The Ultra-Political Game: Depoliticization and False Polarization in Brazil

In a recent essay (see “Brazil: The Débâcle of the PT”), Alfredo Saad-Filho writes of the dilemmas the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) now faces in Brazil.
His analysis helps decipher some of the dynamics that have led to the current crisis of the PT regime and President Dilma Rousseff. This essay complements Saad-Filho’s contribution by further contextualizing the radical Left in relation to the PT; and by identifying where the right-wing opposition stands (beyond its relation to the failure of the PT to maintain hegemony through neoliberal conciliation). To do so, it is important to address further the demonstrations of March 13th and 15th of this year, and to draw the line between them and the events of June 2013 through the lens of the depoliticization of Brazilian politics under the PT administration.

March 15th rally: “Out with Dilma – Military Intervention”

The image of large numbers of people taking to the streets of Brazil is not surprising since June 2013, when the country was news worldwide after focused protests against transit fare hikes grew into demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people. Yet, the demonstrations of the past month have left many wondering about their meaning. While the Brazilian bourgeois press did its best to boycott the rally of March 13th, organized by supporters of the Workers’ Party government, it certainly left no doubt of its allegiance to the rally of March 15th, whose content was influenced (and led) by the mainstream right as well as the extreme-right. International media and political analysts, in the meantime, have tried to decipher the seemingly display of opposite forces between these two demonstrations, and some have correctly argued that the Dilma Rousseff government and the right-wing groups
do not sit at polar opposites, and this polarization does not reflect ideological and political opposition, but a tactical hostility related to which political organizations should be the one to implement austerity and the further neoliberalization of Brazil’s economy and society.

What remains to be said is that the reason why both camps are able to artificially position themselves as polar opposites relies on a deep process of depoliticization of Brazilian politics and the consciousness of the people. The matter of corruption, better placed as “Corruption,” is a useful tool for those in the right whose objective has been to mask the foul deals between capital and the Brazilian state and to prevent any critical political analysis of this relationship. This tool, well known to Brazilian politics, has
proved to be irrefutable when coupled with extreme nationalism, which has left the Workers’ Party with the task to reclaim some of the nationalism in its favour by associating itself with the defence of democracy. Corruption, democracy, and the nation are all matters worth examining carefully in Brazil, especially at this moment of economic crises. Instead, they have become jargon in the mouth of PT supporters, right-wing groups, and above all, all of those suffering from the depoliticization that is organic to ultra-politics.

Why Ultra-Politics?

Slavoj Žižek speaks of ultra-politics as one of various strategies of disavowal of the political conflict; that is, of depoliticizing the political. This “cunning and radical” method the depoliticization of the conflict by creating a “war between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’” in a direct militarization of the situation.1 This does not require that the conflict be based on radical material antagonism, as the ultra-political strategy may require enhancing the symbolism of dispute and opposition of one conflict in order to prevent the politicization of the internal struggles of society. While the resulting form of this war does carry polarized elements, its exaggeration often summons a bigger spectacle of opposition, which was clear in the attempts to place the Workers’ Party and the right-wing demonstrations in competition with one another and to enhance both the extreme and the absurd in each rally.

What does this mean? It means that while class struggle is determinant of the real political conflicts in Brazilian society, ultra-politics has promoted a spectacle of symbolic warfare that is played entirely in the right-wing field. While the Workers’ Party insists in associating itself with a working-class image, which is only still possible due to its relationship to the labour unions and social movements that compose its base (i.e.: CUT and MST), there is hardly any real opposition between a government that has weakened labour rights (e.g.: employment insurance is now practically unavailable for workers in precarious and temporary jobs) and bowed
down to the neoliberal advances promoted by Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, and the traditional right-wing parties that would promote such policies (and perhaps go only slightly further) if they were in power. In fact, Rousseff has virtually replicated the programme put forward by her right-wing opponent, Aécio Neves, from PSDB, during the 2014 electoral campaign. The only factor to break the symmetry between this polarization effort that places the PSDB and the rest of the mainstream right on one end and the PT as the major representative of the Brazilian left (a highly disputable title) is the presence of an extreme-right, exactly the one most engaged in this project of depoliticized polarization aimed at promoting any measures, even by force, of removing the PT from power.

