Fantasies of Classlessness
The justification of re-distribution through taxation is that by this means the wealthy contribute to the commonwealth of the nation. It is a justification that presupposes that all citizens of a nation share a common interest in each other’s material well-being. This assumption of a shared national interest has always been contradicted by the reality of class interest, which, in economic matters, typically trumps the ideology of shared citizenship. That classes and class interest are still real and not just a problem of the past or a construct of Marxist argument is proven once again by the revelations contained in the Panama Papers.
While the revelations contained in these papers cost a few sitting politicians their jobs and occasioned promises for investigation and change, the key political truth that the papers revealed is that most of the practices that allow the wealthy to shield their income from national taxation by hiding it in tax havens are legal. Those methods that are not strictly speaking legal are not pursued (typically) with the diligence one would expect if the law were really no respecter of persons. It might not be a respecter of persons in their individuality, but it is certainly a respecter of class. How could it be otherwise: the poor do not write the law; they are its objects, not its subjects.
And When They Try to Become Subjects…
…they are demonized and attacked no matter what means of resistance and change they choose to employ. The latest victim of the global right-wing reaction is Dilma Rousseff and the Brazilian Workers’ Party. She is suffering from the same mobilization of anti-democratic forces that have largely undermined the Venezuelan experiments with new models of socialist development.
Anti-democratic? Did I say anti-democratic? How can massive street demonstrations against proven corruption and obvious economic crisis be anti-democratic? The answer demands that we think through the value-implications of the term “democracy.” By “value-implications” I mean the goods that animate the struggle for democracy and the institutional requirements the realization of those goods entail.
We can start to get at these implications by looking historically at who has led the struggle for democracy. In all cases, excluded groups have been central to the mobilizations against entrenched elites. While ancient and modern conceptions of democracy are distinct, as are liberal, republican, and socialist conceptions, what they all have in common is a rejection of the principle that political power is the proper preserve of a noble class fit by their superior nature to rule. In a democracy the shared interest is supposed to rule. It is because there really is a shared interest in access to fundamental means of life and life-development that demands for democracy arise wherever these life-goods are denied by a ruling elite claiming the mandate of heaven or nature to rule. Spartacus and the protesters of the Arab Spring were united by the rejection of the idea that it is ever just to prevent the majority (who do the necessary work of society) from accessing the means of life and life-development by excluding them from political and economic power.
If we look at the current mobilizations against Maduro and Rouseff, it is clear that many of the protesters are working class men and women, but they and their life-interests are not driving the movement. While the specific history of state development in Latin and South America encourages corruption (for the case of Brazil, see Perry Anderson’s excellent article in this month’s London Review of Books) corruption is the surface justification but not the real driver of the mobilization. The leaders of the reaction are the leaders who have been displaced from their historical positions of power by the “Bolivarian” Revolution in Venezuela and the Worker’s Party in Brazil.
The right-wing reaction has been made possible by the end of the boom in commodity prices. It was this commodity boom that allowed the Venezuelan socialist party and the Brazilian Worker’s Party to fund real improvements in the lives of working and poor Venezuelans and Brazilians. As prices collapsed, government income was reduced, an inflation crisis hit Venezuela, and austerity measures introduced in Brazil in an effort to placate the right wing. But rather than placate them it has emboldened them to discredit the socialist parties as the cause of the economic crisis (when in fact of course the cause was the banking industry, centred in New York and London, not Brasilia or Caracas).
The real democratic movement was the mobilization of the social power of working people and the poor that Chavez and Lula were able to ride to victory (and, in the case of Chavez, mobilize to defeat a right-wing coup attempt). If anyone has any doubts about the real social achievements of Chavez (vastly improved medical care in alliance with Cuban doctors, public housing, the slow emergence of a parallel solidarity economy, nationalization of key industries) they should read Gregory Wilpert’s superb account of the first ten years of the Bolivarian Revolution (Changing Venezuela by Taking Power, Verso, 2007). Wilpert is far from uncritical, but puts paid to the slanderous misrepresentation of the Chavez government that is typical fare in even the best North American newspapers.
While the achievements (and limitations and problems) were real in both Venezuela and in Brazil, the decline in commodity prices has exposed the fatal flaw of the model pursued by both countries. In neither case were there system-wide efforts to change the structure of property ownership. As a consequence, economic power remained in the hands of the traditional ruling class. So long as there was a lot of money flowing into the state, public infrastructure projects could be advanced and the lives of the poor improved. But as soon as that money dried up, the traditional elites struck back, asserting the power they never lost over the economy and exploiting the local effects of a global economy to discredit the alternative model (very tentatively) explored by the left wing parties.
This leads us to what me might call a paradox of transition: if electoral parties of the left pursue a vigorous transition to socialism through wide-spread expropriation and socialization of property, they risk the coup d’etat and civil war their electoral alternative to armed revolution was supposed to avoid. On the other hand, if they avoid civil war by being cautious, they leave preponderant power in the hands of the right wing and risk being undermined from within, as is currently happening. There is no easy or obvious solution to this paradox. To simply allow the achievements of the past decade to be undone by a right-wing re-conquest of power would be a defeat that would undermine the credibility of the South American left for the foreseeable future. At the same time, with unfavourable global economic conditions, a return to policies that helped consolidate the legitimacy of the alternative will prove difficult if not impossible.
The Political Stakes
Whatever policy decisions are ultimately made, the crucial political task is to defend the democratic legitimacy of the Bolivarian Revolution and the PT. That does not mean uncritical support for either; it means that democracy remains rooted, as it always has been, in the shared life-interests, and the struggle for democracy with those popular forces whose life-interests are most threatened by undemocratic forms of social organization. Those undemocratic social forms are the very social forms the right-wing is trying to drag Brazil and Venezuela back to, and they are why people who support democracy in the Global North must avoid being hoodwinked by mainstream media reporting about the “democratic” opposition to authoritarian and corrupt socialist governments. The structures that feed corruption (as Anderson shows) long pre-dated Lula and the PT and the real authoritarianism is the authoritarianism of capital, which claims the sovereign right to rule over everyone and the shared life-interest, unaccountable to and unconcerned with real life-conditions on the ground.