Postscript on the Brazilian coup

The legal farce of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff is set to continue a little while longer. Her defence team has appealed to the Supreme Court for the decision of the Senate to be annulled and Michel Temer returned to his prior status as interim president pending a final decision. It is difficult to imagine how this appeal could prosper. On the other side of the argument, the PSDB, with the support of the DEMs and PPS, has now decided to reverse its earlier decision and make its own appeal to the STF against Minister Lewandowski’s decision to allow the voting in two parts that permitted Dilma Rousseff to conserve her political rights despite being found guilty of crimes of responsibility. Supreme court judge Gilmar Mendes, judicial rottweiler of the PSDB, has predictably already expressed his dissent from his colleague’s approval of the split vote, supported by fellow minister Celso de Mello. The STF also includes some associates and a cousin of ex-President Collor, who was treated differently despite having resigned prior to his final judgement by the Senate in an attempt to avoid loss of his political rights.

The consequences of the STF accepting this second appeal would, however, be complicated, not simply procedurally, but in terms of the smoothness of the transition to, and stability of, a post-coup regime led by the PMDB, given that Renan Calheiros as Senate President not only accepted the split vote but spoke firmly in favour of allowing Dilma to retain her political rights. O Globo newspaper claims that Temer expressed irritation with Calheiros and the PMDB colleagues who voted with him against the second proposition in the Senate, but he had met with Calheiros on several occasions recently, and invited him to join the Brazilian delegation on the trip to China for the G20 meeting. So the claim that this all came as an unwelcome surprise to the new president should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

Temer’s claims to power are based on the fact that he was vice-president to Dilma Rousseff in the period in which his party was in coalition with the PT at the federal level (at state level the PMDB was sometimes a PT ally and sometimes part of an opposition bloc). The famous letter that Temer wrote to Dilma complaining about being simply a “decorative” vice-president was designed to counter the argument that he should be considered co-responsible for the ex-President’s alleged crimes of responsibility and therefore also be impeached. Most of those peembebistas who had served as ministers in Dilma’s government before their party ordered them to resign voted in favour of the impeachment, with a few distinguished exceptions, notably Kátia Abreu, who not only refused to resign, but opened the speeches from senators in defence of Dilma on both parts of the motion. But the PMDB members of the government remain vulnerable to attacks by the PSDB that insinuate a continuing backstage complicity with their erstwhile coalition partners, even if Temer and the PMDB took the precaution of launching their bid for power with the hard line neoliberal manifesto “Bridge to the Future”.

Given the content of its announced program, many analysts envisage that the new government will face resistance from trade unions and social movements. Strikes have been commonplace under the PT-led governments, including prolonged strikes of public employees and university teachers. But it seems important to reflect more deeply on what has actually happened so far in terms of resistance to the coup and resistance to the steps that Temer and his allies have already taken during their period as an interim government. This is actually quite a complicated issue.

At the beginning of the coup process, there were comparatively large street demonstrations in support of democracy, backed by the CUT, the main trade union central of the left (there are other trade union organisations, potentially less antagonistic to Temer’s government), and by movements that had little affection for Dilma, such as the MST and Homeless Movement (MTST). But street protests demanding Rousseff’s removal also has a substantial impact, enhanced by mainstream media coverage. The long drawn out judicial process helped to promote demobilisation on both sides, but the anti-Dilma movements were invoked as a “popular” and “democratic” justification for the coup in the final Senate hearing.

Although social media are often seen as important for building support for “progressive” causes that biased mainstream media oppose, this is too simple a perspective. Social media are equally important for understanding the development of the pro-impeachment movement,and for the way in which the demonstrations of young people against rising bus fares and the cost of the World Cup in 2013 ended up generating some new youth organisations of the right rather than the left. The latter may have been predominantly middle class but were not exclusively so, and they were also diverse in the sense that although most were “libertarian” (in a liberal sense, apt for a highly individualised market society), some were more socially conservative than others. In fact, these complexities confirm the thesis that traditional concepts of “right” and “left” no longer work very well, even in a country where authoritarian and patriarchal political models and “traditional” kinds of intolerance towards sexual preference, abortion, women’s empowerment and other social issues remain significant, despite the existence of strong counter-currents, especially amongst women. But social media were also important, in a more subtle way, for undermining the prestige of the PT. Even young people who voted for left-wing parties such as the PSOL could not help but be amused by satirical songs and videos disseminated on YouTube that conveyed the message that Lula was as corrupt as the rest of them. The cultivation of cynicism plays an important part in corroding the bases of democratic life, and this effect occurs even when the author of the joke did not intend to do more than invite critical thinking.

