The day Brazil stopped for ten years

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By VLADIMIR SAFATLE*

What happened after 2013 was a slow and continuous degradation marked by the atrophy of the Brazilian left's capacity for action and political imagination.

“It would be very comfortable to make universal history if we engaged in the struggle only on condition that we knew we were victorious” (Karl Marx, in a letter to Kugelmann).

Perhaps it would be appropriate to start by stating that 2013 was the last year in the history of the Brazilian left and its hegemonic structures. This popular revolt still resonates as a kind of non-integrated event, with a network of potentialities that continue to haunt us in a spectral way. What happened after 2013 was a slow and continuous degradation marked by the atrophy of the capacity for action and the political imagination of the Brazilian left in its multiple parties, in its unions and social movements.

After 2013, the Brazilian left basically became a reactive force that desperately responds to the far right's ability to build a political agenda and guide popular mobilization. That she is at the head of very broad electoral fronts, as occurred in the 2022 election, does not mean that she has found protagonism again. This just means that it has become the manager of social panic, panic of the return of a robust extreme right.

Our central affect is fear. In this context, at most it becomes a manager of symbolic conquests which, like everything of a symbolic nature, has its importance and strength, but limited importance and strength since they are destined to make us “buy time” in the face of the evident absence of an offensive force against it. the capital. In fact, after 2013 the Brazilian extreme right was able to position itself as the only insurrectionary political force among us. Therefore, it remains consolidated and strong.

But it would be a case of initially exploring the nature of 2013 as an event, as the left is quite clearly divided on this point. 2013 is a watershed for what is left of the Brazilian left. There are those who see this sequence of popular demonstrations as just an advanced sector of the so-called “hybrid war”. It would be for no other reason that, from 2013, we would see the fulminant consolidation of the extreme right as the main political force in the country. In this sense, 2013 would not be far from events with the Maidan, which took place in Ukraine more or less in the same period. The basic idea in this narrative is that it was a question of destabilizing a government of the popular left and, for that, “mass movements” emerged marked by anti-party agendas, the fight against corruption, paranoid nationalism and the fight against “communism”. All flags that will pave the rise of the Brazilian extreme right.

Against these, would it be the case to insist that 2013 as an event raises a question that every theory of revolutionary action should be able to think about, namely, how does a popular revolt degrade into a conservative restoration movement? How are transforming forces transmuted into processes of social regression? The question, and this is its irony, is not even new. It is at the foundation of Marxist revolutionary theory, given the meaning of a text such as 18th of Brumaire, all of it built around one question: what happened for a true proletarian social revolution on European soil to end in restoration of the Empire and in a cynical-authoritarian government.

Every theory of revolutionary action is, at the same time, a theory of the inherent contradictions of social life, of its potential for revolutionary transformation, and a theory of reaction processes and of inversions between revolution and reaction, a theory of counterrevolutions. We should keep this in mind when looking at 2013.

A century of popular insurrections

Well, before starting the direct discussion about 2013, I would like to present a hypothesis of a structural nature regarding a broad historical movement that begins with the Arab Spring and of which, in my opinion, 2013 participates. Insisting on this point is a way of highlighting the centrality of the notion of “insurrection” as an operator of political events, especially in countries that were once called “Third World”. We know analysts who, after the collapse of the organization of the working class through mass parties with revolutionary aspirations, will affirm the ineluctable “end of politics”.[I]

However, such a collapse, as much as it poses real questions of organization and force for change, did not represent the end of insurrectionary processes. In fact, we could even risk a proposition of philosophy of history and state that the XNUMXst century is born from a worldwide insurrectionary sequence that articulates South and North in a resonance of social discontent linked to the impact of the increase in impoverishment and the dynamics of concentration provoked by neoliberalism. This sequence, the possible embryo of new social forms, needs to be named as such so that we have a more precise understanding of our historical moment and its real potential.

That is, it is possible to defend the thesis that the most relevant political characteristic of the XNUMXst century is an impressive sequence of popular insurrections in the struggle against capital and the gradual recovery of the sovereignty of the dispossessed masses. This process brings with it an articulation between micropolitical reconfiguration and dis-identification with macro-structures. We speak here of “dis-identification” to highlight the way in which populations turn against state institutions and structures, understood as emptied of their real capacity for political representation.

