The Workers’ Party and the Rise of Bolsonaro


Dilma Rousseff and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva in 2017. Photograph by Jeso Carneiro via Flickr (cc).

by Marcelo Hoffman

Brazil Apart: 1964-2019,
by Perry Anderson,
London: Verso, 240 pp.

The next few years will no doubt occasion the production of a steady stream of books about the conditions and dynamics that led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil in 2018. How did Brazil go so rapidly from a country governed by the centre-left Workers’ Party (PT) to a country governed by the far-right administration of Bolsonaro? How did a figure as historically marginal to national political life and as inexperienced in administration as Bolsonaro suddenly end up at the very apex of the political system in Brazil? What are the implications of this enormous and convulsive transformation?

Perry Anderson’s Brazil Apart: 1964-2019 is one of the first English-language books to try to answer these questions. Almost all of the chapters in his book consist of contributions originally published as articles in the London Review of Books between 1994 and 2019. The only previously unpublished chapter is the final one on the first six months of the Bolsonaro government. Anderson therefore did not write the bulk of the book with a view to explaining the ascendancy of the right-wing movements that catapulted Bolsonaro into the Palácio do Planalto in Brasília. Most of the contributions in the book were even written before Bolsonaro became a national figure with presidential aspirations. Those contributions were originally meant to be part of a larger study of the United States, Russia, China, and Brazil, but Anderson concluded that Brazil merits freestanding consideration owing to its own distinct trajectory.

The title of Anderson’s book certainly captures his gloss on the uniqueness of the Brazilian experience. It speaks to a multifaceted sense of the separateness of Brazil from the rest of Latin America, based on language, geography, and the temporalities of slavery and dictatorship; from other major powers based on its mainly internal projection of military capabilities for the purposes of repression; and, crucially, from the social consequences of neoliberalism through the poverty-reducing policies enacted by PT governments, above all the administrations of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.

The periodization in the subtitle also exceeds the narrow bounds of the last few years of the rise of Bolsonaro. Anderson suggests that Bolsonaro’s victory in the presidential election of 2018 stamps the decades of Brazilian history from the present back to the birth of military dictatorship in 1964 with “the form of a parabola” because it once again provides the military with a prominent role in national political life (p. 213). Indeed, he stresses that more members of the military occupy ministerial posts under the Bolsonaro government than was ever the case under the five presidencies of the military dictatorship. What is damning (at least for readers inclined to sympathize with the PT) is that Anderson lays responsibility for this disastrous turn of events squarely at the feet of the PT. His book thus performs an important function. It invites readers to critically explore the legacies of over a decade of PT rule at a time when the politically-motivated imprisonment of Lula may quite understandably elicit more outrage, sympathy, and solidarity than critical reflections on how the PT played a role in etching the curve of recent Brazilian history.

On the one hand, Anderson insists that the PT did not replicate models of neoliberal governance from elsewhere. It did not privatize any state enterprises during the Lula administrations between 2002 and 2010. The PT also introduced a set of policies that (in combination with robust economic growth) drastically reduced poverty in Brazil. It raised the minimum wage, instituted direct cash transfers to the poorest families, and expanded access to credit, thereby facilitating a boom in personal consumption.

In short, the PT succeeded in producing very palpable material improvements in the everyday lives of the masses of the poor in Brazil. On the other hand, the focus of the PT on personal consumption turned out to be a curse when economic growth imploded under the successor to Lula, Dilma Rousseff. For Anderson, the PT privileged personal consumption over investments in public services to such an extent that it implicitly facilitated the outbreak of mass protests in 2013. These protests started over increases in bus fares but quickly became about the more general problem of the quality of public services. Technologically savvy right-wing movements with a neoliberal orientation piggybacked on the outpouring of discontent on the streets.

Bolsonaro, as Anderson emphasizes, also learned from the uses of social media by the young activists in these movements. He began to develop his own social media operations, which would play a major role in amplifying his popularity over the succeeding years. For Anderson, the PT also fell victim to its own rhetoric of social mobility. It claimed to have created a new middle class but that claim did not cohere with what it had actually accomplished. The PT lifted up the sub-proletarian masses into a precarious version of a “new working class” rather than producing a new middle class (p. 152). The rhetoric of middle-class ascendancy nevertheless came back to haunt the PT when the economy imploded. Expectations about middle-class belonging among those who did not belong to the middle class fuelled the discontent that exploded onto the streets in 2013. Anderson insists that the PT compounded these problems by refusing to mobilize trade unions and social movements. Lula in particular had remained averse to the mobilization of these forces because of the risks involved in so openly unsettling social and political hierarchies. He preferred a harmonious political path over a combative one. His stance had the overall effect of depriving the left of a major counter-weight to the mobilization of right-wing movements.

