On Sunday, November 29, millions of Brazilians will vote in second-round elections to elect mayors in many of nation’s largest cities. In São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, the choice is between Party for Socialism and Freedom candidates Guilherme Boulos and incumbent mayor Bruno Covas from the Brazilian Social Democratic Party, a party best known for Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s austerity-driven presidential administrations (1995-2002). Polling in the single digits in August, the latest polls show Boulos with 40 percent support to Covas’s 47 percent with just two days to go in what would be the greatest upset in Brazilian elections in decades. Valerio Arcary is the author of several books including O Martelo de História (History’s Hammer) and a leader in the Resistência current of the Party for Socialism and Freedom in Brazil. This article was originally published in Esquerda Online.
The Guilherme Boulos and Luiza Erundina candidacy has opened a path for the future of the left. It has already managed to shift the relationship of forces between the parties in São Paulo’s political superstructure. The far right was left behind and a socialist ticket is contending for a possible victory in the second round.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, whatever the outcome of Sunday’s election, the impact of this political victory is here to stay. Of course, the danger of analyzing life from inside São Paulo is falling for the infamous São Paulo-centric optical illusion. However, second-round battles are taking place in other cities as well, such as Porto Alegre, Recife, Vitória, and Belém, which are themselves important for the future of the left.
A Left Front around PT, PSOL and PCdoB is decisive for raising up a mass Fora Bolsonaro(Bolsonaro Out) mobilizing campaign in 2021, that is, a movement to push Bolsonaro out of office before the 2022 elections. The conquest of city halls will be a decisive point of support in this. The campaign for direct elections in 1984 after the end of the military dictatorship relied on the support from the Montoro governments in São Paulo, Brizola in Rio de Janeiro, and Tancredo in Minas Gerais. And the campaign to depose neoliberal President Fernando Collor drew strength from the campaign for ethical politics initiated by Erundina herself in 1992.
The current shift in São Paulo – which is the center of capitalist domination in the Brazil – was only possible because of an oscillation in the balance of strength between the classes in the country’s largest cities, a change signaled by the majority turning against the Bolsonaro government. But, this didn’t fall from the sky. It was not a maneuver. It is not an electoral accident. The opportunity could have been missed. The campaign was able to take advantage of the moment only because an alternative had been built up over the years starting in 2013, an alternative based on a project, a strategy, a wager. Namely, the aim of repositioning the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) within the left to play a stronger role which, in turn, greatly impacted the party’s perspectives. Boulos will emerge from 2020 a much more important figure than he was before.
The most important thing is that this is leading, dialectically, to a favorable modification in the relationship between the parties which will also affect the structure of society, in other words, the perception that the classes have of their own place in society. The biggest difficulty we have faced in resisting Bolsonaro has been the people’s lack of confidence in themselves. The political struggle is a struggle of ideas and proposals, but also a struggle for the social psychology of the masses, for the subjectivity of workers, for the conscience of the oppressed masses. The possibility of life being transformed only begins when people’s minds start to change.
The Boulos candidacy has managed to win over the majority of the working class, at least of those working in the formal sector in the city of São Paulo. It is a spectacular achievement and it is easy to prove this conclusion. Boulos has an absolute majority among young people aged 16 to 24, but also among those up to 35 years old. He also has a majority among formal wage earners, black people, the unemployed, and among civil servants. This constitutes an inspiring victory against the bourgeoisie and its representatives. Any left winger who does not understand the meaning of this turnabout has lost touch. Two years after Bolsonaro’s election, we are on the verge of an extraordinary feat.
We will have to asses these changes – as of yet quantitative and not yet qualitative – and they will become clearer in the coming period. Elections are also part of the class struggle. Social and political clashes play out uninterruptedly. Boulos drew strength from people’s profound anger over João Alberto’s murder,a young black man recently killed by supermarket security guards. But equal access for campaigns to public media must also be considered given the weight that the media still maintains.
Millions of young people, women and black people, employed and unemployed, are inspired by Boulos and Erundina and are starting to think: do we have to live like this? To sow hope is to ignite the imagination that another city is possible. A city where everyone’s aspirations and desires come together in a collective movement to insist that human life must come before profit, the interests of the many must be raised above the privileges of the few, and the public must be placed before the private. When we fight for values such as solidarity before greed and social justice before private interest, we are mobilizing class consciousness. In Marxist language, this is about how the working class learns for itself. When people start to believe that this kind of change is possible then anything is possible.
Disconcertingly, some people devalue this struggle because it is not sufficiently revolutionary. In fact, the accumulation of defeat and isolation has infected the mentality of a part of the radical Brazilian left with sectarianism. The revolution will not arrive even one day earlier because a handful of selfless people agitate for “Revolution, Now!” or “General Strike” or “Down with Power, Now!” These are immutable anarchist battle cries, no matter the balance of forces in the political situation.
And then there are those who take comfort in arguing that the PSOL campaign program does not even deserve to be qualified as reformist. This criticism is not serious. The Boulos and Erundina program advocates proposals so broad that they have a transitional dynamic: they question everything. Therefore, they are attacked, furiously, by reactionaries who claim their ideas are impracticable. But what is most disturbing is that the controversy between reformists and revolutionaries on the left was never about the need to defend reforms.
Revolutionary Marxists have never counterpoised the struggle for reforms to the struggle for revolution. Instead, they argue that the struggle for reform, when it conquers the hearts of millions, opens the way for revolution. Because it is their own practical experience of life that breaks people from habits of accommodation, customary resignation, and the alienating routine of a frustrated existence.
Boulos is a left-wing fighter for social justice. He has won his place representing São Paulo’s left because he comes from the struggles in the streets. He is the spokesman for the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), which has led tens of thousands in protests for the most just causes. He has indisputable legitimacy. This campaign was just a start.
The year 2021 will be the time to confront the neo-fascists, and knowing how to do this is greatest legacy of a generation of veteran Brazilian leftists. And throughout it all, we will face an economic crisis with high unemployment, challenges posed by the pandemic, and the likelihood of new shocks caused by global warming.
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