The causes of the recent defeats of the left

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The New Republic is threatened, but it has not yet collapsed. We are in a reactionary situation, but not a counterrevolutionary one. Nor are we in a pre-revolutionary situation where the opportunity opens up to overthrow the government

By Valerio Arcary*

Let us recall the metaphor of the bending of the stick used by Lenin: when the stick is leaning too far in one direction, if we want to find the point of balance, we must first bend it to the opposite end. Lenin inherited this method from Marx. A debate between opposing positions cannot be resolved productively through mutual concessions.

In a first moment, to clarify the differences and reduce the margins of error, the best way is to develop each of the positions to the extreme, to check how much and which of the initial hypotheses are supported. The forces that explain the ebbs and flows of social struggles, the unexpected inflections, the long stagnations, the sudden accelerations and, again, the terrible slowness of changes that do not come, until vertiginous transformations precipitate, almost as a surprise, do not reveal themselves easily.

History knows surface movements, and transformations in the deepest tectonic layers. The political regime built since the end of the dictatorship, the so-called New Republic, is threatened by Bonapartist onslaughts, but has not yet collapsed. We are in a reactionary situation, but not a counterrevolutionary one. Nor are we in a pre-revolutionary situation in which the opportunity opens up to overthrow the government, calling Fora Bolsonaro.

This far-right government was not a historic accident. It was only possible because there was a serious defeat. Historical accidents are understood, in a Hegelian theoretical tradition, as unforeseen phenomena, chance, an “irony” of history, therefore, without lasting consistency. Bolsonaro and the neo-fascist current he leads are a dangerous extravaganza, but since 2016 he has been a favorite candidate to reach the 2018 second round. He was never the best enemy to defeat. But his election was not a historic defeat either.

A historic defeat defines a lasting stable picture of the social and political relationship of forces for a long period. There are still social and political reservations in the Brazilian left to stop Bolsonaro, and everything that his government means. There are closed historical debates, and others that are open. The interpretations of the defeat of Quilombo de Palmares, of the Paulistas in the Guerra dos Emboabas, of the Inconfidência Mineira, of the Confederation of Ecuador, of Canudos, or of the Jango Goulart government in 1964 are instigating debates about devastating defeats, but closed discussions. The discussion of the accumulated defeats in the last five years also has a historical dimension, but it remains open. This is a debate of strategic importance. This means that the future depends on him.

The three major political battles of the last decade were the June 2013 Journeys, the 2016 impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the 2018 elections. We lost them all, but the relationship between the three processes is the key to the current situation. There are, broadly speaking, three interpretations on the Brazilian left about the meaning of the Bolsonaro government. They are incompatible. The debate between the three can and should be intellectually honest. Between the three there are also intermediary positions that perform, as always happens, mediations. But there are three great narratives, in historical perspective.

The first position argues that June 2013 inaugurated a conservative wave, and paved the way for a bourgeois offensive in 2015/16 that overthrew the Dilma Rousseff government, criminalized and arrested Lula. The Bolsonaro government essentially resulted from a reaction to the progressive reforms of the coalition governments led by the PT, that is, from their successes.

The second considers that June 2013 was a progressive democratic mobilization; mobilizations against corruption in 2015 were in dispute; and the Bolsonaro government resulted, fundamentally, from the limits and mistakes of the PT governments.

The third maintains that the June 2013 days were socially in dispute, but that the middle class mobilizations in 2015/16 were politically reactionary. It argues that the turn of the Dilma Rousseff government towards the fiscal adjustment that produced a catastrophic economic recession, provoked social demoralization among the workers; thus concluding that the Bolsonaro government was only possible due to the defeats accumulated by the mistakes of the PT leadership, but its historical significance lies in a bourgeois reaction, on a continental scale, driven by imperialism.

The majority of the PT-Lulista camp explains this process as a reaction to the progressive reforms that were carried out over thirteen years. That is, they were defeated by their successes, not by their mistakes. The idea is impressive because it has a grain of truth. No government, however, is defeated when it succeeds.

