The general commentary regarding Brazilian politics is that the “politicians are all the same” or “there is no political alternative” and that even the good ones get corrupted once they reach power. It is no wonder then, that the massive protests of June 2013 throughout Brazil, which were filled with diffuse voices and eclipsed by broad demands, revealed what many termed a crisis of representation.
Set off by a display of solidarity in the face of the violent police repression of protests against public transportation fare increases, these protests were the largest in numbers since the early 1990s and were composed by diverse social groups as well as members from the organized Left (parties, unions and social movements).
However, as street numbers grew, the push for nationalism and a moralist opposition to corruption led to attacks on the organized Left, which, at times, even led to physical aggression. People did not feel represented, so they acted against representation. Though the problem is deeper than just a crisis of representation in Brazilian democracy as it also speaks to the issue of the relegation of “politics” to the world of elected representatives instead of the people.
June 2013 was by no means revolutionary, but it was radical in the sense that it provided opportunities to politicize those who had previously understood themselves as outside of politics. With the reenergized desire to make politics in the streets again, new political collectives and social movements were born and the existing groups fighting for social justice and a left vision grew.
As the contested 2014 FIFA World Cup approached, diverse groups once again took to the streets to expose the complicit acts of the government in violating rights to accommodate the mega-event. The event connected struggles of all kinds, from the homeless to independent food vendors displaced by big businesses at the stadiums. In response, the federal government, along with local governments, promised more repression and delivered it. Coercion, as we know, is what the state turns to when all forms of consent creation have failed.
Although it managed to garner support for the World Cup from the elites and sections of the middle-class that felt empowered by their role as consumers in the international event, the state was unable to contain the criticism from the streets. The protests were not as massive as in June 2013, nor could they be, since this time they were more focused on particular agendas that went beyond weak moralist calls against corruption. Elsewhere, I have analysed the nature of the struggles around the World Cup. For now, I will turn to the significance of the past year of political activity by the Brazilian social movements, political parties and collectives as we reach another turning point: the October elections.
Electoral disenchantment in the Left
Political parties in Brazil were the targets of the criticism of representation in 2013. The larger the protests got, the more diversified were the groups of people taking the streets, many of whom were there for the first time. The streets were claimed in unison by the people, but the voices of “political neutrality” rejected the presence of political parties (and social movements) for fear of co-optation. In a crisis of representation, this is more than expected.
The real problem was that this move was much more damaging for the parties of the Left than for the parties of the Right. The Right has no interest in the streets if not to privatize them away from the domain of popular politics. And if the radical parties of the Left are truly what they claim, they already belong in the streets and were likely to be there even before the masses exploded. For the radical left, their work has varied from solidarity with labour unions to coordinated resistance alongside many social movements; activities that are essential for the composition of the Left and the struggle for rights and material improvements for the oppressed and marginalized.
One of the biggest gains for the Left was the mobilization of the discourse of the “right to the city” through protests and occupations whose dangerously radical content posed a threat to bourgeois conservative hegemony. This is why the Right was so eager to blend in the false perception of political neutrality in the name of the Brazilian people, going as far as facilitating the call of “my country is my party” to demobilize. This exercise in depoliticization took away many opportunities to build the decisive moment of June 2013 into a larger organic movement.
The radical Left was posed with the challenge of building a real left alternative while also convincing the people that they too belonged in the streets with them. Despite the obstacles, the radical Left managed to grow in support and enthusiasm, especially through new visibility given to historical struggles that would help to overcome a certain level of Left melancholia experienced after the failure of the Workers’ Party (PT) rise to power and transition as a “party of order” in the early 2000’s.
Considering this, in an election year, a new facet is added to the challenges of the radical Left: to convince the people and the broader left that some institutional power is worth pursuing in the path to revolution.
This new facet is complex, as it deals on the one hand with the disbelief in institutional politics and the outright rejection of it. In the first case, the discredit given to party politics from the Left is partially a result of the experience around the PT’s adoption of neoliberalism and move to the centre through the Lula and Dilma Rousseff administrations.
At the time of its inception the PT was closely connected to labour struggles, social movements and the opposition to the military dictatorship (1960’s-1980’s), and had successfully positioned itself as the main opposition to the Brazilian Right. The massive popular oppositions to corrupt president Fernando Collor de Mello in 1992 were led and mobilized by the PT in conjunction with other political entities. The PT’s 1998 national program also called for radical reforms to reconstruct a socialist perspective in Brazil. As such, the PT’s neoliberal turn post-2002 was extremely damaging to left protagonism in Brazil at the institutional level, hence the popular belief that there is no left alternative in the elections.
This belief, however, is unfounded, since Brazil does have a radical Left among the more than 30 active political parties. Here we identify more easily the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL), the Unified Socialist Workers’ Party (PSTU) and the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB). These three parties have engaged in criticism of the PT’s gradual move to the right and of its alliances with national and international capital. Suffice to say, this criticism has been met with hostility by PT intellectuals and even social movements that stand in alliance with the party because of its hegemonic status.
