The Meaning of Lula’s Imprisonment

I have an article in Jacobin, discussing the narrow straits of Brazilian democracy (as per usual). The first part is my notes on the matter, reproduced below. The rest is a translation of a sharp and beautifully written analysis by Felipe Demier, originally published at Esquerda Online.

This week, both sides of a polarized Brazil were on tenterhooks, awaiting the Supreme Court’s judgement on former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva‘s appeal for habeas corpus — his right to remain free until all his appeals have been exhausted. Having already been convicted in the second instance — and having had his nine-year sentence increased to twelve — his prospects looked dim. This, in spite of two appeals processes still remaining, which could take months or years.

Into this context sauntered the military top brass. One the eve of the judgement, the commander of the Army Reserves wrote in the Estado de São Paulo newspaper that if Lula were left free to run and won the presidency, there would be no option but military intervention. His comments were shortly followed by those of the commander of the Brazilian army, Eduardo Villas Boas, who took to Twitter to ask the public — rhetorically, of course — who it thought had the good of the country in mind, and who was only looking after their own. The Brazilian military, he continued, “shares the longing of all good citizens to repudiate impunity” and is “attentive to its institutional missions.”

As left-wing economist Laura Carvalho commented, “the revolution won’t be televised, but the coup will be tweeted.”

Lula’s habeas corpus was duly denied the following day. Whether Lula gives himself up is still to be seen; noises from his camp suggest he may resist arrest. On the night of the judgement, supporters rallied to the headquarters of the metalworkers’ union in suburban São Paulo, with more resistance promised from across the Left.

What has made events come to such a head now is the decision by investigating judge Sergio Moro to depart from the constitutional norm and mandate Lula’s imprisonment before his appeals process is exhausted. For Moro, this is his triumphal moment, the capture of the trophy beast he’s been hunting for years. According to his logic, sending Lula down would signal the end of political impunity. For Moro’s supporters — more anti–Workers’ Party (PT) than genuinely anti-corruption — this one imprisonment is the final nail in the coffin of corruption.

One is reminded of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003: an astoundingly premature declaration of victory, a conclusion to an illegitimate campaign announced by a vain man, whose results have been nothing but institutional chaos and an even more corrupt state. Tarnishing a perfect analogy, in Brazil the levels of violence sadly predate the campaign.


Whatever happens next — and last week’s shooting at Lula’s traveling pre-election roadshow seems a very grim foreshadowing of growing political violence — this feels like a decisive moment.

So argues political scientist Felipe Demier in the article presented in translation below. Originally published on Esquerda Online, Demier’s essay reflects on Lula’s imprisonment, staking out a position between a reflexive defense of Lula’s politics and an ultra-left celebration of his arraignment. It also discusses the highly contingent nature of bourgeois acceptance of democracy — a reconciliation that now must be abandoned through the imprisonment of a former political ally, in the name of preserving “democracy” and the constitution.


Here’s the link again: 

Will this be the last election of Brazil’s New Republic?

The first 2018 presidential election poll has been released today (31 January). It is also the first since Lula’s conviction was upheld by a regional court on 24 January. Despite his likely banning from the contest, Lula maintains a strong lead in all scenarios in which his name appears (34-37% of voting intentions).

Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro is in clear second (15-18%), albeit not having increased his lead over the past month, despite Lula’s legal troubles and Bolsonaro’s positioning as the anti-Lula candidate. Indeed, in first round scenarios with Lula exempt, polling shows Bolsonaro in first, but only increasing his lead by two percentage points (up to of 20%) versus scenarios with Lula included. We may have found Bolsonaro’s ceiling.

The lesser noted story here though is the significant degree to which rejection of all candidates manifests itself. In a historically fragmented presidential contest (Datafolha prompted voters with lists of over ten candidates, most showing no higher than low single figures), around 16% of voters intend to abstain or vote blank. But when Lula is excluded, this rises as high as 32%. It goes even higher (35%) if one takes into account only those earning up two times the minimum wage – or, broadly speaking, the bottom half of Brazilian society.  If Lula doesn’t run, a full third of the electorate will throw away their vote.

What Lula signifies

So, firstly, we must note that Lula’s exclusion from the contest represents a de facto disenfranchisement of millions of Brazilians. For the bottom half of earners in Brazil, hardly any candidate would win more than 15% of the vote. Only, in one single scenario, does Marina Silva make it to a measly 18%.

