Assessing the Brazilian Workers’ Party

Looking back at thirteen years of ambiguous reform and one swift counteroffensive.

Portrait of Lula

Illustratio by Daniël Roozendaal

The Brazilian Workers’ Party’s (PT) seemed to be a shining example of how to seize power and govern in the interest of working people. Lula’s victory in 2002 and reelection in 2006 were often hailed as a triumph of pragmatic social-democratic governance in the developing world.

Though the Brazilian left had already split over the project and Lula’s legacy, the PT mandate remained largely unquestioned and had found unusual friends — in the editorial boards of international newspapers and the halls of foreign capitals.

The rise of 30 million people from poverty appeared to cement Lula’s legacy. When he left office in 2010, he said he had put the country on course to a future where “the great majority are middle class, with purchasing power and access to material goods, education and health.”

Yet the Workers’ Party project strayed from the radical heights of its time in opposition in the 1980s and the early 1990s. PT officials’ shady dealings with corporations and established elites and the party’s continuous loss of credibility, culminating in the removal of Dilma Rousseff raise serious doubts about the model. Today, the ambiguous legacy of the Workers’ Party is the subject of fierce debate. What did the PT manage to accomplish in power? And what can we learn from the contradictions of its tenure?

Lulista Social Democracy

The Brazilian Workers’ Party emerged in 1980 out of a joint effort by labor unionists and other political and civil society organizations. With the military dictatorship giving way to democratization, the PT presented an opportunity to unify leftist organizations and struggles after years of resistance. With a few exceptions, the existing Left in Brazil answered the call and joined.

The PT was never intended to be a socialist party. Many socialist organizations operated inside the party as political tendencies, but its program followed a leftist popular democratic line. Lula and other leaders drew on socialist discourse and Marxist thought only when they found it opportune to do so.

As the party moved closer to power, narrowly losing elections in both 1989 and 1994, it distanced itself even further from its anticapitalist leanings and began to make concessions to capital. To win nationally, the PT adopted a “tweezer strategy” (estratégia da pinça) — seeking to attain power by combining institutional advancement with base-building, organizing, and class mobilization.

Lula’s social-democratic version of this strategy combined limited social gains for the poor and working class with handouts to capitalist interests. As Lula himself recently declared, “never did [the bankers] make so much money as they did when I was the president of this country.” The strategy, sometimes called “weak reformism,” rested on the notion that class conciliation is not only possible but desirable.

In hindsight, the PT’s strategy of class conciliation has had three broad results: substantial improvements in living standards for poor and working Brazilians, but without the structural change necessary to make those gains sustainable; victories that have benefited workers but haven’t emboldened them to demand more, due to depoliticizing tactics that have turned the party base and voters away from more radical projects; and a series of contradictory policies, such as those intended to hold off recession and unemployment at the cost of empowering the banks and corporations allied with the PT governments.

The Good

It’s not enough to dismiss the PT in Brazil flippantly as charting a more conservative course than Pink Tide governments in Venezuela or Bolivia. The Lula and Rousseff made had their share of real achievements. Sadly, these stand out starkly today in the face of the harsh rollbacks wrought by Michel Temer’s government.

Without a doubt, the PT governments’ social-assistance policies were their greatest triumphs. Though limited, these programs — the acclaimed Bolsa Família, the uneven yet important housing program Minha Casa Minha Vida, and a series of measures around affirmative action — made a real difference in such an economically and racially unequal country. They drew a clear line in the sand between governments that hate the poor and those that aid the poor.

Broadly speaking, if we consider the recognized indicators of development — social welfare, job stability, greater access to goods and services, and new infrastructure investments — Lula and Rousseff improved poor Brazilians’ living standards after decades of austerity and deindustrialization. The poverty rate decreased from 26.7 percent in 2002 to 15.3 percent in 2009, while inequality dropped significantly as well. Lula also made efforts to improve food security for the poorest with his Zero Hunger program.

Other PT programs were less unequivocal in their impact, but still positive. For example, the party’s initiatives to improve access to postsecondary education, despite operating through a direct transfer of public money into the private sector, were sorely needed and helped address the educational gap in Brazil, especially in professions long dominated by the children of the white elite.

PT mandates around women’s health and safety demonstrated the party’s progressive approach to gender in Brazil, but did not go far enough. In a major point of contention, the PT refused to call for expanding abortion rights as an issue of primary importance — though, with the Temer government pushing toward a full abortion ban, it’s clear what kind of reactionary social forces the center-left was pushing against (or negotiating around) while in power.

During the PT governments, especially under Lula, allied social movements enjoyed ongoing dialogue at the federal level and often gave input into program initiatives. These and other participatory schemes made the PT’s approach appear more democratic.

Internationally, the PT governments fostered a close relationship with other countries, particularly other Pink Tide governments. For example, though Lula often emphasized that his project had nothing to do with Chavismo, he strongly supported Chávez and Maduro during Venezuelan elections and both leaders considered him an anti-imperialist ally by. This geopolitical stance helped curb US meddling in the region somewhat and contributed, even if in a limited way, to a general anti-imperialist strategy — though it was often matched with a version of “South-South solidarity” that in fact enhanced the subimperialist role of Brazilian capital.

