A Democratic Coup

Politics has always been concerned primarily not with the exercise but with the transfer of power. However dominant a leader may be, however deep-rooted and robust a political dynasty, the grip on power is always subject to vicissitude and mortality and leadership is judged in the long run by how well prepared a government is for its own demise. Decades of stable rule can readily be undone by one night of bloodshed or a cynical palace coup.

Modern democracies have largely managed the transfer of power by way of mass suffrage. This is, however, as Churchill observed, only the ‘least worst’ form of government. As with other diseases to which the pursuit and maintenance of power is necessarily prone (corruption, demagogy, oppression), democracy has dealt with coups not by eliminating the need for them, but by incorporating them into the constitutional framework and hence the very fabric of the body politic. The efficacy of a political system can thus be judged by the extent to which it has succeeded or failed in this task.

Judging by recent events, with President Dilma Rousseff teetering on the brink of impeachment, the Brazilian polity has spectacularly failed in this regard. Even if we leave aside inflammatory talk of coups on the Left and irresponsible nostalgia for military rule on the extreme right, there can be no doubt—whatever one’s ideological perspective—that the Brazilian political system is in chaos and there is nothing to blame for this but the system itself.

The circumstances of the current crisis in Brazil are not unusual in a democracy, but other political systems have better ways of dealing with them. It is not uncommon for narrowly elected governments to meet with stiff opposition during times of economic hardship and eventually fall. It is worth considering how this situation would be dealt with in other democratic systems—such as those of the UK, the USA and France—before returning to Brazil.

The UK political system resembles that of Brazil at least in the extent to which the Prime Minister by default enjoys quasi-presidential powers. This makes crises within governments more destabilizing and more likely to occur than they would be in a system where there are distinct presidential and parliamentary tiers of power. However, this inherent instability is offset by the fact that British prime ministers may be de facto presidents, but they are not so de jure. They can relatively easily be removed from office either from within their own party or by a parliamentary vote of no confidence and subsequent early election. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her peers and replaced by another Conservative prime minister—John Major—who would go on to rule for another seven years. Her predecessor—James Callaghan—had fallen from power when a bitterly fought vote of no confidence triggered a general election that was eventually won by the Iron Lady. These events were dramatic to be sure, but in neither case was there chaos or serious talk of democratic principles being undermined.

In the United States, the president governs through an appointed cabinet of ministers, but his or her power is heavily restrained by the need for bills to be passed by Congress. This means that power in the US is—in principle—in a constant state of flux. Coups and chaos are forestalled by a constant to and fro of vetoes and counter-vetoes. It is, on the face of it, a highly effective democratic system of ‘checks and balances’ that reflects shifts and splits in public opinion better than the British system, in which one party tends to be given carte-blanche to do as it pleases for four or five years. In recent years, however, the ideological polarization of US politics along party lines has caused this system to produce stasis and gridlock rather than flexibility and flux. Government endures long shutdowns, budgets go unpassed, key posts unfilled. This is obviously not ideal, but it does not produce a system in which the central government is under constant threat of collapse. Impeachment is reserved for cases of clear or alleged wrongdoing (Nixon and Clinton respectively) and, with the exception of Richard Nixon, all US presidents have either died in office or served out their term.

French politics tends to be more tumultuous than that of its Anglo-Saxon counterparts, although less so in the Fifth Republic than in the Fourth—which saw countless prime ministers come and go in the course of its short history. Charles de Gaulle established a system whereby a parliamentary form of government is combined with a presidential one. The president is responsible for foreign policy and defense, while parliament deals with the (largely economic) nitty-gritty of everyday governance. French prime ministers are subject to the same insecurity as those of the UK and tend to have a relatively high turnover, but the two-tier system ensures that this instability takes place against the backdrop of the fixed term of the presidency. In the worst of cases, this results in a period of ‘cohabitation,’ in which a President from one party has to work with a Prime Minister from another, but this tends to produce compromise and consensus rather than conflict and political chaos.

