the gates of hell

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851–3


The question that matters today is whether this government will make it to the end and where it will be in 2026

“We have not yet opened the gates of heaven, but we have closed those of hell.” I received this message a few days after the second round, when we were still catching our breath after the ordeal of Lula's less than 2% advantage over the unspeakable. I liked the phrase so much that I distributed it around. I decided to adopt it as the title of my last article of the year 2022, the one in which we almost drowned. I'm not sure if the sentence is as I received it or if I rewrote it unconsciously. If so, I apologize to the author, I don't know who he is.

Reflecting on the article, in which it intends to take stock of this year and the prospects for the next government, I came to the conclusion that the phrase is wrong, despite its poetic and political appeal. It gives the impression that we have escaped from hell, that we have gotten rid of it and that its doors are closed. And that we are now knocking on the doors of paradise and preparing to open them and enter the world of bliss.

In fact, there is no barrier separating heaven and hell with a door that opens both ways, allowing you to come and go as you please. Dialectically, hell and paradise coincide in the same space and at the same time, and it is the circumstances that define how much of one and the other fits us throughout our lives. Often, our perception of hell and heaven is redefined and what seemed like one thing turns into another. But, with this introductory tavern philosophy out of the way, let's take a look at this year and speculate about the next ones.

The gates of hell have not closed. We were able, metaphorically, to open them up a little, preventing the horrors experienced in the last four years from coming together, all those promised by the madman and not yet fulfilled. We cannot forget that a new government of Jair Bolsonaro, with a majority in the House and Senate and the possibility of controlling the STF and TSE, with a solid rearguard in the coup-supporting FFAA officers, with a growing base of armed militiamen and with a legion of fanatical followers articulated by social networks, would allow a much higher level of repression of social movements, destruction of culture and science, environmental hecatomb, among other impacts.

There are those who say that the ruling classes, which my mother called Dona Zelites, and American imperialism would not allow such a regime to establish and stabilize itself. Well, the “imperialism” of the European bloc grumbles, but it coexists with the protodictators of Hungary, Poland and Turkey. That American imperialism of the 1950s and 1960s is no longer the same, although it is an old dog that can still bite.

We avoided the worst, but by very, very little. And the situation inherited by Lula is a challenge even for his charisma, political ability and leadership capacity. Bolsonaro is gone and gone in demoralizing form even for his fiercest supporters, or rather, especially for them. Can the energetic survive politically? Could it come back in 2026? I find it unlikely, especially if the “force of law” comes down on him, without Augusto Aras being on hand to protect him.

But we know how the law works in Brazil, even with the Supreme Court boosted by its protagonism in resistance to the protodictator and with a more combative composition with new ministers, appointed by Lula. Even this composition depends on negotiations with a Senate much worse than the current one (which is already terrible). I believe more in Jair Bolsonaro's inability to act as a true leader of his bestialized followers, inside and outside the FFAA. It's our luck, until pages two, that new and more skillful and daring candidates for capos of the far right may emerge.

Jair Bolsonaro left a country shattered in every possible dimension. The State was dismantled, the Treasury plundered, the economy is in shambles, dependent on agribusiness and mining. It left the population miserable, employment unskilled, hunger transformed into a daily concern for tens of millions. Health and education are in their worst state in the history of the Republic. “Security” is today more of a threat than a protection of citizens, especially for blacks, poor people and indigenous people. And the institutions emerged weakened from the clashes of these four years. There are those who say that the fact that they survived and contained the madman is proof of strength, but the attrition was enormous and may have been a Pyrrhic victory. To complete, we have a huge part of the population abducted by uncontrolled social networks and believing in things that even God doubts.

Lula will have to recover institutions, resume economic development with social inclusion, control environmental destruction, disarm the environment of hatred, sew the social fabric to seek cooperation between Brazilians and Brazilians, face the profound social crisis in which he lives most of half the population, revive culture, build quality education for all, guarantee health for the vast majority that depend on the SUS.

All this will have to be done with a Congress in its worst composition ever. A Congress that is defined by parochial interests or by the interests of business lobbies. He will have to deal with a judicial system infiltrated by supporters of the madman. Lula will still have to face a ruling class that has never been identified with the country and capable of placing its profits above God and the Country, let alone the people. Rentism has never been so strong and the size of our debt (which has grown exponentially in the recent period) only increases the size of the earnings of those living on rents (and the resistance to giving up part of them).

It will also have to face a press that lives in the times of a neoliberalism that is already denied even by many of its founding theorists. And communication on social networks is even more dangerous and is widely dominated by the ultra-right. Perhaps the biggest problem is the mass of fanatics, armed or not, waiting for the moment to turn the tables and send the “communists” to hell or, in Bolsonaro’s words, to the end of the beach (disposal of corpses). We are looking at the demonstrations of the most extremists at the doors of complacent and cooperative barracks and witnessing the first steps towards terrorism.