Such populations do not manifest themselves only as bearers of demands to be carried out by recognized instances of power, but as a destituent force.[ii] This explains why many of these insurrections begin with specific demands linked to the cost of living, fuel prices, increased transport costs, and later turn into general expressions of social dis-identification.

However, it is important for those who seek to preserve the system of paralysis typical of our current situation that this global dynamic is not identified, that insurrections appear as scattered and discontinuous revolts, that the refusal of the political representation that they often convey are understood as anti-political regressions whose natural horizon of incorporation would be “populisms”: a term whose analytical vagueness hides its real political strategy. This strategy consists of making us believe that any desire to leave the limits of liberal democracy can only be an expression of potentially authoritarian and affectively irrational political regressions.

This erasure of the XNUMXst century insurrectionary sequence is part of a broader strategy of limiting the political imagination of the masses. His first step was the generalized disqualification of the notion of revolution, a process that gained strength as a result of the end of bureaucratic societies in Eastern Europe. The monumental effort, made in the last thirty years, to erase the concept of “revolution” from the center of political reflection expressed the belief that liberal democracies would be able to manage the social conflicts that appeared within them. The choice of words is not here by chance. It was effectively about “management” and understanding class struggles as mere “social conflicts”.

In this context, “management” means preventing social discontent from becoming a desire for structural transformations. As a “manager”, it's about finding the right allocation of resources for optimizing engagements. But as the horizon of gradual adjustments promised by the welfare state is no longer in operation, as the last twenty years have been marked by crises of decomposition of labor rights systems and an exponential increase in concentration processes, such as the macro -social protection structures have been decomposed[iii] without even the catastrophic consequences of a global pandemic having been able to rebuild them, it is then a question of managing discontent through the generalization of war situations, with the elevation of fear to the condition of central political affect.[iv]

War, as the first form of capitalist accumulation and a system for mobilizing affections, thus becomes the main horizon of social organization and managerial functioning of our normative structure.[v] It had become the only way to guarantee some social cohesion in a world that had expelled all forms of real cohesion from its horizon of material reproduction. Thus, it is singular that the topic of revolution disappears from debate and political action at the very moment when liberal democracies increase the use of police apparatus against populations, brutalize refugees, reorganize civil rights and strengthen devices of control and discipline based on the generalization of war situations.

This is when these same liberal democracies are not haunted by another revolution, in this case, a conservative revolution led by the mobilization force of the extreme right. Forces that naturally use the topic of permanent war (against immigrants, against “communists”, against those who threaten the family, etc.) as a factor of mobilization and government.

However, the analysis of concrete political processes in the last ten years shows that the central political axis of the 11st century cannot be understood only from the mobilization of fear and its war dynamics, generalized mainly from September 2001, XNUMX , with the attack on the World Trade Center. It is true that, from then on, the century seemed to be inscribed under the sign of the “terrorist threat” that never passes, that becomes a normal form of government. This was the way to place our century under the paranoid sign of the threatened frontier, the invaded identity, the body to be immunized, the clash of civilizations. As if our fundamental political demand were, in a retraction of horizons, security and police protection.

However, it is necessary to perceive the emergence of another axis of events and actions. Therefore, it must be insisted that the 17st century began in a small town in Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid, on December 2010, XNUMX. In other words, it began far from the spotlight, far from the centers of global capitalism. He started on the periphery. That day, a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, decided to complain to the regional governor and demand the return of his cart selling fruit, which had been confiscated by the police. A constant victim of police extortion, Bouazizi went to government headquarters with a copy of the law in hand. Whereupon he was met by a female police officer who tore up the copy in front of him and slapped him across the face. Bouazizi then set his own body on fire.

After that, Tunisia went into upheaval, Ben Ali's government fell, leading to insurrections in almost all Arab countries. This is how the XNUMXst century began: with a body sacrificed for refusing to submit to power. Thus began the Arab spring, with an act that said: death is better than submission, with a very particular conjunction between a “restricted action” (complaining about having your cart selling fruit seized) and an “agonistic reaction” (immolating itself) that reverberates through every pore of the social fabric.

Since then the world will see a sequence of insurrections for ten years. Occupy, Plaza del Sol, Istanbul, Brazil, France (Gillets Jaunes), Tel-Aviv, Santiago: these are just a few places where this process has taken place. And in Tunisia one could already see what the world would know in the next ten years: multiple upheavals, which occurred at the same time, which rejected centralism and which articulated, in the same series, micropolitical revolts and macro-political dis-identification, reconfiguration of the potentialities of bodies and refusal of political representation.

