The politics of Bolsonarism



It will be necessary to understand the politics of Bolsonarism to defeat it

Why does Bolsonarism, despite losing the national elections, having its leadership condemned for ineligibility and being cornered by a long legal process well-founded on material evidence, manages to maintain its political strength as demonstrated by the event on February 25th on Avenida Paulista ?

An immediate response may raise three reasons at the same time. Despite having lost the presidential election, Bolsonarism obtained almost half of the votes, its more or less organic allies achieved key victories at the level of state governments and strong representation in the Federal Congress, the Bolsonarist PL became the party with the largest number of elected officials in the Chamber of Deputies. The event in Paulista would certainly be unthinkable without the active engagement of the current governor of São Paulo, Tarcísio de Freitas, and the city's mayor.

A second reason is the dynamics of neoliberal polarization against the Brazilian left, which continues to be led by Bolsonarism, with the PSDB having lost, apparently structurally, its historical capacity to fulfill this role. Thus, the conservative opposition converges towards Bolsonarism, seen as the only viable one. Furthermore, Bolsonarism maintained a political current, expressed institutionally in the PL, but also in other nearby parties, nuclearly cohesive based on a strong socially rooted and nationally centralized communication network.

But, in general, an act of such force was not foreseen. In fact, the error of underestimating the strength of Bolsonarism on the part of the collective intelligence of the Brazilian left seems reiterative: it was like this in the 2018 elections, when the rising strength of Bolsonarism was only captured in the final months of the presidential election; also in his ability to form a government coalition with institutional and parliamentary support when occupying the presidency; In the 2022 elections, there was a relative underestimation of its electoral power after such a disastrous and anti-popular government. Now, we are dealing with a reiteration of this underestimation.

It is therefore necessary to broaden and deepen the understanding of the Bolsonaro political movement, which has its center of gravity in the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro (and his family), but which already forms a nationally rooted network in the dominant classes, the middle classes and, of course, important way, in popular sectors and the working classes.

We propose to follow this path of reflection in three non-exclusive hypotheses: the international one, the one of calcification and the one we call Bolsonaro's policy.

Crisis of legitimation of neoliberalism – Trump and Bolsonarism

Just as it is not possible to think about the rise of Nazi-fascism in the 1917th century without inserting it into the great historical crisis of liberalism (the loss of English hegemony and its capacity to organize an imperialist international order, the revolutionary rise from the of 1929, the crisis of XNUMX), it is necessary to think about the rise of the extreme right in the world in the XNUMXst century based on the crisis of legitimation of neoliberalism and the capacity of the North American State to minimally organize an international order based on its interests geopolitical.

The national far-right political movements, which are organized in a syncretic way, combining the neoliberal program with the particularities of the crisis in each country, are organic to this international situation. In other words, they are formed, fed and reproduced based on the relationship with this international crisis of the legitimacy of neoliberalism. The term hegemony is not used here to characterize neoliberalism, but rather a crisis of legitimization of its domination, that is, its ability to obtain support, but also passive conformity by majorities.

Bolsonarism is, then, organic to the international crisis of neoliberalism in its current acute phase. Programmatic right-wing or center-right movements that were expressive of a rising phase of the neoliberal order – even before the 2008 crisis – such as the PSDB in Brazil, the neoliberal turn of European labor and social-democratic parties, and mainly the Partido North American Democrat after the break with style politics New Deal organized by Bill Clinton, saw their ability to form majorities drastically reduced.

Trumpism and Bolsonarism are, par excellence, dramatically regressive and violent responses to the crisis of neoliberalism, elaborating their programmatic continuity through other, more profoundly anti-democratic paths and methods. In short, if neoliberalism is a historically regressive response to the crisis of North American hegemony, the rise of the extreme right is an even more regressive response to the crisis of neoliberal domination without giving up, but deepening its program.

When people wrote at the beginning of 2019 about Bolsonarism as an expression of Americanism in combination with ultra-conservative Brazilian traditions, they were not exactly talking about a mere replication or even an analogy with Trumpism. Today, it is more evident that this is a common coordination, that is, Bolsonarism formed its methods, programs and political capabilities by feeding on its relationship with Trumpism. There are evidently national roots of Bolsonarism, inherited from the period of the military dictatorship and long-lasting Brazilian racist, anti-popular and patriarchal traditions. But the fundamental thing is that these roots were only able to converge politically and to compete politically for majorities through their formative process with Trumpism. The relationship between Trumpism and Bolsonarism is structural and structuring.

