Brazil: Is 'Lulism' over?

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Dilma Rousseff.

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André Singer interviewed by Guilherme Evelin for Revista Epoca, translated for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Federico Fuentes

June 23, 2013 -- André Singer, the person who developed the concept of “Lulism”, says that the recent street protests have opened up a long cycle of mobilisations that will force the government and the country to make some crucial decisions.

Political scientist André Singer is the celebrated theorist of "Lulism" – a term he has used to describe the alignment of social segments previously hostile to the Workers’ Party (PT), behind the political forces led by former PT President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Surprised by the form it has taken, Singer says that the movement that took to the streets of Brazil was "kind of foreseeable". He relates it to the rise of a "new proletariat". In recent years, he says, this sector has won employment and income, but still lives precariously. For Singer, the emergence of this movement puts Brazil's PT president, Dilma Rousseff, at a crossroads. Protesters are calling for more public spending, while the market is demanding austerity.

Did these demonstrations represent a collapse of Lulism? Is the honeymoon with the PT over for most of the population?

They represent a possible return of the mass movement, absent from the political scene since at least 1992. It began to disappear with Lula's electoral defeat in 1989, when a ten-year cycle of mobilisations came to a close. The movement now has new features and cannot yet be characterised as a collapse, but rather as a major challenge. Which coincides with a difficult time for the economy. Lulism faces two forces coming from opposite directions. These protests tend to represent a movement for increased public spending. And, on side of capital, we see pressure to cut public spending. It is a moment that represents a challenge for Lulism. For the mobilised sectors, there was no honeymoon period with the government. Lulism retains a strong base among the sub-proletariat, a significant sector of the population that is not in the street.

Who is mobilising in the street?

My hypothesis is that the protests are comprised of two social sectors. One is comprised of the children of a traditional middle class, well established for more than a generation, which possibly was pulled into the demonstrations. They also gained support from what I call the new proletariat. This is not a new middle class. They are young people who clearly do not belong to middle class families, but who now have jobs because of Lulism. But they have precarious jobs, with high turnover, poor working conditions and low pay. Throughout the demonstrations, the participation of this second group increased. This may explain why, in the second stage, they have expanded to Greater São Paulo, to Rio Grande and other cities around the capital. This second sector is much larger than the first and shows the potential of the movement.

To what do you attribute the dissatisfaction that has emerged?

Lulism is a process of weak reformism, of structural change in Brazil, but one that is very slow and focused on the sub-proletariat, on the poorest. In general, this sub-proletariat does not live in the capital cities. It is stronger in the northeast or in the interior than it is in the big cities. Lulism is a model that favours this sector and, indirectly, urban workers as well, because employment and income have increased. But the urban problems in the large cities are very expensive to resolve.

To resolve them, you need to carry out massive investments, which must come out of public coffers. For this, there has to be a change in the taxation system or debt repayment, or in the way large fortunes are taxed, or all of this combined. This was not done. Urban problems have accumulated and have combined with the precarious situation of the new proletariat. The situation was kind of foreseeable because this sector is now in a position to raise its demands. In reality, it was completely unexpected the way in which the movement emerged. But, in retrospect, the context that explains what has happened is clear.

Why did you point to 1989 as the end of the mass movement, instead of the impeachment movement of 1992?

The demonstrations to impeach [former president] Collor were kind of a last gasp of this great cycle, which had already ended. The cycle ends in 1989 because Lula’s defeat opened the door to neoliberalism in Brazil and broke the backbone of the organised working class as unemployment rose. There was a significant decrease in the number of industrial workers throughout the 1990s, followed by the decade of Lulism, where the process of recomposition of labour begins. It is a mistake to think that mass social movements occur during economic depression. They occur after improvements in economic conditions.

These demonstrations have no leadership, have no organisation, have no party. Do you think it could become a mass movement?

There is a rejection of parties, trade unions, traditional institutions. The fundamental principle is decentralisation. They are horizontal movements, where the principal orientation is against hierarchy. This horizontality has a huge advantage. Movements are somewhat prone to bureaucracy, which is a big problem for parties and unions. This is extremely healthy. But there is a downside: they do not have a clear and centralised direction. This feature makes these movements more difficult to understand. Where will this all go? A social force has been unleashed that will not quickly go back into its box. It is hard to say what path it will take. But I think other similar events will occur.

