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Don’t Feed the Snakes

On Wednesday, Dilma Rousseff was formally impeached by the Brazilian senate. It’s another tragic chapter in the history of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT). After thirteen years at the head of government, the party was wrenched from office in a reactionary judicial and parliamentary coup orchestrated by the right wing.

In place of PT president Dilma Rousseff, Vice President Michel Temer assumed office. Temer belongs to the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which allied with the PT in 2014 to form a coalition government. The party broke their ties with the PT in March, ahead of the impeachment. Since then, Temer has earned the support of the PT’s rivals, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), and instituted massive cuts to public services.

On August 10, the Senate voted 59-21 to accept the impeachment commission’s recommendation that Rousseff be condemned for four so-called crimes of responsibility related to her failure to comply with fiscal regulations. Last Wednesday, the final Senate vote of 61-20 sealed Rousseff’s fate as president although senators voted in favor of her retaining her political rights to run for office in the future.

But it was also inevitable. The PT, born in the heat of intense workers’ struggles at the end of the 1970s, traded its socialist politics and popular base for a rhetoric of class peace and alliances with capitalist parties. In doing so, it opened itself up to attack from the Right while losing its ability to mobilize from the Left.

Rousseff and the PT’s fall raise several questions: how did a working-class party become a bastion of bourgeois order? And why now, after its complete political conversion, was the PT defeated by a coup supported by the majority of the capitalist class it long ago capitulated to?

From São Bernardo to Brasília

Only historical analysis can fully answer the first question. Felipe Demier dates the PT’s rise from 1978 — the year Luís Inácio Lula da Silva led the first great metalworkers’ strike in São Bernardo — to 1980, the year the party was officially founded. In those two years, the PT claimed a political ground that rejected both Stalinism and social democracy, repudiating class conciliation with the bourgeoisie.

But since the beginning, the party was split between reformist and revolutionary sectors that fiercely vied for internal hegemony, leading to a marked programmatic ambiguity.

Over the next eight years, the PT became the party of struggle. Even when its members held parliamentary posts, they expressed the desires of the most mobilized sectors of the working class and social movements. In this period, Brazil transitioned from a military dictatorship to a formally democratic regime, and the PT played an important role in denouncing the dictators’ plans for a conservative transition from above.

The 1980s witnessed the greatest social mobilization in Brazilian history. More than six thousand strikes — including four national general strikes in 1983, 1986, 1987, and 1989 — took place. The PT led all these strikes while participating in elections and gradually electing more deputies and mayors. Throughout, the party subordinated electoral participation to union and social movement mobilization, making it undoubtedly a contra-hegemonic working-class party.

Between 1988 and 1992 the party experienced its first significant internal shift, shaped by two factors. First, following the party’s successful results in the 1988 municipal elections, many PT politicians entered state posts. Second, the fall of the Soviet Union — and the supposed death of everything left wing — made the party’s Marxist positions less attractive.

According to historian Eurelino Coelho, a process of what Antonio Gramsci would call transformism began. The currents that would soon form the majority of PT membership reversed their theoretical and programmatic positions.

Over the next decade, the PT adopted a reformist program and focused on institutionalization. It remained linked to social struggles — fighting against privatization and neoliberalism while supporting the largest social movement of the 1990s, the Rural Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) — but began to dampen these mobilizations’ radicalism, channeling them instead into institutional and bourgeois paths.

The PT eventually replaced its class-based discourse with the idea of “ethics in politics” — a notion that coexists happily with capitalism and participates in the neoliberal turn toward an agenda of “accountability.” Combating corruption (small politics, in Gramsci’s terms) became an instrument of big politics. The party’s horizons effectively shrank to mere criticisms of the existing political system within the capitalist regime.

Previously contra-hegemonic, the PT became the bourgeois democratic regime’s fiercest protector, more faithful to its institutions than the Brazilian bourgeoisie itself.

The Transformation

The new Lula debuted in 2002, when he was elected president. Now cultivating an image of “peace and love,” he released his “Letter to the Brazilian People”: definitive proof of the PT’s new disposition as managers of Brazilian capitalism, achieving social peace while preserving the interests of the capitalist classes.

