The defeat of Bolsonarism?



In the eventual return of Bolsonarism, Bolsonaro can even be dismissed

“It may be that Thatcherism should not, after all, be judged in electoral terms – whatever importance these moments have in political mobilization. It must, conversely, be judged in terms of the success or failure it has had in disorganizing the labor movement and progressive forces, in shifting the terms of political debate, in reorganizing the political terrain and shifting the balance of political forces in favor of the capital and the right” (Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques).

The second round of the 2022 elections was the closest of the Brazilian presidential elections. In it, the opposition candidate, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, received 51,9% of the votes against 49,1% for the president, Jair Bolsonaro.

One should not underestimate the significance of Lula's victory. It is the first time since re-election was instituted in 1997 that the incumbent president has lost a race. Above all, Jair Bolsonaro used the government machine as never before in Brazil. Its main card, the so-called PEC Kamikaze, had an estimated cost of R$41 billion. On the very day of the second round, October 30, the Federal Highway Police (PRF) carried out, in a suspicious way to say the least, a series of blitzes concentrated on roads in the Northeast – a region where Lula has more support – creating embarrassment for buses that brought voters to vote.

In other words, the feat of the opposition's candidacy is not negligible. It managed to bring together a broad front, along the lines of the one that existed during the dictatorship, in defense of democracy that barred the authoritarian intentions of the current president and his supporters. On the other hand, one cannot forget that Bolsonaro had practically half of the votes. This is, moreover, the second election in which the retired captain receives almost half or more of the votes; in the 2nd round of 2018, 55,1% of voters having voted for him.

The Bolsonarist electorate is basically the one that, since 2006, has voted for the Brazilian Social-Democracy Party (PSDB) against candidates from the Workers' Party (PT). Such continuity is perceived mainly by the electoral map, with regions such as the Center-West and the South having, in four of the last five elections, chosen PT opponents. Since then, the petistas have won all disputes in the Northeast. The North and Southeast are more unstable regions, the first tending towards the PT, the second leaning towards its opponents.

In other words, the big change that has taken place since 2018 has taken place with the PT’s opponent: who is no longer identified with the center-right, becoming the extreme right. This transformation had repercussions in the wider political system. If the right had found itself, since the dictatorship, in a defensive position, with few people identifying themselves with such a political position, the fourteen years of PT governments encouraged the rightists to “come out of the closet”.[1]

What Camila Rocha (2021) called a “digital counter-public” was created especially on the internet, which, based on the perception that the left exercised something like cultural hegemony, sought to establish an alternative intellectual and moral direction. For this purpose, more traditional instruments were also used, such as think tanks, in addition to creating or taking over publishing houses, magazines, etc.

With an originally left-wing movement, the “June Journeys” of 2013, the right took to the streets. She fed on the allegations of corruption in Operation Lava Jato and was, shortly afterwards, the main promoter of the big demonstrations, in which protesters dressed in green and yellow, to defend the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. The apogee of this mobilization process occurred, in the midst of a situation of real political chaos, with the election as president in 2018 of Jair Bolsonaro, until then an obscure deputy.

The extreme right in government, unlike the PSDB and even the PT governments, which were demobilizing, promoted permanent agitation. Even during the pandemic, demonstrations were called that protested against the social isolation measures favored by several state governments. In the Bolsonarist calendar, Sete de Setembro – in which frequent allusions to an announced coup appeared – gained special importance.

Since the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro on October 30, demonstrations have spread across Brazil. Blockades were promoted on several roads and demonstrators have gathered in front of barracks to ask for a “military intervention”, even promoting riots, as occurred in Brasília, on December 12th. But how long can mobilization last? More importantly, will Bolsonarism have the capacity to continue disputing hegemony?

To try to start answering these questions, it might be worth using the example of another case of a project of hegemony, that of Thatcherism. Also because in Great Britain, more than forty years ago, the right also became involved, as it was not known until then, in an aggressive campaign to define what the nation would be. However, I am simply thinking here of carrying out an exercise, which freely uses the British example to think about the possibilities and limits of the current Brazilian situation.

