Understanding and combatting the rise of reaction in Brazil

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On 23 January 2019, three weeks after the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s new President, the Freedom Socialist Party hosted a forum, Understanding and combatting the rise of reaction in Brazil. Speakers were Si Aguilar, indigenous Brazilian feminist and teacher, who grew up in a poor community of Belo Horizonte; Loan Cardoso, communist and supporter of the Brazilian Socialist and Freedom Party (PSOL), Bolivarian tendency; and Debbie Brennan, organiser against the far right and emerging fascists, longtime unionist and member of the Freedom Socialist Party. Below is Debbie Brennan’s talk.

If Jair Bolsonaro’s election were made into a movie, the starring role would have to be the capitalists, the winners. We’d watch them throw aside the Workers Party’s (PT), which had served them for 13 years. We’d see a bewildered Left, helplessly standing by. In the shadows we’d see the hands of Wall Street. But the real stars are the Brazilian masses, who haven’t finished speaking and resisting.

In 2002, 53 million Brazilians voted Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Workers Party into government. The hopeful euphoria, similar to Obama’s election six years later, echoed throughout the world. At the time, one percent of Brazilians lived luxuriously off 50% of the national income. Half of Brazilians lived in poverty, while international corporations siphoned millions in profits every year. Three percent owned almost two-thirds of Brazil’s arable lands, while about 25 million rural people had no property at all.

The PT rose out of the courageous strikes of 1979 in the industrial areas of São Paulo, which challenged the military dictatorship in power since 1964. The walkouts brought together unionists, leftists, students and community activists against the dictatorship, which eventually fell in 1985. This was the party the working class swept into office in 2002.

But eight months later, 25,000 demonstrated in the streets, denouncing Lula for attacking the pensions of public workers. He told starving Brazilians to wait for the foreign debt to be paid. He slashed the budget by nearly $4 billion, as the IMF demanded. He taxed workers more and businesses less. Pensions were a battleground then, as it’s about to be under Bolsonaro.

Just after Lula’s victory, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) critiqued that “Lula had sold his soul to Wall Street to get elected.” To win, he promised international investors that he would continue to protect their interests. He also aligned with bourgeois parties in an electoral coalition. José Alencar, from the pro-free-trade Liberal Party, was his vice presidential running mate. Alencar was a textile millionaire, and his party was close to the Pentacostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God — one of Bolsonaro’s main backers. One of the first things Lula did was send his Workers Party representative, José Dirceu, to reassure Wall Street that everything would be fine. Lula delivered, and he would become a favourite of the Obama presidency.

Lula’s government not only went after pensions, it administered the privatisation of Brazil’s second largest nationalised mining company. Its government provided military forces for the UN occupation of Haiti, where they stayed for 13 years. This was part of Lula’s lobbying for Brazil to have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, which it got in 2011 — making Brazil a junior imperialist power.

Corruption was a major election issue last year, and Bolsonaro slung lots of mud at the PT — much of it involving Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company. Even before this Dirceu, who became Lula’s chief of staff, had been jailed for engineering a bribery scandal — called “the big monthly payment” — in which the PT paid for votes to get legislation through. A cabinet minister went to prison for collecting bribes for Dilma Rousseff’s election campaign. Corruption is endemic in the capitalist state, and the PT was an energetic player.

Dilma Rousseff was Lula’s handpicked successor as Brazil’s president from 2011 until her impeachment in 2018. Her electoral win in 2014 was through a similar coalition deal with bourgeois parties.

By 2013, the economy was in a steep downturn. Brazil’s inflation rate was above 9%, unemployment above 11% and the foreign debt was growing. Mass protest erupted over an increase in bus fares, but people were angry about much more — corruption, police brutality, poor services as the government spent big on the World Cup, and so on. These demonstrations were the biggest Brazil had seen in more than two decades.

Protest broke out again three years later, in March 2016. At 3½ million, the national demonstrations are said to be the largest in Brazil’s history. The protesters were overwhelmingly middle class, but workers and the poor were also voicing anger at the PT’s inability to handle the crisis.

It’s these demos and the PT’s paralysis that made the capitalist class abandon the party that had been giving it blood transfusions since 2003. Brazil’s business groups colluded with media owners, neoliberal political parties, evangelical churches, the powerful judiciary and Wall Street to remove Rousseff. The capitalists carefully engineered her ousting, all within the law of the constitution. It was actually a political coup. The colluders couldn’t have done it, though, without years of PT corruption and the party letting down its mass base — workers, slum dwellers and rural poor.

