The job of the left is to learn from past errors, not succumb to fanboyism, argues Paul Demarty
In Brazil, it is beginning to look like we have reached the nadir of the political fortunes of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores or PT) - certainly it is the end of nearly 15 years during which the PT has occupied the presidency, first under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and then Dilma Rousseff.
Only two years ago Rousseff was re-elected, albeit narrowly, in spite of economic cooling-down, a rightward shift in government policy, and widespread social discontent that gained international attention in the run-up to the 2014 football World Cup. How things can turn: Rousseff is now impeached, accused of fiddling economic data to scrape victory, amid a barrage of corruption accusations against PT apparatchiks.
In Venezuela, things are looking even worse: the country is in chaos, with inflation soaring and the economy in freefall as a result of the collapse in international oil prices. President Nicolás Maduro has declared a 60-day state of emergency, blaming the US for destabilising the country; whoever’s ‘fault’ it is, however, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has ground to a halt.
Finally, in Greece, it is panto season - once more, it is time for further ‘negotiations’. The Greek government has pretended to play hardball, the International Monetary Fund has pretended to take a ‘firm line’ against the European Union and European Central Bank over the need for debt restructuring, and the latter forces have pretended that the resulting deal - with trivial debt relief coupled with a continuing commitment to the fantasy of running a primary budget surplus in an economy that has been contracting for half a decade - is anything other than kicking the can further down the road. Almost all opinion polls put the rightwing New Democracy party ahead of the Syriza government - with the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn on course for a solid third place.
In each of these cases - the respective political crises of Brazil, Venezuela and Greece - we find common features. All three are stories of disillusionment in political movements of the ‘radical’ left, and of that ‘radicalism’ dissipating. Moreover, the PT, Chávistas and Syriza were all enthusiastically adopted as models of new social movements by the international left: apparently each represented a vibrant and novel way out of the political dilemmas bequeathed to us by our forebears. The PT, from the late 1980s, was the model; then, after it had reconciled to social liberalism in the early aughts, and the Chávez regime had coterminously shifted to left populism and anti-imperialist braggadocio, suddenly Venezuela was the bright future of ‘21st century socialism’; then the explosive electoral success of Syriza, culminating in last year’s two general elections, propelled its photogenic leaders into the affections of the international far left.
All of these heroes have failed; they have failed for remarkably similar reasons; and they have been lionised for the same spurious reasons. It is time we took stock of matters.
The PT is in origin a party of opposition to the military junta that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to 1985; it emerged out of the illegal unions that organised a wave of strikes in the late 1970s, along with various esoteric leftwing groups.
Its popularity should not be underestimated: particularly in the north and north-east of the country, and in the industrialised areas around São Paulo, it has enjoyed real support since its formation. Its real breakthrough came, however, when the Cardoso government of the 1990s ended with economic crisis early the next decade; with Cardoso’s Social Democrats in disarray, Lula was able to sneak into the presidency.
The PT, however, has never enjoyed a majority in either legislative house. Indeed, the Brazilian political scene is highly fragmented, and no party ever really does. There is a perfectly traditional way around this, which is corruption. Either bribe people with money, or bribe them with positions (which they will use to get money). Regrettably, this was precisely how the PT proceeded - the farrago that led to the Rousseff impeachment is hardly the first scandal to hit the presidency in the last 15 years.
It is claimed by defenders of the PT that there are no clean hands in Brazilian politics, that they have done nothing more than was necessary to get a popular legislative agenda through, and that the enormous prominence given to PT figures in the latest corruption scandal, as opposed to others, means that the impeachment amounts to a legal coup by the establishment. There is certainly some justice to all of this; that the impeachment was begun by Eduardo Cunha, speaker of the lower house and recipient of $40 million of bribes related to the state petroleum company, Petrobras, is merely the most glaring example of the ‘special treatment’ meted out to the PT.
At the end of the day, however, the truth is less conspiratorial and more prosaic: the PT chose to govern through a patchwork coalition of careerist politicians; it could just as well have refused to do so. Having made the necessary compromises, up to and including large-scale corruption, no more sinister fate has befallen the PT than that its coalition has now collapsed. Rousseff was only impeached because she lost the support of the corrupt establishment on which she relied.
The Venezuelan case is somewhat different, in that Hugo Chávez was not - like Lula - originally a figurehead for some great social movement, but rather a junior military officer with a populist bent, who failed to make a coup in the 1990s and succeeded instead at the ballot box later on. The ‘Bolivarian revolution’ began modestly with the normalisation of relations with the Castro regime in Cuba, and sharply radicalised (ironically enough) after the CIA’s botched coup in 2002. After that, Chávez began talking in more sustained fashion about ‘socialism’; social programmes were stepped up; his Movement for a Fifth Republic party became the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). With the election of other left-populist leaders in the region, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, the focus of international left fanboyism shifted dramatically towards Caracas.
In the last two years, the shallowness of the whole Bolivarian operation has been revealed. So much of its much-touted ‘good works’ were utterly dependent on soaring oil revenues; but after the Ukrainian conflict and other small matters, the United States found itself of a mind to allow oil prices to collapse, preferring to see Russia suffer than its own shale oil industry thrive. The underlying fragility of the world economy has further pinned prices at rock bottom. Venezuela has been wiped out. Inflation is running at 100%, crime is rampant and the government is hated.
As for Greece, what more is there to say? Alexis Tsipras used to castigate governments for clearing Syntagma Square of protestors - now it is his government benefiting from lines of riot cops, a switcheroo achieved - in contradistinction to the relatively patient likes of the PT and PSUV - in little over a year.
In retrospect, all these outcomes seem perfectly inevitable. A government based on bribery will fall as soon as the bribed get a better offer (or are threatened with exposure and are suddenly in need of a scapegoat). A ‘socialism’ dependent entirely on the world’s most artificial commodity price is something of a hostage to fortune - especially if the price is controlled in substance by one’s enemies. As for Greece, it was always powerless to impose terms on Europe, and the core EU states had every interest in making an example out of it.
We say ‘in retrospect’, but in reality these notions were flagrantly fantastical to begin with. They were fantastical above all because capitalism is an international political-economic system, whose global organisation is used to discipline the more recalcitrant countries of the world order. You can thumb your nose at the big boys for a while, as Chávez did; but not forever.
The international following of these three political formations was ultimately down to their outward appearance of popular initiative. The PT and Syriza were propelled to importance by mass upheaval; Chávez and co brought a Bonapartist simulacrum of ‘participatory democracy’ into being after the fact, but nonetheless carried the same cachet of authentic mass popular initiative among international admirers. In short, all three played perfectly to the prejudice that it is more important to be seen to be ‘doing something’ than to get matters of theory, strategy or politics right.
The result is the endless repetition of the same problems - there is some great movement which is the new shining example; it is crushed; then there is another one ... The failures are barely analysed, or else are put down to insufficient intransigence, as if one could somehow feed a country with a solid ration of defiant slogans. We search in vain, for example, for any recent mention of Greece on the websites of Socialist Resistance or Left Unity, which styled itself as Syriza’s sister party until fairly recently. Having set yourselves up as uncritical cheerleaders for projects that ended in disaster, how about an ounce or two of self-criticism, comrades?