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Dilma Rouseff's reformist dreamworld

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Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian President overthrown in the “parliamentary coup” recently spoke at the free University of Berlin, Martin Suchanek of the Gruppe ArbeiterInnenmacht reports:

In her speech, Rousseff began by pointing out the novelty of the 2016 coup d' état. This was not a military coup that was directly accompanied by mass arrests, torture, a state of emergency and the establishment of an open dictatorship. Rather, it was a "parliamentary and judicial" coup d' état. It was a matter of overthrowing a government elected and legitimised by the people by means of formal and legally legitimate procedures and hair-raising accusations.

The coup was not only directed against the president, the government and the "Partido dos Trabalhadores" (PT = Party of the Workers). In a sense, her fall was just the prelude. To thunderous applause, she explained that the real target of this “coup d' état of a new kind” was, and remains, society or, more precisely, the working class, the poor, the rural population, the racially oppressed and the women.

Within a few months, the government of the coup d' état around Temer, the PT's former coalition partner, deregulated labour law, pushed ahead with privatisation, slashed public service spending and cut back staff. Similarly, numerous restrictions on deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and investments by international capital have been lifted. At the same time, the country's economic crisis has worsened. According to Dilma, the putschists would not only disenfranchise and bleed the poor dry, they would also ruin the country by attacking educational institutions and the basic needs of the masses by plunging millions into poverty.

The PT-led governments under Lula (2003-2011) and Dilma (2011-2016) had followed a different course. They tried to implement an alternative model to neo-liberalism, hindered the privatisation of important banks and companies and, with the Bolsa Familia, (Family Allowance) launched a programme to improve the situation of millions of impoverished people. This and the minimum wage were a redistribution in favour of the working class.

In addition, Brazil established a different relationship with its neighbours and the USA in which it was not unconditionally subordinated to the USA and was on friendly terms with the other countries of Latin America.

Again and again, Dilma compared the governments before Lula and that of the coup d' étatists with the 13 years of PT-led politics, which came off well from the comparison, appearing to have always acted for the good of all. On the continued repression, the state of the countryside, the evacuation of poor neighbourhoods to make way for the World Cup and Olympic Games, she remained silent. It was not worth mentioning that exports and important capital groups were strengthened. Companies such as Petrobras (Petróleo Brasileiro S. A.) and Odebrecht are just as aggressive towards other countries as US, German or Chinese capital. Of course, there was no reference to the stationing of Brazilian troops in Haiti.

When she spoke about foreign policy, Dilma presented the expansive interests of Brazilian capital and its pursuit of a hegemonic role in Latin America as a concern to maintain a "friendly approach" to all. Obviously, the Bolivian government and population did not find the exploitation of the local oil reserves by the semi-governmental Brazilian corporation Petrobras quite so "friendly", to the extent that they found it necessary in 2009 to place legal restrictions on its activities.
Dilma admitted that the landowners still dominate the country but explained that the PT couldn't do "everything".

The Bolsa Familia, a basic welfare programme for the poor, is by no means simply a legal entitlement. If we leave aside the fact that it is too low, Dilma also pointed out that parts of the family support are conditional on the poor meeting certain criteria such as 86 percent attendance at school by children.

Reform and Capital

There is no doubt that these reforms, however inadequate they may be from the point of view of wage-earners and socialist policies, have helped to improve the situation of millions. They could be implemented for two reasons. Firstly, because the PT could still rely on a mass base in the trade unions and social movements. Secondly, because this limited redistribution was compatible with the expansion needs and profit interests of Brazilian capital and foreign investors. Under Lula, the country experienced an economic upswing. Despite its ultimate dependence on the imperialist centres, like other regional powers, Brazilian capitalism was able to position itself more independently.

To some extent, the expansion of capital even required a policy of strengthening purchasing power by securing minimum wages and raising the educational level of the working class. These had to be imposed, and this is nothing new in the history of capitalism, on individual entrepreneurs by the state and social pressure, even if they were in the interest of social capital as a whole or at least were compatible with it.

Dilma did not deny that the PT's policy, even in its own self-assessment, was capital-compatible. Rather, she accused the putschists of ruining the country - including Brazilian industry - if they tried to restrict purchasing power and the education system to the elite and traditional middle classes (according to Dilma, around 35 million people). This would mean that the internal market would shrink and the skilled labour force needed for industry, services and the challenges of digitalisation would not be educated. Her conclusion: Under PT, Brazilian capital was actually better off.

The PT's leadership may see it as a particular merit to reconcile social policy with the interests of capital. However, this does not change the fact that such a "partnership" is only possible for certain sections and for a limited period of time, and only if it does not affect the fundamental interests of capital. However, in Brazil, too, the bourgeoisie and big landlords are ungrateful classes. The lackey's done his duty, now he must go.

Traditional elites and apparatus

The old elites in the country, their US imperialist allies and the traditional white and reactionary middle classes associated with them have never thought of a longer-term change in the way power is exercised, the abandonment of their monopoly of power. In addition, in a period of deeper crisis and declining profit rates, capital gains need to be secured by redistribution from the bottom to the top. Existing barriers to exploitation must be removed.

Here we see a fundamental limit to the "reform policy" of the PT-led governments. They never attacked the property monopoly and power apparatus of the ruling class, nor even touched them.