To understand Bolsonarism and the recent Javier Milei phenomenon in Argentina, it is therefore necessary to understand Trumpism. There too, in the North American democratic intelligence itself, in its center-left and left strands, and in the intelligentsia of the Democratic Party, there was also a profound underestimation of Trumpism, which was repeated after Joe Biden's victory in 2020.

Thus, contrary to the indication in the title of the article “How Milei and Bukele became referents for Trump and the most conservative right in the USA”, by Gerardo Lissardy published in BBC News World on February 27th, these newly elected leaders (the second in rigged elections and in a repressive scenario), it is Trumpism that is the reference for these far-right movements in Latin America, just as the Democratic Party at its peak was the referent at the height of neoliberal expansion.

When evaluating the election of Javier Milei in Argentina, Maria Cristina Fernandes, one of the most lucid and informed political columnists in the country, stated that the new president expressed the “fantasized liberal appeal of the extreme right”. This awareness that the extreme right is a current within the plural tradition of neoliberalism is fundamental. In Donald Trump there is not exactly a break with the center of the neoliberal program, but a critical reprogramming in relation to the orientations of the Democratic Party, mainly in the field of geopolitics, giving it an aggressiveness that is coherently even more conservative and more mercantile.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference, held in Maryland on February 27 of this year, in which Donald Trump was the big star, event chairman Matt Schlapp stated “that we were enchanted by the idea of ​​having a chainsaw to represent what would be the elimination of State spending”. In turn, in his speech Javier Milei called: “Do not let socialism advance, do not support regulation, do not support the idea of ​​market failures, do not allow the advancement of the murderous agenda (referring to abortion) and do not let led by the siren songs of social justice”. And he concluded: “If we don’t fight for freedom, they will lead them to poverty.” Now, this speech is an exact copy of the thoughts of the main founder of the neoliberal program, Friedrich Hayek.

In the last two years, Trumpism has been on the rise in the USA, threatening the uncertain re-election of Joe Biden in the presidential elections that will take place this year. This rise nourishes Bolsonarism, which sees its international legitimacy also strengthened with the rising far-right movements taking place in Europe. With due mediation, a possible election of Donald Trump this year would open the course of an even more dramatic international situation, with strong repercussions in Brazil.

The calcification hypothesis

The hypothesis that achieved greater visibility and public audience to explain the resilience of Bolsonarism after its electoral defeat in 2022 is that of “calcification”, which structures the book The biography of the abyss by Felipe Nunes and Thomas Traumann. Anchored in vast Quaest research documentation, the authors' intelligence works here with the concept elaborated in the book The bitter end, by American political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovich and Lynn Vavreck, to explain the country's political context after the political rise of Trumpism.

In this book, in addition to the concept of “polarization”, used in political science to designate situations in which the electoral dispute takes place between extremes, the concept of “calcification” is launched to designate a context in which partisan polarization spills over into the dimension social and affective, constituting mutually exclusive and belligerent worldviews, forming voter identities. These, in turn, would remain after periods of electoral dispute and would support loyalty to the leaders in dispute, reducing the degree of electoral volatility even in the face of the negative facts associated with it.

This calcification would be maintained through the structuring of a new ecology of (dis)information and opinion constituted by communicative networks and socially rooted. An environment is created in which people from each field continually nourish their beliefs through a process of “bolhification”, in a drastic reduction of pluralism, the ability to live with divergences, to seek syntheses or mediations with antagonistic ideas and values. The hardening of political passions spills over into the emotional world: 47% of those interviewed lost friends or had damaged relationships.

The authors' analytical intelligence can and should be deepened by understanding the relationship between what is called “calcification” and the historical political dynamics resulting from the transformation from the social liberal State to the neoliberal State.

