Author Passa Palavra Collective

Brazil: Balance Sheet and Prognosis

The government is taking advantage of recent events to invoke the danger of the right and to reinforce the left wing of the ruling group.

Ten days after the “Rebellion of the Coxinhas,”[1] we can now draw up a balance sheet.

1.

The decisive phenomenon in the Rebellion of the Coxhinhas, from within, of demonstrations launched by the far left, which found themselves to a certain extent boxed in by a politically amorphous mass, the latter being mobilized by conservative social forces and by the far right, thanks to social networks, the mass media and the police. In reports we have received, Salvador seems to have been an exception to this scenario, perhaps due to the social composition of the city, but the same process is taking place in all the other cities about which we have information. And the further evolution of events, in which the far left recaptured control of some demonstrations, will make it possible to forget what happened on June 20 and in the days just before, or why those earlier demonstrations mobilized a much larger number of people than the radical demonstrations after June 20.

It is also somewhat early to know to what extent the Revolt of the Coxinhas will have lasting effects on the previously amorphous mass, and if they do have such effects, whether they will only make themselves felt at the electoral level. As for the far right, however, this will happen only if it acts in the near future with incredible stupidity and if it does not take advantage of the events of June 20 to strengthen itself organizationally and to project its ideological themes.

Fascism, however, has at its point of departure an enormous political error, an error which led to all its defeats in the past. The mortal error of fascism is its belief that democracies are inherently weak regimes, inherently incapable of dealing with generalized dissatisfaction and disorder in the streets, and that only they, the fascists, can successfully impose order and authority, establishing a dictatorship and putting new elites in the posts of command. This same error—although with opposite pluses and minus signs—is also widespread among far-left groups, which think that sooner or later democracy will have to make use of fascism. Sensing that democracy’s organizational forms and its ideological weapons are ineffective, these far-left groups prophesize that fascism is just around the corner and that it would be better for people to support the far left, because democracy will either be too impotent to oppose fascism or will even call on fascism to put out its fires. But this error of appreciation led the precursors of these groups to dead ends, and will do the same to their present heirs.

2.

The notion that democracy is a weak regime is a deadly political error, because democracy has shown, throughout its history, an enormous capacity for recuperating struggles and assimilating revolts:

—The demands of the working class—the arming of the people, education for all, the 8-hour day and so on—were recuperated by democracy as factors for constituting a unified labor force (a conscription army and free and obligatory education) and for an increase in productivity, accelerating the cycles of surplus value. If surplus value consists in the capitalist appropriation of the labor time expended by workers, then democracy, with its capacity for absorbing demands, is the most appropriate political regime for capitalism.

—In the social sphere, this assimilation of demands underwrites a rising mobility. Through the trade union bureaucracies, and today through social movements as well, and finally through the university system, democracy can absorb many of the most intelligent and industrious workers, and integrate them into the ruling classes. Recuperation is not carried out through demands alone, but also works its effects on people.

—On the ideological plane, this recuperation and assimilation is expressed by the integration of former subversive themes into the arsenal of the ruling classes. We do not have time here for long dissertations, but we can limit ourselves to reminding readers that the first generation of disciples of Marx advocated social democracy, whereas today that term designates, in various countries, including Brazil and Portugal, right-wing parties. The same thing happened with socialism, a term which today designates parties from which no one with any sense would expect socialist measures. Communism suffered an identical evolution, having been used to characterize state capitalism and even, in the case of China, designating a mixed regime of state bureaucracy and private entrepreneurs. In the same way the PT, the Workers Party, was converted into a party “For All,” and in effect Brazil had uniquely achieved the feat of having, within its governance, both the main trade union leaders as well as the managers of Brazil’s major transnational companies.

Passa Palavra has analyzed the form by which these mechanisms of recuperation work in Brazil in two types of articles. On one hand, starting with the article “Between the frying pan and the fire,” we showed how the internal bureaucratization of the social movements creates a propitious climate for their recuperation into capitalist democracy. Our analysis of this process especially included the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra–MST) and in numerous articles we took off from the history of the MST and wound up showing the movement’s current links with the market and with certain large companies. On the other hand, especially in the article “The State and the Social Movements”, we showed how the relationship between the top-level managers of the state and the bureaucracy of the social movements has been important for the PT government. The government maneuvers following the Rebellion of the Coxinhas show the expansion and deepening of this process.