The reform programmes of the PT governments such as Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero (no hunger) were largely financed from the tax revenues of the working class and middle classes. Under 13 years of PT government, capital and the rich did not have to pay a single cent in wealth or inheritance tax.

The government may have privatised more slowly but it never been attacked big business, or the increasing concentration of companies or the parasitism of state and capital, that is to say, widely condemned scale of corruption. The large monopolies were not restricted, but promoted as the spearheads of the "country" in the global market. The media monopoly, which is firmly in the hands of the reaction, has not been broken, but has been concentrated in even fewer companies.

All this shows that the PT leadership never really wanted a confrontation with capital and large land holdings. It has also made this clear by the fact that it always ruled in alliance with openly bourgeois parties. The most important "partner", the "Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro", PMDB, Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement, was even instrumental in organising the coup d' état and its candidate, Temer, is now President.

But the PT has not only made its loyalty to the alliance with capital clear at government level. In her closing remarks, the former president pointed out that a reform of the parliament in Brazil could never succeed because the power base of the reaction, especially of the large land holdings, was much greater in the regional parliaments and regional governments. According to Rousseff, a constitutional assembly is therefore necessary. There is certainly something in that, but what has the PT done in 13 years of government to break this power base? Just to ask the question is (unfortunately) already to answer it.

After the coup, reformism is repentant and radical. After 13 years of talking up the institutions, now the need for a "constituent assembly" is pulled out of the hat.

The failure of the PT's reform policy is particularly clear when it comes to the state apparatus of the country. Of course, the military was never touched. Dilma even credited her government with expanding the police and prosecutor's office both financially and in terms of personnel. To their greatest surprise, it was the prosecutors and judges appointed under the PT Government who carried out the impeachment proceedings against it and also the investigations against Lula. After her presentation, the chair of the meeting asked Dilma how was that possible, Dilma replied "We couldn't imagine that".

The logic of reformism

Such naivety is so astonishing to everyone that it seems unbelievable. However, it has an internal logic which derives from social democratic reform policy. The existing bourgeois state apparatus must be assumed as a means by which to introduce reform in the interests of the exploited and oppressed, no matter how bloody the history of repression and rule may be.

This illusion is strengthened by the fact that the personnel of the bourgeois state and its institutions are not provided directly by the ruling class, but by elected or appointed officials. This apparatus, however, is institutionally and historically closely connected to the ruling class through thousands of channels. Contrary to the hopes of reformism, this is also true in its "perfect" constitutional form - to a certain extent even more so, because the capitalist can fulfil its functions better when it appears to stand above the classes.

This trend goes hand in hand with a historical tendency towards an ever closer link between the state and big business in the imperialist era. The separation of powers and the rule of law do not represent a contradictory trend in this respect, but only a form of their enforcement, which became the norm for Western imperialist countries after the Second World War, but which was only ever possible to a limited extent for semi-colonial countries because of their economic backwardness.

How close this connection between the formally independent apparatus and the ruling class really is is illustrated by the fact that Dilma and Lula were tried by "their" prosecutors and judges. Even if the reformists can determine the personnel, they are not "their" personnel, but in the last instance still those of the ruling class.

In Brazil, this apparatus is dominated by a historically grown bloc of big capital, property and a white middle class that emerged from the slave-owning society. It is historically linked to US imperialism and wants to realign the country not only economically but also geo-strategically. But, and this is the dilemma of the ruling class, it is in a deep crisis, even after the coup d' état.

Despite the media monopoly, agitation and repression, Lula is ahead in the polls for the presidential election in 2018. Although the mobilisations of the movement against the coup d' état were significantly weaker, the hopes of the masses are focused on Lula's election. His meetings are attended by tens of thousands. In the surveys, his support is around 35 percent, and in the federal states of the northeast, with a far larger proportion of the poor, it is as high as 70 percent.

The traditional bourgeois parties have no credible opponent. They are either tearing each other apart or, like President Temer, are so unpopular that they have no chance of even reaching 10 percent.

At the same time, the reactionary forces are becoming more radical around the extreme right winger, Jair Bolsonaro. The leader of the "Christian Social Party" is on about 17 percent in the polls and thus ahead of all "respectable" bourgeois candidates. He not only frankly defends the military dictatorship, he also openly calls for the establishment of a new one. At the same time, he is also at the forefront of the right-wing radical, sexist, homophobic, racist movement "Free Brazil", whose supporters are composed of landowners, fascists and evangelical christians. These forces not only agitate for extremely reactionary goals, their members also attack, even murder, transsexuals, homosexuals, Afro-Brazilians and members of religious minorities.

All this points to a further worsening of the situation in which the 2018 presidential election will take place. The PT relies on the "Lula" card and a purely electoral strategy. It is also working on a possible coalition with bourgeois allies, even if they are hard to find. There is no doubt that millions of workers are also hoping for Lula and the PT and that he can reverse Temer's counter-reforms.

But the fatal flaw is in PT's strategy. Even if Lula does win, what would the PT do to prevent a renewed offensive by the elite or even a military coup? How will it control the bureaucratic state apparatus? How can its power be broken? Why, given the experience of 13 years of PT-led coalition government, should that be possible after an election victory in 2018?

While Dilma and the PT do not have an answer to these questions, the Brazilian working class should not rely on the principle of hope. Despite all the solidarity with Dilma and Lula against the attacks of the coup d' étatists, what is needed is a political break with the strategy of the PT and a new workers' party that does not want to administer capitalism better, but to overthrow it.