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)

Brazilian betrayal: Battle of Ideas

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.



Closing Remarks

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.

Democracy, Corruption and Trust

On the municipal election results…

Brazil’s first elections since Dilma’s impeachment are already being reported as a ‘slap‘ to the Workers’ Party (PT). This was always going to be the case. The governing party bore the brunt of anti-corruption protests, the Lava Jato investigations, and responsibility for recession. More interesting is the rise of another force – anti-politics. None-of-the-above may turn out to be the biggest winner.


In Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, millionaire businessman João Dória won an unprecedented absolute majority, heavily defeating PT’s Fernando Haddad. Dória’s appeal as successful businessman, non-politician and former host of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice did him favours in the current climate. But equally notable was that nul or white votes beat Haddad into second place. Indeed, the story was similar in mayoral elections across Brazil.

Four of the country’s five largest cities saw nul/white come in second place. Likewise in eight of the 20 biggest. Most remarkably, the protest vote came in first in three significant municipalities (all in the top 30 nationally): São Gonçalo (pop. 1m) and Nova Iguaçú (pop. 800k) in Greater Rio, and Osasco (pop. 700k) in Greater São Paulo. And this is without counting abstention rates that hovered around 20%. There were regional disparities, with abstention and blank votes in the Northeast region generally lower, while much higher in the metropolises of the Southeast.

This deserves further exploration later this week. But for now, a broader lens on trust in democracy. Brazil’s political crisis and anti-political wave seem like a part of global trends.

Yet Brazil operates on a different timescale. Attempts to fit it into ‘universal’ periodisations are mistaken. While democracy was being hollowed-out across the West in the 2000s, Brazil was living perhaps its greatest democratising moment (in a history hardly ennobled by them). While left critics rightly point out social movement and labour demobilisation during the PT’s period in office, by the standards of formal liberal democracy, this was a peak of institutional representation of popular wishes. At least at the executive level, a majority of Brazilians voted for representatives who promised improvements in standards of living for the majority and these were duly delivered. Yes, there was graft, vote-buying and so on, while oligarchical politics carried on as usual. But it still presented a contrast to the European or North American pattern of promising nothing and getting even less in return. So what happened?

The protests which erupted in June 2013 were testament to rising expectations coaxed from the previous decade’s success. The failure of public institutions to match up to these new aspirations then crashed into a severe economic downturn and resulted in the political crisis we see today. For all the ins and outs of political manoeuvring, the primary dynamic here is undeniable.

Indeed, for all that this is ostensibly “about corruption”, the defining feature is a loss of trust in establishment politics. Witness data about support for democracy from the latest Latinobarómetro:

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If we chart net support for democracy (pro-democracy, minus authoritarianism and ambivalence) alongside GDP per capita, the results are unsurprising: support for democracy accompanies GDP per capita figures.

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NB: Survey data on democracy is from the early part of the year. Therefore GDP per capita data has been taken from the preceding year (i.e. 2015’s democracy score is presented alongside 2014’s GDP figures). 2016 GDP per capita data is not yet available, but it will likely accompany 2016’s steep decline in net support for democracy (-23%, down from+22% in 2015).

This isn’t to suggest that support for democracy is inherently fickle and dependent on it ‘delivering’ economically. But they are not unconnected. And opinion surveys likely magnify this relationship (you’re struggling to get by, you see institutions not operating as well as they might, and you tell your interviewer you’re unsure about this whole democracy thing.)

Today’s election results should be seen in this light. But the deep impact of the anti-corruption crusade led by Judge Sérgio Moro should not be underestimated. Lava Jato is not just an investigation into massive graft. It’s also a media event, whose impartiality is deeply questionable. Even if its intentions were not partisan, its effects on the broader culture are. This is seen in the fall in PT candidates’ popularity – both in polling and in these municipal elections.

But worse than delegitimising the PT, the anti-corruption investigations (and the wave of protest they rode and helped direct and sustain) may be in the process of de-legitimising politics as a pursuit in itself. While political corruption is a betrayal of trust from those holding public office, anti-corruption politics (as opposed to anti-corruption policies) are themselves corrosive of trust. Moro, one notes, benefits from high approval ratings and even figures in putative 2018 presidential election surveys. But even he has seen his standing fall in the past months as his tactics seem to fall foul of the ethical high standards he ostensibly demands. If corruption seems to be everywhere, who can be trusted?

Trust is a fungible property. Loss of trust in one area can mean it gets displaced onto others. As representative institutions get called into question, people can displace trust into counter-majoritarian institutions, such as the judiciary.

Screen Shot 2016-10-02 at 23.06.38.png

There is thus far no evidence of this in Brazil, and in fact the judiciary seems to have suffered from the same loss of trust affecting representative institutions. This may be a small mercy. A fully fleshed democracy requires trust in representatives, whatever the institutional configuration may be; and rule by judges is not that. But abstention and blank votes do not presage a re-engagement with politics. Anti-politics continues the winner for now.

Fancy that: no police, no violence

Here’s some surprising news: a pro-democracy protest yesterday in São Paulo (7 September) did not end in police aggression. This stands in contrast to the violent repression witnessed all last week against crowds of two to 30-thousand, and on Sunday against a much larger mass of 50-100 thousand, as I discussed in posts here and here, respectively.

In a Medium post for independent media agency Democratize, Victor Amatucci points out that lines of black blocs led a 10-thousand-strong protest 7km from the centre to Paulista and back, without incident. Could it be that the absence of riot police at this demo, rather than the presence of black blocs, was the reason behind the lack of conflict? You don’t say.

Media blamed black blocs for instigating violence much of last week (example). When I was present (Tue, Wed, Thu, Sun) I did not personally witness any instigation on the part of demonstrators. That said, even parts of the old left blamed black blocs for prompting police action. On the other hand, rumours abounded that plainclothes military police were infiltrating protests and initiating vandalism and violence to justify police repression.

[UPDATE: According to this report, a student group arrested just before Sunday’s protest started was infiltrated by a policeman posing as a leftist on Tinder. The group of 26, which included minors, were then held without access to lawyers and allegedly were forced to sign statements without attorneys present as well as some having evidence planted on them. A judge later released most of them, claiming it recalled practices from the era of the dictatorship. This, supposedly, is the work of ‘P2’ an undercover military police unit, that many protesters claim to be infiltrating protests. The only amusing part of the story is the Tinder profile included a falsified quote from Karl Marx (“Democracy is the road to socialism”). Not only brutal and illiberal, but can’t even do their research properly.]

In any case, the ‘black bloc justification’ is old hat, being a reporting trope since June 2013. Sometimes it has proved true, but it still doesn’t justify widespread and indiscriminate repression.

The reason for police reticence yesterday is unclear. But my speculation as to whether the military police’s strategy might have some federal direction is bolstered by a fact I neglected to mention: federal justice minister Alexandre de Moraes was São Paulo state minister at the Secretariat for Public Security from Jan 2015 to May 2016, under current governor Geraldo Alckmin.

[Featured image: Wladimir Raeder/Democratize]