In fact, the founders of neoliberalism, by deepening and expanding the attack zone of the so-called “cold war”, identifying even Keynesian social liberals or New Deal supporters as socialists and destroyers of freedom, created a dynamic of polarization beyond those established and legitimized in liberal democracies. If Joe Biden is a socialist for Donald Trump, if Fernando Henrique Cardoso is a socialist for Jair Bolsonaro, if the center-right Peronism of Alberto Fernandes is socialist for Javier Milei, then politics as open war is legitimized. And my political opponent is an enemy to be destroyed in the name of freedom.

Furthermore, the neoliberal dynamics, by deepening social, gender and racial inequality, by reducing spaces for agreement or negotiation within liberal democracy, favor dynamics of social separation. This separation needs to be justified by updating liberal class arguments, which blame the poor and marginalized for their social situation, for patriarchal, racist or simply colonialist values, as occurs mainly in Europe. What is called “calcification” would then be an expression of this sociology of separation.

There is also no way to understand the growth of anti-pluralism and intolerance, the anti-Enlightenment cultivation of reasons without referring this phenomenon to the body of the neoliberal tradition itself with its dogmatic, self-referred, anti-intellectualist character and conducive to the cultivation of values. traditionalists, mythical and religious faith. In general, neoliberal policies are anti-popular and tend to penalize the governments and parties that defend them electorally.

What the extreme right does is compensate for the counter-factuality of its reasons and programs, constantly contradicted by reality, with an emotional investment, of resentment and faith. In general, the main core of popular support for Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro is made up of conservative Christians, as verified in the Brazilian case by the always interesting Quaest surveys.

The politics of Bolsonarism

At a Bolsonaro event held at the Legislative Assembly of Paraná in the second half of last year, Eduardo Bolsonaro responded to a question from one of the participants who called for more directly violent action against the Lula government, stating that this was not the path, but that of “the policy". And he added ironically, that if this participant persisted in this type of action, he even wished him success but this would not be the path that Bolsonarism would take.

For a movement that is organized around criticism of “politicians”, whose leaders often present themselves in a grotesque or caricatured way, which acts based on appeals that go against common sense and seem irrational, the temptation is to deny it a consistent political strategy and coherent. But this is certainly not the case with Trumpism or Bolsonarism: we need to take Eduardo Bolsonaro’s response seriously. Not in the sense of denying violence to the path he proposes. But there is a difference between the politics of violence and the violence of politics.

The political movement that sought a coup d'état three times (before the elections, before Lula's inauguration and on January 8) now goes public to defend the rule of law against judicial political persecution of Jair Bolsonaro and preach amnesty to those already convicted and to be condemned as a gesture of pacification. It is necessary to understand how this transition occurred between what Antonio Gramsci would call “war of movement” to a “war of position”, that is, the path of accumulating forces politically, disputing narratives and values ​​to move to a period of open dispute for the power.

The politics of Bolsonarism can and should be understood as formed by a permanent tension between its character as a political faction, that is, a sectarian and destructive movement of democracy, and its permanent search to form majorities in the electoral dispute, that is, if universalize.

The political faction dimension is expressed by what could be called the hard core of Bolsonarism, which is fundamentally responsible for its resilience and continuity. It is certainly made up of fanatical people organized by the Bolsonarista network, that is, by its communicative apparatus combined with the action of mediating agents (evangelical groups but also conservative Catholics, military corporations, a wide range of elected politicians, etc.). But it would be superficial to ignore the classist dimension of this network: the strong entry of Bolsonarism into financial capital, agribusiness, employer networks, mining companies interested in the resumption and radicalization of the neoliberal program. The size of this network is, in general, estimated at between 10% and 20% of the population.

Politics must, at the same time, maintain the faction network and compete for majorities. Bolsonarism disputes electoral majorities based on a dramatic diagnosis of a crisis of civilization (which certainly contains strong elements of truth), in the identification of an enemy to be exterminated (the left in a broad historical sense, but also the liberals not adherent to a radicalized neoliberal program or the more openly violent dimensions of Bolsonarism) and, mainly, the search for universals that represent a way out of the diagnosed crisis of civilization.

