2017, Vol. 43(7-8) 979 –983
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The Implosion of Brazilian
Democracy – And Why It Matters
SOAS University of London, UK
Brazil is going through an unprecedented economic and political crisis that risks overwhelming the
country’s young democracy.
The high hopes with which political democracy was achieved against an almost universally
detested dictatorship endured the untimely death of President-elect Tancredo Neves, in 1985.
Democracy was consolidated despite the petty manoeuvring and robbery of public assets under
President José Sarney (1985–1990). Democracy provided an exit route from the thieving mega-
lomania of gangster-President Fernando Collor, in 1992. Democracy held the country together
during the tenure of Vice-President Itamar Franco (1992–1994), a shallow man who never
missed an opportunity to disappoint. Democracy resisted the arrogance and plunder of the
national patrimony orchestrated by the Marxist sociologist-turned-neoliberal-guru, Fernando
Henrique Cardoso (1994–2002). The democratic consensus seemed to flourish under the four
consecutive presidencies of the Brazilian Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), first
with Luís Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2006, 2007–2010), then with his hand-picked successor,
Dilma Rousseff (2011–2014, 2015–2016). But this happened only too briefly in what turned out
to be democracy’s swansong.
Lula, the trade union leader, was pragmatic, intuitive, and charismatic. He was also detested by
the traditional elites, but they could do business with him. Lula was also fortunate, as global eco-
nomic circumstances favoured his years in power. It was different with Dilma Rousseff. A former
left-wing guerrilla under the dictatorship, she was an excellent manager but lacked the talent,
experience, inclination and nous to lead a divided country with a political system vulnerable to
deadlock and underpinned by pernicious and powerful elite interests. Then the economy began to
fall apart. Years of slowing growth rates followed by successive contractions of national output
reduced income per capita back to its level in the early 2000s. Open unemployment rose exponen-
tially; the fiscal deficit and the domestic public debt mounted, and large firms in the oil, shipbuild-
ing, construction, nuclear, food processing and other industries were wrecked.
On the political front, the Constitution was ripped to shreds. Dilma Rousseff was impeached in
2016 by an ‘alliance of privilege’ fronted by a larcenous political mob, pantomimic judges, police
officers cloaked as national saviours, self-interested media moguls, and a rabid and vengeful mid-
dle class. Their rebellion anointed the sinister Michel Temer as President, whose tenure offered the
world a calamitous spectacle of greed and incompetence. In the meantime, a large number of politi-
cal leaders – including Temer himself – were implicated in a staggering array of corruption scan-
dals. The judiciary went rogue, taking inexplicable pride in disabling both the economy and the
political system in the name of ‘fighting corruption’. Congress was demoralized and the Executive
was disorganized. Policy-making was bogged in confusion, except in what concerns the rollout of
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an excluding form of neoliberalism. A miasma of hatred enveloped the PT, the left and the poor,
eventually to harden into élite indifference for the social consequences of the coup.
Examination of the Brazilian crisis throws into question two common assumptions. First, that
the Brazilian disaster is unique. In reality, neoliberal democracies around the world are engulfed in
turmoil. In the Eurozone periphery, elected governments were replaced by so-called non-party
technocrats in order to implement perverse strategies to address the economic crisis (Greece, Italy).
Later, elected administrations advocating unconventional strategies were crushed (Greece). Then
the crisis of neoliberal politics reached the periphery. There, authoritarian governments were
installed by different means, including more or less honest elections (Argentina, Hungary, India,
Poland), judicial-parliamentary coups (Brazil, Honduras, Paraguay), the abuse of Constitutional
prerogatives (Turkey), and military coups (Egypt, Thailand). The malaise eventually reached ‘core’
NATO countries. A hard-right Trump administration was elected in the USA despite the superior
experience and larger number of votes received by Wall Street vassal Hillary Clinton; Brexit mar-
ginally won the popular vote in the UK, even if nobody could agree what the vote was for. In
France, Marine Le Pen failed to capture the Elysée, but she did reach the second round of the elec-
tions; in addition, the hollowness of Emmanuel Macron’s triumph was revealed almost immedi-
ately. Nativist populism thrives in Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia and, in the Eastern
periphery of the EU, tinpot far-right politicians lead rudderless societies against ‘enemies’ weaker
than themselves; at their most obscene, charging against dark-skinned refugees fleeing even worse
realities further South. Brazil’s tragedy is one of many.
The second assumption is that the Brazilian disaster is due to the contamination of economic life
by political corruption and fiscal irresponsibility driven by the PT. This is utterly wrong. Important
gains for the majority were achieved during the administrations of Lula and Dilma, at least while
external conditions were permissive. Those gains included the expansion of citizenship, social inclu-
sion driven by the expansion of social programmes (transfers, benefits, admissions quotas for univer-
sities and the civil service, the expansion of provision of public goods, and so on) and, to a limited
extent, the democratization of the state itself; for example, through changes in its social composition
brought about by the recruitment of thousands of activists and popular cadres associated with the PT.
