This comes from the roundtable discussion at CUNY on 7/16/13

First of all, I want to answer the question put in this roundtable call: Is it the end of a political cycle in Brazil? My answer must contain some ambiguity due to the inconclusiveness of the present situation. 

I can say, as in the song of the Brazilian composer Vital Farias: it is the beginning of the end or it’s the end. To make clear my answer, I must present three concepts that are at the basis of my argument – practical classism, passive revolution and organic crisis –, that are inspired by the ideas of Antonio Grasmci.

Practical classism is the complex arrangement of collective sentiments, actions and experiences that organizes a class identity in contradiction and sometimes against the bosses and governments. As a kind of popular good sense, this intricate juxtaposition of elements expresses itself in a fragmentary, incoherent, and contradictory set of political practices, such as strikes, demonstrations, unionism, original forms of associativism, etc. These practices can even assume radicalized forms of struggles. Nonetheless, the limit of all these kinds of practical classism is always its incapacity to become a coherent worldview and to project itself in a new and alternative State form.

Passive revolution, by its turn, means the actual bourgeois mode of leading molecular transformations in social and political fields, & at the same time avoiding or precluding the social radical struggle and revolution. Acting in this way, the ruling classes avert the active participation of subaltern[i] classes in the political processes, displacing the subject of transformation and reinforcing the political and military State apparatus. As a combination of partially innovative and conservative elements, passive revolution became the contemporary reformist guise of the ruling classes.

Finally, organic crisis means the coincidence in an extended period of time of both the economic and the political crisis. The most important effect of this coincidence is the temporary and unstable aspects acquired by the traditional forms of political rule and domination. In this situation, the ruling classes have to face the eroding, fragmenting and cracking of the fundamentals of their power. This is why, in a process of organic crisis, it is possible to notice different forms of domination and rule succeeding each other without solving the problem for too long.

Now, I will try to put in movement these concepts giving them a more concrete shape in the analysis of the present Brazilian situation. But before that, it’s important to say that I’m not trying to explain the present events in its immediately form, as immediate conjunctures of last month’s demonstrations that emerged in Brazil, but to combine it with some enduring characteristics of the past 30 years, for what we can try to state as a cycle.

Practical classism

Born in the heart of massive metalworkers’ strikes at the end of 1970′s, the Workers’ Party (WP) built its hegemony in the 1980′s in the Brazilian mass movement. This means that this party leadership, its cadres and most important representatives, were responsible for the intense development of the unions and social movements in a certain direction. It happened despite the fragmentary, incoherent, and contradictory set of collective practices that characterized the subaltern classes activity. Precisely for this reason, the Workers’ Party’s hegemony had elements of weakness, in the sense that the party based its roots more in the confidence of the practical classism than in its strategically and permanent organizing issues. This explains the fact that the Workers’ Party was born without a program or a common strategy. In place of that, the party was marked by its strong opposition to bosses and dictatorship, its rank and file radicalism, & its frenetic activism. Besides that, a confident and defiant behavior against  traditional politics allowed the emergence of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as a very popular leader and its party as the most powerful organization inside unions and social movements, all which allowed the defeat of the old, bureaucratic and passive communist parties.

Over the years, the character of this kind of class practice and the weakest of this form of hegemony turned against the identity of the party. Without a coherent and comprehensive worldview capable of surpassing the fragmentariness that shaped its first years, the party was reabsorbed by traditional politics. The social and political pressures proper of a class divided society – the professional dangers of power, as Christian Rakovski told once – became increasingly stronger as the party elected representatives, mayors and state governors, after 1988. When Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential run in 2002, the Workers’ Party didn’t express even that practical classism that marked its beginnings anymore.

Passive revolution

In power, Workers’ Party expresses not a practical classism anymore but a new form of passive revolution. During the administration of the Workers’ Party, high economic growth rates have been sustained by the expansion of public debt, by massive public investment, and State loans to national and international capital. The sectors that have grown more consistently were that which combined low capital intensity and high intensity of labor. This growth became stronger specifically in civil construction, food industry and those economic activities related to agribusiness.

