilian political life in recent years are unlikely to recede under Bolsonaro’s watch. The spiral of legitimacy crises that undermined PT rule remained visible, indeed intensified, during Temer’s short-lived, conservative interregnum. At one point, Temer’s popularity rating fell to two percent. Bolsonaro is unlikely to be able to resolve the underlying socio-economic and political determinants of widespread popular disillusionment with the country’s politicians and established institutions. His hysteric association of the PT with ‘communism’ has proved to be temporarily effective, but he has neither a political strategy for governance, nor a means of reviving the Brazilian economy in the midst of worsening stagnation at the global level.  
This forum brings together six leading intellectuals, representing a variety of left traditions, with unique perspectives on the principal social forces behind the Brazilian crises and its key tensions and synergies. Our conversation focuses on the contradictions and complexities of the PT era, the impact of the 2008 crisis and the end of the cycle of the commodity boom in 2012, on how to interpret the political dynamics of the June 2013 protests, on the weakness of the movements to the left of the PT, on how to understand and approach corruption from the left, and on how to explain and characterise Bolsonaro’s regime. While it is impossible to present the full spectrum of Marxist debate on such questions, the contributions included here bring to light some of the crucial insights and controversies that are relevant not just to Brazil, or even Latin America, but to left politics worldwide.
Brief Timeline
· 2003-2011: Lula’s two terms in office
· 2010: Dilma Rousseff elected president, confirming PT's success with a third term under a new leader
·  2012: For most Latin American countries including Brazil the exceptional terms of trade that began in 2002-2003 start to decline or revert to levels previous to the boom
·  2013: In June a protest against increases in transport prices in São Paulo led to coordinated massive demonstrations in all major cities of Brazil with a broader agenda
·  2014: Dilma was re-elected with a platform against neoliberalism winning a tight race against Aécio Neves of the PSDB. During Dilma’s inauguration she appointed Joaquim Levy, a neoliberal economist, as Finance Minister in what was perceived as a betrayal of her electoral campaign
·  2015: Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), an judicial investigation into a mega corruption scheme involving Petrobras, the state owned oil company, loomed large in Brazilian politics
·  2015: The movements against Dilma and the PT accusing them of corrupt took momentum
·  2016: Dilma Rousseff was impeached for disregarding the Fiscal Responsibility Law. The Vice President in the coalition, Michel Temer (from the PMDB) took office.
·  2017: Several cases of corruption against Temer himself and his ministers went public
·  2018: Marielle Franco a feminist city councillor from PSOL was assassinated in March.
·  2018: Lula arrested and imprisoned, disallowed from running as the PT’s presidential candidate due to dubious charges of corruption
·  2018: Jair Bolsonaro defeated the PT candidate (Fernando Haddad) in the second round of general election with 55 percent of the votes

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