- Interview by
- Mathias Alencastro
Hours ago, Brazilian courts rejected an appeal by former Workers Party (PT) president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who last July was sentenced to nearly a decade in prison for corruption and money laundering in a highly controversial and politicized conviction. Today’s decision places Lula’s ability to run in the 2018 presidential elections, which conclude this October, in existential danger. Brazilian law mandates that if a person is convicted of a crime and exhausts their options for appeal, they cannot stand for office for another eight years. Today does not represent Lula’s last chance at appeal, but it throws his standing in the election into instability for months to come.
Despite the persistent insecurity of Lula’s candidacy, PT officials have long insisted he is the only option for 2018. This has to do with his enduring popularity — he’s now leading the polls at 36 percent — as well as the partisan slant of his prosecution, which in the eyes of many, makes “defending Lula’s candidacy” inextricable from “defending democracy.”
For example, Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo and a major player in Lula’s campaign, has insisted that a Plan B “does not exist.” “The only plan of the Workers Party,” he says, “is for candidate Lula.” Yet Haddad himself has been frequently cited in the press as the PT alternative in case Lula can’t run — despite the fact that Brazil’s Federal Police are now also pursuing him for crimes of corruption. One blog speculates that in one scenario, “Lula could campaign as a candidate until mid-September, then be substituted just twenty days prior to the first electoral round by another PT figure, such as [. . .] Fernando Haddad.”
The following is an exclusive interview with Haddad, conducted for Jacobin by the São Paulo–based political scientist Mathias Alencastro. They discuss the judicial process against Lula, the legacy of Lula’s presidency, Haddad’s own record as mayor of São Paulo, and the economic crisis at the root of Brazil’s political crisis.
Your trajectory is reminiscent of Yanis Varoufakis in Greece, as both of you came from academia to politics in a transformative moment. Do you consider yourself a politician or an intellectual first? Do you think your academic training remains relevant for an understanding of contemporary political and economic challenges?
I would say that I am an academic in politics. I have never abandoned my academic approach to observe reality, independently from the subject and its constant changes. The method of the Frankfurt School remains actual because there is no alternative to the observation through the dialectic. The contradictory discourse is always a requirement to accurately observe the subject. The analysis needs to change because reality is changing, but the vigorous criticism of the dialectic remains very actual.
About a decade ago, Lula had overwhelming popularity internationally and domestically. The center-left was in an unprecedented moment of political hegemony. Yet the three main legacies from the military dictatorship — the media, the military police, and the tax system — remain untouched. Why?
Lula’s rise is intrinsically related to the emergency of the new [labor] unionism. The new unionism underlined the need to dialog with industrial capitalism, and specifically with the industrial belt of the ABC region [the industrial belt of greater São Paulo, where Lula was politicized in the early 1970s.] Even though the industrial capitalism of São Paulo did not spread across Brazil, Lula believed that that the tradition of the new unionism of demarcation and conciliation could be at the center of a national government.
This tradition posits that class consciousness, and the division between workers and owners is at the center of politics. For the conservatives, Lula is seen as someone who constantly seeks demarcation, and even rupture. For the Left, however, Lula is always seen as someone who conciliates, as he acknowledges the role of owners in improving the conditions of workers. For Lula, the Brazilian elite has been winning for five hundred years. They can continue winning, but they can win even better if they incorporate the working class.
Lula’s political culture translated into a government project that sought to include the poor in the budget with minimal efforts in terms of structural transformation. The inclusion of the poor would trigger the economy, creating a virtuous cycle of mass consumption market, increased tax collection, more investments and more benefits. This model could work in any historical epoch, but it worked tremendously well when Lula took over the presidency, by virtue of a very favorable international scenario.
It was the Workers Party, when in power, that instituted reforms making the judiciary more independent, and more empowered. Yet you have been a strident public critic of the judicial process against Lula. For an American audience, can you explain why you oppose this process so strongly?
The Workers Party launched two high-speed performing vehicles in a collision route.