In December 1978, five months before the elections that would bring the Conservative Party to power, Stuart Hall wrote the article, “The great right moving show”, in which he coined the term “Thatcherism”. In the text, appearing in Marxism Today, theoretical journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain, signaled a shift to the right in British politics, which would be embodied in Margaret Thatcher. However, the rightist drift would date from before, appearing since the end of the 1960s as a reaction to libertarian aspirations that then gained momentum.

In more immediate terms, the founder of Cultural Studies pays attention – as was common in his political works – to the conjuncture, which helps to highlight the indeterminacy of the moment in which he was writing, in which it was not yet clear whether Thatcherism was a superficial phenomenon or one with deeper impacts.[2] In any case, in the conjuncture different contradictions, linked to varied historical moments, would be found.

In other words, the conjuncture would be the terrain par excellence of the political dispute. In a more specific sense, as Stuart Hall and the editor of the Marxism Today, Martin Jacques, the conjuncture of Thatcherism would combine (1) the long-term decline of the British economy; (2) the collapse of the social-democratic consensus, established in the second post-war period; (3) the beginning, due to the recent installation of nuclear weapons in western Europe, of a “new Cold War” (Hall and Jacques, 1983).

Reflecting, to a large extent, these trends, Thatcherism, according to the interpretation developed by Stuart Hall in several articles that appeared throughout the 1980s, mainly in the Marxism Today, would be an ideology that would articulate several discursive elements. More specifically, it would amalgamate traditional conservatism with emerging neoliberalism into a contradictory unity.

The appeal to the Empire, to the family, to the race, in organicist terms, would coexist with the defense of self-interest, competition, anti-statism, in individualist terms. One has the impression, at certain moments, that the author is actually thinking about the appearance of a kind of Thatcherian subject: he would be at the same time patriarchal and enterprising, he would identify as much with an ethnocentric notion of the nation as with the free market. . In this sense, he argues that we would be facing a project that is both regressive and progressive. More specifically, the values ​​espoused by the British Prime Minister and her followers would be regressive, but would seek to promote modernization, or more specifically, regressive modernization.[3]

Thatcherist ideology would manage to build a people and a nation that would stand against unions and classes, supposedly identified with the Labor Party. By identifying the people with authority and order, according to Stuart Hall, we would be facing an authoritarian populism. Combining “coercion” and “consensus”, it would seek to impose, “from above”, a new regime of social discipline that would be prepared “from below”, by insecurities and diffuse fears.

Thatcherism would set itself especially against the previous Social Democratic consensus, which had defined British policy since the end of the Second World War. More specifically, a corporatist agreement between capital, labor and the State would then have been formed. This would translate, in terms of economic policy, into the replacement of Keynesianism and the pursuit of full employment by monetarism and the fight against inflation. One would therefore seek to dismantle the welfare state through deregulation and privatization.

Behind Thatcherism one could perceive the existence of something that, in Gramsci's terms, could be called a new historical bloc. It would identify with the new facet of the Conservative Party, especially big capital and the middle layers of the private sector and not the public sector. But sectors of the working class who would no longer automatically understand themselves as Labor voters would also be ready to vote for the daughter of a lowly grocer. The appeal of “people's capitalism” would be particularly strong among skilled factory workers and office workers. In even more radical terms, Stuart Hall explains, in the Introduction to Hard road to renewal: Thatcherism and the crisis of the left (1988) - book that brings together a good part of his conjuncture articles – that it would be difficult to specify to which class interests the Thatcherist historical bloc would correspond, not least because it would be committed to redefining these interests in new political and ideological terms.

With regard to discourse, a new reactionary common sense would be created. In this way, he would manipulate diffuse beliefs, suggesting, for example, that the economy should be managed like the household budget. In bolder terms, it would dispute the way to understand the State and civil society. When dealing, for example, with public services, those who use them would no longer be understood as citizens, but as consumers.