What consequences will this have for the political system?

This new social actor will have an impact on the political system, but it will not replace it. The political system will continue to function. It will not cease to exist because, in fact, we are going through a period of time in which these new movements are unable to put forward any alternative. The parties will have to incorporate some of these issues, dialogue with the movement, make concessions, change. Some will win. Others lose.

To give a concrete example, the very movement headed by Marina Silva [1] is an anticipation of all this, because it speaks to the demonstrators.

Marina will be the big winner?

I wouldn’t say that because, although this movement is characterised by horizontality, it has a materialistic agenda. We are talking about the distribution of wealth. That is what is at stake: where will these resources go, be they public, be they those in dispute between capital and labour. Marina deals very badly with this materialistic agenda because she wants to stay in the middle. This position is not feasible.

What could be the consequences of all this for the next presidential election? Will it hinder the re-election of President Dilma?

It is impossible to make a prediction. These demonstrations are coming from the left. The impact on Dilma’s candidature will depend on how she deals with this pressure for more resources for transportation, health, education and security.

And the PT? How will it be affected?

The PT is being challenged, as is Lulism. Given that the PT is an important, though not dominant, faction of the left, these sectors are facing existential questions.

Lulism has attended to the consumption needs of the population. Hasn’t this growth model been called into question by the demonstrations who are calling for better public services and not more consumption?

I do not think it's a problem of the growth model. This model has included the excluded people. This helped active the economy from below. Rather there is a decreasing space for this model. Since 2011, we have faced a complicated scenario that has to do with the crisis of capitalism which began in 2008. It was believed that the crisis had been contained by 2009. In reality, we are yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. If the economy was to continue to grow, there would be scope for investment in health, education, safety. But the economy is slowing down. Resources are scarcer. Interest rates have risen. Restrictions on speculative capital were withdrawn. And now there is a huge pressure to cut public spending. This is a package for producing a recessionary adjustment in the economy. In some ways, these demonstrations are say: "Not like this".

So you are saying that the economic policies of Lulism did not attempt to confront capital. Over the past two years, the government has become more flexible, and the results were low growth and high inflation, because of public spending. The development strategy of Rousseff has not yielded results?

That's right. In the midst of the global crisis, the Dilma government decided to move forward by modifying the terms of neoliberal policy. The result, in growth terms, has been disappointing. The economists say it was due to a lack of investment. Something in the equation failed, because everything was done to protect Brazilian productive capital. I have heard complaints against government interventionism, but it was an intervention carried out to aid capital. It’s not clear yet why it failed to work. I don’t want to underestimate the size of the problems. But if they want to continue to follow the reformist line, these problems must be addressed in order to be able to continue making changes. If they return to the neoliberal agenda, they will be able to make changes.

But Dilma has retreated. She increased interest rates and returned to a floating exchange rate.

The government has retreated in the last six months. Capital is seeking a further retreat, through cuts to public spending. These protests are demanding increased spending. That is why we are in a moment in which the challenges are serious and crucial. This is the question: having now reached a crossroads, which direction will the government take.

Could there be a destabilisation of the government?

I do not think so. The government has the capacity to understand what is happening and demonstrate that it is not detached from the people. I'm sure they will try to deal with the issues.

Could a result of all this be that the institutions themselves change?

Yes and no. Yes, because they will be forced to somewhat open up. But not to the point of being discarded. The political and economic systems will retain their traditional bases. This may be the opening of a long cycle, where both things will occur. This is what is happening in Europe and other countries, and what occurred with the Arab Spring. There were massive movements, and the political regime changed. But when election time came, the traditional parties won. That is what is like to occur here. We have, on the streets, thousands of people. But the electorate is made up of millions. These millions are the ones who will vote and decide.


[1] Marina Silva was a former minister for the environment in Lula’s government who later broke with the PT to run as a candidate for the Greens in the 2010 presidential elections where she polled close to 20%.