What follows are my introductory and closing remarks made at a debate on Brazil’s crisis at the Battle of Ideas. The audio and/or video should be up in due course and I’ll post here.
The Brazilian crisis is over. There is nothing more to discuss.
At least, that’s how the Temer government sees it. Or as Michel’s favoured slogan has it: “DON’T THINK ABOUT THE CRISIS, WORK!”
It doesn’t quite inspire confidence, does it?
In fact, what we have in the current moment in Brazil is an intermission. Stability has been bought. And it has been bought at the cost of treason to the majority of the Brazilian people. And not just because of the anti-democratic deposition of Dilma Rousseff, but also because of the betrayal of the streets: the protests have stood, in their different ways, for better government, and against corruption. And the consummation of the ‘soft coup’ we’ve had in Brazil represents neither.
Let me first spell out what the crisis is. Then I’ll move onto the two faces of the protest wave since 2013. And finally I’ll explain how several actors have conspired to take advantage of the crisis and satisfy the demands of no one, except those of the elite.
As we know, the crisis is political as much as economic.
Economically, it is a deep recession caused by the end of the commodities super-cycle, as well as Dilma’s policy zigzag of stimulus & austerity, which satisfied neither her supporters nor the markets. However, it also reflects a deeper failure of Brazil to actively insert itself into the global division of labour through higher-tech industry. This is PT’s failure – or rather, missed opportunity.
Politically, it is represented by street protests, the destabilisation wrought by Lava Jato and its necessarily accompanying media spectacle, and the consequent ungovernability that emerged.
But it’s important to understand that these are not impersonal forces and independent variables. These factors impact upon each other. Often deliberately so. Everyone knows the economic situation rightly fuelled discontent, but it’s also the case that the economy was harmed by Lava Jato putting construction companies on ice, as well as there being a politically motivated investment strike. Protests were also fuelled by Lava Jato’s leaks to the media, and Congress reacted to this by making things difficult for the President – as is their right. Protests consequently escalated further.
So there is objectively a crisis. But it has also been accelerated so as to be taken advantage of by some of the most retrograde forces in Brazil.
Let’s rewind a second to the start of the protest wave.
From June 2013 onwards, protests were treated as part of the uprising of the global middle class. Like those in other emerging economies, it was a rising tide of expectation, and not crisis, that birthed the protests. The demand was for better public services and better government in general. This then mutated into a much more anti-political protest declaiming that ‘they do not represent us’ and calling for an ‘end to corruption’.
These can be distinguished as state engaging versus state resisting protests. And they point in very different directions.
But what we have with the Temer government is the worst of both worlds: very much a government of old elites, that with its austerity programme will devastate Brazil’s capacity to develop. That is, we end up with neither better public services nor an end to corruption.
Under PT we had a period of win-win: significant gains for the bourgeoisie, especially financial capital, as well as the taking of 40m people out of poverty and the expansion of consumption for the middle class. But this was precarious, and once the economic winds changed, PT was always going to lose elite support.
Now we have a lose-lose.
So while temporary stability has been bought, the system lacks legitimacy. As much as the right might cheer at PT’s downfall, the legacy of the protest wave is anti-political. The victor of the municipal elections this month was not the right, but the ‘no’: abstention, null votes and scratched ballots. An overweening focus on corruption has contributed to the delegitimisation of politics itself.
So the situation today is more precarious and volatile than simple headlines about the ‘end of the Latin American Pink Wave’ reveal. The crisis continues.
Cheerleaders of Lava Jato and accompanying protests saw people power in action. What might have been happening was actually anti-people power.
That is: a decline in trust and in governability. A disbelief that politics can achieve anything.
But given matters have not been conclusively decided, let us finish on a positive note. Former speaker of the chamber of deputies, Eduardo Cunha, has been arrested, and has threatened to tell all. This could well explode matters once again. Now the stakes will be raised.
But plus point is this. The more popular sections of the anti-corruption crowds are there to be won by democratic forces. Meanwhile, the one benefit of the impeachment has been to reacquaint the left with importance of representation and the key learning that anti-politics is default rightist: ‘get the bastards out’ ends up not with the exit of the corrupt, but a withering of trust and the perpetuation of oligarchical rule. The ones who end up ‘kicked out’ are not ‘the bastards’ from government, but the people from the plane of history.