The politics of class conciliation in Lula’s two presidential terms, aided by a favorable economic situation, granted political stability and economic gains to all Brazilians. (Even though, of course, Brazilian capitalists gained much more than the working class.)

Not even the 2005 corruption scandals — when leading PT members bought other parties’ votes to ensure certain legislation passed — could lower Lula’s record approval ratings. According to Barack Obama, he was the “most popular president in the world.” Lula easily guaranteed Rousseff’s 2010 election.

The PT model, widely known as “Lulism,” did alter the social pyramid and include some significant popular measures, such as quotas for blacks in public universities and labor rights for workers in domestic services.

Yet it did nothing to change Brazil’s extreme social inequality and failed to promote substantial advances in terms of universal social rights and services. On the contrary, the PT governments advanced neoliberal policies, including pension reform, privatization, and other attacks on public services.

Further, the party’s new politics disarmed the working class itself. The popular classes, for the first time, massively participated in consumption culture thanks to credit and replaced their commitment to social citizenship through collective struggle with an ideology of individual prosperity.

Meanwhile, the PT allied itself with right-wing parties, nurturing the snakes that would eventually poison it and demobilizing those social movements that could have provided the antidote.

2013 marked the beginning of the end. The PT could not effectively respond to or control the long-standing social stratification. Political instability — sparked by the nationwide mobilization against transit fare hikes in the 2013 June Days and rising strike levels by mostly precarious workers — shook the nation.

Although it had gladly accepted its favors, the Brazilian capitalist class never considered the PT its party and didn’t think twice about abandoning it. What’s more, in order to maintain its social bases, the PT could not make workers pay for the crisis to the degree and quickness demanded by capital.

Finally, despite the essentially conservative character of Lulism’s social peace, the PT had generated deep resentment in wide sectors of the middle class, who objected to the limited wins the party gave to poor and marginalized citizens.

As a result, in 2014, Brazilians elected the most conservative congress since the end of the military dictatorship. But they gave the PT the presidency, which likely forced the traditional right to opt for the coup.

Ironically, the legal pretext used to overthrow Rousseff — the Law of Fiscal Responsibility, approved by president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2000 — was a neoliberal measure that the PT had not only accepted but also applied for years.

Faced with the coup, Lula began to address workers’ rallies in São Bernardo in an attempt to reunite the party with its grassroots. But he never returned to his old class discourse.

In fact, the PT has become so viscerally institutional that it refuses to mount a real battle against the coup. With an eye on October’s municipal elections, the party has maintained its dubious alliance with the PMDB — which was an instrumental party to the coup.

The PT also instructed its deputies to vote for pro-coup and right-wing Rodrigo Maia for president of the chamber of deputies. Since his election, Maia has since launched a series of extreme austerity measures.

Many PT leaders, including Fernando Haddad, mayor of São Paulo, even waffled on calling what happened a coup, undermining popular mobilizations organized by grassroots PT members and other left groups.

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Rousseff herself had promised cutbacks, business-friendly policies, and even restrictions on social movements through the Anti-Terror Law that she sanctioned shortly before she was removed from office.

A Living Ghost

The extreme right wing dominated the impeachment campaign. Their anger stemmed from an ideological hatred not for the PT, but for anything that resembled the Left’s egalitarian struggles. In fact, for many, the coup represents the first battle in a long war.

Despite the recent turmoil, the PT remains electorally viable: it still holds important influence over key social movements, and polls show that Lula still wins high approval ratings. Only through legal action could the right wing prevent him from running for president in 2018.

This explains why Operation Car Wash has recently focused on the ex-president: in July, the courts indicted him for obstruction of justice in the Petrobras corruption scandal. Further, Gilmar Mendes, president of the superior electoral tribunal, has called for the annulment of the party’s legal status.

Meanwhile, Michel Temer’s government has promised to deepen its attacks on social and labor rights.

The Brazilian left finds itself in a difficult situation. While revolutionaries have known for some time that the PT no longer represents a real alternative, most Brazilians still see it as a progressive party. On the other hand, the conservative wave will not only damage the PT, but also curtail unions and broader social movements. Whatever happens, the Brazilian left will face continued attacks while suffering from intensified austerity.