How The US Left Failed Brasil

Why did the US left media bash a successful democratic socialist party during a right wing coup?

by Brian Mier, Sean T. Mitchell, and Bryan Pitts

On November 29, 2018, the socialist magazine and news site Jacobin co-sponsored a public interview with Fernando Haddad, the 2018 presidential candidate of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT). The former São Paulo mayor and federal education minister was introduced at Manhattan’s People’s Forum by Jacobin’s founding editor, Bhaskar Sunkara. To a packed house, Sunkara praised Haddad and the governments he was part of for designing programs that lifted  “millions of people out of poverty… [and gave] millions the chance to have basic access to education and access to higher education. […] The impact of these governments,” he noted, “should not be understated.” Sunkara left no doubt about the significance of the PT governments that held Brazil’s presidency from 2003 to 2016. Despite the parliamentary coup that unceremoniously removed the party from power and Brazil’s subsequent lurch to the far right, he argued that the achievements of the PT in power allow us to “take comfort in the fact that left politics can achieve change and this change can impact millions of people.”

For its over 13 years in the presidency, the PT was successful at “uplifting millions of Brazilians out poverty, seriously expanding social citizenship, and making Brazil a significant international actor,” as was noted in Jacobin in 2018–recognizing the PT’s success at massive reform in one of the world’s most brutally unequal countries. Over the last year, Jacobin and other major outlets of the US left have been clear about the dangers of Brazil’s now president-elect, neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro, and in their admiration for the PT’s historic accomplishments. Shortly after Haddad’s electoral loss, Jacobin even published some of his political writings from “1998 — the peak of neoliberalism,” Haddad noted.

After an electoral defeat to Bolsonaro fueled largely by fake news and blatantly partisan judicial measures against the PT, 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. Reading critiques of the PT in major US left outlets when the party was in power might have led one to believe that 2014, not 1998, was Brazil’s “peak of neoliberalism.” It might have created the impression that the compromises of democratic socialism that frequently win support from those publications when proposed for the Global North are unacceptable capitulations to capital when successfully implemented in the Global South.

During much of the PT’s time in power, most major publications of the US left were presenting a different narrative about the party than the positive one finally embraced in 2018. In this telling, the PT was ineffectual, hopelessly neoliberal, and had demobilized and co-opted the unions and movements of a bitterly divided left. There was some truth in each of those critiques, but they were applied with such wild caricature that the praise the PT is now receiving from those same publications in the wake of its defeat by an ominous neo-fascism is stupefying.

We focus mostly on Jacobin in this essay 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. Astoundingly, of 38 articles published on Brazilian politics we were able to find in Jacobin from 2014-2017, all 38 presented a negative view of the PT. We write this essay in the hope that the next time powerful sectors of the Global North left are offered the opportunity to show solidarity with democratic socialist success and struggles in the Global South, they will not fail so tragically.

The Myth of the Neoliberal PT

Critique of the PT as neoliberal was particularly hyperbolic during the period from 2014 (as right-wing mobilization gained force in Brazil) through 2017 (well after the parliamentary coup against PT president Dilma Rousseff). For example, in his widely read 2014 book on the politics of Brazil’s World Cup and Olympics, Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, lamented a “popular impression that Lula genuinely cared about the poor—even as he was turning Brazil into a neoliberal paradise.” As impeachment proceedings raged in 2016, a frequent Jacobin author argued that the right was kicking “wide open the doors of neoliberalism opened by the PT itself over the last decade,” while, an article by another frequent contributor stated that “the PT, after all, guided Brazil through Neoliberalization.”

