Brazil: Bolsonaro, the failure of the PT and the prospects for renewed class struggle

The last six months have seen a qualitative turning point in the political situation in Brazil, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as the 38th President of the country in October 2018. This is a fundamental shift in the bourgeois-democratic regime established by the 1988 Constitution after the fall of the military dictatorship, together with the social pact that it was based on.

[Note: this article is based on the reports given by our Brazilian comrades of Esquerda Marxista at a recent international meeting of the IMT]

Anger below the surface

The current situation can be traced back to the world economic crisis of 2008. In Brazil, then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, took measures that staved off the worst of the crisis for a period. He promoted the expansion of credit, urging consumers to borrow and buy more. Household debt as a percentage of GDP stood at 13.3 percent in 2007 and reached 17.7 percent by the end of his tenure in 2010. This process continued, with it reaching an all-time high of 27.6 percent by the end of 2015. He also increased public spending in an attempt to stimulate the economy. For example, in 2007, government spending was US$264.65bn, but by 2010 this had increased to US$420.06 billion.

The combined effect of these measures worked for a limited period of time after 2008. Indeed, in 2010, the growth rate reached 7.5 percent. However, these policies led to a huge inflow of capital, which pushed up the exchange rate of the Real. One Real in dollars went from $0.41 in December 2008 to $0.64 in April 2011. This, together with the Eurozone crisis, which depressed demand, reduced Brazilian exports and put an end to the boom.

protests 1 Image Ricardo StuckertThe election of Bolsonaro was a surprise to some, but the deep anger towards the system it expressed was evident prior to 2018 / Image: Ricardo Stuckert

While the election of Bolsonaro came as a surprise to some, the deep anger towards the system was already evident well before this. In 2013, for example, there were large and very radical protests of mainly students and young workers against a proposed increase of 20 cents on bus fares. The fare increase was, however, proved to be the spark that lit the fuse, as one participant pointed out: “This is not just about bus fares any more. We pay high taxes and we are a rich country, but we can't see this in our schools, hospitals and roads.” Within Brazilian society there was already seething anger at the poor quality of public services, including public transport, the lack of public works in comparison to spending on the football World Cup, corruption, and the levels of pollution. The protests involved around two million people.

To fully understand that movement, however, one has to place it in the context of the general global crisis of the capitalist system. This is because, in spite of the slowdown of the world economy, the 2013 protests in Brazil broke out during a period of relative economic stability. At the same time, however, there were movements taking place around the world that affected Brazil, such as the Indignados movement in Spain, the mass protests in Greece and Portugal, and the Occupy Movement in the US.

The victory of fascism?

The victory of Bolsonaro could be interpreted as a shift to the right in Brazilian society, but only if one has a superficial approach. The Guardian, for example, quoted Celso Rocha de Barros, who said that “the extreme right has conquered Brazil”. The Independent, meanwhile, declared that “Fascism has arrived in Brazil”. A candidate of the “Socialism and Liberty Party” (PSOL) even fled the country to live in self-imposed exile in Spain out of fear for his safety.

Jair Bolsonaro is undoubtedly a disgusting reactionary. This is a man, after all, who has spoken glowingly of the military dictatorship [1964-85], which, he says, made only one mistake: not murdering 30,000 leftists. This is a man who, during a debate in parliament, told a congresswoman that: “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it”; and who has referred to black activists as “animals”. But even though Bolsonaro is a reactionary, it would be a one-sided interpretation to declare that this marks the victory of fascism, or even that the extreme right has “conquered” Brazil.

It is important to understand that terms such as “fascism” have a scientific meaning. Many people understandably describe Bolsonaro as a fascist because they hate him, but we must not label everything we dislike as “fascist”. Fascism is a specific form of reaction that requires a specific response. Historically, when fascism has come to power, it has involved a mass movement of the enraged petty bourgeoisie, used by finance capital to completely and utterly smash the labour movement. In Italy in the 1920s, for example, even the workers’ chess clubs were shut down. Such a movement is only capable of coming to power due to the demoralisation of the working class and defeats of the revolution.

It is certainly true that there have been some examples of reactionary gangs attacking trade unionists, students and activists. In Brasília, after Bolsonaro’s victory in the second round of the presidential elections, for example, a group of around 30 people broke into a university campus looking for communist students to beat up. They got a big surprise when the entire student campus immediately mobilised and kicked these people out.

