Versão em português Soundings 18:41-52 Summer/Autumn 2001
The Partido dos Trabalhadores in São Paulo
At the beginning of October last year the biggest South American metropolis –and the heart of the Brazilian economy– elected as a mayor Marta Suplicy of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, the Workers' Party). From the beginning of the campaign for the second ballot, Suplicy had been the favourite to win, having polled more than than twice as many votes as her nearest rival in the first round, when there were more than ten candidates, including former PT mayor 'hard core' Luiza Erundina. (There is a second ballot every time there is no candidate with an overall majority in the first, a play-off between the two most popular first-round candidates.)
Yet it was not all plain sailing. Though Suplicy is widely seen as a 'pink' socialist, being of patrician extraction and aligned to the 'lighter' version of the PT, the 'right' were extremely concerned at the prospect of her election. Moreover, the 'centre' collapsed in disarray. All this meant that the anti-PT forces managed to scrape together a respectable number of votes in the second ballot, in spite of the fact that their candidate was utterly unpopular, being widely seen as a ruthless and rather blunt representant of elite interests. (He had been reponsive for building expensive road artwork at the expense of public transport, and for organising favela removals while building Potemkin façades masquerading as 'social housing ensembles'; he had also left the education and health services in a shambles, even though public debt doubled during his administration.) This unpopular candidate still managed to poll an impressive (and somewhat worrying) 41%. This still left room for a comfortable victory for Marta Suplicy, but it was not quite the landslide that had been expected. Nevertheless, significantly, and perhaps more importantly, the PT increased its number of representatives in the Council by 8 –it now has 17 seats out of a total of 55. This is a very significant improvement for a Council long notorious for corruption and largely in thrall to a small number of big building contractors, estate developers and bus companies.
In what follows I
will try to sum up the possibilities open to Suplicy's administration,
looking at the probable trends in the direction of urban policy, and
the prospects for change in Brazilian society more widely– as well as
raising a number of associated questions along the way.
One of the key
issues faced by PT administrations across
There have been
some successes --but also some inevitable problems--
in the PT's campaign to increase the participation of citizens
in the administration of their cities. Thus in the case of
In addition to the
question of participation, in
programme envisages the transformation of these 'regional'
administrative units into sub-prefectures (boroughs), which will have
more self-government and more resources. This is an old idea that was
very popular during the last (1988-92) PT administration
in São Paulo, when there was even consideration given to the
idea that the 'Regionals' should have elected governing bodies. That
programme was shelved by subsequent right-wing administrations, but is
almost certain that a new attempt to implement it will now be made.
Marta Suplicy certainly did say this when she was a candidate.
Democracy: social, liberal or direct?
planning' in local governments raises the rather broader issue of democracy itself, and this is made of even
greater interest by the numerous electoral victories of the PT across
The name itself, democracy, is a little baffling. For it means the rule of the people, but if the people are in power, over who, or what, could they extend their rule? In fact the word was borrowed from the Greeks by nascent bourgeois society in capitalist economies, and is meant to suggest that all men and women in a democratic society are equal. Since this flies in the face of social practice and everyday experience, liberal ideology –bourgeois social 'theory'– does not say as much, stating only that in a democracy all men and women have the same rights ('all are equal before the law'). And when it comes to the political forms which rule the life of such a society, everyone has the same right to have a say. However, since it is not possible for every member of society express his/her will directly, they elect representatives who speak in their names (and in the name of their interests). This is representative democracy, also known as liberal democracy – in liberal ideology the best (or least bad) available social organization of society.
Critiques of representative democracy argue that in practice the interests of less powerful people will always be hijacked by the greater influence of the dominant class, whose interests thus will always ultimately prevail. Lenin went as far as to say that democracy was the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. I tend to agree with this position, but also feel that the alternative known as direct democracy1 is a utopian notion in a bourgeois society – and most probably in any society: one has only to recall the experience of the now extinct 'actually exisitng socialist' societies of Eastern Europe.
But before leaving the question of representative/ direct democracies, let us recall a third form of democracy, namely, social democracy. In fact, this is not a 'variant' of the former type. It is a proposition that was born amid the transformations that took place in capitalist society during the last part of the nineteenth century. At the time, after centuries of rapid, even spectacular, growth, which had seen the world-wide spread of capitalism –the period of extensive accumulation–, there was suddenly no room for more expansion and the Great Depression set in which lasted twenty years (1875-95). This was the time when ideas about social democracy began to be discussed, at the beginning of the transition to a new stage of capitalism.
