The crisis of liberal democracy

Paula Rego, "War", 2003. (Tate Collection)
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By RAFAEL R. IORIS*

Bolsonaro's Brazil as an expression of neo-fascist authoritarian neoliberalism

Although an eminently Brazilian phenomenon, the surprising arrival of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil, in January 2019, needs to be understood as an expression of a broader crisis of liberal democracy, regime and political logic that seems to face today its greatest challenge since its expansion around the world in the second half of the 250th century. It is true that classical Liberalism was not born finished, much less democratic. But its evolution, over the last XNUMX years, unfolded along a course that not only sought to guarantee the notion of majority rule, but also the importance of protecting and guaranteeing the existence and political participation of minority groups.

And it is exactly in this aspect that today liberal democracy faces its main challenge, on the part of formally democratic (elected) leaders, who actively act to suppress the rights of non-hegemonic populations and erode the legal regimes and institutional bodies that guarantee the protections of these same groups. . Examples of such leaders include Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and of course, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

All fit into the dishonorable group of leaders who actively act to persecute groups that do not fit their authoritarian and exclusionary vision of society. They do this by gradually destroying independent investigative bodies and judicial courts, delegitimizing opposing voices, and promoting the narrative that such groups pose an existential threat to 'the nation, narrowly defined, whether by religious, linguistic, ethnic, or cultural elements. ideological.

Given 'the relative newness of this new expression of authoritarian leaders, we still lack a conceptual consensus on how to treat them. Given its formal democratic nature and popular appeal, in many parts hegemonic, would we be witnessing a new manifestation of a certain right-wing populism? Or, given its aggressive, persecutory character and especially its strategic alliances with big capital, local or global, would this be a new manifestation of historical fascist logic? It is difficult to know whether a concept can handle the diversity that such a phenomenon assumes around the world. On the one hand, there is a coordination of forces in promoting an oligopolistic pro-big capital agenda, although not necessarily national. And there seems to be less need for mobilization through large mass parties as this is largely replaced by mobilizations organized through social media.

In all, one of the central elements of what I understand to be a certain type of neo-fascism, especially in peripheral countries such as Brazil, is its role in promoting the neoliberal agenda through increasingly authoritarian means. Thus, in addition to eroding the rights and minimal economic gains of less favored social groups – through reforms that reduce labor rights, privatize public services, reverse environmental legislation, etc. – the neo-fascist leaders revert the very hard-won civilizing milestones by relativizing, when not frontally attacking, the foundations and operational mechanisms of democratic logic, such as the rights of minorities, and the free expression of criticism and contradiction.

The emergence of neo-fascism, especially in Latin America, took place within the framework of 'the expansion of social democratic reforms promoted by the so-called Onda Rosa, itself which had come to power in several countries in the region in opposition' to the reform agenda neoliberal movements of the 1990s. Interestingly, in general terms, the governments of the Onda Rosa sought to reposition the role of the State in the economy and society, as an inducer of growth and promoter of economic inclusion (social, cultural, racial, etc.) even if not have, in a clear way, managed to face the most structural characteristics of capitalism, both in the national and even global context; and thus, the very historical dependence of Latin American economies on the export of primary products to global markets.

In fact, largely driven by the voracity of the rapidly expanding Chinese market, the first decade of the 2008st century witnessed a process of reprimarization of regional economies. This dependence on Chinese consumption proved to be an element of growth but also, increasingly, of political destabilization. Since the XNUMX crisis, in particular, the global economy has begun to witness both a reversal of trends in commodity prices and a resurgence of neoliberal logic, although this time with an increasingly protectionist bias.

The limits of expansion through consumption in Latin American countries are beginning to become evident, both in the sense of maintaining social programs and in terms of the degree of tolerance of regional elites not only with the more limited historical rise of various social sectors, but also as the very logic and institutions of representative democracy. Important elements that had benefited from the political coalitions of the Onda Rosa, such as the Brazilian agricultural sector, quickly, with the fall in earnings from primary exports, became leaders in the process of delegitimizing the democratic order, in many parts, still in the process of being consolidation.

Interestingly, the first governments arising from the reversal of the Pink Wave in Latin America, although clearly neoliberal, still lacked the more authoritarian and even xenophobic elements that would manifest themselves more clearly later. Sebastián Piñera in Chile (2010-2014), Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015-2019), Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru (2016-2018), Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico (2012-2018), and even Michael Temer in Brazil (2016) -2018) would be clear examples of this. Today, however, both in Bolsonaro's Brazil and in the temporary but tragic coup regime of Anez in Bolivia, as in the government of Duque in Colombia, and Bukele in El Salvador, clearly persecutory, revanchist, fundamentalist, or even messianic traits are central to way such leaders came to power as well as 'the very logic of conducting and maintaining it.