Although the radical Left parties work together in solidarity and resistance at many fronts of struggle, be it for labour rights or the need for agrarian and urban reform, they are indeed separate political organizations made up of complex internal relationships and currents. The need to posit themselves as a truly left alternative has led to a certain level of collaboration at the institutional level despite theoretical and methodological divergences through “Leftist Fronts” (Frentes de Esquerda). However, for this year’s election, each party has put forward its own presidential candidate: Luciana Genro for PSOL, Zé Maria for the PTSU and Mauro Iasi for the PCB. It is important to acknowledge that these are parties that do not shy away from important revolutionary themes pertaining to class struggle, and that they take active stances in the fight against racial, gender, ethnic and identity-based oppressions, among others. These are often topics neglected by the other parties from the moderate Left either due to fear of losing votes or simply due to a general disregard for the anti-oppression agenda.
The notion that there is no radical Left alternative at the ballot box is evidence of the desperate need for political reform in Brazil, as radical Left parties do not count on the same millionaire resources of corporations as do the PT and the parties of the Right. The corporate funding of campaigns skews popular opinions, voter intentions and media exposure. The bourgeois press contributes to the problem by neglecting or actively attacking radical Left candidates, as it has also done with social movements and popular protests in an attempt to criminalize them.
For the radical Left parties, the importance lies in considering the electoral arena as a space that is worth contesting without losing sight of the revolutionary path that will take us beyond the state. The electoral territory is dominated by bourgeois interests and condemnable alliances between capital and the state. And though it is true that rejecting the electoral process helps expose these links, it does little to break them or intervene in their creation.
If a revolution from below is the goal, it cannot restrain itself to the “anti” when it comes to elections, but it must build forms to facilitate the revolutionary process at all levels. Political parties from the radical left can help with this task in solidaristic alliance with social movements and grassroots collectives to make gains beyond political seats. The moment of high exposure around the elections and the opportunity it gives to engage people who otherwise isolate themselves from politics is highly pedagogical. The radical Left knows that elections are only one element of political making, but parties empowered by popular support and collective agendas may succeed in politicizing more people into the struggle against capital and oppression while achieving concrete success at the institutional realm through opposition and direct intervention.
Concrete benefits of contesting the institutional space
It is true that it was popular power demonstrated through the protests of June 2013 that changed laws, prevented regressive and conservative bills from passing and reverted public transportation fares. It was not an amorphous mass, however, that decided bus and subway tickets should not increase, but a large group of people informed by the work of the Free Pass Movement in politicizing on the issue while negotiating with state representatives when necessary. In a democracy, it helps if those representatives opening their doors to you are truly your representatives; that is, they work for the same causes as you do both when elected and when not elected.
Even if anarchists and autonomists who are helping to build and strengthen popular power in Brazil at the moment do not support elections, they also stand to gain from helping to elect radical Left representatives who will work directly with them on progressive agendas.
The autonomist criticism inside the leftist struggles in Brazil at the moment is not only unproductive, but also damaging. It resonates of a fragmented Left that needs to work together in opposition to the right, but instead breaks apart over method and vision. The fact is that neoliberalism and capitalism are winning, and they must be fought at all fronts of struggle. The state is a very important site of struggle, since it promotes and legitimizes profit accumulation, imperialist practices, oppression, violence and dispossession against the people. One cannot help but wonder what difference it would make to have more radical Left legislators and members of the government intent on abolishing Brazil’s military police institution or on finally ending the war on drugs that criminalizes black youth and reinforces violence in poor communities.
In other countries, a Left that felt disabled by weak turns towards social democracy and direct attacks by the Right has recognized the value of this space. In Spain, the recently formed party Podemos has shown considerable strength in the last elections, earning five seats that help to alter the ruling elite configuration of the Spanish parliament. Born out of the Indignados movement, Podemos is not an institutional co-optation of popular power but a popular instrument for fighting the austerity agenda at its place of production. Similar remarks may be made about Greece’s Syriza.
For all radical Left parties operating under neoliberalism and austerity, the present is full of contradictions. It would be irresponsible, from a revolutionary perspective, for the radical Left as a whole – institutional or independent – to oppose electoral disputes on the basis of these contradictions. When it comes to the state, capital and its parties in the Right (and moderate Left) are easily in alliance. The radical Left only stands to gain from working together and in constant dialogue to dispute the present conditions in the hopes of solving the given contradictions in the revolutionary path.
The radical Left in Brazil can do that if progressive voters learn to see beyond the moderate social democratic model of the PT, especially as it gradually tends more and more to the right. At the presidential level, this is a long and strenuous battle, but significant gains can be made when it comes to the other seats. Then, the voices of June 2013 can make themselves heard in October.
First published on August 15, 2014 at New Socialist Webzine.