Recent events in Brazil have been framed as something of a morality play by both sides. For partisans of Dilma Rousseff and the Workers Party, her impeachment and the installation of Michel Temer as acting President was a neoliberal coup by corporate and landed interests in Brazil, backed by Washington. For those supporting her impeachment, on the other hand, it’s a straightforward case of removing a corrupt official from power.
Among right-leaning libertarians in the United States, the second narrative tends to be more popular. And there are a lot of cultural and political ties between the mainstream American libertarian movement and anti-Rousseff forces in Brazil. Students for Liberty in Brazil, affiliated with the group of the same name in the U.S., has close ties to the right-wing Free Brazil Movement, whose leaders were educated at the Koch-financed Atlas Economic Foundation in the U.S.
But on examination, I can’t avoid concluding the left-wing narrative is a lot closer to the truth.
To be sure, from a left-libertarian standpoint Dilma Rousseff and the Workers’ Party are a horror show. Once in power, the party betrayed the landless peasant movement (MST), one of the biggest constituencies for radical change, and ignored its promises of land reform — the single most libertarian action that could have been taken in Brazil. Instead it focused on a redistributionist welfare state as a substitue for structural economic justice.
Guild socialist G.D.H. Cole’s comments on Fabian movement and Labour Party policies in Britain are relevant here. Rather than undertake fundamental structural changes, the Labour Party instead left the ownership of land and industry untouched and redistributed a portion of profits. In part, this was because it was politically easier and didn’t entail a head-on assault against entrenched propertied interests. In part though, Cole theorized, it was because worker ownership and control of industry could be exercised directly by the working class itself, with no need for intermediation by a bureaucratic managerial class controlled by Labour Party patronage. And of course, with landlords and big capitalists secured in their ownership of industry and Labour Party bureaucrats installed in the government, the result was a de facto alliance between state and capitalists much like Hilaire Belloc described in The Servile State.
The Rousseff government oversaw the mass eviction of working class neighborhoods in preparation for the World Cup, as well as banning street vendors from competing with official sponsors. The Workers’ Party regime has also carried out constant attacks on favelas and expropriated indigenous people’s land for development projects. The government’s industrial policy and development policy have involved constant collusion with big corporate players.
The Workers Party in power, in short, bears an uncanny resemblance to the nominally left-wing authoritarian police state in A Clockwork Orange.
But before we get too excited about Rousseff’s downfall, we should take a look at the kind of regime the U.S. government, and neoliberal ideologues of the “libertarian” right, are replacing Rousseff with.
There is indeed a great deal of corruption in Brazil, and in the Workers’ Party in particular. But Rousseff herself was never accused of any financial impropriety. On the other hand leading figures in the opposition are implicated in corrupt government-business dealings — big-time. Even if Rousseff were personally involved in corruption, she’d have to go some way to top the gang of kleptocrats who deposed her. To quote Glenn Greenwald (“To See the Real Story in Brazil, Look at Who Is Being Installed as President — and Finance Chiefs,” The Intercept, April 22) “How can anyone rational believe that anti-corruption anger is driving the elite effort to remove Dilma when they are now installing someone as president who is accused of corruption far more serious than she is?” House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, the right-wing fundamentalist ringleader in the impeachment proceedings, “got caught last year squirreling away millions of dollars in bribes in Swiss bank accounts, after having lied to Congress when falsely denying that he had any accounts in foreign banks.”
The situation bears a semblance to Panama, where the U.S. brought down Noriega ostensibly for his crimes and corruption — even though the leading figures in the regime that replaced him had been involved in exactly the same kinds of crimes, and had ties to the same drug money-laundering banks that Noriega did.
It’s more plausible, Greenwald says, that the coup is actually being carried out to protect corruption: to pin the blame for corruption on Rousseff alone, and divert any further scrutiny from scumbags like Temer and Cunha.
It’s fairly obvious the “corruption” issue is just a pretext and the motivations behind the coup are economic.
At the top of Temer’s list of candidates to run the central bank chief is the head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, and the leading candidate for Minister of Finance is a former IMF official and current head of a financial interest lobby. The new Minister of Agriculture, Fishing, and Supply represents the Amaggi group, a giant agribusiness concern. Perhaps most ominous, the new Minister of Justice is the former Secretary of Public Security in São Paulo, who has called for repression of unions and the MST.
That’s right. The same interests that overthrew Goulart in 1964 are doing it again — and once again backed by the United States. But this time they’re smart enough to do it as a travesty of “parliamentary procedure,” under cover of a color revolution against “corruption.”
It doesn’t take Columbo to see the U.S. government behind these events. Temer was an informant to the U.S. embassy in Brazil after Lula took power. And the current U.S. ambassador, Liliana Ayalde, was in Paraguay in the period leading up to the coup there.
The United States always prefers for neocolonial regimes to be legitimized by the charade of spectator democracy, so long as the rituals of elections and party politics don’t touch the real power centers in a country. According to Thomas Carothers, a scholar of Latin American politics, America’s “pro-democracy” policies (like its support of “democratic reforms” by Duarte in El Salvador) is a means of “relieving pressure for more radical change” through “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that [do] not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has been allied.” In El Salvador, for example, the model of “democratization” the U.S. promoted was one that kept the power of the landed elite and the military off limits.