To be sure, the PT engaged in numerous compromises and questionable alliances during its time in power, most significantly the maintenance of the so-called macroeconomic policy, “tripod” of inflation targeting, floating exchange rates, and meeting yearly primary fiscal surplus targets. However, the “tripod” was originally instituted not by the PT, but, in 1999, under the indubitably neoliberal government of PSDB president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. One can find other elements of neoliberal policy during the PT governments—all valid targets of left critique. However, the idea that the PT was straightforwardly neoliberal or, more jarringly, that the party “guided Brazil through neoliberalization” long after neoliberalism’s “peak” in 1998, is a smear that beggars belief. Despite its numerous compromises with neoliberalism, during the PT’s time in power the party pursued policies of wage and benefit increases that helped lift some 40 million people out of poverty, vastly expanded university access for working class and Afro-Brazilian students, extended labor rights to Brazil’s miserably exploited domestic servants and stimulated internal production and consumption of nationally manufactured goods. All this after a prolonged period of neoliberalism and austerity that preceded Lula’s election in 2002.

Why, as the forces behind a parliamentary coup sought to undo these crucial and hard-fought gains, would left wing publications argue that the PT “did nothing to challenge class power or threaten the elite,” that it failed to “make good on its promises of ‘social ascension,’” or that the party was engaged in “ongoing attacks on workers and democratic rights”’—to take a sampling of representative 2014-2017 assertions in Jacobin? Why, as the coup was being consolidated with the transparently political corruption conviction of Lula, and as a 20-year freeze on social spending was written into Brazil’s constitution, would a left wing publication print spuriously that it is “unclear whether a PT government would diverge from the path set by [post-coup president Michel] Temer… neither the party nor Lula has committed to overturning the despicable array of austerity measures and labor reforms implemented by Temer and his cronies”?

A Fetish for the Vanguard

These critiques of the PT put foreign left journalists in a bind. If the party that nearly eliminated hunger, lifted up to 40 million people from poverty, and dramatically expanded higher education for the poor and Afro-Brazilians was made up of neoliberal posers, what happened to the real left?

Fortunately for those who prefer ideological purity to winning elections, Brazil has no shortage of far-left parties with a dizzying array of acronyms – PCB, PSTU, PCO, MAIS, MRT, and more. All of them are very small parties, mostly Trotskyist, and, to a significant degree, middle-class. Alongside their commitment to extreme factionalism, the main characteristic that unites these parties is electoral inviability. In 2018 they managed to elect not one candidate to any office. The only presidential candidate between them, the PSTU’s Vera Lucia, received 55,762 votes (0.05%), or 11th out of 13 candidates.

To read foreign left media, one would never know how irrelevant these parties are. As Jacobin authors were writing off PT as it was besieged from the right, they also extolled these parties for critiquing “the PT’s transformation into a party of order and neoliberal policies” and ascribed them a leading role in an imagined “mass student movement in solidarity with workers [that] could catalyze a wider radicalization and mobilization against […] [PT-led] austerity.”

Still, despite their enthusiasm for these parties, Anglophone left media writers are aware that they are electorally irrelevant. But there is one party to the PT’s left with a moderately successful record – the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), which broke from the PT in 2004. In 2018, PSOL elected 10 federal deputies, its best showing ever, leaving it tied for the 14th-largest party in Congress. It is home to some of Brazil’s best-known leftists, including the country’s only openly gay congressperson, Jean Wyllys; Marcelo Freixo, a Rio de Janeiro state deputy who was nearly elected Rio mayor in 2016; and the globally-revered Rio city councillor, Marielle Franco, assassinated in 2018. Still, outside Rio, where the historic weakness of the PT left an electoral vacuum, the PSOL amounts to a party that performs what Gramsci called a moralist or educational role, with no viable plan to take power. The party is strong among the student movement and academics but is rife with divisions over issues like support for Palestine and Venezuela. Yet it is to the comparatively bourgeois PSOL that Anglophone writers look for the Brazilian left’s salvation. As one writer for Jacobin, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), matter-of-factly explained in 2017, the party was “the most electorally significant left party in Brazil,” a laughable claim, but par for the course.

