Brazil's Gramscian Moment: On Cultural Hegemony and Crisis

Jacques Simon I Social Economics I Analysis I May 20th, 2016

With the Brazilian senate confirming Dilma Rousseff's impeachment procedure, it seems increasingly likely that Brazil could soon see the long-loved Workers Party (PT) out of office. Given the seemingly unshakable support that the party had up until a few years ago, the deep political crisis that Brazil faces today may seem a bit surprising. How is it that, after winning four consecutive elections, three by a landslide, the PT's Dilma Rousseff is now facing impeachment charges, and people are in the streets by millions? Why have Brazilians completely turned their backs on the PT, despite it having enjoyed fourteen years of political hegemony?

The mainstream media has identified two main causes to the current political turmoil in Brazil.

The first is corruption. Operacao Lava Jato (operation carwash), until recently led by the now famous Justice Moro, has shaken the political class to its core. Millions of reais flowing from top Petrobras executives into the pockets of the political elites have gotten widespread news coverage. Of course, this is not factually incorrect, but it disregards the fact that corruption has been the name of the game in Brazilian politics since the end of the military regime in 1985.

In fact, Lula's 2006 re-election happened in the midst of the Mensalão scandal, where the PT was accused of buying votes in congress. Transparency International has kept Brazil at a steady 76th on 167 in terms of global corruption between 2012 and 2015, even though the Petrobras scandal started in 2014.

Corruption is such a common occurrence in the country that a term has been created to describe Brazilian institutions' feeble reactions to shady business. In Brazil, when a scandal is said to "end in pizza," it means that charges where not laid out to the extent that they could or should have.

It seems that the corruptibility of the political elite is taken for granted by Brazilians. While it may have been an accelerating factor in the current crisis, it certainly does not seem to be the determinant variable in Rousseff's demise, who, in fact, is not even facing corruption charges unlike her opponents.

The second cause to the political crisis identified by the mainstream media has been the media itself.

Some have pointed the finger at the largely right wing and anti-PT bias of Brazil's largest news corporations. Once again, while not factually false, that position of the media is not a recent occurrence.

The same families have held the five main media companies for decades. Grupo Globo for instance, the country's largest media corporation, has been privately owned by the Marinho family since its creation in 1965. There has not been a recent change in the media's ideological affiliation: the right-wing mainstream media has been a constant throughout the PT rule.

Once again, it seems that this variable may be an accelerating factor in the PTs downfall, but it certainly does not seem to be the determinant variable.

In reality, two things have actively participated in Dilma's crash: an economic recession, and her turn away from the PT's traditional politics. All else is anecdotal.

Let's turn to an influential political theorist of the early twentieth century to further elaborate on that.

This conclusion can be reached by using Antonio Gramsci's concept of cultural hegemony. It might be a bit of an overstatement to say that the Italian philosopher is making a come back. Undoubtedly, most people still do not know who he was, and few are aware of the importance of his theories. It is however, somewhat satisfying to see that Google searches for his name have been growing exponentially since the early 2000s and show no sign of slowing down.

It seems that the global capitalist crisis of 2008, which shook the entire world, has made a few people question the strength and general positive nature of the economic system we are living in. This kind of uncertainty creates a fertile ground for previously outlier positions. In Gramscian terms: such important events destabilize otherwise anchored cultural hegemony.

This concept-that of cultural hegemony-is perhaps Gramsci's most important contribution to the field of political science. The idea is the following: power, in all its forms, is rooted in popular consent. In order to successfully establish a specific way of organizing society, you must first get the local population on board. In fact, people need to be so convinced that that specific organization is the way things must be that they should not question its basis.

Rival ideologies should not compete on equal terms. To take the place of the cultural hegemon, they need first to contest its de facto legitimacy, and then successfully claim its place in the hearts and minds of the people.

In Gramscian literature, this struggle will take place as communism inevitably takes the place of global capitalism. This remains to be seen, but while we're waiting this theory can be applied to smaller instances of ideological shifts. Brazil is living just that.

In order to demonstrate this, let us first take a quick detour by Brazilian political history.

Until 1985, the country was ruled by a military dictatorship, which relied on brutal repression to get its way.

Things changed during the '80s, an active period when it comes to democratization worldwide. Some political scientists-Samuel Huntington in particular-have gone so far as to call that phase the "third-wave of democracy." Along with other South American countries, Brazil saw its military regime come to an end, and hosted its first democratic elections in over two decades.

Since the 1985 election, at least three tendencies have become abundantly clear.

