“There is a hybrid war at work in the planet. Democratic processes are essentially being destroyed in the service of having a very limited form elite government against the people,” Vijay Prashad asserts. The Indian journalist and historian visited Brazil for the launch of his book “Red Star Over the Third World,” translated into Portuguese and published by Expressão Popular, in which he looks back at the 1917 Russian Revolution from a new perspective. The author found time in his busy schedule promoting his book to grant Brasil de Fato an exclusive interview.
The director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Prashad also spoke about fascism, the imprisonment of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the rise of conservative governments around the world, workers’ organization, and BRICS, an association between Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that may go through changes with the emergence of politicians such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.
“BRICS was always limited by the class character of the governments. It’s going to continue, because it’s important. Businesses in Brazil want to enter markets in India. So BRICS is not going to dissolve. People just think BRICS is a political instrument, that idea of multilateralism. But that’s a very wrong approach to BRICS,” he argues.
Read the full interview below.
Brasil de Fato: The first question is about the image of Bolsonaro’s government around the world. You travel a lot, you are a journalist. We would like to know how the international press views the Bolsonaro phenomenon. What aspects of his government have been the most talked about around the world?
Vijay Prashad: Well, I think the first thing to seriously look at is that people like Bolsonaro are seen as slightly comical. There is a narrative that has developed about the comical nature of contemporary heads of government: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Bolsonaro. He is part of this sort of rogues’ gallery of comical characters.
But there is something that has alarmed people. Not only the liberals, but even others. You know, there are two major carbon sinks in the world. One is on the island of Papua, both West Papua and Papua New Guinea. And the other is the Amazon. And I think it’s really quite chilling for people that Mr. Bolsonaro has decided to open the Amazon to the logging industry and so on. He has basically allowed logging and food lobbies to create policy. And I know that even in a newspaper like The New York Times, there was quite a strong story about Bolsonaro’s Amazon policy.
I think there is some concern, because, after all, one thing is to say that Bolsonaro is comical and has got terrible social positions, and he has a bad attitude towards the dictatorship, and so on. But when you start to destroy the Amazon, that has implications for the whole planet. So that is actually something that sensitive, decent – and also not so sensitive people are quite worried about. I think that is framing how people see Mr. Bolsonaro.
In the last decade, the term BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] has become popular in Brazil. These countries began to articulate themselves and threaten US hegemony in the international scene. Is it possible to say that the election of Bolsonaro, who is so close to Trump, can dismantle this organization? Or has it been dismantled before Bolsonaro?
We should never exaggerate groups of nations. When they come together to create some kind of grouping, we should not exaggerate what it is. BRICS was always going to be only as good as the class character of the government in the different States.
Before BRICS, when India, Brazil, and South Africa formed a bloc, it was called IBSA. It still exists. At the time, the governments in India, Brazil, and South Africa were relatively social democratic. They pushed an agenda for pharmaceutical drugs and for farm subsidies. The point was that they were worried about the fact that people couldn’t access drugs – medicine – and that the farmers in their countries were being badly hit by trade policies. At the time, they were social democratic, in 2003, when IBSA was formed.
When BRICS was created in 2009, it had already a contradictory kind of agenda, or maybe three agendas. One agenda they drew from IBSA, to fight for better trade agreements, to protect farmers and so on. But the second and third are important. The second one was, they called for multilateralism. But what multilateralism meant was not socialism. It was just that the elites of Brazil, India, South Africa, China, Russia should have a place at the table. That was the second goal of BRICS. The third goal of BRICS was South-South business cooperation. So Indian businesses with Brazilian businesses, Brazilian exports to South Africa, and so on.
So BRICS was always limited by the class character of the governments. It’s going to continue, because it’s important. Businesses in Brazil want to enter markets in India. So BRICS is not going to dissolve. People just think BRICS is a political instrument, that idea of multilateralism. But that’s a very wrong approach to BRICS. BRICS is not just a political instrument, it’s for business in this part of the world, militaries, arms deals, all kinds of things. They are not things that you and I are going to be happy with.
Of course, multilateralism is important. But now that India, Brazil, and South Africa are governed by classes that are very close to the United States, BRICS will continue, but really the other pole is Russia and China. And it has changed the geopolitical orientation.
The advancement of the far right in different regions has imposed an interesting debate on the use of the term “fascism.” There are theorists who say that fascism occurred in Italy in a specific 20th century context and can’t be compared with any other government or regime. Other analysts say that the similarities are so great that it is impossible to call them by any other name. How do you position yourself in this discussion? Should we call them fascists or not? Or shouldn’t we worry about those terms now?
