Brazil Paralyzed by Nationwide Strike, Driven by a Familiar Global Dynamic of Elite Corruption and Impunity
by Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept
Just over one year ago, Brazil’s elected President, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached – ostensibly due to budgetary lawbreaking – and replaced with her centrist Vice President, Michel Temer. Since then, virtually every aspect of the nation’s political and economic crisis – especially corruption – has worsened.
Temer’s approval ratings have collapsed to single digits. His closest political allies – the same officials who engineered Dilma’s impeachment and installed him in the presidency – recently became the official targets of a sprawling criminal investigation. The President himself has been implicated by new revelations, saved only by the legal immunity he enjoys. It’s almost impossible to imagine a presidency imploding more completely and rapidly than the unelected one imposed by elites on the Brazilian population in the wake of Dilma’s impeachment.
The disgust validly generated by all of these failures finally exploded this week. A nationwide strike, and tumultuous protests in numerous cities, today has paralyzed much of the country, shutting roads, airports and schools. It is the largest strike to hit Brazil in at least two decades. The protests were largely peaceful, but some random violence emerged.
The proximate cause of the anger is a set of “reforms” that the Temer government is ushering in that will limit the rights of workers, raise their retirement age by several years, and cut various pension and social security benefits. These austerity measures are being imposed at a time of great suffering, with the unemployment rate rising dramatically and social improvements of the last decade, which raised millions of people out of poverty, unravelling. As the New York Times put it today: “The strike revealed deep fissures in Brazilian society over Mr. Temer’s government and its policies.”
But the actual cause is broader, and it is one familiar far beyond Brazil. During the past three years, Brazilians have been subjected to one revelation after the next of extreme corruption pervading the country’s political and economic class.
Scores of corporate executives and long-time party leaders are imprisoned. They include the head of the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, the House Speaker who presided over Dilma’s impeachment, and the former governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. The current House Speaker, and Senate President, and nine of Temer’s ministers are now targets of criminal investigations for bribery and money laundering, as are numerous governors.
In sum, the vast bulk of the top-shelf political and economic elite have proven to be radically corrupt. Billions upon billions of dollars have been stolen from the Brazilian public. Recently released recordings from the judicial confessions of Marcelo Odebrecht, scion of one of Brazil’s richest families, depict a country ruled almost entirely through bribes and criminality, regardless of the ideology or party of political leaders.
And yet, even in the wake of this oozing and incomparable elite corruption, the price that is being paid falls overwhelmingly on the victims – ordinary Brazilians – while the culprits prosper. The same Brazilian politicians implicated in this criminal enterprise continue to reign in Brasília, as they enjoy virtual immunity from the law. Worse, they continue to exempt themselves from the austerity they impose on everyone else.
Imagine being a Brazilian laborer, working in poverty, spending years listening to stories about how corporate executives bribed political officials with millions of dollars in order to corruptly win state contracts – bribes that these elected officials used for yachts and luxury cars and European shopping sprees – only to then be told that there is no money for your retirement or pension and that you must work years longer, with fewer benefits, to save the country. That’s the tale which Brazilian citizens are being fed. The only mystifying aspect is that these types of protests have taken this long to erupt.
But this moral perversion – in which ordinary victims uniquely bear the burden for elite crimes – is familiar to citizens far away from Brazil. Indeed, one of the prime authors of Brazil’s economic suffering – the 2008 economic crisis caused by Wall Street – pioneered this odious formula.
The reckless tycoons and sociopathic financial wizards responsible for that 2008 economic collapse paid virtually no price for the harm they caused. To this day, none of them has been prosecuted for the financial chicanery that spawned it. Worse, the U.S. Government quickly acted to protect the interests of the culprits – bailing them out with public funds, protecting them from nationalization or break-up, preserving their ability to plunder with little risk to themselves.
At the same time, the victims of this recklessness – ordinary Americans – were forced to bear the full brunt of the fallout. Millions faced foreclosure, unemployment, and general economic suffering with little to no help from the U.S. government, which was busy protecting those responsible. Above all else, it was this inequity that spawned protest movements from Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, and arguably laid the groundwork of resentment and a collapse of trust that gave rise to the Trump presidency.
This week’s controversy over Barack Obama’s $400,000 payday from a Wall Street firm for a single speech resonated not because it suggested he had acted illegally or even unethically. Rather, it symbolized, in a particularly glaring manner, the oligarchical character of U.S. political culture: the same president who repeatedly acted to protect the financial industry after it wrecked the global economy, and who shielded its leaders from criminal prosecution, was being lavished with the rewards.
Across Europe, the same dynamic prevails. Angry voters in the U.K. ratified Brexit, while once-liberal populations in western Europe are alarmingly open to über-nationalist and xenophobic parties. Much of this, too, is driven by the often-valid belief that elite institutions are completely indifferent to their deprivation and suffering, and repeatedly act only to advance the interests of a small group of economically and politically powerful actors at the expense of everyone else. Of course that belief is going to trigger instability, and resentment, and collective rage.