Anderson goes one provocative step further in his assessment of PT rule. He claims that the PT is singularly responsible for the military character of the government under Bolsonaro. “What,” he asks “made this formidable resurrection and return, officers adorning the state en masse, politically possible” (p. 208)? Anderson lays out the following shockingly blunt answer: “It was the Left, in the shape of the PT, which accomplished this and bears direct responsibility for the political rehabilitation and re-entry onto the political stage of the military” (p. 208). Anderson’s argument here springs from the boomerang effects of over thirty thousand Brazilian troops in Haiti for a period of thirteen years. In 2004, Lula sent the troops to Haiti to lead a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force after the ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Lula had agreed to send the troops in a (shockingly naïve) bid to obtain a Brazilian seat on the Security Council. Brazil did not get the seat but the Brazilian military reaped the windfall of its experience in Haiti. Anderson argues that members of the military who had served in Haiti were praised as full-fledged heroes of civilian administration and pacification. This elevation of troops returning from Haiti to a position of public prestige in turn laid the groundwork for the military to occupy the majority of ministerial posts in the Bolsonaro government.

As Anderson reproduced previously published and unrevised articles in Brazil Apart: 1964-2019, there are some moments of repetition in his book but those moments are helpful for readers unfamiliar with the contours of recent Brazilian political history. A more serious problem concerns some lingering ambiguities in his argument about the PT itself. Anderson contends that the administration of Lula underwent a “radicalization” after the masses of poor who benefited from his policies rallied to support his candidacy in the presidential election of 2006 (p. 53). At one point, Anderson even describes the PT as outright “radical” (p. 185). Yet such a characterization sits uneasily with the substance of his own analysis. As Anderson makes clear, the PT insulated Brazil from the socially corrosive effects of neoliberalism and improved the material conditions of the poor but it did not realize anything akin to a structural transformation of the Brazilian political and economic system.

Anderson’s rather different contention that the PT is singularly responsible for the return of the military to Brazilian political life is quite possibly the most contentious but least convincing strand of argument in his entire book. The PT no doubt played a role in the return of the military to prominence but Anderson exaggerates that role. The prestige given to the military in light of Brazilian involvement in Haiti made it easier for the military to return to national political life but Bolsonaro did not stock his cabinet with members of the military simply because of that prestige. He had long had a highly favourable orientation toward the military. For that reason, it seems highly likely that he would have turned to members of the military to occupy key posts in his civilian government regardless of any boomerang effects of the Brazilian military experience in Haiti.

Finally, there is more than a trace of the notion of masses who are acted upon but who do not act themselves in Anderson’s strident emphasis on the passivity of popular classes in Brazil. Taking his cues from the Brazilian political scientist André Singer, Anderson sees “fear of disorder” and “acceptance of hierarchy” as “legacies of slavery” that distinguish these classes from their counterparts elsewhere in Latin America (p. 97). He delivers this strand of argument with one big brush stroke. It feeds logically into his larger critique of the refusal of the PT to mobilize the sub-proletarian masses. That refusal left the popular classes in Brazil in their condition of political passivity, according to Anderson. But the very notion of an exceptional popular passivity in Brazil relative to the rest of Latin America warrants (at the very least) a far more elaborate analysis. The implications of such a notion also seem problematic, if not downright troubling. The very premise of a “popular passivity” points to inert and dormant masses awaiting to be politically awakened (p. 197). It implicitly privileges other sources for the political stimulus of these masses, such as the party and intellectuals.

Among other things, what gets effaced in such a manoeuvre is any notion of a contradictory consciousness among the popular classes that may serve as a wellspring for their own political action. There are therefore ambiguities, exaggerations, and conceptually problematic moves in the rich texture of Anderson’s book. His conceptual baggage in particular raises a lot of critical questions but it does not diminish the timeliness of his contribution or blunt the aggregate force of his altogether devastating critique of the rule of the PT.

About the Author:

Marcelo Hoffman is a researcher who most recently served as a Visiting Specialist Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) of the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil. He is the author of Militant Acts: The Role of Investigations in Radical Political Struggles (SUNY Press, 2019) and Foucault and Power: The Influence of Political Engagement on Theories of Power (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is also the special editor of the newly published volume of the interdisciplinary journal Carceral Notebooks on the theme of “Foucault and the Politics of Resistance in Brazil”. His writings have been published in a wide range of journals and edited books. He is currently working on a book manuscript about Foucault in Brazil.