Ricardo Abramovay in Vanitas


The Brazilian Left : Far From The Night of the Ultimate Overthrow

from Vanitas #1The coming to power of a government of the Left is frequently imagined as the sign of a social upheaval ultimately capable of beginning the much-anticipated complete overthrow of the world order. “Let the tortilla turn, let the poor eat bread,” goes the famous Latin American revolutionary song, symbolizing the epic moment in which society woke up from its oppressive somnolence to find at last the path of freedom. It’s the final struggle, sings the chorus of the International Workers’ anthem, re-working the cataclysmic form in which the 19th century typically viewed the theme of social change.

Even today, many people see social evolution through a kind of bifocal lens, which sees only rupture or deception. Noam Chomsky, for example, recently declared that there will be no coup d’état against the present Brazilian government of the union leader and leader of one of the most successful parties of the Left in the world -- Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the Workers’ Party -- because public opinion would not permit it and above all because the interests of international capital have been completely protected by the new administration. Various Brazilian and international social movements are striking this same note. One more time, we’ve been duped! Everyone alert in their trenches, because what we imagined as an apocalyptic change didn’t happen. In its place, betrayal by one who committed the capital sin of reconciling himself to the powerful, carrying ahead the stabilizing orthodox macroeconomic policies.

The present situation in Brazil shows that the powerful are not always those who can most easily be villainized. The Lula government last year enacted a reform of the social security system that has put to an end the outlandish privileges of civil servants. One example suffices: in the previous administration, a university professor who had begun to work at 18 years of age and who at 30 had entered a state university would have been able to retire at 48 with a salary 40 times greater than minimum wage -- and he would have maintained the right to continue his active working life, in other fields. The social security deficit brought on by the retirements of public functionaries – and of a small group of these functionaries – is one of the main problems in the national fiscal crisis. Without resolving this problem, the government could not have organized an ambitious plan of investments in infrastructure and services, decisive for the country to be able to return to the path of economic growth.

When he assumed power, Lula found a country threatened by the return of hyper-inflation, pressured by the weight of the external debt, evaluated, by specialized international agencies, as one of the most risky in the world for foreign investors. In eight months, the ghost of inflation disappeared, the perceived risk in the Brazilian market evaporated, the foreign debt has been re-negotiated. Two possible interpretations emerge from this situation. On the one hand, there are those who accuse Lula of having betrayed the principles on which he was elected and of compromising with precisely those parties responsible for the evils that he should be combating. From this point of view, Lula should, if he were faithful to his ideals, break with the International Monetary Fund, proclaim a national moratorium on payments, and denounce the agencies that make such evaluations of risk as instruments of GREAT CAPITAL [technical term?]. Another possible interpretation is that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is using his prestige, his legitimacy, his popular support and his ability to confront complex themes that go far beyond a bi-polar vision of the world, but which are crucial to every contemporary society: without fiscal and Social Security reforms and which was approved last year in the Congress, it would be impossible to establish the bases from which to take back economic growth.

So what is Lula, the left-wing leader, doing? Whoever imagines that, with macroeconomic stability, there will return the time in which he is going to confront at last the “great capital,” is completely mistaken. The principal mission of a government of the left in contemporary societies consists in promoting conditions that open greater opportunities for social integration to the poorest citizens, stimulating productive investments, applying substantial resources in education, and above all allowing greater productivity and greater access to markets for the millions of workers whom the economic growth will be unable to incorporate in the work market.

It does not seem like much and, to tell the truth, it was more or less what the previous government was trying to do. The achievements of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso years were significant: he promoted an agrarian reform in which around 500,000 families were given land; he executed a social service plan for rural workers that guaranteed basic income for more than four million families living in absolute poverty in rural situations; and he pushed forward a health policy known internationally as one of the best in the world. He did not succeed, however, in stimulating growth, and Brazil spent a decade in an economic morass that immensely worsened its social situation.

What has changed in the Lula government is not the supposed courage to confront once and for all the powerful, the big capital. This path of heroic confrontation has the destiny that the history of the 20th century has already buried it, and the contemporary left refuses it. The challenge is in using the legitimacy and popularity attained by Lula in years of struggle to unblock the OBSTACLES [empecilhos] that impede the advance of productive investments and to improve the profile of social policy. That Lula is today respected not only in Porto Alegre but also in Davos shows very well his historical mission: it is not about combating and destroying capital, but about creating the conditions that will allow its orientation in a way favorable to Brazilian development.

For those who get excited by the idea that a government of the Left has come to the most important country in Latin America, the great lesson is that social change is a continual process of democratic maturation, whose result is always more or less unpredictable. It’s nothing like the purity of those who imagine that the world can only change on the beginning of the night of the ultimate overturn.

1) In Brazil, the analog to Social Security in the U.S. includes health benefits as well as a monthly pension.

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