The austerity and deprivation now being imposed on ordinary Brazilians is not ancillary or unanticipated. To the contrary, it was the primary objective, the central aim, of the impeachment last year of the country’s president.
In other words, Brazilian elites – having plundered the country to the point where it was close to collapse – decided that the only viable solution was to force the country’s already-suffering population of workers and the unemployed poor to suffer further, by taking from them the meager protections and safety net they enjoyed. They engineered the cataclysmic impeachment of the country’s president to achieve this.
Dilma’s replacement – the classic, pliable mediocrity that he is – was given one overarching task: to impose harsh austerity even if it meant becoming the target of widespread public hatred. The 75-year-old career politician – literally banned from running for office for 8 years due to his violation of election laws – had no intention or prospect to run again, so he happily agreed to perform his assigned duties in exchange for being given the mantle of power that he could never have earned on his own.
So that’s the tawdry spectacle of elite corruption, elite impunity and mass suffering driving today’s nationwide protest. Just as it did in the U.S. and Europe, this flagrant inequity is threatening to fuel a far-right, revanchist-nationalist movement in Brazil: one that actually makes its American and European counterparts pale in comparison when it comes to menacing extremism.
What’s most baffling about all of this is that no matter how many times global elites see the rotted fruit of their piggish behavior – instability, extremism and collective rejection of their own authority – they continue to pursue it, seemingly inured to the consequences. Brazil is just the latest example, but it should be a familiar one to people across the planet.
Welcome to the new Age of Revolution: No, it isn’t over yet, and we have no idea where it’s going
by Andrew O’Hehir, Salon
Saturday, Apr 29, 2017
The real issue is something much larger: the unprecedented collapse of social and political institutions that in most cases still exist but have lost much of their prestige and authority. This crisis is broader than the realm of conventional politics, encompassing such things as class conflict, racial and tribal identity, resurgent nationalism and the decay of any shared notion of reality. “Fake news” is anything you tell me that I don’t want to hear, in a context where we can’t even agree which facts are actually facts.
Leading political figures and the mainstream commentators who validate their zero-sum game of partisan warfare have been indoctrinated to believe that their power is eternal and their wisdom infallible. (Such is always the fallacious viewpoint of the ancien régime.)
Faced with evidence that their power is fading and that their conventional wisdom was completely wrong, they must constantly reassure themselves that none of this is a sign of structural failure. Instead it’s an unexplained but temporary anomaly, an underground leak in the plumbing of democracy that will soon be repaired. Their shared assumption that politics and society have always functioned a certain way, and always will, prevents them from perceiving that “always” ended some time ago.
Even if we stay within the most visible political symptoms, the dimensions of the crisis are clear enough. Partisan identification in the United States has hit an all-time low, something that both parties continue to pretend is not happening. (Mainstream political science largely insists that “independents” don’t exist or don’t matter; they are just Democrats or Republicans who for some superficial, trendy reason decline to be labeled.) American politics has become not just polarized and paralyzed but deeply paradoxical: Republican hold unprecedented power in Washington and across the country, yet their policies remain widely unpopular; Democrats advocate positions supported by large majorities, yet seem incapable of gaining power or wielding it effectively.
In the French presidential election, more than 70 percent of voters rejected both of the center-right and center-left parties that have won every previous election in the 58-year history of the Fifth Republic. The two finalists are the leader of a neofascist party previously viewed as anathema and a Potemkin candidate who has never held political office, representing an imaginary party concocted out of thin air. In a display of hilarious pathos, that latter candidate, former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, is being greeted with a collective sigh of relief by the Coulmier class: At last the nightmare is over and normalcy will be restored! Since the French establishment essentially invented Macron to save itself from the far right and far left, this is like telling your kids that the eggs you hid in the backyard last night prove the Easter Bunny is real.
The Democratic Party’s unresolved identity crisis, for instance — which is understandably maddening to many progressives — is not about what it appears to be about. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, at this point, are signifiers for a deeper existential or epistemological divide, which isn’t really a dispute over whether economic justice issues should have primacy over civil rights and women’s rights, or the other way around. (As I have previously observed, any progressive who claims those things can be disentangled is not a progressive at all.) Simplistic claims that Sanders represents a movement of white frat-boy dilettantes, or that coalition-building Clintonites don’t care about economic inequality, are insulting to both sides.
As many Clinton defenders observed in puzzled tones during the 2016 primary campaign, in terms of policy the two candidates weren’t that far apart. The difference between them — and the great chasm of understanding that divides the left-liberal coalition — is not about policies but about worldview. The essential question is one of perception: Are we living through an age of revolution that cannot be reversed, or just a bizarre interlude after which the old order will be restored? To be clear, this isn’t quite the same as the old-time leftist question about whether or not revolution is a good idea. That’s a moot point. It’s about whether an age of revolution is here, one that demands — or will enforce — major systemic change, whether we like it or not.