The Realist’s Dilemma

Brazil’s Workers’ Party thought accommodating capital could save them. That was a fatal mistake.

Let’s get the question out of the way: is there an ongoing coup in Brazil?

If by “coup” one means tanks in the streets and the constitution being ripped apart, the answer is “no.” As Brazil’s already discredited institutions seem caught in an endless spiral of further disgrace, the military has until now stayed out of the chaos. If President Dilma Rousseff falls within the next month, it will be through constitutional means — either the electoral court will void her last presidential campaign, or she will be impeached by Congress.

The question is then whether impeachment, which is the opposition’s favorite option, will be deployed on legal grounds — and the answer, at least so far, is also “no.” Even though the process is already running apace, and few doubt that the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) has been involved in various wrongdoings, until now no evidence has emerged linking Rousseff to any transgressions that would legally warrant impeachment.

All things remaining equal, then, and if no new evidence appears, if Rousseff is successfully impeached the Brazilian opposition will have made political use of a constitutional instrument — what could be called, following Fernando Lugo’s 2012 ouster, a “Paraguayan coup.”

In this sense, the situation is a chilling reminder of the time-honored tradition of Latin American elites to bend the rules of the game at will. It appears increasingly obvious that the reason why this had not been tried since Lula’s 2002 victory was not a newfound appreciation for the rule of law, but the PT’s longstanding popularity, and the fact that it wasn’t too dangerous a threat to the status quo.

Even politicians who fought the military dictatorship, like former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, now defend the impeachment as the only way to put an end to the country’s political deadlock — which is plausible as diagnoses go, but precisely not what the constitution says an impeachment is for.

Yet it is hard to watch events unfold without picturing PT as an expert chess player who spent a long time constructing a checkmate against itself. The government’s favored allies in the past decade — agribusiness, industry, the neo-Pentecostal right, and various amorphous parties with little political identity aside from their taste for power — have publicly abandoned ship in a matter of weeks. How could such alleged masters of realpolitik seemingly fail to see that such “support” was only ever as sincere as a rope’s support for a hanged man?

The PT’s mistake was, in short, to believe it was possible to maintain hegemony from above without creating the material conditions for hegemony from below. It is true that during its first terms in power the party took important steps toward reducing poverty and increasing access to opportunities; but the government quickly became a prisoner of that early success. The last decade’s commodity boom enabled a scenario in which everyone was a winner — the rich getting richer and the poor less poor.

The PT decided to ride the wave rather than pick the fights that would make a sustainable transformative project possible — electoral reform to break the stranglehold of big business and diminish the government’s dependence on an unaccountable political class; fiscal reform to overhaul Brazil’s regressive tax system; measures to democratize the country’s oligarchic media, which has now come out in full force against the government; land reform, long one of the party’s main rallying points; and so on.

Instead of changing the country’s balance of power so as to break the hegemony of its elite, the party joined this elite as the mediator of pressures from below.

All of this was justified as “realism.” Yet realistic it was not, as it was clear that compromise couldn’t last forever. On the one hand, it strengthened precisely those forces (like agribusiness) who would never see PT as more than a tactical ally; on the other, it progressively alienated the party’s social base.

Rousseff’s first term operated on a clear “they have nowhere else to go” logic, and even if there was no single major flashpoint with supporters, it chipped away at their trust with a series of defeats in areas like indigenous and LGBT rights, and the environment — the worst being the indefensible Belo Monte dam, which it now transpires may have been all about campaign funding. The waning faith of PT voters was seen clearly in the 2013 protests and how narrow Rousseff’s reelection bid was.

Most importantly, the PT’s position relied on continued, strong economic growth — something that capitalism simply can’t offer. A combination of the global economic slowdown and a disastrous policy of industry incentives — which effectively paid a few large companies not to invest — ended Brazil’s economic bonanza.

As it became obvious during Rousseff’s first term that the win-win pact couldn’t hold, the government started signaling that it would shift the cost to the poor rather than the rich. The decision to pump state funds into the economy to keep it afloat until the 2014 elections not only worsened the coming crisis, it made a post-election turn inevitable.

The present political crisis can thus be understood as the result of a divisive political campaign, an alarming economic situation (and a sharp turn in policy), and the drop in the government’s popularity that followed.

This confluence of factors made the political cost of supporting the government shoot up, and therefore also the price the PT has to pay to retain its “allies.” This bind explains why, from the beginning of Rousseff’s second term, the idea of impeachment has been constantly used as either threat or extortion, and the government has effectively implemented the agenda it had campaigned against.

