Valerio Arcary: Three left-wing interpretations of Bolsonaro’s government

One year into far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s term, his administration has initiated an all-out offensive against the Amazon rain forest, attacked unions, students, indigenous people, and Brazil’s powerful anti-racist and LGBTQI movement. Most recently, Bolsonaro’s government has threatened journalist Glenn Greenwaldwith prison or worse. Valerio Arcary is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL). Originally published by Esquerda Online, translated and published by No Borders News with permission.

1 – Recalling Lenin’s metaphor about a bent stick, when a stick is bent sharply in one direction, then in order to find its point of equilibrium, we must first bend it sharply in the opposite direction. Lenin inherited this method from Marx. A debate between opposing positions cannot be resolved productively simply through mutual concessions. At first, to clarify the differences and reduce the margin of error, the best method is to develop both positions to their extreme in order to verify the degree to which the initial hypotheses of each is supported. After all, the forces that explain social struggles’ ebbs and flows, their unexpected inflections, long stagnations, and sudden accelerations, forces that, again, reinforce the terrible sluggishness of anticipated change and then are accelerated by sudden and precipitate transformations, coming almost as a surprise, do not reveal themselves easily. History has revealed surface-level movements as well as transformations in the deepest tectonic layers. Today, the best way to describe our situation is that it is reactionary, but not counterrevolutionary.

2 – Bolsonaro’s far-right government was no historic accident, but neither was it a historic defeat. To be certain, this government was only possible because Brazilian workers suffered serious defeats. Yet, the Brazilian left still possesses the social and political reserves necessary to stop Bolsonaro and everything his government stands for.

3 – Put succinctly, the three most important political battles of the last decade were the massive protests against austerity in June 2013, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff of 2016, and the elections of 2018, which brought Bolsonaro to power. We, the working class and the left, lost each of these, but the relationship between the three processes holds the key to our current situation. There are, roughly speaking, three interpretations on the Brazilian left about the meaning of the Bolsonaro government. However, they are incompatible. Of course, the debate between the three can, and must, be intellectually honest. And there are also intermediate positions that, as always happens, mediate between the three. But we must begin by recognizing that there are three principal narratives from a historical perspective.

4 – The first position contends that June 2013 inaugurated a conservative wave and paved the way for a bourgeois offensive in 2015 and 2016 that overthrew Rousseff’s government and then criminalized Lula and sent him to prison. Thus, the Bolsonaro government was essentially the result of a reaction against progressive reforms implemented by the coalition governments led by the Workers Party (PT), that is, Bolsonaro is a reaction to the PT governments’ successes. The second position maintains that June 2013 represented a progressive democratic mobilization, while the mobilizations against corruption in 2015 were up for grabs between the left and the right, and the Bolsonaro government resulted, fundamentally, from the limits of, and errors committed by, the PT governments. The third position asserts that even the June 2013 protests were socially contentious, but that the mobilizations of the middle class in 2015 and 2016 were politically reactionary. It argues that the Rousseff government’s turn to fiscal adjustment, one that produced a catastrophic recession, spread social demoralization among workers. And it concludes that if Bolsonaro’s government was only possible due to defeats accumulated by the errors of the PT leadership, then its historical momentum is powered by a continental-wide bourgeois reaction, driven on by imperialism.

5 – Some historical debates are closed, others remain open. Interpretations of the defeat of Quilombo de Palmares, of the Paulistas in the Guerra dos Emboabas, of Inconfidência Mineira, of the Confederation of Ecuador, of Canudos, or of the Jango Goulartgovernment in 1964 are intriguing debates, but they are closed. The discussion of the losses accumulated over the last five years also contains a historical dimension, but it remains open. That is, this is strategically-relevant debate, the future depends on its outcome.

6 – The analysis is put forward by the majority of the PT-Lulista camp and explains the process as a reaction to progressive reforms carried out over thirteen years of PT-led government (2003-2016). That is, their defeat was provoked by their successes, not by their mistakes. The idea makes a powerful impression because it contains a grain of truth. However, no government is defeated when it is hitting its marks. This camp identifies the beginning of the reactionary offensive in the June 2013 protests, contextualizes the bourgeoisie’s turn towards impeachment as a response to pressure from Washington, underlines the role of intelligence agencies and secret services (the formula of hybrid wars), warns that irrepressible social resentment would alienate the middle class, and explains the weakness of popular mobilization against the coup by referring to what they call productive social restructuring. They point to a continuity in the dynamics of the social struggle between June 2013, the 2015 and 2016 mobilizations backing Rousseff’s impeachment, the struggles against interim president Michel Temer, and Lula’s arrest, and all of this culminating in Bolsonaro’s election. Their analysis is restricted to an assessment of the unfavorable evolution of the relationship of social forces, while it disregards variations in the relationship of political forces over these five years. When this position tries to make sense of the political struggle, it capitulates to versions of conspiracy theories. On its 40th anniversary, the PT leadership embraces a circular and fatalistic ideological discourse of self-justification. We lost because our enemies were stronger.