Additionally, in Santa Catarina, four Bolsonaro supporters stormed into a public sector trade union assembly screaming that they would kill all communists and trade unionists. In response to this, the trade unionists calmly asked them to leave. When it became clear that these people would not leave, the workers simply got up, moved to another meeting hall and continued their meeting, leaving the four fascists to scream in an empty room.

Moreover, the Brazilian section of the International Marxist Tendency, Esquerda Marxista, openly sells its papers and has stalls in the streets. Activities of the left in general continue, as do those of the trade unions. It is a strange form of fascism that allows Marxists and lefts to openly organise in the streets!

These examples clearly demonstrate that Bolsonaro’s election victory does not represent the coming to power of fascism. What it does reveal is a collapse in the authority of the old establishment and its political institutions. In line with what we see elsewhere in the world, what we have is a polarisation taking place in Brazilian society, both to the left and to the right. It was, in fact, by posing as a relative newcomer, who was against the establishment, that Bolsonaro was able to garner support.

The working class has not suffered any major defeat in the recent past. If anything, the recent period has seen a number of important victories for the working class on the trade union front, specifically on wages. Additionally, the vast majority of people who voted for Bolsonaro did so in order to kick out at what they saw as the establishment, while the actual fascist organisations in Brazil have a very small social base. In these conditions, even if Bolsonaro wanted to install a fascist dictatorship, he would fail. Esther Solano, a sociologist from the Federal University of São Paulo, for example, conducted interviews with 25 Bolsonaro voters. She found that:

"There are people who would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro because they are racist, homophobic, or they are violent. But there are a lot of people who see it as a response to a crisis of representation. For these people, voting for Mr. Bolsonaro is akin to venting their frustration. They cannot stand [traditional] politics anymore. There is a deep discomfort with the system and people end up voting for someone from outside, who does not belong to the system."

Failure of the left

Bolsonaro did not win the elections on the back of a mass movement of the enraged petty bourgeoisie, decisively backing open reaction. The truth lies elsewhere: it is the leadership of the left, in particular of the Workers’ Party [PT], that is to blame. The PT, in raising the threat of so-called “fascism”, ran the election campaign in defence of “democracy”, i.e. an abstract defence of the establishment and its bourgeois institutions, precisely at a time when these very same institutions have started to become discredited in the eyes of the masses.

Haddad Prefeito Image Agência BrasilIt is the leadership of the left, in particular of the PT, that is to blame for Bolsonaro's victory / Image: Agência Brasil

Clearly then, defence of the status quo was a finished recipe for defeat. The only way to defeat Bolsonaro would have been to present an equally anti-establishment candidate, but from a left-wing perspective. The PT lost in important working-class areas and the industrial areas of the East. It was only in backward areas that they were able to increase their vote by handing out benefits. This is the reward they get for years of carrying out bourgeois politics and dashing people’s expectations at every turn of events.

Given the disillusionment with the PT, we saw the potential for a new party capturing the mood of frustration in society. PSOL was a party that certainly had that potential to fill this gap. Unfortunately, instead of posing as a real, radical left-wing alternative to the PT, they merely presented themselves as a left-wing adjunct to them, ending up with a scenario where the two parties had programmes that were practically indistinguishable. In the second round, they also joined a so-called democratic front against fascism, which included the PT, the Communist Party and even some bourgeois parties! Thus, when Brazilian workers were presented with the choice between two indistinguishable programmes, many decided to stay with the stronger of the two, as is usually the case in such scenarios. That explains how the PT actually won votes away from the PSOL, with the latter’s vote actually falling from 1.6 million in 2014 to 0.6 million in 2018.

Bolsonaro’s programme

One of Bolsonaro’s main slogans, much like that of Trump, was to cleanse the state of all corrupt elements. This came in the wake of a huge campaign against corruption by the ruling class in the Lava Jato (Car Wash) criminal investigation. As we have explained in previous articles, this investigation was not aimed at seriously tackling corruption, something which is endemic to capitalism, but was more an attempt to save the institutions from growing popular anger.

The PT was in government between 2003 and 2016, and during this time proved to be nothing but a corrupt administration at the service of the banks and big business. It is not so surprising, therefore, that Bolsonaro’s anti-corruption rhetoric attracted support. Bolsonaro’s party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), actually had only one MP (Bolsonaro himself) before 2018 and therefore was not entitled to state funding. Donations to the PT and other more mainstream parties, in fact, dwarfed those to the PSL, which mainly used social media for campaigning. All this added to Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment credentials.

