by Perry Anderson (Feb 2019)
The teratology of the contemporary political imagination – plentiful enough: Trump, Le Pen, Salvini, Orbán, Kaczyński, ogres galore – has acquired a new monster. Rising above the ruck, the president-elect of Brazil has extolled his country’s most notorious torturer; declared that its military dictatorship should have shot thirty thousand opponents; told a congresswoman she was too ugly to merit raping; announced he would rather a son killed in a car accident than gay; declared open season on the Amazon rainforest; not least, on the day after his election, promised followers to rid the land of red riff-raff. Yet for Sérgio Moro, his incoming justice minister saluted worldwide as an epitome of judicial independence and integrity, Jair Bolsonaro is a ‘moderate’.
To all appearances, the verdict of the polls last October was unambiguous: after governing the country for 14 years, the Workers’ Party (PT) has been comprehensively repudiated and its survival may now be in doubt. Lula, the most popular ruler in Brazilian history, has been incarcerated by Moro and awaits further jail sentences. His successor, evicted from office midway through her second term, is a virtual outcast, reduced to a humiliating fourth place in a local Senate race. How has this reversal come about? To what extent was it contingent or at some point a foregone conclusion? What explains the radicalism of the upshot? By comparison with the scale of the upheaval through which Brazil has lived in the last five years, and the gravity of its possible outcome, the histrionics over Brexit in this country and the conniptions over Trump in America are close to much ado about nothing.
Brazilian politics are Italianate in character: intricate and serpentine. But there is little hope of grasping what has befallen the country without some understanding of them. When Lula left office in 2010 – presidents in Brazil are limited to two successive terms, though not barred from subsequent re-election – the economy posted 7.5 per cent growth, poverty had been cut in half, new universities had multiplied, inflation was low, the budget and current account were in surplus and his approval ratings above 80 per cent. To succeed him, Lula picked his chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, in the 1960s a fighter in the underground against the military dictatorship, who had never held or run for electoral office before. With Lula at her side, she coasted to victory with a 56 per cent majority, the first woman to win the presidency. Initially better received by a middle class that detested Lula, for two years she enjoyed quite widespread esteem for a show of calm and competence. But her inheritance was less rosy than it seemed. High commodity prices had underlain Lula’s boom, without altering Brazil’s historically low rates of investment and productivity growth. Virtually as soon as Dilma took office in 2011, they started to fall, bringing growth abruptly down to 1.9 per cent by 2012. In 2013 the US Federal Reserve announced it would stop buying bonds, setting off a so-called ‘taper tantrum’ in capital markets, drawing foreign finance out of Brazil. The balance of payments deteriorated. Inflation picked up. The years of buoyant prosperity were over.
Politically, a mortgage lay on the PT government from the start. After the re-democratisation of the country in the late 1980s, three parties loomed largest: on the centre right, the fig-leaf ‘social democratic’ PSDB, home of big business and the middle class; in the centre, the theoretically ‘democratic’ PMDB, a sprawling network of clientelism in rural and small-town settings, feathering local nests with federal or provincial largesse; on the left, the PT, the only party that was more than a collection of regional notables and their underlings. Alongside this trio, however, in Brazil’s system of open-list proportional representation in very large constituencies, a plethora of smaller parties of no ideological orientation proliferated: contraptions for extracting public funds and favours for their leaders, proliferated. In these conditions, no president has ever led a party with more than a quarter of the seats in a Congress through which all significant legislation must pass, making coalitions a condition of government and distribution of lucrative prebends a condition of coalitions.
For twenty years, the presidency was held by only two parties, the PSDB and the PT. The former, committed to delivering what it called a salutary ‘shock of capitalism’ to the country, had little difficulty finding allies among the traditional oligarchies of the north-east and the eternal predators of the PMDB. They were natural allies for a liberal-conservative regime. When Lula came to power, the PT did not want to depend on them. Instead it set out to build a majority in Congress from the morass of smaller parties, each more venal than the next. To avoid giving them too many ministries, the customary financial reward for support, it doled out monthly cash payments under the counter. When this system, the so-called mensalão, was exposed in 2005, it looked for a time as if it might bring down the government. But Lula remained popular among the poor, and by shedding key aides and switching to a more conventional reliance on the PMDB to secure majorities in Congress, he survived the uproar and in due course was triumphantly re-elected. By his second term, the PMDB was a stable brace of his administration, enjoying in exchange a swathe of satisfactory nominations, central and local, in the machinery of government. When the term came to an end, the PMDB speaker in the Lower Chamber, Michel Temer, was chosen by Lula to be vice president under Dilma, yoking a veteran of backroom carve-up and corridor intrigue to a political tyro.
The economic bequests detonated first. By 2013, the middle classes had soured on the government and rising prices were causing popular tension in the big cities. Lula had pumped money – higher minimum wages, cheaper credit, cash transfers – for the poor into private consumption, not public services, most of which remained dire. In the winter, higher bus fares ignited protests led by young left-wing activists in São Paulo. Police crackdowns amplified them into massive street demonstrations throughout Brazil. With increasing right-wing participation and backing from the country’s powerful establishment media, they swiftly became a free-for-all against politicians in general and the PT in particular. In a fortnight Dilma’s approval ratings dropped from 57 to 30 per cent. Combining spending cuts and further, inexpensive welfare measures, she recovered ground over the next months. But in the summer of 2014, buried political mines began to explode. Federal police taps on money-laundering operations in a Brasília car wash – lava jato – revealed widespread corruption in the giant state oil company Petrobras, which at the time boasted one of the largest stock valuations in the world. A stream of leaks from the investigation, blared crescendo by the media, indicated connections to the PT going back to Lula’s time. These resonated in an already highly charged atmosphere, a consequence of the public trial in late 2012 – seven years after the fact – of the party’s leading actors in the mensalão affair.
So when Dilma ran for re-election in 2014, she faced a far more aggressive opposition than in 2010. As before, it was the PSDB candidate who reached the second round of the presidential contest against her. In a combative but clumsy campaign, in which she performed poorly in debate, Dilma achieved a narrow majority on a pledge never to accept the austerity she accused her opponent of planning to inflict on the population. Before even taking office, she was in difficulty. Perhaps thinking to repeat Lula’s opening gambit on first becoming president, when he began with strict economic orthodoxy to reassure markets, expanding social expenditure only after he had consolidated public finances, she picked a Chicago-trained bank executive for finance minister to signal a new frugality and betrayed her campaign promises with a conventional retrenchment that hit popular incomes. Having alienated her left, she antagonised her right by attempting to prevent the PMDB from continuing to hold the powerful position, vacated by Temer in 2010, of Speaker of the House, on whose co-operation passage of legislation generally depended, only to be roundly defeated by the party’s victorious candidate, Eduardo Cunha. The PT, which had won just 13 per cent of the vote for Congress, was now extremely vulnerable in the legislature.
The PSDB, meanwhile, had not taken its defeat for the presidency lying down. Furious at being baulked of a triumph on which he had counted, their leader Aécio Neves lodged charges of illegal expenditure against the winning ticket with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, hoping to get the result cancelled and a new poll instituted, in which – given popular disillusion with Dilma’s economic course – he could this time be sure of success. But the PSDB, a conglomerate of well-heeled notables in which others had their own ambitions, was not of one mind behind him. The party’s unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 2002, José Serra, now a senator for São Paulo, saw a different path to the eviction of Dilma, one that could broaden support for her ouster and play into his own hands. The drawback of Aécio’s route was that it also threatened Temer as Dilma’s running mate. It therefore had small appeal for the PMDB. Serra was close to Temer; they had long been associates in São Paulo politics. Better then to launch impeachment proceedings against Dilma in Congress, where Cunha could be expected to give them a favourable hearing. Success would automatically make Temer president and give Serra the ideal launching pad to succeed him, pipping Aécio for the presidency.
Temer understandably warmed to this plan, and surreptitiously, the two of them co-ordinated moves to bring it about. Behind them lay, yet more discreetly, the PSDB’s elder statesman Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an intimate friend and counsellor of Serra’s, who had never liked Aécio. It only remained to work out the pretext for impeachment. Consensus was reached on a technicality: Dilma had broken the law by deferring payments on public accounts to make them look better for electoral purposes. That this had been a long-standing practice, common to previous governments, scarcely mattered. For by the summer of 2015 the political landscape had been transformed by a scandal engulfing the manoeuvres in Brasília.
The Lava Jato investigations came under the jurisdiction of the state from which the first mid-level culprit to be caught, the doleiro (black market money-changer) Alberto Youssef, hailed: the atypically middle-class provincial society of Paraná, in the south of Brazil. Moro, a native son who had cut his teeth as an assistant in the mensalão trial, was the presiding judge in its capital Curitiba. His operational model, as he made clear in an article published a decade before the Lava Jato investigation began, would be the Mani Pulite prosecutions of corruption, which had destroyed Italy’s governing parties in the early 1990s, bringing the First Republic to an end.1 Moro singled out two features of their campaign for praise: the use of preventive imprisonment to secure delations and calibrated leaks to the press about ongoing investigations to rouse public opinion and put pressure on targets and courts. Dramatisation in the media mattered more than presumption of innocence, which – Moro explained – was subject to pragmatic considerations. In charge of Lava Jato, he proved an exceptional impresario. Successive operations – raids, round-ups, handcuffs, confessions – were given maximum publicity, with tip-offs to press and television, each carefully assigned a number (to date there have been 57, resulting in more than a thousand years of jail sentences) and typically a name chosen for operatic effect from the cinematic, classical or biblical imaginary: Bidone, Dolce Vita, Casablanca, No One Sleeps, Erga Omnes, Aletheia, Last Judgment, Déjà Vu, Omertà, Abyss etc. Italians pride themselves on a national flair for the spectacle: Moro’s management left his Italian mentors looking flat-footed.