But the worst of Jair Bolsonaro's legacy is the ultrapoliticization of the FFAA. The generalada blackmailed Lula with the threat of insubordination in the barracks, where officials defended the “right” of far-right demonstrators to settle permanently, to appeal for military intervention. Or, outright, by the dictatorship. The Army's high command literally appointed the new Minister of Defense, José Múcio, who took pains to repeat the millicade's nonsense about the rights of demonstrators. Neither the explicit terrorism of the bellicose acts on the day of Lula's nomination, nor the attempted attack on Brasília airport, which could have caused hundreds of deaths, altered the arrogance of the generals' errand boy. According to him “the demonstrations are peaceful”.

The generals intubated the defeat and started to preserve their irregular powers, negotiating threateningly with Lula. Even worse, the actions of the last two months show that the officers who directly command the troops, the colonels, are willing to fight back, as soon as they have an opportunity. Why didn't they strike now? From what was ascertained, there was agreement between the Air Force and Navy commanders with the declared intention of General Augusto Heleno, the one who defended “going to hell” after the lost elections. As is known, it was the army high command that split the coup front and stopped the process. Fear of international backlash? It's likely. We may never know what they discussed and how they reached their decision to stay on the wall.

On the other hand, despite the evident breach of discipline observed, each day that the troop commands allowed the demonstrators to invade the security perimeter of the barracks, the higher orders did not dare to give the order to clean up the mess. Afraid of not being obeyed? Opportunistic complicity to put pressure on the new government? What is left for Lula to face is an Armed Force riddled with coup d'état at all levels of command. A sword of Damocles over Lula's head.

All these challenges are even more threatening when it is verified that Lula arrives in government without a plan A or B. He was elected promising a return to the past, totally impossible in the current circumstances, even if we take into account the fact that the past was not as good as presented in the narrative of Lula and the PT.

Lula's “government plan” was put together now, during the transition, with the thematic WGs formulating proposals without a more general direction, a background diagnosis of the problems we are experiencing and an orientation establishing objectives and priorities. The dozens of proposals formulated separately will have to be articulated and submitted to the “criterion of truth”, that is, how much money will be available for each one of them. The risk of having a “catch-up” in the decision to allocate resources will be enormous. Without an overall vision, what should prevail is the firepower of each proponent.

In this context, it is unlikely that the real priorities will be considered with scarce resources. For example, with total insecurity regarding the attitude of the military, how will Lula be able to prioritize anything against the demands of the military? How will it be possible to direct resources to favor national food production against the abusive demands of exporting agribusiness in terms of subsidies and other economic advantages? How will it be possible to tame the most predatory sector of this agribusiness that devastates all biomes, particularly the Amazon?

We cannot expect much from this government, but the population (and the left) created enormous expectations in relation to social policies. If they do not have the desired and expected impact, the disappointment will swell the opposition camp and corner the government. But with the meager resources available, the government will have to deal with the so-called poor man's blanket; when it covers the head, it uncovers the feet. The temptation to increase debt to finance government actions is evident. Even if Lula obtains other authorizations to spend, as he did now in the recently approved PEC, without a recovery of the economy, the vicious circle will be inevitable and the inflationary pressure will erode the gains of the social programs, as it happened even before Lula to assume.

What does Lula have in his favor in this framework that is about to close rather than open the gates of hell? Or more sinking into hell than getting out of it?

When Lula won the elections in 2002, he had three elements in his favor: (i) a strong confidence of the population, of the electorate, which was reflected in the evaluation at the end of his government, 80% of great or good!; (ii) the support of strong social movements in all sectors. And, (iii) a respected party that supported him without restrictions and that became the largest in Congress. We also have to remember that Lula inherited a well-oiled economy, a well-organized state and a highly favorable international situation, at least until the 2008 crisis. And he did not have a fiercely polarized society.

Despite all these advantages, Lula had to live with a conservative Congress already full of physiologists, even though they did not dominate the Houses, as happens today. The means of gaining governance were various ways of “buying” the physiological benefits, which ended up in the monthly allowance scandal. Nothing new in the functioning of the Brazilian governments of the new republic, from Sarney to Fernando Henrique, but the PT was the party of “ethics in politics” and the disappointment of an important part of the electorate was great.

Lula survived this during his government and was even re-elected with plenty, but Dilma Rousseff sank in the combination of the oil scandal and the economic crisis. The PT suffered a lot in this process and lost the aura of political novelty, that of an ethical party. It was water in the mill of the anti-political discourse of the right and Bolsonarism.

But the worst impact of the period was the impressive demobilization of social movements, combined with the bureaucratization of leftist parties, starting with the PT. Syndicalism withered, as did the associative movements. Even the very independent MST lost ground in its base. It seems that everyone, government and movements, adopted a posture like: “let the government do it”. When the leftovers spilled in 2016, PT at the forefront, it discovered that it had no organized and combative social rearguard. In the vacuum of political movements among the poorest, evangelical militancy entered, combining social and spiritual advantages (with one or another miracle of lambuja) and a fierce conservative indoctrination.