On the one hand, the party contributed to the exponential growth of two complementary phenomena: the private financing of campaigns and the proportional coalition system. Together, these two phenomena created a chaotic political landscape. Campaign cycles became increasingly more expensive as companies had infinite incentives to finance candidates in a context of exponential economic growth and immense public investment. The fragmentation of the political system produced myriad parties with no programmatic substance, which acted merely as political brokers for campaign advertising and local power.
On the other hand, the governments of the Workers Party empowered the regulatory organs, reinforcing transparency, approving legislation that instituted plea and leniency deals, among other major evolutions.
It quickly became apparent that it would be politically impossible to stop the collision of the campaign system and the judicial apparatus. Congress would never approve a political reform that would go against the interests of the MPs. It is therefore not surprising that the Supreme Court is now leading the way, banning private financing and, perhaps, the proportional coalition system.
You were mayor during the 2013 June Days, where protesters were faced with aggressive repression by the military police. At the time, you focused your criticisms on the protesters, and even joined with the governor to briefly defend the rise in bus fares, before rolling them back later. Do you still maintain your criticism of the protests? And what do you think a left party in power should do about the violence of the military police?
To answer this question I would need to introduce a dimension of 2013 that helps for understanding the particularity of the Brazilian case. I would start with a rhetorical question. Would there have been an Occupy Wall Street in the United States with a left-wing government in power? The question sets out the problem.
When the protests exploded, 80 percent of the population supported Dilma Rousseff’s government, which was widely considered to be left-wing. There were no corruption scandals, inflation was low, and the economy was still growing.
In terms of content, the protestors’ demands were entirely compatible with the agenda of the federal and municipal governments. I placed the issue of mobility at the heart of my campaign [Haddad was elected Mayor of São Paulo in October 2012].
In terms of form, however, there was a clear anti-state bias in the protests. The refusal of institutional dialog was crystallized, it could not be changed. The attempts to establish a dialog came directly from the municipal office, as the movements never solicited an audience. Even the political parties and the traditional social movements failed to establish a dialog with the movements. Even militants associated with political parties faced resistance from the movement.
The police violence occurred in that context. Police violence was sponsored by the state government, an intermediary sphere between the federal and municipal governments in the hands of the opposition. We will never know whether the governor [Geraldo Alckmin, a potential presidential candidate in 2018] ordered the repression. We know that the military police has a considerable degree of autonomy.
The repression in São Paulo triggered the national uprising. At that point, the Right hijacked the form of the protests, taking advantage of its anti-state and anti-politics bias. After a decade of marginalization, the conservative camp found in the format of the 2013 protests a channel through which it could make a comeback in the political arena.
It is fundamental to clarify that the conservative movements instrumentalized the form of the protests, but not the content, which they promptly discarded. Instead, they expressed the resentments of the middle class after a decade of progressive politics in Brazil.
Marx, in his late studies against the thesis of the pauperization of the working class, concluded that, in late capitalism, the dynamic of classes could be very volatile. As a result, he argued that the study of the relative position of classes would be extremely important for an understanding of domestic politics.
A study of Mark Morgan on Brazil recently confirmed Marx’s assumption. He argues, in essence, that the rich got richer, the poor got less poor, and the middle class lost its relative position in regard to the upper and poorer classes. That loss of the relative position is behind the revolt of the middle class against the Workers Party and state institutions.
The June Days also showed a gap and growing distrust between the institutional left, meaning the Workers Party and the unions, and youth from the city peripheries, who were on the streets and facing police. What does the Workers Party have to say to these youth?
Relatedly, in the last municipal elections, the PT came out very weak, and João Doria won in a situation of wide abstention and a fragmented vote, gaining your old position. What does the PT have to do to regain strength in São Paulo?
There is a lot of talk about political reform in Brazil, but nothing is said about party reform.
It is very difficult to do politics in Brazil with the current party system. The way in which the conservatives instrumentalized the 2013 protests gives urgency to the necessity of reforming parties. The old left failed has failed to establish a dialog with the less hierarchical and more horizontal form of organization that characterizes the new left-wing movements.
