The dismantling of the democracy we wanted for Brazil

Paulo Henrique Martins est Professeur de sociologie à l’Université Fédérale de Pernambuco (Brésil), Membre du MAUSS, ancien Président de l’Association Latino-Américaine de Sociologie (ALAS).
Ce texte poursuit, par d’autres chemins, la réflexion engagée sur la situation politique brésilienne sur ce site. Voir la contribution de Frédéric Vandenberghe et Jean-François Véran :

Brazil’s political qualms are, likewise, those of all Latin American countries that have invested in the process of democratization of their societies in the last decades, fueled by the refusal to return to dictatorial times. The Brazilian case is relevant and causes a certain stupor as it blatantly posits the limits of the democracy we had wished for, on the one hand, and the frightful outlooks of an oligarchic democratic process biased in favor of the financial-economic, political and bureaucratic elites, on the other.

The democracy we had wished for, us on the left, was, above all, a participatory democracy in which representation expressed the yearnings of the majority of the population to a decentralized and transparent system of power, favoring social inclusion, equal access to collective resources and freedom of expression. However, the democratic regime forged since 1984, when, for the first time, free elections were held in the country marking the end of the dictatorial period, does not correspond to the characteristics envisioned by the democratic left. Slowly, the old mechanisms of the oligarchic democracy established themselves, in which the rights of representation by the elites are not articulated with the participatory rights of the population in general in decisions relating to the full exercise of citizenship. Hence, there is an ongoing dismantling of a democracy we had wished for to be extensive and inclusive.

In an oligarchic democracy, representation is organized based on private financing generated through personal fortune, third parties who hold the patrimonial wealth or financial groups that support “their” candidates or even by religious corporations such as Pentecostal churches, which vote blindly for their leaders. The elitization of the democratic regime became legal in Brazil through two initiatives. One of them involves the recruiting, selection and formalization devices of desired political candidacies for parliamentary elections, organized by the parties in tune with the concrete local demands of urban and rural communities. The elitization procedures were designed into what is called a “coalition government” in which the presidency’s exercise and the executive branch’s organization is directly dependent on the negotiations and bargaining involving parliament and government members concerning the distribution of public offices such as ministries and board membership in state-controlled corporations. Such proceedings also implicate little transparency in relation to the distribution of public funding to investments, public policies and maintenance of the state apparatus.

In a political context with a president of strong popular presence such as Lula, the conservative elite’s political pressures remained relatively neutralized due to parliament’s fear of losing the electoral bases’ support as well as that from campaign financial supporters. This strengthened the executive branch’s autonomy. In the case of a president with little charisma such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Dilma Rousseff, governing remained an unstable and uncertain experience. Because the conservative political elite does not feel their electoral practices are threatened, congressional representatives’ personal and corporate bargaining and pressure on the executive become more intense. Interests catered to party, parochial and corporate demands mine any perspective of organizing action plans in the short or long term. Nullifying planning perspectives directed at responding to the needs of promoting national welfare has undermined Dilma’s government. This took place parallel to the private appropriation of the state apparatus by economic and political corporations, increasing political instability and compromising the prospect of continuity of the democratic achievements obtained since the 1980s.

Lula and the Workers’ Party (PT) coming to power was not enough to revert the democratic oligarchy’s hegemonic position. Quite the opposite. In order to manage state power, PT leaders had to concede important political spaces to the conservative elites and bargain for positions and public funds, which ended up contaminating PT’s democratic program. This led to many leaders’ estrangement from the ethical ideals propagated by the democratic left, once sympathetic to the unions’ struggle, especially those in São Paulo’s ABC region where car manufacturing giants are located. During Dilma’s mandate, this ideological-political distortion of the Workers’ Party intensified, contaminating the democratic left’s programs, which became increasingly dependent on Lula’s esteem in order to face the conservative tendency of the political system.

The progressive dilapidation of the wide participatory democracy’s utopic prospects we wished for stems from this combination of factors, which mark the growth of conservative and utilitarian interests, on the one hand, and the devaluing of popular and social participation in political decisions directed at fulfilling the majorities’ demands, especially the more fragile majorities, on the other. Nevertheless, the collapse of the democratic program does not take place solely in the field of party politics. Materialist utilitarianism’s advancement was also achieved through ample ideological campaigning led by the conservative media aimed at stimulating mass consumption and the ensuing de-politicization of popular sectors. At this point, it’s important to point out that PT leaders, including Lula, are also responsible for the growing social alienation of popular segments as they maneuvered public policies such as “Bolsa Família” (a welfare program) not in the interest of increasing participation in local and district political actions by the communities and family groups, but in order to motivate consumption and protect manufacturing industries. Certainly preoccupied in firming union orientation and increasing salary bargaining power, PT leaders believed that increased consumption and higher base incomes for the once unassisted would be enough to guarantee the support they needed in order to maintain a large electoral base, stabilizing governmentality. A clear error in judgement. Brazilian society is now paying the price of social apathy and of the dismantling of the mechanisms of participatory democracy we wanted.