The universals of Bolsonarism have been, from the beginning, the yellow-green homeland (threatened by the red ones), the patriarchal family (threatened by feminism and LGBTQI+ movements) and faith in God (through fundamentalist theologies). Bolsonarism has not yet been dislodged from the identity of these universals and until it is, it will continue to have the strength to compete for electoral majorities. To this day, when you see a Brazilian flag flying somewhere, you think of Bolsonarism. Brazilian feminism has not yet been able to restore its reasons and an alternative to the patriarchally structured family, despite the majority of Brazilian women having voted significantly for Lula. The real religious war underway in Brazil has not shown, on the contrary, the weakening of the most conservative positions, even within Catholicism.

The act of February 25th unified the factional dimension and the willingness to fight for electoral majorities of Bolsonarism. He moved from a strictly defensive situation to another in which the defense of the hard core of Bolsonarism is done through a bet on good results in the 2024 elections. Colored by Israeli flags and the voice of pastor Silas Malafaia, he connects with its international network and its Christian fundamentalism. It demonstrated the capacity for massive mobilization and an important institutional presence of governors and parliamentarians.

Defeat the policy of Bolsonarism

It is possible and necessary to defeat the policy of Bolsonarism in this situation of 2024. There are objective situations in which it is beyond leftist forces to win. Situations in which the fundamental thing is to resist, accumulate strength and avoid further damage. This is certainly not the situation for the left in this first quarter of 2024.

The Lula government continues to have majority approval (although falling), the exercise of the federal government gives it decisive instruments of action in the dispute, the degree of unification of the left has advanced qualitatively, social movements are in a phase of resuming their potential for mobilization. Bolsonarism is suffering and will suffer in the coming months a strong judicial process of condemnation, it has lost the capacity for institutional articulation mainly in the Senate, but also, to a certain degree, in the Federal Chamber.

Although it has not suffered major ruptures in its alliances, of the 16 governors who did not go to the democracy rally organized at the beginning of the year, only four went to Paulista. A defeat of Bolsonarism in the country's main capitals and urban centers would have the effect not of disorganizing its hard core, but of preventing it from appearing in the next presidential elections with the capacity to compete for majorities and win.

A policy to defeat Bolsonarism should combine a developmental and distributive policy that pushes the limits and goes beyond the fiscal framework and a national policy of national mobilization and electoral dispute that disputes, unmasks and offers alternatives to the “universals” of Bolsonarism.

The first question is decisive. The less the neoliberal limits institutionally imposed on development with income distribution and sustainability are overcome, the more social field for the policy of Bolsonarism will be open. Since 2015, Brazil has been experiencing a period of recession and low growth, of income concentration and the dismantling of social policies. The important economic achievements of 2023 (resumption of growth and employment, increase in the minimum wage, expansion of the Bolsa-Família program and reconstruction of social policies and initial and minimum principles of an industrial policy) should have a qualitative deepening this year. Without this politically oriented macro-economic action, the 2024 elections will take place in an undefined or unfavorable scenario for the left.

The dispute over universals needs to be done in the dialectic of negation and affirmation. Bolsonarism is far from having paid the price for its six “capital sins”: the war on those who work, on women and their rights, on black people and indigenous peoples and their rights, the dismantling of social policies (in health, education, in housing policy) and in the cultivation of open violence and hatred, the encouragement of predation on nature. It is necessary to charge this price for Bolsonarism in the 2024 municipal elections and, through a frontal contrast with reality, break down the mystification that surrounds it.

But the seduction of a policy of destruction and hatred cannot be overcome without the affirmation of a policy that announces another possible future that is in the process of being constructed. The implementation of the program for which Lula was elected in 2022 was severely hampered in 2023. It is necessary to return to and deepen its meaning: the affirmation of democracy for socialists is not limited to the defense of freedom, but links it to social equality, gender and racial. Democracy is built on popular sovereignty and is expressed by the affirmation of the rights of those who are exploited and oppressed. Without this sense, the very value of democracy becomes vulnerable to attacks from Bolsonarism.

In 2024 it is possible, necessary and unavoidable to defeat the policy of Bolsonarism. But for this to happen it is necessary to fully practice a policy of democratic socialism.

*Juarez Guimaraes is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Democracy and Marxism: Criticism of Liberal Reason (Shaman). []

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