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The PT, Neoliberalism, and the Brazilian Regime

The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party) has played an important role during decisive moments of Brazilian history. This article offers a critical overview of the party’s responsibility for maintaining the Brazilian capitalist regime.

Edison Urbano

November 20, 2018
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The PT: From Its Origins in Metalworkers’ Strikes to Its Popular Ascent in the 1980s and the Surprise of “Lula-lá” in 1989

In the late 1970s, the workers’ strikes in the cities known as the “ABC industrial complex” in the outskirts of São Paulo fought for more than economic demands, despite their reformist trade union leaderships. (The term “ABC region” refers to three important industrial centers on the outskirts of São Paulo: Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo do Campo, and Sao Caetano do Sul).

The movement culminated in the metallurgical general strikes in the ABC region and the city of São Paulo in 1979 and 1980.

Lula emerged as a national leader due to his role as the president of the Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos (Metalworkers Union) of São Bernardo do Campo (The “B” in the ABC industrial area).

Vast sectors of the strikers aimed to bring down the dictatorship and demanded a party that was really representative of the working class.

Although the strikes were defeated, the political character they acquired resulted in a sector of workers and the left bureaucracy taking taking up the task of forming a workers’ party.

At least four different social sectors came together to lead the foundation of the PT in 1980: the so-called “novo sindicalismo” (new unionism) led by Lula, sectors of the Catholic Church, sectors of the left intelligentsia influenced by Eurocommunism, and organized currents of the radical left, especially those of Trotskyist and ex-guerrilla origins.

The eclectic characteristics of this “political amalgam” were manifested in the resolutions of the PT’s first meetings, as well as its program: phraseology about a “new type” of socialism, of undefined contours, and with no clear strategy for power. The historian Lincoln Secco summed up this phase of the party, from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, when he said; “The outcome of these meetings ended up being a moderate thesis amended by radicals.”[2]

As the PT took hold in society and grew, its deeply conciliatory orientation was manifested during the fundamental political moments in the transition to democracy: the campaign for direct elections and the Constituent Assembly supervised by former President José Sarney of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) and the military, and during the elections of 1989. While continuing to lead workers’ economic strikes and thus increasing its influence, the PT’s fundamental mode of operation was always to separate the economic from the political sphere, which invariably left the latter to the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.

The growing discontent with the successive failures of Sarney’s economic programs gave rise to a new cycle of strikes, which coincided with the first direct presidential elections of 1989. This period saw the explosion of the “Lula phenomenon,” which surprised everyone and saw him go head-to-head with the reactionary adventurer Fernando Collor de Mello. Contradictorily, Lula’s defeat in 1989 had the effect of reinforcing the PT leadership’s electoralist strategy.

The PT as a Pillar of the Regime: From “Out with Collor” to Moderate Opposition to Fernando Henrique Cardoso

In 1992, a movement against Collor de Mello arose as a result of the discontent over the economic crisis and several corruption scandals involving the former president. Sectors of the government began to demand Collor’s impeachment, and the masses started to organized spontaneous demonstrations chanting “Out with Collor!”

Committed as it was to the “democratic order,” the PT was one of the last parties to join the calls for the impeachment of Collor. This was not because of any left-wing criticism but the contrary: fear of the instability that moves to impeachment could generate, as José Dirceu, then the PT’s federal deputy and chief of Lula’s cabinet, argued at the time.

Later on, when the process was already inevitable, the PT acted as a party of restraint and prevented the struggle against Collor from taking on a working-class character. In a conscious division of tasks, the PT leadership gave the leading role to the National Union of Students (UNE), which was led by the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB). The “petista” (PT) left, then at the height of its influence, organized various workers’ meetings, such as one held in Belo Horizonte, but it did not use them to establish a bastion of independent working-class politics.

Throughout the PT’s history, this fundamental commitment to bourgeois stability came to be the party’s “second soul.” If during the struggle against the dictatorship in the 1980s the PT had already shown that its commitment to class conciliation was more important than its commitment to the most strongly felt demands of the working people, there was nevertheless a further qualitative change that occurred in the 1990s. As noted by a scholar of the role of the PT during the “Fora Collor” (Out with Collor) movement:

This political behavior can be considered an indicator of the process of passive acceptance on the part of the PT, of neoliberal proposals. … It is not, therefore, an active adherence to neoliberalism. It so happens that the petista tactic of prioritizing the struggle for ethics in politics to the detriment of the struggle against neoliberalism … had political consequences.[3]

In this debate, the PT leadership, with Dirceu and Lula at the helm, held a position so far to the right that Trotskyist currents differentiated themselves by adopting a program that was itself an adaptation to the struggle for impeachment.

