The constituent

Anselmo Kiefer, The starry skies above us and the moral law within


Preface to the newly released book by José Genoino and Andrea Caldas

It must be recognized: the Brazilian dictatorship was, in many aspects, very successful. The military remained in power for more than 20 years, decimated left-wing organizations, and excluded all dissident voices from the Armed Forces. They maintained a simulacrum of an electoral process and the legislative branch generally remained open, although restrained. Thus, they trained a new political elite that accepted their tutelage.

The constitutional order was not simply suspended; a new Constitution was granted in 1967 (and again in 1969, with Amendment nº 1). At the same time, the military in power set in motion a major process of modernizing the country's infrastructure, productive diversification and income concentration. To a certain extent, they managed to contain pressure from different opposition sectors and control the transition to civilian government, imposing limits and defining its pace.

At the end of the dictatorship, there was no previous order to be recovered. Brazil was another country, urbanized, integrated in new ways into global production chains. It was not possible, as in Argentina or Uruguay, to return to the Constitution in force before the military took power: it was necessary to establish a new democratic legal and political order, practically from scratch. Therefore, the constituent process became the focal point of the Brazilian transition.

In it, the various social interests in dispute were confronted, with an important mobilization of social movements, civil society organizations and lobbies business and corporate, and the correlation of forces of the moment crystallized. There was no clearly established hegemony, which had repercussions on the text, which is marked by contradictions and the postponement of decisions (through the stratagem of referring to “complementary legislation”).

The left, which emphasized the dual nature of the fight against dictatorship – for the return of political rights, democratic freedoms and the power to vote, but also against social inequality and the super-exploitation of labor – saw the Constitution as the possible basis, at that moment, from which future advances would be achieved. But the situation soon changed, with the neoliberal wave that took over the world and arrived once and for all in Brazil with the victory of Fernando Collor in the 1989 presidential election. Despite all its ambiguities and limitations, the 1988 Charter would have to be protected against the setbacks that were coming. And even today, the validity of the Constitution and the effectiveness of the rights it enshrines are at the center of political disputes.

It is this complex, rich and significant process for understanding the current crossroads of Brazilian politics that José Genoino and Andrea Caldas analyze in The constituent, which represents a significant contribution not only historically, but to facing the challenges of the present. The process of drafting the Constitution and the left's relationship with the constitutional text are the themes of the book, which reviews the past to interrogate the present with an eye on the future.

The 1988 Constitution is, as the authors say, “an unfinished work” and in dispute. With the worsening of political tensions in the country, in particular with the decision of the ruling class to unilaterally break the pact that allowed the low-voltage transformations of the Workers' Party governments, it was stripped of what would be the first quality of any constitutional charter: the ability to channel, regulate and provide predictability to the struggle for power.

José Genoino and Andrea Caldas observe the “political conversions […] both inside and outside the National Congress”, which marked the Constituent Assembly. Such reconversions are not infrequent in Brazilian politics, but they accelerate in times of crisis. It was like this from the beginning of the 2010s, with the distancing of many occasional allies from the popular camp and the consequent degradation of the political scene.

To the crude game of money and the manipulation of information, which is part of the “normality” of democratic regimes limited by coexistence with the capitalist economy, was added the open instrumentalization of the State's repressive apparatus, in the form of Operation Lava Jato. When President Dilma Rousseff was still re-elected, a coup was organized in the form of impeachment without legal basis. As president, Michel Temer restricted freedoms and imposed an agenda of rights setbacks that, once again, minimally respected the formalities of the parliamentary process, but refused any dialogue with society.

To prevent the undoing of the advances of the PT governments from being halted too soon, an act of force removed former president Lula from the 2018 elections, paving the way for a criminal and unprepared extremist to be elevated to the presidency – and, in the process, the military once again occupied the forefront of national politics. In a short space of time, the entire set of controls and guarantees that the Constitution should provide was dismantled, amid the omission or even active complicity of the institutions that were supposed to guarantee it.

The fact is that, with the democratic field on the defensive, the return to force of the Constitution became its main banner. But it was the same constitutional order that had shown itself incapable of resisting the attacks, that had bowed to the vetoes of the ruling class.

