LULA: A Review (2008)

Lula by Richard Bourne pub Zed Books 2008 and reviewed for



Political biographies aim to see things from the point of view of their subjects while giving an idea of the context in which they are operating and, in the process, having to make value judgments as to both. This biography of Lula da Silva, President of Brazil clearly likes the man, but is very unsure about his politics and what he has and hasn’t achieved. In this Richard Bourne reflects the doubts and criticisms of much of the international movement(s) for social justice. In the process he raises a series of questions as to what might be meant by ‘social democracy’, ‘progressive politics’ and the ‘centre left’, while making clear that such labels have to be placed against the specifics of Brazilian history, both political and economic.

‘Centre-left’, one label cautiously used by Richard Bourne has become a useless term when it can, and is, being applied to the suspected war criminals Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak. Neither can Lula be equated with Tony Blair in any straightforward fashion. The history and circumstances of Brazil in modern times are far, far different from those of Britain, and Lula has not been party to an alliance of the willing-to-wreak-havoc on other parts of the world.

‘Social democracy’ as a belief in the power of the state to ameliorate the excesses of capitalism, and based on an industrial working class, also does not apply in the terms it has been posthumously understood in the West, even though it is from such a class position that Lula built a political base. This is because Brazil with its huge land mass, in which the industrial working class is just one constituent , is one of the most unequal on the planet. Given this, a yardstick of what ‘progressive politics’ should mean, and what it can achieve in these circumstances, is likely to be more fruitful.

Lula was born poor in the North East of Brazil and, as a child of large family raised by his mother, joined the rural shift to the cities, in his case the big one, Sao Paulo. His big break was to get a place on an engineering apprenticeship course. To talk in Leninist terms and with a derogatory tone of a ‘labour aristocracy’ is as absurd as usual. Rather it brought Lula into a concentrated area of industrial workers in Sao Paulo with a history of trade union organizing with which he – pushed by a more militant brother, Frei Chico – became involved. The historical context of that time was of series of slightly differing military dictatorships which, whether hard or softer line, worked for a modern industrial economy by pressing down on wages and labour conditions. It was a period when Frei Chico was tortured and Lula himself briefly imprisoned.

More detail in the first section of the book, in which Lula becomes a union leader, would have been instructive as to those situations in which he was militant and in doing so set himself against more passive unionism like in 1978, and when he was conciliatory and took what was on offer or, more passively, avoided conflict. This can be a matter of weighing up the balance of forces at any given time and is not to be sneezed at; shrewdness when it does not ossify into cynicism is a virtue. It would be good to know, and relevant to assessing his government, how good was his weighing up of situations.

Describing this period, Bourne is especially sympathetic to the liberation theology strand of the Catholic Church. It may be unpalatable, but it does seem to be the case in Brazil, as well as other parts of Latin America, that the priests and bishops who subscribed to this view of the world often showed more courage, and offered more space for what might be called ‘grassroots’ political organizing. Though Bourne does not directly pursue this theme it is relevant to subsequent developments and judgments. Giving ‘political space’ may sound amorphous, but is very real where the only safe place to hold meetings is a church. It is also more generally determined by the framework of political culture and it is the question of how much space is allowed and/or encouraged for grassroots groups practicing participatory democracy, which should be one key benchmark in assessing how ‘progressive’ is a nominally progressive government. The other indicator, one which cannot be argued away by any amount of flim-flam, is the change, or lack of change, in the degree of social and economic inequality.

The formation of the Workers Party, the PT, as the dictatorship(s) were losing their authority, was, on the face of it, classic social democracy, that is people predominantly from the trade union movement, deciding that a political party was necessary. But from very early on it ceased to be a worker’s party despite its inner leadership being predominantly from the San Paulo increasingly professionalized union movement. Here the familiar argument between principle and pragmatism takes shape. I see nothing wrong in pragmatism as such, the problem becomes when it itself becomes a principle; when conciliation and alliance-building becomes consistently at the expense of the poor and what could be achieved to their benefit.

In the case of the PT, alliance building outside of its class base has to be seen in the context of how Brazilian politics worked, and worked in different circumstances whatever the type of government. As a huge country, for better and for worse, Brazil is a federal state with a great deal of power held by its states both in terms of politics and budgets. Add to this a plethora of both personal and mass parties. Nevertheless after three failures as Presidential candidate, the second and third against FH Cardoso, the PT government when finally in office, was, in effect, a continuation of Cardoso government’s policy which Bourne describes as wanting to make Barzil a first world power claiming global political respect.

