Sabrina Fernandes on ecosocialism, transversality, and the Brazilian Left
“This is a fight against time and for time.”
Sabrina Fernandes is a Brazilian sociologist, political economist, author and activist. She is currently a fellow with CALAS at the University of Guadalajara and Senior Research Advisor to the Alameda Institute. She has geared her activist, research, and publishing work in the past years towards promoting political syntheses in the fragmented Brazilian Left with a focus on ecosocialism and its potential to foster resistance on the ground. She is the creator and producer of the digital communication project Tese Onze (“Thesis Eleven”), with over 400,000 subscribers across different online platforms and media output, including podcast and book club.
This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity.
MH: So Brazil is now six months into Lula’s presidency. How do you think he's doing so far? How’s it going?
SF: First of all, I think Lula has quite the impossible task on his hands in the sense that he barely got elected. This has to be recognized. The second round was a very tough race; the difference between him and Bolsonaro was really small. It means that he took over a much more divided and polarized country than would have been better for him to implement a lot of the things that he promised during the campaign. So as soon as the government started, we knew that the battle to get some of those promises going would be way harder.
Also, Congress is quite right-wing right now. Congress is basically in the hands of Arthur Lira from the Chamber of Deputies, who is holding pieces of legislation and other things ransom to try to get Lula to give away ministries and other pieces of the executive to the parties in his right-wing allied base. So there's a lot of issues around governability.
There's a lot of issues around the way Lula has learned to do things in the past. This six months shows us that one of the issues that we have is the old way of doing things where Lula could just negotiate with different parties and different forces within the institutions is already failing, right from the beginning. He doesn't really have the proper institutional correlation of forces for that. It's not like he had that so much in the past; the Workers’ Party always had to deal with governability in that sense. But we already have a governability crisis in the first six months.
We're hoping that this is teaching somewhat of a lesson around having to mobilize from the base, building from social movements, not being afraid of taking to the streets if necessary. Something that, for example, Gustavo Petro is doing in Colombia right now. Being attacked on all fronts, his answer was to call on people to go to the streets to support the government, support the workers’ rights reform, support the health reform, and other things.
You tweeted recently: “A can of worms of climate denialism has been opened again in Brazil… by the Left.” Can you say more about that and what's going on?
So let’s talk about the other side of the challenges. It's not just the Right wing; we have a lot of old vices within the Brazilian Left. It’s a regional issue. It comes from different perspectives around what development means. We're discussing a region that has been plagued by centuries of colonialism and ecological imperialism. Extractivism is the norm and the basis for the economy in so many of these countries. We call this dependent capitalism for a reason—there's a lot of influence from outside. And sometimes in the Left, the answer to this is to say that they're taking away our resources and privatizing them and the resources are going to the imperialists, so our answer is for us to do this ourselves. That way, we will have funds to develop and then we can industrialize for real and we won't be as dependent.
It's part of the ideology behind developmentalism, but nationalist developmentalism. The word sovereignty gets thrown around a lot because of this, and it's usually understood as an anti-imperialist stance. My main point around this is that the climate crisis and the ecological crisis at-large show us that this way of thinking around sovereignty is absolutely outdated. What does that mean in the actual long run? Sovereignty for three, four years is not really sovereignty in my opinion. It's been one of my problems with the way that debate is going. I feel like the debate is stuck in around 20/30 years ago.
I believe that anti-imperialism in the 21st century under a state of multiple crises or a polycrisis has to be a very ecological anti-imperialism. It has to look into these contradictions and find proper alternatives to development. The type of arguments that they've been bringing forward also fail because they talk about getting income and royalties from these large extractivist projects and using those to develop the regions that have been abandoned for a really long time, where we have high levels of poverty. But, historically, it never worked this way, not even when we're talking about proper nationalist development projects—unless you're considering governments that have been a little bit more rigid around this.
It’s a traditional way of thinking around development that gets in the way of some basic scientific understandings around biodiversity, around ecological health, around social-ecological conflicts as well. So when I'm talking about scientific denialism here, it’s not in the sense of saying there's no climate change. But it's in the same way that we have climate denialism in green capitalism. And, obviously, that's actually delaying the action we need. This is a type of nihilism because it's not taking it seriously enough. We are actually at this really odd situation in Brazil—there's some level of this in Chile as well—where you understand the problem and you talk about transition and you talk about fighting climate change, but only up to a certain point where it really doesn't hurt the other economic prospects and these very old ideas around development.
So Lula's government is actually trying to make two very strange things coexist: this old nationalist developmentalism that is supposedly more critical of capitalism because it's using state power as a way of extracting resources and getting funds and, at the same time, embracing a lot of green capitalist norms that engage with a lot of the private sector and commodify nature. And sometimes it just creates public-private partnerships as a way of driving development. All of those are very problematic, and they end up becoming this really odd amalgamation of the huge paradox called sustainable development.
