Brazil, social justice and the left

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What has happened in Brazil is really tragic. An honest, democratically elected president has been removed from office by a bunch of corrupt politicians, supported by right-wing deceitful and unscrupulous media.


In the US, Donald Trump is most probably becoming the Conservative candidate for the presidential elections in November. In the Philippines, the new president is known for having tolerated extrajudicial killings, has been calling for death penalties and been making very rude remarks concerning the rape of a woman missionary. In Turkey, a president is trying to get absolute power. In Thailand, a military junta has replaced a democratic government. In India, many people are questioning the democratic convictions of their president. In Central Europe, several far right governments are taking power. In Western Europe, far right parties are on the rise.


It is obvious that in each and every case specific national circumstances help to explain this dangerous development. But it would be naïve to think there is no global trend, or even global ideology that overarch all these national tragedies. The situation in India is very different from Thailand, which is very different from Hungary, which is very different from Brazil. But we should be aware that at the global level, democracy is in danger.


In his most recent book, ‘Global Inequality’, Branko Milanovic explains one of the major reasons for what is happening.  Capitalism is perfectly compatible with a reduction of inequality – see the post-war period , he says. And capitalism is perfectly compatible with democracy, but capitalism can also live without democracy. It has done so many times in the past. But can rising inequality live with democracy?


Global inequality is not necessarily rising, though inequality within countries is. Due to globalisation, the middle classes are being hollowed out and becoming economically weaker and politically irrelevant. And precisely these middle classes have been the ones in  favour of democracy, interested as they are in limiting the power of the rich as well as of the poor. 


Their declining power leads to what Milanovic calls ‘populism’, which is today mostly far right, anti-immigrant and protectionist. But on the other side of the political spectrum, a new ‘plutocracy’ has been emerging, a small group of powerful rich people belonging to a new capitalist class with both traditional wealth owners and new rich workers. They have every interest and are now able to suppress democracy. They are the new powerful class, the only one politicians are listening to. Populism nor plutocracy are compatible with democracy. This is a major problem we are facing today.  


The left, unfortunately, has no alternatives. It does not know ‘middle classes’. It sticks to its old analysis in a world that has fundamentally changed. It continues to look at the ‘crisis of capitalism’ but has nothing to offer that is more attractive than populism. It is losing.


We have to look at social justice in this context. Except for the welfare states promoted and defended by social democracy, the left never had any clear vision on how to achieve social justice. It still is defending labour rights without seeing this is largely insufficient, since labour markets are changing rapidly. It has become impossible to separate worker’s rights from people’s rights in general, since large groups of often migrant poor people are waiting to accept any job at any wage. And it is impossible to defend poor people’s rights when poverty is massively produced at the work place. Never has it been so clear that economic and social rights, from wages to housing, from health care to water, are indivisible. All people, all over the world, need and want these rights. People are less waiting for ‘another system’ than they are concerned about their jobs, their wages, their pensions, their health care. This should be the major priority of left-wing forces. But it is not.


Brazil is the perfect example to show how things went wrong with social rights. Lula gave poor people a small allowance and helped millions of people to escape poverty. He more or less kept the social security system – benefiting the middle classes - unchanged. Radical left-wing forces denounced the ‘assistentialist’ policies because they were seen as counterrevolutionary. In that same spirit many left-wing forces refuse to discuss social policies, since they think they do not contribute to systemic change.


Today, these dual track policies are threatened, social services are privatised, labour rights are dismantled and the left is not ready to defend them in a coherent way. Resistance is suppressed or ignored. It certainly is true that the Brazilian PT-governments have limited themselves to help poor people get out of their misery, and it certainly is true that many poor are now lower middle class, a cause of anger for the higher middle classes. Both groups are now threatened. Who will defend them? Where is the left able to look beyond ‘the poor’ and the defence of a status quo?


Social protection, labour rights and social security may disappear, unless they serve the markets. The only solution part of the left has on offer is some kind of ‘basic income’, in the best of hypothesis an allowance that can be seen as a wage subsidy – a nice donation to employers – or as an indirect subsidy to the corporations now providing the privatized social services.


Social protection, or social commons, as Global Social Justice wants to defend, is a major contribution to social justice, based on universal rights, that aims to promote the emergence of social and political actors. It implies a new thinking on economic and social rights, because our world has changed, because of globalisation and technological change. We need to change and we need to protect people and societies, in a participative an democratic way. This is a task for the left, but it does not look as if the left is ready to do it. This is very sad.


- Francine Mestrum, Global Social Justice.

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