In the immediate aftermath of the Senate decision, some young people did take to the streets in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in new “Fora Temer” (Temer Out!) demonstrations. A twenty-year old female student lost sight in one eye permanently as a result of the vigorous repression that these protests have received from the military police in São Paulo. She stoically informed friends in her social network that she was OK despite having been blinded. Bravery in the face of police brutality is not restricted to university students in São Paulo. One of the most significant youth movements in that metropolis was launched by high school and technical college students, firstly in protest against the Alckmin government’s efforts to “rationalise” provision in a way that would force students to travel further to get to school and suffer more overcrowded classes, and then against one of the many corruption scandals that has blighted the record of the PSDB government of the state. This was in the school meals system, and provoked not only occupations of schools but the main distribution centre. The students were protesting both about impunity and the actual provision itself. Away from home all day, and often with a long journey to and from their place of education if they lived in the urban periphery, nutritionally satisfying meals mattered a lot to them, and many were receiving nothing at all, or a very nutritionally inadequate snack foods. Joining in occupations or blocking major traffic arteries could be at considerable personal cost, since several students recounted how their parents had thrown them out of the house for joining the movement. In the end this form of youth militancy was strongly repressed by police invasions of occupied buildings and arrests that violated rules for the treatment of minors. These minors had not, after all, robbed or murdered anyone, and hardly deserved to be included in the paulista PSDB’s wider enthusiasm for the penal state (and a privatised penal state at that).

For young people, and even some not so young people, participating in a militant movement for a cause (whatever its ideological orientation) provides both a dignifying sense of personal identity and the possibility of experiencing a feeling of communitas, to use Victor Turner’s expression, that mundane life often denies them. This kind of communitas may be even stronger than that offered by membership of a religious congregation. But young people today are perhaps more frequently alienated from politics altogether, and hardly alone in that.

A politician is a person you only see when it’s election time. This is a constant complaint, particularly on the urban periphery, but not aways strictly true, since even if their motives are ultimately electoral, some politicians do make more of an effort than others to cultivate popular bases, even if at least one eye is also on the photo opportunity. For example, the DEM mayor of Salvador, Bahia, ACM Neto, has inherited the ability of his famous cacique grandfather, Antônio Carlos Magalhaes, when it comes to reaching out to the “popular classes”. He also seems to make a point of being seen around in public doing ordinary things in middle class spaces. His grandfather actually advised his political operators to make sure that they made grammatical errors and used the incorrect forms of commonly corrupted Portuguese words to ensure that they were talking a language that the masses understood as their own. In this case we are talking about populist tactics deployed in the interests of a socially conservative but capitalistically modernising elite, and also about the reproduction of a political machine (a principle especially relevant to what the PMDB has became in the years after the dictatorship ended). But as the great Italian communist leader and political theorist Antonio Gramsci advised his cadres, following a logic of practice not totally dissimilar to that of ACM, achieving hegemony in the sense of the “intellectual and moral leadership” of a society required party militants not only to understand how the masses think but also how they feel. Gramsci did not, however, have any confidence at all in the capacity of the spontaneous action of the masses to change society structurally, even when it constituted unambiguous “resistance” to domination. For Gramsci, intellectual and moral leadership had to be constructed actively, by the disciplined cadres of the communist party, in accordance with a vision of the future that would guide the popular imagination in directions that it would not attain unaided.