Amid the resistance to the neoliberal policy onslaught brought by post-coup de-facto President Temer, Jacobin’s writers supported the “socialist left” PSOL as the best alternative to a “ex-left” PTmired in corruption and embracing of the neoliberal agenda.” In this telling, it was the PSOL and its allied social movements that would spark “a direct confrontation with capital by workers mobilized in their unions and social movements.” Although street mobilizations and general strikes are important tactics for the left, it is unclear why progressive journalists writing in English believed that the PSOL, which has no union federations and only one major social movement – the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST) – allied with it, might be more capable of accomplishing this than the PT, which has close relationships with the country’s largest labor union federation and its largest social movements. Imagine if Jacobin had covered the 2016 US presidential election solely from the perspective of supporters of Jill Stein, ignoring Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters alike; for all intents and purposes, this is what Jacobin did in Brazil from 2014-2017, with its uncritical endorsement of the PSOL.

Despite simplistic analyses of the PT in US-left media, the PSOL itself has a much more nuanced relationship to the party. While PSOL offered principled opposition to the PT’s more conciliatory tendencies while it was in power, the party is in general a faithful ally of the PT in Congress, forcefully opposed the 2016 coup and the imprisonment of Lula, and offered its support to Haddad in the second round of October’s presidential election. To the extent that US left Brazil writers acknowledged this shift in their favorite party, it was primarily to criticize it, through arguing, for example, that, although the PSOL “must do more base-building work to be less of a middle class party,” drawing closer to the PT is not the right way to accomplish that, since “the PT itself has long since abandoned base-building efforts outside of election time.”  

The Missing Voice of the Working Class

US left media’s dismissal of the PT in favor of the PSOL and other smaller far-left parties is not an isolated issue. It is emblematic of a systematic rejection of the most important parties and movements on the Brazilian left in favor of smaller groups with far more limited impact but far more expansive claims of ideological purity. Nearly without exception, the parties, unions, and social movements that authors in outlets like Jacobin spurn are the groups with the most organic links to the Brazilian popular classes, while the smaller groups they embrace are characterized by their ties to middle-class academics.

Between 2014 and 2017, most leftist US press misrepresented or ignored Brazil’s largest labor union federation, the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT), and its largest social movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST). The unions and movements like CUT and MST that make up Brazil’s working-class, organized left have a complex relationship with the PT: at times, antagonistic, but generally supportive. They were a key mobilizing factor in four consecutive PT presidential victories and the 47 million votes for Haddad in 2018. Despite this, nobody in Jacobin talked to them. Why?

In 2017 the CUT led three huge protests against the coup and Temer’s labor and pension reforms: 1) the April 28 general strike, Brazil’s largest ever; 2) the largest protest even held in Brasília, on May 24, which led to a declaration of martial law in the capital; and 3) and the June 30 general strike, which, though smaller than the first, shut down large swathes of over 100 cities. Even as the AFL-CIO displayed solidarity with CUT, Jacobin ran an article that, without citing any source, blamed the CUT for trying to block the April 28 strike that it organized. Then it ignored the May 24 protest and claimed that the June strike “was seen as a complete failure.”

The faulty assumption here is that that CUT was co-opted by the “neoliberal” PT. These claims were ubiquitous in US left media during the crucial period when the right began to undo the gains of prolonged left governance and mobilization. For example, just before Dilma’s impeachment, an article in Jacobin claimed that CUT “maintains a relationship of strong collaboration with the government.” After the coup, another asserted that the PT still “maintains a fierce hold on the unions.” Reading this, one would get the false impression that the CUT’s aim is not fighting for higher wages but defending the PT and allying with whomever is in power. After the coup, in May 2017, one Jacobin author asserted, “Even now […] CUT hesitates to call its base to struggle, always subordinating these mobilizations to the electoral aims of Lula and the PT.” Never mind the millions of workers who had just participated in the April 2017 CUT-organized general strike. When Temer proposed draconian pension reforms, a frequent Jacobin author dismissed CUT’s potential for resistance because it had always been part of a “governista base […] accustomed to negotiating with the devil.”

