democratic socialism



The Brazilian lefts and popular sovereignty: towards a new programmatic paradigm

The center of the program of the neoliberal tradition is the destruction of popular sovereignty and the direct transfer of the exercise of State power, without mediation, to the capitalist classes as they present themselves in the contemporary financialized and globalized economy. This political power, exercised in an autocratic way by the capitalist classes, has precisely as its fundamental objective the destruction of the citizenship rights of the working classes.

Understanding this centrality is fundamental and decisive for a programmatic elaboration: the north of the anti-neoliberal program is precisely the construction, beyond a liberal democracy, of a State power based on popular sovereignty; it is the civil rights of the working classes that must be at the center of the refoundation of popular sovereignty.

But what exactly is the principle of popular sovereignty? What is its origin and its fundamental meaning? How does it centrally relate to the founding of Marxism and the tradition of democratic socialism? How has the liberal tradition historically dealt with this foundation of popular sovereignty? How to evaluate the experience of the PT based on the principle of popular sovereignty? And how can this principle of popular sovereignty unite and provide the meaning of a program for the future, to overcome the ongoing process of destruction in Brazil?

These are not banal questions and the historical difficulty in answering them is at the heart of the difficulties of the contemporary left and, in particular, of the PT. Throughout the history of the great defeats of the 2016th century, there is the denial of the principle of popular sovereignty (crystallized in the Stalinist tradition) or the liberal adaptation of this principle (crystallized in the various social-democratic traditions). The core of the reasons that led to the recent defeats of the Brazilian lefts center on the loss of reference to this democratic and republican foundation of power, leading to a sequence of programmatic, strategic, alliances and forms of governance adaptations to a profoundly limited liberal democracy , conditional and partial. The neoliberal coup of 1988 and the very rapid process of destruction of the XNUMX Constitution that followed came precisely to destroy this limited, conditioned and partial popular sovereignty, unifying a desire to build a new neoliberal autocratic state in Brazil.

Thus, today in Brazil the central dispute is about the sovereignty of power. The degree of success of the left in conquering, through its capacity of resistance and struggle, the democratization of power conditions the entire program of transformations that it proposes. Without this democratization of power, every government will inevitably be compelled to adapt, negotiate and compromise with the new autocratic neoliberal state order.

Origins and foundations of popular sovereignty

Understanding the origin of popular sovereignty is essential to untangle it from the myth of a Modernity written apologetically by liberals, who seek to associate modern freedom and the very notion of rights present today in democracies unequivocally to this tradition. In fact, for most of its history liberalism did not accept the principle of popular sovereignty and when it incorporated it, under pressure, it was to relativize it and structurally restrict its democratic reach and scope. An analysis of the XNUMXth century will show how liberalism, from the beginning, confronted universalism and the democratic sense of human rights from a classist, colonial, racist and patriarchal bias.

The concept of popular sovereignty, which will find its first partial synthesis because it is limited to men and against the citizenship of women, in the work From the ccontract social by Rousseau, is a decisive moment of systematization of the political tradition of democratic republicanism that founded the so-called Western Modernity through the democratic revolutions of the English seventeenth century, the French and North American revolutions of the eighteenth century. In this theory, freedom is public, depends on the active participation of citizens and is based on a free relationship between equals from a social point of view, that is, slavery and structural inequality are completely delegitimized. There is only a democratic republic when citizens decide on the fundamental laws that organize the State and control the exercise of power and the economy itself based on the public interest. Without the principle of popular sovereignty, still conceived in Rousseau's patriarchal key, there is no republic and every State will be illegitimate because it is based mainly on force and not on the law explicitly agreed upon by those who submit to it.

But its origin certainly comes from the traditions of classical Greco-Roman republicanism, generally marked by an elitist and non-democratic conception of the republic, decisively updated in the so-called Renaissance civic humanism, in particular by Machiavelli.

Already in the English revolution of the seventeenth century, John Milton had defended the right of resistance against tyrannical regimes or usurpers of power, freedom of printing and the ascending sense of the legitimacy of power, that is, the origin of the legitimacy of power should not be conceived top-down but associated with deliberation or granting of trust by citizens. James Harrington, in oceania, links the possibility of a republic to the non-concentrated distribution of property and proposes, in addition to rotation in the representation of power with short terms, an agrarian law that would prevent land concentration. The levellers, the left wing of this revolution, associated new rights, including those of an economic nature, with the democratic extension of the right to vote, but still without incorporating women.