The workers and the poor also benefitted from faster economic growth because of the flexibili-
zation of neoliberalism and improvements in distribution through a higher minimum wage, the
creation of millions of low-paid jobs and the formalization of labour. The PT government rebuilt
the oil sector, expanded economic infrastructure and implemented a nationalist foreign policy that,
among other achievements, derailed the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas. Finally, even
after Brazil was engulfed by economic crisis, the PT administrations managed to shelter the work-
ers, at least until 2014. At that point, unemployment rates touched on the historical minimum of 4%
and real wages peaked, despite the deterioration of the economy.
These accomplishments provoked the revolt of the élite. Their uprising was triggered by Dilma
Rousseff’s re-election in 2014. Her victory came as a complete surprise to the neoliberal élites,
who underestimated the capacity of the PT and the left to mobilize a progressive coalition drawing
upon the working class and the poor. However, Rousseff’s triumph was fragile, as it coincided with
her relentless political isolation and the deterioration of the economy. The distributional improve-
ments that had legitimized the PT administrations stagnated. Repeated policy failures, the media
onslaught, and the disorganization of the government’s base within the most right-wing Congress
in decades created a generalized sense of dissatisfaction focusing upon the state.
The mainstream media and the judiciary launched successive waves of attack against the PT,
with corruption emerging as the ideal tool to fell the Rousseff administration. The lava jato (car-
wash) operation, led by the Federal Police since 2014, revealed that a cartel of engineering and
construction companies had bribed a group of politically appointed directors of the state-owned oil
conglomerate Petrobras, in order to secure a virtual monopoly over oil and other contracts. Those
bribes allegedly channeled funds to several political parties, among them the PT.
The Federal Police and public prosecutors made overt political use of these investigations. They
disregarded evidence that other parties were involved in similar cases, selectively leaked compro-
mising information to the media, and sought to implicate the PT wherever this was possible.
Prominent politicians and managers of several large firms were routinely arrested in order to
extract plea bargains. Those refusing to cooperate were imprisoned indefinitely. When they eventu-
ally surrendered, the aspersions cast on the PT were used to fuel the scandal mill. Accusations
against the other parties were normally ignored.
The unfolding scandal catalysed the emergence of a mass right-wing movement populated by
the middle class, whose grievances included a laundry list of deeply felt but unfocused dissatisfac-
tions articulated as demands for the ‘end of corruption’ and Dilma’s impeachment. This coordi-
nated attack by the judiciary and the media disconnected the PT from its principal sources of
funding among the domestic bourgeoisie, and from its sources of mass support. The loss of mil-
lions of jobs and billions of dollars in output and investment were merely collateral damage. In the
meantime, the mainstream media trumpeted the message that the PT was at the centre of a web of
thievery without precedent: Lula and Dilma robbed the republic by day and, at night, they con-
spired to turn Brazil into a satellite of Venezuela. Rousseff was fatally undermined; her govern-
ment was increasingly paralysed. She lost the impeachment vote in the Chamber of Deputies by
367 to 137, on 17 April 2016, and by 61 to 20 in the Senate, on 31 August.
In the following months, the administration led by Michel Temer engaged in a fully-fledged
attempt to restore orthodox neoliberalism, undermine employment rights and internationalize the
economy: ‘austerity’ served as a disguise for the imposition of a turbo-charged form of neoliberal-
ism. The government’s attack on the workers and the poor was limited only by the venality of the
new Executive, and by their stunning incompetence and endless tribulations, as Temer stumbled
against the law, emerging mass resistance and the ongoing menace of disintegration of his parlia-
mentary base of support.
Inspection of the political rubble left by the destruction of the PT’s administrations suggests that
the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff can be interpreted at four levels.
First, Rousseff became vulnerable because of the escalating economic crisis, which crept
through the fault lines of a process of economic growth overdetermined by neoliberalism and the
political ambitions of the PT. In order to secure political stability, the PT administrations never
challenged the neoliberal economic policy framework in place since the 1990s. The PT imple-
mented industrial policies only at the margin, and distributed the gains from growth marginally
more equitably. This was important, and it led to significant gains for the poor. However, given the
limitations that neoliberalism imposed on aggregate demand, the exchange rate and the balance of
payments, GDP growth remained fragile. No self-sustaining growth cycle could be conjured.
Moreover, neoliberal economic policies rewarded speculation, depressed investment, fostered
deindustrialization and pushed the country towards a growing reliance on primary commodity
exports. Under Lula and Dilma, Brazil inserted itself into the global division of labour below
China: while China became the world’s assembly hub, Brazil became one of the world’s largest
suppliers of unprocessed inputs for industry based overseas. It was impossible to raise investment
levels or to improve the pattern of job creation. Economic growth eventually faltered, inflation
increased, the fiscal and current account deficits rose and GDP growth rates tumbled down.