The historical context for both were similar in many ways. Both had experience of what life was like under military dictatorships and Cardoso, the sociologist was in exile. Both were well aware of the repression and brutality existent in the rest of the continent, not just the coup against and murder of Allende who had gone for seriously redistributive economic policy and the ‘disappeared’ of Argentina, but also that supported and sometimes organized by the Reagan US Administration right through the 1980s. Both too experienced just how devastating attacks on the Brazilian currency, and the inflows and outflows of foreign capital which depended on the general capitalist viewpoint of how safe and rewarding investment, could be. In 1998, they would have been aware of how such attacks could happen on their own economy because of what was happening in other parts of the world, in this instance South East Asia. This mattered even more when they were both so concerned with Brazil as a modern industrial major power, and a more genuine belief that this would be to the benefit of all Brazilians rather than the out-and-out cynicism of ‘trickle-down’.

Lula’s fourth attempt victory when Cardoso’s two terms were up, came at a time when the very notion of economic development benefiting all, was in crisis. His decisive win was, the statistics show, with the overwhelming support of the poorest in Brazil who, for a country of its powers and riches, were very poor. He is obviously a very good on-the-road politician. Here the tentative comparison with Tony Blair hinted at right through the book breaks down, Lula knows how to speak to people and was like a pre-TV age

politician whereas Blair needed it all tight and controlled and hadn’t a clue how to deal with hecklers or non-vetted citizens. In government he also faced far less involuntary restrictions on his freedom of action than Lula. Ironically it was Blair who had the Presidential power.

Where the comparisons do hold up are to do with the style, and certain prejudices in both party politics and government. In the first place neither leader had much time for their respective parties. From quite early on, Lula came to the conclusion that he was more popular with voters than the party, and that he could leave it to others. Bourne also suggests that in government he tended to operate in what has been called ‘sofa cabinet style’ with informal decision-making made amongst a small group within the party most of whom he’d known from Sao Paulo; and that he was not much interested in the detail of government policy. This was something of a get-out when it came to the PT corruption scandals of 2005, but it hardly makes for the effective realization of what might be ‘progressive politics’. On top of this, though anti-Marxist (with some justification he had a mistrust of Marxists leading comfortable lives) he, like Blair, had a government full of ex-Marxists of the Leninist variety armed with new, and very different ideological certainties, but based on the same economic determinism.

The previous Cardoso government had been similar in this respect, and it was these ex-Marxists who were especially hostile to the MST, the Movement of Landless Peasants, the original moving force for which came from the Liberation theologists of the Catholic Church. It was even accused of anti-modernism on the grounds that small peasant farming was essentially reactionary. That throwaway flip remark of Marx, ‘rural idiocy’, has caused plenty of damage when turned into an ideological certainty. Of course the peasant farmer should have the opportunity and not feel the remotest guilt about wanting city life. But there is a huge difference in whether you are part of the wave of urbanization by choice or circumstance, the circumstance being the impossibility of earning a living. The thrust of the MST was that this impossibility was the result of massively unequal land ownership in the country.

If I dwell on this aspect which Bourne treats in stepping-on-eggshells style when it comes to Lula and the MST which he had supported rhetorically, (pps 138-40), it is because it goes to the heart of monopoly claims to modernity, and thus of ‘progressive politics’. It reflects too on areas of incoherence in a range of Western ‘leftist’ varieties, for example ultra-leftists coming on like the reformists of 2nd International Marxism when it comes to small-scale farming. One of the more practical reasons for the uneasy relations with the MST was the feeling that MST actions which involved direct appropriation of latifundia land, would put off voters, but one suspects, it rather put off the PT leadership as themselves. All this is not to put the MST on a pedestal, it too has its contradictions and limitations as well described by Sue Branford in her book on the movement. It also is true that the PT government was confronted by a series of contending claims on the land; environmental, indigenous people, and those of agribusiness as the ‘most important business in this country…guaranteeing balance of payment surpluses’. This was based mostly on soya production (famous for being non-GM) and ethanol production. But these competing claims exist in part precisely because of the pattern of land ownership. Slash and burn farming in the Amazonian area by the poor exists because the poor have no chance of having any of the much unused land in the rest of the country.

