Bolsonaro: Brazil’s Trump or Brazil’s fascist ruler?
Brazilian comrade Roberto della Santa gives us his assessment of a president who has declared that the military dictatorship ‘did not go far enough’
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” - Antonio Gramsci
He is not a populist. He is not merely an authoritarian either. Jair Messias Bolsonaro, winner of the presidential elections in one of the largest countries on the planet, is a professional politician whose programme and/or ideology Leon Trotsky or Antonio Gramsci would not hesitate to call fascist.
So, obviously, Bolsonaro is not some tropical, South American version of Donald Trump. That would be the understatement of the millennium. After his election Trump at least claimed he wanted to tackle epic polarisation in the name of national reunification. But with Bolsonaro it was the opposite. He invoked the “power of god” and the “great army” - in this case, his followers - and once more turned his wrath against “socialism”, of which, in reality, there is very little sign.
The actual voting figures for the second round of the election, taking into account the 9% blank votes and 21% abstentions, revealed 38% support for the Social Liberal Party (PSL) of Bolsonaro and former general Hamilton Mourão, and 32% for Fernando Haddad and Manuela D’Avila - the candidates of the ‘reformism without reforms’ of the former Frente Brasil Popular. In other words, almost one-third of voters declined to choose between the PSL-led coalition and the front headed by the Workers Party (PT). But these figures were hardly examined in the Brazilian media, where there has been next to no coverage of the clear examples of electoral fraud, the terroristic political climate and even less the wave of grassroots, rank-and-file campaigning, which went way beyond social media and took over the streets towards the end.
The “heirs” and “legacies” of global neoliberalism - in the words of Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen - present themselves as an aggressive social movement “from above” all over the world.1 Its aim is to promote a broad social adjustment capable of connecting business needs, in the context of an organic crisis of accumulation, to the demands of reproduction of the political order, in view of its crisis of legitimacy. The politics of austerity go far beyond any national barrier and tend to form what the classic social democrat, Bernie Sanders, classified as an “authoritarian axis” around the globe - Trumpism in the US, Erdoğan in Turkey, the horrifying Duterte regime in the Philippines and the old-new Bolsonaro troopers in the land of the traditional family and Christian conviviality.
But how did this come about, you may wonder. Well, deciphering Brazil is not an easy task. The emergence of what some have labelled “modern reactionism” is the most salient phenomenon of recent Brazilian politics. All the press acclaimed it as the appearance of a virtuous force aiming to moralise the country’s affairs, end corruption and establish a new political balance. While the new right currents are nothing like a homogeneous or unified tendency, unlike previously they have generated a strong popular appeal. However, they did not arise out of the blue. The convergence of political neo-conservatism, economic neoliberalism and religious neo-fundamentalism have come together to create a military-style neo-fascism.
Bolsonaro has in fact been a congressman for 28 years. He was promoted as an ‘outsider’ who champions ‘progress’ and ‘order’, in opposition to the huge crises that have swamped Brazil’s main political parties over recent years.
But in reality he is an elitist, racist, misogynist, homophobic bigot, who does not care at all about things like the ‘rule of law’ or ‘human rights’. According to Bolsonaro, the torturers, oppressors and murderers of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, with their ‘Love it or leave it’ slogan, did not go far enough. They “should have killed 30,000 more,” he claimed two decades ago, while serving his third term in parliament.
The truth is that nobody would have paid any attention to his eccentric world view that long ago. The last period has seen a debate, especially amongst academia, about what would become of the ‘new right’. Following the political defeat of the 2013 radical upsurge known as the ‘June Days’, Guilherme Boulos, presidential candidate for the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), talked about the emergence of a “conservative wave” - a mass, militant, rightwing social movement, which started to gather support at rallies in 2015-16. It was a revolt, so to speak, in favour of the current order.
One of the most well-known political analysts of the Brazilian scene in the English-speaking world is the Anglo-Irish historian, Perry Anderson. Anderson now preaches “uncompromising realism” and explains: “uncompromising in both senses: refusing any accommodation with the ruling system; and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its true power”.2But he would have difficulty with someone like Bolsonaro, who seems unable to articulate anything approaching a clear political line. The leaders of the new right wing have no literacy whatsoever.
There has been no shortage of resources for projects and institutions to defend ‘market values’ (usually confused with those of the stock market) in Brazil. They have not been very sophisticated, or theoretically consistent. Liberal think tanks made up of ‘intellectuals of reaction’ were created in the 1980s to promote the values of the free market, while the mainstream press opened its pages to more and more traditionalist and conservative columnists. In parallel with this, Christian fundamentalists fought a battle in defence of a worldview that it considered threatened by a united front of communists, feminists and ‘gayzists’. If you think you know what cultural backwardness really is, you better think again.