These debates are important. The issue is not to have the right analysis by yourself. The issue is to have a debate to clarify how we understand the current situation. The reason why we go back and look at the 1920s and 1930s is because we want to understand: what did authoritarianism within democracy look like then? Because, after all, [Benito] Mussolini and [Adolf] Hitler came to power through democracy, through the ballot box. And then they deepened the authoritarian role of politics in society.
But the context that produced Hitler and Mussolini, the fascists and the Nazis, was very different from the context now. Then, their main assignment, as it were, from the capitalists, from the bourgeoisie was to come to power and smash the workers’ movement. That was the main assignment of classical Nazis and fascists in the early 20th century. Today, workers’ movements are much weaker. The assignment from the bourgeoisie is not, “hey, fascist, come back to power and destroy the workers’ movement.” It’s not the same situation. It’s wrong to argue by analogy, saying that “now we have leaders that say terrible things, they want to lock up journalists, it’s similar to then, therefore it’s the same.” No. Let’s look at the current context for what it is.
Since the neoliberal period, neoliberal policy has had two effects. One is, it has really weakened the power of workers, peasants, all kinds of workers in society to organize themselves. It’s not just that the bargaining power of workers and peasants has decreased. Their capacity to organize themselves has decreased. I think this is very important.
So we have less powerful peasant and workers unions now. That created a combustible situation where the bourgeoisie – which was getting wealthier and wealthier in this period… Thomas Piketty has the data to prove what we already know: there is immense inequality. The bourgeoisie highly worried about the rise of inequality, the potential that some sort of unrest is going to come. We saw riots break out, food riots, the Caracazo in Venezuela. Riots break out against the elite.
At that point, you see a sharpening of a right-wing turn in ideology, where the elite starts to target certain populations, feminists, minorities, and say it’s because of them. Target refugees, migrants. “You don’t have a job because of a migrant.” It was the neoliberals that actually introduced these ideas into political discourse to maintain control over the system.
But the neoliberal exhausted themselves. Everybody knows they were responsible for inequality, they were responsible for degradation. And it’s at that point – the left being so weak – the right appears, the far right, authoritarian right. And they take what neoliberals introduced. Neoliberals said, “we shouldn’t allow too much migration, it’s going to destroy our jobs.” So they took that and took it to its extreme and made it really vicious and nasty. And they came to power.
The way I understand the growth of these neoauthoritarians, these neofascists, is that they are not conventionally 20th-century fascists. There is something quite different. They actually don’t need to destroy the institutions of democracy. They are merely hollowing them out. You still have elections, you still have parliaments, you still have all this stuff. They don’t need a dictatorship, because they’ve hollowed up the concept of democracy. So by authoritarian and ideological means, they empty democracy, they empty the press, they empty the ability for people to have discussions, and that is how they create this very right-wing viciousness.
So it’s different from the early 20th century. There is something to learn from that in order to sharpen our analysis, but we need to have an analysis of the concrete conditions of this period.
A dossier published in July by the Tricontinental Institute showed that the level of informality of workers in India is close to 90 percent, and unionization rates are very low. Here in Brazil, trade unions have been the target of many attacks by the last two presidents. Is it possible to think of organizing labor movements fighting for their demands outside the union structure, outside the trade union? Is there an alternative outside this formal organization structure?
The point of unionizing or building trade unions is not to build a union. The point of this whole struggle is to build the confidence and capacity of workers and peasants. The goal is not to have a trade union. Is to have an organized working class and peasantry that is able to challenge the bourgeoisie politically. That is the point. Just having a union is not enough.
We understand unions are very important, but that’s not the goal. Unions are merely a form to strengthen the power of the working class.
So unions have understood that is getting harder and harder to organize workers at the point of production. Factories have become like prisons. It’s so hard for people to organize. The work day is so highly regimented, it’s like a barracks in there. You can’t go to the bathroom, can’t look up from your desk, can’t talk to each other. It’s like a jail. If you look at today’s factories, they are really ruthless construction of hyper-productivity.
Because of that difficulty, the unions have started to think, “let’s organize workers where they live.” Because the point is to organize workers. Now, if you organize workers where they live, then they can take the fight to the factory. You were not able to organize them at the factory gate, so unions are becoming very creative about how they are building worker power. And that’s what we need to start looking at: opportunities to build the power of workers and peasants.