There's been a left resurgence in South and Central America. And, at least rhetorically, it seems like the leaders have been more attuned to ecological concerns. I've seen Lula talking a lot about protecting Indigenous rights, protecting the Amazon. Do you feel like that's been mostly rhetorical or are they limited by structural forces they come up against?
I wouldn't say that in the case of Lula it is a rhetorical issue. I think the problem goes back to the strategy of trying to reconcile things that you can't just go around reconciling; they're very antagonistic. So there's been an embracement of Indigenous communities and conversation around Indigenous rights within the government, but it's not radical enough. And when we come out and say it's not radical enough, a lot of people just say, “Well, look, he's dealing with a terrible Far Right, and he's dealing with all of these threats.” I think that explains some of the challenges up to a certain point. Everything else is about building collective will to support Indigenous rights to really make it work.
Congress decided to go after environmental issues and Indigenous issues as a way of basically standing up to Lula and trying to make Lula look weak. For example, on the Indigenous situation right now in Brazil, the biggest challenge is what we call the temporal mark—marco temporal. The temporal mark is a really awful judicial thesis and legislative thesis that would ensure that if an Indigenous community could not prove its direct claim and presence in a territory around 1988, which is the time of the latest constitution in Brazil, then the community cannot claim the territory anymore. This is a way of legalizing the previous centuries of colonization and dispossession and expulsion. They were expelling Indigenous communities from their territories. It's a way of justifying this forced urbanization of Indigenous communities and also reducing their claims to territory to smaller portions.
This is something that's been going on in the Supreme Court for a really long time. The Supreme Court is stalling the debate on this. Every time there's a new judgment, one of the Supreme Court justices comes out and says, “I need more time.” This is very frustrating for mobilization efforts because everybody mobilizes around this judgment day. We do crowdfunding, we get people to go to the capital, Brasilia. They get there and then, ta-da, you're not going to have a judgment today anymore, so just go back home. It's been going on for years now. You could put an end to this right now, yet you won't.
And there's been critique coming from the Indigenous movement that Lula hasn't been vocal enough on this. Very vocal to the outside! I made some angry tweets a couple of weeks ago [laughs] around this because it's very frustrating to see all the speeches that make it look like we're making huge progress on fighting deforestation in the Amazon and we're making huge progress about land settlement for Indigenous peoples. The reality on the ground is not quite so. We can't just rest and wait and think that at some point the ability to negotiate with the Right wing is going to help us out in this. We need to find a way to build other forces.
So Lula’s speeches to the rest of the world will become—at some level—hypocritical over the years unless he finds other ways to make sure that these politics actually go forward. This strategy for negotiation is definitely not working. It doesn't matter if we're going to hold COP30 in Brazil in an Amazonian city if we're not actually able to show that we have the internal correlation of forces building power, properly fighting climate change, and protecting Indigenous rights.
What does ecosocialism mean to you?
Ecosocialism, for me, is the big horizon. I was actually reading a little bit of poetry the other day that was dealing with this notion of the protests and the earth, and talking about how the horizon is actually the earth drawing the line. We need to cross the line if we are actually able to survive. Ecosocialism is the goal, and the task of ecosocialists today is to better manage this huge gray area of contradictions that we find around multiple transitions. If we have multiple crises, we also have multiple transitions. This means that, for fighting climate change, we can't wait for a big global revolution to happen and then we take state power and everything's going to become socialized property and then we can finally make huge elements of the energy transition happen or that de-fossilization of the economy happen and integrate with other areas—an agroecological revolution and other things like that.
We just can't wait; a lot of these things have to get done today. But this is obviously creating contradictions because the people in power don't want things to happen in the most radical way, where you’re also building power. So they're always appropriating things. This is a big challenge for ecosocialists because I feel like every time we’re making advancements around sustainability issues or fighting climate change, things get appropriated by green capitalists very fast. We need to find ways of building power at the same time that we're mediating in negotiation with these tensions around how capitalists are still around the things that we need to do. We're not going to get rid of them immediately, but we need to get rid of them eventually. And we need to have this strategy that I've been trying to talk about for a few years now in terms of different tides. So we have a tide around our emergency plan, a tide around a prevention project like David Schwartzman would call it, and at the same time, think of long-term ways of building power to actually overcome this so people won't settle for little non-reformist reforms, to borrow from André Gorz.
