Thursday, March 31, 2011

Perry Anderson in the London Review of Books

London Review of Books (LRB) is a very staid, solemn, politically-middle-of-the-road publication that prints extensive reviews of books on social, political and economic issues. Perry Anderson is a professor of history and sociology at UCLA, and a committed socialist.

The online issue contains a sample of the great articles available in the print edition. Some complete articles are available for free online, but most require reader subscription to access the full contents. The LRB generally reviews books by academics who have written for a general audience, and its articles can sometimes be quite dense, yet rewarding.

Perry Anderson comes from the British, Western Marxist tradition, which has its strengths and weaknesses, like any school of thought. His writings are always packed with information, scholarly yet readable. His latest essay in the LRB is an outstanding survey of the presidency of Lula da Silva, the recently retired two-term president of Brazil. Anderson crafts his essay as a gripping political drama, which in fact, the Lula presidency was.

Can a democratically elected president leave office after two terms even more popular than when first elected? And can that politician become even more radicalised in office, taking on the corporate oligarchy successfully and emerge triumphant? Anderson argues that Lula, and the Brazilian Workers Party, did just that over the course of the first decade of the 2000s.

As Anderson states "By any criterion, Luiz Inácio da Silva is the most successful politician of his time." Quite a big call and one that is fully justified.

Anderson makes clear that Lula's terms in office were hardly peaceful - they were marred by constant attacks from the military-corporate oligarchy; political scandals tarnished his administration, Lula's popularity dropped precipitously in the mid-2000s, his social programs faced stiff resistance, and the major media were uniformly hostile. yet Lula and the Workers Party, based on strong trade union militancy, fought back with a political campaign and turned Brazil's economic fortunes around.

Anderson acknowledges that Lula's personal qualities contributed to his success, but avoids singling out his personality as the main factor in the success of the Lula presidency. He correctly observes that a correspondence of international and domestic factors contributed to the rise in the Workers Party fortunes - higher prices for Brazil's exports, increased demand for Brazil's soya and iron ore from China, and the general rise in commodity prices. Brazil's GDP increased substantially in the 2000s, as compared to the continual stagnation of the 1990s.

But Anderson also credits the Workers Party's domestic initiatives, such as helping the poor, in explaining Lula's increasing popularity. Lula launched the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash injection to mothers in the poorest strata of the population. Yes there are checks; the families must prove their children are geting the proper schooling and health checks. While the payments are small, they are made directly by the federal government, reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The financial cost of the programme is small, but its political impact is enormous, and has lifted 20 million out of dire poverty. (That figure comes from the Washington Post, not exactly a bastion of red-socialist propaganda). The Workers Party also subsidised education programmes, and the numbers of poor going to university trebled. Tight controls over the banks and financial institutions meant that the worst excesses of the 2008 global financial crisis were avoided in Brazil.

Brazil also assumed a larger role on the international stage under Lula's presidency. It has allied with Russia, China and India politically and economically, forming an alternative bloc that can challenge the power of the United States. Lula stopped consorting with the rich and powerful in the US, and moved towards greater Latin American solidarity, refusing to fall in line with the US as had previous administrations. Brazil officially recognised Palestine, and refused to join the US-sponsored blockading of Iran.

Anderson launches into a fascinating examination of the recent history of Brazil, and examines the historic subservience of Brazil to the interests of the US. While the previous civilian and military rulers of the country based themselves on the rhetoric of populism, Lula and the Workers Party on the trade union movement and democratic political structures that Vargas and Peron would never have permitted.

Anderson goes into various interpretations of 'Lulismo', and how the current regime differs historically from the prior governments. This is the more dense part of the essay, and Anderson goes into some historical detail which is beneficial for reader to understand the context of the Workers Party's rise to power. He documents how military rule suppressed political dissent, but also stifled intellectual culture, seeking to destroy any potential centre of resistance to the dictatorship. Accompanying the rise of the Workers Party is a growing intellectual ferment, with different periodicals thrashing out political ideas and debates about the way forward.

Go read the whole thing - it is a long article, but very worthwhile.

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