Dreaming of Our Own Lula Moment

By Richard Pithouse · 29 Nov 2012

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Picture: Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva courtesy European Parliament
Picture: Former Brazilian President Lula da Silva courtesy European Parliament

We need to draw a clear distinction between redemptive fantasies that, while they may be comforting, ultimately function to legitimate injustice and, on the other hand, redemptive visions that can inspire collective action against injustice. We also need to understand that politics is dynamic - that organisations, processes and ideas that emerge from living struggles ossify, exhaust their capacity to express emancipatory energies and become detached from the lived experience of struggle that generated them. Yesterday's electric vision can be today's stolid ideology wielded by a bureaucracy to police the political.

There was a time when the National Democratic Revolution was a vision for change that inspired  effective action. These days its driving idea, that we inhabit an unfolding process of democratisation, is sheer fantasy and a fantasy that is routinely deployed to mask the fact that we are plainly becoming a less democratic society. The idea of a Second Transition, while marked by a refreshing honesty about many of the ANC's failings, is also fantastical. It lacks any credible idea of how to build and sustain a constituency within the ruling alliance that could successfully confront the interests that, from its commanding heights down to its base in the branches and ward committees, are deeply invested in its collective social failings in so far as it is precisely these failings that enable their personal accumulation of wealth and power. When honesty about failure is not matched with honesty about the prospects for effectively confronting the interests that depend on this failure it too functions to legitimate rather than to confront injustice.

The hope that Zuma's second term in office could take the form of a 'Lula Moment' is the latest idea being floated with a view to renewing confidence in the ANC and providing it with some sort of credible social vision. The story of the former Brazilian President Lula da Silva has an obvious attraction for people trying to wrestle some credible prospects for social hope from the Zuma Presidency. Lula, a man of humble origins, came to power on a tide of messianic enthusiasm in a society profoundly structured in inequality, an inequality deeply inflected by race. Brazil was still moving away from its authoritarian past, its formal democratic commitments were seriously compromised by corruption and a political system built on patronage and the country was marked by both a very powerful corporate elite and enduring popular struggles. All of this has obvious resonances for our own society. But it is probably the fact that while Lula's first term in office is widely judged to have been something of a fiasco he was able to make real gains in reducing poverty and inequality in his second term, and to leave office as a tremendously popular figure, that offers the most hope for people trying to salvage something from the failures of the Zuma Presidency.

There's no question that Lula's administration had many obvious failings including a reluctance to act decisively against corruption, an unwillingness to confront the power of a rural elite with vast land holdings or the growing power of agribusiness, a pandering to finance capital and attempts to co-opt and contain rather than to encourage popular movements. But while Brazil remains a society with very serious social problems there was genuine social progress, economic and political, under Lula.

This social progress has been limited and Brazil remains an obscenely unequal society in which inequality is not merely an economic reality but something that is performed, day after day, in routine encounters. Unsurprisingly Lula and his party have plenty of articulate and persuasive critics to their left. Nonetheless the social progress that has been made in Brazil is real and economic growth in Brazil has not been accompanied with the same degree of political authoritarianism that we have seen, in different degrees, in countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Mexico and India. Given the extent of our own failings the prospect of real social progress, even if limited, is an attractive prospect.

Lula had some good luck in office in the form of the discovery of oil and the commodities boom in China. But his administration can take credit for raising wages, the introduction of a system of cash transfers to poor people and a more consultative approach to governance. The system of cash transfers has been widely praised for putting cash directly in people's hands in a way that bypasses the local political elites that are, as is rapidly becoming the case in South Africa, widely engaged in the brazen diversion of supposedly universal entitlements through party structures. The direct way in which cash is moved from the state to its citizens without mediation through local political structures has meant that this programme has had a democratising as well as an economic function.

When the idea of a Zuma Moment to match the Lula Moment was floated at the Cosatu conference in September Steven Friedman, writing with his characteristic logical precision, made the point that the ANC is a nationalist movement while Lula's party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (The Worker's Party) is  a worker's movement. Friedman noted that nationalist parties have very different projects to workers' parties and argued that if COSATU is serious about achieving a progressive shift within the ruling alliance it would have to get serious about building an organised constituency in support of the working class and the poor. This is a vital point as is the observation that the Lula Moment was a consequence of many years of struggle and organisation in and out of the party that bought him to power.

No doubt part of the attraction of the idea of the Lula Moment for Cosatu is that Lula was a trade unionist whose party built its power in workers' struggles. But if Cosatu cannot find ways to effectively contest the drift of some of its leading affiliates up the class hierarchy, towards a closer identification with the ruling party than workers' interests and a ruthless hostility to workers' independent self-organisation, a phenomenon that could reinvigorate the broader workers' movement, it is not going to build the sort of independent worker's power that could develop the capacity to take on and win significant battles in the ruling alliance and in wider society.

Moreover the struggles that led up to the Lula Presidency in Brazil were not just workers' struggles. Rural struggles in Brazil have produced the largest and most successful movement for land reform anywhere in the world – a movement that has achieved far more in terms of agrarian reform from outside of government than the Partido dos Trabalhadores has achieved in government. And James Holston has argued that in Brazil “Contrary to so much nineteenth and twentieth century theory” insurgent citizenship has, in recent years, been developed “not primarily through the struggles of labour but through those of the city.” Raul Zibechi argues that this is not unique to Brazil and that: “If a spectre is haunting Latin American elites at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is for sure living in the peripheries of large cities. The main challenge to the dominant system in the last two decades have emerged from the heart of the poor urban peripheries.” This is certainly true in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela. It's also clear that in South Africa while we are amidst a new vitality in workers struggles on the mines and the farms, there has, since at least 2004, been a sustained urban struggle frequently rooted in the shack settlement. Cosatu's failure to take this struggle seriously has been a major miscalculation on the part of the democrats and progressives that remain in the federation.

If there is a lesson that we should be learning from Brazil, and Latin America more broadly, it is that social progress does not depend on a magical moment of collective redemption channelled through a once discredited leader. On the contrary even very limited social progress has to be built on sustained popular struggle and organisation. Cosatu's failure to openly and effectively confront its own degeneration, to engage worker's self-organisation as a legitimate and potential source of renewal for the broader workers' movement, to seriously oppose the growing authoritarianism with which the ANC approaches popular dissent and to make common cause with the ongoing rebellion in the shack settlements across the country are part of the reason why the idea of the Lula Moment functions as another fig leaf masking the ongoing degeneration of the ANC under Zuma rather than as an enabling collective vision that can inspire real action for real change.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Rory Short
3 Dec

Our Lula Moment

Richard as is so often the case you speak my mind. And as a religious person I would say the Churches too are failing us with regard to the ever growing, built in, inequality in our country.

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