The propaganda orchestrated by the extreme-right consists of imputing “fear of communism,” a task of the pseudo-intellectuals of the right (many of whom occupy positions of privilege in the bourgeois media), and the use of tools such as extreme nationalism (termed
ufanismo in Brazil since its use for similar purposes by the military dictatorship) to fuel totalitarian proposals for addressing the evil of Corruption. The most infamous has been the call for military intervention and even the return of the military dictatorship. This has been followed by attempts to associate the PT with socialist Cuba, and the creation of moral panic regarding a project of Marxist
political indoctrination also led by the Workers’ Party. This, of course, relies on a perspective of the PT as leftist and socialist, which can only be promoted by the right (in order to attack it) or the PT itself (when it is convenient to play the leftist card, as during elections) due to widespread depoliticization that reduces the right versus left debate to a battle over symbols.

Any resemblance to other angry extreme-right groups such as the Tea Party is no mere coincidence, although a more careful analysis is necessary if one wishes to trace the ideological roots of the American and Brazilian far right movements, especially concerning their use of ultra-political tools and the continuous depoliticization of real material struggles. In sum, the strengthening of far-right organizations determined to spew propaganda, even if it goes no further than hate propaganda, reproduces depoliticization at the same time that it provides an answer to an alienated reality, one that the Left, and the Brazilian left (positioned much to the left of the Workers’ Party), for that matter, has failed or had difficulties in providing. In the depoliticized space of ultra-politics, totalitarian answers gain the appearance of possibility, as is the case with “the anger against corruption, rising fascism in Europe and the radicalism of the U.S. Tea Party,” as David Harvey argues.2

Where this extreme-right and the mainstream right converge is this anger against corruption, calls for the impeachment of President Rousseff, and the understanding that although the political scenario is not favourable toward an outright coup against the PT government, the propaganda surrounding it benefits an ideological hegemony of the right and even the possibility of more bureaucratic control of the
state apparatus by the right. In fact, even centrist catch-all parties of the bourgeoisie that make up the support base of the PT government (governistas) have benefitted from the weakened position of President Rousseff and her cabinet, to the point that a quarrel between the Minister of Education, Cid Gomes, and the Chair of the Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, resulted, in simple terms, in the immediate resignation of the minister. The chair of the Chamber of Deputies (and the majority of the Chamber) belong to the
PMDB party, considered the most important ally of the PT government, but which has de facto set many of the rules to which the PT has played along in the past years. This is an interesting scenario when considered alongside the analyses of a crisis of representation
in Brazil and the strong symbolism it had during the protests of June 2013 and parts of the crowd that carried banners of “No party represents us.” The general feeling, however, is that whether the PMDB truly represents anyone seems less relevant than the fact that its hold over the government is hegemonic to the point that it
appears to immune to polarization, gaining when the PT is strong as well as when the right makes advances. In this ultra-political game, the polarized ideologies of the PT versus the right, even if mostly symbolic given their similar political projects, fuel depoliticization in all levels of society, to the benefit of parties such as the PMDB, and both centre-right and far-right organizations.

While the PT may be able to counterattack as a defender of democracy (“against the golpistas” as its cadres have put it), its ability to fend the attacks has diminished considerably, given the corruption scandal surrounding Brazilian oil company Petrobrás and
the low popularity of President Dilma Rousseff. This last point has demonstrated that any previous bet by the party of fighting off anti-petismo (anti-PT) through the popularity of President Lula, still well-regarded by sections of the masses, could not carry
through with Rousseff. Lula’s other weapon, the inclusion of the middle-class and low middle-class through the expansion of credit and new consumption horizons, is no longer available amidst an economic crisis and the chosen route of actually shrinking workers’ rights and favouring the private sector over public services. This has given the Left, the one to the left of the PT, no other option but to
eagerly frame itself as the real left alternative. This strategy also requires that these organizations deconstruct the image of the PT as
a representative of the working class, so that those who look for leftist alternatives may identify the correct representatives for this project. At the same time, the organizations and its activists
suffer from the anti-leftism that follows anti-petismo, though the task here is much more complex as it requires a direct attack on the conservative forces and a continuous effort to politicize the debate during relatively unfavourable times.