Another of his main slogans was to allow people to arm themselves in self-defence against criminals. It is not surprising that such a slogan could garner some support, given that, in 2017 alone, 175 people were murdered each day in Brazil.

However, when it comes to his economic and social programme, it amounts to an all-out assault on the working class. Bolsonaro has appointed Paulo Guedes as his finance minister. Guedes taught at the University of Santiago in 1980 when Pinochet was in power and says that the way Brazil can solve its 7 percent deficit is through the privatisation of all the country’s state-owned enterprises. As the Intercept points out, the programme includes increasing the age of retirement; deregulating the environment and labour laws; cutting social spending; and making taxation more regressive. The idea is to try and encourage foreign investment by reducing the cost of labour and cutting “red tape”.

Bolsonaro’s apparent strength masks an underlying weakness

On the surface, if one looks solely at Bolsonaro’s programme, it would seem as though the far right has conquered power in Brazil. The truth is that this will not be a strong government. It will be crisis-ridden and extremely unstable, especially in the context of the growing economic crisis on a world scale. The Financial Times reports that investors expect “radical reforms to social security and pensions that should slash welfare payments by half.” This, they say, would then allow the government to save 5 percent of GDP in the short term.

Brasília Image fair useTo carry out his programme, Bolsonaro would have to defeat the Brazilian working class. This will not be easy as they have not suffered any major defeat in the recent period and their organisations are intact / Image: fair use

However, in order to get many of his reforms through, Bolsonaro would need the support of 60 percent of the Lower House of Congress. In addition to this, the military and judiciary have already been demanding exemption from the pension cuts. Bolsonaro also lacks a large social base in the country. He won the second round of the elections with just 39 percent, while Haddad, the PT candidate, got 32 percent, whereas 30 percent voted for “none of the above”. That means over 60 percent of the electorate did not vote for him. Furthermore, as we have explained, of the 39 percent who did vote for him, many did so, not out of loyalty to Bolsonaro necessarily, but in order to kick out the whole system. Once Bolsonaro is exposed for what he really stands for, that he is simply a less-polished version of the same old politics, many will abandon him in disgust.

Moreover, to actually carry out what the ruling class is demanding of him, Bolsonaro would have to defeat the Brazilian working class, whose organisations remain intact. This will not be easy as the workers have not suffered any major defeat in the recent period. It is quite often the case that the “whip of the counter-revolution” can push the working class, which had previously been passive due to the inaction of their leadership, into action. This conflict, therefore, is not one Bolsonaro can be sure of winning.

Already, Brazilian trade unions have been forced to respond. They organised a “national day of action”’ against Bolsonaro’s reforms on 20 February and called for a “national assembly of the working class” against the attacks on pensions. Nevertheless, the approach of the labour leaders has not been to seriously mobilise the working class to struggle against the system. In 2017, for example, they called a general strike. There was a radical mood, with 40 million workers taking part and, despite calls from the CUT (the main national trade union confederation in Brazil) for workers to stay home, there were mass protests. In São Paulo, for example, 70,000 took to the streets. However, it was exactly this radical mood that scared the leadership of the PT and the CUT. Rather than attempting to build on this action, to mobilise the Brazilian working class to fight against the austerity of the Michel Temer government, the labour leaders were terrified. They therefore called a number of additional strikes, only to call them off the day before. In the final round of strikes, the leadership were so discredited that no one believed them any more. It was almost as if the leaders were systematically wearing down the most conscious activists’ willingness to fight.

Was Bolsonaro the candidate of the ruling class?

While the leadership of the working class at present seems to be doing all it can to hold back the movement, the ruling class is not exactly blessed with excellent representatives itself. The ruling class in Brazil required a “sensible” candidate who could carry out the austerity that was needed. This meant that, for them, the PT had outlived its usefulness. From their point of view, what was needed in the present conditions was no longer class collaboration, but an all-out assault on the working class.

Jair Bolsonaro, the maverick that he is, was certainly not the candidate of choice for the Brazilian ruling class. The Financial Times, for example, pointed out that investors preferred Geraldo Alckmin. They also quoted an analyst as saying it was a “nightmare scenario” to have an election of the “left against the far-right”. Unfortunately for them, Alckmin got less than 5 percent of the vote as all of the “sensible” candidates’ support collapsed. This meant that the ruling class were forced to rally around Bolsonaro, with one senior banker, for example, commenting that: “He was not my first choice but certainly a lot of my clients are pleased.”