In this respect, the present impasse is not surprising. Back in 2013, when the government missed its last chance to change course, it was already clear that the great paradox of the PT years was that, after a decade in power, it was further rather than closer to being in a position to promote structural reforms. And now if things continue as they are — with the government staggering along, implementing neoliberal reforms in a desperate bid to retain control — by the next elections the PT will have overseen the rollback of most of its original advances.

On top of all this, there is the roiling Petrobrás corruption scandal — further evidence of PT’s incorporation into the Brazilian political elite. It involves all major parties, including the speaker of the house who soldiers on with the impeachment despite the accusations against him.

But this is precisely why the crisis has accelerated in the last weeks: as the Lava Jato (“carwash”) investigation continues, the fight for survival among different political factions reaches fever pitch. For most of the political class, toppling the government quickly and using the PT as a scapegoat seems like the surest way to emerge unscathed.

This is helped by the fact that the PT is clearly the investigation’s primary tactical target — and even more so, in the last couple of weeks, Lula. With Lula out of the way, the PT’s biggest symbolic capital would be irredeemably tarnished, leaving the opposition a clear chance of electoral victory. Stunningly, according to the latest polls, even after two weeks of media battering, Lula still ties or beats all potential candidates, apart from his former minister Marina Silva.

Attacks on Lula partly explain why Rousseff brought him on as a minister, but the most important reason lay elsewhere. On March 12, the day before a large wave of anti-government protests hit the country, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) — the PT’s main coalition partner — announced that it would decide within one month whether to abandon the government. Without the PMDB’s votes, an impeachment would be inevitable even on the flimsiest of grounds, and right now Lula is the only person in PT who still may be able to hold the coalition together.

Appointing Lula as chief of staff was Rousseff’s strongest card, but also her last. Yet the judge leading Lava Jato responded with an even more spectacular move, leaking to the press a phone conversation between the president and Lula which allegedly proves that he was given a cabinet seat to evade the law. It is unclear whether the judge’s illegal move will bring any sanctions — and if not, what that will signal to him and to other players. As a judicial battle rages on, Lula is yet to be confirmed as minister.

In response to opposition parties, the judiciary, and the media stepping up their game over the last week, a nationwide mobilization against the impeachment began on March 18, when large demonstrations were staged. While not as large as the pro-impeachment protests a week before, these were more diverse and bigger than expected.

Surprisingly, they managed to attract sectors of the Left that had severed ties with the government after the criminalization of the 2013–14 protests, or at least since the second round of the 2014 elections, when Rousseff campaigned aggressively to the left only to take a U-turn to the right.

After using the right-wing threat and the ghost of a coup to cow the Left into ever more concessions, it looked as though PT might end up as alone and defenseless as the boy who cried wolf. But fear of the precedent that the impeachment would set — especially when the government has just passed an Anti-Terror Bill that could easily be turned against social movements — seems to have ruled the day, galvanizing even some of those who have lost hope in PT.

What happens next is unclear. The latest protests have prevented the impeachment from gaining momentum, but have not stopped it. According to polls, support for the process is at 68 percent. Whether Rousseff can hold on to power — and in what conditions and at what cost — is anybody’s guess.

Yet the opposition would also be wise to hold off on its victory dance. Brazil’s political crisis is to a great extent a fabricated spectacle hiding two real crises: an economic crisis and a crisis of representation. As the hostility toward some opposition leaders at the pro-impeachment protests shows, disgust with the political class extends far beyond the PT and  institutions like the judiciary are also viewed with suspicion.

In fact, it might be said that the PT functioned in many respects as the fantasy that legitimated the political system by contrast, holding the promise that it could work. Even those who didn’t like it could credibly believe it was an ethical party that gave a voice to sectors not represented by anyone else. Now that the PT looks the same as everybody else, it confirms popular suspicion that all public officials are unaccountable, unresponsive, and out for themselves.

Therefore, while the opposition will be tempted to take advantage of the crisis to push for privatization, austerity, and the rollback of rights, it’s not clear whether that part of the population whose expectations were raised during the Lula years will accept it so readily. Political instability — within the political class, among the population, and between the population and the political class — is likely to continue for some time.

While even the near future is hard to predict, it’s clear that the current predicament has a lesson to teach about the naivety of crude realism. If realism is a political virtue, this crisis proves what Machiavelli once taught — that political virtues are not valuable in abstract, but only in relation to their employment in and over time.

The PT did what it could with the conditions it found, but it did little to change those conditions. As a result, it saw its room for maneuver shrink ever further, and found itself ever more committed to affirming the inevitability of the status quo to which it adapted — until it finally had nowhere to go. The party’s so-called realism, in short, prevented it from defining a new reality.

There was a price to pay for that. If one lives by realism only, one may very well end up dying by realism too.