Today Lula has a weaker party (and a left that has remained more or less the same, with the PSOL gaining the spaces that the PCdoB lost). The social movements that grew in the period were the identity movements and, with these, leftist parties were not created, with the exception of the PSOL, in part. Unionism stagnated, not least because the base of the industrial working class shrank, in addition to the labor reform having weakened union power. Nowadays, all progressive movements and parties together only manage to tie with the Bolsonarist base, in their most triumphant moments, such as the demonstrations on Independence Day in 2021 and 2022. Let's not confuse the huge pro-Lula demonstrations in the electoral campaign with support or ability to mobilize the left. The difference between Lula and the left in terms of support is not just electoral. We have to note that progressive penetration in the popular bases is small and superficial, in addition to having enormous difficulty in waging the fight on social media, taken over by Bolsonarism.

In this context, Lula's option to make a government with a democratic front is a wise gesture. However, the construction engineering of this front seems precarious to me. The past returns to haunt the present like a tic that cannot be abandoned. The PT treats the government as if it had won the election and, as a result, had the power and the right to define the distribution of positions and the orientation of policies. It seems that the record has not dropped and the confusion between Lula's victory and the PT's “victory” is enormous. Lula is much bigger than the PT, it always has been, but now we have to remember that the PT had just over 20% of Lula's votes, the left and center left together made just under 20%, and the other 60% of the votes that elected Lula, came from non-party Lulism and democratic anti-Bolsonarism, which showed its penetration in the August 2nd manifestos. Of the latter, a small number, just over 2 million votes, came from Tebet's support in the second round. More or less 1,7% of the electorate, that is, almost the entire difference that Lula secured over Bolsonaro in the second round.

The treatment given by the PT to Simone Tebet is significant of the lack of understanding of the nature of the victory (which should be reflected in the nature of the government). Simone Tebet wanted the ministry of social development, for obvious political and legitimate electoral reasons. No one doubted that she had the ability to run the ministry's social programs correctly. Perhaps they feared that she would play too well and fail for the 2026 elections. This was enough for an operation to deconstruct the character. The PT's calculation is not the success of this government, but who will take Lula's place and against which possible candidate he (PT) will have to take up arms in the next elections.

The question that matters today is whether this government will reach the end and what situation it will be in by 2026. And I have no doubt that it will be necessary to bring together all the democrats, even the non-Bolsonarist right, to be able to hold back the rojão from now until the next election. And the composition of the government does not guarantee this. To begin with, with the predominance of physiologism among congressmen and the lack of political and programmatic identity of the parties, appointing ministers and other positions does not guarantee that deputies and senators from this expanded base have any loyalty to the government and their own participants in government.

Each vote in the House and Senate will be negotiated and “bought” with some specific benefit. A parliamentary amendment here, another there. We can expect a more palatable version of the secret budget, with the government sharing clearance power with Senate and House capos. It will be inevitable to avoid bomb agendas like Dilma had to face. But this makes the executive hostage to the extra expenses of governance and reduces the resource for the execution of a rational budget. Spout snooker

The left is euphoric with Lula's victory and seems to have forgotten how close we were to disaster this year and disregards the enormous risks that remain for the next four years. Demanding Lula for his appointments has already led to the early rupture of União Brasil. The left is also appealing to Lula to surround right-wing representatives in their ministries with a troop of “people's commissioners”. If put into practice, it won't take long for these right-wing parties to decide that it's better to start a confrontation. Another bill snooker.

Who can Lula count on to defend him? In these years of resistance, numerous civil society movements have been created that cannot demobilize or simply join the government. In the “paradisiacal” years between 2003 and 2016, social movements were involved in the countless councils created to open the government to society, but society failed to mobilize, with its leaders immersed in endless discussions in councils and thematic conferences, where they disputed up words in reports that were quickly forgotten.

We cannot repeat this experience. I think that the channels of communication between the State and society must be reopened, but social mobilization will be the real instrument of politics and not the intramural debate. It is necessary to remember that the greatest charges cannot be directed to the government, knowing the limitations it has. The target must be Congress, as it emerges empowered from this horrendous Bolsonarist episode and very unwilling to support truly transformative proposals. The left will have to recycle itself and return to its historical origins. She will have to be less of an apparatusist and more of an educator and mobilizer. And it will have to get to the grassroots and compete with the right-wing ideology that has gained so much space in the militancy vacuum of recent decades.

I am writing before Lula's inauguration and regretting that the parties that elected our president did not adopt a proposal for national mobilization for inauguration day. It will be apotheotic in Brasilia, but what about the rest of the country? Imagine the millions of people who could gather in each square to watch the inauguration on big screens. These millions will watch Globe or any other channel in their homes, at most gathering friends and relatives. Isolated from each other, without acting politically to show the coup plotters and the right that the people are willing to fight for their president and their government.

I hope we don't have a tragedy at the inauguration. I do not believe that the coup is capable of producing the dream of the hallucinated and preventing “Lula from going up the ramp of the Planalto Palace”. But coup terrorism can ruin the beauty of the popular act in Brasilia and show its claws, encouraging its team to face the next four years.

As I said before, the gates of hell can open or close and a lot depends on Lula's skill, but even more depends on not losing the perspective that political power is conquered with the masses in movement and not in contemplation and support for the government to succeed.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA)


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