the new platypus

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz
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By JEFFERSON O. GOULART & RICARDO DE AZEVEDO*

Considerations about the (ir)responsibility of the left

Brazil is at a crossroads: maintain what remains of democratic institutions or succumb to civilizing retrogression. This is not a trivial choice, and our objective is not to exhaustively characterize the phenomenon of Bolsonarism, but, rather, to problematize the behavior of the left in view of the seriousness of this situation.

Preliminary clarification: it is imperative to recognize the heterogeneity of the lefts. The different trajectories, ideological influences and programmatic orientations made the Brazilian left a very diverse and plural political field. Nevertheless, the positioning in the face of contemporary challenges can be addressed as a whole. And to clarify its expression in the party system, the characterization includes PT, PSB, PDT, PSOL, PCdoB and Rede.

The starting point is a metaphor originally coined by Chico de Oliveira in seminal essays: in “O platypus” and “A critique of dualist reason”, Oliveira addresses the dialectic relationship between archaic and modern to address Brazilian development, the symbiosis between poles opposites, and chooses a singular animal to synthesize this phenomenon, whose understanding requires categories of analysis that escape traditional interpretative schemes. As is known, the platypus is an oviparous mammal, without teats and with a bird's beak (it resembles a duck), an unusual species, almost an anomaly, difficult to decipher because it combines characteristics of different species, but cannot be confused with any of them. , is a unique creature.

We are facing a “new platypus”: Bolsonarism. It is a political phenomenon distinguished by its ultra-conservative, reactionary ideology, but which operates through the institutions of democracy. Totalitarian movements that took advantage of democratic freedoms existed elsewhere and even in Brazil. The difference is that we are dealing with a phenomenon that does not fit into traditional forms of analysis, and this is a great difficulty in understanding it.

This phenomenon and the current government challenge our interpretative efforts in at least two respects: first, it breaks with the canonical postulate that a government program differs from a party or coalition program to the extent that, for to impose itself, it needs this inflection to govern for all. Bolsonarism and the Bolsonaro government definitely do not want to govern for everyone. They do not place themselves on the horizon in the position of arbiter of conflicts, and for this reason they differ from other authoritarian versions in which fascist corporatism or populism emerged. It is an openly anti-republican position, it does not care about the public sphere, nor is it configured as a “right-wing republicanism” because it ignores sociopolitical institutions and interactions. From this perspective, the sphere of politics – of conflict, negotiation, persuasion and consensus – tends to be banned, it withers because there is no room for dissent and, therefore, for any dissenting groups. In summary, ideas, values ​​and institutions such as the rule of law, the rule of law, freedoms and constitutional guarantees, rights (civil, social and political) tend to be suppressed in an authentic civilizing regression.

Secondly, as a consequence, it is a political movement, an ideology and a government that intend to destroy democracy and its institutions. Bolsonarism and the Bolsonaro government seal the break with the constitutional pact that was consummated in 1988 and which had two fundamental pillars: expansion of rights to mitigate the structural inequalities that mark this country (protection, universalization, public policies) and defense of democracy and of its norms as a method of conflict resolution. The failure of this pact was announced with the parliamentary coup of 2016 and expanded in the Temer government, just remember the approval of PEC 95 (which constitutionally froze social investments for 20 years) and Law nº 13.467/2017 (employment precariousness).

Did democracy survive? Do disjunctive democracy, plebiscitary democracy or any other concept accurately describe the depth of this institutional crisis? Democracy can be eroded and destroyed from the fissures, ruptures and erosion of its own institutions. We deal with a historical period in which the question of S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt proceeds: “how do democracies die?”. In this sense, it is a lie to wait for a specific gesture to characterize the coup against democracy, since the rule of law and democracy have been in a continuous process of destruction since the coup was consummated and the captain became electorally victorious.

Democracy can die from within. We could remember the outcomes of the Weimar Republic or, contemporaneously, the emblematic succession of ruptures in Latin America: Paraguay, Honduras, Brazil, Bolivia (all through legal processes in Parliaments with ratification by the Judiciary), in addition to the withering of democracy in other stops (Hungary, Poland, Philippines etc.).

Checks and balances persist, but the institutions and norms limiting power have shown clear signs of weakness here and in other countries. Examples abound: the politicization of the Judiciary (including the Supreme Court), the Public Prosecutor's Office and the PF, in addition to the downgrading of Parliament, not least because in all the cases cited the Legislature ritualized ruptures precisely "in the name of democracy".

Bolsonarism has adopted a posture of permanent harassment of democracy, and has enormous difficulty adapting to the democratic game of negotiation. The impulse to impose a plebiscitary decision-making form has been quite strong. The main parliamentary dispute of 2019 (the pension reform) is paradigmatic and illustrates these dilemmas.

Furthermore, there is a marriage between the government's liberal agenda and the center and center-right segments. Bolsonaro is far from being an organic representative of the national bourgeoisie – whatever it may be: financial, industrial, land, etc. –, but the convergence around the breaking of the 1988 pact, the fiscal adjustment and the opening to foreign capital, gives it a wide range of support. However, the adopted macroeconomic policy is a risky bet because it assumes short-term foreign investment in an unpromising international context.

In a scenario of GDP regression with worsening of the social crisis (unemployment, precarious work, reduction of services provided by the State in key public policies such as education, health and security), the broad hegemony of financial capital remains, which only aggravates the process deindustrialization of the country and refers to the nodes of the development model.