Nevertheless, whilst there is a clear attempt to rein in Bolsonaro in an attempt to control him, it is still unclear as to whether they will be able to. The Financial Times reports that Bolsonaro’s cabinet is split into at least three “tribes”: the technocrats, the ideologues and the generals. This indicates a split between the so-called “sensible” representatives of the bourgeoisie and the frenzied petty-bourgeois on the other side.

The Intercept has reported already on the struggle between Bolsonaro and his vice president, Mourão. Mourão is an ex-general, who has his own colourful history. He has, for example, been supportive of the military dictatorship and has warned that “modern Brazilian culture inherited ‘indolence’ from Indigenous peoples and ‘trickery’ from Africans.” However, he has since attempted to moderate his image. Commenting on the PSOL MP who fled the country, while Bolsonaro and his family were celebrating, he said that those who threaten parliamentarians are “committing a crime against democracy.” He also publicly undermined Bolsonaro on a number of public issues while Bolsonaro was at Davos. The splits in the cabinet reflect the splits within the bourgeoisie, and between the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. As the crisis intensifies, these splits are only likely to widen.

The “ideologues” have taken over the asylum

The so-called “ideologues” have a huge sway over the direction of Bolsonaro’s government. A good demonstration of this is the role of a man named Olavo de Carvalho. A former astrologist, de Carvalho lives in Richmond in the USA and runs a Youtube channel where he produces videos on politics and philosophy. Among this philosopher’s breakthroughs in human thought we have the idea that Pepsi is sweetened with the cells of human foetuses, that the British royal family are working together with the government of the US for the ‘Islamification’ of the world, and that the planet does not revolve around the sun! What is most remarkable, however, is the amount of influence he seems to have over Bolsonaro. To date, the president has appointed two government ministers on the basis of this Youtube channel, and the only reason he has not appointed more is because no others have been suggested.

Olavo de Carvalho em 2013 Image Olavo de CarvalhoOlavo de Carvalho: astrologist, YouTuber, crackpot 'philosopher', and one of Bolsonaro's main influencers / Image: Olavo de Carvalho

The first of these ministers, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, is the Minister of Education. He supports the commemoration of the Brazilian military dictatorship in schools and has come out against “scientific indoctrination” in schools. To give an idea of some of the “scientific” thinking he favours, it is enough to say that this man is a supporter of the flat earth theory. The second of these, Ernesto Araújo, is the Foreign Affairs Minister. He has criticised the left for wanting “a society where no one is born, no baby, much less the baby Jesus”; has accused the PT of being a terrorist party; and has said that “Trump’s God” guides the government.

Whilst Olavo de Carvalho has only appointed two ministers, that doesn’t mean the rest are paragons of sanity. The Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights is known for saying that indigenous people should be killed and has recently been accused of stealing her adopted daughter from a remote indigenous tribe. Bolsonaro’s Chief of Staff, Onyx Lorenzoni, admitted he had committed a crime in relation to the elections, but has said that he is very sorry and, in order to make up for it, has tattooed a biblical quote on to his arm. These examples show that, although the ruling class has its people in the government, they are certainly not in full control of it.

The main problem Bolsonaro will face, however, is that his programme contradicts reality. History is littered with right-wing demagogues, who claim that they will finally end corruption. Corruption is built into the framework of the capitalist system and Bolsonaro is just as implicated as the rest of the Brazilian ruling class. He has already been involved in two corruption scandals of his own. The first of these is the claim that the PSL allocated USD$182,000 in public funding to the congressional campaigns of five unknown candidates, who ended up receiving almost no votes. Much of this money was spent on companies linked to top party officials. The second involves an investigation into Rio’s State Assembly, concerning large transfers of money. One of those involved is Flávio Bolsonaro, his son. Sooner or later, these facts will expose Bolsonaro himself and undermine his authority even amongst the thin layers that support him at present.