Second, vulnerabilities of a different order emerged because of the PT’s strategy of class con-
ciliation and political accommodation, which was viable only while the economy was growing.
When growth faltered, the administration lost all its sources of support simultaneously, and
982 Critical Sociology 43(7-8)
Third, the impeachment signalled the exhaustion of the political project of the PT. Over time, the
party shifted from a radical to an increasingly moderate version of social democracy, leaving noth-
ing behind by way of a mass left. It follows that Rousseff’s impeachment is more than a temporary
reversal in the forward march of the Brazilian left. This is a long-term reversal of fortune, based on
deep structural and historical, social and political weaknesses that defy simple resolution.
Fourth, the impeachment illustrates the undoing of the pact framing Lula’s election, in 2002:
the PT was allowed to govern and tweak neoliberalism at the margin, but the defining features
of the system of accumulation could not be challenged. Lula abided by this pact, and global
prosperity and his own exceptional political talent allowed his administration to temper neolib-
eralism at the margin. Unsurprisingly, when Lula stepped down in January 2011, his popularity
rate approached 90%.
In contrast, Dilma Rousseff strayed from this pact when she attacked financial interests by
reducing interest rates, presumably in order to support manufacturing capital; her administration
added insult to injury by claiming that a more aggressive interventionism would be tolerated
because its policies would benefit capital as a whole, for example, opening new opportunities for
accumulation in infrastructure, oil, manufacturing industry and other sectors. This technocratic
approach was misguided because capital will sacrifice economic growth for political control.
The administration also misjudged the global conjuncture, failed to deliver growth and cam-
paigned from the left in 2014, raising the spectre of ideological confrontation and intensification of
class conflict. Capital became alienated from the government and, in rapid sequence, hostile to it.
Capital sought solace on a renewed commitment to neoliberalism and financialization. In the
meantime, Rousseff’s government alienated its own mass base, that was large but disorganized and
mostly unable to intervene politically. This limitation of the workers and the poor was partly due
to the economic and social consequences of neoliberalism, and partly due to the PT’s demobilizing
political choices as it climbed its way to power.
The PT also failed to reform media ownership, which secured the space for a virulent opposition
aligned with the neoliberal élite. The party endorsed a model of distribution based on financializa-
tion, consumption, low paid jobs, and transfers: essentially, both the rich and the poorest gained,
while millions of skilled jobs were lost through the ‘globalization’ of production, privatizations,
the simplification of managerial structures and new information technologies. These processes
sliced not only the number of ‘good jobs’ in manufacturing, but also middle management posts,
and increased precarity even for relatively senior jobs. The middle class was incandescent with
political fury, economic disappointment and social outrage at the advancement of the poor. With
the media and the judiciary in hot pursuit, and the opposition choosing the line of intransigence and
conflict, no amount of concessions could have kept the PT in power. Yet the party refused to mobi-
lize its mass base; it preferred to try to do deals at the top.
Immediately after the 2014 elections, Dilma Rousseff chose to turn around and implement
neoliberal austerity policies in order to build bridges to capital. This was in flagrant contradic-
tion with her own campaign rhetoric, and it destroyed the remaining credibility of the PT. It also
left the party vulnerable to attack under the pretexts of corruption, conspiracy to subvert the
Constitution, fiscal malfeasance, electoral lies and much else. The PT lost its supporters, and did
not gain any allies.
The experience of the PT suggests that transformative projects in Brazil and, perhaps, else-
where, are bound to face escalating resistance by conservative interests. The form and effective-
ness of these attacks will depend on the global environment, the government’s response, and the
alliances supporting the administration. Experience also suggests that reformist pragmatism has
limited efficacy, and the cultivation of wider and wider circles of increasingly unreliable allies can
support the administration in the good times but, in adverse contexts, it fosters instability and
political paralysis because – and not ‘despite’ the prevalence of political democracy. Experience
also implies that the class, political and institutional sources of conservative power must be tar-
geted openly, rapidly and decisively, through the radicalization of democracy and through the
mobilization of the groups with the most to gain, especially the urban poor. The PT failed to do this,
and the party was severely damaged. The Brazilian left is paying a heavy price for the PT’s flawed
The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff shows that the PT was not destroyed for being ‘too bold’
or ‘too leftist’. Instead, its political power buckled because of the party’s attachment to pragmatism
even when it had become counterproductive, and because of the PT’s obsessive attempts to trian-
gulate towards a political centre that was collapsing into the far right. If these lessons can guide
new left experiences elsewhere, perhaps something can be salvaged from the Brazilian disaster.