What to Make of the Rallies of
March 13th and March 15th?

What is particularly interesting regarding the rallies organized for these dates is not so much the blunt fact that one was called for by the government base to defend the PT government and the other one by the right-wing opposition to attack the PT government. The really
interesting factor is that these were the dates to cement the notion of a polarized politics in Brazil, as if the one material polarization at play, to be for or against the Workers’ Party, was the fundamental political question of the conjuncture. By giving this
one difference in position so much weight, both rallies depoliticized the debate once more and prevented real questions of neoliberalism and austerity, corporate campaign financing, the undue influence of the bourgeois media in Brazilian politics, and the matter of whether the working class stands in all of this.

Organizations to the left of the Workers’ Party and of the governistas tried to force the debate in this direction, by explaining its absence from both demonstrations and why neither could be promoted as a display of authentic political engagement of the masses (as some of the events of June were, in many aspects). The
prospects of this engagement, of course, were limited in reach and in current capacity of intervention. The first is because of media blockage and this overflow of anti-petismo into anti-leftism (as well as its extreme expression in fascist hate of communism and
the very existence of the Left), which, in part, composes the challenge of reaching out to those who have become interested in politics once again after June 2013. The second is because those already politicized to the Left of the PT were not likely to
participate in the demonstrations of the 15th, and most were aware of the many contradictions of the current government that should prevent any support from the radical Left, even if this participation was framed by the governistas as a defence of
democracy and of Petrobrás. Therefore, the real merit of this effort by the radical Left was to further differentiate itself from the moderate, neoliberal leftism represented by the Workers’ Party and to actually politicize the debate, whether it managed to convince
five or five million people to abstain from one of the rallies. Here I gather, and this analysis is still up for the debate, that there was more success in disputing the base for the 13th, as it is possible in this moment of crisis of hegemony for the PT to show a
way out to the left of the party for those in its base and the masses that have, in general, elected PT politicians and, in particular, President Dilma Rousseff. The attempt was not to empty the streets on the 13th, as some governistas accused us of doing, but to
demonstrate the empty meaning of a rally made up of political organizations of the working class defending the politics of a neoliberal government from attacks from the right, even if these were
moralist, hypocritical, and depoliticized attacks. The truth is that this was an important step in response to the growing need to deconstruct the PT more publicly and continuously, rather than only concentrated though sparse efforts during particular conjunctural events (e.g. elections).

As for those present on the 13th, they were not all simple governistas and some heterogeneity in project (and vision of what the 13th meant) must be taken into consideration. First, there were the devout petistas and part of the base of
the Central Union of Workers (CUT) and the Landless Workers Movement (MST), two organizations that have aligned themselves nationally and
coordination-wise with the PT government, even tolerating outright attacks on workers’ rights and on the possibility of agrarian
reform (i.e. the appointment of Kátia Abreu, a major representative of agribusiness, to the Ministry of Agriculture). For these organizations, a stable PT regime is essential to carry out some of their institutional strategies, but this also means a gradual
detachment from socialist politics and revolutionary aspirations (this is clearer in some levels than in others, such as when part of the CUT coordination “suggested” austerity as an economic route, claiming that workers would understand its political necessity and
accept the sacrifice). It is important to highlight, however, that there were also groups and individuals there who still believe that
the PT represents the working class or at least should represent it better. For them, the party is still in dispute and its future depends on the ability to make it socialist again (or for the first time, as even some of the founding documents of the party
characterized it more on the social democratic realm than anywhere close to “Marxist” or “socialist”). This bet revolves around
the understanding that the PT is still a party of the masses, something that other parties such as the PSOL, the PSTU, and the PCB have not yet attained in comparable scale. The question is whether
this dispute is even possible, considering that the existence of parties such as the PSOL is due to the PT’s intolerance for internal opposition and preference for expelling militants who went
against the party line during its neoliberalization. My argument resonates more closely with the efforts of these three other parties and other organizations in the socialist Left, which is that it is no longer viable nor desirable to dispute the PT as an organization, and
the path should be to dispute the chunk of the masses that still make up its base and the other chunk that the PT gradually lost to the
right or to depoliticization. There was little to gain in waving flags bearing Rousseff’s name and carrying banners in favour of a
Petrobrás that the PT government has helped to grow into the hands of international financial capital. A more radical proposal, such as
a 100% public Petrobrás was not welcome on the 13th. It is no wonder then that when the teachers of the São Paulo public school system voted in assembly to go on strike and march the streets on the 13th, their own rally broke in two as a large group of the teachers refused to walk alongside the governista demonstration.