Even more crucial is that the temporary suspension of president Dilma (while the senate evaluates a definitive impeachment) has not revealed a widespread social reaction capable of reverting the conservative tendency or even avoid the political system’s fragmentation. The two most important forces in the mobilization of a leftist reaction have yet to present a conjugated political platform. We must point out the increased mobilization of entities close to PT, now the opposition, like CUT (a centralized workers’ union) and MST (the landless rural workers’ movement). Such reactions, however, are still mostly directed to the struggle of their own unionized, party-oriented and traditional association causes, presenting a strong verticality. On the other hand, we see mobilizations in the streets, involving the youth, intellectuals and university members as well as other middle-class sectors who come together in order to denounce the coup. In this case, there is no centralized unit, but a combination of horizontally articulated spontaneous mobilizations, which, depending on how events evolve, may or may not fuse into a more consistent ideological and political alternative able to anchor new outlooks.

The fact remains that these spontaneous mobilizations, organized movements and union reactions are still insufficient in creating a new political fact capable of reverting the tendency towards deterioration of democratic achievements. The prospect of Dilma’s return to power is almost null, considering the disappointing results of her mandate in the last couple of years : the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has fallen by 6% between 2014 and 2015 and continues to fall ; public debt has reached 57% of the GDP in the end of 2014 and threatens to reach 74% by the end of 2016 ; unemployment has affected over 11 million Brazilians ; and the national treasury’s debt with the financial system is unpayable unless there is a serious negotiation with banks and international finance systems. From a political standpoint, the prospect of Dilma’s return is also negligible, especially in terms of governability. It is safe to say that there is a wide political perplexity involving, particularly, the middle classes. However, this state of mind has yet to transmute into an organized political reaction, for the construction of a future demands a new stance from the democratic left in relation to the organizational challenges of a convivial and solidary national society. Said perplexity overwhelms all those on Dilma’s side as well as many that supported her impeachment, who are now, astounded by the conservative and uncertain path taken by interim president Michel Temer, who was Dilma’s vice-president and took office after her temporary suspension.

There is, therefore, a misstep between the intensity of the emotional slump endured by a significant number of Brazilians and the limited democratic reactions offered by the unions, left-wing parties and popular mobilizations. It is clear that the social energy directed at resisting the dismantling of the democracy we wished for is still very limited. The intellectual and popular protests against the coup are important but not strong enough to generate a more ample resistance attitude that can anchor the construction of a new democratic project.

The fact remains that the party and union reactions, as well as popular uprisings, have a limited lifespan. The transformation of these mobilizations into effective action require political and affective solid pacts in order to anchor the construction of mid and long term action programs committed to the nation’s democratization. In the absence of consistent political and affective pacts, resistance initiatives also become fragmented and the social energy for street protests ends up being channeled into sincere, although politically controversial, sympathetic sentiment towards Dilma’s persona and her double strife : ex-guerilla fighter, tortured by authoritarians and a woman harassed by a chauvinist culture. However, sympathy for the victim does not necessarily spur social creativity aimed at new democratic paths. It may only build up the tormentor’s power and the victim’s dread.

The way out of this political and emotional predicament, then, must come through the envisioning of the political priorities to be safeguarded in social life’s horizons. At this level of free intellectual speculation over possible scenarios, it seems to me there are three objectives to be tenaciously pursued by the new leftist pact, since they present the potential to channel the dispersed social impetus. The first one is the unconditional protection of the 1988 Constitution, which warranted important advancements in the reform of the state apparatus and in the implementation of innovative public policies aimed at promoting health and education. That constitutional letter organized relevant reforms in state organization, generating new notions of public policy and the decentralizing of the state administration. Since the new constitution, the struggle over civil and environmental rights was also amplified, engendering the acknowledgment of minority and diversity rights. Bold programs, such as SUS (Brazil’s federal public health system) – which ensures everyone’s access to public health and to decentralized care initiatives – only make sense within the guidelines of the 1988 Constitution. Therefore, it seems to us that the mobilizations that favor its integrity should be the object of an ample alliance between democratic forces. Without it, most social and political achievements come undone.