That is, Stuart Hall insists that behind Thatcherism there would be a project, which would seek to achieve long-term strategic objectives. In short, the British prime minister and her allies would seek to create hegemony, which would imply “a struggle and dispute to disorganize a political formation; take a leading position (…) over a number of different social spheres – the economy, civil society, intellectual and moral life, culture; carrying out a broad and differentiated type of confrontation; the obtaining of a considerable part of the popular consent; and, thus, the guarantee of the creation of a social authority strong enough to conform society to a new historical project” (Hall, 1988, p. 7).

Thatcherism would therefore seek to reconstruct and redefine the political terrain, modifying its own logic by altering the balance of forces and creating a new common sense. Much of its strength would come precisely from its radicalism; since he would be ready to break with the previous political mold and not simply rearrange the elements that composed it. In these terms, more than the electoral victory, the conservative leader would seek to occupy power, transforming the State to restructure civil society. But rather than hegemony it would be a project of hegemony, which would correspond to a process in permanent dispute.

On the other hand, much of the left's difficulty in dealing with Thatcherism stems precisely from having underestimated its novelty. Consequently, it would not be able to formulate a counter-hegemonic strategy. Even so, the interpretation of Marxism Today on changes in British politics is very influential, having a direct impact on the metamorphosis of Labour em New Labour. With the party's victory in the 1994 elections and the rise of Tony Blair to the post of prime minister, many of the intellectuals who wrote for the magazine became advisers to the new government.

Stuart Hall (2017), however, does not show much sympathy for Labor in its new guises. In an article suggestively titled “The great moving nowhere show”, published in 1998 in a special issue of Marxism Today – magazine that had ceased to exist – draws attention to how the young prime minister moved on the same ground established by the former prime minister. In other words, it is likely that only then was the Thatcherist project of hegemony more fully realized.

The differences between Thatcherism and what is already called Bolsonarism are evident. They are in the very time and place where the two movements appear. Margaret Thatcher took over and transformed, first, the Conservative Party and, later, Great Britain, in the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s, which helped to shape what became known as neoliberalism. Jair Bolsonaro made use of a rental party, the Social Liberal Party (PSL), to carry out his destructive project, in the transition from the 2010s to the 2020s, a period of crisis for neoliberalism. No less important, the British acted in the center, even if decadent, and the Brazilian in the semi-periphery of capitalism. That is, the exercise of comparing Bolsonarism with Thatcherism must start from their dissimilarities.[4]

Reflecting these contrasts, the conjuncture of Bolsonarism is different from that of Thatcherism, despite the fact that it also contains contradictions from different historical moments. There is an economic stagnation that lasts more than forty years, approaching the long term and that coincides with the decline of developmentalism. In terms of medium duration, the democratic pact of the 1988 Constitution, drawn up with the end of the civil-military dictatorship, has been strongly attacked. Finally, since the financial crisis of 2008, in the midst of the crisis of neoliberalism, an extreme right has emerged, active all over the world and, almost always, critical of globalization.

However, in its attitude towards neoliberalism, Bolsonarism differs from much of the world's extreme right. In contrast, for example, with Trumpism and its defense of protectionist policies, which would “bring back” American jobs, the Brazilian extreme right ended up identifying with the neoliberal prescription. The milestone of such accession was the choice of Paulo Guedes as Minister of Economy. A sign of the belief in the thaumaturgic powers of the PhD by the University of Chicago and the doctrines it would embody was the 2018 election propaganda, when the economist was converted into an “Ipiranga post”, supposedly capable of solving all national problems.

In a deeper sense, neoliberalism was never questioned in the Brazilian public debate, if we identify such a discussion with that held within the mainstream media. It is true that one can doubt the extent to which Bolsonaro was committed to promoting liberalizing policies, as was made explicit in the course of the Social Security Reform. On the other hand, the defense of values ​​linked to “entrepreneurship” is an important point of Bolsonarist rhetoric.