I think there are certain places where we can put our energy that are very worthwhile. For example, the reduction of the workweek is something that ecosocialists should prioritize. because we're not only dealing with creating alternatives in the way we manage production and labor, but also in actually affecting the rate of exploitation, going back to basic Marxist theory here. It's something that we can manage, and divert people's time and attention towards organizing and towards low-carbon collective activities or—something that my friend, Daniel Aldana Cohen, likes to emphasize a lot—towards public luxuries.
Creating time is very important for us. The way I approach these multiple transitions, where ecosocialism would be at the horizon, is that this is a fight against time and for time. It is against time in the sense that we are running out of it. It's the middle of 2023. This decade is supposed to be crucial for the kind of action we need to limit [global warming] to 1.5°C, or at least stay below 2.0°C. And the current policies—and the implementation of the current policies are even worse than the words on paper—are putting us way over.
We're already really behind. So we're fighting time in that sense, but it should also be a struggle for time in the sense of creating time for people to organize, creating time for people to live their lives, addressing health issues, addressing this crisis of care that we have around the world. This will obviously show the transversality of the struggle here, that this is about socialism, but it's also about ecology and it's also about feminism and anti-racism and fighting neocolonialism. And it is about LGBTQ+ rights. All these things are very enmeshed, and I think ecosocialism as a horizon gives us the opportunity to look at this more deeply because transversality is really at the core of the way that we understand this tension, but also the quite possibly freeing relationship that we can have, between humanity and nature.
You wrote a 2020 article called Ecosocialism from the Margins, and you say, “Ecological connections foster not only solidarity, but deep syntheses between struggles.” Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?
An example that I have for this—I mention it really lightly in the article, but this has developed through the years—is that, as an ecosocialist organizer in Brazil, people thought I was quite odd to argue that every time there was anything involving the national oil company and the oil workers, ecosocialists should be their first allies. You need to be with the oil workers; it really shouldn't be something we postpone because just transition conversations have been happening in Brazil for a really long time. The CUT—the federation for labor unions in Brazil—they go to the COPs, and they go to the People’s Summits, all of those things. But work stoppages and strikes should always be a principle of solidarity even if those workers are involved in areas where you want their job to not exist anymore.
So my point with the oil workers and Petrobras is that if I don't want your job to exist anymore, a precondition for this is for me to keep your job. That way, you can organize and we can strengthen a mandate for a national oil company that can actually transition. Because if we leave these in the hands of fossil capital and external investors, it’s going to be about the same thing; it's not going to change very much.
There was a an opportunity for us in the past few years when, unfortunately, the Bolsonaro government went after the biofuel section of Petrobras, really attacking the workers, selling assets like a privatization project. That kickstarted a conversation around transition, as controversial as it can be within the environmental movement. There are different types of biofuels; some are worse than others. The biofuels from monocrops are really, really bad. But rather than shying away from these contradictions, coming from the standpoint of workers and workers rights and jobs guarantees, we could find ways of taking advantage of already set infrastructures of labor organizing. And from that, build and strengthen the transition conversation so much that the main national oil workers federation came out two years ago with a whole clause on just transition out of their congress. They delivered a letter to Lula including the clause. I believe that was quite important for Lula to incorporate things around energy transition in his own campaign. It's something that I think is quite advanced coming from an oil workers union.
But, obviously, there's still a lot of work to be done there. We are in lots of disagreements around the timing. [laughs] Do we drill for more oil? No, we shouldn't drill for more oil, we should work with what we have. We should be actually attaching this certain level of oil exploitation to this certain level of investment in transitions. So there's a lot of little things to work around, but I think the main principle is there. If we're actually going to talk about just transition and jobs guarantees—we're going to create new climate jobs and some sectors will have to degrow or disappear completely—we also need to be there when these people are fighting for their jobs for the next six months outside of the transition framework. Because this is how you actually build proper trusting relationships and show that you actually care about people's livelihoods.
We shouldn't be talking about jobs guarantees and alliances with unions or having the unions be at the forefront of our struggle only when we're already dealing with renewables or only when we're dealing with power utilities or the areas that look greener from the outside. We should always be doing that. But our principle of jobs guarantees and good jobs—with workers’ rights, with workers’ benefits, with healthy and safe workplaces—should be there no matter what. Because from this, we're actually creating the type of environment and infrastructure to keep this conversation going towards transitioning these jobs properly.
This will also include, for example, being together with strikes at universities and supporting students. Because how are we going to have a proper transition without a huge change in curriculum? We're not, because a lot of the engineers are being farmed into oil and gas, so they think that the jobs of the future are still oil and gas. We're not going to be able to convince them otherwise unless we have a different curriculum basis and actual jobs we should build these people into. If these jobs are just in the private sector with these really precarious jobs—compared to oil and gas jobs—around solar and wind, they're not going to want to go into that.