While the Workers Party always had considerable local presence, it has been gradually emptied since Lula arrived to power in 2003. As the party won governments in a variety of places, from Bahia to Piauí to Rio Grande do Sul, its main leaders became less engaged in party politics. Because the party failed to renovate at the necessary speed, it became increasingly bureaucratized. The new forms of politics that emerged after the 2013 protests and the impeachment are a consequence of the rigidification of the party.
The left-wing parties also need to reconsider their relationship to the new economy. They can think of it in classic or in revolutionary terms. As we know, socialism is not a debate about public budget. It is a debate about the private economy. The parties should resume that discussion to discuss technological innovation, shared economy, and new forms of employment.
In a way, when we discuss the overcoming of the current order, we are talking about overcoming the exploitation of labor. If we assume that formal work is losing space in the new economy, we must develop an emancipatory form of organizing production.
The progressive camp needs to draw on these technological evolutions to consider new modes of production that do not depend on salary. The progressive camp must find an alternative to the precarization of the workers defended by the conservatives. The basic denunciation of these changes will not lead anywhere.
How do you situate the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in the broader context of the conservative uprising in Western democracies, and the resurgence of the Latin American right?
The 2008 crisis is a crisis of neoliberalism. Financial deregulation led to a new form of crisis for which Keynesian policies were inefficient. New forms of right-wing movements rose to power in the process. Contrary to the right-wing movements of the 1930s, they focused on the defense, instead of the expansion, of the vital space. To use the terms of Giovanni Arrighi, the new movements are seeking to protect the oligarchical wealth.
A direct consequence for Brazil is the peripherization of the semi-periphery. Brazil’s loss of relative position in the global hierarchy provoked a reaction from the national oligarchy.
The most decisive external trigger of Brazil’s domestic crisis is the end of the commodities super cycle. When the Workers Party structured the economy around the commodities sold to China, did it start digging its own political grave? After all, Mato Grosso, the largest soy producer, is also one of the most socially conservative states. It’s playing the political role of Texas in the United States and Alberta in Canada.
This is true, and happened to a certain degree, although there were other dynamics in play. But it is important to register that Lula had this preoccupation. He was very attentive to the risk of “Dutch disease” and the position of Brazil in the global economy. In particular, he imagined the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) as an instrument to facilitate the internationalization of national capital. Contrary to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who sought to internationalize the domestic economy, allowing foreign capital to enter the domestic market en masse. Lula’s foreign policy goal was to turn Brazil into a sub-imperial power, with a presence in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. This strategy must be understood as a reaction to his concerns that the extractive sector would threaten Brazil’s industrial tissue.
In programmatic terms, the Left has been strong in opposing Michel Temer’s governments, but weak in proposing a new political project. There’s some desire for the Workers Party to bring the country back to the period when it was in power, when there was strong growth and rising standards of living, but can the PT really promise this, with the fall in commodities prices?
I hope not. The objective conditions have changed and the progressives need to change accordingly. The reinvention is already underway, but its success depend on specific political conditions. The progressive camp in Brazil is under heavy fire, which complicates the task of reorganizing and offering a new platform.
But politics are a much more open field than we usually imagined. The permanent dispute means that you have to be the most creative. The arrival in power of Trump, for instance, opens immense opportunities in foreign policy, particularly in regard to Latin America.
Do you think the crisis of the Workers Party is mostly connected to domestic issues or is it related to the crises the center-left sees elsewhere, such as in France and the United States?
It is important to note that the Workers Party rose to power when the Western left began its descent. I would not exclude the possibility that the PT remains competitive in the future. It depends on several issues, including the destiny of one man. Lula is off the charts, you cannot reproduce Lula, and you will always have to count him in.
Do you think a “Portuguese solution,” i.e. a coalition between the different parties of the Left, is possible in Brazil?
Not exactly, but the impulse can be similar. A “Portuguese solution” could take place in Brazil in another form. It is possible that a new form of multi-party organization comes to form in the months leading to the presidential election.