In an interview on the WNUR Chicago radio show This is Hell, which aired on Saturday, December 22, 2018, Brasil Wire co-editor Brian Mier explained what Jacobin and the Western / Northern left media at large got wrong about politics in pre-coup Brazil – focusing attacks on the country’s leading left PT party and ignoring both voices from the PT itself, and the broader threat of US imperialism as the right set the stage for a takeover. The following are the transcripts, edited for readability:
Chuck Mertz: The US Left, hell all the western and global north left, abandoned Brazil’s left when they were needed most during a fascists coup that overthrew their democratically elected leader. Here to hopefully figure out why this happened and how to make certain it doesn’t happen again is our correspondent in São Paulo, Brazil, Brian Mier, co-author of the article How the US Left Failed Brazil: Why did the US left media bash a successful democratic socialist party during a right wing coup? Brian wrote that article with Sean T. Mitchell and Bryan Pitts.
Welcome back to This is Hell Brian. You write that after an electoral defeat to the far right Jair Bolsonaro fueled largely by fake news and blatantly partisan judicial measures against the PT, the Workers Party, Brazil’s largest leftist party, is now often extolled on the US left for its democratic socialist successes. Yet it is easy to forget what a transformation this was for north American leftist outlets. Before we get to their criticisms, the left’s criticisms of the PT and Jacobin Magazine’s criticisms of the PT, what explains, to you, why it took these leftist magazines and organizations so long to not recognize how unfair the impeachment of Dilma was, how unfair the charges against Lula were, how far right the alternative to Dilma and Lula and the PT was and now is in the form of Jair Bolsonaro and his new government that includes other former members of the military junta? PT aside, Brian, why didn’t the leftist publications you researched realize how justice was corrupted in a strategy by the far right to unfairly put those behind the dictatorship back in control of Brazil?
Brian Mier: I think that there was some mention – a little bit – that what was going on against Dilma Rousseff was unfair but I think that Brazil is just a very big and confusing country that is not that easy to understand and the media in general, journalism, tends to deal with these kinds of mind stopping cliches to try to break down issues into binary things like, ‘either they are left or they are right’, or ‘either they are good or they are bad’. There is always one simple cause for everything in most of what you read in journalism and that just didn’t work to explain what was happening against Dilma Rousseff. I really don’t know why, I just know that it happened. You’ve been listening to me talking about this for years. When the coup was launching against Dilma Rousseff I remember a listener wrote in and said “why is Brian defending someone like Dilma Rousseff?” I guess the way things have played out it’s pretty obvious now. But I just know what happened – I can’t really explain why. I have different theories which I can get into in more depth as this conversation progresses.
CM: We’ve had conversations where you’re ripped on the New York Times’ coverage of Brazil. Last week we had Cole Stangler on the show, live from Paris, about how we get the yellow vest movement wrong and Cole and I talked about recent New York Times coverage of the yellow vests, framing it as being those who support fighting climate change against those who want lower taxes, which the person who started the movement, on social media, explicitly said the movement was not about in the very beginning in his very first announcement online. As Cole pointed out in Jacobin and the Nation, the yellow vest movement is about the wealthy getting tax cuts while the rest of France has to pay higher taxes, it’s about fiscal fairness, it’s about class. So I asked Cole if that is why the Times gets the yellow vests wrong, because reporting on issues of class is, at the very least, challenging to the Times. How much in what you see wrong in the reporting of the mainstream news media, again before we get to the left, of the paper of record, the New York Times, when it comes to Brazil is the problem because Brazil is a story of class? Is the problem that the Times has problems with reporting on class whether it is in France or Brazil or anywhere for that matter?
BM: No, not at all. The problem with the Times and the Guardian and the Washington Post is that they are just voices for the expanded US State, in the Gramscian, Marcusian sense of the term, which includes the corporations, the government, the political parties and the media which supports all of this mess. So what you are getting in the New York Times is straight up corporate and government propaganda in favor of the coup. The New York Times rarely strays from the State Department line in any country in Latin America and you see that with their reporting on Venezuela and Nicaragua. There is no investigative work being done whatsoever – it’s all just PR favoring corporate interests and the US government and state department interests.