This attitude was not an isolated one. In May 1991, in an interview with Exame (Examination) magazine, founding PT member Aloizio Mercadante said,

I think the time of protest as a political proposition is over. Or, that we move beyond this phase of politics of negation and denunciation, with a politics of affirmation, of construction and alternation; if not, we will find it difficult to give a response to the problems of society.[4]

This position of “affirmation” in times of neoliberalism led to some outlandish things from a so-called leftist party. Lincoln Secco describes in his book how as early as 1994, PT mayors—António Palocci in Ribeirão Preto, among others—began privatizing municipal telecommunications companies: “They were privatizers avant la lettre, before the government of FHC [Fernando Henrique Cardoso].”[5]

Intoxicated by the possibility of Lula’s election, PT leaders became even more conservative after 1989. Along with this, an expectation built up, even among those on the left, that the Brazilian political process had to go through the experience of Lula in government. More “leftist” versions of this thesis, such as that of the “Morenista” Partido Socialista dos Trabalhadores Unificado (PSTU—United Socialist Workers Party) and its counterparts, said that this would be the prelude to the revolutionary radicalization of the masses.

Thus, throughout the 1990s, the PT was the “left wing” of neoliberal programs, a left-wing prop for the debased democracy that was created in 1988. Through the union bureaucracy, the PT also approved the neoliberal restructuring of the relations of production (time-banking programs, precarious employment, outsourcing, flexibility, etc.).

The Câmaras Setoriais (Sectoral Chambers), a symbol of the PT of the 1990s, played an important role in this process. The old idea of the diffuse “conselhos populares” (peoples’ councils), first theorized by economist Paul Singer and defended in the PT program of the 1980s, was transformed into something directly liberal: chambers for reconciling the interests of employers and workers as a possible “form of government.” In practice, the Sectoral Chambers were also a mechanism for breaking down class unity (since the workers were divided by union and sector in their wage negotiations and collective agreements). These mechanisms played an important role in the capitalists’ imposition of the neoliberal offensive. On the other hand, when the opportunity arose for a decisive confrontation of FHC’s neoliberalism, the PT simply capitulated, as it did during in the great oil workers’ strike of 1995.[6]

Later on in 1998-99, when the popularity of the Real Plan [an economic plan to quell rampant inflation] had wound down and FHC, after beating Lula in the first round, once again devalued the currency, the petista strategy charged a new price. Far from backing the class struggle, the PT more than ever hedged its bets on a stability pact for the “tranquil” election of Lula in 2002.

The Cold Election of Lula, Which Restrained the Popular Explosion Against Neoliberalism

The PT was elected not as a product of mass mobilization but, on the contrary, through a “cold” and purely electoral result based on the exhaustion of FHC’s neoliberalism. The important thing to note is that this was the result of the deliberate strategy of the petista leadership. This highlights the need to reject cynical arguments that attribute the conservatism of the Lula governments and the timidity of their popular measures to an “unfavorable correlation of forces.” This strategy of inertia became more and more consolidated, as can be seen with the PT’s winning of federal government in the 2002 elections.

At that time, the popular dissatisfaction with FHC, which had been accumulating since 1998, was combined with the exhaustion of the neoliberal cycle of the 1990s across the region. This gave rise to popular rebellions and mass uprisings such as the revolutionary days of December 2001 in Argentina and the popular rebellions in Bolivia in 2000, 2003 and 2005. In the case of Bolivia, these were only contained after the assumption of Evo Morales, who played a similar role to that of Lula, with the difference that the Brazilian example managed to prevent a mass explosion.

From this point of view, for the working class the problem of “Lulismo” was that it not only failed to change but also deepened the country’s structural subordination to imperialism, its economic backwardness and its historical inequalities (the fundamental support base of which was the trio of agribusiness, banks and construction companies). In fact, it maintained and extended many of the policies of the neoliberal decade, such as precarious employment, further privatization, multinational penetration, reprioritization of exports, dependence on international finance capital and the deterioration of public services. This has had drastic consequences as the rising tide of the world market, driven by China and the United States, entered into a historic crisis, the exhaustion of which is symbolized by Trump and Brexit.

Even for Andre Singer, an intellectual organically linked to the petista project, Lulismo is considered a conservative phenomenon, as the famous article “Raízes sociais e ideológicas do lulismo” (The social and ideological roots of Lulismo) suggests:

To analyze the nature of Lulismo, we consider it advisable to add the combination of ideas that, in our opinion, characterize the fraction of the class that it would represent: the expectation of a state strong enough to reduce inequality, but without threatening the established order.[7]

That is the essence of the problem: an attempt to reduce inequality without threatening the established order! The PT is consolidated as a decisive pillar of the bourgeois regime, but it assumes an even deeper position when, at the head of the executive power, it adds the brand of Lulismo to the ephemeral golden dream of Brazilian capitalism. Combining credit, consumption and reconciliation with welfare distribution programs, it believed that a “powerful Brazil” could be created through Lulista gradualism. But all that this represented was a structurally regressive project, based on commodity exports, agribusiness, relations with construction companies and Petrobras—a project that the British magazine The Economist did not hesitate to call “the World’s Farm”. For a number of years, this outlook created euphoria among both businessmen and petistas.