Splits in the ruling class

The political and social crisis is so deep that different sections of the political representatives of the ruling class are splitting into factions and making decisions that don’t suit their interests as a whole. This was clearly demonstrated with the impeachment of Dilma. As we have explained previously, the imperialists were against this course of action, fearing opening up a vacuum at the top and risking the entry of the masses onto the scene. On the other hand, the political representatives of the bourgeoisie, members of the petty bourgeoisie themselves, took a much more short-sighted approach, seeking revenge against the workers’ organisations. Thus, rather than find themselves defending the Lula government against the bourgeois parties, the bourgeoisie was forced to tail-end their own representatives and support the move against Dilma and the PT.

If they had allowed Dilma to complete her term, the PT would have been even further discredited, which would likely have precipitated its complete collapse in the polls, in a manner similar to the PASOK in Greece. Instead, they brought down the government and took responsibility for the crisis themselves. This also allowed the PT to paint itself as the victim of a violent state, which helped to boost their support in the election.

Moreover, in the run-up to the 2018 election, with Lula as the candidate, many polls had the PT in first position. Lula had maintained some residual support out of the good luck of being president at the time of a boom in Brazilian capitalism, which strengthened some of the illusions in reformism for a time. Lula was then sentenced to a 12-year jail sentence for corruption. Nonetheless, one member of the Supreme Court, Justice Marco Aurélio Mello, ruled that convicted criminals with court appeals pending should not be locked up until the legal process had been exhausted. However, this ruling was overruled by the chief judge, Justice Jose Antonio Dias Toffoli, and the Supreme Court then voted, by 6 to 5, that Lula should begin serving his sentence, despite not having exhausted all of his rights to appeal. This event, which prevented Lula from standing, revealed splits within the judiciary itself, an important section of the state.

Bonapartist tendencies

Bolsonaro’s victory marks the end of the period of class collaboration. Leon Trotsky once pointed out that: “The decay of capitalism denotes the decay of contemporary society with its laws and its morals.” Today, the deep crisis of the capitalist system increasingly means, on a global scale, that the old “democratic morality” can no longer be afforded by the ruling class. The Financial Times reflected this point of view remarkably honestly in an article about Italy from October 2018, when they said:

“[I]n an age increasingly dominated by social media and fake news, parliaments are not enough to protect current and future generations from irresponsible short-term policies driven by electoral considerations rather than prudent economic and financial thinking.”

Jair Bolsonaro EBC 04 cropped Image Agência BrasilBolsonaro marks the end of class collaboration, and the emergence of bonapartist tendencies / Image: Agência Brasil

What this means is that there is an increasing need for the state to raise itself above society, and for so-called “strong men” to rule. We see this all the more clearly in the “weaker links” of the capitalist system. In Brazil, we are seeing the emergence of bonapartist tendencies. It can be seen in the actions of the judiciary, with the jailing of Lula and, earlier than this, in the so-called “mensalão”, where a number of PT leaders were jailed without trial. As has been explained, this government will be a government of finance capital, pure and simple. It will, however, attempt to raise itself above the classes to camouflage its attacks on the working class. Bolsonaro’s slogan of “Brazil above everything, God above everyone” gives an idea as to how this will be done: with nationalist and religious rhetoric.

Which way forward?

EM protest Bolsonaro Image own workThe Brazilian Marxists of Esquerda Marxista will stand side by side with workers in the fight against the government, for the expropriation of the capitalists and the building of socialism / Image: own work

The question then arises, how should the labour movement organise to best fight to change society? The general secretary of the CUT has said that, because the workers voted for Bolsonaro, they have to work with him. This is despite the apparent fact that he is a “fascist”. The leadership of the PT have launched the slogan “we’ll win in 2022!” This only reveals their lack of connection with the working class, who cannot wait until 2022 to get rid of this government. The PT leadership are unable to break out of their bubble, obsessed with “good governance”. They cannot see beyond the walls of parliament.

At present, the forces of Marxism are small in Brazilian society. Nevertheless, they are making the argument that the working class cannot wait until 2022. Instead, under the impact of attacks from a weak government, we are likely to see working people using whatever means they have at their disposal to fight to change society. Since there is no outlet on the political plane, it is likely that we will see new layers of the working class enter the trade union struggle and in the process will attempt to transform the unions into fighting organisations. A similar process took place in 1979 and 1980, when the rank and file kicked out their old leaders and set up the CUT.

The Brazilian Marxists of Esquerda Marxista will stand side by side with these workers in this fight. But they will also make their case for an all-out fight against the government, for the expropriation of the capitalists and moving towards the building of socialism. This is the only way forward out of the present crisis.