With over 13,000 detected infections and more than 581 deaths as of April 7 (more than doubling over the last 6 days) far-right President Jair Bolsonaro in under increasing pressure from all sides.
Here Valerio Arcary explains prospects of Bolsonaro being forced out from above even as the left looks to the example of mass struggle set in Chile last fall. Valerio Arcary is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) in Brazil. Translated and published by No Borders News as part of our ongoing international coronavirus coverage.
Four notes on tactics in the changing political situation in Brazil
1. The situation in Brazil has changed and the left must change its tactics. When our enemies grow weak, our hands must not tremble, we must strike at them more forcefully. The majority of the organized sections of the working class and the youth already oppose the government. The time has arrived to demand Bolsonaro Out Now!
The trigger was President Jair Bolsonaro’s outlandish support for denialist theses about the Covid-19 pandemic devestating the world. We are not accustomed to situations in which a president publicly clashes with his own Health Minister during a crisis. The health emergency and divisions within the ruling class have isolated Bolsonaro, and while the wearing away of support for his government is a slow process, it is obvious.
Over the last few weeks, a majority of the state governors have questioned the President’s orientation while some of the largest media groups have voiced their support for Health Minister Luis Enrique Mandetta. A political crisis has opened wide and we are living through an anomylous, execptional situation of institutional “dual power” in which the Health Minister’s, and not the President’s, policy prevails. This does not appear to be sustainable indefinitely.
Yet, at the very same time that Bolsonaro’s obtuse and frighteningly provocative attitude has given rise to a potential governamental crisis, the liberal-democratic regime has only grown stronger, demonstrating itself to be flexible enough to absorb shocks, capable of adapting to conflicting internal powers, and displaying the capacity to take action in the face of the health crisis. An unstable conjuction is opening up before us, one that must be settled one way or the other. Power is not compatible with a prolonged impasse when such an immense dangers looms on the horizon. The imposition of some sort of political “guardianship” over Bolsonaro is not impossible (that is, other state actors exercising a degree of control over him), but this would not be indefinitely sustainable either.
The change in the political situation hits different social classes in distinct forms. Days now count for weeks, and weeks for months. Everything is becoming clear. One portion of the middle classe – under the threat of the immensity of the health catastrophe – has lost confidence in Bolsonaro’s ability to respond to the emergency and they have begun to make their voices heard in protest from open windows and balconies. A majority of the sectors of the working class have consolidated their own opposition. And the majority of the bourgeoisie is pressuring state instutitions – the Congress, the Supreme Court, and even the High Command – to get a handle on Bolsonaro and take him under their tutelage.
But this will only be partially and temporarily possible and appears unlikely to last for long. Why? Among other factors, Bolsonaro displays a messianic personality, he leads a mass, neo-fascist current and enjoys significant support within the repressive apparatus of the state, and he can count on support from the United States government.
A change in the situation demands a change in tactics. When sharp political turns appear, it is common for left-wing organizations to suffer through harsh internal polemics. We are entering into a crisis and it is normal to be divided. Thus, the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) recently passed through an important test.
The national executive of PSOL has just approved a resolution calling for Bolsonaro and Mourão Out Now! And the party will fight to set an early date for free and fair elections as the best means to solve the crisis. We are for early electionsbecause Vice President Hamilton Mourão lacks any legitimacy for replacing Bolsonaro and assuming the presidency. We are for free elections becaues it is necessary to annul judgments handed down in the politically-motivated Lava Jato (Car Wash) corruption prosecutions. With respect to this matter, we must guarantee the restitition of former Workers Party President Luis Inácio Lula de Silva’s political rights.
The national executive of PSOL’s decision will facilitate greater unity among diferente currents within the party. We may argue about whether or not this decision was too-long delayed or whether it was premature, and such a debate can be educational, but it is only a balance sheet. Balance sheets have their place and they are indispensible for serious organizers, but this must be debated maturely. It is neither more or less than this. What is genuinely important now is our agreement about the need to call for the government’s downfall and to open up a path to strengthening PSOL.