I do agree that we need more strategies around labor to make it appealing. I don't necessarily think that, to make it appealing, we need to tell them that you have lots of money and you buy electric vehicles, because that’s creating sacrifice zones and sometimes it's kind of destructive towards internationalist solidarity. So we need to tell people that you can't have these shiny things here that capitalism is promising you in the socialist version because the planet cannot bear it. But you can have these other really nice things here, and you can trust me because we've been together fighting for good livelihoods from the beginning, not just when we're talking green subjects.
A lot of leftists in the US—and I've seen this increasingly lately—find inspiration in the MST in Brazil. What do you think we can learn from their success, and what has been going on with the MST lately under the new Lula administration?
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the MST is facing a criminalization process coming from Congress right now. It’s this investigative parliamentary inquiry into the MST occupations to try to criminalize occupying an unproductive piece of land, even though we actually have it in the Brazilian Constitution that we need to promote agrarian reform. It's one of those things that on paper is not very radical of a demand, but because reality is so oppressive, is very radical. And that makes the MST and other agrarian reform movements in Brazil quite crucial for changing the way we plant and grow our food, to changing the way we deal with private and public property, to actually protecting ecosystems and fighting a long-term tendency of capital: forced urbanization so you can have more surplus population and exploitation in precarious settings.
So movements like the MST are very important because of this. And because the institutions are not willing to actually do their job of looking at a huge piece of land and saying it's not socially productive. We have something called the social function of property in the Brazilian Constitution. It is one of the most progressive elements of the Constitution. It's probably the one thing that these people would love to take away from the Constitution. The institution should actually abide by that. They don't, so the MST occupies land. Basically, it works. If the MST occupies land or the Homeless Workers’ Movement occupies abandoned buildings and abandoned pieces of land within urban settings, it tends to help with the judicial processes to actually expropriate the land. And when the MST occupies an unproductive farm, it’s not like the owner will just walk away empty-handed; the government has to compensate during the expropriation. This is absurd because we know that a lot of those big farms were just inheritance from centuries of colonization or basically land grabs, and they still get to be compensated.
There's this inquiry in Congress right now trying to criminalize them. Leftist, and actually ecosocialist, parliamentarians have been quite vocal to defend the MST there. But we need to understand that this is the most significant mass movement in Brazil that has its own contradictions as well. Throughout the years, there's been infighting and people leaving and then people coming back. There are issues around how the MST approaches the Workers’ Party. Participation within the Workers Party helps you get certain demands driven directly into the government, but also causes some level of demobilization or cooptation. You shouldn't occupy or you shouldn't march on the streets because you can just set up a meeting with a Minister or something. So there's a lot of critiques around this.
I think what's interesting right now is that, under Lula 3—this third government—the MST has been forced to really look at itself as a movement and think about all of these past years and what worked, what didn't work. One of the main coordinators from the movement, João Paulo Rodrigues, was actually quite clear about a month ago in an interview, saying that the government can't just hold the MST and say, “Wait, wait for us to do things.” A social movement's job is not to wait for a government to do things or for a political party in government to do things. A social movement has the prerogative to be autonomous, to work on its own timing.
Something in organizational theory that's really important when we're dealing with social movements and labor unions instead of political parties is that social movements and labor unions tend to have more urgency for the demands that they're dealing with because the composition of these organizations is a composition of people going through a more homogeneous experience of exploitation. That sometimes means being out of a job or not having enough to eat. This level of urgency, you can't just turn to the government and say, “Okay, I know Congress is giving you a really hard time right now, Lula, we will wait another three months.” Guess what? Congress is also giving the MST a hard time.
So the movement is faced with these challenges of trying to organize and mobilize. I think one of the big triumphs of MST tactics in the past years was actually during the pandemic when the Bolsonaro government abandoned people. Not only in the sense of letting people die from COVID-19, but also the level of precarity and hunger. This was a government that at first wasn't even willing to provide some emergency financial support to the most needy in Brazil. But the MST was out in the streets giving away good organic food to communities living under poverty. I thought that was beautiful in the sense of this power of solidarity.
I'm a granddaughter of campesinos; I’ve had a connection to the land for a really long time. And I remember growing up and seeing how the MST was always so criminalized in Brazilian media. I would see working class people calling them terrorists and criminals because of this ideological influence. Some of these very working class people who had such a bad image of the MST were able to have food on their plates during the pandemic because of the MST. This is way more powerful than the campaign to show that the MST is a legitimate social movement; this is building concrete relationships. This solidarity across movements and on different types of struggles is so important because it is about agrarian reform, but it's also about fighting hunger, and it’s also about food sovereignty. And if it’s about food sovereignty, it’s also about fighting climate change.