The Challenge of Becoming Active Citizens Under Brazil's New People-Centered Government

06 May 2003
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Marcos Arruda

The Challenge of Becoming Active Citizens Under Brazil's New People-Centered Government
Marcos Arruda
Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center, 6 May 2003

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When people elect a government identified with their own aspirations for socioeconomic change, new risks arise. One is that the government may say: "The people are now the government, and whoever criticizes the government is opposed to the people". This psychological projection has serious political consequences-it can lead to absolutism. The other risk is that the people may say: "We have a people's government, it will promote socioeconomic change on our behalf; now we can go home and take care of ourselves". Here the danger is that civil society becomes immobilized by the illusion that it holds State power.

The reality is that a people-centered government in the capitalist context is a confluence of interests representing diverse social classes. The new Brazilian government brings together not just workers but also bankers, industrialists, large landholders, foreign businesspeople-in sum, the owners of material capital who control the largest share of wealth and income in the nation. Workers also divide into distinct sectors with specific interests: day laborers, smallholder farmers, industrial and service workers, intellectuals, professionals. What they have in common is that they live off their labor rather than off capital gains.

The assertion that modernity and globalization have done away with social classes is a fallacy. In fact, the gap between capital and labor in contemporary capitalism is greater than ever before. Its manifestations, however, are tempered by the capacity of the ruling classes to manipulate people through the lure of consumerism and the distractions and disinformation offered by mass media corporations. The people-centered Lula government, in such a context, is permanently subject to pressure from the dominant classes that have historically benefited from the existing order. The ruling sectors seek above all continuity of economic policies and commitments, even if concessions must be made in the area of social policies.

Brazil is a country with a land area larger than the contiguous United States and a population of 177 million people. It is endowed with abundant and diverse natural resources, including large expanses of arable land, minerals, energy sources, and biodiversity. Its colonial past, however, has left a heritage of severe inequality in education and wealth that decades of political independence and representative democracy have been unable to overcome.

Brazilian elites are particularly greedy and self-centered. They have been unwilling to share their privileges even at the risk of exacerbating social violence (of which they themselves are often the victims) or of losing elections. Lula, more than any other president who has governed Brazil in the past, is under enormous pressure to provide continuity to the policies of the previous Cardoso government. In particular, he faces extreme pressure to uphold the commitments made with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for a $30 billion new loan.

In this context, Lula's immediate concern is not so much socioeconomic change as governability. He needs to prove to all sectors of society-especially the financial and economic elites in Brazil and abroad-that his government is serious and will sustain the contracts inherited from the past. Lula is convinced that change is possible, but that it must be gradual, and based on an interplay of social forces that will progressively shift in favor of the working majority.

His own Workers' Party (PT) is fraught with complex contradictions. It is now the party that leads the Brazilian government, but it gained power through a coalition with other political parties. Moreover, the PT itself is internally divided. While many party members formed part of the government after coming to power, a broad sector of the party does not work in the government but continues to be an active component of civil society. Another source of friction is that a significant minority advocates quicker changes in socioeconomic policy than the party leadership is willing to promote. These minority groups argue, for example, that placing a priority on paying debts owed to international and national financial institutions is incompatible with a policy of beginning to pay off the social and environmental debts owed the Brazilian people. Lula has not yet clearly acknowledged these contradictions or shown a willingness to respect the grassroots character of the Workers' Party. This would mean accepting that the civil-society sector of the party remains hegemonic within the party structure, and assuring it that party members in government respect its relative autonomy.

These and other contradictions pervade the new administration, often creating opposition between political society and civil society. The latter, particularly workers' organizations, cannot sit back and wait for optimal public policies to be adopted and implemented simply because Lula-the former worker and trade union leader-is the president. Civic awareness demands a clear understanding of the contradictory nature of the government led by Lula and of the national and international context of financial, economic, and political instability. It also demands a profound shift away from an inherited culture of submission and alienation, the legacy of almost four hundred years of colonialism and slavery. A series of republican elitist governments and Brazil's subordinate form of neoliberal insertion into global capitalism have only served to reinforce that culture.

The nation now needs to develop a culture of self-reliance, self-esteem, and self-determination, imbued with a spirit of cooperation and solidarity between different sectors and regions of the country, as well as toward other peoples of Latin America and the world. But this takes time and a patient process of education about what Brazilians call active citizenship.

The notion of citizens' rights and duties is a cornerstone of the new government. The idea is that government has a key mission to fulfill: that of educating civil society for the full exercise of its rights and duties. The vision of democracy is no longer the traditional one-that an enlightened group of elected politicians will command the country with a blank check from the voters. Democracy must now be based on people's empowerment for participation, whereby society is invited to discuss and share the power of determining, with the government, the main guidelines for a Brazilian development project. Legislative reforms are needed and institutions must be modified and new ones generated. Social relations must change to conform to a new vision of a society-one that is capable of commanding its own development and destiny, of guaranteeing full respect for social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental rights, and of taking individual and collective responsibility for fulfilling its duties as human beings and as citizens of Brazil and Planet Earth.

For the moment, people around the country are working to bring about this visionary ideal by actively pressuring those in power on behalf of the needs and the interests of the working majority. They participate actively in the various councils and forums created by the government to enhance public involvement in discussing the present and future. The vision also requires broad programs to democratize the economy, and popular education projects to develop the awareness and organizational capacity that will allow citizens gradually to empower themselves for growing autonomy, self-management, and self-reliance as a people, in solidarity with other peoples.

Copyright 2003 Interhemispheric Resource Center