Of course, the production site is important. Of course, factories and agrobusinesses are so important. But if you can organize them elsewhere, if they have confidence elsewhere, if they build their strength elsewhere, they will take that experience directly to the factory.
So unions are experimenting with new things. That’s why we are interested in looking to see, what are unions doing and where are they doing it?
Speaking of organizing workers outside the factory or where they live, Venezuela has the experiences of comunas, for example. Here in Latin America, we often say that Venezuela has become the symbol of class struggle in geopolitics. We are neighboring countries, we are friends, and we are also paying close attention to what is happening there and sending solidarity with the Venezuelan people who have bravely resisted the various coup attempts there. How has the Indian Communist Party interpreted the situation in Venezuela? How does the news about the Nicolás Maduro’s government reach the Indians? What information do they have – and do you have about this Bolivarian Revolution?
The first thing I’ve got to say is that the power of [Hugo] Chávez’s legacy is enormous. Among the left-wing forces around the world, it’s going to be very hard for the imperialists to take us away from the Bolivarian Revolution as a process, because of the impact Chávez had on us.
You must never underestimate the power of individuals. Chávez was able to absorb the energy of the people and he became their symbol. And when he died, people cried in places as far away as India. I’m not being emotional about this. I’m just saying that the legacy of Chávez has allowed people in places like India and Indonesia, big countries in Asia, to understand that the Bolivarian Revolution as a process. It’s not an end.
We know that this is the site of class struggle. We know that imperialism wants to attack and destroy Venezuela. We know very well that the attack against Iran is different from the attack against Venezuela. Venezuela is experimenting with socialism. Iran is not experimenting with socialism. We know that there are big differences. Our solidarity with the people of Iran is deep and strong, but it’s different than the solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution. For all their mistakes – and you know, they’ve made a lot of mistakes –, they are still experimenting with socialism. And that is where our solidarity lies.
And we know that imperialism’s interest in Venezuela is not to create a so-called democracy. Everybody knows that. We well know how imperialism operates ideologically.
In our party, we are fully in solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution, that’s of course clear. But in India, the impact of imperialist ideology is enormous. And people will say shallow things, like, “why don’t they negotiate?” Well, they are negotiating! You see, the facts of the matter are twisted against the process.
Let’s face it – in Brazil as well –, it’s difficult to convince more than half the population. How much of the population says, “we are with Venezuela”? It’s not a huge number. Partly that’s because imperialist ideology is very, very strong and powerful.
That is why we are committed to the battle of ideas as an explicit part of our agenda. It’s not enough to say “I stand with Cuba, I stand with Venezuela.” Why do you stand with them? That’s the battle of ideas. You see, solidarity is insufficient. You must have an understanding of why you are in solidarity. And that raises the question of – what is the battle of ideas? It’s a battle between the forces of essentially imperialist capitalism and the forces that say we need something different.
We may call that “something different” socialism, communism, Bolivarian Revolution. Whatever you call it, the point is, we want to experiment with different things. And that’s the core, sharp battle of ideas. That’s what we are involved in.
It’s not just “we are in solidarity” in a weak way. We are fighting against imperialism. That’s the key understanding for us.
What about the news about Lula being in prison? Is it easier to convince Indian people to be in solidarity with Lula than it is with Maduro, for example?
Again, we will talk about something very difficult, which is that it’s very hard to understand the Brazilian legal process. Nobody really understands any of these things, second instance, court of this… I mean, is he being charged? Has there been a trial? Has he been found guilty? What did the judge say? We read The Intercept documents, and it was much easier to read the summary. It was hard to understand what was going on. That’s a real barrier. Different countries have different legal systems, different understanding.
But what is getting clearer and clearer and clearer is this concept of hybrid war. That there is a hybrid war at work in the planet. This is a concept we want to push very hard around the world. People need to understand that this is a battle against democracy.
I was at the Curitiba [Free Lula] vigil on Sunday, and they asked me to give a talk. I gave a talk saying democracy is in prison. Lula is a human being. Lula led a government when there was a certain balance of class forces at the time of his government. The question isn’t – do you like Lula? Do you not like Lula? This is a ridiculous discussion. The real question is that the assault on Lula’s right to run for the presidency was an attack on democracy. And that’s how we have to understand it, and that’s how we have to explain to people that it’s happening all around the world.
Democratic processes are essentially being destroyed in the service of having a very limited form elite government against the people. That’s the basic issue.