For a year, the Lava Jato operations focused on former directors of Petrobras, charged with receiving and dispensing huge bribes. Then, in April 2015, they brought down the first prominent cadre of the PT, João Vaccari Neto, its treasurer. A few weeks later, the heads of the two largest construction firms in the country, Odebrecht and Andrade Gutierrez, each a continental conglomerate operating across Latin America, were hauled away for questioning. By now demonstrations in support of Moro – clamouring for punishment of the PT and removal of Dilma –were building up, and putting Congress under siege. Cunha, still formally part of the ruling coalition, edged towards clearing the docket for impeachment. Isolated and weakened, Dilma accepted her PT ministers’ advice that Lula be called in to try to save the situation. He swiftly set about mending fences with the PMDB. As he did so, it suddenly and spectacularly came out that Cunha had millions of dollars in secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Whereupon he offered a pact of mutual protection: he would block proceedings against Dilma if the government blocked proceedings against him. Lula urged acceptance of the deal, and at summit level in Brasília an understanding was reached. But Dilma refused, and the national leadership of the PT, based in São Paulo, fearing that news of the arrangement could only confirm public perceptions of the party as utterly corrupt, instructed its deputies to vote for action against Cunha. In retaliation, he immediately cleared the charges against Dilma for deliberation in Congress.
Moro, meanwhile, was preparing his coup de grâce. In the first week of March 2016, Operation Aletheia seized Lula in the early hours of the morning, taking him in for interrogation; press and television photographers, tipped off in advance, blazed around him in the darkness. He was now under formal Lava Jato investigation. Further sensation followed. A phone call from Dilma to Lula to discuss the modalities of appointing him as her chief of staff in Brasília was tapped by Moro and instantly released to the press. Since politicians of ministerial rank, as well as members of Congress, enjoy immunity from prosecution unless authorised by the Supreme Court, there was uproar. This was simply a way of shielding Lula from arrest. The appointment was struck down by two judges in Brasília, the first a public vociferator against the PT on Facebook, the second a PSDB placeman on the Supreme Court.
Street pressure for impeachment was by now enormous: across Brazil, 3.6 million demonstrators clamoured for Dilma’s eviction. Yet it was still far from clear that the necessary two-thirds majority for impeachment could be reached in Congress. In short order, a Lava Jato raid uncovered the notebooks Odebrecht had kept, logging ciphered payments to what was widely rumoured to be some two hundred Brazilian politicians, of virtually all parties. At this, the sirens went off in the political class. Within days a top power-broker in the PMDB was taped telling a colleague that ‘this bleeding has got to be stopped.’ Since ‘the guys in the Supreme Court’ had told him this was impossible as long as Dilma was in place and the media in full cry after her, she had to be replaced by Temer right away and a national government formed, backed by the Supreme Court and the army – he had been talking with generals. Only in this way could Lava Jato be halted before it reached the PMDB. Within a fortnight the House voted, Cunha presiding, for Dilma’s impeachment. Moro could then pick off Cunha, who had served his purpose. The Supreme Court ordered Congress to dismiss him as speaker. In due course he was expelled from the House, and ended up in prison. After a required interval, the Senate found Dilma guilty on the indictment passed by the House, and Temer took over the presidency. In early 2017, Lula was arrested on a charge of corruption in the prospective acquisition of a seafront apartment, of which he had never become owner. Tried in Curitiba that summer, he was sentenced to nine years in jail; when he appealed, they were increased to 12. With the party’s first president behind bars, its second driven ignominiously from office, its popular standing at an all-time low, the wreckage of the PT looked all but complete.
Reaction to Lula’s incarceration began to show that this was not effectually so. Enemies in the PSDB had counted on him going into exile rather than prison, flight to safety sealing his fall from grace. Taken aback by his stoical acceptance of jail, they failed to reckon with the sympathy his imprisonment might arouse. Within a few months, polls showed he was once again the most popular leader in the country, and ahead, even disqualified as a felon, in the contest for the presidency in 2018. Lula’s personal appeal, however, was one thing, the future of the PT another. The party had suffered a collapse without precedent in Brazilian history. What kind of reckoning was required to redress it? In its years of power, the PT had done little to foster a culture of self-critical analysis; or reflection on where it, or the country, was going. Intellectuals had been useful as a bridge to public visibility in the early days. Once in office, though many – perhaps most – continued to support it, the party essentially ignored them, in a myopic philistinism for which all that mattered were electoral calculations.
Undeserved and unappreciated though he was, the party possessed one political thinker of the first rank. The son of an Austrian Jewish immigrant who became a leading left economist in Brazil, André Singer was a founder member of the PT in São Paulo in 1980. He began as a journalist, rising to a senior position in the less conservative of the city’s two newspapers, the Folha, before becoming press secretary and presidential spokesman for Lula during his first term in Brasília, at the end of which he resigned to take up an academic career as a political scientist. In 2012, when the PT still reigned unimpaired, he produced the first serious study of the trajectory of its rule and of its social support under Lula. Though written in respectful admiration of what had been achieved, it was too calmly clear-eyed about the nature and causes of the ‘weak reformism’ it represented to find favour with the party, and had little echo within it. Last summer he published a sequel, O lulismo em crise: Um quebra-cabeça do período Dilma, 2011-16 (‘Lulism in Crisis: A Puzzle of the Dilma Period’), which – even if there is little sign of it yet – one may hope will meet less silence.2 From time to time, in different countries, books are compared to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, but as a dazzling synthesis of class analysis, political narrative and historical imagination, none has ever really approached it till this tour de force from Brazil. Singer’s tone, cool and sober, passion contained rather than expressed, is quite different from the blaze of Marx’s caustic irony and metaphoric intensity, and the events at issue have been, so far at any rate, less blood-soaked and precipitous. But the kind of intelligence at work, and its scope, are kin.
The puzzle Singer sets out to resolve is why, from the peak of its success during his presidency, the formula of power Lula constructed disintegrated into such all-round disaster. His opening argument is that it was no familiar case of entropy in office. Dilma was not just a maladroit imitation of her predecessor, bungling in pursuit of the same policies. She had objectives of her own that differed from his. These Singer characterises as a combination of ‘developmentalism’ and ‘republicanism’. The first, he argues, was a bid to accelerate growth by way of a more ambitious use of the tools available to the national state: control of interest rates, public lending, fiscal incentives, import duties, social expenditures – in sum, a significantly more interventionist set of economic policies than the PT had attempted hitherto. By the second, he means republicanism in the classic sense, as reconstructed by J.G.A. Pocock: that is, the 17th and 18th-century belief that corruption was a perpetual danger to the integrity of the state and the safety of citizens, against which vigilance was a condition of liberty. Lula’s project had been a weak reformism: Dilma aimed at a stronger version.
Its effect, however, was – Singer’s second argument – to knock away two critical struts of Lula’s system, his entente with financial capital and his pact with clientelism. With the aim of stimulating investment, Dilma’s ‘new economic matrix’ sought to favour domestic industry – which had long complained of Brazil’s sky-high interest rates, overvalued currency, weak protection of local manufactures and costly energy inputs – in the belief that its underlying interests divided it from banks, securities firms and pension funds that benefited from these. But in Brazil the different sectors of capital were too closely intertwined for such a strategy of separation to work. It was denounced in the media as a meddling, anti-liberal statism and business soon closed ranks against it. More investment was not forthcoming, growth declined, profits dropped, strikes multiplied. The employers’ federation turned extremely hostile.
Meanwhile, by refusing to engage in the traditional do ut des of Brazil’s pork barrel politics, and purging the government of its most blatantly compromised ministers, Dilma was antagonising forces in Congress on which her majority in the legislature depended, for whom corruption was a condition of existence. After close-grained analysis of the fractions of capital, Singer situates these tensions in a striking overview of the longue durée of the party structure in Brazil, from the postwar period to the present. Throughout, three components persisted. From 1945 to 1964, when the military seized power, there was a party on the liberal right of the spectrum, representing bankers, the urban middle classes and a section of the rural oligarchy, the UDN; a popular party on the left of the spectrum, the PTB, appealing to the working-class and urban poor; and an intermediate party, the PSD, based on the larger part of the traditional landowning class and its dependants in the countryside and smaller provincial towns. Singer dubs this last ‘the party of the interior’, an amoeba-like force with no distinct ideological identity, slithering in whichever direction temporary power and emoluments, democratic or undemocratic, lay. Twenty years later, after the military stepped down, this trio essentially reappeared in the shape of the PSDB, the PT and PMDB. Neither of the first two could govern without the parasitic assistance of the third, with its wide-flung capillary network of local office-holders and nearly continuous control of the powerful presidency of the Senate. Any hint of republicanism was anathema to it.
What of the PT’s own constituency? Although, ever since 1945, a pole of capital and a pole of labour were clearly discernible within the political system, conflict between them was always overdetermined by a vast sub-proletariat, urban and rural, whose existence skewed the system away from a class confrontation to a populist opposition between rich and poor, in which the poor were available for demagogic or clientelist capture by politicians of conservative as well as radical stamp. By 2006 Lula’s social policies, dramatically reducing poverty, had for the first time made this mass, a great deal of it subsisting in the informal economy, an electoral bastion of the PT, which Dilma inherited. Millions had been lifted from acute hardship and knew to whom they owed it. But, egged on by interested journalists and the ideology of the time, the regime took to boasting of its achievement as the creation of a ‘new middle class’ in Brazil, when the social promotion of most of those affected was not only more modest – formal jobs and higher minimum wages raising them to something like the position of a new working class – but more precarious. Politically, Singer argues, the official propaganda boomeranged: its effect was to invite identification with the consumerist individualism of the actual middle class, rather than with the existing working class.