In discursive terms, Bolsonarism, like Thatcherism, promoted a curious amalgamation of quite disparate languages.[5] But more than Thatcher's Great Britain or Trump's USA, the retired captain's political discourse recalls that formulated by a previous American president, Ronald Reagan. In both cases, the peculiar combination of “economic liberalism” with “social conservatism” took on neo-Pentecostal overtones. Such characteristics are related to what Wendey Brown (2016) called the deprivatization of religion, which is no longer restricted to personal beliefs and invades politics.[6] But just like in Thatcherist Great Britain, in Brazil a sort of Bolsonarist subject was created, also known as a “good citizen”: fearing God and defender of the free market; patriotic, but ready to salute the US flag.

If Thatcherism turned against the social-democratic consensus of the second post-war period, Bolsonarism rebelled against the democratic agreement expressed in the 1988 Constitution. ), to a social pact that sought especially to repair the Brazilian “social debt”, favoring the lower layers of the popular sectors, but which, in principle, would not block the expectations of social ascension of the middle layers. Among its main measures was, for example, the expansion of social security to rural workers, which made it difficult to finance such an initiative. This situation paved the way for orthodox economists to present the truth that our democratic pact is fiscally unsustainable. It is also significant that the main landmark of redemocratization is also the 2022 Constitution.

Bolsonarism, in turn, identifies practically the entire democratic period with the “left”. In this reference, there would not be much difference between the governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, despite the fierce disputes, carried out for more than twenty years by PSDB and PT. Paulo Guedes, for example, in his inaugural speech at the Ministry of Economy, stated: “after thirty years of center-left political alliance, there is an alliance of conservatives, in principles and customs, and liberals in economics” (Guedes, 2019: 1). Going further, the “left” would correspond to the “system”, against which Bolsonaro and his followers mobilize to change the political terrain (Nobre, 2022).

In order to support such a project, the presence of an alliance between different social sectors can be seen, which can be characterized as corresponding, roughly speaking, to what André Singer recently called the agrarian-military-evangelical bloc.[7] The support of the so-called agribusiness to Bolsonarism was guaranteed especially by avoiding land invasions and limiting the fight against environmental devastation. The relationship between the retired captain and his former comrades in arms is quite ambiguous; both seem to want to use each other in a relationship that is marked by uncertainty. Finally, the reasons for evangelicals to support Bolsonaro are also, in large part, pragmatic, being related to the defense of the so-called customs agenda. With such support, on the other hand, an important popular base for Bolsonarism is guaranteed.

What has kept this heterogeneous coalition together has been mainly its enemies, or rather, the image that is made of them, playing such a role, “PT”, “communists”, “the system”, etc. Not by chance, the specter of communism – which, due to its real absence, after the end of the Cold War, has a particularly ghostly character – plays a central role in establishing the glue of fears that holds together the different groups that identify with that what its followers call Myth.

But more than elaborating a “reactionary common sense”, Bolsonarism expresses the previous diffusion of a worldview with this orientation. It benefited, in particular, from the more than thirty years of neoliberalism in force, which made, for example, considerations regarding the greater efficiency of the market in relation to the State already seem to be evident, if not, natural.

In this sense, PT governments did not break with these beliefs, but even helped to reinforce them, by insisting on integration through consumption.[8] It is not by chance that Lula found, in the recent presidential elections, enormous difficulties in gaining support beyond the electorate with an income of up to 2 minimum wages. In other words, what not so long ago was called the “new middle class” shows, to say the least, great reticence with the PT.

However, one can question the extent to which Bolsonarist hegemony goes and, in broader terms, neoliberal hegemony itself. Especially because hegemony, like democracy, has a universalist character, while neoliberalism is based on the belief in the supremacy of the private individual. Hegemony implies, therefore, the realization of concessions, both material and symbolic, by the ruling class in relation to the dominated groups. In contrast, in neoliberalism, the logic of the market and, with it, the predominance of private interest, begins to prevail in all spheres of existence.

