Great chaos under heavens but… what is to be done? — Caio Gontijo

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Not long ago, the left witnessed astonished the rise of right-wing populists in much of what Gramsci would call the “Occidental” capitalist world. The United States, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, and so on, and so on. But today, in May 2019, this situation is no longer new. The dialectical “process” in this same part of the world has already advanced from one “moment” to another. Right-wing populists were finally introduced to the “basic Leninist question”: what is to be done? And they did something more or less disastrous where they had time to do it. And so, regardless of being sufficiently well prepared, it is the left that is presented to the need to decide, once again and urgently, on what is to be done.

Let us explain it a little better from the United States and Brazil (and thus, I also invite other fellow Žižekians to analyze the situation in their countries). In the United States, Trump recently failed to approve budget funds for the construction of his wall on the border with Mexico, which ended up generating a shutdown in his government from December 22, 2018 until January 25, 2019 (35 days). It was the longest shutdown of the US government in history. Meanwhile, on August 21, 2018, a scandal involving his lawyer (and vice president of the Trump Organization), Michael Cohen: who pleaded guilty to the Mueller investigation on eight counts, including campaign finance violations, tax fraud, and bank fraud. Campaigns for Trump’s impeachment began to emerge immediately among Democrats, from the DNC establishment to the new left generated by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign (Justice Democrats, Democratic Socialists of America).

In Brazil, the Bolsonaro government, with only 5 months of existence, experiences an even worse moment. In addition to failing to advance any of his neoliberal reforms in Congress, there have emerged absolutely embarrassing scandals involving his government. Fabrício Queiróz, an advisor to his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, is under investigation for demanding other advisers to deposit money from their salary into his account, which was then passed on to the Bolsonaro family: to Flávio himself and to First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro. In addition, the scandals involving the Bolsonaro family’s possible relationship with the armed militias of Rio de Janeiro caused a great “disappointment” among Bolsonaro’s voters – Flávio Bolsonaro employed in his office the wife and daughter of the head of a large militia and it has come to public knowledge that the murderer of Marielle Franco is a neighbor of President Jair Bolsonaro (awkwardly enough they appear together in photos). After other minor yet relevant scandals, important supporters now begin to stop supporting the government, such as the “popstars” of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment: Janaína Paschoal, Kim Kataguiri, MBL (“Free Brazil Movement”), etc. More importantly, the powerful TV Globo (traditionally right leaning) seems to be now very dedicated to criticizing Bolsonaro. Recently, Jair Bolsonaro shared a short text (written by some of its supporters in an almost apocalyptic tone) in which it is acknowledged that he had not been able to govern and suggested (between the lines) that the solution would be either his resignation or to “break with the system” (which scared several analysts because it appeared to announce a future coup d’état).

Žižek, in November 2016, was heavily criticized for expressing his “support” for Trump against Hillary Clinton, which he said represented something even more dangerous: a pact “from Wall Street to Occupy Wall Street.” In addition, Trump’s election could bring about some major change in popular political fields and in the Democratic party as a response. Žižek recognized his thesis as “naïve”, but in its very simplicity it was formidable. And the temporal succession of events in the American political and social conjuncture seem now to be giving Žižek reason. Bernie’s campaign in 2016, alongside with the ”tragedy” of Trump’s election, generated such figures as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, etc.

For Brazil, however, Žižek was much more cautious. In an interview with Blog da Boitempo, he claims not to know the Brazilian case in depth but that he would not advocate that his “formula” for the United States could be a universal one. Žižek says that he would never have expressed support, for example, to Marine Le Pen, because we would have something much greater than Trump. The French state is much stronger and centralized and regulates to a much greater degree the social life as a whole, “it would be catastrophic”. Finally, Žižek concludes that he believed that the same was true for Brazil and Bolsonaro. But he explains that what he meant merely was that Trump would be “negatively” good, in order to shatter the existing hegemonic ideology and, in that sense, open space for the emergence of a more radical left, and he ends by quoting Mao:

We must learn from Trump to accept this idea that the old political pact that underpins our society is crumbling. And we must now have the audacity to propose a new social pact, ours, more to the left – a pact, or, if you want, a basic vision of society. In that sense, I am a Maoist. As Mao said: “Everything under heavens is plunged into chaos; the situation is excellent”. With Trump, there is a great deal of disorder under the American sky. [1]

Žižek’s thesis gains strength. In addition to the victory of several of the Democratic Socialists in 2018, Bernie Sanders appears strongly for the 2020 primaries: right behind Joe Biden (as might be expected, according to Gramsci, in moments of organic crisis, there is a strange period in which the “old” political arrangement has not yet completely died while the “new” is still coming into being: Biden, like Hillary, is one of the living dead of the Democratic establishment). There are other left-wing candidates on the DNC: Tulsi Gabbard (whose campaign so far has not taken off), Elizabeth Warren (although it must be remembered that she supported Hillary against Bernie) and I would dare include Pete Buttigieg (whose method to combat Trump seems interesting, he promises to focus on concrete issues, not on Trump’s tweets and vulgarities: precisely his greatest strength, and what the Democratic establishment still stupidly focuses on).

