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

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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.

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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)

Dirty Hands, Broken Carwash – now in Portuguese

My October piece on the politicisation of the Lava Jato investigations – originally published here and in Brasil Wire has been updated and republished in translation in Brazil’s Revista Maquiavel. The initiation last night of investigations into leading politicians across the spectrum has changed matters somewhat, but the principle points remain valid, I think.

tropical_storm_1.jpgBasically, it’s the following: you can’t ‘end corruption’, because it’s a feature of bourgeois politics. Purely judicial initiatives don’t even remove corruption in its own terms, because it is rooted in the how the representative system functions; only democratising this will improve matters. Instead anti-corruption politics always conceal another aim. In this case, a transition to neoliberalism and reduced democratic accountability. By exploding the existing political class, however, you only further anti-political sentiment, and clear the way for authoritarian demagogues.

There’s (a lot) more to come on this, so I’ll be posting again shortly.

Featured image is Girodet’s The Deluge (1806)