2018: a year for political hope?

It is not exactly easy to be optimistic about what 2018 has in store for either Latin America or Europe. In a sense, my country of citizenship, the United Kingdom, now seems to offer one of the more promising political scenarios around. There is civil war within the country’s elite, Theresa May’s Conservative government gets weaker by the month, and the opposition Labour Party has shifted to the Left, as represented by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the country, despite considerable opposition amongst sitting MPs, on a platform that not only promises an alternative to austerity and growing social inequality but a radically different foreign policy. Nevertheless, there may not be another general election any time soon in the UK however unpopular May’s government becomes, and whatever further divisions emerge within the cabinet and Conservative party in the course of Brexit. Brexit poses as big a problem for Labour as it does for the Conservatives and even leaving aside what should be very considerable anxieties about the economic future, it is hard to get over optimistic about the future of a country in which there are regular reports of violent hate crimes perpetrated on the streets by the kind of xenophobic and Islamopobic minority that now exists throughout Europe.

In the event of an early general election, a Corbyn-led Labour government would certainly be preferable to the alternatives, including a return to the neoliberalised social democratic politics of the Tony Blair era, but we still need to worry about how radically different it would or could prove under present circumstances. The political discontents of our age ultimately reflect the inability of the capitalist system to guarantee social justice and inter-generational social mobility. Neoliberalism and financialisation as fixes to problems of capital accumulation not only deepen social inequalities but help to foster the illusion, well exposed in Jason Moore’s arguments for preferring the concept of a “Capitalocene” to that of an “Anthropocene”, that whilst profits are still to be made technological change can compensate for the impacts of capitalist accumulation on the human and non-human planetary resources that Europeans have sought to commodify from the dawn of our overseas expansion. Nevertheless, despite the hate crimes, ever rising rents and costs of commuting, and tangible evidence of growing poverty and homelessness, not to mention the impacts of climate change, the revival of Labour under Corbyn has made 2017 a year in which hope was, to a modest extent, revived in this disunited kingdom.

Yet the broader picture remains depressing for reasons that are not peculiar to the UK and continental Europe, although the past achievements of European social democracies may deepen the sense of disappointment. In Latin America also, young people fear that their future will not be as prosperous as that of their parents, and parents who made material sacrifices to educate their children feel disappointed about the rewards those children are now receiving in terms of salaries and lifestyles. However corrupt and undemocratic they may have been, the major Latin American states did once offer their populations plausible promises of better prospects for the future and inter-generational social mobility. If we look at countries such as Brazil and Mexico today, the general collapse of any kind of “hope generating machine”, to use Monique Nuijten’s famous phrase, strongly differentiates now from the past.

In the case of Brazil, the degree of social retrocession produced during 2017 by the Temer regime working in concert with the congress is truly staggering. Brazil is not simply belatedly embracing an extreme version of the kind of austerity policies now so widely critiqued elsewhere, but moving backwards towards the days of the Old Republic or even the colonial period in many other respects, including the abandonment of national resource sovereignty. Deepening crisis has also highlighted the continuity of xenophobic, racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes on the part of a significant number of Brazilians, as well as the continuing appeal of authoritarian politics, albeit for a minority. The idea that the majority of citizens want a different Brazil to that proposed by the golpistas seems plausible in the light of the fact that ex-President Lula is securing an ever more substantial opinion poll lead over other possible candidates for the 2018 presidential elections. Jair Bolsonaro, the candidate of the extreme right, has also achieved a substantial following, including among some young people, but still remains a distant second behind Lula, although he is ahead of the candidates of the other mainstream parties. Yet whether Lula will be able to stand in 2018 depends on the progress of the continuing process of lawfare against him. The next, but not necessarily final, round of this is scheduled for January 24, when a higher court will rule on the validity of  Judge Moro’s sentencing of Lula to imprisonment for corruption in the first of the series of cases that have been brought against him. But once again, even if Lula does manage to stand and win an election, we need to think about how radical an alternative a new Lula-led government would present, in the light of the past contradictions of “Lulism”.

The same question would need to be asked of possible substitute candidates whom Lula might endorse if he were debarred from standing, and the question is not simply one of political will or the pragmatics of political coalition-building and “class compromise”. Shifting power from the presidency and executive to the congress has been one much touted strategy for keeping the coup in motion irrespective of the result of the presidential elections, although it is proving difficult to achieve consensus amongst the forces currently dominating the congress on how to do this, and use of this strategy to block the reform efforts of João Goulart did not obviate the need to resort to a military coup in 1964. Nevertheless, the Left is still not doing much to help itself either. Brazil’s left-wing and centre-left forces not only remain divided and electorally competitive, but continue to reproduce divisions that have ideological dimensions, such as those between the left-leaning heirs of Getúlio Vargas’s populist labourism and the PT, and between the neoliberalised PT of Lulism and break-away PSOL. The question of populism raises the question of whether it is not symptomatic of the weakness of the Left that there is such as strong focus on Lula as a personality uniquely capable of mobilising the votes of Brazilians across the class spectrum but particularly those of the poor. Finally, although the coup may have focused minds on what the Left does not want in terms of economic policy and distribution of wealth, so that coming up with a shared vision of alternatives might not seem that difficult, fourteen years of PT dominance in national government revealed considerable tensions with the agendas of more radical social movements. These have only come back on side, in a qualified way, because of the coup’s even more negative implications for the future of land reform, social housing, right to the city, and the territorial rights of indigenous and afro-descendent people.

