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Review: The Edge of Democracy a Documentary

(Petra Costa DVD/Netflix)

21 November 2020

This film by Petra Costa is an elegy for the decline of Social Democracy in Brazil. A Social Democracy that prided itself on its reforms, first those by Lula who served two terms as president from 2002 to 2010 and then the reforms by his presidential successor Dilma Rousseff the former left-wing guerrilla fighter. Unlike Patricio Guzmán and his team's work in the battle for Chile (1975/9) the working class and the workers movement are not the subject of the film. Rather Costa shows the persistence of her own class—the bourgeoise.

First of her own grandfather as a powerful and influential building contractor who won the contract to build Brasilia and the President's office—where the film begins. It's the story of how and why her family, which began politically on the right by supporting the 1964 coup became one of Brazil's well-known left-wing families. Consequently, there are surreal moments in the film. The opening footage of the camera lingering dream like among the modernist furniture and classical statues of the president’s residence. On the soundtrack Costa's voice can be heard on two founding disasters. The first is ecological and the tree that the name Brazil is based on quickly became extinct as the country industrialized. The second is the use of slavery in that industrialization:

“More slaves died than were born”. It was simply cheaper to buy new slaves to replace the ones who died—who were of course then in turn worked to death. The film is then is a biography of modern capitalism and democracy in Brazil—told from Brasília the remote modernist governing centre it built for itself. The significance of which as the late Robert Hughes observed was built on the premise of separation from the life of the masses who actually gave it political meaning:

In the above clip Hughes demonstrates that Brasilia was a purposely rational place, built to be experienced in its own modernist purity, completeness and functionality. Not built to last Brasilia within two decades became a “political slum”, “miles of platonic gerry-built nowhere” not designed for real human needs—least of all those of the working class. But the new governing class residents didn't try to survive on their own without support there for long, they soon moved to the even more remote large bourgeois towns and closer to the established land-owning estates. The working class not being able to afford to live in Brasilia's expensive “super blocks” built dwelling places next to the planned new towns.

Despite the fact that these new towns had been designed to stop the building of favelas (shanty towns) these did emerge alongside the new buildings. That meant that Brasilia became a political target—a remote centre to storm and occupy. But the mass of workers who travelled long distances to demonstrate and listen to and be inspired by radical speeches did not in fact occupy any of the government buildings. This did not happen despite the fact that Brasilia's domestic accommodation blocks or “superquanda” were emptying while the surrounding workers favela's continued to grow.

The figure who emerges from these actions from the working class and trade union leadership and comes to dominate Brazilian politics in this first part of the film is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's of the Worker's Party and his presidency of Brazil (2002-2010).When these moments are shown they are among the best moments in the film as they show the real political potential of a modern organized working class.

Part two of the film belongs to the right and its growing resistance to Lula, his successor Dilma Rousseff and the new political class his reform politics it gave rise to. Paul Flanagan has shown how Lula's “rights of the citizen” aka the poor, to basic amenities, education and income did transform Brazilian politics - Rousseff's reforms as PT governor of Port Alegre being the case in point (see link below). These reforms and their political and economic success persuaded a section of the petty bourgeoise—that giving the poor a basic income had been good for business as this money quickly ended up in their pockets. Those who ran the universities, and the private education system were also now accepting as they saw themselves as responsible for the new improved standards of education. It was the simple acceptance that Brazil when compared to Europe and its welfare states had a lot of catching up to do after the years of military rule.

The Port Alegre strategy became a public demonstration of that fact which eventually laid the ground for the PT and Lula's victory in 2002.

Costa concludes that the reappearance of democracy in Brazil in 1985 constituted only an interregnum. The success of right-wing populism and of Bolsonaro she says appears to confirm this. But Brazil has not yet returned to being a military dictatorship, so how did the new radical movement for basic citizens' rights founder so dramatically and Lula its leader end up incarcerated?

Where There is Muck There Is Petrobras

Lula observes when being interviewed that it was the agencies that his PT government set up that were responsible for uncovering the depth of political corruption, not his conservative critics. The years of military rule had embedded the existing political corruption deep within the workings of the Brazilian state. That socialist legislation would somehow transform this structure to embrace probity was not only an idle claim and a dream, it was an approach that would lead to those who had real power showing what it meant to hold it and withdraw it.