With workers here walking away from the Australian Labor Party, it’s not hard to see how the PT delivered itself to this humiliating defeat, just as the U.S. Democrats did in 2016. In a highly polarised United States, Trump rode a wave of working people’s lost hope and rage at the Establishment; Bolsonaro did the same. Votes for him were votes against the PT, which had become identified with the Establishment and the bourgeoisie it had supported for 13 years.

The lesson is: a workers’ party cannot successfully administer a capitalist state. And if it tries, it loses its principles, its soul and its base.

Betrayed by the PT and faced with organised rightwing reaction, where could workers and the oppressed look for leadership? Where was the revolutionary Left? It was fragmented, weak, unprepared and paralyzed. The entire Brazilian Left — with the exception of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist Movement — played an opportunistic role by calling for a vote for the PT as the “lesser evil.”  Brazil’s Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) honestly critiqued its own part in the “Vote PT” call, saying it was a fundamental and disastrous mistake. By doing this, says PSOL, they and the others failed to distinguish themselves from the PT, offering working class voters no electoral alternative. They went silent on the big issue of corruption so not to weaken Lula and the PT. By not questioning the framework of the public debt, they gave legitimacy to the capitalist economic agenda. They even hid PSOL’s logos from their campaign materials, and they didn’t mention the word “socialism”! PSOL acknowledges that they offered the electorate no positive choice and lost the respect of voters, who expected more.

It’s important to know that about 22% of the electorate did not vote. Of the 78% that voted, Bolsonaro got 55% and the PT’s Haddad got 44%. That 44% came from the northeast, Brazil’s poorest region. In all, 43% of Brazil’s electorate voted for Bolsonaro, and a clear majority (57%) did not. If the PT weren’t so treacherous or if the Left showed leadership, we would have seen a different result.

Stephen Durham, FSP’s international coordinator, who lived in Brazil and remains close to developments there, says this: “Bolsonaro’s election is one more indication of the worldwide polarisation and the weakness of the Left to provide a credible alternative in elections.” What we witnessed in Brazil is a global crisis in late capitalism — a crisis of social democracy and a challenge for the revolutionary Left.

Bolsonaro’s presidency is three weeks old, so now we have more than his rhetoric to go by. On his first day, he targeted indigenous and LGBTIQ people and descendants of Brazil’s former slaves. One of his presidential orders was to wind back the rights of indigenous people and slave descendants to control and inhabit their lands. Another transferred the responsibility of delineating indigenous territories to the Agriculture Ministry, whose head opposes tribal land rights and champions agribusiness. And another transferred oversight of indigenous health, housing, language preservation and other affairs from the National Indian Foundation to a new ministry for family, women and human rights — headed, no less, by a far-right evangelical pastor. Bolsonaro pointedly kept LGBTIQ issues out of this ministry, which leaves them with no coverage by any agency.   

On inauguration day, Brazil’s financial market was full of optimism. Stocks for the arms maker Taurus, a main ally of Bolsonaro, for example, shot up more than 47%. But according to The Financial Times in the U.S., big capital is watching to see whether Bolsonaro can live up to his electoral bravado about making the economy great. Brazil is dogged with foreign and public debt, and capital needs Bolsonaro to remove the restrictions of regulation and taxes. Will he be able to cut retirement pensions, which take up 1/3 of the budget, for example? How far can he go with his promises to privatise, fix the tax regime and lower the tariffs? How will he pull off forging close relations with the U.S. and Israel without affecting Brazil’s important trade with China and the Middle East?

There are divisions in Bolsonaro’s government. There’s a fight, for example, over control of foreign policy, and we can already see this being played out over Brazil’s orientation toward the U.S. versus China. Bolsonaro wants a close relationship with the U.S. and, following Trump, he has openly criticized China and even provocatively visited Taiwan while still a candidate. But his deputy president, General Hamilton Mourão, doesn’t want to risk the China partnership or angering Brazilian businesses that depend on it. He openly contradicted his boss — such as his statement to the media, “Sometimes the president has a rhetoric that does not go along with reality.”  