Even though Bolsonarism, like Thatcherism, is ultimately incapable of formulating a project of hegemony, the left has underestimated its strength. It has not been able, in particular, to perceive how significant groups of Brazilian civil society identify with it. Because of this, the Myth's opponents may not be able to elaborate a counter-hegemony project. The negative character of the broad front that elected Lula and whose purpose was not much more than to defeat Jair Bolsonaro does not help the task.

It will therefore come as no surprise if Bolsonarism regains strength. Its fate, in fact, basically depends on the luck of the Lula government. In the eventual return of Bolsonarism, Bolsonaro can even be dismissed. To do so, it is enough to find another name that expresses the aspirations that it was able to awaken before.[9]

*Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes).


ANDERSON, Perry. The H word: adventures of hegemony. Madrid: Editions, Akal, 2018.

ARAÚJO, Cícero; Belinelli, Leonardo. The Brazilian constitutional crisis: an essay on historical interpretation. SINGER, Andrew; ARAÚJO, Cícero; RUGITSKY, Fernando (eds.). Brazil in global hell. São Paulo: FFLCH / USP, 2022. p. 165 – 210.

BROWN, Wendy. American Nightmare: neoliberalism, neoconservatism and de-democratization. Political Theory, v. 34, no. 6, p. 690 – 714.

COLPANI, Gianmaria. Two theories of hegemony: Stuart Hall and Ernesto Laclau in conversation. Political Theory, v. 50, no. 2, pp. 221 – 246, 2021.

GUEDES, Paul. Speech by the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, during the handover of office on January 02, 2018.

HALL, Stuart. Hard road to renewal: Thatcherism and the crisis of the left. London: Verse in association with Marxism Today, 1988.

HALL, Stuart; JACQUES, Martin. The Politics of Thatcherism. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1983.

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[1] André Singer (2021) points, based on Datafolha research data, started in 1989, to the predisposition of the majority of the Brazilian electorate to right-wing political positions. It would have become explicit with the election, in 1989, of Fernando Collor as president, but submerged between 1994 and 2014.

[2] To carry out this type of analysis, the Jamaican-born writer is especially inspired by Gramsci. It is suggestive how, at the same time, another intellectual from the periphery and based in Great Britain, the Argentinean Ernesto Laclau, also found the Sardinian revolutionary as his main inspiration for analyzing politics. The two then cultivated a rich dialogue, having even participated in the same group of Gramscian studies. Both understand ideology in discursive terms, in addition to paying attention to “new social movements” that emerged in the 1960s, such as feminism, the black movement and the homosexual movement. But while Laclau interprets hegemony in an increasingly abstract sense, approaching it to an “ontology of the political”, Hall deals with specific projects of hegemony, such as Thatcherism. See: Colpani, 2021. See also: Anderson, 2018.

[3] As of the October 1988 issue, the Marxism Today radicalizes this perspective, arguing that we would be facing “new times”, post-Fordists, which would be characterized by “flexible specialization”. This would be the new terrain of politics, which concerned both Thatcherism and the left. In this context, Hall even praises consumerism. Regarding the Marxism Today, see: Pimlott, 2022.

[4] In such an exercise, I freely use Hall's interpretation of Thatcherism as an example. If its strong point is discursive analysis, there is, on the other hand, an idealization of the post-Fordist “new times”.

[5] A suggestive analysis of Bolsonarist discourse is carried out in Nunes, 2022.

[6] On the phenomenon in Brazil, see: Lacerda, 2022.

[7] Singer's formulation in a debate with Maria Victoria Benevides regarding the elections promoted, on October 08, 2022, by the Center for Studies in Contemporary Culture (CEDEC) and the Center for Studies on Citizenship Rights (CENEDIC),

[8] On a particular case, in Morro da Cruz, in Porto Alegre, see: Pinheiro Machado e Scalco, 2020.

[9] This article is based on my presentation at the XXII Conjuncture Analysis Forum Latin America, Elections and Political Changes, sponsored by the Department of Political and Economic Sciences, by the Graduate Program in Social Sciences, by the Institute of International Economic Studies at Unesp and by the Research Group – Studies on Globalization at Unesp, Faculty of Philosophy and Sciences, Campus de Marília

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