What Perry Anderson Missed About Lula

by Reihan Salam

Perry Anderson’s excellent essay on Lula misses an important aspect of bearded Brazilian’s extraordinary political success: Lula’s brand of social democracy is extinct in the Atlantic world. He is an unapologetic modernist, who was positively enthusiastic about the idea of paving over the Amazon in the name of development and progress. His program of redistribution was, as Anderson makes clear in his conclusion, quite fiscally responsible:

Lula liked to say: ‘It’s cheap and easy to look after the poor.’[†] Uplifting, or disturbing? In its moral ambiguity might lie one kind of epitaph on his rule. Compared with his predecessors, he had the imagination, born of social identification, to see that the Brazilian state could afford to be more generous to the least well-off, in ways that have made a substantial difference to their lives. But these concessions have come at no cost to the rich or comfortably-off, who in any absolute reckoning have done even better – far better – during these years. Does that really matter, it can be asked: isn’t this just the definition of the most desirable of all economic outcomes, a Pareto optimum? Were the pace of growth to falter, however, the descendants of slaves might live out an aftermath not so different from that of emancipation. From the time of its adoption, just after slavery was gone, the Comtean motto inscribed on the banner of the nation – Ordem e Progresso – has long been a hope fluttering in the wind. Progress without conflict; distribution without redistribution. How common are they, historically?

The Bolsa model of conditional transfers owes as much to the right as it does to the left, with its explicit paternalism and the echoes of the negative income tax:

From the start, Lula had been committed to helping the poor. Accommodation of the rich and powerful would be necessary, but misery had to be tackled more seriously than in the past. His first attempt, a Zero Hunger scheme to assure minimum sustenance to every Brazilian, was a mismanaged fiasco. In his second year, however, consolidating various pre-existent partial schemes and expanding their coverage, he launched the programme that is now indelibly associated with him, the Bolsa Família, a monthly cash transfer to mothers in the lowest income strata, against proof that they are sending their children to school and getting their health checked. The payments are very small – currently $12 per child, or an average $35 a month. But they are made directly by the federal government, cutting out local malversation, and now reach more than 12 million households, a quarter of the population. The effective cost of the programme is a trifle. But its political impact has been huge. 

Note what the Bolsa is not: it is not an expansion of the public sector workforce, which has been the traditional goal of the Brazilian left. Rather, it cuts out the middlemen. Though it has reportedly had perverse consequences in the impoverished Northeast, there’s a lot to be said for Bolsa. To be sure, Lula’s government was very friendly indeed to Brazil’s cosseted public sector workforce, but no one considers this his central accomplishment. It is generally seen as politics-as-usual, which is to say politics-as-bribery. 

So: frank hostility to the familiar tropes of environmentalism, an emphasis on direct transfers, a marked disinterest in the import-substitution industrialization that had long been the bread and butter of Latin American leftism in favor of an enthusiastic embrace of the global economy. This is something new under the sun.