Official Photo of the President of the Republic, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Official Photo of the President of the Republic, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Source: Ricardo Stuckert - Palácio do Planalto / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The Brazilian president’s efforts to appease capital risks a backlash from his base, and lays the ground for the return of the right, argues John Clarke

The notoriously conservative American trade-union leader, Samuel Gompers, advocated an approach to electoral politics that he characterised as ‘reward your friends and punish your enemies.’ Once they are in power, parliamentary reformists often go over to rewarding their enemies and disappointing their friends, and the presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil is most certainly marked by this method of operating.

When Lula replaced the dangerous hard-right regime of Jair Bolsonaro at the beginning of this year, thousands took to the streets to celebrate. Writing for Counterfire at the time, I noted that ‘it would be hopelessly naive to imagine that the danger from the right has passed or that Lula can be expected to function as any stalwart champion of the interests of working-class Brazilians.’

It was already apparent as Lula took office that he would attempt a delicate balancing act, appeasing capitalist interests while offering just enough progressive measures to retain the support of his political base. The narrowness of his electoral victory made this an even more precarious venture.

Even at the moment of victory, Lula went out of his way to craft a conciliatory message of ‘hope and reconstruction’. Presenting himself as a figure who could reconcile class differences, he even insisted that his return to the president’s office was ‘not a victory for PT (the Workers’ Party), not a victory for political parties, but a victory for the democratic movement.’

Power of agribusiness

Lula’s efforts to square the circle are very much in evidence in his dealings with the powerful agribusiness sector and the social movements that challenge the exploitative grip of these capitalist interests on Brazilian society. Writing in Jacobin Magazine, Tyler Antonio Lynch explores how these contradictions are playing out.

The agricultural sector sharply expresses the stark inequalities in Brazilian society. ‘Three percent of Brazil’s population owns two-thirds of arable land, while the smallest 50 percent of farms are clustered onto just 2 percent of that territory.’ A full half of the rural population lives in poverty and ‘4.8 million rural families are entirely landless.’

During the period that Bolsonaro held power, he ‘supercharged the power of agro-capitalists to new heights.’ Their Bancada Ruralista caucus in the Congress presently comprises 347 of 594 deputies and senators. ‘This massive agribusiness front is eager to reinstate a right-wing government willing to cater to its preferred policies: “more guns, lower taxes on agribusiness and a sustained rollback of workers’ rights, environmental protection and the demarcation of indigenous territories”.’

As Lula seeks to avoid open hostilities with agribusiness, he must also contend with the social movements, especially the Movimento Sem Terra (the MST, or Landless Workers Movement), that want him to ‘take a firm hand with large landowners and ultimately pass agrarian reform.’ If Lula is scared of confrontation with the agricultural capitalists, he is also aware of the militant history of the MST and its powerful land occupations. Containing this threat on the left is also a vital consideration for him.

So far ‘Lula’s government has fully satisfied neither landlords nor the landless, while offering both enough concessions to avoid either breaking with the PT entirely.’ This is, however, a precarious undertaking that has only been able to create ‘a mutually unsatisfying stalemate’.

On the side of placating agribusiness, Lula took care to appoint as vice-president, Geraldo Alckmin, ‘with deep ties to the sector’. He also selected ‘former soy magnate’ Carlos Fávaro, as his minister of agriculture. He also awarded state subsidies to agricultural interests that were far greater than even the scale of the handouts under Bolsonaro.

Measures of this kind, however, aren’t simply tactical manoeuvres. Speaking to reporters, Lula declared that agribusiness had nothing to fear from him. ‘They know that from an economic point of view, they have no problem with us,’ he stated. This reflects the whole approach of ‘Lulismo’ which is an effort to manage capitalism in such a way as to enable it to thrive while blunting some of its worst aspects.

‘Without changing fundamental structures of land ownership and mono-crop production, the PT aims to reform the sector’s most ecologically and socially regressive practices to advance Brazil as a sleek, sustainable agricultural superpower.’ The notion is that capitalist agriculture can be internationally competitive if it abandons its crudest and most destructive practices. Lula’s efforts in this regard, especially in areas of environmental destruction and Indigenous rights, suggest agribusiness will resist even modest reforms.

The risk, however, is that Lula’s attempt to preserve ‘the existing corporate paradigm while seeking to use its profits to gradually improve the lives of the working classes’ will produce too little in the way of concrete improvement to avoid a backlash from his support base. Tensions with the MST have already broken out into the open and led to confrontation.

In April, the MST set up roadblocks and occupations over ‘the sluggish pace of land redistribution.’ This included the occupation of ‘lands owned by Embrapa, a state-owned research facility.’ With the Bancada Ruralista condemning Lula for his weakness in the face of this challenge, he refused to negotiate with the MST unless the Embrapa lands were vacated.

While there has been no progress on land reform, Lula was compelled ‘to pay greater attention to settling landless families and financially supporting the MST’s existing settlements.’ Certainly, the MST leadership has close ties to the PT and is very reluctant to confront Lula decisively, but there are limits to how far he can go in accommodating agribusiness without being challenged from the left.

International stage

The same fundamental orientation that Lula displays in domestic politics is evident in his dealings on the international stage. Brazil has just taken over the presidency of the G20 from India and, as a report from Al Jazeera suggests, Lula ‘will be challenged to fulfill his promise of holding up the interests of the global south amid two ongoing wars and a slowing global economy.’

Though the G20 is ‘a forum for the world’s largest economies to coordinate on key issues of global policy,’ its membership comprises ‘a mix of advanced and emerging economies.’ Just as Lula works for a more humane form of capitalism in Brazil, so he hopes to contribute to a milder imperialist world order. The major Western powers, however, have no more patience for Lula’s notions than the Brazilian agricultural capitalists.

Earlier this year, Lula ‘urged leaders to try and end world hunger by 2030’ by establishing a global task force. The measures this body would pursue ‘would require more funding from wealthy nations.’ As Al Jazeera circumspectly puts it, it’s ‘not clear how likely it is that those would come through.’

Lula has also issued calls to ‘reshape the global governance system’ including reform of the role played by the World Bank and the IMF. Such proposals have been under discussion for many decades and it is hugely unlikely that Lula’s elevated role within the G20 is going to be enough to overcome the power of the Washington Consensus.

The right is a potent political and social force in Brazil and the interests it serves have huge economic power. After a year in the president’s office, Lula’s efforts to appease those interests, while containing the expectations of social movements and the left, pose a grave threat. By weakening the power of working-class resistance and emboldening the right, Lula is setting the stage for a return to power by the right.

The harsh reality is that Lula’s very limited social compromise is a much better deal for Brazilian capitalists and international investors than it is for working-class people. Only by breaking free of the limitations imposed by his political agenda can a way forward be found and effective struggles be taken up.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.