But what about the resistance? In fact this has been a war with only one army. People of my age lived through serious battles in the 1980s and major retreats in the 90s, but the reality we face today was not foreseeable then. Brazil seemed to have been moving toward forms that encouraged people’s participation - the dictatorial past was strongly rejected as a matter of common sense and many believed that the forward march of political and social rights, beginning with welfare and pro-labour reforms, would be continuous and uninterrupted.
Nevertheless, looking back from where we stand now, we can see that the passionate activism of the 1980s was not expressed as any kind of new or comprehensive Weltanschauung. The class-based economic and trade unionist campaigns that characterised this activism did not result in a new working class culture. As a result, the gains that were made were in danger of being quickly swept away, and in the end that is what happened.
Intellectuals retreated from class politics, trade unionists became by the day more and more distant from class struggle, the radical left - including socialists who remained attached to something resembling the old-fashioned revolutionary praxis of Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir Lenin - was pulled towards conservative parliamentarism. A new way of life was affirmed - one in which competition and individualism became the prevailing values. Social Darwinism - an ideology that many considered belonging to the 19th century - resurfaced, side by side with the strident defence of the meritocracy’s false consciousness. Along with this, elitist, homophobic, racist and violent discourses and practices have spread unashamedly - the abject manifestations of a hierarchical and prejudiced world view that expresses the deep social cleavages in our society.
But part of the left fails to point out - loud and clear - that the PT’s project cannot be defended. While we must oppose the jailing of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on false corruption charges - pursued by members of a political elite which is among the most corrupt in the whole world - we must not forget that the PT attempted to manage the capitalist crisis in favour of the banks and at the expense of some of the labour and welfare rights that Bolsonaro now has in his sights.
The betrayal of the Workers Party cannot be justified by anti-fascism. The classical popular-front politics of class collaboration has paved the way to hell. As with the coalition government of Spain in 1936 or the social democratic administration of the Weimar Republic, we are now seeing the awful reality in the shape of a fascist movement. Middle class and even working class support for Bolsonaro was driven by a crippling economic crisis, combined with escalating violent crime: over 70,000 people were murdered in Brazil in 2017-18 - more than in the whole of the US and EU put together - including 6,000 at the hands of the police.
What is to be done?
The statements coming from spokesmen for the president are bleak and obscure. ‘Reforming’ all welfare, shutting down the supreme court and even ending Brazil’s basic wage policy are among them.
In the last few days of campaigning against the fascist candidacy an embryonic and molecular social movement was formed from below: activists, militants, artists and intellectuals took to the streets and forced the Bolsonaro team to retreat. Women’s movement and trade union activists - even the likes of professors’ associations - demonstrated their social and politically independent strength and seemed to open the way to reclaiming grassroots politics. The squares and avenues were safer when people stood their ground, united and strong.
The way out of this terrible catastrophe must come through the united front tactic. The socialist left should be championing this political formula without any illusions in either Stalinist or social democratic politics. We can and must be the first ones to denounce the injustice behind Lula’s imprisonment and the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Roussef. There must be no retreat on this. But we should also remember that the former ruling class must not be trusted in any anti-fascist front: they are adversaries too.
In addition to the international wave of conservatism and axis of authoritarianism, we must accept that Brazil’s current state can also be traced back internally. A chronic social antagonism is at the very core of all this - a molecular class struggle was always present in every pore of Brazilian society. Historic political instability has taken the form of 388 years of slavery colonialism and 389 years of a monarchistic state, and resulted in 41 years of an oligarchic authoritarian regime and 36 years of a semi-fascist dictatorship.
In today’s Brazilian urban and industrial society, the class struggle has had a much higher intensity than even the still predominantly agrarian countries of Asia. The tectonic plates of the class struggle move very slowly in Brazilian society, but since the beginning of the century a deep change in the relation of class forces and groups has been taking place, and this movement - which can be summed up as the opening up of a whole new political situation - is now being reversed into a new reactionary stage, with defensive tasks coming to the forefront. Bolsonaro personifies a political animal of a specific social form. But he did not emerge from nowhere. Nothing can be achieved unless we recognise and reject the heritage of the past.
‘The old world is dying, the new is born, and in this twilight monsters have emerged.’ Such a sentiment has been circulating widely, including, surprisingly, in the works of respected intellectuals of this and other countries. It has been attributed, erroneously, to Antonio Gramsci, but the closest Gramsci came to saying such a thing was in his Prison notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old dies and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum there are the most varied, morbid and bizarre phenomena.”
Such a sentiment may be useful in certain specific historical conjunctures. But it is certainly not a criterion of actual truth, and thus cannot serve the aim of social transformation. The theoretical error is great, but the political one is even greater - Gramsci’s stoic serenity would not have tolerated such tragic despair.
Roberto della Santa is professor of sociological theory at UFRJ Campus Praia Vermelha in Rio de Janeiro