Once growth went negative, downward mobility struck many of those just risen. Frustration at this reversal of expectations was particularly sharp among youth who had benefited from the popular expansion of higher education, however indifferent in quality, that had been another of the benefits extended by the PT to the poor, and who now found they had no access to the jobs for which they had been led to hope. Here was the combustible mass that became critical in the great street uprising of June 2013 – some 1.5 million in the protests at their height – that would be the watershed in the fortunes of Dilma and her party. Singer’s meticulous analysis of its participants – statistics beyond the dreams of Marx’s time – shows that 80 per cent of those who marched in the demonstrations were below the age of forty. Eighty per cent had been or were involved in some form of higher education, as against 13 per cent of the population as a whole with a university diploma; yet half had household incomes of no more than between two and five minimum wages, where under two wages is the effective poverty line. Those below it, the sub-proletariat proper, were marginal to the events, making up less than a sixth of the participants. Decisive in the evolution and outcome of the protests, however, was the ability of the other third of the marchers, the true middle class, to secure the support of the half that believed itself or aspired to be part of the middle class, in generalised indignation at the government and, beyond it, the political class as a whole – dynamic activists of a youthful new right mobilising social media to bond them together as a force. Structurally, though not sociologically, it might be said that in Singer’s vivid account the uprising of 2013 occupies a position not unlike la pègre in Marx’s account of 1848.
The victors who captured the movement, and made it into a springboard for what would become much larger and more deadly assaults on the government two years later, were the newest cohorts of the urban middle class in the cities in the south of the country. Big business, the working class and the poor had all benefited from PT rule. Professionals, middle management, service personnel and small employers had not. Their incomes had increased proportionately less than those of the poor and their status had been eroded by new forms of popular consumption and social mobility. Formally comprising the ‘modern’ sector of Brazilian society, this layer was of sufficient size to have long exercised a veto on changes that would make the rest of the country less backward. But if it was large enough to frustrate the social inclusion of the poor in national development, it was too small to have much hope of dominating elections, once the suffrage was extended after the war. The temptation, therefore, was always to short-circuit elections in a coup. In 1964 much of the urban middle class had conspired with officers to launch a military coup. In 2016 it mounted a parliamentary coup, overthrowing the president within the framework of the constitution, rather than suspending it.
This time it was not the military but the judiciary that acted as the lever for an overturn which this stratum, organised simply in electoral terms, as a party or set of parties, could not achieve. Magistrates, closer in their career and culture to the civilian mass of the middle class than officers, were more organic allies in a common cause. Dissenting from both of the two opposite characterisations of the role of the judges in Lava Jato – either fearless scourges of corruption, impartially upholding the rule of law, or ruthless manipulators of it for partisan political ends – Singer views their operations as at once genuinely republican in effect, yet unmistakably factious in direction. Republican: how else could the imprisonment of the richest and most powerful tycoons in the land be described? Not without reason, another of the operations of Lava Jato was named, after the indignant response of a Petrobras boss on being put under arrest, Que pais é esse?– ‘What kind of country is this?’ Factious: how else could the systematic targeting of the PT, and sparing of other parties till Dilma was brought down, be described? Not to speak of the blurting of political sympathies and antipathies on Facebook, the smirking photo-ops of Moro with ornaments of the PSDB and the rest. The contradiction was an inextricable knot, entangled with that of the PT itself: the judges ‘factious andrepublican’, the party ‘created to change institutions and swallowed by them’.
Having laid out the course on which Dilma embarked on taking office, the economic and legislative obstacles into which it ran, the party system in which it was encased, the array of class forces confronting it and the judicial siege that eventually encircled it, Singer ends with a graphic narrative of the sequence of moves and counter-moves by the individual political actors in the hurly-burly towards impeachment. Here personalities are given full weight. Dilma’s intentions were more than honourable. She wanted to advance, not just preserve, the social gains achieved by the PT under Lula and to free them from the connivances with which they had been bought. But politically ill at ease, she compensated with rigidity, and though in private she could be relaxed and charming enough, in office she brooked neither criticism nor advice. For Singer, she must be held responsible for two fatal and avoidable errors, in each case refusing to heed her mentor. The first was her decision to stand for president a second time in 2014, rather than stepping down to allow Lula to return, as he had expected and wished to do. Out of culpable vanity or natural pride in the autonomy of her project? At one point Lula publicly allowed that he would be a candidate if there were a danger of the PSDB making a come-back, as there soon was. But personal bluntness was not his style: he never raised the matter directly with her. The political convention in Brazil, as in the US, is that an incumbent president runs for a second term, and he respected it.
The second charge against Dilma was her rejection of any deal with Cunha to save herself from impeachment, which Lula believed necessary. For Singer, there lies the critical difference of character. Politically, he remarks, Lula would bend, but not break; Dilma would break rather than bend. Blackmailers are never satisfied, she said: yield, and they will always come back for more. Without putting it in so many words, Singer sides with Lula. Politics as a vocation, Max Weber wrote, requires the acceptance of ‘ethical paradoxes’. Citing him, Singer suggests that this was an ‘obligation’ Dilma declined. It was such, because the consequences of not bending were so grave. In stubbornly resisting a deal, she opened the door to a ‘retrogression of the nation of unpredictable proportions’.
In an otherwise magisterial reconstruction of Dilma’s downfall, these concluding judgments seem questionable. Singer, it might be said, is both a touch too uncritical, and too critical, of Dilma. What tells against the attribution to her of a clear-cut republicanism, at any rate at the start, are the two key advisers she chose when she first ran for president, and installed next to her when she won. Head of her campaign, and then chief of staff in Brasília (the equivalent of prime minister), was the most notoriously corrupt single politician in the ranks of the PT, Antonio Palocci, the toast of big business when he was Lula’s finance minister, before being forced to resign after a particularly ugly scandal in 2006. His reappearance in 2010 was greeted with delight by the Economist, but it soon emerged that in the interim he had acquired a massive unexplained fortune in consultancies and real estate operations, and Dilma had to get rid of him. Predictably, this abject figure would be the only PT leader to turn delator in Lava Jato. After he was gone, João Santana remained by her side: her most intimate counsellor, and by many accounts a critical influence on her decisions. Once a musician in a backing group for Caetano Veloso, later a star investigative reporter, before becoming the top-paid marqueteiro – all-purpose commercial campaign manager and brand-fabricator – in the country, Santana was put into marketing orbit by Palocci in his home town and plied his services on an international scale; among his clients was the billionaire presidential looter of Angola, Eduardo Santos. He lasted six years with Dilma, before Lava Jato caught up with him for a $10 million bribe he had salted away in the West Indies. Naturally, as a mercenary, he too bought leniency with delation. In both cases, Dilma’s judgment was less than republican. Not herself a product of the PT, of which she had never been a member prior to joining Lula’s staff, she could not so easily escape its habitus.
On the other hand, the criticisms that she damaged the party by not passing the baton to Lula in 2014, and endangered the country by refusing the pact with Cunha in 2016, imply two counterfactuals against which the logic of the historical situation speaks. Had Lula rather than Dilma run in 2014, he would certainly have won by a wider margin and would have been unlikely to have made such a clumsily abrupt turn towards austerity, alienating the poor. But the economic conjuncture did not permit a repetition of the stimulus that allowed him to ride out the global financial crisis of 2008 as a mere ‘ripple’ in Brazil. The commodities super-cycle was over, all economic signals were pointing down: the poison pills left by his own rule were being consumed. Furthermore, the storm of Lava Jato would have hit his presidency with yet greater force than it did Dilma’s. Personally, he was much more exposed to its attack. There would have been no need to resort to budgetary technicalities for an impeachment: it would have been much more broadside, with even more deafening clamour on the streets and screens of the country. His traditional political skills in handling Congress might still have averted a fate that he had escaped once before, at the time of the mensalão crisis, in the best of cases perhaps allowing him to limp to the end of his term. But the price would have been three years of being manacled with Cunha in such common moral-political odium that, in all likelihood, retribution at the polls in 2018 would have been even more devastating. There were good reasons why not only Dilma, but the PT itself, rejected collusion with Cunha. The price in credibility, which was already so damaged, was too high, the pay-off too fleeting.
The judges themselves had scarcely more scruple in tolerating Cunha, so long as he held the keys to impeachment, than the politician they had in their sights. Singer’s account of the outlook and impact of the magistrates of Lava Jato is a model of level-headed analysis. Still, it leaves two questions open. Republican yet factious, yes: but what would be the ultimate balance between the two – just of equal effect? Were these, moreover, the only two elements in the make-up of the Brazilian judiciary? Singer’s focus is on the pool in Curitiba. But it was operating within a legal system that predated and overtopped it. There, of decisive importance was the relationship between police, prosecutors and judges. Formally speaking, each is a body independent of the other. Police gather evidence, prosecutors bring charges, judges pronounce verdicts (in Brazil juries exist only for cases of homicide). In practice, however, Lava Jato fused these three functions into one, prosecutors and police working under the supervision of the judge, who controlled investigations, determined indictments and delivered sentences. The negation of ordinary principles of justice in such a system, even without Moro’s dismissal of presumption of innocence, is plain: powers of accusation and condemnation are no longer distinguished.
To these were added three further powers. Delação premiada – informing for a reward – introduced the practice, extended from judges to prosecutors, of threatening people under arrest with crushing sentences unless they implicated others: in effect, judicial blackmail. The scale of abuse to which this power gives rise can be read off from the treatment accorded the wealthiest magnate netted by Lava Jato. Marcelo Odebrecht was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges of corruption to the tune of $35 million. Once he turned informer, these were reduced to two and a half and he was sprung from jail without further ado. The incentive to supply whatever claims might be useful for other cases the magistrate is seeking to prosecute is obvious. Judges can even offer pardons. A further facility afforded them was abolition of the rule that appeal procedures had to be exhausted before an accused could be imprisoned.
Last but not least was the adoption, dating essentially from the mensalão trial, of the concept of domínio de fato – condemnation in the absence of any direct evidence of participation in a crime, on the grounds that the accused must have been in charge of it. This was the basis on which Lula’s chief of staff was sentenced, for his hierarchical position as the head of political administration in Brasília. The notion was borrowed from the principle of Tatherrschaft, developed by the German jurist Claus Roxin for Nazi war crimes. Roxin, however, has protested against Brazilian abuse of it: organisational position did not suffice for the crime as he defined it – there had to be some proof of a command. Moro, however, dispensed even with organisational hierarchy, in deploying domínio de fato to convict Lula of intending to receive an apartment from Odebrecht. The value of the property was $600,000, for which he was jailed for 12 years: over two-thirds of Odebrecht’s punishment, for less than 2 per cent of the sum for which he was charged. The ratios speak for themselves.