It’s also pretty obvious which interests are at the core of the anti-Rousseff protest movement. Leading groups in the movement have close ties to the old right-wing oligarchy that held power from after the 1964 coup (“Were the Koch Brothers Behind the Impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff?” Global Research, March 13, 2015).
…investment banker Hélio Beltrão Filho, the national head of EPL [Students for Liberty], inherited shares in Grupo Ultra, one of Brazil’s largest holdings. Grupo Ultra provided logistic and financial support to the right-wing military coup in 1964.
A third important group involved in the protests is VemPraRua (Come to the streets), which has become the center of controversy in recent weeks.
…[S]everal journalists investigated the group, revealing that its financial support came from the Study Foundation, which belongs to Brazil’s richest individual, Jorge Paulo Lemann.
The think tank that distributes my commentary, Center for a Stateless Society, published an account earlier this year (Stefan Rotenberg, “In the Brazilian Protests,” March 18) of a left-libertarian critic of Rousseff who participated in an anti-Rousseff rally.
Rotenberg stated his basic orientation, as a participant in the protest:
I consider Rousseff’s presidency to be disastrous, both in its economic policy — a rude form of developmentalism, utterly irresponsible towards ecological or economical health (as well as in social policy), not nearly progressive enough when it comes to urgent matters pertaining to civil and human rights and downright retrogade when it comes to, say, indigenous people’s rights to land and land reform. I am, thus, a leftist against Dilma Rousseff….
I am not oblivious to the meanings of the colour red. I know it is deeply associated with socialism and to the Left, and that’s why I chose it. I believe the Left should criticize Dilma Roussef’s government and I also wanted to set myself apart from both the usual crowd in anti-Dilma protests and the mainstream Left (which, more often than not, is very much pro-government).
Rotenberg learned, in no uncertain terms, how right-wing the dominant culture in that movement really was. He encountered, in particular, a great deal of hostility to all calls — perceived as “communist” or “socialist” — for economic justice. Before the protest ended, he and his comrades were forced to withdraw under threat of violence from the crowd. “Soon there was a whole crowd on top of us and words and looks got meaner. Lazy, asshole, corrupt, cunt, stoner, weedfreak, idiot, thief, go back to Cuba.”
The mainstream of the free market libertarian movement in Latin America identifies, to a disconcerting extent, with the old right-wing landed elites who have backed military coups over the years. And the mainstream libertarian movement in the United States, in the same way that it engages in pro-corporate apologetics domestically, also tends to support the propertied interests of Latin America against labor and the peasantry.
If that sounds exaggerated or uncharitable, just look at the endless supply of apologetics for figures like Pinochet (the right-libertarian cliche is “economically libertarian but politically authoritarian”). Now, it’s beyond me how anyone can seriously apply the term “economically libertarian” to policies that reverse land reform and restore the neo-feudal property rights of the landed oligarchy at the expense of the peasants who actually mixed their labor with the land. Or to a regime that violently repressed labor unions — how is it “economically libertarian” to prevent the owners of one factor of production, labor, from freely associating and organizing, or massacring its chosen leaders and leaving their bodies in ditches at the behest of owners of capital?
In Honduras, we see a large body of work by Brian Doherty at Reason in favor of the “libertarian” experiment of building corporate-owned free enterprise zones in which the laws are made by the companies doing business in them. This experiment has been the agenda of the right-wing government installed by a U.S. backed coup in 2009. And most of the land allocated to these “libertarian” dystopias was stolen from peasants by the landed oligarchy, thanks to the U.S.-installed government’s nullification of customary peasant tenure rights. As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
All too much of the legacy libertarian movement, both in the United States and in Latin America, sees “free markets” mainly as the defense of “property” — regardless of how that property was acquired. And since one of the primary purposes of right-wing coups in Latin America is to defend landed and capitalist oligarchs in possession of centuries worth of stolen loot, we have the basis for a marriage made in hell.
So what are the lessons? First, attempting to pursue economic justice and achieve real structural change through nominally “left-wing” or “workers” parties and control of the state is a dead end. We can achieve these things only by direct action and building counter-institutions in ways that bypass both capital and the state. And second, any movement funded by capitalist oligarchs that purports to seek “economic freedom” by seizing control of a state is a lie.
Fortunately, the Temer coup doesn’t mean an end to the process of dismantling capitalism. The MST — which is presently backing the occupation of unused or under-utilized land by over 160,000 landless families — has announed its intention of stepping up the occupations in defiance of the fascists. Specifically, it intends to target the large tracts of unused land owned by the new cabinet ministers. Let’s hope they are joined by other forms of non-state activism, like direct action on the job by radical unions, and large scale doxxing and leaks of information on the corruption of the new regime.
The Temer coup was a right-wing statist dinosaur overthrowing a left-wing one. Self-organization, horizontalism and prefigurative politics are the wave of the future.