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[i] “…the term subaltern derived from the cultural hegemony work of Antonio Gramsci, which identified the social groups who are excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation, the means by which people have a voice in their society.” – From Wikipedia’s page on “Subaltern”.

This economic improvement led to a reversal on the trend of less formalization of the  market of the previous period. A growing number of workers have been formally employed and some minor labor rights were assured. Above this, WP built its image as a popular government. In contrast, the majority of the new formal jobs was concentrated in low-skilled occupations, where the earnings are less than the total of three minimum wages. In other words, the labor market became more formalized but worse in terms of labor conditions and wages.

The growth of formal employment, social assistance policies and the incredible credit rise to low-income consumers stimulated a dramatic increase in the consumption and indebtedness among workers (last official numbers estimated that more than 65% of Brazilian families are indebted). This also includes increased household investments in education and professional training, fueled by expectations of a better position in the labor market. But, concomitantly, the wage levels of jobs better qualified have also been impacted. The frustration of the expectations in the worst-paying jobs, compounded with the decrease of wage levels in the better-paying sectors of the working class, are the main core of the riots that shackled our country in the past months.

Organic crisis

In this exact moment, we can see the exacerbation of social contradictions in Brazil and the reemergence of the workers and youth mass movement in the streets. After a long withdrawal, the social opposition was making progress in the streets and taking political initiative. According to the unions, in 2010 there were 446 strikes; in 2011, this number grew to 554 strikes; and in 2012, 873 strikes. The number of labor lost hours due to these strikes in 2012 was the biggest since 1991. Also, in the mega-construction sector, there were a lot of strikes and workers protests. There were strikes with great political and symbolic importance in the most important Brazilian soccer stadiums and hydroelectric plants. The explosion began in Jirau in 2011, with a wildcat strike that resulted in burned houses, broken machines and terrorized bosses. Only in March of that year did 170,000 construction workers went on strike.

These movements spread in 2012. In the beginning of the year, a new ten day strike took place in Jirau, and after this, in Belo Monte, where workers folded their arms for 12 days. Also, in Rio de Janeiro’s petrochemical complex, there was a strike at the beginning of April that remained for one month. The workers of Belo Monte’s hydroelectric plant sat back again in the April of 2013. As always, the repressive forces acted against the movement. President Dilma Roussef sent the National Forces to occupy the area and subdue the movement. Paramilitary security forces at the service of the bosses also played this role. In the firsts days of the movement, three activists were arrested and another three disappeared. The National forces surrounded the main sites in order to block the workers initiatives. A presidential decree was promulgated authorizing the National Forces and the Intelligence Agency to investigate and arrest activists at the hydroelectric plants.

In the past years, while investing in the mega-construction sector, the Brazilian government reduced the budget for public education, health and transportation at federal, regional and local levels. The situation became worse with the rises of prices of many services and products, the first signals that inflation returned. A critical point was the rise of the bus fares in the major cities of the country. In the last months, a wave of youth revolt against the rises occupied the streets, first in Porto Alegre, Natal and Goiânia (all regional capitals), defeating local governments; and, in June of this year, in the biggest and most important cities of Brazil. After that, inspired by this struggle and rioting against police repression, more than 1 million people took the streets. It was not clear what these people wanted; but we can be sure that the pratical classism, the spontaneous subversivism of subaltern classes has come back. The masses were fighting against local, state and federal governments against the false promises made by politicians and the quotidian lies of the big media corporations. “It’s not just for 20 cents!” they kept repeating.

So, what’s that for?

In the last two months it became clear that the Workers’ Party lost its lengthy leadership in the streets. In the past July 11th,, the big demonstrations of June had gone, but they inspired the big return of the union movement to the scene in a big national strike and demonstrations day. Nor the government, nor WP or its allies could prevent it. Our practical classism had encountered the organized working class for the first time in years. It can be compared to the beautiful rivers encounter of Rio Negro e Solimões that only the Brazilian Amazon can show to the world. Until now, none were able to lead the streets and give a clear direction, and this process of struggle is not at its end. This encounter remains uncertain in its development, and we could only feel its huge and wonderful potentialities. We can see now the beginning of the end, maybe the end of Workers’ Party political cycle.

* Workers’ Voice