CM: So for you it’s not an inability or an unwillingness to talk about class, it’s a willingness to promote US interests?
BM: Well if you look, they just hired Juliana Barbassa as their Latin America desk editor and she came straight from this Rockefeller founded corporate think tank named AS/COA (Americas Society/Council of the Americas), which was directly involved in the Chilean coup – at one point they offered half a million dollars to Chilean senators in 1970 to block Salvador Allende from taking power, and they’ve been involved in almost every coup in Latin America and they are funded by all the big oil companies, by Boeing, by Microsoft, and they have this corporate PR publication called Americas Quarterly which has a revolving door with the New York Times, so Juliana Barbassa was the assistant managing editor of Americas Quarterly, and now she is the New York Times Latin America desk editor. So what does that mean? It means that the New York Times is simply parroting corporate PR about Latin America in general. I wouldn’t say it’s a failure – I would say they understand what the class issues are, but they have poor intentions. They are not actually doing journalism they are doing PR.
CM: You write that you focus mostly on Jacobin Magazine because it is the publication perhaps most associated with the rise of electorally competitive democratic socialism in the United States and because it so clearly exemplifies the broader trend we identify, so Jacobin, the publication that is the best example of the rise of democratic socialism in the US, is too highly critical of the Brazilian left, and here you are as a member of the Brazilian left being critical of Jacobin. Why is there this kind of disconnect between the US left and the rest of the left or maybe more accurately Brian, it’s the left of the global north and the left of the global south. What explains their disconnect and can there actually ever be international unity or are those two different kinds of leftists existing in two different kinds of environments so the chances of unity are very small?
BM: I think there are all kinds of chances for solidarity and unity in the international left. The whole point of the First International was to foster this, right? I think it´s possible. And I think that in the 1980s, before the internet, we had these publications like NACLA and Covert Action Quarterly which was founded by Phillip Agee, the CIA Diaries author, and there were some really interesting magazines and zines which you could buy in these cool bookstores and the subject number 1 in writing about the leftist struggle in Latin America was always US imperialism. I think it is outrageous that the American left stopped talking about US imperialism in Brazil and in other countries in Latin America. Me and my colleagues Sean and Bryan did a systematic reading of all 38 articles that Jacobin published between 2014 and the end of 2017 about Brazil and none of them mentioned US imperialism. None of them mentioned American petroleum companies. What is the point about even writing about Latin America as an American, or presenting articles by others as an American publication, if you are not going to talk about the elephant in the room which is the fact that the US held 44 successful coups in Latin America over a 100 year period. Hilary Clinton admitted to supporting the 2009 coup in Honduras in her own autobiography last year, and obviously, after Brazil discovered huge amounts of petroleum and developed new technology for deep water drilling that no one else had, obviously the US would be interested in the petroleum, so why would you run 38 consecutive articles that don’t mention US imperialism? Because when you fail to mention US imperialism, all that is left for you really is to just talk about what kind of mistakes the Brazilian left made. “Look, they failed”… This is why the article is ironically called the Failure of the US Left, you know, because you can’t talk about failure of the PT party or the Brazilian left without talking about who they were fighting and what the power differential was. You are talking about a political party that controlled 22% of Congress, never controlled the military, never controlled Congress or the Senate, or the Judiciary, fully, going up against the petroleum interests of the most powerful imperialist nation in the World. So you have to look at who they were fighting if you are going to talk about what they failed to do. But even so, wouldn’t it be better to start by listening to them talk about what they think they did right and what they think they did wrong? Because in all 38 of these articles they didn’t talk to anyone from the PT party once, or the CUT, the largest labor union federation in Brazil which has 7 million members and is the flesh and blood of the PT party really, the base that has been supporting it all along – that Lula came out of. Or even the Landless Peasants Movement [Landless Rural Workers Movement/MST] which is, by far, the largest and most important social movement in Brazil. The one time they ran an interview with someone from the MST, it was a 7 year old interview from a year in which the MST was supporting a candidate from a different political party, PSOL, in the Presidential elections. But in 2017, they were fully behind the PT party. So why would they run a 7 year old interview at that point? Just to build this narrative that the PT is no longer left, the PT is a neoliberal party, it´s failure, its sellout is what caused the coup- all of this kind of line of thinking that permeates all 38 of these articles. And what is ironic is the entire U-Turn that they did in 2018, which I attribute to Bhaskar (Sunkara) visiting Brazil and actually seeing what was going on down here and saying, ‘hey, slow down, we’ve got to give some solidarity to the PT party.’ They are the most powerful left political party in Latin America. They had 47 million votes this year even though they lost, and the party that Jacobin was pumping up as the future of the Brazilian left, which is the PSOL, got 500,000 votes. They were less electorally significant than the American Green Party.
