Political elite has lost grip, left can’t take advantage

I was on The Real News this week discussing a(nother) mad week in Brazil. There are effectively four major threads to anti-corruption charges now, two against Temer/PMDB and two against Lula/PT. I won’t recap them here but instead tease out some deeper implications of what I said on the programme.

(For a good summary, Stephanie Nolen in the Globe & Mail (EN) and João Paulo Charleaux in Nexo (PT) both clearly set out the events and what is at stake.)

What is striking about the current moment is the collapse in elite cohesion. Different factions of the Judiciary are at each other’s throats, pursuing different personal (or sometimes political) agendas. The battle between outgoing Attorney General Janot (pro-market, but who appears to retain some political independence) and Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes (Temer ally) is just one example. The Federal Police has its own beef against sections of the Judiciary and the Executive. Even outside state institutions, the hugely influential Globo conglomerate has gone from cheerleading (some would go as far as to say “orchestrating”) the ‘Temer solution’ (i.e. the parliamentary coup) to turning on Temer – evidenced in its media outlets breaking the JBS allegations against the usurper president. And then you have the main parties.

As columnist Celso de Barros noted on Twitter, the degree of proof against Temer and his allies is what both the PT and the PSDB dream of having against each other. This aperçu indicates the degree to which all parties are engaging in “lawfare” – the use of the legal system to pursue political ends. The PT were the original victims of this, when a neoliberal fraction of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, allied to international capital, attacked the PT, and its own alliance with national capital (this latter represented above all by Odebrecht).

Whether this fight is “just” is beside the point. To a certain extent, the targeting of the PT through Operation Car Wash and the wider anti-corruption agenda does represent its own chickens coming home to roost. Lulismo was founded on a ‘neodevelopmentalist’ pact. Major national companies, especially in agribusiness and construction, would fund the party while acting as engines of economic growth and development, accelerated by the national development bank, BNDES. The PMDB was the crucial political node. This nexus has now fallen apart.

(I should note however that Lula and the PT leadership have shown little sign of breaking with this approach: Lula remains cosy with the PMDB’s Renan Calheiros, and there are even suggestions Calheiros will be Lula’s running mate. The broader strategy seems to amount to a reheated Lulismo. How this works absent the commodities boom, and with a much more hostile business elite, is anyone’s guess.)

Yes, the PT did bear the brunt of lawfare. Being the only progressive government Brazil has had in forty years, the disproportionate targeting of this party was unfair and – with the eventual rupture with democratic norms in the dodgy impeachment – a soft coup. (As Valerio Arcary, founder of MAIS – the Movement for an Independent and Socialist Alternative, noted, it’s sad to see the PT destroyed by class enemies. But there is perhaps a certain poetic justice in seeing Lula taken down by his former finance minister Palocci, one of the men at the core of the aforementioned nexus).

All this notwithstanding, I want to draw attention to something else. It’s clear the PT are not above using lawfare themselves. Nor are any other parties. The anti-corruption whirlwind continues to consume politics.

(Illustrative aside: Arrested Temer ally Geddel Vieira Lima, whose R$51 million in cash was found in his bunker last week, participated in a 2015 anti-corruption protest, declaring at the time “no one can stand so much thievery” and denounced the “assault on public coffers”.)

The main point is this: anti-corruption has replaced politics. While this is not new, we are witnessing the later stages of a vicious cycle driven by the accelerating fallout of new revelations, testimonies, depositions, charges… It undermines all political and institutional actors. These then seek to pull themselves up by further delegitimising opponents through the taint of corruption. It is to the mutual ruin of all players. Worse, its deleterious to party democracy itself – a point I’ve discussed plenty on here.  Maybe there are some who have managed to remain untainted by accusations. But they too pursue the politics of anti-corruption, suggesting no exit to the cycle.

(It is a certain irony that Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes has now come out criticising the endless corruption revelations, telling the Wall Street Journal that “the ethos of a country cannot be the fight against corruption”. He’s correct, though in his protection of Temer, he represents the preservation of the old order and the old practices. Those have lost all legitimacy. There is no return to the status quo ante, and we should not desire it either, however maddening we find the current moment.)

What remains? The only point of coherence amongst the elite is their clinging to the desperate, disastrous slash & burn counter-reform programme (avaricious attacks on pensions and labour rights, moronic privatisations, and more – few of which even make much sense on their own terms, let alone for Brazil’s longer term development.) It is this, plus the hope that Lula is barred from running, so that whichever convenient pro-business empty suit wins the presidency by default.

It is a remarkable, unprecedented situation. If we allow ourselves recourse to a counterfactual, in most situations this degree of institutional incoherence would result in the toppling of the political elite. What holds it in place?

