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History is not on Brazil’s side

Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil

Comboio com veículos blindados e armamentos passa pela Esplanada dos Ministérios

Experience is what remains after losing everything else.
Experience that doesn’t hurt is of little or no use.
Portuguese popular proverb

The great dream of our left-wing in the 20th century was developmentalism. The “Brazilian utopia” was the marriage of democracy with a capitalism of “social justice.” They embraced the project that, through the social pressures of workers and youth, within the framework of a liberal-electoral regime, it would be possible to bring the country closer to the material and cultural living standards that were built in Europe after the defeat of Nazi-fascism in World War II.

There prevailed the hope that linear progress, albeit slow, would pave the way for the eradication of poverty. The political bet was that the peaceful coexistence between the USA and the USSR on the international stage favored the continuation of foreign investments in industrialization. The belief that “history was on our side” fueled the project of modernizing the “tropical nation.”

The military dictatorship, precipitated in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution and bourgeois panic over the “imminent” danger of communism’s influence, defeated this dream for twenty years. But it did not bury it.

Even after the tragedy of the 1964 coup, which brought down a generation educated under the predominant influence of the PCB (Brazilian Communist Party), this program still inspired the next generation, led by Lula and PT (Workers’ Party). This reformist strategy relied on the approval of the 1988 Constitution, the expansion of social rights promising the universalization of public education and health, the uninterrupted increase of the minimum wage, full employment in an economy growing through internal market expansion, and the reduction of obscene social inequality.

For twenty-five years, this expectation remained alive. There has never been such a long interval of stable democratic regime in Brazil, with seven successive presidential elections, alternating governments, and even after the restoration of capitalism and the end of the USSR, four of them resulted in uninterrupted victories for the PT, the largest left-wing party in Latin America.

For thirteen years, optimism prevailed, albeit moderated: economic growth and social consensus, along with the implementation of a set of reforms that reduced extreme poverty, seemed to confirm that Brazil was improving slowly. The “better-ism” or “weak” reformism was ideologized. However, “history” does not have a favorite country. PT was not willing to challenge the limits of consensus with big capitalists, but the bourgeoisie had no qualms about breaking with Dilma Rousseff’s government.

The institutional coup of 2016 came to ensure an emergency neoliberal economic and social adjustment and prevent a probable reelection of Lula in 2018 for a PT’s fifth term. In the tragic sequence of the following seven years, political and social defeats accumulated, rolling back the rights achieved in the intense class struggle of the 1980s: a labor reform that made labor relations precarious, a pension reform that destroyed achievements, wage freezes, and privatizations.

In the “laboratory” of history, it was confirmed that the Brazilian ruling class had no commitment to the democratic-liberal regime. On the contrary, a majority of the bourgeoisie, supported by the radicalization of most middle-class layers, swiftly shifted from supporting a hard right to defending Bolsonarism, a neofascist current.

There are several hypotheses to explain this shift. Two of them, elaborated by opposing political-social camps, have proven wrong: (a) the need to prevent the onset of a revolutionary situation three years after 2013, as the progressive momentum of early June had already been defeated, and this danger no longer existed; (b) the need to contain the Lava Jato operation, which threatened not only the PT but also the entire set of parties in the regime, such as PSDB, MDB, PFL, and their satellites, as it was decisive in legitimizing the coup and was not halted with Michel Temer’s government taking office.

The three most interesting and not mutually exclusive hypotheses are: (a) the economic one, or the need to provoke a recession and an emergency fiscal adjustment to recover the average rate of profit and control inflation; (b) the political one, or the need to impose alternation in government or prevent a fifth electoral victory for the PT; (c) the strategic one, or the need to reposition Brazil in the global market and the international system of states, attracting foreign investments.

This leads us to Brazil’s place in the world. No peripheral country has escaped dependency without war or revolution. The imperialist world order is rigid. In the periphery of capitalism, there are various forms of integration among dependent countries. The position of Brazilian capitalism was peculiar. Unique because atypical in South America, Brazil can be understood as a privileged semicolony and, at the same time, a regional sub-metropole: a hybrid.

The key to interpreting the idea of a hybrid should be sought in the idea of synthesis between semicolony and regional sub-metropole. It’s a synthesis between the condition of economic dependence, limited by the need to import capital, and the sub-imperialist position as a regional power exporting capital. That’s why Brazil has a hybrid or complex status. The country’s position can be explained as a strange amalgam that only the concept of uneven and combined development can elucidate. A hybrid combines different qualities of both a privileged semicolony and a regional sub-metropole.

Brazil is a dependent country, or a privileged semicolony, because despite the size of its economy, it remains backward in many aspects. Some neighboring countries are much more backward, others less so, but Brazil continues to be archaic. Obsolete economic relations, absurd social privileges, and grotesque political traditions still survive among us.

We have always depended on the importation of capital and technology, and our bourgeoisie has been resigned to a subordinate role to Washington in the system of states. They even aligned themselves with Trump. Brazil maintains a historic external vulnerability: although only 20% of the GDP is directly related to the world market, the condition of structural dependence is expressed in the tendency of a chronic deficit in the balance of payments, which is only balanced by the annual inflow of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) that revolves around 4% of the GDP.

Nevertheless, Brazil is a very special dependent and peripheral country because it is privileged. It has one of the largest internal markets for durable goods consumption in the southern hemisphere, and capital accumulation has reached such a scale that a national bourgeoisie has formed, even though structurally associated with imperialist interests. There is also a powerful domestic bourgeoisie, and the buying fraction of the ruling class is in the minority.

This peculiar insertion has been expressed in various ways over the decades. For example, during the crisis of hyperinflation caused by external debt default, unlike many neighbors, the Brazilian economy was never fully dollarized. Monetary control was maintained through a very sophisticated national banking system.

At the same time, Brazil is a regional sub-metropole because the size of its economy has offered dimension and projected the presence of some large companies in the markets of neighboring South American countries, also becoming a platform for exporting capital and services. However, it is not an imperialist country because its economic prowess has not translated into political domination: the Mercosur project ensured trade surpluses but remained politically sterile and leaderless.

Therefore, it is not a simple overlap of statuses. It is a different phenomenon. However, it is not unique in the world. The position of Brazil is not equivalent to that of Argentina due to Argentina’s decline over the last fifty years. But the fantasy that Brazil’s role would be similar to that of India is also mistaken. This topic is discussed in the market, at the UN, and in academia, and formulas such as “Brics” and “emerging economies” have been elaborated. Marxists from other traditions have conceptualized it as subimperialist (Ruy Mauro Marini) or a peripherally associated capital-imperialist economy (Virgínia Fontes).

The hypothesis of the hybrid – privileged semicolony, peripheral sub-metropole, or special dependency – is the most fertile, although it allows for interpretations with various nuances or different emphases. Brazil’s role in the world market does not have a direct correspondence with its role in the international system of states. Brazil has gained a place in the world market that surpasses its presence in the system of states. It has more economic significance than political power.

The political bet on a grand developmentalist concertation with the ruling class, based on the bourgeoisie’s respect for democracy in a peripheral country, remains an illusion. The USA even supported a monster like Pinochet. Insisting on the same reformist strategy and expecting different results is not sensible. History is not in favor of Brazil. History is in dispute.