We need to revive militancy to stop the right

May 31, 2016

For much of the 2000s, Latin America was a focal point for the international left. Following a years of mass struggle, left-of-center governments--known collectively as the "Pink Tide"--swept to power in many countries of the region. In Venezuela, the government of President Hugo Chávez even talked about fostering "21st century socialism."

But with the crash in world commodity prices starting in 2013-14, economic crisis has plagued the region, generating a series of political crises for the Pink Tide governments. In country after country, the political right is making a comeback and is determined to roll back the gains of the Pink Tide era. In Argentina and Venezuela, national elections have empowered this new right. In Brazil, conservatives took advantage of President Dilma Rousseff's unpopularity to engineer her impeachment in what most observers have labeled a de facto coup against an elected government.

Here, Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi, one of the region's best known left-wing journalists, analyzes the situation in Brazil--and argues for a root-and-branch reappraisal of the left, both in Brazil and around the region, to revive a fighting spirit that can confront the new right. This opinion article appeared in the Basque publication Naiz and was translated by Lance Selfa.

RIGHT-WINGERS are willing to violate the spirit of the law to win their goals. Although formally, they aren't vulnerable to accusations of illegality because they act within the letter of the law, the way they conduct themselves is illegitimate because they hide their true objectives.

We are up against an active and militant right, shaped in neoliberal business centers with funding from large multinationals--one that is capable of driving the left and social movements off the streets. They don't rely on tanks or bombing the presidential palace, but on permanent destabilization.

It's essential to understand what the right learned from the left as much as what the left forgot of its own history and political culture. The right organizes kilometers-long marches and demonstrations. They bang pots at protests. They can work in small groups or they can seize public plazas. And they always have the support of professional and business groups. They have featured younger leaders who speak in simple and convincing ways.

Supporters of Dilma Rousseff protest her impeachment
Supporters of Dilma Rousseff protest her impeachment (Ricardo Silva)

This new right figured out how to read the June 2013 Brazilian political crisis, when millions flooded into the streets to protest police repression against the "Passe Livre" movement that was protesting planned hikes in fees for public transportation.

It was a masterful operation that, in the space of a few hours, succeeded in pushing aside the social movements to take center stage. Where there had been red flags, the national flag appeared. The rhetoric of "anti-corruption" displaced protest against class and social inequality.

It's clear that the various forces of the left and the movements aren't prepared to confront this new right. On the one hand, this is because we don't thoroughly understand the political shift that is taking place. On the other hand, it's because our political culture has changed, and the generation of left cadres and militants who do understand what's at stake is aging.

REGARDING THE first point, we must ask ourselves why the major business organizations (like the federation of industry in Sao Paulo), which supported [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's] election in 2003 and Dilma Rouseff's first administration in 2010, have become fierce advocates for Dilma's impeachment.

In an excellent article titled "The Pacifier," sociologist Ruy Braga emphasized that the role of Lula since 1980 has been to "control popular discontent through negotiations that slowly offer small concessions to workers."

In 2013, an "unprecedented wave of strikes swept the country," Braga states. At more than 2,050, the number of strikes in that year was more than double the total from the previous year, reaching the previous high of 1990. Society was in full mobilization. Bank workers, teachers, government workers, metal workers and construction workers led those battles between 2013 and 2015, when the bosses began to stonewall agreements.

Braga underlined a key fact: "Trade union activity spread beyond traditionally mobilized sectors"--in particular, the most precarious sectors that led some of the most important struggles, like the successful strike of sanitation workers in Rio de Janeiro during 2014's Carnival. The strike wave and increased activism among precarious workers went hand in hand with increased activism in the favelas, where dozens of diverse youth collectives were born. These factors are tied directly to the events of June 2013.

"The ruling class," writes Braga, "has no use for a labor bureaucracy that can't control its own base." Therefore, he believes that the current political crisis can be read in two ways.

On the one hand, the rulers are trying "to restore profitability by deepening exploitation through attacks on workers' rights." Thus, Lula "became a problematic leader, who could be jailed using any excuse, justified or not," because he wasn't prepared attack the working class to the degree demanded by the right. However, in the event that social struggle continues to rise and the ruling class can't defeat it, they can always turn back to Lula as a negotiator to help them "pacify" the workers.

THE SECOND aspect to note is the loss of the militant spirit that runs through the movements and the left, although both roundly deny this. The political scientist Rudá Ricci, a Workers Party militant since its founding in 1980, titled a brief article on his blog "The generation of pampered PTers," in which he analyzes the political culture that has taken hold in the Brazilian left. His analysis could be applied to the rest of Latin America, too.

When the PT was founded in 1980, "wearing a red t-shirt with the PT star invited ridicule and persecution," Ricci writes. But militants felt pride, stepped up to the challenge and studied. To be a PT member was to be "a fighter, to have guts, and conviction."

Ricci adds that organizations of rural workers contributed to a "mystique" around the fight for land rights. He recalls that landowners feared the Landless Workers Movement because "they didn't know how to fight this mystique that they thought was irrational, like when a woman with her newborn in her arms faces off against a squad of military police."

Ricci contrasted that spirit with the motto of Lula's PT: "Peace and love." "The story of the oppressed was traded for the narrative of the oppressors," he says, echoing Walter Benjamin. In this way, a whole crew of pampered party members grew up. They act like soccer fans celebrating when their team scores a goal.

An additional detail: In meetings in the PT's early days, leaders had to ask to be able to speak. They got to the meetings and sat down like everyone else. No one took their photos or asked them to autograph a book or other souvenir for sale by the organization. Ricci continues:

Today, the pampered neo-PTers worship their idols and believe in them because they don't believe in their own strength. They don't like conflict, hard struggle depresses them, and they act like spectators, not actors. They'd rather pass the popcorn and watch their heroes massacre their enemies.

It's clear that if we don't get beyond this political culture, we will not be able to confront the new right that wants to tear down the welfare state and everything else, everywhere.

We're not talking about reconstructing the old working class and popular culture of the 1970s, with its centralized and patriarchal aspect, but of drawing from the culture of the young rebels of today. There, we will find, if we are sufficiently humble and patient, the key features of the new rebellions that--without throwing old insights overboard--can point us to new methods and tactics to defeat the right.

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