If we get into the facts of Car Wash, some apartment, somebody this thing, somebody… I mean, nobody can understand it. But they can understand the fact that democratic rights have been taken away.
I know that in India it’s a different process, and you’ve talked about this before, but it’s important for us to draw parallels. We all know that the working class in Brazil and in India too have been facing common challenges since the last elections. In recent years, the nationalist right has consolidated itself in both countries and have been applying austerity policies with traces of authoritarianism. Is it possible to make any comparison between [Narendra] Modi and Bolsonaro? In your opinion, what are the main similarities and differences between them?
In a sense, both countries had similar journeys of underdevelopment. They are very large countries, they are the dominant country in their region in terms of size and the size of their economy. Both of them had similar green revolutions. In Brazil, you had a dictatorship, we didn’t need a dictatorship. We had the same kind of policies without a military dictatorship. You emphasize that the dictatorship was terrible, but we had the same sort of thing with a democracy.
These are the limitations of democracy. And also the limitations of living in one country. You think, “the problem for us was the dictatorship.” No. Dictatorship was merely the form of elite power. If you had no dictatorship, you may still have had the same kind of policies. Agrobusiness dominating, peasants thrown out their land… We had all of this. Remember, 400 thousand Indian farmers committed suicide between 1995 and today. That’s a consequence of the Green Revolution that happened before, and which happened in Brazil.
Now, Brazil has a different trajectory as well. It has a different history, a long problem of slavery, it has never had a revolution. I mean, Brazil won independence because the king said to his son, “this is yours.” That’s not a revolution. In Venezuela and other parts of Latin America, they fought in different forms… In India, we fought against the British. There was that history of fighting against the British and so on.
What I am getting at is that there are differences and similarities. These things must be looked at, but we shouldn’t be superficial. Just because Bolsonaro is a clown and Modi is a clown, that doesn’t mean that there is similarity. At the same time, there is [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, Trump…
We have to look both at the theory of why they have come – which is, I think, common – and we have to look at the specific nature of the histories, because those are different.
It’s the common understanding of the rise of a certain kind of politics that helps us grasp in the depth how that politics has emerged. But to overthrow that politics, you both have to have that common understanding and a deep understanding of your history.
In this context, where do you find hope? What is the role of the alternative media and intellectuals in Brazil and India in such an unfavorable context for the working class?
It’s our role as journalists to do many things. One is that we have to expose the nature of reality, we have to show how terrible things are. But we also have to highlight when people do amazing things. Sometimes the left doesn’t do this enough.
I don’t even mean writing about certain settlement where they’ve made a special kind of thing. When a young working class kid, against all odds, is able to go to college and get a PdD, why don’t we do a story about that kid? Why don’t we lift up stories about the immense accomplishments of people from the working class and peasantry?
We allow the bourgeoisie to tell that story as a story of success of the system. We should go and interview that young person who got a PhD, who grew up in an encampment or a settlement of the MST, grew up there, went to school and then got a big degree. We should go and do a story about what struggles they fought in their life. It’s inspiring.
Somehow, we are embarrassed by inspiration. We want to do stories about imperialism and the big things.
The bad news.
The bad news. And it’s the little things in life that sometimes give us a feeling that we can put the foot forward.
Left-wing people need to reach out to the masses and say, “in our struggles, in our work, we have produced both immediate solutions to problems and we have a long-term vision.” And it’s those immediate solutions we shouldn’t feel embarrassed about.
I visited an encampment named after Marielle Franco near Campinas. They took us to see the spring where there is water, because they are struggling to get water. With us, there were these two young girls that walked along with us. In the middle of the conversation, they started to talk about how they have English class. These are two young girls in an encampment in Brazil who are quite happy and excited to tell me about their English class. I wanted to hug them even more. Why? Because they don’t look at the world and say, “everything is going to end.” They look at the world and say, “I’m so happy to be alive, I go to English class, I’m going to learn something. I am enjoying walking with you through my encampment, where we have no water.”
When I write the story of going there, I’m going to write this into the story. Because the story isn’t just about – this man died, because a car hit him and that was terrible and they are all suffering. No. They are not. There are these two young girls who are learning English, because they may want to read something that gives them the sense that they can make the world a better place.
Also he, who was 72 years old, had a lot of dreams.
Yes. He was trying to get a driver’s license, which is ironic and sad. But he was also in a literacy class. You know, he is dead now, but they are alive. And we can’t just tell his story. It’s her story and her story that we need to tell.