In such cases, as processed in Curitiba, the combination of republican zeal and factious bias identified by Singer applies. Moving up the judicial ladder to Brasília, where the Supreme Court presides, the same cannot be said. There, neither ethical rigour nor ideological fervour is anywhere in sight: motivations are of an altogether different, more squalid order. Unlike its counterparts anywhere else in the world, the Brazilian Supreme Court combines three functions: it interprets the constitution, acts as the last court of appeal in civil and criminal cases and, crucially, is alone empowered to try public officials – members of Congress and ministers – who otherwise enjoy immunity from prosecution, popularly known as foro privilegiado, in all other courts of the land. Its 11 members are appointed by the executive; their confirmation by the legislature, quite unlike in the US, is no more than pro forma. Previous experience on the bench is not required: only three of the current justices have any. Mere practice as a lawyer or a prosecutor, with a smattering of academic credentials, is the usual background.
Selection to the Supreme Court has traditionally been based not so much on ideological affinity as personal connection: of the current batch, one is a former lawyer for Lula, another a crony of Cardoso, a third a cousin of his disgraced predecessor Fernando Collor de Mello. The caseload of the court is grotesque: more than five hundred before it every year, allocated for preliminary consideration by lottery to individual judges, each vested – no other supreme court in the world features this – with arbitrary power to stall or to speed a case as they please, delaying some for years, expediting others post-haste. In practice, there are no deadlines. When a case is cleared for decision by the plenum, hearings are not only public, but – another unique feature – televised live, if the incumbent president of the court, who rotates, sees fit. In such sessions, decorum is at a minimum, grandstanding at a premium.
By the time pressure for impeachment began to build up, eight of the 11 members of the court had been picked by Lula or Dilma. But since appointments had seldom been highly political in a partisan sense, only one member of the court, Cardoso’s intimate Gilmar Mendes, had a clear-cut ideological profile, as a hawk for the PSDB. The rest were not of any particular colour, egoism and opportunism generally counting for more than any other ism. But once the third function of the court, trial of politicians, acquired a salience it had never known before, from the mensalão scandal onwards, those who owed their appointment to Lula and Dilma were on their mettle to show their independence of the PT. It was the first black member of the court, Joaquim Barbosa, put there by Lula, who handed down sentences of unprecedented harshness on PT cadres in the mensalão trial. But as events were to show, this was not so much independence in the sense of an impartial justice, as replacement of a rather nominal dependence on patrons by a more telling submission to the media.
From the start, the pool in Curitiba used leaks and planted stories in the press to short-circuit due process, convicting targets before trial in public opinion, in accord with the Brazilian wisdom – valid across the world – that ‘public opinion is what gets published.’ Such leaks are juridically forbidden. Moro employed them scot-free, systematically. He could do so, because the media which he used as his megaphone intimidated the Supreme Court judges, who feared denunciation if they demurred. When Moro was instructed by one justice that on habeas corpus grounds he must release a Petrobras director he was holding in prison, he went to the media, explaining that if so he must release drug traffickers too. His superior immediately backed down. When he broke no less than three regulations in tapping and publishing the phone call between Lula and Dilma, and received a feeble reprimand from the same judge, Moro retorted that he had acted in the public interest, and – since he was now fêted in the press as a national hero – suffered not even a slap on the wrist.
Craven in covering illegalities below, the Supreme Court was no better – servility and self-interest competing – in performance of its tasks above. If the attorney general brings charges against a member of Congress or the government, the court determines whether to hold a trial, its decision requiring ratification by Congress. Charges were brought against Cunha as soon as his Swiss bank accounts were revealed. The court did not stir for six months, until he set off Dilma’s impeachment. Then it not only accepted the indictment overnight, but – eager to obfuscate its inaction – peremptorily ordered his dismissal as Speaker, which it had no constitutional authority to do. As Cunha remarked with cynical accuracy, ‘If it was urgent, why did it take them six months?’ When Delcídio do Amaral, a PT – former PSDB – senator, was caught on tape discussing ways of spiriting a Petrobras boss out of prison, the court acted with lightning speed, arresting him within 24 hours. He had let slip he was on good terms with the judges and was sounding them out about the case. Once he offered due delation, charges were quietly dropped, and he was restored to the Senate. In its lack of any principled compass, the critic Conrado Hübner Mendes has observed, a court which was supposed to be a power moderating tensions in the constitution, had become – a stronger word is in order than his – an abscess generating them.3
Holding out for less than 18 months before she was evicted from the Presidential Palace, Dilma’s second mandate was barren of achievement. Temer’s annexation of it, lasting twice as long, was altogether more consequential. Acting with a speed and resolve that made clear the depth of the planning behind the impeachment, the new regime passed three classical pieces of neoliberal statecraft in short order, altering the economic constitution of the country at a stroke. Within a month, legislation freezing social expenditures for twenty years – no increase beyond the rate of inflation – was in front of Congress. No sooner was it passed with a two-thirds majority than the labour code was comprehensively scrapped: the legal limit of a working day was extended from eight to 12 hours; permissible lunch breaks cut from an hour to thirty minutes; protection of employees, full or part-time, reduced; the check-off of union dues abolished; plus sundry other deregulations of the labour market. A third law gave a generalised green light to the outsourcing of employment and zero-hour contracts. Next up was radical pension reform, increasing contributions and raising retirement ages, to bring down the costs of constitutionally mandated social security in the name of reducing the national debt. Since beneficiaries of the most lavish payments under the existing system come from the top ranks of the bureaucracy and the political class, this was a somewhat trickier proposition.
But before it could come to a vote, Temer looked within an ace of following Dilma out of office. In the spring of 2017 he was taped in a secret meeting with Joesley Batista, head of the meat-processing company JBS, in the garage of the Presidential Palace discussing hush money for Cunha – who had just been sentenced and could implicate him in any number of corrupt schemes – unaware that his interlocutor was collaborating with the police. The tape was immediately broadcast on national television, to an uproar without precedent. A fortnight later, one of Temer’s aides was filmed receiving a suitcase containing 500,000 reais from an emissary of Batista. For the Supreme Court to act on the charges immediately laid against him by the attorney general, the House had to authorise proceedings by a two-thirds vote. Beyond shame, a majority rejected any investigation.
Two months later, the attorney general issued a much wider indictment of Temer, along with six other PMDB leaders, three of them already under lock and key – one caught with the largest cash hoard in history, $55 million in banknotes, in his home. Once again, the House blocked any action. A year later, in October 2018, a third major scandal exploded, with federal police bringing charges of long-standing corruption in the docks at Santos against Temer. By then, paralysed politically for more than a year, though he had survived every revelation, he had no agenda left. The conventional stabilisation plan accompanying his initial neoliberal measures had ended the Dilma recession, but the pick-up was weak – growth asthmatic, living standards depressed, 13 million unemployed. Temer’s own credibility sub-zero, his party ran the finance minister who had presided over this recovery, Henrique Meirelles, for president in 2018. He got 1 per cent of the vote. Yet this muted interim had, all the same, cleared the way for a high-pitched obbligato to come.
By mid-2016, economic deterioration and political corruption had sunk PT rule. But by the end of 2017, its successor, the PMDB, had fallen even lower in the polls, for the same two reasons. Since the PSDB was part of Temer’s support system, with prominent members of the party in the government, it too could not escape the stench – Aécio, its chairman, had also been taped demanding a large bribe from JBS, and like Temer, had only avoided a trial thanks to the protection of a Congress packed with confederates. In this devastated landscape, Lula – still on appeal – remained far the most popular politician in the country, and if nothing were done about it, the most likely victor in the oncoming presidential election. With unprecedented speed – the average time for judging an appeal was cut by three-quarters to eliminate the danger – the verdict not merely confirming but increasing his sentence was handed down in January 2018. For two months Lula’s lawyers were able to delay his imprisonment, and in the respite he gave a set of three extended interviews published immediately as a book, A verdade vencerá.4 The title (‘The Truth Will Prevail’) is misleading, suggesting a rebuttal of the charges against him that are scarcely mentioned in a memorable, often moving self-portrait of a politician of exceptional intuition and realist intelligence – which explains why his return to power was so resisted by the Brazilian elites.
As a ruler, Lula’s operating style and political creed were one. He was a trade unionist who back in the early 1980s learned, as he puts it, not ‘to make demands of the type “80 per cent or nothing”. That way you end up with nothing.’ On becoming president of a huge, complex society in 2003, he was always aware that ‘I could never treat the country wishing it were as I am.’ It followed that ‘to govern is to negotiate.’ In opposition, you could be principled. But once you win elections, if you don’t have a majority in parliament, which no Brazilian president has enjoyed for many years, ‘you have to put your principles on the table to make them practicable.’ That meant dealing with adversaries as well as allies, who wanted quid pro quo – political offices, above all. Every predecessor had had to do the same. ‘You make an agreement with who is there, in Congress. If they are robbers, but have votes, you either have the courage to ask for them, or you lose.’ By this reasoning, Dilma should have made a deal with Cunha. There was no feasible alternative.
But negotiation was one thing, conciliation another. ‘A government of conciliation is one where you can do more and don’t want to do it. When you can only do less and end up doing more, it’s almost the beginning of a revolution – and that’s what we did in this country.’ Lula had made only such concessions as the situation required. The PT had less than one-fifth of Congress. Had he ever controlled the governorships of 23 states and the majority in the Constituent Assembly, as the PMDB had in 1988, he would have conceded less and accomplished much more. Even so, ‘we gave the people a standard of living that many armed revolutions never achieved – and in a mere eight years.’ He had ended with opinion polls in the skies. But that in itself was not a source of pride. ‘What I am proudest of is to have changed the relation of the state with society, and of government with society. What I wanted to achieve as president was that the poorest in the country could imagine themselves in my place. That I did.’