That moment arrives in the film when along with all the good news about advancement of minority communities and working-class gains is crowned by the discovery of new oil reserves off the Brazilian coast in 2010. This would mean that new oil terminals and refineries would be built, and thousands of new jobs created. This appeared to be a new beginning for Lula's government.

The billions of dollars involved in developing Itaborai—the location of the new refineries would eventually however make what was previously hidden—visible. The trail of corruption led back to one filling station one of the firms in Brasilia which washed the state-owned oil company Petrobras cash destined to make the illegal payments to companies and politicians. In 2014 after President Rousseff agreed to a plea bargain with one of the key fixers at the centre of the scandal, the extent of the political involvement of PT officials at local and national level was revealed. With all the former and siting PT presidents also involved as they had been like Rousseff—had taken seats on the Petrobras board. The claim by the PT that their governments had brought accountability to a deeply corrupt system proved hollow and we watch as Lula surrenders to police and is flown to jail. When it is then revealed that Temer—Rousseff's replacement, had been given several million dollars in corrupt payments congress votes against sending his case to the justice ministry for investigation as Rousseff and Lula's case had been. Temer once a supporter of Rousseff had now become a standard bearer of the right.

The Archimedean Point

Brazil after Lula and the PT is in much the same position as China and Azania (South Africa) post Marikana and post Tiananmen Square—the acceptance that the strategy of compromise with capital leads to being compromised by capital is the only real starting point for socialist opposition worth its salt. Thankfully young radicals today do not see themselves as part of this history that is the history of Stalinist compromise and the disasters, it led to.

Significantly, in The Edge of Democracy there is no reference or discussion of the disaster of the Chilean experience of the left-wing populism and the Popular Unity government 1970-73 under the leadership of Salvador Allende. Had there been, then the moment in the film were Lula declares that the Brazilian parliament “had no working-class representatives” and that the focus of his and the PT campaigns would be to remedy this—is more significant than he and it would ever realize: Worker MP's as Chile showed, do not produce worker's power the belief that it does is fatal to the political project of socialist revolution and its survival. Rather the idea that moderation will guarantee progress was and has proved to be false.

A Cataclysmic History

The workers movement in Brazil after the military coup of 1964 simply went underground. Many like the former president Rousseff became urban guerrillas and were arrested, imprisoned and tortured. The return to democracy in 1985 was followed by the Military agreeing to a consultation on a new constitution. Costa shows how this transformed politics, as the masses returned to the streets to demand they have a say in what the constitution would be. The confidence of Lula and the PT was based on the idea that the labour movement could do better than the military, that they would have in short, moral authority to transform the economic and welfare system. The reasonableness of that was such that it did not try to challenge the power of capital. Costa shows this well as we see Lula and the PT in 2002 dramatically compromise with capital to gain power.

It is therefore too easy to simply endorse Lula and the PT's moral authority to regain power. Following the blowout of the Petrobras scandal many thousands of workers have lost their jobs as large manufacturing firms had based their success on institutionalized graft. What is left of PT's moral authority as good reformers cannot form the basis of an effective fight back.

Among the factories that have been shut down some have been occupied and the workers have decided how the factories should now operate. Voting for a socialist candidate and against Bolsonaro is one thing, making arguments and training workers how and why they should occupy the factories to access power is what has real political traction.

Further Reading and viewing

Chile—The End of The Parliamentary Road:

The article shows that it was the increasing opposition of the Communist Party and the Popular Unity officials to the worker occupations of the factories that spelled doom of the socialist reforms—the bringing two army generals—including Pinochet into the cabinet meant that Allende's government preferred to work with its own grave diggers than support a revolutionary left's leadership.

Part III of The Battle for Chile and Worker's Power.

Paul Flanagan on The Porto Alegre Strategy:

Social Media Sums Up of the Petrobras Crisis

In Depth and In Detail

Socialist Democracy's History of the PT and its Strategy

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