Well, the Brazilian stock market just hit a historic high; foreign investment remains healthy; inflation is low; the depression seems finally to have bottomed out. The implications for investors and their chosen political representatives is clear. Another factor: after taking a big hit 2015-16, this year has seen the incomes of the top quintile of earners increase 10%. This latter may explain the absence of green & gold “anti-corruption” protests that effectively ended Dilma’s presidency. The upper-middle class drove that mobilisation. They are nowhere to be seen now. Better the devil they know.

On the other side, the Left is in disarray. Beyond the longer-term issues of disconnection from its traditional base, precarisation, de-industralisation, etc, there is the fact the PT is offering little leadership. Playing the victim and hoping Lula can return the good times in 2018 does not cut it. It may get Lula elected, but one can only imagine the subsequent disappointment if – as looks likely – he merely operates as a more ‘socially just’ administrator of austerity. The extra-PT left also shows little sign of agreeing a forward-looking programme. It remains defensive and lacking the sort of political imagination that characterised the Brazilian left in the 1980s.


Featured image at the top is Justice of Emperor Otto III: Beheading of the Innocent Count and Ordeal by Fire, diptych by Dieric Bouts (c.1460), Museum: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


In Jacobin: The Meaning of Lula’s Conviction

I have a new piece on anti-corruption, the fracturing Brazilian elite, and the conundrum facing the Left, written with Benjamin Fogel.


What I think might be under-appreciated outside Brazil – or maybe inside too – is the how unprecedented this all is: that the elite should be falling apart, while also pursuing class war from above, and still not topple. It continues to rule. The Left in Brazil today has a historic opportunity, and yet it can’t get its act together. Partly because the coup that led to this impasse devastated the Left as much as it put the establishment into its tailspin.

Edit: Our article was cited by Celso R. de Barros in his column in Folha de São Paulo on Monday 17 July: É hora de a esquerda aprender a viver sem a perspectiva de Lula presidente

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 15.33.00.png

What’s the opposite of these PPE/Énarque/Beltway weirdos?

On Populism and ‘Honest Politicians’

Corbyn has been praised for being an honest man, that rarity — an authentic politician. Yet his lack of success has brought criticism (and not just from the right of his own party and other centrists) for not ‘playing the game’. So which is it?

Neither. The surprise upsurge – if not quite political success – of Bernie and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (JLM) tell us something. They succeed with political oratory, big claims about democracy and public good(s). Bernie happens to also be imagined as honest and authentic. His record at least shows him to be honest. No such ‘proof’ exists for authenticity (thankfully). JLM on the other hand perhaps a bit less so. But so what?

The point is that the desire for honesty/authenticity from politicians was always a sort of false consciousness. A media mirage, a traduction of popular desires for representation. And representation means to carry into political institutions citizens’ collective interests. Not represent them in how they look, talk and act. Which is to say, representation is not reflection. It’s not meant to be a mirror image. People may say they want someone who is like them, a man of the people, when interviewed on TV news voxpops or in focus groups. But that is a failure of political language, an inability to fully express one’s alienation from the formal institutions of politics.

For a long time, the only way to express the gulf between political institutions and citizens, Peter Mair’s ‘void’, was through critiques of personal integrity. “These individuals look like bastards. We want someone who’s honest, real, not one of these PPE/énarque/Beltway weirdos.” [Delete as appropriate].

identikit politicians clegg

Off-the-peg, but tailored to your needs

That’s not to say there isn’t some truth to these personality-based critiques of the political class. (One of my favourite bits in Peter Oborne’s Triumph of the Political Class is his sartorial observations on Tony Blair and his innumerable clones. Possibly because I could get fully on board with this, whereas his more political observations – Oborne is a Burkean – jarred slightly). Anyway, Corbyn meets the demand for being honest, and fairly authentic (in a scruffy North London leftie sort of way, if not quite reflecting back Rotherham). But, upsurge in Labour membership aside, he has yet to capture the popular imagination in the way Bernie and JLM did and/or have. (Bernie would’ve won, of course. And I suspect a similar fate will meet JLM.) But the latter two had barnstorming speeches. They inspired. Hell, even Obama’s early success was not due to his honesty/authenticity but ability to raise hopes. He didn’t win because ‘he’s one of us’, but because he looked and sounded how we imagined our better selves to be.

That was 2008. Today’s populists (NB Obama was not one) have infused the aforementioned ‘void’ with political content. This might be through a fetishised obsession with immigration, on the right. But left-populists too. Not by reflecting back to ‘ordinary people’ (a terrible term) their supposed ‘ordinariness’, but by inspiring them. Left-populism at its best speaks to the desire for representation, not through lame mirror image man-of-the-people politicians, but with claims about democracy and public good(s).