In the same line of thought, it is worthwhile to mention the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), which has grown nationally over the past years and maintained a combative stance in relation to the rising right-wing and the PT’s attempts to produce a social pact between
social movements and the government. One example is the fact that the MTST took to the streets on several occasions in the wake of the 2014
FIFA World Cupexactly when the CUT and the MST withdrew from such action in fear of destabilizing the Dilma government and hurting her
re-election chances. Whereas the MTST has not yet achieved the historical status of the MST (both in Brazil and in Latin America),
it indicates a renewed force in the radical Left, even as it works to find a balance between negotiating with the PT government and maintaining a firm opposition to its neoliberal ways. If the MTST manages to grow its base and to position itself as a representative
of a radical Left (a socialist one, as it is stated in core documents and by several of its activists), it could hold the answer to an
extremely fragmented Left, which is still struggling to provide a cohesive answer to June 2013 and the damage done by the PT. Whereas
the PT has managed to guarantee a certain degree of collaboration by social movements through its pact with the MST and the CUT, the
radical Left must organize itself around a new base, and the framework of the right to the city (embedded in the socialist struggle) holds enormous potential.

In terms of the 15th, what we have is a spectacle of depoliticization (empowered by extreme nationalism) and the powerful ability of the right and the extreme-right (empowered by the bourgeois media) to manipulate not only its base but also individuals who make up sectors of the population that have been constantly violated by both conservative and neoliberal politics. It is valid to highlight that although those in the demonstrations of March 15th were richer, older, and more privileged than the average Brazilian, one of the polls conducted in São Paulo indicated that 39% of those asking for military intervention earned no more than twice the monthly minimum wage.3 This is a necessary caveat to be added because it is not irrelevant that there were, even as a very small minority, members from the working class, the black community, and the LGBTQ community dressed in green and yellow who believed they were there fighting for a better country and against corruption, which is perceived as a general evil in Brazilian politics but has been so successfully associated with the Workers’ Party. Since corruption is something that everyone should be morally opposed to, if one wishes to be a good citizen, and since ultra-politics has reduced politics to a problem of corruption and masked social and economic antagonisms with a simple matter of the need to tweak democracy (or weaken it, as the extreme-right proposes), it is not a surprise that this has affected the theoretical consciousness of the explored and the marginalized. The difficulties the radical Left has encountered in reuniting this theoretical consciousness with the practical consciousness that exudes of antagonism adds to the depth of the depoliticized hole where many of those perceived as part of the revolutionary subject could be found on the 15th, in the elections of October 2014, and in daily social reality.