No one of these three very different political systems is without its flaws, but each has proved remarkably resilient. The British system lumbers along, changing incrementally, within a tradition that stretches back hundreds of years; the US polity has survived relatively unchanged for over two hundred years and weathered civil war, social strife and two world conflicts. The French 5th Republic has now lasted longer than any political régime in France since 1789 and, despite the rise of the radical right in recent years, shows no signs of running out of steam.

What is different, then, about Brazil?

Brazil has a political system on the face of it very similar to that of the United States, although there is somewhat more of a concentration of power in the hands of the executive. This means that there can be no sharing of power as in France and the kind of checks and balances possible in the US are replaced by constant sniping and jockeying for power. The fixed-term nature of a presidential system, however, rules out the possibility of votes of no confidence and snap elections. The result is stalemate followed by some caretaker administration or a coup.

Endemic corruption is as much a product of this unwieldy political system as it is a cause of the general malaise. The system has, nevertheless, held up fairly well for the past twenty years despite ongoing scandals; in fact, corruption has declined somewhat and is more likely to be prosecuted now than in the early years of redemocratization in Brazil.

The problem is that it is a fair-weather system. It functioned during the FHC presidency because of enthusiasm at the economic stability brought about by the plano real or, less generously, fear that this might fail. It functioned under Lula and Dilma because of the real social progress brought about on the back of albeit transitory prosperity.

But it is the system itself that is rotten. It cannot sustain a serious economic downturn and, in turn, exacerbates that downturn. This is a vicious spiral and it is one that can only be halted by serious commitment to political reform. Any transitional government to come in the next few months and years should make this its overwhelming top priority, just as countering inflation was in the Itamar Franco transitional government of 1992-1994.

The news today that PMDB—a catch-all centrist party crucial to any governing coalition—has withdrawn its support for President Rousseff poses an insuperable obstacle to the continuation of the present government. It is thus with a very heavy heart that I use my blog today to call on Dilma to resign.

I have been a staunch supporter of PT governments over the past fourteen years. For this very reason, I do not want to see this once glorious period of Brazil’s history come to an end with a bloody self-sacrificial last stand or a coup that hands power over to an increasingly rightward leaning PSDB that models itself of the US GOP. Resignation, without admission of guilt, would at least bring some sort of honor and enable the PT to continue to pull some strings in an interim regime and regroup and rejuvenate itself in preparation for defeating the forces of the right in 2018. Above all, however, the PT must now throw its considerable weight behind the need for swift and comprehensive reform of the ill-begotten political system that has finally brought it down.

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Laudable Pus

As I write, protesters are banging pans in the street to bring down the federal government.

Their indignation is ostensibly spurred by outrage over corruption—a moral malady that has blighted Brazil, as it has every post-colonial nation, since its inception, but which, in fact, has declined somewhat over the past 13 years of PT (Workers’ Party) rule.

This is not to say of course that the PT itself has been entirely free of this endemic ailment. The realities of governing in coalition have necessitated that its very survival was predicated from the start on doing dirty deals to garner votes in a largely hostile Congress in order to push through its novel socially progressive agenda.

Despite much hullaballoo in the right-wing press, however, no-one took to the streets to protest this more originary sin.

As a consequence of developments in the global economy and some less than wise long-term government policies, Brazil is now in deep recession. It is by no means clear, however, why the current Brazilian government should be blamed for this, especially when a fractured opposition offer little in the way of viable alternatives to the export-driven cycles of boom and bust to which Latin America has forever been prone.

People are understandably frustrated about the present state of the economy and anxious about the future and this more easily turns to anger when a large swathe of the population have only recently come to know relative prosperity only to have it suddenly snatched away. It would be wrong to see the current wave of protests as a primarily middle-class endeavor to topple a hated leftist government. We should remember that this recent cycle of economic discontent first erupted in Brazil, from the left, in 2013, over white-elephant World Cup building projects and bus-fare hikes. Nothing came, however, of these more grass-roots demonstrations, which were met with a combination of indifference and police brutality.