CM: And you mention the difference between the two parties. One is that the PT has had a lot of success and that the other party hasn’t had a lot of success, but also PSOL, they kind of embrace the academic purity of the left, while the PT embraces the more populist left. Is that the delineation that we might be seeing when it comes to the US left criticism of left movements overseas, that they side with the more academic purist left and don’t like the populist left. Is that the big division that is happening within the left more generally, that it is academic left vs populist left?
BM: You know, Chuck, I can’t really talk authoritatively about the rest of the world’s left. What I do know a lot about is Brazil and so I will limit my comments to this and you can generalize accordingly. It is true that the PSOL party is dominated by academic leftists. And you would think that that would naturally appeal to American academic leftists and some of these publications like the Nation and Jacobin and whatever – I don’t know what they pay but they get writers who are grad students who are kind of academically orientated. But the PT party also has a huge and rich intellectual and academic tradition. Paulo Freire was one of the founders of the PT, and if you look at their presidential candidate this year, Fernando Haddad, he is a [Political Science] professor at the best university in Brazil [USP], and they have a lot of congressmen and senators who came out of academia because they were teachers union leaders, like Margarida Salomão, who is a Congresswoman from the PT [Minas Gerais], who has a doctorate and a post-doctorate in linguistics from UC Berkeley and was a teachers union leader, so just saying that it is because they sided with academia against the working class on this left divide in Brazil is not really that accurate. And I think they also missed a lot of nuance which is that the PSOL is a faithful ally of the PT in Brazil. They provide a lot of really needed and good criticism of the PT but when push comes to shove, in Congress, they vote together in over 90% of the issues. After the first round of elections was over this year, the PSOL supported Fernando Haddad in the second round. But if you read these 38 Jacobin articles, that nuance is kind of lost as well.
CM: So, Brian, just a few more questions for you. Does the PT simply not reflect the left that Jacobin supports? What’s wrong with applying ideological purity? Why shouldn’t our allegiance and concert be toward and about ideology first above and beyond everything else including the amazing outcomes that PT has had? Why shouldn’t we focus on ideology and ideological purity first?
BM: Well,first of all, Jacobin has been supporting the PT for the last year- they have done a 180 on the PT. But ideological purity is needed. It’s like how Gramsci said these small political parties serve educational and moralist purposes. I think that they are important for pulling the bigger parties farther to the left. Just as in the US we have these parties like the Libertarians who never get any votes but they pull the Republicans farther to the right, these small parties have an important role. But when you are not from that country, when you are from the country that just caused the coup, whose corporations are benefiting from the coup, for example through the [USD] $300 Billion tax cut that was made after the 2016 coup to US petroleum companies operating in Brazil, you know, then it begins to look like taking this pure left posture is actually just a very non-threatening thing to do that doesn’t threaten State Department objectives or capitalist institutions. In fact, it performs a validating role so that the conservatives can say, “we have a democracy in Brazil because we have these guys”, you know, who never threaten power. So I think it is a complex issue but I don’t think that, in the middle of a coup, adopting a far left ideological posture to attack the one party that has the base and the size and strength to try to counter fascism in a country is very helpful. In fact its like one of the leaders of the MST told me, sometimes this vanguard left posture is not revolutionary, it’s anti-revolutionary. Because if the main reason that the PT didn’t win the election this year was several years of anti-PTism in the media coming from the right, why would anti-PTism on the left help anything? If anything it just feeds farther into the conservative narrative. And you see talking points from Jacobin and from other left American publications being used in corporate media like the Guardian and the New York Times now, saying things like, “the PT has to be more humble. It has to publicly apologize for its mistakes.” And things like that. I believe that issue originated in Jacobin.