Most of these insurrections will struggle with the difficulties of movements that raise against themselves the most brutal reactions, which are faced with the organization of the most archaic sectors of society in an attempt to preserve power as it has always been. Mainly, for a decade the macro-structural dis-identification was not able to embody itself in a process of conquest of macro-political spaces. This made many see in them dynamics destined to dispersion and failure.[vi]

On the other hand, we saw the proliferation of discourses that believed that the transformation of the structures of desire and sexuality, that the new micro-political circulations of bodies would be enough for structural transformations. Hence the theoretical abandonment of a dimension of political action marked by the conquest of the state and by the attempt to structurally modify the forms of value production and to decompose the society of work. I believe that this is the correct context for assessing 2013, its developments and legacies.

About the interpretation of 2013

First, it must be remembered that the official left's thesis of 2013 as an action to consolidate the national extreme right can only be sustained by ignoring a series of significant concrete facts. First, after a low number of strikes in the period 2003-2008, a growing process begins between 2010 (445 strikes in the year) and 2012 (877 in the year). It explodes in 2013, which will see the highest number of strikes since the end of the dictatorship (when the historical series begins), that is, 2050 strikes, 1106 of which in the private sector alone. Such strikes begin at the beginning of the year, with movements of autonomous strikers in relation to their unions and centrals, as occurred in the strikes of garbage collectors and firefighters in the first months of 2013.

This phenomenon was symptomatic: workers who no longer recognized their “representations” and who sought to make clear their dissatisfaction and precariousness. This demonstrates how the narratives that seek to link 2013 to a sedition of the middle classes do not hold up. Middle class does not strike or lead. These were strikes by dispossessed sectors that understood that Lulism's social ascension project had come to an end.

It is in this context that the demonstrations of May 2013 came, starting in Porto Alegre, coordinated by autonomist movements against the increase in public transport fares. Demonstrations against the abusive conditions of public transport are a constant in Brazilian history, as well as the violent reaction of the armed wing of power. However, at that moment, a detachment of the enunciation of discontent in relation to its traditional representatives was under way, all of them committed to the government consortium and to the management of its paralysis.

Hence the movement of spontaneous strikes and the vocalization, made by autonomist sectors, of the permanence of the impoverishment of the Brazilian working class. The remuneration of 93% of the new jobs created between 2003 and 2013 reached only up to one and a half minimum wages. In 2014, 97,5% of jobs created were in this range. That is, the social horizon was marked by the awareness of the preservation of what Marx once called “relative poverty”. That is to say, leaving absolute poverty and misery does not imply eliminating social suffering if we are in a country undergoing a rapid growth process. Because this growth process produces new systems of needs and desires, making subjects feel increasingly distant from the social pattern of material fulfillment.

We should also note that as of June, the country will be crossed by an unprecedented sequence of uninterrupted demonstrations with multiple agendas (from June to November there was not a single day in which a demonstration did not take place in the country). There were demonstrations for more public services, for the end of police violence, for free public transport, for refusal of representation, against PEC 37 and discriminatory policies, against the use of animals in research and cosmetics, against the terrible hospital care. Never has Brazil seen such a strong and renewed enunciation of its problems by the self-organized population.

It should be remembered that the government even sketched a reaction by announcing, on national television, a constitutional revision project. Such a project was denied by its own enunciator, the then president Dilma Rousseff in less than 24 hours. His presidential meeting with representatives of the autonomist movements was one of the most spectacular innocuous actions on record. All of this clearly showed the ineffectiveness, the inability of the government left to respond to the insurrectionary politicization of society. In fact, not even other sectors of the Brazilian left were capable of producing such a response. They revealed, in fact, an irresistible gravitational tendency to gradually return to the horizon of action and to the functional limitations of the coalition models proper to the exercise of power by the Workers' Party.

But it is a fact that the expansion of demonstrations, as of June 17, demonstrated the existence of groups linked to nationalist discourses and an anti-corruption agenda focused, basically, on the government consortium. Infighting and fights break out in the demonstrations between left and right groups. It was the beginning of a process of political struggle in the streets that would later expose the country's ideological cleavages. As I said on that occasion, these cleavages would never be erased again. Rather, they would delve into a one-way process. It would be necessary to be prepared for it. This clearly means understanding that world politics has gone to extremes and only a suicidal posture seeks, at a time when the right is moving strongly towards an extreme, to continue with a policy of “conquering the center”. Only a real displacement of the left to the extreme can make it regain prominence, either in Brazil or in the world.