This field identifies the beginning of the reactionary offensive in the June 2013 days, contextualizes the turn of the bourgeoisie towards impeachment under pressure from Washington, underlines the role of intelligence agencies and secret services (the formula of hybrid wars), warns that displacement of the middle class would be the product of uncontainable social resentment, and explains the weakness of popular mobilization against the coup for productive restructuring. It sees an uninterrupted continuity of the dynamics of the social struggle between the June 2013 Journeys, the mobilizations for the impeachment of 2015/16, the fights against Temer and the arrest of Lula, culminating with the election of Bolsonaro.

The analysis is restricted to an assessment of the unfavorable evolution of the social balance of forces, disregarding the variations that the political balance of forces has known in these five years. When he agrees to attribute meaning to the political struggle, he capitulates to versions of conspiracy theories. On the anniversary of its fortieth anniversary, the PT leadership embraces a circular fatalistic ideological discourse of self-justification. We lost because our enemies were stronger.

The second analysis is expressed in currents of the radical left that also see an uninterrupted continuity of the dynamics of the social struggle over these five years, but in the opposite direction. That is why he defends Fora Bolsonaro as a priority political campaign. Myopia has the opposite effect. It despises the accumulated weight of defeats in the consciousness of the working class, and overestimates the tensions between the Bolsonaro government and fractions of the ruling class. It disregards that political insecurity prevailed when it came to fighting against pension reform. It highlights, however, the conflicts between the far-right government and Congress, the STF, and the business media.

Explains the Bolsonaro government as a historic accident. Bolsonaro's election can be described as a historic accident, because he was not the preferred candidate of the bourgeoisie. But the offensive of institutional coups in Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia did not. It obeys a strategic project of imperialism in Latin America. The Bolsonaro government was only possible due to a process of accumulation of defeats by workers in the class struggle, prior to the 2018 elections. In this context, the Bolsonaro government benefits from a great bourgeois unity, and the support of the majority of the middle class .

The third analysis is the one that better identifies, dialectically, the social and political contradictions of the process. The political evolution between 2013 and 2018 was not linear. The June 2013 mobilizations were a battleground in which everything was up for grabs, and the outcome was far from predetermined. So much so that Dilma Rousseff won the elections in 2014.

The 2015/16 mobilizations were, from the outset, an explosion of reactionary middle-class fury. A shift so reactionary that it opened the way for the extreme right, until then very marginal, to transform itself into a movement with mass influence. It is not necessary to exercise counterfactuals, resorting to hypotheses of what could have happened if the PT government had not bet on Joaquim Levy as an in extremis neutralization of bourgeois pressures in 2015, to conclude that the Bolsonaro government was not inevitable. But neither is it correct to conclude that it was a historical accident. If it weren't for Bolsonaro, it would be another leadership. Bolsonaro's election is incomprehensible without Lava Jato, Lula's arrest, the stabbing in Juiz de Fora, and therefore has a lot of random, fortuitous, contingent. The rupture of the Brazilian bourgeoisie with the Dilma Rousseff government, no. But this break cannot be explained by Bolsa Família, or Minha casa, Minha Vida, or the expansion of the federal education network, or Luz para Todos. It obeyed a strategic project of repositioning Brazilian capitalism in the world market. 

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

Throughout the first year of the Bolsonaro government, tensions arose with Congress, the STF, and some of the main commercial media groups around different topics. There were several clashes, disagreements, even some turmoil in the face of odd initiatives by the neo-fascist nucleus. The culture secretary was fired.

These crises in the superstructure do not delude that we are in a reactionary situation. A bourgeois unity prevails in support of the government, still with majority support in the middle class. Opinion polls are a significant indicator of the variation of moods in society, but only one variable, among others, to gauge the relationship of forces. The situation is reactionary, but we have not suffered a historic defeat. Resistance in 2020 could rise to a higher level than in 2019.

*Valerio Arcary He is a retired full professor at the IFSP (Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology).

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