In the discussion of Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil, the role of the Workers’ Party (PT) in its own downfall is worthy of deeper analysis. The left has tended to shy away from this, focusing on the brutality of the right, but not looking hard enough at the conduct of both Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in office. This is a common problem in describing the experience of the Pink Tide governments, not only in Brazil but also in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and other countries.
Although it was born in the struggles of the Brazilian working class, the PT had changed even before Lula was first elected president in 2002. Many expected it to pursue policies in favour of workers and the poor, but the reality was different. Lula’s first vice president was a leading industrialist. The central bank governor was an orthodox conservative economist.
Lula rejected the idea of reversing privatisation, promised to honour Brazil’s debt and followed orthodox neoliberal economic policies. His governments never challenged the essence of neoliberal economic policy, but were in effect committed to managing it. The PT did not effectively challenge the state machine. Furthermore, because of parliamentary arithmetic, it found itself from the beginning with some sections of capital, some of Brazil’s old oligarchs and opportunistic right wing parties.
At the same time, the PT itself had become increasingly moderate and the left marginalised. There were changes in government and administration, with five working class ministers and thousands of lower level appointments of PT and union militants. Alfredo Saad-Filho says that the PT administration “effectively nationalised the organised left”.
While this meant a rise in consent among working class people for the government and state, it did not, crucially, mobilise the left and working class. Rather it made them look more to the PT and especially Lula himself. The fighting and democratic tradition that had built the PT did not follow it into government.
This does not mean that the PT did nothing of benefit to the working class. During the commodity price boom driven mainly by the expansion of the Chinese economy, it did use the “compensatory state” to initiate welfare programmes like Zero Hunger and Family Basket. It increased connections to the electricity grid and improved access to higher education. Later it increased the minimum wage and improved some social security payments. Brazil became a less unequal society.
The flip side of the economic development of this period was an ever increasing dependence on extractive industries and export agriculture, both of which had catastrophic consequences in terms of environmental damage and dispossession of the rural poor and indigenous communities. It also meant the acceptance of the insertion of Brazil in the world economy as a producer of primary products under the control of global capital.
When the aftermath of the world recession hit Brazil in around 2012, class choices had to be made. Lula’s successor as president, Rousseff, ultimately ended up presiding over austerity policies when faced with the bitter opposition of a right wing majority in congress, a vitriolic media campaign and an entrenched and deeply reactionary judiciary. In effect the PT government ended up undermining its own base. When the populist right went on the offensive, the demobilised and demoralised left were unable to respond and offer an alternative.
Corruption was the trump card played against the PT. A series of accusations energised the right and demoralised the PT’s base of support. These centred on Petrobras, the state oil company, with the PT accused of having set up a system to steal state assets and enrich itself. Carefully selected arrests were made of both business figures and politicians, who then generally plea bargained in return for incriminating others. The net widened and eventually engulfed the PT, Rousseff and Lula. Other parties were implicated and little real evidence emerged against Rousseff personally, but this made little difference.
The PT laid itself open to corruption allegations as soon as it went into alliance with sections of capital in order to get elected and maintain its government. There was now a huge assault on the PT by the judiciary and the police, supported by the media.
Their investigations targeted state banks and development agencies and firms in energy, infrastructure and construction — exactly the sectors that the PT had constructed or courted. Car Wash, as the investigation was called, found a network of bribery and kickbacks involving giant construction and engineering firms such as Odebrecht, Petrobras and through them, the PT.
Rival, internationalised sectors of capital, transnationals and foreign governments steamed in behind the investigation, and the right wing opposition launched back up operations in congress. It was both an economic offensive by neoliberals to make the working class pay the cost of the recession and a political attack by the right on the hated PT.
The operation broke the PT government and saw Lula jailed and banned from running for president. The right, especially the far-right, was massively strengthened and the left in disarray as the presidential election took place.