Lula and democracy at the crossroads

Sooner or later, Brazil, Latin America and the World will have to choose between neoliberalism, fascism and authoritarianism on one side and real, substantive democracy on the other

by Marcelo Zero

Latin America is going through a deep crisis of political instability, fragilization of democratic institutions, lack of legitimacy of traditional representation systems, intense ideological polarization and, in some cases, erosion of the rule of law.

The intense and extensive popular rebellions in Ecuador and Chile demanding the end of the neoliberal experiment and the military coup d’etat in Bolivia are the most recent and clear examples of this broad phenomenon.

There is, therefore, a troubling crisis in the region’s democracies, which are traditionally fragile and have shallow roots.

The region has regressed into a synonym for political instability and banana republics and this has deeply damanged its image.

It is clear that this crisis in democracy and politics is not exclusive to Latin America. There are similar crises underway in Europe, the USA and elsewhere.

In Europe, especially, there is a mistrust in relation to the traditional political parties and democratic institutions. Representational systems are being questioned and the so-called “right wing populism” is emerging with an exacerbation of ideological differences and a generalized feeling that political activity does not create alternatives and solutions for improving the lives of the majority of the population.

In the case of Latin America there are aggravating factors. Here, unlike what is happening in Europe and other regions, the crisis of democracy is manifesting in the emergence of various types of coup d’etats. This includes “soft” coups masked by legal or institutional decisions as well as those sustained by violence like the one in Bolivia.

The institutions, most notably the judiciary, have also become broadly partisan. This has not happened in countries with stronger democratic traditions.

To name a few examples, since the turn of the Century there have been coups in Venezuela, Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil and, most recently, Bolivia. Even countries which did not undergo coups in the strictest sense of the word have suffered from a very intense destabilization of their progressive governments based on the wide dissemination of fake news and lawfare attacks directed against specific parties and politicians.

In another difference from what is happening in more developed countries, some countries in the region are experiencing a growing deteriorization of the rule of law.

Brazil is rapidly becomming a thinly disguised dictatorship. The selective State of Exception which was set up after the 2016 coup was consolidated with the election of a neofascist who came to power through a discourse of repression against the left. Now the government is clamping down with: promises to restore the Dictatorship’s repressive 1968 Institutional Act 5; the return to censorship; attempted destruction of all progressive political parties; persecution of journalists; imprisonment of environmental activists; genocidal public security policies; and a series of other repressive acts that are all being normalized by the press and political actors who, in theory, should be defending democracy.

The crisis in politics and representational systems, therefore, is damaging democratic institutionality in Brazil and Latin America.

Another important difference from Europe is the tangible and undeniable external influence, which has been proven in many cases, on political processes in Latin America. There is little doubt that the USA, especially, is still interfering in a negative way to destabilize progressive governments in the region, including through targeted, political partnerships with local justice systems.

According to Enrique Santiago Romero, General Secretary of the Spanish Communist Party, “throughout Latin America we are witnessing the substitution of inquisitive or mixed justice systems with accusatory justice systems based on the US model. This is provoking greater empowerment of federal prosecutors who are, in practice, operating according to information and instructions sent from the US.”

In the case of Brazil, this interference in the justice system was greatly relevant to the 2016 coup d’etat and the imprisonment, without evidence, of former President Lula. Even now, the 4th regional federal court (TRF-4) recently opposed the Supreme Court and condemned Lula again, upholding a ridiculous ruling that was literally cut and pasted from former judge Sérgio Moro’s Guaruja apartment case, in another case that is completely devoid of any material evidence and organized in the partisan basement of the US-backed Lava Jato investigation.

Even if these differences are taken into consideration, though, it looks like the main reasons for the crisis in political systems and democracies around the world are basically the same: the predominance of the neoliberal model and austerity policies combined with a world economic crisis.

The current configuration of capitalism, its crises and the prevalence of orthodox, neoliberal economic policies has led to a very negative social conjuncture which has strong repercussions in democracies and in political representation systems.

Many writers, including Thomas Piketty, Cristian Laval, Noam Chomsky and Joseph E. Stieglitz, have written on the direct relationship between deregulated finance capitalism, the erosion of the welfare state and the crisis which is hitting democracies and delegitimizing political representation systems. Obviously, these factors also explain the outbreak of right wing extremist forces around the world.

Above all, this crisis of political systems and democracies is the result of the world economic crisis, which has exacerbated the negative social effects of neoliberalism and the austerity policies associated with it.

Whenever there is an intense and persistent economic crisis, such as the current one, democracy and its representational systems undergo considerable amounts of stress. In these circumstances, the capacity of politics to absorb and mediate conflicts, especially the distribution conflicts which are inherent to the capitalist system is weakened. In many cases, it evaporates completely.

During the crisis of the 1920s and 1930s some European political systems simply imploded, giving way to the fascism and naziism which brought on the tragedy of World War II. In the USA, however, the political system was saved by the counter-cyclical policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There is a deeper cause of the current world political crisis that goes beyond the economic, however. It is something we can call the “depolitization of the political economy.” Since the 1980s, on varying levels, political representation systems have outsourced important economic decisions to “the market”, its analysts and independent institutions such as the central banks which are dominated by elite financial interests.

Now there are “technical consensuses” which normalize the neoliberal policies supported by international financial capital as rational, desirable and inevitable. Consequently, the decisions related to the management of national economies have been excluded from democratic control through the electoral process.

As a result of this process, the traditional alternance of power in Europe and the US, between center left and center right parties, no longer has any relevance on the political economy and over the lives of the people. Most governments reproduce the same neoliberal and “technical” consensuses. In Europe this ideological submission of the traditional left to neoliberal ideology that started during the 1980s was called the 3rd path.

