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The Crisis of Praxis of the Brazilian Left

by Sabrina Fernandes on March 2, 2017

One notices an international trend around the strengthening and prominence of right-wing parties and and far-right groups. Recent electoral gains around the world point to the need for the left to regroup to deal with the challenges of this right-wing offensive, even if at least to contain the human rights and protections advanced in the past before they get taken away. This is the situation of the left in Brazil today, which becomes more complicated if we consider how fragmented it is and how this fragmentation is part of a larger crisis of praxis. As I propose in my recently-defended doctoral research, the crisis of praxis of the Brazilian left has to be tied to matters of depoliticisation, demobilisation, programme and strategies. This crisis has contributed to a fertile ground for reactionary forces, both before and after the impeachment of moderate left president Dilma Rousseff that empowered a moderate right-wing unelected president with conservative plans and far right friends. This text is an attempt to briefly summarise some of the points made in my doctoral research that was entitled ‘Crisis of Praxis: Depoliticisation and Leftist Fragmentation in Brazil’, available for download HERE.

By drawing on extensive fieldwork during the post-June 2013 protests conjuncture, I propose the existence of two more distinctive leftist camps: the moderate left, more homogeneous, more visibly recognised as the face of the left and led by the Workers’ Party (PT), and the radical left, very heterogeneous, very fragmented in numbers, but positioned as a group in the desire to propose an alternative to the PT’s leftism (as fragmented as the alternatives appear so far).

The crisis of representation that became visible in June 2013 is one element of this larger crisis of praxis, which deals directly with politicisation as something that precedes representation. In the current situation, it suggests that the entire left-wing camp, not just the PT, has to be held responsible for the wide scenario of depoliticisation that, as evidenced by the 2014 elections and post-impeachment correlation of forces, is benefiting the right directly. The left had been unable to reconcile the theoretical and practical consciousness of the masses, the oppressed, and now this collective fragmented consciousness gave way to depoliticisation of two kinds: post-political and ultra-political.

Politicisation as proposed here is a duty of the left, and depoliticisation is a fundamental deterrent to leftist organising and mobilising. Depoliticisation and demobilisation happen together, independently of which process is being consciously and primarily driven by political actors in a given place and time. Post-politics is a form of depoliticisation that suppresses the political by rejecting the ideological grounds of politics in favour of a technocratic “ethical” order (that tends towards a hidden neoliberal ideology), whereas ultra-politics depoliticises through fallacies and essentialist polarisations that favour the conservative order in a reassertion of the ideological battle as one where leftist ideology must be combated at all costs. Despite their different modus operandi, both offer false solutions to the problems caused by depoliticisation and instead serve to restore the basic elements of the status quo. Depoliticisation creates passive permission for ultra-politics, agreement with post-politics and a/political indifference that allows both to grow through low mobilisation and the imperative renewal of common sense. If society is depoliticised, the left will also find it hard to mobilise effectively and sustainably. In the meantime, depoliticisation is indeed right-wing politicisation (from a Gramscian view of common sense), and contributes to scenarios as fertile for the right as it has been in Brazil despite the most progressive elements of June 2013.

The current process of fragmentation and depoliticisation began with the first signs of decline of the PT as an aggregator and representative of revolutionary aspirations in the left, and into a party of governability and class conciliation. The fragmentation between a moderate and a radical left heightened as the PT, which once represented the hopes of a more unified left, began engaging in depoliticisation in ways that also prevented subjectivisation, as a form of deterring mobilisation that could disrupt the party and the government’s political project. The party also demobilised through co-optation, gave in to bureaucratisation, mined efforts to bring forth critique from inside their own ranks and allied camps and swapped values important for class consciousness with neoliberal ideals that were masked and legitimised, when needed, through important social policies (whose benefits cannot be denied, despite all flaws). This process led to leftist fragmentation, through schisms, diversions, new formulations, efforts to counter both the right and the governista petista sector, as well as a general fragmented consciousness. As class consciousness became more fragmented, depoliticisation grew and allowed a further entrenchment of the dispute between governismo and the right in the Brazilian context. This depoliticisation does not necessarily equal demobilisation. Instead, it affects the content, sustainability and prospects of mobilising activities, especially in terms of the capacity to interpellate mobilised crowds into an organised political subject.

The urgency to act in face of the attacks by the right has put the radical left in a challenging position. It must build an alternative project, but to do so it must first find cohesion within its own fragmented ranks while deconstructing the PT project without contributing to the polarisation of anti-PT sentiment that ricochets back on the radical left as anti-leftism.

The fragments of the radical left are seen not simply as a large number of organisations, but in differences in programme and strategy, in tactics and approaches, in numbers of schisms and fusions (in their many expressions), in predatory tactics, in vanguardism and sectarian practices, and the challenge of being an alternative to the PT that could rescue its base but also reach out to the base that left the PT towards the right or passivity. As much as new mobilisations since June 2013 (and some from before) indicate progress for the radical left and for work towards social change in Brazil, efforts are still contained to the most politicised spaces where the left had been present from before. As one interviewee put it, the little “bracket” where the left lies continues to grow very little, being instead a place of internal dispute among organisations. This has contributed to a particular kind of melancholia of the radical left, one influenced by the difficulty to create a cohesive synthesis of the PT’s betrayal while organising its own desire to unite the left without falling into the trap of artificial unity, overestimated agitation, and the perspective of replacing the PT rather than replacing the PT model of leftist representation and leadership. The PSOL, which is the most prominent party of the radical left, faces these challenges internally (being a party of tendencies or broad coalition party) but also externally as it remains marginally visible in comparison to the PT in its decline (let alone in its glory years). Not even the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), which is the largest social movement of the radical left, has been able to surpass the influence the now moderate left Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) had in its prime years (and continues to have on the rare occasions it chooses to mobilise its base nationally). The right-wing offensive and the challenges imposed by the moderate left as it continues to fight to hegemonise the leftist camp around its project and desire for reproducing institutional power put the radical left in a defensive position, which is frustrating and further adds to melancholia and an anxiety for victories and unity that contribute undesirably to more fragmentation.

It may be hard to reconcile the fact that the radical left has grown since June 2013 but rejection to it, based on an extrapolation of anti-leftism and ultra-politics, has grown also. At first glance, it seems contradictory to propose such a parallel of phenomena, but indignation can be a motor for politicisation at the same time that indignation is also instrumentalised by the right, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. These counter-movements tend to cancel each other out, though leftist fragmentation and melancholia surrounding the PT make the playing field more advantageous to reactionary sectors. Depoliticisation is still rampant, despite new opportunities in this conjuncture, because depoliticisation through ultra-politics is being aggressively played to contain the more revolutionary excesses of energy of June 2013. This calls for a serious reflexive process of self-critique and reorganisation by the radical left, including a synthesis of whether the moderate left can be re-radicalised or not. As the Michel Temer government progresses towards more and more reactionary reforms and conservative measures, this task is more pressing each day.

Sabrina Fernandes
Sabrina Fernandes has a PhD in Sociology (with a specialisation in Political Economy) from Carleton University (Canada) and is currently a Full Collaborating Researcher at the University of Brasília. She is an activist in the Brazilian radical left focused on leftist strategy, eco-socialism, and feminist and right to the city struggles.

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