It’ll also be interesting to see how far Bolsonaro will work with the White House in undermining the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Already, Bolsonaro is fumbling on key commitments. He’s backed off on his plans to stop a land reform program, which includes land transfers to the poor. His order to cease awarding new lands to indigenous groups has stalled. He is wavering on his announced changes to pensions. His administration isn’t moving on its promise to move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The pressure from the masses is showing its strength.

The Financial Times sums it up this way: “…with expectations sky high, Bolsonaro will need to deliver — or his administration’s honeymoon with both voters and markets will be short-lived.”

How many here, especially Brazilians among us, think that Bolsonaro won’t be confronted with massive resistance? Last year, the Freedom Socialist Party and our sister organisation, Radical Women, marched with Brazilians here as part of global protest — first against the assassination of Marielle Franco, and then against Bolsonaro. September’s Ele Não (Not Him) marches across the world were mobilised by women and young people, who represent all who Bolsonaro wants subjugated or eliminated. The World Cup protests in 2013 exploded over everything from fare hikes to education, health, inequality and poverty. Protests like these and the anti-dictatorship walkouts of 1979 show that resistance is part of Brazilians’ history and living memory. I can imagine the resistance still to come.

This brings us to the question: Is Bolsonaro a fascist? His brutish homophobia, sexism and racism, his open love for military dictatorship, his threats against the Left, and the backing he enjoys from big capital have led many, including some of the international Marxist Left, to call him a fascist. But we can’t be loose with the term. To know how to respond, we need to know what we’re dealing with. If we mistake a situation as fascist, then we’ll miss signs of the real threat and be unprepared for it.

Odious, dangerous far-right ideas are not what make someone fascist. Fascist demagoguery uses any rhetoric — even socialist — to hook in a following. “Nazi” stood for Hitler’s National-Socialist Workers Party!

Words don’t make fascism, deeds do. Fascism is an authoritarian form of government that capitalism will resort to in order to save itself from people’s revolt. This happens when workers’ revolution is possible, and parliamentary democracy can no longer maintain capitalist order. The capitalist class is then prepared to centralise all power in one person or an élite. Fascism’s prime purpose is to exterminate working class unions and organizations, and thus workers’ capacity to organise.

To do this, fascists seek to build a mass movement, primarily in the middle class — small business or self-employed people who are neither workers nor big capitalists — to have a social base that gives it a mandate to rule. It puts the idea of nation above the individual, as well as using race and sex to divide society between the “worthy” and “unworthy.” The experience of fascism last century shows us what it does with those its deems unworthy.

This doesn’t describe Brazil now. The working class is not defeated, and the far-right forces are not consolidated. But class struggle will most likely escalate as Bolsonaro’s privatisation and other measures kick in, and we should expect to see the main targets — women, young people, poor, LGBTIQ, Black and indigenous people — fighting back most militantly.

As global capitalism’s crisis escalates, fascism becomes a threat for Brazil, the U.S., Australia and countries throughout the world. This is why we take organized fascist gangs in the here-and-now very seriously. These street thugs are emboldened and enabled by the likes of Bolsonaro, Trump and our own Peter Dutton, and we have to defeat them. We also have to fight assaults by these parliamentary goons on our unions and jobs, education and health, human and civil rights, environment and climate. We have to solidarize with each other across our countries’ borders. If we don’t, we could face fascism when capitalism decides it’s necessary.

This task is global. For the exploited and oppressed to survive, we need to look to ourselves, not parliamentary elections, for redress and solutions. In doing this, we need to form united fronts and defend ourselves.

This fight is revolutionary, because the only solution is to uproot the source of this crisis. We have to destroy capitalism and create an alternative system where profit can no longer exist and exploitation and oppression are no longer possible. Socialism would be a global economic system that meets the needs of everyone, because workers would collectively run it.

Through the Committee for Revolutionary International Regroupment, the Freedom Socialist Party has been working since 2013 with Latin American Trotskyist organisations toward founding a new socialist international. For revolutionaries from opposite ends of imperialism — the U.S. and Latin America — to come together to achieve this is powerful. This revolutionary solidarity, well expressed by the slogan “same struggle, same fight,” took the FSP and RW to the Brazilian community’s protests in Melbourne last year. Tonight’s forum comes from this solidarity.

Capitalism’s desperate fight to stay in power is drawing our global struggles closer. Through international, revolutionary collaboration and organisation, the working class and oppressed of this world will get the upper hand — and then be able to seize the power.

If you’d like to talk about this, if you’re interested in finding out more about the FSP or joining us, let’s talk!

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