At the same time, one might argue, Lula is just an individual candidate; he is supposedly the representative of his party. Lula’s voters could just migrate to another PT candidate. Polls though hardly suggest this will happen. In the Lula-less first round scenarios, the PT governor of Bahia, Jacques Wagner, receives 2-3%, while academic and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad doesn’t even register. Intended votes for Lula are just that – intended votes for Lula. So can PT really argue that their voters are being disenfranchised if they aren’t – at least according to polling – willing to vote for another PT candidate?


Well, presidential politics in a mediatised age encourages personalisation. And whatever else one may say about him, Lula is a towering political figure, both for his personal biography and charisma, as well as political achievements in founding and building one of the most innovative Left parties of recent decades, anywhere. So given the rules of this personalised game, banning one (exceptionally popular) individual from running does seem like disenfranchisement.

At the same time, for all that PT has been the target of elite machinations against it, over the past 15 years it has also, partly, been the architect of its own downfall. It is the party itself who have gone all-in on Lula, encouraging the cult of personality, demobilising its base, and not sufficiently cultivating new talents amongst its cadre. For all that Lula is a historically unique figure, there is no one even remotely close to him in the next rank below.

‘There is no Plan B’, PT has asserted over and over. This has been a clever short-term strategy, because it allows the party to continue to build Lula’s candidature at a time when no one else on the political scene has any charisma or credibility. It means that if – at the last moment, twenty days from election – Lula has to handpick a stand-in, PT can hope that a large portion of Lula’s voters will transfer to the dauphin. Without a long campaigning period for the stand-in, this ‘successor’ could avoid closer scrutiny. He would benefit from PT voters’ sense of persecution. But any longer term perspective has to recognise the road to ruin this strategy represents.

Even if Lula is somehow allowed to run, he has no real programme. A vote for him is a vote for his personal authenticity – the only major credible politician in the country – and for memories of a better time. A vote for him is a vote for the status quo ante. A return to the pre-2013 period. For all the rhetoric against the brutal counter-reforms of Temer’s government – as well as the persecution claims about the parliamentary coup that deposed Dilma and has sought to imprison Lula – there’s little indication that a PT government wouldn’t pursue the same sort of conciliation it has over the past two decades. It would likely maintain similar alliances with the supposedly patriotic national bourgeoisie and its representatives (PT maintained, for example, state and local alliances with the golpista PMDB in 2016’s municipal elections), and it would still pursue some moderate reforms, for example of pensions. In doing so, it would be of a piece with Social Democracy’s historic role over the past half-century: selling workers moderate, pro-market reforms that the centre-right lacks the authority to do.

The vital centre?

So Lula and the PT represent very much a centrist proposal. But it is a centrist proposal in a much more fundamental way than specific policies or electoral alliances. PT has come to represent the 1988 settlement, more than any other party. It is they who are the defenders of the Constitution. In the 1990s, it was PSDB who perhaps best occupied this role – itself an offshoot of the (old) MDB, the in-house opposition of the military dictatorship. The PSDB’s rightward, neoliberal drift, and a fortiori its support for the institutional coup, has extinguished that role as guarantor of the Constitution, of the ‘New Republic’ itself. PT, meanwhile, embodies the 1988 settlement in all its contradictions. It is the most prominent guarantor of the social rights provided for in the Constitution. It also, in an ironic way, embodies the old corruption that the Constitution inscribed. Despite PT having been the ‘ethical party’, it allowed itself to be corrupted by the structures of Brazilian politics. So its alliances with regional coronéis and dependence on dodgy funding as much exemplifies its role as standard-bearer of 1988 as does its defence of spending on health, education, housing, and welfare.

But in 2018’s Brazil, what does it mean to defend that settlement? What is it to be the vital centre, which nearly all others have abandoned? (Most have abandoned it to the right, though the genuinely left-wing parties can’t be said to play this role either). The changed global and national conjuncture means standing on a ‘default’, unenunciated programme of status quo ante is an absurdity. Post-2013 Brazil demands an answer. The institutional rupture of the parliamentary coup begs for a more convincing response. The commodities boom is long gone and parties of the centre-right mounted an institutional coup against a moderate centre-left party. What now? Merely rolling back the worst of the neoliberal counter-reform programme, desirable and urgent as that is, is not enough.