It is an impressive claim. Lula’s largeness of mind and feeling, as well as his quickness, come across vividly throughout the exchanges. Self-critical they are not. Did he pick the wrong successor? He chose Dilma because she was a tough, efficient chief of staff who gave him some peace and quiet in the Presidential Palace. He knew she was politically inexperienced, but – knowing she was better educated than he was – believed she would learn; only later did he realise that she didn’t actually enjoy politics. But he wasn’t wrong to have selected her. Unacknowledged in the interviews is the probable assumption that precisely because she was a novice, Lula could control her better than any practised cadre of the PT. Nor, more significantly, is there any sense that the arts of acquiring mercenary support in Congress imposed not only limits on what he could do (which he admits) but costs to his party, as it in turn became infected by them (which he doesn’t). Projected onto the plane of national politics, the model of economic negotiation he brought from his trade union background lost its innocence and bred illusion. Wage agreements don’t involve backhanders to employers. Still less, where power is at stake, can adversaries be counted on not to go va banque.
In a final poignant exchange, when Lula declared that if he returned to power, he would do more – go further – than he had done earlier, and his opponents knew it, he was asked whether he thought a return was even possible. He was within a month of beginning his sentence. This was his wistful reply:
Oh, I want to come back. That depends on whether God gives me health, keeps me alive; and it depends on the understanding of members of the judicial power who are going to vote, whether they take care to read the records of the case and see the dirty tricks being played there.
To the last, Lula believed a deal could be reached that would allow him to run again: that was how negotiations ended. He had fatally underestimated his enemies. They were determined to eliminate him. In April 2018, an ultimate plea for habeas corpus, which would have enabled him to run for the presidency, went to the Supreme Court. The Brazilian constitution states that no criminal conviction can be executed until it is definitive – that is, until all instances of appeal have been exhausted. The head of the army warned that granting him habeas corpus would threaten the stability of the country, which it was the institutional duty of the armed forces to defend. The judges did their duty with alacrity, overturning the constitutional principle by a vote of six to five to bar Lula’s candidacy.
In the arena thus cleared, the presumptive front-runner for the presidency became the PSDB candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, long-time governor of São Paulo. A wooden figure with no charisma, he had lost against Lula in 2006, but was less compromised by support for Temer than his rivals in the party and enjoyed solid backing from business. The PT was paralysed, incapable of entering the ring since it still insisted, despite the evident impossibility, that Lula remained its candidate. At the starting gate an outsider led the way with a modest 15 per cent support: Jair Bolsonaro, a lone wolf deputy so isolated he had received just four votes out of 513 when he ran for speaker after Cunha fell. Marginality in Congress was not, however, necessarily a disadvantage in running for president. Having never belonged to any of the major parties – roaming between seven smaller ones – nor held any government office, Bolsonaro was untainted by blame for economic hardship or exposure of corruption, and free to attribute the former to the latter, assailing the whole political class for both. But his praise for the 1964-85 dictatorship and its torturers, and vituperations at large, appeared such conspicuous handicaps that it was generally assumed that once campaigning got underway, he would be relegated to the also-rans.
Alckmin, by contrast, had not only the PSDB behind him, but promptly the entire so-called centrão, the swamp of intermediate-sized parties of which Lula complained, giving him half of all the TV time assigned to party commercials – in the past a priceless asset. With this, he was widely expected to overwhelm Bolsonaro and other potential rivals. Seven television debates, featuring all the candidates, were scheduled once campaigning began. Starting in August, they exposed Bolsonaro’s disadvantage in the medium: poorly prepared and ill at ease, he was ineffectual. The more he was exposed to it, the flakier he was likely to look. In the first week of September, however, this danger was suddenly lifted. Stabbed by a mentally ill man at a provincial rally and rushed to hospital for an emergency operation, he spent the rest of the election safely in bedridden recovery, protected not only from debates or interviews, but from the demolition that Alckmin’s managers had been readying on their TV slots – sympathy for a victim who had nearly lost his life now precluded anything so tasteless.
The PT, meanwhile, had been wasting months in futile protestations that Lula was still its candidate, without even a symbolic presence in the first debates. It was not until five days after Bolsonaro’s stabbing that the party came to terms with reality and produced a candidate able to run. Its choice was dictated by Lula. Fernando Haddad had for six years been education minister and was widely regarded as a success, responsible for one of the major achievements of PT rule, expansion of the university system, and of access to it for the poor. Young and personable, he could have made a much better, more logical successor in 2010 than Dilma. But he had three strikes against him: he was from São Paulo, where older and more powerful heavyweights of the PT, protective of their precedence, held sway; he came from the left of the party; and by background he was an academic – trained in philosophy and economics, teaching political science – among trade unionists who distrusted professors.
In 2012 Haddad was instead elected mayor of São Paulo. He soon fell foul of Dilma, who refused to listen to his plea to raise petrol prices rather than inflict higher bus fares on the city, setting off the protests of 2013 that began her undoing and ended his prospects of re-election. He continued to lack any significant base of his own within the PT, whose functionaries distrusted him. As early as 2003, in a prophetic article written as the PT took power, he had warned of the danger that, rather than uprooting the deeply engrained patrimonialism of the Brazilian state, the party could be captured by it. Brazil was not, contrary to the views of Cardoso and others, a setting in which modern capitalism made use of the archaisms of a former slave society but the other way round: an archaic oligarchic system appropriating a modern capitalism to preserve the traditional pattern of power by saturating public authority with its private interests. By 2018, amid the patrimonial shipwreck that had overtaken the PT, Haddad’s foresight and honesty stood out and, knowing he was clean and imaginative, Lula imposed him on the party.
The ensuing campaign was strangely asymmetric. Starting late, Haddad was cramped by the circumstances of his appointment. With less than a month to go before the first round of the election, he had to establish a national profile of his own, against charges that he was a mere dummy for Lula, while at the same time drawing as effectively as possible on Lula’s continuing popularity and prestige. It rapidly became clear that he and Bolsonaro would face off in the second round, but there was no confrontation between the two. Haddad toured the country, addressing crowds, while Bolsonaro lay at home tweeting. With a fortnight to go till the first round, they were level-pegging in predictions for the second. Then, in the last few days, Bolsonaro suddenly soared ahead, to a closing lead of 46 to 29 per cent. With a gap as large as this, the second round was a foregone conclusion. The Brazilian establishment closed ranks behind the future victor. Haddad fought valiantly on, eventually halving the gap. But the final result left no doubt of the scale of Bolsonaro’s triumph. Winning 55 to 45 per cent, he took every state outside the north-eastern redoubt of the PT; every major city in the country; every social class with the exception of the very worst off, living on incomes of less than two minimum wages; every age group; and both sexes – only among the cohort between 18 and 24 did he fail to win a majority of women’s votes. Across the country, the right jubilated in the streets. But there had been no great rush to the polls. Voting is compulsory in Brazil, but close to a third of the electorate – 42 million voters – opted out, the highest proportion in twenty years. The number of spoiled ballots was 60 per cent higher than in 2014. A few days earlier, an opinion poll asked voters their state of mind: 72 per cent replied ‘despondent’, 74 per cent ‘sad’, 81 per cent ‘insecure’.
In that last response lay, in all probability, the key to Bolsonaro’s sweep. The recession had certainly been critical in the melting away of support for the PT since 2014, and corruption, which had not mattered to the poor when their living standards were rising, did when they were falling. The two could be directly connected in nightly representations on television of huge sewers swilling with banknotes – in the discourse of Lava Jato, money stolen from hospitals, schools and playgrounds. But underlying popular reactions was insecurity, physical and existential. Notoriously, daily violence – traditional in the feudatory north-east, modern since the arrival of the drug trade in the south-east – takes sixty thousand lives a year, a homicide rate exceeding that of Mexico. Police account for 20 to 25 per cent of these deaths. Fewer than 10 per cent of murders are investigated. Yet prisons are teeming: 720,000 people in jail. Two-fifths of inmates, under provisional arrest, await trials that can take two, three or more years to be heard. Nearly half the country’s population is white; 70 per cent of those murdered, and 70 per cent of those imprisoned, are not. With drugs have come gangs, among the most powerful in the world. In 2006 the largest of these, Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), shut down parts of São Paulo in an uprising, directed from the prison cells of its leaders, against the police. But with the spread of drugs, street crime that is artisanal rather than organisational has proliferated too. Few middle-class households have never had a brush with some form of it. But they are better protected: where mugging at gun or knifepoint are most common, the poor rob the poor.
In this jungle, the police are the most ruthless of all predators: no major crime without their take. Divided into separate ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ branches, in a ratio of about three to one, they are state, not federal forces. Alongside them fester informal ‘militias’ composed of former policemen acting as security guards or battening on the drug traffic. The small corps of federal police – a tenth the size of the military police at the disposal of the governors of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro – is reserved largely for border control and white-collar crime. Promotion depends on arrest rates, which are assisted by laws that no longer distinguish between the sale and the consumption of drugs, nor require witnesses for apprehension on the spot, offering a quick route to the criminalisation of poverty, as the young and black – pardo (‘mixed race’) and preto(‘black’) scarcely distinguished – are picked off for dispatch to jails where there are twice as many prisoners as places. Since miscegenation was historically so widespread, making a ‘one-drop’ colour line impossible, racism in Brazil differs from the US pattern, but is no less brutal. Combined with very rapid urbanisation, driven as much by the push of peasants from the land as by the pull of city lights, creating settings of huge inequality with few or no structures of reception, its effect is to displace social conflict into anomic violence. For black youth, crime can be a desperate bid for recognition, a weapon, a passport to dignity: guns, rented for a few hours and pointed at the head of a driver or passer-by becoming too a means of forcing people to look at, rather than away from, those otherwise treated as invisible. Successive presidents, relieved of responsibility for public security, since this remains the province of governors, have had little incentive to change what amounts to a convenient brief for inaction. At most, they can declare an emergency and send in troops to occupy slums, as a temporary exercise in public relations, leaving scant trace.