In 2017, when CUT São Paulo President Douglas Izzo was asked if his union had been co-opted by the PT, he laughed and asked why there are so many CUT led strikes against PT governments. The fact is, despite historical ties with the PT, there is no legal connection between the two entities. Former CUT members continue to make up the largest group within the PT in Congress, but they are required to leave CUT before entering the PT. The position of CUT (legally controlled by its 7 million members through elections and assemblies) as a force behind the PT, not a puppet of the party, is reflected in the Lula administration’s prioritization of job generation and strong wages over neoliberal tenets of wage suppression and labor flexibility. Moreover, despite the claim in Jacobin that “Brazilian unions have been demobilized during the PT’s reign,” strikes steadily increased during the PT years, culminating with 2,050 in 2013.

The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) is another key actor of 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 80s.

In contrast to their disdain for CUT, 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 the one article between 2014 and 2017 that dealt with the MST in any depth, Jacobin ran a previously unpublished seven-year-old interview with Gilmar Mauro, one of the MST’s 52 national directors. Why skip over 7 years of interviews and public statements by Mauro?  In the first round of that year’s presidential election, most MST leaders supported PSOL candidate Plínio de Arruda Sampaio. In the Jacobin interview, when Mauro said, “The PT is a party of the established order. […]. It’s actually the best manager of and for capital in the country,” it was reflective of the frustration that many in the organized left felt at the compromises the PT had made. More importantly, this criticism, made during a period when the PT was in power, was in perfect keeping with the message Jacobin’s Brazil contributors were sending about the PT after the coup in 2017.

Running a 2010 interview in 2017, however, obscured shifts in the MST’s relationship with the PT. After Arruda failed to get 1% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the MST supported Dilma Rousseff. After her victory, they concluded that PSOL didn’t have a feasible plan for taking the presidency and strengthened their critical engagement with the PT. If Jacobin writers had spoken to anyone from the MST during the coup or its aftermath, they would have encountered a nuanced explanation its support for the PT. In a 2017 interview, Mauro said, “We are facing a coup in Brazil […] that aims to take political power and apply a set of regressive measures to cancel what the working class achieved during recent years, […] This is why we are supporting Lula.”

Although MST land occupations  dropped during the PT years, the Lula administration created dozens of policies that significantly improved living conditions for family farmers. One example was the Food Acquisition Program (PAA), which mandated that public schools and hospitals in rural areas buy all their food from family farmers. This and other policies help explain why small farmers still produce 70% of food consumed by Brazilians and why, despite many well documented PT compromises with agribusiness, the MST continues to support the PT. Neither CUT nor MST support the PT unconditionally. When they do support the party, it is because of the concrete ways their members’ lives improved under the PT.

The only social movement frequently mentioned in Jacobin during the coup period was the Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), led by 2018 PSOL presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos who, as the son of wealthy São Paulo doctors, is the only prominent Brazilian popular social movement leader who does not come from working class origins. This provided disproportionate coverage for the social movement most closely allied to Jacobin’s Brazil writers’ favorite political party, while dismissing Brazil’s largest, most popular social movement and union federation as PT stooges.

Why All the Hate?

Jacobin and other US left outlets presented a one-sided narrative about the PT over many years. In light of that coverage, and in the wake of the PT’s brutal defeat to neo-fascism, it is perplexing to see the party canonized as demonstrating that “left politics can achieve change,” to return to Sunkara’s introduction of Haddad.

There are many important left critiques of the PT, and they are frequently made in Brazil–though usually with more nuance and a greater range of perspectives than have been represented on the US left. Why did US left media eschew listening to different left actors and advancing a more careful analysis? Why did they present such a cartoonishly negative portrait of a left party in power, just as it faced dire threats to achievements in promoting equality that many on the US left can only dream of? We offer a few possible reasons.

First, it seems that ideological perfection, the obligation to push for socialism without consideration of institutional constraints, is a requirement only of Global South governments and political parties. One is tempted to suggest an unconscious colonial exoticism here: If political progress in the Global North must be made through ugly compromise and incrementalism, the tropics are frequently made the site of Global North fantasies of utopia, as Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has suggested.