You might have reservations about their specific politics, but at least its putting paid to the irritating media trope of the cardboard ‘honest/authentic politician’.

Featured image is George W. Bush’s ‘Wounded Veterans’ (c.2014)

The List Lands: Who can reconstitute democracy after this bombshell?

By 6 PM on the night of Tuesday 11 April, the plenaries of Brazil’s house and senate were empty. A long-promised political holocaust had arrived. Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin had just authorised corruption investigations into nearly a third of interim president Temer’s cabinet, and a similar proportion of senators. The list to be investigated totals 108 leading politicians.

A question I’ve long pondered is whether the Lava Jato investigations will actual fulfil their ‘promise’ of taking down the bulk of the political class, or stop short for the sake of order (and partisan gain. Hiya toucans!).

My article published yesterday in Jacobin explores this in depth, looking at what ‘anti-corruption’ means today and examining the parallels offered by Italy in the early 90s.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 11.56.31

The really preoccupying thing, though, is the absence of a credible democratic pole in the country today. As I suggest in the essay, Lula remains democracy and the Left’s best hope for 2018. That’s quite damning.

By coincidence, the excellent Gilberto Maringoni, PSOL member and IR Professor, posted some very useful reflections on this question on Facebook yesterday. I’ve translated them into English here below.

The List and the Chaos

Fachin’s list is devastating for one central reason: it’s ample and ecumenical enough to not be accused of being partial or unidirectional. At the same time, its destructive potential might put the kibosh on the whole political system. The list smacks us in the face, screaming, ‘Après moi, le déluge! Après moi, le déluge!’


And after the flood? Who will administer the waters?


The roll call of names contained in the list reaffirms something that was perceptible after the 2014 elections, when Dilma decided to dispense with the credibility of the popular vote that was invested in her: there is no vector in society with enough credibility to reorganise the system. The electoral fraud brought dismay, exacerbated anti-political sentiment, and unmasked the social fascism which had not dared speak its name.


In the 1980s, during the collapse of the dictatorship, the MDB (and afterwards the PMDB) trained itself through long years of democratic struggle to carry on through the rubble of the regime, holding up the Constituent Assembly as it’s North Star. That party became an important vector or political ballast. Around it, all political movements unveiled themselves.


The PMDB’s delegitimisation, at the end of the decade, together with the Sarney government, created four years of interregnum – the Collor and Itamar governments – until the PSDB solidly anchored itself in finance capital to impose a feasible political and economic project in an era of the reorganisation of the international division of labour. The PSDB became the second vector of redemocratisation.


The third parameter to guarantee continuity in the democratic contest was the PT, from the point at which the FHC government broke the country three times, onwards [a reference to IMF bailouts]. Without breaking totally with the administrations, the party showed extreme competence in its first years to piggyback on an external dynamism (China), raise real wages, with moderately redistributive taxes, and GDP growth. Life got noticeably better for the masses during the period.


Lula invested in the expansion of the internal market and had notable success in doing so. He did not take the next step, though, of using the public surplus to leverage state investment and reduce the impact of the external crisis. That would have implied a intensification of redistribution, which he opted against.


The PT’s collapse opened the doors to chaos. Neither the PMDB nor the PSDB has popular legitimacy, and the project they propose, of subordinate insertion [in the global division of labour] does not galvanise significant forces beyond those of finance capital. The coup project only works through the drastic reduction of real wages and the exponential increase of the base interest rate, which results, inter alia, in an overvalued exchange rate.


That is to say, if on one side the directive is to reduce the costs of production to attract capital, on the other, the discrepancy in the exchange rate objectively raises those very same internal costs. The accounts don’t square up – especially not in a depressed economy.


It is in this context that Fachin’s list comes to us. It’s good that it exists, but it is not a solution for anything. In the race against time, there is no serious competitor for the 2018 elections, with the exception of Lula.


But a Lula bereft of a national project (as during 2003-2010, despite the favourable winds from overseas) – even if it might be an important tonic in the fight against the reforms – will not reorganise the post-coup disorder. It may even reaffirm it.


Lula is decisive in this conjuncture – yes, in 2017! – for being the only glimmer of a future directions. He retains electoral density and an identifiability amongst the poor electorate that is unequaled by any other candidate.


But Lula – or any other Left force – needs a consistent macroeconomic development project. Whether he would want this or not, his positioning would represent a definite acceleration of class struggle. He has become unpalatable to those above, hence the effort to remove him from the contest altogether.


The road is difficult and complex. But it will not become clear without the accentuation of divisions in the dominant block, and without contestation from below.


Can there be a kind of conciliation? Yes, but it does not seem to be the dominant tendency in the political scene right now.


Fachin’s list seems to have the power to blow up all the ships.

Featured image is Comerre’s Le Déluge (1911)