For the popular classes, intersecting with and compounding an ambience of everyday violence has been the disintegration of norms of customary, family and sexual life, fanned not just by the diffusion of drugs, but by the media – television, keeping up with North American models, throwing earlier restraints to the winds. Women are the principal victims. Rape is as common as murder in Brazil: more than sixty thousand a year, around 175 a day – the number reported has doubled in the last five years. Amid all this, economic anxieties are the most permanent and intense – insecurity at its most fundamental level, of food and shelter. In such conditions, a desperate desire for order has increasingly been met by Pentecostal religion, its churches offering an ontological framework for making sense of lives on the edge of existence. Their trademark is a theology not of liberation but of ‘prosperity’ as the means of earthly salvation. By hard work, self-discipline, correct behaviour and communal support, believers can better themselves – and pay tithes to the pastoral organisation helping them. Typically, the neo-Protestant churches are also shady financial corporations, which make millionaires of their chief ministers. By 2014 the evangelical flocks in Brazil numbered some eighty million. The Pentecostal enterprises were a power in the land; a fifth of the deputies in Congress thought it to their advantage to declare an affiliation with them. Four years later, however, the conditions of their following had altered. The success of the theology of prosperity had coincided with the boom years of Lula’s presidency, giving credibility to its optimism of material uplift. By 2018, the promise of steady improvement was gone. For many, everything now seemed to be falling apart.
Nowhere were these stresses more acute than in Brazil’s second city. Rio, with half the population of São Paulo, has a murder rate more than twice as high. In large part this is due to the unrivalled degree of control across São Paulo – a city built on a plateau – exercised by the dominant paulista gang, the PCC. There it is in a position to discourage petty assaults – which complicate the orderly management of high-value drug traffic – with the heavy weapons at its disposal. Rio’s topography – a narrow, winding strip of coastland segmented by forest-clad mountains jutting through to beaches, favelas crammed in their interstices, often cheek by jowl with wealthy neighbourhoods – hinders such centralised power. There rival gangs wage fierce territorial warfare heedless of bystander casualties, and amid greater levels of poverty a denser arms trade multiplies the random mayhem of individual hold-ups. In early 2018, to stopper the violence, Temer sent in the army – and there it has remained, as in the past, to no lasting effect. In this environment, the PT was never able to take root, still less the PSDB, or any stable partisan configuration. All three of the last governors of the state are in jail or custody for corruption. What did take political hold, with a grip more extensive than in any other big city, were the evangelical churches. Cunha, for long Rio’s dominant politician, was a lay preacher linked to the Assembly of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination. Its current mayor is a bishop of the rival Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and nephew of its capo, Edir Macedo, Brazil’s (much more powerful) answer to the Reverend Moon.
Bolsonaro is a product of this petri dish. He was born in 1955 in the small-town interior of São Paulo state, but his career has unfolded entirely in Rio, where at the age of 18, in the time of the dictatorship, he entered a military academy close to the city, training as a parachutist. Rising within ten years to the rank of captain, in 1986 he published an article complaining of low salaries in the army and was arrested for indiscipline. On release he plotted a series of minor explosions at various barracks to press home material discontent in the ranks. Probably because he enjoyed some protection from higher officers in sympathy with his aims, if not his methods, an investigation found the evidence against him – which included maps drawn in his hand – inconclusive. But he was forced to retire aged just 33. Five months later he got himself elected to the city council in Rio. Within another two years, he had vaulted to Congress on the votes of the Vila Militar, an area in the west of the city built for soldiers and their families containing the largest concentration of troops in Latin America, and of the zone around the military academy to the south of the city where he had been a cadet.
In Brasília, Bolsonaro was soon calling for a regime of exception and the temporary closure of Congress, and the following year – this was 1994 – declared he would rather ‘survive in a military regime than die in this democracy’. Over the next two decades, his parliamentary career consisted largely of speeches extolling the military dictatorship and the armed forces; calling for the death penalty, a lower age of criminal responsibility, easier access to guns; and attacking leftists, homosexuals and other enemies of society. He was returned six times, his electoral base in the barracks and their precincts holding steady at much the same level – around 100,000 votes – until 2014, when it suddenly quadrupled. The jump, little noticed at the time, was more than a general effect of the economic crisis, though clearly lifted by it. Dislike of the PT – antipetismo – had long been a powerful strain in Brazilian political culture as a middle-class counterpoint to PT ascendancy, intensified as the media (above all Veja, the country’s leading news magazine) whipped up outrage at corruption to boost the PSDB’s campaigns to capture the presidency. But no one could compete with Bolsonaro for virulence on this front. He had, moreover, learned something from the urban uprising of 2013 that the PSDB had not. Then, young activists of a new right in São Paulo – far ahead of their elders or the political class generally – had pioneered the use of social media to mobilise what became vast anti-government demonstrations. They were radical neoliberals, which Bolsonaro was not, and there was little contact between the two. But he could see what they had achieved and set up his own personal operation in Rio in advance of any competitor. By late 2017 he was far ahead of the pack, with seven million followers on Facebook, double the number of the country’s leading newspaper.
The success of the image he projected in this medium was a reflection not just of the violence of his pronouncements. The impression of Bolsonaro given by press coverage abroad, of an unremitting feral fanaticism, is misleading. The public personality is more ambiguous than that: crude and violent certainly, but with a boyish, playful side, capable of a popular, on occasion even self-deprecating, good humour, far from the glowering bearing of Trump, with whom he is now often compared. His background was less grindingly poor than Lula’s – his father an unlicensed dentist plying his trade from one small town to another – but plebeian enough by the standards of the Brazilian elite. Though he is now well-off (the owner of five properties), a common touch comes naturally. His charisma travels especially among the young, both popular and more educated.
Married three times, Bolsonaro has four sons by his first two wives and one daughter (‘a moment of weakness’, he likes to joke) by his third, Michelle, a volunteer for a spin-off branch of the Assembly of God, whose televangelist leader, the third richest pastor in Brazil (worth reputedly $150 million), married the couple. After he was investigated by the federal police, she left for a ‘Baptist Attitude’ church near their apartment. Though a Catholic by origin, Bolsonaro has made sure of the best evangelical credentials, travelling with a pastor to be baptised in Israel. The family is his political fortress. Unlike the Trump household, the three eldest Bolsonaro sons have all made successful electoral careers: one is now a deputy for the Rio Assembly; another, in São Paulo, the most voted-for deputy in Brazilian history; the third a councillor in Rio. They are often seen as a mixture of brains trust and bodyguard around him, while Michelle is the gatekeeper to the outside world.
Though long a somewhat friendless loner in Congress, Bolsonaro understood the need for allies to reach the presidency, and showed he had the skills to acquire them. For his running mate, he chose a five-star general, Hamilton Mourão, who had just retired after becoming too outspoken: he had openly attacked Dilma’s government; declared that if the judiciary failed to restore order in Brazil, the military should intervene to do so; and floated the idea of an ‘auto-coup’ by an acting president, should that be necessary. (In other asides he remarked that the country needed to improve its stock, since Indians were lazy, blacks deceitful and Portuguese spoiled.) Given that Bolsonaro’s primary political base had always been military, the choice of Mourão was logical and well received in the army. But he also needed to reassure business, wary of him not just as a wild card, but as a congressman with a consistently ‘statist’ voting record, an opponent of privatisations and grudging of foreign investment. So, with a smile of engaging candour, he confessed himself ignorant of economics, though capable of learning from those who knew better, and found his mentor in an economist down the road.
Paulo Guedes had been trained in Chicago, taught in Chile under Pinochet, and returned to Rio a successful financier. He was not highly regarded by his fellow economists, and never got much of an academic job in Brazil, but he had co-founded the country’s largest private investment bank, BTG Pactual, and made a fortune from it, departing for other ventures well before it was caught up in Lava Jato investigations. A neoliberal pur sang, his chief remedies for Brazil’s economic ills are the privatisation of all state enterprises and assets to pay off the national debt, and deregulation of every transaction in sight. With promises like these – even if some were sceptical they could so easily be kept – capital had little to complain of. Financial markets were squared; security and economy taken care of: that left corruption. On course for victory after the first round of the election, Bolsonaro dispatched Guedes to get Moro on board. He needed little persuasion: within a few days of the second round, Bolsonaro announced that Moro had accepted his invitation to become justice minister in the incoming government. The magistrates of Mani Pulite, intending to clean up the Italian political system, put paid to the ruling parties of the First Republic and were appalled to find they had ushered in Berlusconi. In Brazil the star judge of Lava Jato, after achieving much the same, was happy to join an analogue fouler by any measure.
Installed in January, the new regime marks a more radical break with the era of the PT than the managers of Dilma’s ouster, their own parties severely depleted at the polls, ever imagined. Central to its composition is the return of the armed forces to the front of the political stage, thirty years after the end of the military dictatorship. No institutional adjustment was required. In the 1980s, Brazilian democracy was not wrested by popular revolt from the generals, but passed back to parliament by the generals once they considered their mission – eradication of any threat to the social order – accomplished. There was no settlement of accounts with the conspirators and torturers of 1964-85. Not only were they ensured immunity from prosecution or absolved by law from anything they had done, but their overthrow of the Second Republic was given constitutional sanction with the legalisation of their rulers as regular presidents of Brazil and the acceptance of legislation introduced by them as normal juridical continuity with the past. In all cases, the South American tyrannies of the 1960s and 1970s made an amnesty for their crimes a condition of withdrawing to the barracks. In every other country these were partially or completely annulled once democracy was consolidated. Uniquely, not in Brazil. In every other country, within one to five years a Truth Commission was set up to examine the past. In Brazil it took 23 years for one to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies and no action was taken against the perpetrators it named. Indeed, in 2010 the Supreme Court declared the amnesty law nothing less than a ‘foundation of Brazilian democracy’. Eight years later, in a speech commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the constitution enacted after the generals had left, the president of the Supreme Court, Dias Toffoli – former legal errand boy of the PT and arguably the most despicable single figure in today’s political landscape – formally blessed their seizure of power, telling his audience: ‘Today I no longer refer to a coup or a revolution. I refer to the movement of 1964.’