2. Bolsonaro Out Now is an agitational slogan. It is not a basis for action today. The order of the day is to take actions necessary for saving lives: defending health workers, prohibiting layoffs, safeguarding the salaries of workers who lose their jobs, and to build solidarity.
The immediate conjuncture changed when Bolsonaro stumbled, but the reactionary political situation is far from disappearing. There are two distinct levels of abstraction when it comes to analyzing reality: social structure and political superstructure. Social relations of force change when collisions occur and when a contending class either wins or loses the struggle.
Within the same overall political situation, a diversity of temporary conjunctures are possible. Marxist analysis takes the class struggle as its reference point. What defines any given situation is the relation of social forces, that is, the study of the relative positions in the social structure of the bourgeoisie, the working class and the oppressed, and the middle class. The relation of social forces is more stable than the relation of political forces because the relation of political forces – in other words, the relative strength of a government or the various institutions within the state such as Congress, the Judiciary, the Armed Forces, state governments, political parties, etc. – in the superstructure of social life change, oscilate, and fluctuate very quickly. But their decomposition and recomposition are transitory.
The conjuncture has changed today in Brazil even if the overall political situation remains reactionary, that is, the working class, unfortunately, is still on the defensive. It is the conseravative and centrist governors, and not the left, that are gaining strength now. Failing to acknowledge that the situation remains reactionary would be an illusion. But to disregard the change in circumstances would be an equally grave error. We can, and we must, rely on trusty old Leninist empericism to get the analysis right.
We have to keep in mind that recent historical context matters. The right-wing 2016 coup against Workers Party President Dilma Rousseffsucceeded with very little resistance and this can only be explained by reference to the PT governors’ attitudes and by the divisions that were generated within the working class and the youth. We have witnessed an accumlation of defeats and the advent of a reactionary period. We also remember that no government falls without being pushed, whether by means of “hot” or “cold” opposition. But we must keep in mind that “cold” overthrows are very rare, while “hot” ones depend on the entrance of the popular masses onto the scene as we saw in Chile last fall. No battle is lost before it is over and the fight against Bolsonaro has hardly begun.
The power of resistance demonstrated by the women’s movement that built #EleNão(#NotHim) during the darkest hours of 2018, and among the youth who launched the education tsunami in 2019can never be underestimated. They will probably be in the front ranks when we can return to the streets.
The slogan Bolsonaro Out Now stands at the center of our struggle to save peoples’ lives for four reasons: (a) the pandemic representes a grave threat; (b) Bolsonaro exposed his flank by underestimating the population’s fear of the public health disaster and opened up a crisis in the relationship between state institutions; (c) a wave of protests has started even in quarantine conditions with people taking to their windows and balconies to protest; (e) the embryo of a United Left Front has gained strength behind the common platform of Frente Povo Sem Medo (Fearless Peoples’ Front) and Frente Brasil Popular (Brazilian Popular Front).
3. Circumstances change, we need clarity and courage. Audacity, audacity, audacity. A breach has opened through which the opposition and, therefore, the left can pass.
The left can only occupy a central role in opposition to Bolsonaro through struggle and this is not easy to do. Contemporary Brazil has never lived through the consequences of a war. The impact of the cataclysm in the coming few weeks, unfortunately bringing with it the possibility of tens of thousands of deaths, cannot be foretold. In all likelihood, it will provoke an earthquake in the consciousness of tens of millions.
There is no use, nevertheless, in feeding illusions that the process of wearing down Bolsonaro will be easy, gradual, and consistent, still less that the results are guaranteed to increase the left’s confidence. Everything will be up for grabs. Bolsonaro will respond to the opposition with Bonapartist ambitions. São Paulo governor João Dória(who campaigned in 2018 as a Bolsonaro supporter), or Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel, who had vouched for Bolsonaro’s ability to govern in the past, have already repositioned themselves in favor of uniting against Bolsonaro under the cover of the national emergency. There will be actions and reactions, and there will be a relentless struggle.
