From social democracy to fascism: how Bolsonaro took Brazil

The Workers’ Party, with its mass working class base and the largest political organisation in Brazil, bears some responsibility for the victory of a fascist, Jair Bolsonaro, in the presidential election on 28 October.

The stagnation of the Brazilian economy and the collapse of the vote for parties of the centre and right prompted the capitalist class to throw its weight behind Bolsonaro after the first round of polling on 7 October. Bolsonaro achieved mass electoral support by posing as an outsider and promising a hard law and order agenda, which had resonance in a country with a homicide rate six times higher than the United States. 

The new president is committed to a neoliberal economic agenda – modelled on that of general Pinochet’s dictatorship after Chile’s bloody 1973 coup – and the repression of the working class, the left, women, Indigenous people, Blacks and those with Black ancestry, who are a majority of the population. He has made clear his hostility to any form of democracy. His most pressing tasks, as far as the wealthy are concerned, are to undermine pension rights and entitlements, open the Amazon Basin to resource and agricultural exploitation and privatise whatever he can.

In a 2016 parliamentary coup, the Brazilian right, including former coalition partners of the Workers’ Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhodores), deposed PT president Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges. Other PT officials have been genuinely corrupt, but corruption has been far more endemic in the parties that impeached her. 

The interim president, Michel Temer from the Brazilian Democratic Movement, attacked working class living standards, slashing spending on health, social security and education and cut the minimum wage. Facing corruption charges, and confronted by mass strikes and protests, he dropped efforts to reduce access to and payments from the pension system.

But the shift to neoliberalism and austerity did not start under Temer. It was already intensified under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leader of the PT, in office from January 2003 until December 2010, when he was succeeded by Dilma. Lula is now in prison, serving a 12-year sentence, following convictions on spurious corruption and money-laundering charges. Brazilian courts are dominated by reactionary judges.

The PT, founded in 1980, emerged out of mass union struggles under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 until 1985. Lula, who began his working life as a shoe shiner and later became the leader of the Steel Workers’ Union of Sao Bernardo do Campo and Diadema, in Sao Paulo, played a prominent role in the strike wave. He was a prominent founding member of the PT and of the Unified Workers’ Centre, the country’s main union federation, three years later.

While supportive of progressive social and especially union struggles, the PT was overwhelmingly focused on electoral activity. Its founding program advocated socialism and called for nationalisations, land redistribution, extension of social welfare and workers’ rights. On this basis, it gained representation in municipal, state and federal parliaments. While the PT had moderated its positions somewhat, the party’s 1993 congress still proclaimed its “revolutionary and socialist character”.

But, in pursuit of greater electoral success, it began to water down its rhetoric after the 1994 presidential election, which was won by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, who received 54 percent of the vote to Lula’s 27 percent.

In less than 20 years, the “revolutionary” PT repeated the decades long evolution of European social democracy from revolutionary Marxism to a commitment to managing capitalism and sustaining the profitability of business.

Lula’s 2002 campaign, in the context of a stagnant economy and massive international debt, dropped references to socialism and promised devotion to the neoliberal gods of price stability and budget surpluses. 

The PT’s presidential administrations, brought to office by the working class and the poor, did introduce reforms that benefitted the party’s base. The welfare system expanded, particularly the Bolsa Familia (Family Basket) program for the very poor. Its payments are conditional on families’ children being vaccinated and going to school and have reduced the rate of malnutrition – most of the money is used to buy food. 

Between 2005 and 2012, the government increased the minimum wage by 75 percent. In 2012, Dilma pushed through an affirmative action law which required universities to enrol both more students of African descent and graduates of public schools. 

Yet wealth inequality did not decline, the cash transfer system doing nothing to address the entrenched economic power of the Brazilian ruling class or the drug cartels that run the slums in Rio and Sao Paulo, the country’s biggest cities. PT presidential administrations also increased the armed forces budgets.

As Lecio Morais and Alfredo Saad-Filho have pointed out in the book Brazil: Neoliberalism versus Democracy, PT economic policies have often been regressive and have complied with the International Monetary Fund’s economic guidelines, continuing many of the austerity policies of Lula’s predecessor, and one-time radical sociologist, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Lula’s neoliberalism included cuts to public servants’ pensions, which the PT had opposed for 10 years, raising indirect taxes, which disproportionately hit lower income earners, and giving autonomy to the central bank.

The economy picked up in the mid-2000s, thanks to an inflow of foreign capital and expanded exports of agribusiness crops (notably soy beans) and other raw materials such as oil, natural gas, iron ore and bauxite. This allowed tax concessions to export industries and an expansion of public spending on infrastructure to support business (electricity generation and transport) and also on housing, health, education and welfare, even within the framework of Lula’s and Dilma’s commitments to budgetary restraint.

But the export boom slowed after the global financial crisis and foreign investment fell after 2014. GDP growth had been in decline since 2011, and now the Brazilian economy entered a deep recession. The PT remained committed to “responsible budget policy” and managing Brazilian capitalism.

Neither the party nor the federal, state and local governments it led took sensible measures against the capitalist class – like nationalisations and high taxes on corporations and the wealthy – to deal, even in the short term, with economic and social problems.

The ruling class offensive against the PT’s 2018 presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad – through the courts, the media, and physical and economic intimidation – alone does not explain his defeat. Despite compulsory voting, 29 percent of the electorate, 42 million people, abstained or spoiled their ballot papers.

The PT’s neoliberalism with a human face, which disillusioned many supporters, and its corruption and preoccupation with electoralism and legality in a rigged system, meant there was no sufficient popular mobilisation in workplaces, on the streets or at ballot boxes to defeat the right.

More, the PT’s betrayals of the hopes and aspirations of the mass of the population meant that a fascist won some of their votes.

There will be struggles against the determination of Bolsonaro and his backers to smash workers, put the oppressed back in their places and destroy even the limited democracy in Brazil. Hopefully these will unite the whole left. In any case, these fights will provide revolutionaries with opportunities to win supporters of the PT and many others over to militant, mass tactics and, through the defence of liberal democracy and existing rights, the goal of workers’ power.