The Global Economic Crisis and the Days of June 2013

All this led to the mobilizations of June 2013.[8] Under the impact of the global economic crisis, the Arab Spring and the youth uprisings in several countries, young people in Brazil triggered enormous spontaneous demonstrations, primarily in protest of rising public transport prices, then later on “against everything” and for more social rights.

André Singer has analyzed the rise of Lulismo as a separation of the middle class and important organized sectors of the working class from the PT—which then found a new social base in the urban poor of the “new class C” [middle-income families according to Brazil’s official surveys]. This development continued until the “moment of split” in June 2013.

The ideologists of the PT responded with hostility to the return of the masses to the streets. The PT government’s greatest conquest, the total immobility of civil society, was now shattered.[9]

In an attempt to divert the process, the PT government made all sorts of false promises and created a repressive national pact to guarantee the 2014 World Cup, which among other things included the use of the Armed Forces and Dilma Rousseff’s antiterrorism law. During the 2014 elections, Dilma used a lot of left demagoguery and spoke of not offloading the economic crisis onto the working class, but the day after the inauguration, she was unmasked as a fraud.

All this was the breeding ground for the institutional coup of 2016, the imprisonment of Lula in April 2018, and the triumph of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro in the last presidential elections.

In other words, it was the PT itself that paved the way for the coming to power of the right. When the institutional coup was already in progress and even when Lula was arrested, the PT did what it could to give a “discursive” framework to this confrontation, without organizing any real struggle against it with working-class methods.

By Way of a Conclusion

The historical role of parties, classes and individuals is not established by a diffuse summation of small everyday experiences, however significant they may be. In the history of peoples and classes, and therefore of parties, there are turning points in which the accumulation of small experiences is concentrated in moments of decision.

So it was in the case of the PCdoB, the historical forerunner of the PT, with the speech that its leader Luís Prestes gave in 1945 in favor of on-again-off-again dictator Getúlio Vargas and of “tightening the belts.” So it was with the PCdoB’s turn in 1958 in favor of open class collaboration and pacifism, at the precise turning point in the preparatory stage that preceded the revolutionary process of 1961-64 and the fatal coup of 1964.

The PT should be evaluated according to the fundamental role that the party played in diverting the struggle against the dictatorship, in the name of winning democracy; then later during the “Fora Collor” crisis, in the name of preserving it; in the opposition to FHC, in the name of guaranteeing stability and the election of Lula; in Lulismo’s ultraconservative agreements in the name of governability; and its acceptance of the coup and Lula’s arrest, in the name of national unity.

In all the decisive moments in the last 30 years, what has been demonstrated again and again is that the PT’s first commitment is to bourgeois order. Always in defense of stability, governability and bourgeois institutionality, it can rightly be considered the great guarantor of the regime of 1988.

Translation: Sean Robertson

1. This article was published as “El PT, el neoliberalismo y el régimen brasileño” at Ideas de Izquierda (IdZ—Ideas of the Left) on June 7, 2017, which itself is an adapted version of “Notas sobre o PT, o neoliberalismo e a crise do regime de 1988” (Notes on the PT, neoliberalism and the crisis of the regime of 1988), which first appeared at Ideias de Esquerda (IdE—Ideas of the Left) on May 5, 2017.
2. Lincoln Secco, História do PT (History of the PT), São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial, 100.
3. Danilo Enrico Martuscelli, “O PT e o impeachment de Collor”
(The PT and the Impeachment of Collor).
4. Quoted in ibid.
5. Secco, História do PT, 166.
6. See Leandro Lanfredi, “A greve dos petroleiros de 1995: O papel do PT e o avanço do neoliberalismo” (The oil workers’ strike of 1995: The role of the PT and the advance of neoliberalism), Ideias de Esquerda (IdE—Ideas of the Left) 1, May 2017.
7. André Singer, “Raízes sociais e ideológicas do lulismo” (The social and ideological roots of Lulismo).
8. See Iuri Tonelo, “Herencia de junio: Empieza a surgir un “sujeto peligroso” en Brasil” (The heritage of June: A “dangerous subject” starts to emerge in Brazil), Ideas de Izquierda (IdZ—Ideas of the Left) 5, November 2013.
9. This process was analyzed in different ways by Perry Anderson, Luiz Werneck Vianna and Francisco de Oliveira, among other Marxist and non-Marxist authors.

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