3.

The government is taking advantage of the recent events to conjure up the danger of the right wing and to reinforce the left flank of the government, and, therefore, it is already making proposals which, instead of trying to contain the scope of the demonstrations by forcing them from the streets or by repression, it seeks to give them content and, from within, to induce them into agendas and actions which should open the way to advancing important aspects of PT strategy.

In this respect, it is fairly well known that on July 25 the ex-President Lula met with certain of the social movements closest to him, including the MST and youth organizations linked to government managers. According to statements by participants, the idea was for these groups to take the streets, rather than pulling back. Such a stratagem, which might frighten some disoriented people, is, in reality, the implementation of a much more efficient mechanism of control over the direction of the protests. What is underway is a clear effort to re-link the person of Lula, and the PT, to the social movements and, thus, to prepare a Plan B in case President Dilma suffers a loss of image compromising her re-election. But it could be more than that—and here the frontist verbiage within the movements and organizations of the left appears to be in synch with Dilma’s main steps within the government itself: the announcement of pacts to re-establish political order.

The MST publication MST Reports (MST Informa), of June 25 reprinted an interview with Joao Pedro Stédile in Brasil de Fato in which this figure of the MST declared forthrightly that “the government must confront the ruling class in all its aspects.” This will set the tone for left-wing demagogy in the near future: a capitalist government confronting capital!

First of all it should be noted that we are always at a disadvantage when we allow the agenda of our struggles and mobilizations to be dominated by themes taken from the government. Further, what interest does the anti-capitalist left have in debating political reform at the institutional level, for example, if during the last twelve years, in which we have been gathering our forces and, while hoping for the re-emergence of a mass movement, we have done little or nothing to consolidate rank-and-file decision-making nuclei, rooted in our concrete local problems of housing and work? Is the transformation of political mechanisms that anti-capitalists want a top-down construction acting on those below, or is it one of the rank-and-file determining the higher levels?

To sum up, this is an operation with two aspects: 1) institutionalizing the demonstrations, pushing them towards themes which are of interest to the PT strategy; and 2) renewing the mechanisms that tie, formally or informally, these mobilizations to the governing bodies. If the PT succeeds in carrying out this operation with the help of a bureaucratized social movement such as the MST and its political arm, the Popular Consultation (Consulta Popular), capitalist democracy will be greatly reinforced in its structures and expanded at its base.

4.

Considering all this, what is the situation of the anti-capitalist far left, i.e., the far left that does not consider state capitalism to be a solution for the evils of private capitalism?

In a first moment, a large part of the libertarian left was a victim of the same panic that took hold of the left-wing parties, showing that it believed an alien rhetoric to be its own. Accustomed as it is to fighting capitalism with proclamations and exclamation points, and to considering scuffles in the streets to be a civil war, it became hysterical seeing the other side inflate a balloon bigger than its own.

After things calm down and sensible voices map out an orientation for the near future: leave the downtown areas of Sao Paolo and of other cities to the coxinhas, where they have their natural habitat and concentrate and support work and mobilization in the areas of the urban periphery.

There has been a lot of talk on the far left of poorer areas on the urban peripheries, but it is necessary to clear up some confusion. First of all, the working class is today much more vast than just the population of these outlying neighborhoods. Contemporary capitalism has proletarianized the old liberal professions and, if journalists and sociologists continue speaking of “middle classes,” they are using a term with no economic meaning. What distinguishes the so-called “middle classes” is that they have recently lost their professional independence, and, in their overwhelming majority, they ideologically reject a working class to which they belong economically. Many of the coxinhas fit this definition. These “middle classes” are nothing but the most qualified workers for relative surplus value and, nonetheless, in Marxist terms—while this may seem paradoxical to people who know Marx only by hearsay—are more exploited than the workers who are producing absolute surplus value. Anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of the working class must learn to distinguish between poverty and degree of exploitation, and the notion of surplus value makes possible such a distinction. Thus people who think that the working class is made up of people in the poorer areas on the urban periphery, in the current conditions of capitalism, are susceptible to an extremely dangerous political activity, because instead of trying to unify the class in a common consciousness, they are trying to divide it. And it is precisely this which interests the capitalists.