CM: Another thing that you point out is the Landless Workers Movement, the MST, another key actor in the Brazilian organized left. It was influential in the legalization of homesteading on unproductive or stolen land and despite constant media opposition and agribusiness violence, has obtained deeds for around 400,000 small farms since the 1980s. When we began This is Hell in 1996, this was the first aspect of Brazilian life that really grabbed my interest, the MST, and I know we had several interviews in the 1990s with members of Friends of the MST and other groups. You say that in contrast to their disdain for CUT, the Labor Union Federation that works, kind of, with the PT (but they are totally two different organizations), Jacobin authors seldom directly criticize what David Harvey, in a personal conversation with one of the authors, called, “the most perfect social movement in the world.” Rather they generally ignore the MST. In your opinion what doesn’t attract the US left in the form of Jacobin or anyone, to the most perfect social movement in the World, the MST.
BM: Well, first of all I worked with the MST for five years and they are much farther left in practice than anyone I’ve ever met from Jacobin. Because they actually squat on land that’s been stolen by ranchers and loggers and start farming on it, and resist, sometimes at gunpoint, to hold on to this land. And they are socialists, they have deep connections with the world left and the Cuban government, they developed a critical adult literacy methodology with direct help from Paulo Freire and they are real leftists who actually practice what they preach and they support the PT. So this puts these ideological purity measurers in an very uncomfortable position when they have to explain that the MST has been supporting the PT all these years.
CM: Just one last question for you Brian. You write that to their credit US left media have unequivocally condemned Bolsonaro and Jacobin is helping lead a solidarity campaign for the PT and Brazilian left, but what if the US left had moderated its criticism earlier to defend the PT against the developing coup. “Would there have been greater solidarity with Dilma Rousseff? Greater resistance to the Temer government’s attack on the working class? An earlier recognition of the threat of Bolsonaro? There is no way to know but perhaps it’s time for the US left to turn its critical gaze back on to itself.” What do you hope the US left would see when it reexamines itself following the way in which it reacted to the rise of Brazil’s right and to what happened to Brazil’s left?
BM: First of all I want to say that we took Jacobin as an example and gave it a high level of scrutiny. And I know Jacobin publishes a lot of good stuff in the US. But regarding your question, I think that these people on the American left who write about Latin America and other places should reflect about what the role of an American leftist really should be in this situation. Does it help to go and tell people in other countries that they are wrong? Or should they be looking at what their country is doing and how its actions are affecting these other countries, especially in the 3rd World. Because if you are just going to be bad mouthing people in another country because their left isn’t pure enough, what is the point? Why not talk about what your country is doing? It takes a little bit more courage to do that. But I think that is what the American left should be asking in terms of how it deals with issues in Latin America. What’s happened since the 1980s when left publications have just stopped talking about US imperialism? Is it because of grant funding? Is it due to all these foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation who are funding magazines that used to be really hard left like NACLA? I just don’t understand what is going on. What is even the point of doing it if you are not talking about what your country is doing to screw everybody over in the rest of the world? The US is the biggest imperialist country in the World. It’s stealing everybodies oil, it’s killing people all over the place. And instead of talking about what it’s doing in Nicaragua or Venezuela or Brazil, you are just going to write about the mistakes that Brazilians or the Nicaraguans made? I think that is the question they should be asking themselves. Why aren’t we talking about our own country?
Listen to the interview here: