The General Strike of 2017 and the Brazilian political crisis

By Mariana Tamari and Miguel Borba de Sá, militants of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and post-graduate students in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.1

The General Strike that stopped Brazil on Friday April 28 was the first of its kind for 20 years. According to the Workers Central Trade Union (CUT) 40 million people from across the country halted work to protest against the austerity measures of Michel Temer’s government, in particular the labour and pension reforms. In major cities such as Rio de Janeiro street protests were brutally repressed by the police. The events of April 28 were, however, only one episode within the unfolding Brazilian political crisis, which has sharpened since the coup in 2016 that ousted Dilma Rousseff and Lula da Silva’s Worker’s Party (PT) from power after 13 years. This crisis, a clash of social forces, offers opportunities to political forces of both the left and right. How the crisis will conclude is still impossible to predict.

Since the coup the right seems to have been enjoying a moment of political renaissance. It represents the most authoritarian, neoliberal and extractivist strands of Brazilian capitalism. The government has sought to undo every single affirmative action policy and all the partial victories won by the social movements since 2003. There is virtual unanimity amongst the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government on the urgent need to implement structural adjustment policies – deemed necessary in order to confront the economic crisis – amidst ever growing calls from the mainstream media for more ‘shock doctrine’ measures.

Nevertheless the dynamics unleashed by the coup also generated problems for the right, which still lacks a program that unifies its many segments, and which, for the most part, is still searching for an uncontested leadership. The lack of such a leadership is by far its biggest challenge after the ousting of Rousseff. In the first opinion poll after the General Strike, president Michel Temer received a 96% ‘unpopular’ rating. Several members of his cabinet, together with the most traditional figures and parties of the Brazilian right, are embroiled in corruption scandals. The crisis of leadership of the Brazilian right does not, however, prevent it from exercising the domination of the class for which it rules, whose reflection can be seen every day in episodes – ever more frequent – of misogynist, homophobic and racist violence, as well as political intolerance. Amidst this ‘conservative wave’ an extreme-right candidate, for the first time since re-democratization during the 1980s, stands a real chance of reaching the second round of the presidential elections scheduled for 2018.

The radical left also faces many challenges. The greatest of these is to overcome the fragmentation that occurred when the PT came to federal power and adopted a dual policy of co-option and repression of social and popular movements. The strategy of class conciliation, the core of Petista (as the PT’s ideology is known) policies, is now obsolete, having been rejected by the right. This is in spite of the economic successes of the period of PT rule during which Brazilian capital experienced prosperity not seen since the ‘economic miracle’ of the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. But no radical alternative exists to the left that could supersede it as an organising force or for espousing a political programme. The Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) is the most promising vehicle for socialist politics, even if it is still ‘under construction’ and aggregates different political forces behind its banner. Internal struggle among its factions, together with recent entry into the party by groups disenchanted with Petismo, are two significant issues to be faced.

On the other hand, there is always resistance. In the General Strike the trade-union confederations showed their capacity for unified industrial action. It also became evident that organisations such as the MTST (Movement of Homeless Workers), which managed to organise a series of direct actions across the country, blocking roads, bridges and occupying public buildings, are gaining hegemony amongst the social movements. Moreover, the last period was marked by the rise of feminist, LGBT, and anti-racist struggles, as well as students and youth movements. Yet such phenomena and initiatives do not in themselves challenge the conservative turn in Brazilian society. After all, galloping setbacks and organisational advances of the movements can, dialectically, take place simultaneously. This is the situation in which we find ourselves at the current juncture.

With the aggravation of the economic and political crises, and the brutal withdrawal of people’s rights, we should not expect social passivity in today’s Brazil. We expect the heightening of tensions and social mobilisations. But this is not automatically positive for the socialist left. In the absence of the grassroots work of political formation, with solid ideological content and widespread territorial reach, the revolt of a population living under precarity could turn against the left. The bourgeoisie’s monopoly of the means of mass communication, allied with the expanding apparatus of repression and surveillance of the Brazilian state, makes the terrain harsher for counter-hegemonic social forces.

Within this unfavourable framework we need to strengthen the instruments of struggle of the working class and to avoid the temptation of opportunism. These are the prerequisites for building an anticapitalist solution to the crisis: one that overcomes the limits of the ‘popular-democratic’ – capitalist – program symbolised by the PT’s three decades of hegemony amongst the Brazilian left.

1. This article represents the opinions of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the positions of the party or the university institutions to which the authors are currently attached.

There is one comment

  1. Francy Lisboa

    That is impossible to deny that the Work Party (PT) made many economic, social, and ethical mistakes while government, but what brings a strong dose of discomfort is the speech against “the class reconciliation”. For those using the class agreement as a battle worse to justify the PT collapse the question: what is the alternative?
    Unfortunately, it seems that many PSOL cohorts still did not understand that Brazilian people are mostly conservative, in the sense that on top of the economy as the primary driver in the political vote orientation, we also have a natural passivity and an incipient national sense. All of these characteristics contributes to making the option of “fighting against all the system” unfeasible in practice.
    Good examples are still fresh as the case of criminalization of people taking part of strikes, usually treated by the Brazilian conservative mind as vagabonds. We all know that the Capitalism requests the people to strive for their comfort zones by fostering the idea of working hard to make more and more money. In general, the system makes us full of money-driven pleasures that deserve from us a relentless defense of the achieved social status.
    Having said that, we cannot take for granted that only ideological reasons will convince people to support the proposal of no-class reconciliation from the left. The proposed rupture goes against the standard of the Brazilian society as a whole and should be taken into account for more realistic analysis.

    Finally, it urges the understanding that there is no solution outside of the politic. Each time that the left synchronizes its speech with the one from those criminalizing the political activity, as we saw many times in these past fourteen years, she is contributing to its weakening.

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