7 – The second analysis is expressed by currents of the radical left who likewise identify a continuity throughout the dynamics of social struggle over these five years, but they reverse the polarity. This is why they put “Bolsonaro Out” (Fuera Boslonara) at the center of their political campaign. However, this myopic point of view has the opposite effect. Those who promote it underestimate the accumulated weight of defeats pressing on the conscience of the working class, while overestimating tensions between Bolsonaro’s government and fractions of the ruling class. They disregard the fact that political insecurity prevailed among workers when it came to fighting back against the government’s pension reform. However, they highlight conflicts between the far-right government on the one hand and their erstwhile allies in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the corporate media on the other. This current explains the Bolsonaro government as a historic accident, an accident that must be understood as a superficial phenomenon, therefore, without lasting effect. It is true that Bolsonaro’s election may be described as a historic accident in the sense that he was not the preferred candidate of the bourgeoisie. However, the string of offensive institutional coups in Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia cannot be dismissed as accidents, rather they represent a strategic project of imperialism in Latin America. The Bolsonaro government was only possible due to the accumulation of working-class defeats prior to the 2018 elections. In this context, the Bolsonaro government benefits from strong bourgeois unity and the support of the majority of the middle class.

8 – The third and final analysis best identifies, dialectically, the social and political contradictions inherent in the process. Brazil’s political evolution between 2013 and 2018 was not linear. The mobilizations of June 2013 were a battlefield in which everything was in dispute, and the outcome was far predetermined. So much so that Dilma Rousseff, in fact, won the elections in 2014. The mobilizations of 2015 and 2016 were, from the beginning, an explosion of reactionary fury from the middle class, outbursts that paved the way for the extreme right that was, until then, marginal, transforming it into a movement with mass influence. There is no need to exercise counterfactuals, for instance, using hypotheses of what might have happened if the PT government had not appointed Joaquim Levy – the former president of the Brazilian Development Bank – as Finance Minister under Rousseff thereby hoping to neutralize bourgeois pressures in 2015, in order to conclude that the Bolsonaro government was not inevitable. But neither is it correct to conclude that it was a historic accident. If it weren’t for Bolsonaro, another such figure would have risen to leadership. Concretely, Bolsonaro’s election is incomprehensible without the politicized anti-corruption campaign dubbed Lava Jato (car wash), Lula’s arrest, and the bizarre stabbing attack on Bolsonaro late in the campaign in Juiz de Fora. Therefore, Bolsonaro’s election featured random, fortuitous, contingent elements. The rupture between the Brazilian bourgeoisie and Rousseff’s government did not. This rupture cannot be explained by PT social spending programslike Bolsa-Família (Family Support), Minha Casa (My Home), or Minha Vida (My Life), nor by the expansion of the federal education network, nor by Luz para Todos. Instead, the bourgeois offensive pursued a strategic project aimed at repositioning Brazilian capitalism on the world market.

9 – A Marxist analysis must consider different levels of abstraction. The study of the relationship of social forces seeks to identify the respective positions of the classes in struggle. The investigation of the relationship of political forces seeks to understand the sphere of the superstructure where social struggle is expressed through representations: state institutions, various organizations, parties, the media, the realm of culture, etc. There is not always a perfect coincidence between the relationship of social and political forces, although there is a tendency towards confluence. At this moment, the relationship of social forces is slightly worse than that of political forces.

10 – During the first year of the Bolsonaro government, tensions flared with Congress, the Supreme Court, and some of the principal commercial media groups around different themes. Shocks, disagreements, and even turmoil in the face of strange initiatives on the part of a neofascist core came and went. The Minister of Culture Roberto Alvim was firedafter echoing Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. These crises in the superstructure should not lead us to believe that we have somehow left the reactionary situation behind. Bourgeois unity, and majority middle-class support for Bolsonaro’s government, prevails. Opinion polls are one significant indicator of changing public moods, but they are only one variable, among others, for measuring the balance of forces. The situation is reactionary, but we have not yet suffered a historic defeat and resistance in 2020 could well rise to a level higher than that in 2019.