Bolsonaro stumbled, but he retains real support. There is an opportunity because the bourgeoisie is divided over the central political question and this is something new. This has not happened since 2017 when then-President Michel Temer was caught on tape promising hush moneyto meat-packing magnate Joseley Batista in the Palácio do Jubura garage. A majority of the dominant class supports the tactic of mitigating Bolsonaro’s actions being pursued by the governors, a tactic that even parts of Bolsonaro’s own government, led by Heath Minister Mandetta, support.
Saving lives is a humanitarian program. Unity in action is, therefore, legitimate against Bolsonaro. But a common political program is not possible. Forming a tactical Broad Front with Rodrigo Maia (President of the Congress) or Dória would only prepare a fatal defeat for our side. The left must stand out with its own program. This program must include promoting a total quarantine and no layoffs because all human lives are important. In the face of the disaster, we must demand that the richest pay the price for addressing the crisis, therefore, large fortunes and big corporatations should be taxed. And, lastly, we must state clearly that Bolsonaro has to go.
In early March, Bolsonaro’s denialist stance on the danger of a catastrophic pandemic was not exceptional. He was not alone in defending the continuation of economic activity, the belief that mass contagion might lead to rapid group immunity, and the social isolation of the elderly. We was joined by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and even Italy and France. Only the collapse of the hospital system in Lombardy led to these governments repositioning themselves.
Bolsonaro’s opposition to social distancing seems crazy, but it flows from a certain method. It is the expression of a worldview based on a frightening mix of neo-fascist strategy and ultraliberal ideology and the naturalization of a disturbing vision of social eugenics. There is a debate on the left about Bolsonaro’s mental health. Of course, it only makes sense to seriously discuss the problem because it is essential to know who we are up against. After all, it is necessary to consider, to some extent, the role of the individual in history and Bolsonaro’s behavior suggests a paranoid mind. But our constant underestimation of Bolsonaro has been a grave error.
Bolsonaro is a monster whether or not he is crazy, but we will not defeat him with a medical certificate of insanity. Little is gained in a political struggle by accusing our class enemies of being maniacs or psychopaths. Socialists do not believe that society is divided between the sound of mind and the deranged. We do not reduce our struggle to a clinical, psychological assessment. Instead, we understand that Bolsonarism is a neo-fascist political current supported by a third of the population and it must be confronted as such. Furthermore, we respect those among us who are facing psychological challenges and illnesses and do not wish to equate these struggles with Bolsonaro’s actions.
4. Where do we go from here? The situation will get much worse before it gets better. It presente us with dangerous challenges. The possibility that Bolsonaro will not finish his term in office has emerged, even if is still not the most probable outcome because no important section of the bourgeoisie supports such a turn. But the health crisis may become explosive, Bolsonaro may commit even more serious errors, and the popular masses might enter the scene.
We have witnessed five years of accumulating and uninterupted victories for the forces of reaction, but we have not suffered a historic defeat. Both “wild” optimism and “hypochondriac” pessimism must be avoided. Let us be realistic and, therefore, display revolutionary patience. We are betting that the popular masses and the youth will unleash extraordinary forces and learn political lessons more quickly in the extreme situation to come.
The political scenarios will be conditioned by the evolution of the health crisis and the ensuing economic and social crisis. These will be decisive in shaping political developments. The objective parameters that will allow us to project the dynamics of the evolution of the pandemic in Brazil will be, essentially, the extent and intensity of the contagion its rate pf lethality.
We have no hard data because testing has not been conducted on a mass scale and it is unlikely to be done before May. Thus, the dimensions of the catastrophe are not yet clear. But they will be dramatic. The most moderate projections forecast tens of thousands of deaths just in the first wave while the most apocalyptic projectons assume no less than hundreds of thousands of deaths.
The scale of the crisis will buttress inevitable calls for “national unity” against the virus. The federal and state governments and the media will present the contagion as an inevitability, absolving the government of all responsibility. But it is possible that this discourse will not suffice to allay popular unease because as the demand for medical care grows, we will see the material conditions of the great masses deteriorate. Congress’ approval of a minimum emergency income program for fifty million people will mitigate the catastrophe to a degree, but it has only short-term of validity, especially as a second wave of contagion is possible.