What has happened in this interim is not just the spectacular occupation of the streets from June 2013 onwards, but – from as of 2014/15 – a steady chipping away at majoritarian rule, at democracy, by the elite. Lawfare has been most evident means, via the Lava Jato investigations. This has fed a deep mistrust of politics, as the growing rate of abstention/blank votes indicates. The parties of the centre-right no doubt feel this consequent lack of legitimacy themselves – and this is compounded by the patent unpopularity of the counter-reforms they have advanced.

The centre-right tactic thus appears to be, (a) to position themselves as the ‘responsible centre’, as against ‘populists’ of Left and Right. This is an attempt to cast both Lula/PT and Bolsonaro in the same nhuck_aecioet – a pathetic political manoeuvre only credible in the eyes of bow tie-wearing 17 year old Hayek fans. And (b), to hope to find a young, shiny, reforming face, in the mould of a Macron. This latter attempt has only surfaced TV personality Luciano Huck (who has no party as of yet, and is polling at 5-8%; the same level as more traditional centre-right candidates). Both aspects of this strategy are clear imports from contemporary European and American discourse: responsible centrism against an amalgamated left/right ‘populist’ threat and a young energetic ‘non-politician’ to carry through ‘necessary reforms’. Needless to say, in today’s polarised and increasingly disillusioned atmosphere, few are buying what they’re selling. Good.

Legitimacy, who needs it?

All this brings us back to the fact that anti-politics is what has dominated the Brazilian political scene for the past three years. The municipal elections of 2016 attested to this fact very clearly. As I wrote here at the time, the degree of abstention and blank votes is is accompanied by a fall in support for democracy and democratic institutions as attested to in values surveys, such as Latinobarómetro’s. (I’ll be doing a deeper dive on Latinobarómetro data as soon as the full 2017 data is out).

This grave absence of legitimacy is hardly being counteracted by any section of the political or business elite. It is they after all who pushed the institutional coup, and the highly questionable judicial manoeuvres against Lula. The Left is too weak and fragmented right now to hold up the house, and its questionable whether they would seek to hold up such a rotten structure anyway. It – and especially PT – does so only as a defensive measure, because it feels worse could be on the way. Defend limited gains, and all that.

But it’s not enough on its own. And anyway, as everywhere, democratic rights were only achieved because the Left demanded them, and more. Liberal democracy is a compromise. The Right has decided to give up its end of the bargain. If the Brazilian elite had any care for even the appearance of legitimacy, it would support Lula and allow him to run. He is, after all, the best embodiment of the New Republic, and anyway is someone they can work with – as his conciliation has shown time and again.


L-R: Not elected; Corrupt, resigned to avoid impeachment; Left office with negative approval ratings; Most popular ever president, now convicted; Impeached; Not elected

But they blindly, moronically, refuse to do so. To flip around the Latin American Right’s favourite jibe, if they care so little for democracy, they should f*** off to Cuba. Consequently, I fear the game is up for the Brazilian Sixth Republic. The beginning of the end may actually have been something that I don’t believe has been fully reckoned with, internalised: the June 2013 protests.

But in itself this was not a sufficient condition. However, add in the deep economic crisis (which Brazil has not recovered from, whatever the historically high stock market says; look at the job numbers, the degree of flexibilisation that make the job numbers look better than they are, the number of people discouraged from formal employment altogether, and on and on), the rancorous polarisation of the 2014 election campaign, the even more acrimonious attitude of 2015-now, and the blatant, flaunted mediocrity and corruption of the political class… and yeah. I’m not certain how much longer this institutional arrangement lasts.

The most gloomy conspiracy theorists are likely wrong, and October’s elections will go ahead. It would be an unimaginable outrage were they not to. But the teetering structure won’t hold for much longer; just think through the outcome scenarios… Bolsonaro would create a much more authoritarian society and state. Lula – or AN Other Petista – would face a governability crisis and might be pushed out once again. Any candidate of the centre-right would govern having failed to win 70% of the Brazilian electorate over in the second round, and – even without further neoliberal reforms – would face a serious questions over their legitimacy. And this is all before we factor in (a) the worsening public security situation, a serious breakdown of which would usher in authoritarian responses; and (b) whether the Brazilian masses take to the streets again, which they’ve threatened to do, but have largely been absent since the March 2017 general strike. In any scenario, I struggle to see how this Republic lasts, and makes it much beyond the next election.

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

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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)