As a mass phenomenon, the experience of Latin American neo-fascism seems to find its clearest and most influential expression in Bolsonaro's Brazil. Had he actually presented his anti-popular economic and administrative reform agenda, he would not have been able to have the popular appeal capable of rallying more than 60 million in the 2018 tutelage election. And it is here that the tragically attractive face of the ideologically oriented narrative of neofascism is more evident. Let us remember that it was exactly based on the anti-minority discourse of the anti-politically correct saying, on the rhetoric of a vague but extreme nationalism, and especially on the bravado of the anti-corruption crusade that Bolsonarism, as a mass movement, was built. Echoing his chief mentor who promised to "clean up the swamp" in Washington, Bolsonaro promised to "change that there", in such a general way that the content of what would be changed was provided by the supporter in question.

But even with the support of various social sectors, it was in the middle classes where the anti-systemic narrative, initially centered on combating 'corruption, selectively defined, spread decisively. Again echoing events taking place in the US, trust in the institutions of democracy has not only found historically low levels, but authoritarian solutions have become more widely accepted. And so, in a clearly anti-democratic and even rapidly authoritarian manner, the anti-systemic mobilization initiated, most clearly in the impeachment marches of 2015, culminated in the election of the most reprehensible political character since the redemocratization process.

Bolsonaro's authoritarian intentions have always been public knowledge, as well as the illegal practices of Operation Lava Jato, although the media narrative of such actors has always sought to overshadow, until recently, such elements. Likewise, the current government's economic guru's agenda of neoliberal reforms was largely repackaged under the argument of the reforms that the country needs, without making it clear which country project was actually being promoted. And after the fateful 2018 election, wrapped in the collective madness of supporting, with weapons in hand, a candidate who promised to shoot his opponents, the clearly conservative and authoritarian bias of the new historic bloc would become increasingly evident.

The consortium in question has the armed forces, religious conservatism and large export capital as its main sponsors. And the project that emerges from the country is that of a culturally conservative and ideologically neoliberal society, where violent practices of social control are widely accepted and the ghost of the internal enemy and the fear of erosion of traditional values ​​would provide the alloy for maintaining the alliance in power .

Bolsonaro's neoliberal and authoritarian project and fundamentalist worldview are also expressed in the international dimension, including in the new diplomacy that Brazil assumed after Bolsonarism came to power. In fact, dramatically sabotaging historical pillars of Brazilian foreign policy (such as multilateralism and pragmatism), the country began to seek a close alignment with the US, especially during the administration of the Templar Ernesto Araújo. It is true that Lula's foreign policy had been suffering strong criticism for a long time, especially in its overtures to the countries of the Global South. And Temer's illegitimate interregnum already signaled a return to a more traditionally aligned foreign policy, in a subordinate position, 'the traditional global powers, especially the United States.

Even so, the turn Bolsonaro takes in seeking an automatic alignment not only with the greatest military force on the planet, but especially a fan-club-worthy approach to Trump and his family is something that will remain in the annals of national diplomatic history. The image of the internal enemy, the left, and its regional allies (with Venezuela), who would have to be strongly contained in order to maintain social peace and good morals, something typical of neo-fascist authoritarian thinking, was very useful in these efforts. . And according to this worldview, Bolsonaro and Trump, in the words of the chancellor himself at the time (happily defenestrated today), would serve to fulfill the role of defenders of Western Christianity threatened by the non-existent, but nevertheless widely vaunted, communist international.

Finally, it should be noted that, in a sadly paradoxical way, it would be the political leader who adopted the most nationalist rhetoric of recent decades in Brazil who would end up becoming the tragic figure who bargained for a clearly subservient role in exchange for a smile from the most emblematic figure of global neo-fascism. Leaders who came to power in the most recent and most impactful crisis of liberal democracy, Trump and Bolsonaro, as worthy representatives of this same phenomenon, never presented true answers 'to the erosion of the legitimacy of the contemporary representative logic. But unless effective answers 'to such a crisis are presented, the easy answer of neo-fascism will continue to maintain its appeal, whether out of power, as in the case of Trump, or, even more so, in charge of the second largest country on the continent, in the case of Bolsonaro.

*Rafael R. Ioris is professor of history at the University of Denver (USA).

 

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