This, along with the role of the state, remains a major point of debate today in an age when ostensibly non-hierarchic movements practising “prefigurative democracy” are often seen as the most promising sources of opposition to capitalist power, yet seem to wax and wane in cycles of growth and decay as predictable as the seasons. In Brazil, as I argued in my previous post, the left needs to reconnect with its social bases, but it needs to do so in a way that goes much further than populism can ever do. People need to feel involved in politics in a much more direct way, through more participatory forms of engagement, and the parties need to come up with much clear projects that they are able to communicate effectively and subject to debate with their supporters.

The problem is that many people do not really want to participate. They want to spend what spare time they have (which often isn’t much in the case of poor people) doing something more enjoyable than attending a meeting. This is true even in the case of forms of participation that ought to pay dividends in making everyday life easier, such as those that have been offered by some more enlightened community policing projects. Political and social movements have a lot of work to do to maintain engagement, even of a minority, and it is not a bad idea to build some expectation of having fun that has nothing to do with talking politics into the life of the party or movement itself. But without any effort at all to foster participation, alienation from politics is likely to deepen, as it has done in the mature democracies of Europe.

The alienating effect of the judicial rite of impeachment and the parliamentary political antics that have accompanied these drawn out proceedings is probably considerable. In a presidential system of the kind that Brazil has, the figure of the President becomes the focus of praise or blame, and although judicial debate about the meaning of a clause in the constitution or a federal law is useful for covering the tracks of what is really a political decision, it is pretty boring as well as hard to follow. But if things are going badly with the economy, changing the President can seem like a way forward to many citizens. The main political problem for the coup is that the replacement figure starts from a low base of popularity, and is tainted by accusations of corruption. Brazilian parliamentarians (and judges) are handsomely compensated financially and in terms of perks, which is also a cause of cynicism and resentment. Dilma did manage to project herself as a moral figure, although she was less adept at other forms of everyday political communication. Yet despite the fact that she did more than any other president in history to deal with corruption, the fact that she did not spare her own political party has, ironically, played an important role in her downfall by associating her rule with the immorality of some other figures in her party. Most of the political class lack qualifications to exercise moral leadership, including many of the evangelicals who aim strongly to do so but tend to be hampered by the perception that their churches are really more about making money than serving God, leaving aside the accusations of corruption and even sexual harassment that have been made against some of the major evangelical politicians in the congress. This is not a healthy climate in which to rebuild democracy.

Temer has tried to project himself as the ideal caretaker, because he has no further political ambitions beyond 2018. Yet his government agenda is an ideologically sensitive rather than technocratic one, and he is leading a fractious coalition of forces. Nevertheless, he has already managed to make some changes which will have longer term significance. Inappropriate though it might seem, he began reshaping the state apparatus in accordance with the interests backing the coup right from the start of his period as interim president, not simply changing ministers but reorganising departments and in some cases eliminating entire ministries. These were highly political decisions, and provoked reactions that forced some U-turns. The most dramatic of these concerned the Ministry of Culture, after activists occupied buildings throughout the country in protest. The interim government did, however, also conduct purges of PT-sympathisers in the civil service and the restructuring of ministries has already provoked grave anxieties about the future of land reform and indigenous and human rights. Yet because Dilma remained a president whose mandate was only suspended, still awaiting a final decision on her impeachment, throughout these early months, some of the initial impetus towards resistance diminished with time. What will happen in the coming months depends on whether the Temer government succeeds in producing an economic panorama that it can present as a move towards recovery. It will not be easy to ask Brazilians to be patient, and it is quite possible that the policies to be pursued will improve some macro-economic indicators without making many people actually feel that the country is emerging from crisis.

In the last analysis, the removal of Dilma Rousseff has done nothing to solve the deeper crisis. People who are not going hungry, desperate about their debts, unable to pay for the medicines or keep their kids in school, or living under the daily threat of being caught by a stray bullet or assaulted on the bus, will no doubt respond by grumbling, getting on with their lives, and going to the beach. But if Brazilians become increasingly alienated from the political process and ideologically indifferent to who governs them, accepting inequality as a fact of nature, the country’s future will not be positive even if it recovers something of its economic strength.