Even the question of how socially liberal Brazil should be can be complicated. The PT made electoral and parliamentary alliances with a variety of parties dominated by evangelicals, and Lula was not shy of backing the personal electoral ambitions of evangelicals such as Rio’s Marcelo Crivella when it made political sense. In thinking about socially liberal ideas on questions of relationships, gender and sexuality, it is important to bear in mind that socially conservative ideas (as well as individualistic ideologies) are to be found in all social classes, a matter that might bear more attention in ethnographic research in, and analysis of, the poor communities in which evangelical churches have become so strongly rooted. So there are complex issues of political calculation at stake here. But the worry must be that the aim of winning elections takes precedence over any attempt on the part of the Left to exercise the principled kind of “intellectual and moral leadership” that Gramsci advocated.

Mexico is also a country that is more socially conservative than many on the left of the political spectrum like to acknowledge and the question of the coherence of alternative political offers certainly also arises in Mexican case. The current opposition front-runner in the polls for the 2018 presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, twice defeated (in 2006 and 2012) as candidate of coalitions led by the PRD but now leading his own National Regeneration Movement Party (MORENA), is also finding it convenient to court the evangelical vote, having just signed up for an alliance with the Social Encounter Party (PES). PES leader Hugo Eric Flores brought out the evangelical vote in 2006 for Felipe Calderón, the candidate of the Right. On previous occasions, López Obrador made some effort to identify himself with Lula to avoid the negative connotations of his opponents’ identifying him with Hugo Chávez. Assuming Lula can join López Obrador in contesting a 2018 presidential election, both are going to be campaigning in terms likely to resonate with the classical populisms of their respective countries (the traditions of Vargas and Cárdenas). At a moment in which the populism of the ultra-right (also part of Mexico’s history) is as strongly resurgent in Brazil as it is in Europe, and elites are engaging in a fire sale of national assets to global capital, it might seem reasonable to overlook the limitations of the populisms of the past simply because they did offer a national project. But the projects that made sense in twentieth century settings need a lot of rethinking even to make immediate sense to voters today, let alone to satisfy them in the longer term by truly meeting the challenges of life in the twenty-first century.

Elections in Brazil and Mexico will also be taking place against the background of ever rising criminal violence and public security problems and corruption scandals that have touched the entire established political class (opening electoral spaces for various kinds of “independents” not previously embedded in existing political machines). Bolsonaro presents himself simultaneously as the candidate who has never participated in corruption and the candidate with a tough approach to law and order, involving both further militarisation of policing and allowing “respectable” citizens every facility to defend themselves with guns. Mexico and Brazil differ somewhat in terms of the kind of impunity enjoyed by the corrupt, although a number of Mexican state governors have become fugitives from justice during the present sexennial. But the experience of both countries converges in suggesting that violent state repression and mass incarceration simply produces more violence and criminality. These are not, of course, simply national problems, since US empire and US and European transnational companies have played a central role in shaping these scenarios of catastrophe. What is most important from the point of view of the global North is maintaining a model of capital accumulation favourable to northern interests. Although China is becoming an equally important player in the region, with some assistance from Trump that may also benefit the European Union countries in their negotiations with the Mercosur and Mexico, it is not obvious that this growing global multi-polarity necessarily represents a different scenario from the point of view of ordinary people in Latin American countries.  Nor is Xi’s China looking much like a paragon of democratic governance and respect for human rights. But what is also obvious is that various right-wing US foundations and think tanks have been very active in efforts to roll back the “Pink Tide” and promote a swing back to the Right in Argentina, Brazil and Latin American other countries. The current US administration had no qualms about endorsing electoral fraud to maintain its client regime in Honduras despite the fact that even the Organisation of American States, normally a dutiful supporter of US foreign policy, found it impossible to give those elections a clean bill of health. And Peruvians have now discovered that voting for Washington technocrat (and until 2015, US citizen) Pedro Kuczinski didn’t really give them an alternative to the Fujimori clan after all.

In the light of all this, it is easy to express scepticism about what elections will really change or even whether they can ever change anything. This is, of course, what many citizens themselves feel when they choose to abstain from voting or cast a blank of null vote in systems in which voting is obligatory. I have no quarrel with those in political philosophy or the public at large who see representative democracy based on professionalised electoral parties as a flawed system that has brought political life itself into disrepute.  But it still seems better to have a chance to choose who represents us than not have one.   Abstaining from expressing a preference is likely to aid the wrong kind of “outsiders”, such as populist plutocrats with the resources to finance their own media campaigns and racist, homophobic fascists with a heavy social media presence such as Jair Bolsonaro. So fingers crossed that 2018 will bring us something to rekindle hope somewhere. Nevertheless, social scientists need to continue to ask searching questions about why and how people vote (or not) and why it is proving so difficult to redefine and reinvigorate “progressive politics” on both sides of the Atlantic at present. These are things I hope to write more about, along with the current explosion of a politics of hate, in the course of the year to come, here and through various more specialist academic publications.