For Brazil, in the context of a left which is still stunned and demoralized by Bolsonaro’s victory, one can only hope that Žižek’s formula will work similarly to the USA, without Brazil having to repeat its dictatorial past (sometimes we are presented with the need to force ourselves into optimism). And under this possibility, who would be the Brazilian Bernie Sanders?

Short answer: Ciro Gomes. The “momentum” (in thus, the moment) in the last national elections in their respective countries were of Ciro Gomes and Bernie Sanders; not Fernando Haddad and Hillary Clinton. Each went through the national method of “choice” of their political field and both lost. That is, Sanders was held back within the Democratic Party’s primaries (undemocratically ruled by superdelegates), within months of the election, and although there were several shouts of indignation about the legitimacy of the process by his supporters, Bernie declared his support for Hillary Clinton: decision mediated by the strong right-wing populist alternative which had to be contained at all costs. Ciro Gomes was held back by the first round of the election [2], a few weeks before the second round, and although there were also shouts of indignation about the legitimacy of the process (which Ciro denounced only after the elections: accusing the PT of planting “fake news” about him and to have bought the support of parties that had previously declared support for him), decided to manifest, through his party (the PDT, smaller than the PT of Lula and Haddad), “critical support” to Haddad: decision mediated by the same circumstances as in the USA. The difference, however, in relation to Bernie Sanders, is that Ciro did not agree to join the PT once again and decided to leave the country during the weeks of the second round so as not to participate on Haddad’s campaign.

Of course, Bolsonaro won. Part of the PT blamed it on Ciro Gomes (and, yes, Hillary blamed it on Bernie in her book too).

Well, in the midst of all this, perhaps likewise Žižek we should all be a little Maoist. One must remember another famous phrase of the Chinese revolutionary when he tried to convince his supporters that there were conditions for victory even in a discouraging environment: “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. In the USA, already on the eve of the new elections (in 2020) and with candidacies launched, one can already see some sparks, as we have mentioned some. In the case of Brazil, such an exercise would still be a little bit speculative, but it is not unlikely that Ciro Gomes will run again (it would now be his fourth attempt) and if he does, he would enter his campaign greatly strengthened by the important accumulation of 2018 (third place in the first round, only behind Haddad and Bolsonaro – polls showed he was likely to win against both).

Bernie Sanders and Ciro Gomes answer to the question of “what is to be done”. And the answer is as simple, concrete and direct to ordinary people as Lenin’s “peace, land and bread” was. What is to be done for Bernie is a Green New Deal, capable of employing thousands of American workers and rebuilding the crumbling national infrastructure, as well as a series of measures for people in desperate situations, such as restructuring student debt. What is to be done for Ciro is a Project of National Development, capable of recovering public investment in strategic areas to overcome underdevelopment, as well as a series of measures for people in desperate situations, such as the refinancing of small family debts (his plan for “SPC”).

They are not even new slogans, expressions etc. Bernie reissues Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ciro reissues the Developmentalism of Getúlio Vargas. But they both update these policies in the light of new contemporary challenges. FDR and Vargas: allies in the fight against the (original) fascism in the World War II. It remains to be seen if Bernie and Ciro will be able to reissue the same victory.

But just as the 2018 elections in the US (AOC and her “comrades”) were an important thermometer for the presidential race that begins now; in Brazil, the 2020 municipal elections will also measure the forces in contention for the presidential election of 2022 (while there is the possibility that Bolsonaro will not even finish his term; and perhaps Trump won’t either). Gramsci comments in his Notebooks that the sciences which deal with the social being cannot predict the future, and he states: “it is possible to predict “scientifically” only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of it, which cannot but be the result of forces contrasting in continuous movement, always irreducible to fixed quantities, since in them quantity is continuously transformed into quality” (11, §15). And so, the future of Brazil and the United States will be the original result of the dialectical interactions of the forces in dispute. In a situation of great chaos under the heavens, the historical struggle must be: right-wing populism against a renewed, more audacious left, able to unveil both the “heavens” and the “disorder” beneath them.

Caio Gontijo – Master’s student in International Politics by the Graduate Program in International Relations of PUC Minas.

Notes:

1. https://blogdaboitempo.com.br/2018/12/04/zizek-a-eleicao-de-bolsonaro-e-a-nova-direita-populista/

2. There are more than 30 parties in Brazil, so the first round of the elections end of functioning more or less equally to the primaries in the USA.

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