In this contexto, there are three probably political scenarios. The first and most likely, at this time, is that the pressure to box in Bolsonaro from above will be, to some extent, successful during the crisis. As he plays for time and seeks a path to break out of his current isolation, Bolsonaro can tolerate “tapping the brakes” to shake things up, or some sort of oversight ministry managed by the generals to monitor the Palácio Planalto (Brazil’s White House), perhaps mediated by his current Chief of Staff General Walter Braga Neto. He might see it as a temporary retreat while the pace of the pandemic and its economic consequences are being determined.
No one really knows what negotiations have taken place in the Palácio’s kitchen over the past two weeks. But a division of labor appears to be prevailing in which Bolsonaro and his neofascist wing (thwarted for the moment) accept (under pressure) that Mandetta’s policies will continue to be applied. But Bolsonaro has already proven to be uncontrollable. This hypothesis for dealing with the president today has the explicit support of the majority of the ruling class.
The second hypothesis is that, in the face of a disastrous worsening of the pandemic, growing social dissatisfaction over Bolsonaro’s irresponsible behavior, and of the danger of a revolutionary uprising like the one last fall in Chile, a majority of the bourgeoisie coalesces around Bolsonaro’s “cold” displacement “from above” by means of constitutional measures. But Brazil is not Argentina and this would constitute an extreme solution in the eyes of the Brazilian bourgeoisie. It is, therefore, less likely. The traditional political culture in Brasilia (the nation’s capital) is that of permanent negotiation between elite factions.
The greatest obstacle to this sort of solution is that Bolsonaro will never resign. It would simply not fit with his political, social, or psychological profile. He shares little in common with Jânio Quadros who served as Brazil’s 22nd president for just six months in the spring of 1962 before resigning amidst an economic crash. Of course, Bolsonaro has been rehearsing Bonapartist bluffs, like the one on March 15th. Leaders like Bolsonaro fight to the end. They prefer death to surrendering without a fight. He would appeal to mass mobilizations by his hordes of supporters, poisoned by neo-fascist ideology, before voluntarily giving way.
Under these circumstances – keeping in mind that a cornered political animal is very dangerous – Bolsonaro might decree of a State of Emergecy and give in to the temptation to try his own coup d’etat. Forcing Bolsonaro out through “cold” means would therefore have to be a determined, surgical, and instantaneous intervention, that is, an emergency impeachment, carried out quickly in negotiations with the Supreme Court. Or perhaps some sort of combined parliamentary impeachment and Supreme Court judgment could be arranged. There are always skilled lawyers for designing the architecture of such a case.
The third hypothesis would be the opening of a “hot” transition, a revolutionary overthrow of Bolsonaro. This hypothesis must guide PSOL’s strategy, and to win it we must fight to build a Left United Front. Unfortunately, for the time being, this outcome is very unlikely for several reasons. The biggest problem is that this perspective cannot rely solely on the consequences of the health and social cataclysms to come, or on the barbarities that Bolsonaro may commit.
For the situation to evolve in this direction, three other conditions are necessary. The first is that the bourgeoisie and its representatives, both in the National Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as in the state governments, all committ mistakes in managing the crisis, leading to an unprecedented national wreck, a resounding failure. The second is that the masses enter the scene with a revolutionary disposition to fight. The third is that the left-wing parties with the greatest influence refuse to accept the Siren’s song of the ruling class, they reject a quietist, wait-and-see strategy of letting Bolsonaro bleed until the 2022 elections. Such a posture would only allow Bolsonaro time to recover and stems from these political leaders’ fear of measuring the contending forces in the streets. Just as bad, these forces might surrender to accepting Mourão as a lesser evil.
The left’s role must be to defend an anti-capitalist solution. Brazil needs a left with an instinct for power and a socialist program to fight for.