During the twentieth century, especially after the second world war, it became clear that the new forms of capitalism which were developing were nothing like 'classical' capitalism of the industrial revolution or the Victorian Age. One important change was that there was now definitely no new room for expansion –the whole world had already been conquered by wage labour and commodity production. This meant that any increase in commodity production could only proceed through an increase of the productivity of labour. This was, in fact, a new stage of capitalism, called the stage of intensive accumulation, or, for short, the intensive stage.
One of the crucial things about this intensive stage –which is that of contemporary capitalism– is the crucial role of techniques and technical progress, which are the sole source of growth (and therefore, of profit). As a result, the level of subsistence of workers is greatly increased: more health, more education, more leisure, a better urban environment, all are necessary to operate the increasingly sophisticated productive processes and provide an equally increasing variety of services in the greatly reduced working day. This is the material basis of the welfare state –according to the empirical taste of the British– and of the more explicit political form –as espoused by the Germans– of social democracy.
Social democracy is one the most controversial propositions for social practice in capitalism, and it has already been debated for over a century, starting with Kautsky's arguments with Engels, and later with Luxemburg and Lenin. Ultimately, the question comes down to this: can there be socialism, or some socialism, in capitalism? In theoretical terms there can hardly be an affirmative answer to this, but the spectacular rise of subsistence levels at the centres of world capitalism made many people feel that theoretical discussion was irrelevant and academic – what mattered was that most people lived much better than before, and this could be construed as some measure of socialism.
And it may well
turn out that these questions are academic for another reason: if
social democracy is a political form consistent with the intensive
stage of capitalism, and if this stage is now drawing to its end.
Production is well on its way to become fully automatised – in a
process which has been rather loosely referred to as
de-industrialisation. This means that society will no longer be
organized, as it is now, on the basis of, and around the production of
commodities for profit. This is not the place to conjecture about a
society in which manufactured goods are in abundance, and people go
about performing services and spending leisure time. But surely such a
society will not any more be organised on the basis of
commodity production or wage labour; so, in other words, it will not be
a capitalist society any more. Thus the long-term prospect for social
democracy is that it will vanish with capitalism itself. However we at
the periphery leave such questions to those at the centre to wonder
about. It is time to return to the present and immediate future, which
is still part of the era of social democracy – or in the case of
The local versus central
Both democracy and participation ('participative planning') are key issues in the relationship between local units or regions and the greater whole to which they belong. This is even more true in São Paulo, because of the administrative mess it is in: none of the three levels of government (municipal, state, federal) coincides with the metropoltan area, which is smaller than the state but bigger than the municipality; and the Metropolitan entity which was created thirty years ago, specifcally to deal with this problem, was seriously weakened after only ten years, to a point of hardly existing at all except on paper.
As well as antagonisms created by class divides, or even by mere clash of interest groups, there are antagonisms which stem from the sheer scale of both space and society itself. For example, at the national level we have such a clash in the conflict between the national need to build a dam for a power plant and the local people whose life it would disrupt. The same clashes occur in the city – let's think only of the simple cases of building roads and airports or preserving the basin of a water reservoir. Of course there is always the possibility of 'compensation', its size being the result of the balance of forces between the locals and the greater whole (the nation, the city). But the point is that both the need for the course of action and the amount of 'compensation' will be decided at the level of central planning; there is little choice left for the local community, apart from the decision on whether to comply willingly or unwillingly. Which says a lot on the possibilies for local autonomy.
On the other hand
there are issues that are clearly best resolved at the local level. This is the case for most of land use
planning and building regulation, and also for the administration of
local infrastructure and services (such as street maintenance, water
supply and sewage, and even the basics of
education and health service). In fact, such issues can
not really be resolved at the central level, for this would require
an unthinkable level of data/ intelligence gathering at the centre
simply to get to grips with the local situation, let alone to
deliberate and take all the necessary decisions. This was one of the practical problems of centrally
planned 'existing socialism' in post-war
The great question,
of course, is how to find the right level of centralization: to avoid
creating a momentum towards excessive centralisation: but equally, to
ensure that the pendulum does not swing too far in the other direction
which could result in anarchy.Unfortunately there are hardly any
theoretical answers to such questions, so that these have to be found
in social practice.
