Neo-backwardness In Bolsonaro’s Brazil


“Flanked by first lady Michelle Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro waves as he rides in an open car after his swearing-in ceremony, in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.” PHOTO/Andre Penner/AP/Daily Mail/Duck Duck Go

You once said that the 1964 military coup in Brazil presented itself ‘as a gigantic return of everything that had been banished by modernization’.footnote1 Would you describe Bolsonaro’s victory in the same terms? And does the resurgence of the far right point to failings on the part of the psdb and the Workers’ Party, the pt , who’ve ruled the country for the last two decades?

The victory of Bolsonaro in 2018 and the coup of 1964 have quite a bit in common. In both cases, a programme overtly favourable to capital could make itself viable by mobilizing the regressive depths of Brazilian society, discontented with the liberal course of civilization. In giving these anti-modern sentiments a leading political role, as a kind of compensation for a section of the electorate, capital’s strategists made a cynical and risky calculation—in itself, nothing new. The classic example is the obscurantist volte-face in Germany in the 1930s. Accepting and nurturing Nazism, the German big bourgeoisie unleashed an uncontrollable process, at the end of which there was no way of knowing who would be devoured by whom. It’s worth re-watching Visconti’s The Damned; Bolsonaro may not reach that point, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

In 1964 there was a military takeover; in 2018, an election. It’s hard to admit that defending the dictatorship and attacking successful social reforms can win votes—but it can. Where did the psdb and the pt go wrong, to the point that they opened up a path for the far right? There’s no shortage of explanations, with each of the adversaries blaming the other. Bolsonarismo now sees them both as cut from the same cloth—horrific examples of statism and cultural Marxism, which is to say, of communism. The accusation is paranoid, but even so, it may help us to understand certain things. The psdb (then the Brazilian Democratic Movement, or mdb) and the pt emerged at the historic moment of re-democratization in the 1980s, and took as their programme the redress of the ‘social deficit’ generated by the dictatorship. The state’s role would be to include the excluded, to raise the pitiful minimum wage and provide basic social services, so as to create a decent and more solidaristic society. From an electoral point of view these proved unbeatable rallying cries, and it seemed to follow that the two parties would enjoy decades of hegemony. And yet . . .

Leaving aside the mistakes that both parties have undoubtedly made, there is another, more pessimistic hypothesis to explain the turn to the right. The sequence of advances that, for a time, gave the impression that Brazil was finally lifting off to join the First World, may now have reached its limit—at least if it’s to remain within the bounds set to protect the interests of the established order. With the exhaustion of the favourable international conjuncture, in particular the commodities boom, the funds needed for further advance disappeared, interrupting the process of national integration and its general climate of optimism. With the turn of the tide, popular approval was transformed into rejection by a sudden and astounding sleight of hand, aided by social-media propaganda techniques. In the absence of any political organizing to deepen democracy—or rather, to deepen the social reflex of collectivity itself—one can imagine how the newly dissatisfied, who had previously benefited from the existing policies, might have recalculated their position and moved their chips to the opposite side of the table. In a context of stalling growth, they seek to safeguard their gains and have shifted to an ‘every man for himself’ mentality with regard to the future. With luck, that decision will be reversible.

In the same essay, you spoke of ‘the combination, at moments of crisis, of the modern and the oldest of the old’. Are we seeing that now, in the coexistence of the militaristic project of Bolsonaro’s group and the neoliberal reforms of his financial team, supported by business leaders and the financial markets?

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