A third decisive moment of this tradition was undoubtedly the work Claiming women's rights, by Mary Wollstonecraft, who makes a radical critique of the limits of Rousseau's work, claiming the full freedom of women as citizens. This first great philosopher of modern feminism was a democratic republican, frequented the circuits of English republican radicalism and participated in the French revolution. It was not a matter of incorporating women into the patriarchal order, but of bringing down this entire order, as it was intended to be done with monarchical absolutism, both in the public and private spheres. She was aware that it was a long-term revolution against orders with ancient patriarchal roots.

A fourth decisive moment was certainly that of the Haitian revolution, with enslaved people – called Black Jacobins – proclaiming their freedom and founding a new State, which was bitterly fought by the western powers of the time. It is important to remember that the North American Revolution had maintained slavery and that the French Revolution had decided during the Jacobin period to abolish slavery in the colonies, but this emancipation was annulled in the Thermidorian period.

A fifth decisive moment in this tradition of democratic republicanism is found in the work of Thomas Paine, an English commoner who was the author of the most important pamphlet of the North American Revolution, acted in the French Revolution and had to go into exile from England because he wanted to found a republic there. . in your work the rights of man, the author who was anti-racist and tends to be a feminist, already defends the foundations of a Welfare State that would ensure distributive public policies for the poor based on progressive taxation on the rich. The historian of the English labor movement, Thompson, considers this book the founder of the modern socialist movement in his country.

Marx, democratic socialism and popular sovereignty

Throughout the XNUMXth century until the XNUMXth century after World War II, when it was accepted in the so-called liberal democracies, the principle of popular sovereignty was harshly confronted by hegemonic liberalisms. By the argument of income or property (which deprived workers of the right to vote), education (the enabling argument that eliminated those without education from the condition of active citizenship), patriarchal prejudices (which did not admit the citizenship of women, considered dead for the right to have rights) and racists (who admitted the full right of political citizenship only to whites). But even in the post-war period, as will be seen, it was accepted with severe restrictions, limits and conditions, which sought to mediate, limit and, ultimately, annul the popular sovereign will.

Conversely, the concept of popular sovereignty was always at the center of the tradition of democratic socialism, which updated democratic republicanism for the time of criticism of hegemonic liberalism, based in nineteenth-century England, and of the social formation of capitalism itself. It is from him that Marx makes the initial criticism of the Prussian State, the defense of freedom of the press from a non-liberal point of view, which inscribes the right to revolution as a right of resistance to oppression, which will distinguish democratic socialism from sectarian socialisms or authoritarians who critiqued capitalism not from a point of view of self-emancipation. Marx's own criticism of the understanding of liberal "human rights", based on the principle of property, which is non-universal and hierarchical as supreme and organizer of access to rights, must be understood from the point of view of Marx's universalism, which has its roots in popular sovereignty .

Unlike the democratic republicanism of the XNUMXth century, which continues to manifest itself in the XNUMXth century, even mixing in various contexts with more advanced liberalisms, Marx thinks the challenge of forming majorities from the oppressed nucleus of class society – the proletariat – and criticizes liberal political economy, updating the critique of social inequality based on the critique of capital. It was no longer possible to conceive of social equality, the foundation of freedom, based only on the distribution of land ownership, but on the basis of a new democratically planned social economy. The concept of humanity that appears in democratic republican traditions is updated for proletarian internationalism.

It is in this sense that in the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Marx presents the communists as the vanguard of democracy, that he calls the Paris Commune a “social republic” and that in the critical comments on the Gotha Program he establishes the decisive distinction between universal suffrage and sovereignty. popular. The first is necessary but not sufficient to establish the second. This Marxist distinction leads us to wonder how democratic liberalism dealt with the principle of popular sovereignty.

Democratic liberalism and popular sovereignty

There are five ways, historically shaped by the liberal tradition, that would relativize, limit and, ultimately, neutralize the principle of popular sovereignty in the XNUMXth century. What the neoliberal tradition does, strongly differentiating itself from the post-war so-called social or Keynesian liberalism that sought to reconcile and mediate liberal principles and the defense of the capitalist order with the acceptance of a formal validity of popular sovereignty, is to attack centrally the foundation of popular sovereignty and the tradition of human rights, especially labor rights, related to it.