The process by which the 1988 Constitution went from a possible, but unsatisfactory, fruit of the democratic transition (suffice it to remember that the PT bench in the Constituent Assembly voted against its approval) to the final horizon of the political imagination of the Brazilian left was completed. A process whose key moment was the adaptation of the PT governments to the narrow limits allowed here for social transformation, within the logic that it is better to do little than dream about a lot. In a country with the pressing needs of Brazil, it is not possible to simply discard this understanding.

“Doing little” meant putting a plate of food on the table of tens of millions of people, who could not wait for the “accumulation of forces” of the popular camp to have their needs met – as Betinho famously said, “those who are hungry, have hurry". But social contradictions cannot be resolved if they are not faced. They are still present and, sooner or later, they will manifest themselves with vigor.

In order to implement compensatory policies that benefited the poorest and begin a prudent assertion of national sovereignty, the PT mandates from 2003 to 2016 guaranteed the continuity of rentierism, invested in the demobilization of popular movements, leading to the freezing of the correlation of forces, they adhered to the traditional forms of the political game based on “give and take”, avoided interfering with the interests of the media and the military caste, allowed without a fight the political-partisan instrumentalization of the Judiciary (in the farcical “Mensalão” trial , of which one victim was José Genoino himself).

None of this was enough to prevent the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff, orchestrated by so many of those whose privileges had been zealously preserved. As the authors rightly note, “the [PT] government did not seek to make any structural changes to the structure of the Brazilian State. Therefore, the gaps in the 1988 constitutional text were maintained, as well as the counter-reform carried out in the 1990s, under the auspices of neoliberal governments. Alongside this, considerable sectors of the progressive camp, inside and outside the government, began to share faith in the judicialization of politics, in republicanism and even in the so-called “fiscal responsibility”.

In this context, the contradictions of the transition agreed at the top remain coagulated for a certain time – benefiting, in part, from a relative improvement in the national and international economic scenario, between 2006 and 2013 – but they emerge again with force and explode with the 2016 coup. .

The situation we live in today is the legacy of this process. Although Lula's victory in 2022 avoided the plunge into authoritarianism that Jair Bolsonaro's reelection outlined, the popular camp continues to operate in harm reduction mode. The situation is aggravated by the fragility of the Executive in relation to other powers, which requires permanent concessions, above all, to the important group of opportunistic and predatory deputies and senators known as “Centrão”. It really seems that putting the 1988 Charter back into operation is the best we can hope for for Brazil.

Therefore, reading the work of José Genoino and Andrea Caldas is necessary. The book is the result of dialogue between two intellectuals and activists with different trajectories, but converging concerns. José Genoino, survivor of the Araguaia guerrilla and the dictatorship's basements, was a constituent deputy, later president of the PT. Andrea Caldas, who at the time of the Constituent Assembly was a young activist, is a pedagogue, university professor and member of PSol. In common, they have a commitment to democracy, socialism and national sovereignty.

The book provides a very current account of the work of the National Constituent Assembly, illuminating the multifaceted process of pressure and negotiation that involved the various groups and interests in conflict – an account that is complemented by the transcription of a statement by Genoino about his actions at the time. It also provides a fine analysis of the ambivalences of the Charter, particularly with regard to the financial system and civil-military relations, in which the LOBBY of the Armed Forces was able to prevent a clear consecration of the primacy of civil power.

As the authors say, “the Constituent Assembly represented a historical commitment to the past, at the same time as it signaled expectations for the future, with the promise of a new social, political, cultural and environmental pact”. This is perhaps the fundamental message: it is not possible to focus solely on preserving the Constitution as it was written in the tense situation of 1987 and 1988 (and revised during the neoliberal setbacks of the 1990s), leaving aside this promise, the promise of a country capable of deepening the democratization of its power structures and expanding the fight against inequalities.

To give substance to this promise, it is necessary, in the words of José Genoino and Andrea Caldas, “the construction of a global program that combines the demands of the various movements and insurgent citizenship of contemporary times”. A daunting task, but one that cannot be avoided for left-wing forces committed to a program of radical transformation of the social world, aimed at overcoming all forms of domination and full human emancipation.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of Democracy in the capitalist periphery: impasses in Brazil (authentic). []


José Genoino and Andrea Caldas. The constituent: advances, inheritance and institutional crises. Curitiba, Kotter editorial, 2023, 144 pages. []

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