Thus, it is important not to dismiss the large crowds that met on the 15th as solely an angry and idiotic expression of the right, as it aspires to reclaim the federal government, accompanied by fascist’s claims. Although there were many supporters of the PSDB,
many demonstrators were not aware of the participation of the party (among others in the right-wing) in the orchestration of the rallies nor of the denunciation of corporate financing of ads and websites related to the demonstration. Anti-partisanship continues to be perceived as the only moral options in a society of widespread corruption in the political parties, and anti-petismo embodied both this understanding and the hatred of the Left. There were banners calling for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, for the end of the “communist” government of the Workers’ Party, for military intervention and an outright coup d’état. There were also the standard calls against corruption, and even for political reform, which is a platform of many meanings, as it has been employed differently by the right, by the PT, and some organizations of the radical Left. There was also the poor black worker drawn into the demonstration, because she has felt the negative impacts of political arrangements that have favoured transnational corporations, of rising inflation, of the ever-worse public health system, of unaffordable rent that drives the poor to the periphery of the periphery of the city, and of mega-events that have evicted hundreds of thousands from their homes and handed the host cities to big capital on a plate.

A Battle of Many Fronts

Like in June 2013, any attempt to reify the meaning of street demonstrations into one solid meaning must be avoided. Depoliticized times call for analytical caution precisely because the radical Left must also be complex in its response. What ultra-political
polarization indicates is the need to fight a battle of many fronts, which may even result in simultaneous victories and defeats. The task to deconstruct the Workers’ Party, for instance, may imply talk of corruption, which is a terrain the right has navigated with mastery.
This example helps to show how politicization must be a weapon, so that radical Left speech on corruption escapes moralism by exposing the ties between capitalism and individual values, the state, and the limits of electoral democracy.

Depoliticization, whether by ultra-politics or other methods, is a responsibility of the PT and the right because both actors play the alienated reality as the only possible reality. While the right depends on depoliticization to have mass influence, for otherwise it would only rely on the elites (which does not suffice in standard liberal democracy), the PT, due to arrogance or carelessness, abandoned any project of politicization, of consciousness-changing, together with any pretence for building a progressive society within a few years of federal government. During the years of economic cooperation, this depoliticization of social reality worked well to guarantee political stability while the government strengthened alliances with national and transnational capital. Now that this is
no longer a possibility, questions arise as to whether something can be done about the Workers’ Party. Does it stay or does it go? It has leftist historical roots but threw away any leftist legitimacy during office. It promotes a neoliberal centre-right set of policies
and measures, but anti-petismo prevents it from easily reframing itself as such. In the meantime, it is the job of the organizations of the left of the PT, both political parties and social movements, to resignify the spaces of struggle in society by opposing the projects embodied on the 13th and on the 15th, even if they were slightly different from each
other. Most of all, it must find effective ways of positing its own project as a real and possible political alternative. Unlike the practice of the PT, there can be no fear of speaking of socialism and revolution in all realms, not simply as an agitation strategy. Only
this way can the links of capitalist exploitation that have been hidden or disguised begin to be exposed in a counter-hegemonic attack. As of now, the Brazilian radical Left has the challenge of reorganizing itself and learning to articulate itself collectively and continuously as to provide a consistent leftist response to the economic crisis and to ultra-politics.

CUT activist is injured by the police during a protest.

On this week’s events: As part of the attack on workers by the conservative Congress, the Chamber of Deputies is currently voting the bill PL 4330/2004, which will legalize and institutionalize job outsourcing for any occupation. If it passes, the new law will effectively prevent any sort of workers’ organizing in the workplace, in addition to making casual and precarious jobs the norm in the Brazilian economy. Labour unions, including the CUT, have realized what this means and are mobilizing against it. Yesterday, as they protested in front of Congress, they were violently attacked by the police, on orders of Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies. This situation calls for immediate action from all workers and represents the need for a wake up call in the base of the PT. General outsourcing not only represents a threat to the workers the CUT claims to represent, but also a threat to the very existence of the CUT, and other unions. •


  1. Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso Books, 1999), 225.
  2. Watson, Mike and David Harvey. David Harvey: On Syriza and Podemos. March 19, 2015.
  3. Report: Demonstration Polls. March 2015.

Sabrina Fernandes is an activist in the Brazilian radical left, a critical pedagogue, and Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Carleton University. She blogs at and tweets at @safbf.