The defeat of the “developmentalist essay” in Lulism (in the words of André Singer) gave rise to the liberist alternative of economics. Not that this was the central debate of the 2018 election campaign, but the anti-PT impulse legitimized a course that is linked to the (a) financialization of the world economy, maintained even with Selic interest rates at the lowest level (2% pa) ; (b) the increased power of some business segments (financial, agribusiness, etc.); and (c) the strengthening of the rentier fraction and its ascendancy over the productive sector.

In this gloomy scenario, Bolsonarism has internal support from the business community because it demonstrates that it has given up on a national development project, preferring to resist in some niches and associate itself with financial capital (as did parts of the industrial bourgeoisie and the real estate sector, for example) .

Recently, economist Marcio Pochmann stated that Brazil today was no longer the same as when the PT emerged. Many turned a deaf ear or didn't get the message. In the last 4 decades, Brazil has changed on the surface and in its depths. That country of large industrial concentrations, the emergence of a modern proletariat, labor relations regulated by the CLT, vigorous city movements, belief in social ascension through work, finally a modern industrial society (albeit unequal), definitely does not exist more. Several segments and production chains are in an accelerated process of disaggregation, categories have been decimated, workers do not even have a work permit, “self-employment” has spread and the precariousness of work has gained evidence, which is no longer cyclical.

In short, a society in which labor protection is continually disappearing. Workers who have never been in the formality see those who are as privileged. The once new trade unionism today shows signs of fatigue and bureaucratization. The most active social mobilizations are associated with so-called identity groups.

All these changes offer valuable clues. Scholars observe that social movements persist and have new associative forms, new references, and have become more fragmented, pluralizing their multiple structures of opportunities to relate to institutionalized political actors. But, on the strict level of politics, social movements have played a timid role, to say the least. Progressive causes and movements have limited power, a difficulty made worse by the consequences of the pandemic.

Nothing, however, happened surprisingly. The retired captain and his followers can be accused of anything but dissimulation: with impunity, he himself exalted the dictatorship and torturers, called on militias to eliminate his opponents, praised rape, and defied institutions. No one has the right to express surprise at what is happening in Pindorama.

Faced with this gloomy scenario, the provocation fits: what about the left? The Bolsonaro government’s agenda registered at least a meager reaction from the left. In general, they limited themselves to whining, to outbursts on social networks, to “Free Lula” and to cheering for everything to go wrong. The left not only did not understand the meanings and reach of the new platypus, but also nurture the expectation that 2016 and 2018 were atypical, points outside the curve. As they assume that the shipwreck and the “awareness of the people” will soon come, 2022 is right around the corner… Big mistake!

The 2016 parliamentary coup was not a reprimand for the (many) mistakes of that government, but, above all, the result of a powerful coalition of interests that defeated the successes of a cycle. As it did not exclusively serve to remove a government, it imposed a new agenda on the country: social inclusion, development, citizenship and the imaginary of sovereignty left the scene and gave way to a liberalizing and regressive agenda. This scenario worsened in 2018, and from then on the impotence of the lefts and their inability to forge a democratic political field of resistance became consummated. Both the interlocutors from the democratic center remained faithful to the liberist agenda of the economy, as well as the left refused to come closer. As popular wisdom says, when two don't want to, there's no marriage, nor dating. As a result, the occasional setbacks of Bolsonarism in asserting its agenda are due much more to its ineptitude for the democratic game and the restrictions imposed by the system of checks and balances (Parliament, Judiciary, Public Ministry).

The impotence of the left has its tip of the iceberg most visible in the arrangements for this year's municipal elections, whose choices project disastrous results. Unable to invest in formatting a minimum program and in coalitions that place the fight against Bolsonarism at the center of disputes, each party makes particular calculations to survive and qualify for future clashes. The electoral scenario in several capitals summarizes the size of the damage: the left is fragmented into several candidacies and the chances are not small that, in many cases, they will not have a candidate in an eventual second round.

Politics is an interest, and it is legitimate for each actor (in this case, political parties) to make calculations to achieve their objectives, whatever they may be: accumulating supporters to overcome institutional restrictions (such as a barrier clause); expand its political strength in territories where it has historically had poor electoral performance; gain muscle to be more competitive in the future (such as the presidential race); to assert its hegemony in a common political-ideological field.

The problem, however, does not lie in the validity of individual party choices, as they are all legitimate. The heart of the matter refers to the rationality and reasonableness of these options. Translating: does opting for particular electoral tactics help confront (and defeat) Bolsonarism? Is it reasonable to bet on own candidacies when democracy is threatened? Is it rational to fragment leftist forces in a politically unfavorable scenario? Finally: in view of the signs of a crisis in the credibility of representative democracy, is it reasonable to imagine that individual parties are capable of representing society and fractioned social movements? If fragmentation persists, the left will give full proof of their irresponsibility.

The new platypus is like the sphinx's riddle: “decipher me or I'll devour you”. If the left cannot decipher it, they will continue to be devoured. With the aggravating factor of the destruction of democracy and citizenship. What could be worse?

*Jefferson O. Goulart, political scientist, is a researcher at Cedec and professor at UNESP.

*Ricardo D'Azevedo, sociologist, was president of the Perseu Abramo Foundation.

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