The army had its electoral say early on in 2018. In April, the commander-in-chief, Eduardo Villas Bôas, warned against any grant of habeas corpus to Lula, in the name, as he later explained, of the highest value cherished by the armed forces, the stability of the country. With Bolsonaro safely elected, Villas Bôas hailed the new president’s victory as a welcome release of national energy, and in January thanked him for ‘liberation from the ideological shackles sequestering free thought’ in Brazil. To discuss 1964 today was ridiculous, he said, and the Truth Commission a disservice to the country. Questions of public security were also matters of national security. Villas Bôas had taken part in one of the periodic military interventions to restore order in the slums of Rio, and seen how futile civilian incompetence had made them. In that they resembled Brazilian military intervention in Haiti in 2004, which had been much too short, according to Villas Bôas, chaos returning as soon as its troops departed. Not a lesson lost on Bolsonaro, whose key first appointment was General Augusto Heleno, the commander of the Brazilian forces dispatched to Haiti – to his shame, under Lula, to please Washington – to lock down the eviction of Aristide. Heleno was installed as head of ‘institutional security’– a kind of super chief of staff – in the Presidential Palace, where another general, Santos Cruz, also a veteran of Haiti, is in charge of relations with Congress, flanked by two more officers in the ministries of defence, and science and technology. Heleno, the most powerful of the group, has made no secret of his convictions, expressed in the dictum ‘direitos humanos são para humanos direitos’ (‘human rights are for the righteous’) – not for anyone else. His first pronouncement in government was to compare guns with cars as something every citizen has the right to possess.
The economic wing of the government, of far greater concern to financial markets, is more friable. Guedes has assembled around him a team mostly of like-minded radical neoliberals, greeted with enthusiasm by business, and able to build on the deregulation Temer had already delivered. Top of the agenda is the dismantling of the existing pension system. Indefensible on any measure of social justice, absorbing a third of tax revenues, over a half of its total payouts – which start at an average age of 55 for men – are taken by the wealthiest fifth of the population (judges, officers and bureaucrats prominent in their ranks), less than 3 per cent by those who are worst-off. Naturally, however, inequity isn’t the driver of standard schemes of pension reform, whose priority in Brazil, as elsewhere, is not to redress it but to slash the cost of pensions in the budget, while other cuts in public spending wait in the pipeline. Privatisations are advertised as the way to pay off the debt. A hundred state holdings of one kind or another – the plums are in infrastructure: motorways, ports, airfields – are scheduled for disposal or closure, naturally also in the name of efficiency and better service, under the direction of a military engineer, another veteran of Haiti. As under Cardoso, many of the richest pickings will no doubt go to foreign investors. The elated reaction of the Financial Times to the economic package in prospect is understandable. Why worry about a few political gaffes? ‘López Obrador Is Bigger Threat to Liberal Democracy than Bolsonaro,’ its Latin American editor decided.
The cutting-edge austeritarian overhaul of the economy in view requires, of course, passage through Congress. There, much Brazilian commentary expects resistance, given the dependence of so many members of Congress on the provision of federal funding to their localities, which austerity would undercut. Privatisation, too, is often thought to be so at variance with the statist nationalism of the Brazilian military – as a deputy, Bolsonaro himself vehemently opposed it – that it is likely to be watered down in practice. On both counts, some scepticism is warranted. Under the PT presidencies, the legislature was a fundamental barrier to the will of the executive, limiting what it could do and compromising it in what it did, with notorious results. But this was the predictable product of tensions between a radical party in control of one branch of the constitution and a salmagundi of conservative parties in control of another. Where no comparable tension existed between president and Congress, as under the centre-right administration of Cardoso, the executive was rarely frustrated – privatisations, for example, sailing through. Bolsonaro’s brand of neoliberalism promises to be significantly more drastic but his popular mandate for change is much greater and opposition to it in Congress notably weaker.
There his fly-by-night Social Liberal Party (PSL), cobbled together within a few weeks of the elections, will be the largest force in the lower chamber, once it is topped up, as it will be, with desertions from the huge marsh of venal lesser groupings. The once mighty PSDB and PMDB have been reduced to shadows of their former selves, their representation in Congress halved. The debacle of the PSDB and its patriarch has been especially striking. After failing to persuade one vacuous TV presenter to run for the presidency, seeing his party’s candidate get less than 5 per cent of the national vote, and refusing to support Haddad against Bolsonaro in the second round, Cardoso ended up with the PSDB in São Paulo – and no doubt soon nationally – in the hands of João Doria, another TV presenter-cum-entrepreneur, host of a show modelled on Trump’s Apprentice. This reptilian figure ran on a ticket brazenly twinning himself with the presidential winner as ‘Bolsodoria’. Poetic justice. In Congress, the bandwagon is likely to roll just as fast, deputies clambering aboard in greed or fear to give the executive, at least to begin with, the majorities it needs. As for military resistance to privatisation or foreign takeovers, the first of Brazil’s generals to run the country after they seized power in 1964, Castelo Branco, was no enemy of either. His minister of planning, later ambassador in London, was the famously outspoken champion of free markets and foreign capital, Roberto Campos. Bolsonaro has just appointed Campos’s grandson head of the Central Bank. To believe the sale of public assets will drive a wedge between Bolsonaro and his praetorians could prove wishful thinking.
A more serious risk to the new regime lies in the unfinished business of Lava Jato. Like the old, the new Congress is packed with recipients of bribes, distributors of backhanders, begetters of ill-gotten fortunes, those who’ve passed lifetimes in assiduous corruption – indeed, it has become a sanctuary for those already in the crosshairs of the police, who got themselves elected deputies simply to gain immunity from prosecution. Prominent among them is Aécio, with multiple charges piling up against him. Nor are Bolsonaro and his family in the clear, investigators having – post-election – not only discovered suspicious transactions in the accounts of his son Flávio, but, still more explosively, links to an ex-captain of the military police in Rio, twice held on charges of militia-style killings, who could be implicated in the murder of Marielle Franco, the black legislator and activist whose death last year caused an international outcry. Can Moro as justice minister now pass a sponge over delicts to which as a magistrate he owed his reputation for mercilessness? Already, he has explained that the Ten Measures against Corruption, that for years he insisted had to be passed if the country was to be cleansed, needed ‘rethinking’: not all of them are any longer so important. Yet to unwind the dynamic of Lava Jato altogether would destroy his standing. Should Congress try to pass a general amnesty for cases of corruption, a move mooted under Temer, the stage would be set for a full-tilt conflict of powers – as it also would if, vice versa, Moro pressed the Supreme Court to lift the immunity of too many deputies. This is the front where the potential for combustion is most real.
Holding these diverse segments of the regime together is the circle composed of Bolsonaro himself, his offspring and immediate entourage. Their arrival at the apex of the state marks a significant alteration in the geography of power in Brazil. After President Getúlio Vargas shot himself in the Catete Palace in 1954, Rio – capital of the country for some two hundred years – lost its position as the centre of national politics. The construction of Brasília started in 1956 and was completed by 1960. Thereafter, presidents came from São Paulo (Janio, Cardoso, Lula), Rio Grande do Sul (Jango), Minas (Itamar, Dilma) or the north-east (Sarney, Collor). Demoted politically, Rio declined – at points, some would say, rotted – economically, socially and physically. Neither the PT nor the PSDB ever secured much of a foothold in the city, for long stretches an ideological no man’s land, with little purchase on national politics. This started to change with the rise of Cunha to the helm of Congress, an archetypal Rio – carioca –figure with a pack of monetised deputies at his beck and call. The new regime has consummated the shift. After six decades in which Rio was marginal, power has moved back. All three of the most important positions in the administration are occupied by its products – Bolsonaro in the presidency, Guedes in the Finance Ministry and the rotund fixer Rodrigo Maia in Cunha’s former seat as Speaker of the House. In the cabinet, which for the first time in the history of the republic contains not a single minister from the north or the north-east, all coming from just six out of Brazil’s 26 states, the largest contingent – a quarter – are natives of Rio. It is a signal shift.
How then is Bolsonaro to be classified? Often heard on the left in Brazil, and in the liberal press in Europe, is the opinion that his rise represents a contemporary version of fascism. The same, of course, is a standard depiction of Trump in liberal and left circles in America and the North Atlantic at large, if typically assorted with escape clauses – ‘much like’, ‘reminiscent of’, ‘resembling’ – making clear it is little more than lazy invective.5 The label is no more plausible in Brazil. Fascism was a reaction to the danger of social revolution in a time of economic dislocation or depression. It commanded dedicated cadres, organised mass movements and possessed an articulated ideology. Brazil had its version in the 1930s, the green-shirt Integralistas, who at their height numbered over a million members, with an articulate leader, Plínio Salgado, an extensive press, publishing programme and set of cultural organisations, and who came close to seizing power in 1938, after the failure of a communist insurrection in 1935. Nothing remotely comparable either in terms of a danger to the established order from the left, or of a disciplined mass force on the right, exists in Brazil today. In 1964, there was still a major communist party, with influence inside the armed forces, a militant trade-union movement, and growing unrest in the countryside, under a weak president calling for radical reforms. That was enough to provoke not fascism but a conventional military dictatorship. In 2018, the communist party of old was long gone, combative trade unions were a back number, the poor passive and dispersed, the PT a mildly reforming party, for years on good terms with big business. Breathing fire, Bolsonaro could win an election. But there is scarcely any organisational infrastructure beneath him and no need for any mass repression since there is no mass opposition to crush.