This resulted in an expressive increase in economic and social inequality, structural unemployment and the financialization and deregulation of the economy – something which was a main cause of the worst world economic crisis since 1929.

In the political field, this usurping of control over the political economy by popular vote first resulted in growing levels of voter absenteeism and has now led to a generalized disbelief in electoral systems in many countries. Voters in many democracies now believe that their votes don’t make any difference in their lives. Voting makes no difference to them because of a general feeling that it doesn’t change anything.

Politics that does not create any real power is not really politics at all, it’s a simulacrum of democracy.

This is the political void at the heart of the crisis of modern democracies. In this manner, the world crisis in politics is actually a crisis of lack of politics. The crisis in the representation systems is the crisis of a lack of representivity in political systems, which does not give an effective voice to votes collected. And the crisis of democracy is, in general, a crisis of the lack of a substantive democracy that offers real and tangible alternatives to the neoliberal policies that have so deeply increased inequality, poverty and the lack of perspectives for the majority of the population.

During the oughties many Latin American countries experimented with political processes that moved against the current of what was happening in the developed world. They led to reductions of poverty and inequality, increases in social and economic rights, broadening opportunities and meaningful improvements in the quality of life for the great masses that had been historically marginalized.

Unfortunately these virtuous processes, which deepened and improved democracies in the region, were reversed in most countries – at times through different kinds of coups.

Now there is a counter-reaction underway in some countries. It is important to note, however, that recent mass revolts like those in Chile and Ecuador have yet not been enough to provoke changes in government, let alone effective changes in the economic and social models.

The great danger, as much in Europe as in Latin America, is that popular dissatisfaction will be hijacked by right wing extremist forces, as has already happened in some European countries, Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

In those cases, the dissatisfaction is not directed towards the real enemies – neoliberalism and its austerity policies – but towards imaginary enemies.

In Nazi Germany, the enemies of the nation were the Jews and communists. In Trump’s USA, the enemies are immigrants, “cultural Marxism” and countries like China and Russia that “steal jobs” and power from the North Americans.

In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the enemies are an infantilized concept of corruption, the PT, cultural Marxism, feminism, environmentalism, the Afro-Brazilian movement, the LGBT+ movement and everything that conspires against the values of the “Christian civilization” of an idyllic traditional Brazil.

This transfer of dissatisfaction against a “real” enemy, which has caused poverty, inequality, unemployment and insecurity, to imaginary enemies is the result of depolitization, oversimplification and distortion in the public debate.

Paradoxically, the imaginary enemy has a concrete nature about it that is lacking in the real enemy.

It was much easier to hate the Jews in Nazi Germany then to condemn the perverse mechanisms of capitalist order. In Trump’s USA it is easier to hate Latino immigrants and the Chinese than to identify an economic model which presents itself as the result of incontestable technical logic.

In today’s Brazil, the result of years of crude mythologization, it is also easier to think that the problems of the country are caused by corrupt people, members of the PT party, Bolivarans, politicians, NGOs and penis-shaped baby bottles for children, than a socioeconomic model which inevitably leads to poverty, inequality, unemployment, the erosion of public services and lack of opportunity for the majority of the population.

The solution presented is just as crudely oversimplified and distorted as the diagnosis: that Brazil will get out of the crisis by destroying all progressive policies and clamping down hard on all of these imaginary enemies – that Brazil will only escape the crisis through the antipolitics of fascism.

In this scenario, anti-democracy and antipolitics appear to have become imperative for an ultraneoliberal project which inexorably causes contradictions and dissatisfaction. This is a real and imminent danger.

The last poll by Latinobarômetro (2018), shows that popular support for democracy is very weak in Brazil. To the question, “do you think that democracy is preferable to all other forms of government,” only 34% responded affirmatively. In other words, nearly 2/3 of Brazilians admitted they would support or at least tolerate an authoritarian regime if they think democracy (or the “old politics”) has failed.

The real solution for the crisis and Brazil’s problems lies in politics and in democratic alternatives. As of now, the only countries in Latin America which have managed to reverse the neoliberal, authoritarian wave are Mexico and Argentina, which elected new progressive governments through democratic processes and intense political debate.

This is why Lula’s freedom is fundamental for democracy. Lula offers the possibility of channeling the popular dissatisfaction against the real enemies by way of public debate and democracy. In this case, the real enemies are not people or groups that are especially deserving of hatred, but a model that has ruined the lives of most of the population, including large sectors of the working and middle classes who currently identify with conservative and ultraneoliberal politics. The real enemies are the apparently abstract and technically rational policies which which are leading to the destruction of democracy around the world.

The motivating factor in this case is the hope that another world is possible, not sterile and destructive hatred against people who are different.

Even so, and perhaps because of this, our conservative sectors and a good part of the press present Lula and Bolsonaro as equally authoritarian ideological antipodes. They insist on promoting a crude anti-Ptism, which is what formed the political and ideological basis of Bolsonarism in the first place.

As I wrote recently, fear and hatred of Lula comes from a fear of real and inclusive democracy. It comes from a fear of losing privilege and losing control over the political system. It comes from the fear of critical and engaged poor citizens. It comes from the anxiety of promoting neoliberal policies that protect and advance elite interests during times of crisis. And it comes from the fear of popular uprisings like the one in Chile.

In the name of this fear and hatred they continue to bet on Bolsonaro. In the name of “democracy” they continue to destroy democracy.

Nevertheless, sooner or later, Brazil, Latin America and the World will have to choose between neoliberalism, fascism and authoritarianism on one side and real, substantive democracy on the other. This is the great crossroads. This decision is better made sooner than later, and is better with Lula.




By Marcelo Zero

Marcelo Zero is a sociologist, international relations specialist and technical adviser to the PT Senatorial leadership.