First, the country has had a history of inflationary problems. If we consider the rate of inflation over the last three decades, we see two peaks. The first, in 1990, reached an astonishing 6,800%. The second, in 1994, culminated at 5,000% in June of that year. But even if we disregard these extreme cases, Brazil has had far from a stable economy throughout the end of the twentieth century. For instance, the average inflation in 1987 was 363% and in 1992 it was 1,119%.

The second clear tendency is that when Brazilians are unhappy with a governing party, they let it know with their ballots. The third is that they rarely offer a second chance: the results of the three presidential elections following the fall of the military regime led three different parties in office.

First, in 1985, Tancredo Neves of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (BDMP) was elected. Though, in a Hollywood-worthy turn of events he collapsed just before gaining office and died shortly after, his running mate and vice president, José Sarney, assumed the role of president.

Four years later, with inflation bordering 2,000%, Fernando Collar de Mello's Christian Labour Party (NRP) was elected with 53% in the second round. The BDMP only managed to secure 11.5%.

The following elections took place in 1994, just after the second inflationary peak. Once again, this economic fiasco led to the ruling party's political demise. The NRP secured an astounding 0.6% of the popular will, while the BDMP came fourth with 4.6%. The Brazilian people where still looking for their party: a whopping 95% of the population was not satisfied with what they had seen since the fall of the military regime a decade prior.

This time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) was elected in the first round with over 54% of the ballots: a landslide victory considering that the runner-up was Lula's PT with 27%. It is important to note here that this was the most left-leaning government elected since the end of the military regime. While all other parties had been right-of-center, Cardoso ran and governed in a clearly social-democratic manner.

FHC fought inflation tooth-and-nail (successfully-bringing it from an average of3,000% in 1994 to 7% in 1997 by pegging the reais to the American dollar), opened the Brazilian economy to foreign investments (FDIs augmented threefold between 1995 and 2000), and privatized some industries in order to fund social projects. FHC is credited with creating social security and generalizing taxation in Brazil.

The Brazilian population responded positively to this newfound stability. A constitutional amendment was passed to allow Cardoso to run for a second term. In 1998, he was re-elected with a majority of 53.1% in the first round. During his four years in office, he had lost only one percentage point of support. He went from winning 25 out of 26 states, to 23. The surprising stability of the results of his two presidential campaigns shows how faithful his electoral base was. This popularity was not unconditional however. During his second term, the hens came back to roost: his desire to please both workers and capital created an influx in public debt.

During his 8 years as president, federal as well as state and municipal debt increased more than twofold. In an effort to save the national economy from an exponential debt crisis, and a freefalling export sector due to economic collapses around the world (Asia and Russia were seeing their economies crumble), he took a number of neoliberal measures. He liberated the reais from its US dollar parity, accepted a structural adjustment program from the IMF, and undertook a structural reforms of the economy in which privatization and austerity held a key role. The results where what one would expect: GDP per capita plunged, the value of the reais was cut in half, and capital flew out of the country at high rates.

Following the footsteps of recent history, the government swapped hands in 2002, when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was running his fourth campaign for the Workers Party (PT), won two thirds of the votes against the PSDB candidate. This was the beginning of an era for Brazil, one that we haven't seen the end of-yet.

The PT was the most left-wing government since the fall of the military regime. Under Lula's presidency, real social programs were put in place, yielding real results. To name only a few, the 2003 Fome Zero program aimed at eradicating extreme poverty in the country, the Bolsa Família and Bolsa Escola programs provided impoverished working class Brazilians with an allowance if their children were vaccinated and attended school, and the Progama de Aceleraçāo do Crescimento (PAC) had a multibillion reais budget to invest in infrastructure.

Make no mistake: Lula's presidency was not that of a socialist. In fact, the left wing of the PT was so disappointed with his lack of defiance towards capital that they split to form a separate party called the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). But Lula did provide working class families with a net increase in their material condition. During his two terms in office, the gini coefficient of country (measuring wealth inequality) fell continuously, the GDP per capita increased substantially, as did the GNI. 98% of people born after 1990 now have at least a secondary education, compared to 70% for those born in 1970.

It was with this kind of mindset that Lula was re-elected in 2006, winning close to 50% in the first round, and then by a more than 20 percentage point margin in the runoff. Constitutionally barred from a third presidency, his protégé Dilma Rousseff ran in 2010, and won by an over 10 percentage point margin. Running again in 2014, she got re-elected-albeit not with as impressive result as previously.

This brief recap of Brazilian political history demonstrates two things:

First, the kind of legitimacy that has been enjoyed by the PT is a one-of-a-kind instance since the fall of the military regime. However, the second lesson is that this support is quite logical. Lula and Dilma have provided the working class with what it has been asking for since 1985: a stable democracy, and material returns for the working class.