Is Bolsonaro better pigeonholed as a populist? The term now suffers such inflation as the all-purpose bugbear of the bien pensant media that its utility has declined. Undoubtedly, his posture as a valiant foe of the establishment, and style as a rough-hewn man of the people, belong to the repertoire of what is generally viewed as populism. Modelling himself on the president of the US, he outdoes Trump in wrapping himself in the national flag, and spewing a Twitter stream – 70 per cent more tweets than the latter in his first week in office. But in the gallery of right-wing populists today, Bolsonaro does not fit the standard bill in at least two respects. Immigration is not an issue in Brazil, where just 600,000 of a population of 204 million are foreign-born – 0.3 per cent, compared with some 14 per cent in the US and UK, or 15 per cent in Germany. Racism, of course, is an issue, to which Bolsonaro like Trump has made covert appeals, and whose violence in the practices of the police he will encourage. But unlike Trump, he won a large black and pardo constituency in the polls, and is not likely to risk this by anything approaching an equivalent of the xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric in the North Atlantic. A third of his party in parliament, indeed, is not white – a higher percentage than in the much vaunted progressive Democratic contingent in the 116th US Congress.
A second significant difference lies in the character of Bolsonaro’s nationalism. Brazil is not a country either afflicted or threatened by loss of sovereignty as in the EU or by imperial decline as in the US or UK, the two drivers of right-wing populism in the North. His patriotic chest-beating is more factitious. Today he is no enemy of foreign capital. His nationalism, in expression hyperbolic enough, essentially takes the form of virulent tropes of anti-socialism, anti-feminism and homophobia, excrescences alien to the Brazilian soul. But it has no quarrel with free markets. In local parlance, it offers the paradox of a populismo entreguista, a ‘supine’ populism – one in principle at least, perfectly willing to hand over national assets to global banks and corporations.
Comparison with Trump, Bolsonaro’s closest analogue as a politician, indicates a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Though he comes from a much humbler background, Bolsonaro is less illiterate. Education in a military academy saw to that: books are not a complete mystery to him. Aware of certain of his limitations, he lacks Trump’s degree of egomania. Trump’s overweening confidence in himself comes not just from a millionaire family background, but a long career of success in real estate speculation and showbusiness. Bolsonaro, who has never run anything in his life, has no such existential build-up. He is much less secure. Given, like Trump, to every kind of intemperate outburst, unlike Trump, he will quickly back off if reactions become too negative. The first weeks of his administration have been a cacophony of conflicting statements and retractions or denials of them.
It is not just in character, but by circumstance, that Bolsonaro is a more brittle figure. Both he and Trump were catapulted to power virtually overnight, against all expectation. Trump took the presidency with a much lower percentage of the vote – 46 per cent – than Bolsonaro’s 55 per cent majority. But his supporters are ideologically fervent and solidly behind him, whereas Bolsonaro’s support may be wider, but is shallower, as post-electoral polls indicating rejection of many of his proposed policies show. Trump, moreover, came to power by taking over one of the two great parties of the country, where Bolsonaro won power effectively on his own, without any institutional support at the polls. Once elected, on the other hand, he will not, because he cannot, rule without taking account of the institutions around him, as Trump has tried to do. This doesn’t mean he will be less brutal, since in Brazil many of these institutions are more authoritarian than in the US. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are sure victims: unlike blacks a negligible quantity at the polls, as cattle ranchers sweep across their habitat (with long-term consequences that will not be appeased by the dismal gestures of the Global north towards arresting climate change), they will be the first to suffer. So too, it is easy to imagine – especially if the economy fails to pick up and he needs to distract attention from it – Bolsonaro cracking down viciously on student protests; rounding up activists of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) or its urban equivalent, the MTST, and banning their organisations; breaking strikes, where necessary. But jungle apart, such repression is likely to be retail, not wholesale. More, for the minute, would be surplus to requirements.
Where will that leave the PT? Far from flourishing, but so far surviving. With 10 per cent of the vote and 11 per cent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, it avoided the rout of the PSDB and PMDB. With Lula in jail, what is likely to become of it? Here qualified opinion divides. For Singer, the central reality of the PT years was, as the titles of his two books make plain, lulismo – the person overshadowing the party. For the best American scholar on contemporary Brazil, David Samuels, it is the other way round: the deeper, more durable phenomenon was petismo – the party rather than the person. Lula, in his view, was not a charismatic leader like Vargas, or his heirs from Rio Grande do Sul, João Goulart or Leonel Brizola, politicians without real roots in a party. Nor, for that matter, unlike these figures, was he a populist. Financially orthodox, respectful of democratic institutions, he neither created a political system around himself, nor gave way to inflammatory Manichaean rhetoric of ‘them’ and ‘us’. In Samuels’s reading, lulismo itself never amounted to more than a ‘thin psychological attachment’, compared to the PT’s organisational strength and solid racination in civil society. Singer was wrong both to exaggerate the importance of Lula and to attribute a generally conservative outlook to the poor, offset by a special investment in him. In 2014, Samuels and his Brazilian colleague Cesar Zucco could write: ‘Peering into our crystal ball, we see the PT as the fulcrum of Brazil’s party system. Without it, governance will be difficult’.6
Singer’s predictions have worn better. Events have shown that his sense of the mentality of the dispossessed, their fear of disorder and anxious desire for stability, was accurate. In their clairvoyance, many pages from his Os Sentidos do lulismo (2012), noting the precedents of Collor and Jânio Quadros, read like a scenario for Bolsonaro’s triumph in popular zones of Brazil six years later. What has this meant for the relations between the PT and its leader since? On the eve of his imprisonment, an interviewer remarked to Lula: ‘There are those who say that the problem in Brazil is that it never knew a war, a rupture.’ His answer was: ‘I agree. It’s funny the way each time Brazil was on the verge of a rupture, there was an agreement. An agreement reached from above. Those who are above never want to leave.’ The reply is revealing: what it excludes is the possibility that those above might want a rupture – a break from the right, not the left. Yet this is effectively what hit the PT in 2016-18, something with which it has yet to come to terms. In power, so long as the going was good, the PT benefited the poor; but it neither educated nor mobilised them. Its enemies, meanwhile, not only mobilised but educated themselves, up to the latest postmodern standards. The result was a one-sided class war. The huge demonstrations that ended by toppling Dilma were the outcome of a galvanisation of the middle class such as Brazil had never witnessed; enabled by a mastery of social media, transmitted from its youth to Bolsonaro, reflecting a transformation of the country little short of a social revolution. Between 2014 and 2018, despite the recession, the number of smartphones surpassed the number of inhabitants, and their use would put any other political deployment of them, in Europe or America, in the shade.
That, of course, was not the only lethal reality the PT failed to recognise. In office, it had rejected mobilisation in favour of co-option; and co-option – of the Brazilian political and business class – meant corruption. That was in the logic of its strategic choice in office. ‘Between consent and force stands corruption,’ Gramsci wrote, ‘which is characteristic of situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function and the use of force is too risky.’ Renouncing hegemony, which required a sustained effort of popular enlightenment and collective organisation, and refusing coercion, towards which it never felt any temptation, the party was left with corruption. To its leaders, anything else seemed too hard or too risky. Corruption was the price of its ‘weak reformism’, in Singer’s phrase, and the real benefits it made possible. But once it was exposed, the party could find no words to name and criticise what it had done. Instead, in an all too revealing – in its way, disastrously accurate – euphemism, the PT explained that it needed to ‘overcome its adaptation to the modus vivendi of traditional Brazilian politics’. Modus vivendi: a way of living together – just so.
Resort to euphemisms offers no escape from a past to which the PT remains fettered, in the most painful and paralysing way. Lava Jato is far from finished with its star victim. Lula’s sentence of 12 years for his inspection of a beachfront condominium is just the beginning. A second trial on a similar charge – employing a construction firm that had received governmental contracts while he was in office for improvements to a friend’s rural retreat – is nearing conclusion, with a similar verdict in view. These charges are still, in the sum of things, relatively trivial, though the sentences are not. Coming down the pike, however, are far more serious accusations, not of private dereliction, but malversation of huge sums of public money – hundreds of millions of dollars at the disposal of Petrobras when Lula was president – based on the rewarded testimony of the leading Judas of the party, his one-time right-hand man, the former finance minister Antonio Palocci, at present selling himself as a witness on yet further cases for prosecution. The government will ensure maximum publicity for the mega-trials to come. It needs to finish off Lula.
The PT, and its sympathisers, deeply and understandably angered at the lack of commutative justice with which Lula’s personal affairs have been handled, are likely to have to confront evidence, however tainted, potentially far more damaging, in what threatens to be an indefinitely extended process to discredit and confine, for life, the former president. How is the party to react? Lula, who has not been diminished in prison, remains its overwhelmingly most important political asset; yet now one in danger of becoming, for many, almost equally a liability. To do him historical justice seems beyond its powers. The party depends on him for steady leadership, but risks forfeiting credibility if it doesn’t become independent of him. Anchor or albatross? If Lula were fully abstracted from the scene, many think the PT would rapidly split. In such an impasse, militants may well be driven to hope that under Bolsonaro conditions in Brazil worsen so much that few will any longer care about the venial scandals of the past, their traces obliterated in some vaster upheaval to come.
For a dozen years, Brazil was the only major country in the world to defy the epoch, to refuse the deepening of the neoliberal regime of capital and relax some of its rigours in favour of the least well-off. Whether the experience had to end as it did is imponderable. The masses were not called to defend what they had gained. Did the centuries of slavery that set the country apart from the rest of Latin America make popular passivity insuperable, the PT’s modus vivendi the best that could be done? At times, Singer has implied something like this. At others, he is more stringent. Brazil, he recently wrote, has failed to achieve the social inclusion of all its citizens that was the task of the generation after the dictatorship. But in its absence, no other projects are viable. In a slightly more optimistic vein, another acute observer, a little to his right, Celso Rocha de Barros, has remarked that lulismo will not be finished in Brazil until something better replaces it. One must hope these judgments hold good. But memories can fade, and elsewhere, social exclusion has proved only too cruelly viable. The left has always been inclined to make predictions of its preferences. It would be an error to count on defeat self-correcting itself with time.