Second, it is possible that editors or authors simply misread Brazil in light of the United States. For editors at Jacobin, the de-facto mouthpiece for the “Bernie wing” of the Democratic Party, the DSA, and other factions deemed “far left” in the US context, the narrative of a corrupt, neoliberal institutional party challenged by upstart socialists must have been immediately recognizable. The PT must be the Democratic Party, while the PSOL would have looked like the DSA and Bernie Sanders. But this analogy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: the PT instituted or expanded policies like race-and class-based quotas in university admissions, public university expansion, conditional cash transfers, wage increases, universal health care, job-creating infrastructure projects, and more. Their policies and priorities are much closer to those of Sanders and the DSA than to the Clintonite Democrats. Indeed, Haddad recently went to Vermont to work on a Progressive International with Sanders; he is not known to have received any invitations from the Clinton Foundation.   

Third, perhaps the US left was led astray by positive coverage of Lula in the global financial press. In his critique of the PT, Dave Zirin writes, “Lula, the fire-breathing radical had become a darling of the Economist and Financial Times crowd, who regularly contrasted his leadership with that of the “irresponsible” Chávez.” Just as the existence of the Soviet Union forced capital to accept the rise of social democracy in the Global North, so Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian leftist project caused many non-leftists to support Lula as a safer alternative, including Zirin’s “Economist and Financial Times crowd.” “If the neoliberals at the Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and World Bank love Lula, he must be terrible,” we can imagine the thought process proceeding—as logical as it was tragically incorrect.

Fourth, although US left publications could have avoided this pitfall if their editors had listened to a broader cross-section of the Brazilian left, one party, the PSOL, was given the dominant voice. In Jacobin, articles were written almost entirely by authors affiliated with the PSOL, including their two most frequent Brazil contributors. There’s nothing wrong with a journalist preferring any particular left party. But if most of an outlet’s authors who write about one party are affiliated with its biggest leftist rival, might this not slant the coverage? Until 2018, when Jacobin began to make overtures to Haddad as the PT presidential candidate, this key outlet for the US left ignored perspectives on Brazil that deviated from the PSOL platform.

In 2014, right-wing candidate Aécio Neves refused to accept his loss to Rousseff in the presidential election. In 2015, the right organized mass demonstrations, while mainstream Brazilian and foreign media parroted narratives of PT corruption and economic mismanagement. In 2016, Congress impeached Rousseff in a parliamentary coup, and the judicial system ramped up corruption investigations that disproportionately targeted the PT. In 2017, Brazil’s unions and social movement engineered mass protests against Temer’s reforms.

All this time, Jacobin and other US left media outlets repeated the refrains that the PT was neoliberal, that it had abandoned or co-opted labor unions and social movements, and that a far smaller leftist party, the PSOL, was the authentic voice of Brazil’s left. Less important than the degree of truth or falsehood of these accusations was their timing, as the right executed a plan to accomplish judicially what it could not at the ballot box – defeat the PT. The eventual result of the right’s plan was the election of a neo-fascist who has promised to carry out a “cleansing” the likes of which Brazil has never seen, a campaign that has the organized left, the poor, Afro-Brazilians, and indigenous and LGBT people square in its sights.

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 Rousseff? Greater resistance to the Temer government’s attacks on the working class? An earlier recognition of the threat of Bolsonaro? There’s no way to know. But perhaps it’s time for the US left to turn its critical gaze back on itself.

Brian Mier is co-editor of Brasil Wire and editor of “Voices of the Brazilian Left.” From 2007-2014, he worked alongside urban social movements leaders on the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana national directorate, and managed a partnership between ActionAid and MST-Maranhão from 2007-2011. He currently lives on the periphery of São Paulo.

Sean T. Mitchell is associate professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, Newark. He has carried out many years of research in Brazil and is the author of “Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil” (University of Chicago Press).

Bryan Pitts is associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. He is completing a book on the surprising but inadvertent role of civilian political elites in the demise of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.