The first – and fundamental – is separating the principle of freedom from the principle of equality which, in democratic republicanism, appeared to be mutually configured. This was done through the liberal split between political freedom and economic freedom, directing the latter to the realm of genetic and structural inequality of capitalism. In democratic liberalism, the core power of capital is preserved from the sovereignty of politics, conceived as an autonomous sphere or only regulated, more or less, in its exercise by the State.

The second way was to understand modern society as fundamentally complex and incapable of self-government, through the so-called democratic elitism. This, born directly from the so-called “theory of the elites”, which conceived power as ontologically always dominated by the elites, formulated the notion that ordinary citizens do not have the time, interest or capacity to form balanced judgments, much less decide on the public thing. From this inevitably derives a concept of political representation that ceases to be expressive or democratically controlled, and becomes authoritative. The “politicians”, conceived as endowed with their own vocation and professionalized, should be the active agents of politics. It is paradoxical that this elitist language has been absorbed by many leftists, who use the term “elites” to designate the ruling classes, without realizing that the opposite of elite is mass-people, that is, amorphous and without political autonomy.

The third way for this democratic liberalism to neutralize the principle of popular sovereignty is through a concept of public opinion formed in the so-called “market of ideas”, in a more or less plural form, in any case not dialogically or discursively conceived in a democratic way. The formation of the modern mass media, of the large private business communication networks, of opinion polls in which individual opinion is measured, of the very concept of “opinion maker”, reveals that the common citizen was placed in a situation of non-right to the public voice, which is always the right to speak and be heard in a democracy.

The fourth way of neutralizing the principle of popular sovereignty, already present in the formation of North American traditions, is the judicialization of democracy, that is, the attribution of supreme decision-making power to legal instances, preserved from democratic control over its exercise. and their interpretation of the laws. The conception of democracy as the rule of law, without the living principle of legitimation of its origin and reproduction in democracies, transfers the supreme decision in democracies to non-elective forums.

Finally, the fifth path of denial of popular sovereignty was the patriarchal and racialist foundation of the formation of power and its reproduction, never, in fact, fully overcome in liberal democracies. These patriarchal and racialist modes of domination, always updated and renewed in their combinations with the domination of capital, are a contemporary way of eroding the principle of active and deliberative formation of majorities, which form the core of the concept of popular sovereignty. In this sense, there is no way to fight today for popular sovereignty without putting at the center a program that is not only classist in defense of workers, but also feminist and anti-racist.

Popular sovereignty and the public sector economywar

In this historical context of limited popular sovereignty (in terms of the economy), conditioned (by liberal institutions) and partial (exercised within constitutional frameworks not subject to a democratic update from its source of origin), the form par excellence of this social liberalism or Keynesian was the so-called mixed economy or public-private mix. There was always a dispute about the degree of nationalization, about mercantile regulation and, mainly, about the distributive dimensions of this mixed economy. In the same way that it placed the attack on popular sovereignty at the center, neoliberalism came to attack the public dimensions of this economy, its state-owned sectors and its principles of regulation, in an open dynamic of global financialization.

The democratic socialist principle of popular sovereignty, in an alternative and critical way, puts at the center the notion of public economy, of the hegemonic public sector, or democratic republican. It is from this hegemony of the public that one can, in a coherent way, dispute with liberalism and its modes of reproduction of capital a new hegemonic principle of civilization. That is, as Gramsci states, in the dispute over which economy the working classes formulate against the core of capitalist domination, formulated and legitimized as paradigmatic or natural, a new principle of freedom, equality and social fraternity. It is through it that a brake is put on the destructive dynamics of the economy of predation that feeds the mercantile world and its dynamics of increasingly subordinating use value to exchange value. This public foundation of the economy is the necessary path for unions to escape from corporate, state or market cultures, which divide, segment and close the path to an organic dispute for the construction of a new democratic socialist hegemony.

This conception of the economy of the hegemonic public sector or of the republican economy should not be confused with a social-democratic concept of economy, or welfare economy, whose limits derive exactly from not being able to overcome the structuring dimensions of the liberal capitalist economy. It could be formulated in six mutually configured dimensions.

The first of these is the issue of democracy, that is, of being self-governed by institutionalized forms and regulated by popular sovereignty. In this sense, it cannot be confused with bureaucratically centralized planning or with the notion of “market socialism”. It begins with the struggle for democracy in the workplace, for the control and democratic regulation of public companies, which is fundamental in order to avoid systemic corruption, and ends with the democratic planning of the priorities of the economy and the application of the public budget.