One lesson that can
be learned is the danger that can be posed to local bodies by national
interests in direct conflict with the local community. The
administrative bodies of local communities –perhaps precisely because
of the greater degree of participation allowed– are often to the left
of central governments (recall the famous red towns of
Democracy in an elite society
Whatever lessons in
Thus, to the extent
that the Partido dos Trabalhadores follows de facto, if
not necessarily in words, the social democratic credo, the future of
its administrations in São Paulo and elsewhere across the
country is likely to be problematic. And it will be more so if they do
keep to a left trajectory. It is also worth remembering that, a decade
ago, PT mayor Luisa Erundina (now in the Socialist Party) presided over
what, without a shadow of doubt, was one of
the best administrations ever in São Paulo, but she was
subjected to such a barrage of scorn –or else silence– in the major
newspapers and other media that it all but neutralized the political
effects of her achievements. Furthermore, the growing political
strength of the Workers' Party, which makes the election of a PT
President in 2002 a concrete
possibility, has already led to the preparation of countermeasures, in
an attempt to ensure that such a president will wield less power than
their more reliable predecessors. One such measure is a mooted increase
in the independence of the central bank, which is currently under the
direct command of the Executive. In fact this has been discussed for
years, but now rumours are becoming more persistent about the
preparations for making the central bank solely responsible for
decision-making on a range of important financial questions, including
interest rate. The plan is to make it sufficiently independent to be
able to produce a recession or, as the case may be, a way out
of one– irrespective of the government in office. It would be no
surprise to see such measures to pass into law
by October or November 2002 – that's last
minute before elections… And there may well be similar measures, such
as the fixing by law of monetary and inflationary targets, and
budget deficits, or the signing of international commitments within Mercosul
or Alca (Nafta) or yet even with the IMF. It is even possible,
although less likely, that such measures will be written into the
Constitution –as was the case with the peso/dollar parity in
reproduction of elite society is not unproblematic, of course; nor is
such a society free from antagonisms. In particular, as the balance of
payments problems continue –largely caused by indiscriminate import of
consumption, and especially of capital goods– it becomes ever more
difficult not to allow home-based production to develop. This
will mean that the old structures of elite superprivilege, and the
archaic power relations which support them, will come under increasing
strain, challenged by developing productive forces seeking further and
unhindered development. One possible interpretation of the spread of
the PT, and the party's victories in the most recent by-elections, is
that new forces and organisational forms –which look more
'bourgeois-like'– are emerging in what is now an almost wholly
urbanized society. (A very serious caveat to this, however, is
that although the strength of capital in manufactures and services has
greatly increased at the expense of those in agriculture, there has
been no corresponding increase in the strength of a
Brazilian bourgeoisie at the expense of the old-style elite (coronelato).
This is because a substantial part of this increased capital is under
foreign control, and thus does not give rise to corresponding social
For what are the
great problems of the metropolis? Certainly there is extreme income
concentration, unemployment and misery, but these affect the country as
a whole; they are not particular to urban agglomerations. The main
problem in relation to spatial organization –which can be considered as
an 'urban' problem– is the precarious provision of infrastructure
items. Although this also can be seen as symptomatic of a national
Brazilian problem –the habit of constantly justifying the
weakening of the productive structures by the refrain 'poor country,
poor infrastructure', as referred to earlier–, it also has specifically
urban components, such as the lack of a rapid transport system –
building on the underground system in São Paulo stopped eleven
years ago and when work started again it did so, unbelieveably, on an
unconnected stretch of about 8 kilometres, way
out in the periphery, more than 25 km away from the
centre. This was instead of what was the obvious priority, a 'fourth
line' going towards the South West of the city, through the high income
districts and along the 'new centres'…
infrastructural problem for the city
is the urgent need for cleaning up the environment, and to at long last
tackle the management of water supply. And not least, there is the need
to address issues of land use regulation and policy – the virtual
absence of these currently gives a free hand to petty favour brokers
and big speculators alike. Then there is the need for a serious attempt
at building a public revenue basis to provide for the foregoing...
As regards the immediate plans of the PT government in São Paulo: it will definitely take concrete steps towards participative budgeting; it will increase the autonomy of sub-municipal administrative bodies ('regionals'); it will increase investment in public transport rather than in road structures – although it is unlikely to be able to make a clear-cut decision on the Underground, and instead will remain bogged down with ideas (corridors, terminals, vans, minibuses, other extravagant variants) for improvements to the hopelessly saturated bus system; it will go some way towards overcoming both the general recourse to the scarcity refrain and the particular policy of concentrating investment in the high income south-west sector; and it will certainly increase investment in basic health and education. It will also probably try to lessen the extremely regressive nature of property taxes, and perhaps even to set up the long-debated policy of minimum income (broadly equivalent to unemployment benefit), although it is doubtful how much it will be able to achieve on these scores.
There is nothing certain about the outcome of such plans; and these thoughts about the electoral gains of the Workers' Party raise perhaps more doubts than they dispel. We may not be at the threshold of socialism. But there still is cause for celebration. This writer certainly did celebrate on election day and toasted the new mayor and her allies with friends. At the very least, they thought, we all will breathe slightly cleaner air for some time to come.
As put forward by Antonio
Negri; see for instance his critique of Bobbio's apology of
liberal democracy in Capital &
Class 37, pp.156-61.