For those who wonder how the extreme right managed to be the strongest sector of 2013, it would be a case of remembering at least two factors. First, let us remember a historical fact neglected by our intellectual formation. In the 1930s, Brazil was the country with the largest fascist party outside Europe. It should be remembered that the National Integralist Alliance had, at the time, around 1,2 million adherents. Even after Vargas' suicide and the end of World War II, his presidential candidate, Plínio Salgado, would have 8,28% of the valid votes for the 1955 presidential election.

Integralism's participation in the civic-military dictatorship will be organic. Even so, the New Republic created the illusion that its system of pacts and conciliations would be strong enough to completely eliminate the dynamics of national fascism: a term that for a long time was seen much more as a slogan for the mobilization of an academic center than that as a concept with analytical force linked to concrete national history. But the truth is that the end of the New Republic would put on the horizon the rupture forces of a conservative revolution always present on the national horizon.[vii].

The conservative basing of processes of popular revolts had already occurred years before in the Arab Spring. This was the case in Tunisia, with Emnahda, and in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood: Islamic groups with strong popular penetration due to the practice of assistance policies. In these cases, there was a conservative underpinning of the movement that brought such groups to power for a while.

That is, the structure of religious movements benefited from the fact that they were one of the few effectively organized groups to provide support and assistance to impoverished populations. Far from being some expression of “obscurantism”, “superstition”, “ignorance”, it was a completely rational action. In a context of structural social transformation, populations tend to take into account the position of those groups and institutions that have stood by them before. This should be taken into account when we understand the dazzling rise of the evangelical churches as a consolidation factor for the national extreme right.

The collapse of the national left

The second factor capable of explaining the rise of the extreme right is to be found in the left itself. A decisive element for this conservative basing of 2013 was the collapse of the national left. It was difficult for the left in power to understand how the people could be in the streets at that moment against the government of the people. The only possible answer was: these were not the real people. Contrary to other processes of popular insurrection that occurred later, such as the Pop Chilean 2019, the popular movements in Colombia in 2021, the yellow vests French, the first reaction of the majority sectors of the left in relation to these movements was disqualification or astonishment (“we are not understanding anything and it will take a long time to understand”).

This shows, first, an immense desire for leadership by the Brazilian left, its inability to try to create hegemony within popular processes on the street, to overcome the moment and impose an even more advanced and daring agenda of issues. Creation of hegemony, in insurrectionary situations, is inseparable from a process of “protagonizing acceleration”. This is a classic lesson of insurrectionary processes. The basis of the strategy of hegemony consists of being the protagonist of the acceleration, of the radicalization of demands.

However, as Carlos Marighella used to say in the XNUMXs, the Brazilian left has an organic tendency to put itself in a perpetual position of “towing”.[viii] Its alliance with “enlightened” sectors of the national bourgeoisie, its desire to find something like “democratic sectors of the right” with whom it would be possible to govern only makes it completely incapable of intervening in ongoing popular processes, of fighting for hegemony in movement, of using political imagination as an offensive force in moments when it is decisive. In other words, the Brazilian left simply does not have, in its horizon of action, acting within insurrectionary processes. She wasn't trained for that. His historical background made him, on the contrary, an agent of institutional negotiation processes.

A permanent counterrevolution

What happens next is very significant. 2013 showed how Brazil really is, in the prophetic words of Florestan Fernandes, the country of permanent counterrevolution. The Brazilian extreme right has entered an insurrectionary phase. In this context, the “insurrectional phase” means that the world's extreme right will tend, more and more, to operate as a long-lasting anti-institutional offensive force. This strength can be expressed in large popular mobilizations, in direct actions, in forms of explicit refusal by the constituted authorities. In other words, a whole grammar of struggle that until recently characterized the revolutionary left is now migrating to the extreme right, as if we were in an inverted world.

However, in a way, the counterrevolution is also a joint service offered by the national left. It does so from the moment that it does not base its actions on a political imagination in motion. On the contrary, it managed to impose on itself something worse than restricting horizons of expectations. It imposed on itself a brutal restriction of the horizon of enunciation. Even the possibility of being a force for voicing demands for structural transformation leaves the scene.