The second dimension is the central and decisive issue of ownership. The tradition of democratic republicanism and, even more, that of democratic socialism founded by Marx, pose challenges far beyond a distributive perspective, the division of capital and workers' gains. An economy formed by capitalist monopolies or oligopolies can never be compatible with a public economy. It is not even possible to regulate them from a public point of view, because whoever owns the capital – in industry, finance, agrarian property, in commerce – owns the direction of the economy. The working-class and democratic socialist traditions have, over time, been formulating and experimenting since their inception with a set of collective and democratic forms of property management – ​​cooperatives, self-management, directive councils with the participation of producers, state properties with democratic control , shared management public funds – which should be recovered and updated for a public sector economy.

The third dimension is the question of a feminist economy. It is a matter of criticizing the limits of patriarchal welfare states – which are organized based on the male provider and privatize the entire economy of social reproduction, placing responsibility on women –, alternatively proposing that the entire scale of reproduction society is formulated from the principle of freedom and feminist equality.

The fourth dimension is overcoming, particularly in the cases of States that come from a colonial history, the dynamics of oppression and inequality that are inscribed in general in the prevailing mercantile dynamics. In these countries, the so-called integration of blacks and non-whites into class society has always been partial, predatory and combined with barbaric dynamics. Integrating these majority sectors into the core of popular sovereignty, the economic forms of the public sector would be, par excellence, the space for a new creative protagonism of non-whites.

The fifth essential dimension of an economy hegemonized by the public sector is the construction of a national innovation system that produces science, based on defined social priorities, and formulates an appropriation of these innovations for public purposes. The control of science by capitalism, accompanying the cycles of destruction and innovation, reproduce dynamics of social inequality, warfare and the predation of nature in each historical period.

The sixth fundamental dimension of a hegemonic public sector economy is a broad and universal process of decommodification of the goods and services necessary for a dignified and culturally rich life, based on leveraging a progressive tax system, which inhibits everything from the right to inheritance to speculative gains, going through the scale of taxes on income, on profits and on rent.

The dynamics of partial struggles and for reforms, conditioned by the legacy and the correlation of political forces at each moment, must be combined with this logic of public sector economy, compatible with the construction of a democratic socialist identity and with the accumulation of forces of a left front. In the same sense, such struggles are inserted in the international context, reproducing these principles in the solidarity struggles between workers and multilateral organizations.

A new programming paradigmtico

It is then possible, based on this conceptual development, around the relationship between democratic socialism, popular sovereignty and the economy of the hegemonic public sector, to take stock of the PT's programmatic limits in recent decades, since 1989. What happened was a double and a half. combined process of adaptation and programmatic reduction, on the one hand, adapting to the dispute for power within the limits of the liberal State that came out of the democratic transition limited by the dominance of conservative liberals, and, on the other, to the oligopolistic patterns of Brazilian capitalism. The fight for the inclusion and expansion of rights took place fundamentally in the distributive field, with a predominantly electoral process of accumulation of forces and a horizon of building a mixed economy.

These historical and structural limits of the PT programs are important to mark out the originality, the magnitude, the decisive historical importance of the transformations in the country conquered by the Lula and Dilma governments. They do not deny or even relativize these conquests. Rather, they inscribe them in the horizon of foundation and democratic socialist perspectives of the PT. The neoliberal coup, deepened in the Bolsonaro government, came exactly to break this dynamic of partial and limited popular sovereignty, of disputed mixed economy, of a progressive but unequal construction of public rights.

It is therefore necessary to form a new programmatic paradigm – not only for the PT but for the Brazilian left – that integrates in a coherent plan the struggle for popular sovereignty, the construction of a public economy and the struggle for the values ​​of democratic socialism. The social base of this program is the immense majority of the population, in which it converges in the public interest, in its differences and in its hopes. It can be the north of a new protagonism of the working classes and the progressive middle classes, of a new cycle of self-organization – more classist and, now, more black, more feminist – of the Brazilian people. And it can be the basis for a relaunch of a new internationalism, which proposes to politically unify the working classes and the Latin American peoples, based on new historical processes of profound democratization of political power, new economic paradigms and new values. of civilization.

* Juarez Guimaraes Professor of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Risk and future of Brazilian democracy (Perseu Abramo Foundation).

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