Secondly, the peripheral areas as well are not a geographical milieu made up entirely of workers. In some demonstrations in such places around Sao Paolo, we can note a large participation of coxinhas. Except in a few places, the popular strata are often drowned out by the self-inflating tone of the actions. Culturally and in his comportment, an unskilled worker from a peripheral neighborhood feels much more identified with the boss of a small business living in the same neighborhood than with a skilled worker living in a neighborhood with more status. Class consciousness is not an acquired characteristic. It results from common struggles and from effort at organization and clarification based on these struggles.

In effect, and thirdly, if poverty and the anti-capitalist spirit were synonymous, the world would have made a major change long ago. Some thoughts are so simple that people forgot them. Thus, just because the police, prison guards and other agents of repression are recruited from the poorest families, should we conclude that when the police beat students from the University of Sao Paolo and elsewhere, the proletariat is attacking the bourgeoisie?

The neighborhoods on the urban periphery certainly point to the tactical road to follow at this particular moment, but this will be a work in progress and not a ready-made solution. And it is not merely a question of doing work in such places, but rather, while doing this, of unifying groups which were previously isolated. In Goiânia, for example, we had a movement which greatly expanded its potential by linking university students and the central regions of the city with students from the urban periphery, who revolted more forcefully over the transportation question. This unification brought new elements into the struggle, both in terms of tactics and in terms of agenda, and broke down old sectarianisms between the groups. Of equal importance was the link-up between students in public and private institutions, who similarly had little experience of solidarity with each other. This unification and link-up was only made possible by the horizontal form of the organization of struggle, both in organization and in action, and the common agenda of public transportation. The mobilizations against the fare increases on public transportation made it possible to pull together a significant part of the working class. This effort at practical organization and definition of a class consciousness is what is becoming urgent to pursue, and everything that stands in the way of this should be resolutely swept aside.

Lula meeting with representatives of the social movements. On the left in the second row is Pablo Capilé, manager of the Fora do Eixo company.

  1. [1] Translator’s Note: The following article, from the Portuguese-Brazilian website Passa Palavra, attempts a “balance sheet” of the important movement in the streets in Brazil in the early summer of this year. One translation headache is the key use of the Brazilian word “coxinha,” which the Passa Palavra comrades admitted was untranslatable, as well as unelaborated references to the events of “June 20.” Briefly, on June 20, large demonstrations in Sao Paulo and in some other key Brazilian cities, celebrating the rollback of the transit fare hikes by the mass movement in the streets, were attacked by right-wing and far-right elements, waving Brazilian flags and, perhaps more disturbingly, chanting many of the slogans of the movement. These events became known at the “Rebellion of the Coxinhas.” I decided to leave the untranslatable word “coxinha” in Portuguese in the text while providing an adequate description of this group found on the blog of a certain Cacau, a social commentator: &lquo;You must have heard of the famous ‘coxhinhas.’ Speaking sociologically, it is a specific social group, which shares specific values. Among them is an exaggerated individualism, and dozens of things deriving from that: the necessity of differentiation from the rest of society, a strong priority for security in daily life, as an element of ‘not mixing’ with the rest of society, linked to a strong need to appear as a fun-loving ‘good guy.’ The coxhinhas, basically, are people who wish to flaunt a superior status, with its own codes. Differentiation came naturally, with the absurd social inequality of the large Brazilian metropolises. Today, with more and more people earning better money and consuming, this group seeks other forms to affirm its difference. To this end, they often go about with a spiffy look, dressing in a specific way, and are ‘politically correct,’ within a distorted view of politics; they cultivate an almost unspeakable arrogance, with almost no tolerance for any kind of criticism. The origins of the term are very controversial. Various reporters have attempted to elucidate the mystery, without success, it is high time to reveal the truth about it. The origins of ‘coxhinha,’ with reference to this differentiated group, have nothing noble about it.” Prior to its use to describe this social group, “coxinha” referred to a small deep-fried hors d’oeuvre served in Brazilian bars.