The second goal is the implementation of an ample political reform in order to promote the reorganizing of the party system and of the electoral processes, restoring the value of democratic participation at the community and local power levels. Measures should be taken towards the re-politicization of the vulnerable and working masses so that they may participate in a more responsible and active manner in the organizing of political and party systems at the local, state and national levels. Actually, this is exactly what the vote manipulating conservative elites do not want, since voters that are more conscious tend to define different priorities during elections. That is why this political reform must be the object of an ample debate and collective mobilization in order to make conservative forces recede and accept the reform projects, which must pass in congress.

The third goal is to reorganize national development models to favor the onset of plural economies, which minimize the capitalist market’s effect on society’s economic activity. In reorganizing these models, it is important to rethink the role of public policy, due to the significant presence of a redistributive state economy in the social organization of economic and social life, which represents over 40% of the GDP. It is equally important to rethink the relation between the financial and economic system and the social function of development so as to adequately rearrange the uses of collective riches such as land, water and public investment, as well as the State’s debt with the financial sector. The fact remains that the neo-developmental model adopted by PT did not fulfill its commitment to redistribute wealth and diversify economic activity in order to foment an egalitarian right of access to collective resources by the majority of the population. The construction of a post-developmental utopia that values the common good and a convivial attitude is, therefore, a fundamental and urgent challenge facing the democratic reaction.

The general conditions to start this wide mobilization towards a reconstruction of the national society and the implementation of an all-encompassing democracy in the short, medium or long term are set. Temer’s government has a fragmented foundation in the national congress, which limits its alternatives for taking strong economic and fiscal measures in order to fight the economic crisis and the loss of confidence in the productive sector. The uncertainties of Michel Temer’s government may present themselves, then, as important assets for the establishment of a cultural mood befitting the social impetus in the streets in resistance to the coup (or in resistance of the farce) in the short term, which may be channeled to pragmatically more consistent goals of mid and long term towards reorganizing democratic processes.

The task of thinking realistically about the increasing strength of democratic forces requires a wide articulation between leftist political leadership, congress representatives, unions and intellectuals to come together in the definition of a consistent and viable program capable of mobilizing social energy towards a new, more solidary and just political and associative arrangement. Unfortunately, we are not yet able to observe this social mobilizing of forces more in tune with democratic leftist ideals towards this extensive program including actions in the short, mid and long run. The intensity of the political context manipulated by the conservative media, the disorganization and imprisonment of PT leaders, with prospects even of penalizing Lula and his relatives, the indetermination of the leftist forces in relation to proposing viable goals are all elements that exacerbate collective emotions and further weaken the projections of a more consistent anti-hegemonic ideological and political reaction.

The Brazilian case is not isolated and should be considered a red flag by all democratic regimes in Latin America. There is the need for a comprehensive review of the democratic left’s ideals, which have historically highlighted the struggle between civil society and the state (a typically liberal representation of democracy). The democratic left was not able to prepare itself to face neoliberalism and its principle of the market as a decisive force in rethinking what can be conceived of the State and of Civil Society. There is the need to update the theoretical and practical foundations of participatory democracy, present in various modern intellectual traditions, such as French utopian socialism, pragmatist North American thought and even in the liberal traditions that existed before neoliberalism, which postulated freedom of association and equality among all citizens under the law.

Much in the same direction, the foundations of Latin American and Brazil’s participatory democracy must not discard the memories of struggles for freedom such as the Zapatist, indigenous and black movements, the rural workers’, landless and homeless movements, and the oppressed women and mothers who rose up against the injustices of the military dictatorships. The present moment requires a new coalition of forces sympathetic to a democracy we hope for and that has to do with the reestablishing of a participatory democratic practice, as well as one that values community and associative life and the responsibility of individuals as well as social groups in the construction of the daily solidary activity in neighborhoods, communities, cities and regions. In organizing the democratic forces, lest we not forget the strategic value of Latin American and international support, including that of organized intellectual movements that are rethinking the meaning of a democratic utopia and of leftist ideological orientation in the 21st century.

// Article publié le 16 septembre 2016 Pour citer cet article : Paulo Henrique Martins, « The dismantling of the democracy we wanted for Brazil », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 16 septembre 2016 [en ligne].
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