The key, however, to the current wave of protests, which meets with very little police interference, lies perhaps in its highly personalized nature. The protests focus hatred on stereotyped figures of Lula and Dilma (Brazil’s first working class and first woman president respectively) and take the form of a cacophonous banging of spoons on metal pans—an act that has historically been used to shame situations that are not illegal but are perceived to be out of kilter with the traditional moral order. Such noisy protests would disrupt the wedding nights of brides and grooms who were kissing cousins or of widely differing ages shamelessly marrying for money in Medieval times.

Cowed or mollified by significant economic and social progress and mass support for the first three PT governments, voices deeply inimical to any change in long-standing traditional social hierarchies have hitherto bitten their tongues, remained silent and secretly seethed at the unprecedented but still somewhat timid promotion of ethnic minorities, women and the working classes in many sectors of society in Brazil. The current economic downturn and flurry of corruption scandals have now justified the venting of this long pent-up anger. And, as is always the case with long-standing self-repression, such anger tends to come out with especial violence in its ugliest and most unadulterated form.

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The same goes for what is currently going on in the United States and it is no coincidence that the opposition PSDB in Brazil is modelling its strategy on that of the US GOP, with its own colorful homegrown cast of fiscal conservatives, media personalities, crime-busters, Bible bashers, gun nuts, climate change deniers, closet racists, bigots and clowns.

Beset by a recalcitrant economic recession that seems only to affect the middle to lower classes, voters to left and right alike have turned their backs on traditional political leaders, unable to get a symbolic grip on the true causes and agencies at work behind the global economic crisis.

On the right, this frustration has tapped, as in Brazil, into a long-repressed resentment with regard to social, racial and sexual equality and relative tolerance of the free flow of labor across international borders, and the ideology of political correctness that has accompanied these trends.

Donald Trump has, perhaps less wittingly than is made out, struck the oil of this repressed resentment and it is gushing forth with all its original violence and ugly vigor threatening to poison and pollute the whole political culture of the most powerful nation in the world. Voiceless disenfranchised bigots in other countries are already following suit.

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This upsurge of the ugly right, in Brazil, in the US, and around the world, is certainly nasty but is it necessarily a bad thing?

Unable to make headway with a more progressive economic agenda, the left has focused increasingly on issues of social inclusion and identity politics. Given that, in the absence of a more radical approach, they are incapable of dragging society out of the mire created by the dominant right-wing élite, left-wing parties are blamed (justly) for their failure to manage an economic system in which they do not truly believe and this failure is (unjustly) associated with a top-heavy superstructure of political correctness upon which leftist ideology increasingly depends.

The anger stirred is misplaced, but it is understandable in so far as the left has done little or nothing in recent years to channel it in a more positive direction.

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Pre-modern medicine had a notion of ‘laudable pus’—a creamy brown voluminous discharge that supposedly augured well for the progression of an infection towards a more desirable outcome. This was contrasted with drips of thin yellowish blood-flecked discharge, which indicated a more problematic course. Interestingly, the kind of pus that looks ugliest, is in fact the healthiest kind.

We should perhaps be grateful to the likes of Donald Trump for lancing this long-festering boil of resentment and bringing it to light. A copious outflow of right-wing bigotry may, at this point in time, be necessary to expose its malignant ugliness and free ourselves of it forever and, moreover, to force reflection on the way this symptom is related to the underlying much more serious systemic condition of neoliberal capitalism.

Angiogram

[I do not normally publish posts about my everyday life on this blog. This is my first attempt.]

Today I had the blood vessels in my left leg digitally mapped again. It is the oddest of things. You lie back in a comfy chair and watch the road atlas of your arteries and veins projected onto a high-definition color TV screen, as a doctor’s assistant taps data into a computer and another probes your groin with a blunt instrument lubricated with cool gel. It is almost fun.

Being able to watch—and even hear—your internal organs pumping away on an overhead TV screen while undergoing a minimally invasive procedure is certainly a calming, almost cathartic, experience. You are led through the winding paths of the cardiovascular forest of your physical inner self. And, when the doctor finally proclaims that everything inside you appears to be in order, you experience the same kind of relief that occurs when conflicts are implausibly resolved at the end of a naff sit-com.