From a Gramscian perspective, this legitimacy is rooted in cultural hegemony. Indeed, PT rule and the political scene since Lula's arrival in power have been causally linked in popular conscience. This means that any opposing ideology has an uphill battle before it: that of discrediting PT's social democracy.

As of now, the PT has won four consecutive presidential elections in Brazil; half of all those that have taken place since the end of the military regime. For a time, Lula's party looked like it was the country's natural party, as if the PT and the Brazilian people had some sort of indivisible bond. So how did we arrive to the place where we are now?

According to Gramsci, cultural hegemony is essential for the ruling class. The PT has undoubtedly acquired something of that nature. It has offered Brazil social democracy. It promised a capitalistic system with real returns for the people, and, to some extent, has delivered. The material condition of a large amount of people increased impressively during the Lula era and, to a lesser extent, during Dilma's early days. But if there is one thing capitalism has shown, it is that these kinds of honeymoon periods are always finite, and at some point the economy contracts over its own weight.

The party's cultural hegemony rested on two things: a booming economy, and social democratic policies. Both fell apart in the last two years. First, the country's rise to economic prosperity came to a halt. The economy that the PT had created was highly dependant on exports to countries like China or the US. With these countries' economies contracting, the model ceased to work. Brazil's GDP growth was divided by two between 2011 and 2012. The reais has plummeted in face of the US dollar since 2011.

Between mid-August 2014 and today the Petrobras stock, Brazil's largest company worth about 10% of the country's GDP has fell from $23.35 to $8.44. Brazil, in other terms, is facing the harsh realities of capitalism.

This left Dilma with two options: either take a left-wing approach and handle the crisis by stimulating demand, nationalizing big industries, and reforming the tax code to take money where it is, or, take the right-wing path.

She chose the latter.

2015 was the year of austerity in Brazil. Budget cuts, backpedalling on investment programs, cuts to social security… the Rousseff government fell to right-wing pressure and implemented capital-friendly policies. This came after she had won the elections one-year prior with a left wing discourse. This shift in position was one of many blows to the PT's cultural hegemony. By disavowing her party's traditional positions, Dilma legitimized dissident opinions. It is thus unsurprising that the lion's share of her critics, Temer included, come from her political right.

Indeed, now that Dilma is, at least temporarily, out of office, the interim government has already called for widespread neoliberal policies, which include cuts in public spending, decreases in welfare, and cutting jobs from the federal government.

The Rousseff government has dug its own grave by coming back on settled questions. The president and her administration have broken the ideological continuity of the PT rule, which in turn destabilized the foundation of their authority. She opened a door to her right, which allowed contestation. With the hegemonic left-wing personalities turning to neoliberalism, nothing was keeping public opinion from going in that direction.

The demographic participating in the ongoing protests further proves this. One image speaks volumes about the kind of people fuelling these events. A visible rich, white couple is seen marching alongside a baby carriage pushed by a black nanny. This photo sparked mass criticism in Brazil-a country where the racial and wealth divide is still very much a reality. Some have even reported protesters drinking champagne at anti-PT events. This segment of the Brazilian population is the one represented in Temer's provisional government. Clearly, what is being witnessed is not an uproar from impoverished favela youths, but rather a movement that is largely dominated by white, upper-middle-class individuals, whose right-wing bias has been gaining traction through legitimization.

Worst of all, a specter is haunting Brazil-the specter of inflation. Granted, we are far from the four digit numbers that plagued the country in the late '80s and mid '90s. But nonetheless, since 2014, inflation has almost double from about 5.5% to 10.5%-well above the average of 4% that the country had become accustomed to during Lula's time. In fact, 2015 was the year with the highest rate of inflation since the country has been under PT rule. This has sparked some concern amongst the general population, who fear the return of hyperinflationary pressure.

The point is the following: The PT had acquired a cultural hegemony, which mechanically provided it with popular legitimacy. The schematic being used, however, was based on a capitalistic logic of economics, which is fragile and ultimately unsustainable. When the inevitable turmoil arrived, the PT could have taken measures to ensure that material benefits from the working class were not withdrawn, but decided to dive into neoliberal reforms instead. By backpedalling away from their own logic, which was the backbone of their cultural hegemony, the PT delegitimized their position, providing a fertile ground for ideological debate. This is why the right-wing media and corruption scandals are gaining traction today, even though they have always been around.

This leaves Brazil in quite an awkward situation. The population is disillusioned by the Left and is turning to the Right in order to solve their problems. Presumably, this is a bad idea. But not all hope is lost. The possibility of having a new Left rise from the old one's ashes is still possible. For that, however, there would need to be a conscious effort to establish a new cultural hegemony.

Jacques Simon is a French national, currently studying politics at the University of Ottawa in Canada. His interests include political economy, comparative politics, and the study of radical politics.