The Bad

Overall, however, the balance sheet of the PT’s time in power is less than rosy. Right-wing nationalism has recently seen a resurgence in Brazil, but the Lula years had their own brand — Lula used developmentalist nationalism to build consent and launch capitalist expansion, often at the expense of the environment, the climate, indigenous peoples, and campesinos. He claimed that promoting a “good business climate” was the path toward progress, portraying corporate-led development as the only route to jobs and improved material conditions.

The Lula government’s social-assistance programs also had troubling long-run implications. The programs produced impressive short-term gains, giving the impression that inequality was rapidly diminishing and the country was on the right path. The small, sudden increase in many families’ material conditions enabled Lula to position himself as a socially aware president, in contrast to outgoing Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

But while these short-term tactics benefited constituents and allowed Lula to build a mass base, they did nothing to challenge class power or threaten the elite. In fact, Lula’s progressive image proved a Trojan horse. It not only masked the active collaboration between the state and big business, it shifted the values of Brazilian society: suddenly corporate-led economic growth, not struggle, became the answer to the lower classes’ material wants and needs. It only worked as long as growth rates soared.

During the prime PT years, though improving material conditions among so-called “class C” Brazilians (the nonimpoverished lower class) allowed many to transition temporarily into the middle class. Brazilian workers bought cars, domestic appliances, computers, brand-name products, and even homes. Lula’s popularity rose in step with this population’s purchasing power, their happiness all the while obscuring that the administration was simultaneously strengthening its relations with the ruling class and reinforcing neoliberal policies.

Meanwhile, the PT governments neglected crucial matters, especially the real needs of its base. For example, agrarian reform never got off the ground. The administration handled land redistribution cases inconsistently and co-opted some of the Landless Workers Movement’s leadership while demobilizing its base. This relationship was evident in the movement’s silence during the PT governments’ many attacks on its cause.

Looking back, it’s clear that the PT’s developmentalist approach to economic growth resulted in serious setbacks to environmental and social rights. Lula and his allied civil construction conglomerates prioritized building hydroelectric dams in the middle of the rainforest, such as the controversial Belo Monte project and the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams. Rousseff continued these programs during her tenure; in fact, her first candidacy revolved around her credibility as a minister under Lula who advanced such projects as part of the Advanced Growth Program (PAC). This troubling legacy doesn’t even include the economic expenses and environmental and labor violations committed during the World Cup and Olympics — two mega-events that the PT governments (and party loyalists) promoted despite the opposition of millions.

The Ugly

Perhaps Lula was less duplicitous than it first seems. After all, he signaled his intentions right away with his “Letter to the Brazilian People,” which put forward economic measures designed to please the business class and vowed to live by the rules of fiscal responsibility.

His regressive pension reform divided the PT by facilitating the privatization of pension, reducing the value of existing pensions (and taxing them), and establishing a minimum age of retirement. This resulted in a major split that contributed to the formation of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL).

Macroeconomic policies seemed to flow neatly from Cardoso to Lula to Rousseff. Under the latter’s tenure, a floundering PT tried to restore business confidence in 2015 with austerity measures and the appointment of a neoliberal finance minister.

Today’s anti-PT sentiment, which sometimes escalates into general anti-left sentiment, partially stems from these failures in government. The Lula and Rousseff administrations recognized that even their most progressive social policies would not balance out their alliances with capitalist interests and the Right. They had to depoliticize and demobilize their base if they wanted to maintain their institutional power.

The party often presented itself as a victim of forces outside its control. Though its contradictions resulted from its own political choices and its continuous transformism, especially its commitment to class conciliation, it nevertheless pretended it had been backed into a corner whenever it took overtly neoliberal and regressive positions.

At the same time, it often claimed that the current climate was unfavorable for enacting the radical reforms it had proposed. This strategy depoliticized social issues and promoted a politics of the immediately possible rather than one would open up new horizons.

The party’s education strategy is illustrative. The PT government claimed it could not strengthen the public education system and that the only viable solution was to focus on increasing access to education through means that included private partnerships and direct transfers of funds from the government to private institutions. If this meant strengthening the private sector in the long run, so be it. Jobs would be created and the economy would heat up.

The PT’s policies were rife with these kinds of contradictions, which foreclosed on the radical initiatives proposed by its base and organizations to its left. Indeed, the party denounced people like Luciana Genro and Heloísa Helena (who were eventually forced out of the PT and helped create PSOL) as “too radical” and “out of touch.”

By focusing only on its own definition of what was possible, the PT positioned itself as the sole alternative to right-wing neoliberalism. This normalized its ambiguities and discouraged its base from asking for more.

Today, thanks to the Temer government, we can recognize the benefits the Workers’ Party brought despite its deep internal contradictions. But would the country be in this situation if the PT had taken a different path? What would have happened if it hadn’t broken with its early tradition of militant organizing and struggle?

The problem with building a government around contradictions is that the ideological pendulum tends to swing higher over time, eventually catching up with you. The consequences not only threaten the PT’s longevity but also, and more importantly, affect ordinary people. This is clear today in the wake of Rousseff’s impeachment. All the real gains built over thirteen years of ambiguous alliances and strategies are being rolled back in a very unambiguous way.