For example, how many times in recent years have we heard words like “self-management of the working class”, “occupation of factories”, “no precarious employment”, “freeing people from the labor chain”, among many others? Because 2013 posed the real challenge for the Brazilian left: it is not possible to change the country by being the guarantor of impossible coalitions that paralyze our capacity for transformation and that, in the end, always explode in our lap.

Not having enough correlation of forces is a classic argument to justify such restriction of the enunciation horizon. However, this is just a fallacy that passes for rational calculation. Strength correlations change even through defeats. Politics does not ignore defeat as a prior mobilization force, as a strategy for consolidating struggles. Argentine feminists knew they would be defeated when they introduced the abortion law in Parliament. But they did it anyway. Why? Out of ineptitude or out of cunning? And it would be the case to remember that, once the law was presented, society was forced to discuss it, to listen to all sectors. Defeated the first time, they were able to identify the points of greatest resistance, change certain devices and reintroduce it years later. Well, years later, they won. Whatever happened to the famous correlation of forces? I say this because this type of reasoning does not exist in Brazil.

But to compensate for social paralysis, it was necessary to create localized movements. In this sense, it is not strange to realize that, after 2013, the leftist agendas with the greatest mobilization of their sectors were, in essence, “integration agendas”. As if it were a case of accepting that ruptures in the capitalist order are out of the question, that the struggle for the concrete realization of protective macro-structures will no longer be our horizon and that now the struggle is to create a more humane, more diverse, with representatives of vulnerable sectors on diversity committees of large companies and on magazine covers Forbes.

No, this is not a victory. It is just one of the figures of a brutal restriction of our horizon of enunciation. Every revolutionary process is, at the same time, a molecular revolution, that is, a structural transformation in the fields of desire, language, affectivities. But this molecular process can also run in a vacuum when a revolution in the material reproduction structures of life, deep down, is not on the agenda.

In this sense, the discourse against “identity agendas”, which was consolidated in 2013, is just a way of not understanding the real problem. He is not there where some believe he is. These guidelines are not even “identitarian”. They are the true “universalist” guidelines,[ix] because they remind us that the naturalization of markers of violence against race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, coloniality prevents any advent of a real universalism. But the left itself has recently learned to use such guidelines to hide from itself that it has nothing more to offer in terms of effective transformation.

It thus pushes such guidelines to be vehicles of dynamics of integration to a completely disintegrated society, of recognition in a society that is not capable of ensuring nothing more than the deepening of dynamics of dispossession and social suffering. The tendency of the social movements that support such agendas is, to a large extent, to be partners in state power, guarantors of a government for which they cannot offer the necessary system of external pressures.

Today, ten years after 2013, this is the place of the national left. Therefore, it is possible to say that 2013 was a suspended event, a missed opportunity. Let this be a moment of reflection before a new rise of the extreme right among us and the loss of yet another opportunity.

*Vladimir Safatle He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (authentic).

Originally published as a book chapter June 2013: The Phantom Rebellion, organized by Breno Altman and Maria Carlotto (Boitempo).

Notes


[I] See BALIBAR, Etienne, NEGRI, Antonio and TRONTI, Mario; The demon of politics, Paris: Amsterdam, 2021

[ii] See AGAMBEN, Giorgio; The community that comes. Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2016. The use of this concept for the Chilean case was made, among others, by KARMY, Rodrigo; El porvenir se hereda: fragments of an uprising Chile, Santiago: Sangría, 2019.

[iii] STREECK, Wolfgang; How will capitalism end? Essays on a failing system, London; Verse, 2016.

[iv] On fear as a central political affect, see SAFATLE, Vladimir; The circuit of affections, Belo Horizonte: Autêntica, 2016.

[v] See AGAMBEN, Giorgio; state of exception, São Paulo: Boitempo, 2004; ALLIEZ, Eric and LAZZARATTO, Maurizio; wars and capital, Sao Paulo: Ubu, 2021.

[vi] As we see in BADIOU, Alain; Le réveil de l'histoire, Paris: Seuil, 2011.

[vii] For this problem, I refer to SAFATLE, Vladimir; Violence and libido: fascism, psychic crisis and molecular counterrevolution, in Estilhaço Magazine (www.estilhaço.com.br)

[viii] MARIGHELLA, Carlos; Call to the Brazilian people, Sao Paulo: Ubu, 2020.

[ix] I refer to SAFATLE, Vladimir; just one more effort, Belo Horizonte: Authentic, 2022.

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