What is not just is to characterize the MST as essentially anti-modern, especially when ‘essentialism’ has over time become such a glib put-down. The attempts at small-scale collectivization by small-scale land-takers have been engaged in the nitty-gritty of ‘from each according to their ability to each according to their need’ as a way of life. The complexities of such endeavor and often their failure does not make for the anti-modern label. In some ways their experiments with a business-like organic farming, a serious environmental politics and a commitment to tackling gender inequality have been ahead of the game of progressive politics.

All this should be qualified by the fact that Lula did win a second term as President in 2006. It took an unanticipated 2nd round vote, but in that second round, the evidence is that his support was very largely from the poor, no doubt including most MST members. It might be that this was simply a ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ assessment, but reflected a certain patience which came from the fact that there had been allowance for the development of political space for instances of participatory democracy of the type which had originated in Porto Alegre. On this reckoning Lula’s government stands up as progressive, and may prove in the long run to be more rooted and solid than Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution. Similarly the space for, and encouragement of, cultural developments. Under Gilberto Gil. This perhaps was not so difficult, that unagressive but very real Brazilian nationalism comes from the belief –with plenty of justification – that they have the best football, best music and maybe the most physically beautiful people in the world. But the space for using freedom of expression, are impressive.

The patience which that second election victory may also have come from an appreciation of the successes of Brazilian diplomacy – traditionally expert – in carving out some global space especially in the economic sphere. This involved an exemplary fight against the USA-pushed Free trade Area of the Americas plan, but also the positives of developing Mercosur as a regional economic bloc, despite strong personal/political antagonisms with President Kirchner of Argentina, and regional wariness towards Brazilian regional power. The question then is whether by for example paying off the IMF and strengthening this regional bloc, Brazil can escape the consequences of global capitalism’s necessary calamities, and whether even if this were the case, that it would translate into taking on the gross inequalities of income, education and life possibilities of the country.

Much has been made of the evidence of party corruption in 2005, but looked at with a sense of perspective it was not such a big deal. What is more important is a more diffuse corruption which is common to all representative democracy, and a more subtle form which comes from leaders and governments stuck in mind-sets which make historical struggles and dangers into eternal ones. To say that all power corrupts is a useless banality. Nothing, as David Montgomery said years ago, corrupts quite as much as powerlessness. On the other hand, none of us are diamonds and obviously hierarchical representative democracy makes those high up in its structures used to its comforts and privileges. This is especially dangerous with a ‘sofa-cabinet’ set-up which creates ‘facts on the ground’, but without accountability and almost certainly without truly critical voices even within the structures. As to old battles, it is said that New Labour is a product of being scarred for life by Mrs Thatcher’s successes. In the case of New Labour, its deep psychic need to punish and discipline suggests that they didn’t mind being so scarred. Either way their continued need to reassert their neoliberal credentials has lead them into the crudest errors, and a basic failure to understand that the world has changed.

In Lula there is no such psychic need. The question is how much the battles of a pervious time, and especially his failures in previous elections have lead him to make unnecessary alliances with non-progressive forces. Unlike his formative political years there is no danger of a military coup. Things of course can change, but without the go-ahead from the USA and re-politicized military, this is not going to happen. Similarly the scars from debt crises and the humiliations and misery caused by IMF structures should not become long-term rationalizations for avoiding a more head-on challenge to the mind-numbing inequality within the country. The talent for conciliation – not to be underestimated – can also become a producer of unnecessary paralysis.

Bourne weighs up this question in a just manner when dealing with inequality. The key policy in this direction was, the Bolsa Familia, which replaced the earlier Zero Hunger. If one is not a poor Brazilian in receipt of its benefit, all to easy to sneer at its inadequacy. It can also be argued that no government could take on such entrenched inequality in one term. But Brazil remains, according to a World Bank report in 2005 “the most unequal country in Latin America, outstripped only by 4 African countries”, and even though one cannot take its reports wholly at face value, its conclusion is confirmed in other studies. It then matters that an assessment of the balance of forces be not automatically timid. The ‘social movements’ in the country do give a solidity to progressive politics, but on the crucial matter of inequality, it’s incumbent on governments that see themselves as progressive, to give confidence to those fighting for economic justice, the confidence to take on those with an interest in keeping things as they are. On the evidence so far, it doesn’t seem as though the Lula government has done this.

This biography does for once deserve the ‘warts and all’ recommendation. These are not salacious warts, but a serious consideration of the policies and consequences of a man who within the terms of representative democracy Richard Bourne sees as a giant among politicians.