Authoritarianism and neoextractivism

Image: Mike Chai


The informal system of norms through which extractive capitalism puts authoritarian forms of action back into circulation

The discussion about the crisis of Brazilian democracy brings back to the agenda the political role of business elites in the country. It asks how the normalization of speeches and criminal acts carried out by groups in power was made possible and by what game of convenience the powerful pushed the country into the hands of agents committed to dismantling the public dimensions of the State. To advance this discussion, it is necessary to observe the more structural transformations that reconfigured Brazilian capitalism in the last two decades. It is within its scope that the authoritarian political plot has been unfolding, in particular in connection with the neo-extractivist form of this capitalism, a model founded on the exploitation of natural resources aimed at the export of commodities, with a subordinate insertion of the economy in the international division of labor.

The process of reprimarization of the economy was constituted not only by the expansion of the participation of primary goods in the foreign trade structure, but also by the growing subordination of its results to the dynamics of the financial markets. Investment decisions now take into account not only the demand for goods, but the yield set by the financial market[I], submitting itself, therefore, to the instability of speculative movements and the creation of fictitious expectations.

Over a few decades of neoliberal policies and deindustrialization, Brazilian business elites have shown a visible inclination towards peaceful coexistence with authoritarian practices and, more recently, with the fascist traits assumed by the government elected in 2018. The articulation between the gains of the powerful and the process of deconstructing rights suggests paying attention not only to what is currently called the “functioning of institutions”, but, more specifically, to the axis that links the primary export model to land, environmental, indigenous and peoples rights issues traditional.

Representatives of large agrarian and agro-industrial businesses, inside and outside the government, inside and outside Congress and employers, have visibly managed the authoritarian wave in their favor, concentrating land and resources, opening new spaces for their businesses, whether in extension, threatening indigenous territories and conservation units, or in intensity, releasing the use of pesticides and transgenics on a large scale. A considerable part of its representatives showed sympathy for the government's challenges to arm “rural producers”, as well as the blackmail of the “end of agribusiness” brandished with the aim of preventing the demarcation of indigenous territories.

Spokespeople for this sector do not hesitate to sound the alarm that “development is unfeasible” to press for the virtual dismantling of the environmental licensing system[ii]; welcome the benevolent redefinition of what counts as slave labor; defend the expansion of the cattle herd in the Pantanal in the name of “fire prevention” and watch the deferential reception of illegal loggers and land grabbers in ministerial offices. In perspective, they plan to approve mining on indigenous lands and a more generous review, for large landowners, of the forest code already made more flexible in 2012.

Even having taken a circumstantial distance from the government’s debacle in the pandemic, a representative of ruralism in the Senate made a point of reaffirming that this in no way affected her enthusiastic support for the government. Agribusiness would even have been the hidden voice behind the episode of the circumstantial demobilization of the truck driver coup on September 7th, through the embarrassed message sent by the coup leader to his followers in an audio initially considered fake by the promoters of the fakenews. This part of the coup adventure showed that the uncertainty manufactured by the system of lies can shake the very ground of falsehood on which fascism is based; and the agribusiness agents who, contrary to the Brazilian Association of Soy Producers, did not support or finance the coup plot, were, in turn, bothered by the fact that the interruption in the circulation of their goods was included in it.

So-called “behind the scenes” information reaches the press that full support for the government would be restricted to sectors that are “inside the gate (rural producers)”, while sectors located “outside the gate, agroindustry and trading companies ( traders in the international market)”[iii] they would fear commercial retaliation against Brazilian products, due to its international image considered anti-environmental and, given the violence of land grabbing and deforestation, anti-democratic. Despite these “leaks”, as observed by former ambassador Rubens Ricúpero, in a live May 2021[iv] evoking the period in which he was demonstrating, along with other former ministers of the Environment, against the dismantling of the public environment machine: “I did not see any ruralist in Brasilia criticizing the government and defending the guidelines of environmental protection”.

In fact, after two and a half years of a government that made the coup d'état and anti-democratic militancy its axis of action, producers linked to financial capital and exporters to the European market, such as those in the vegetable oil, pulp and palm oil industry, expressed their concern “with the current challenges to institutional harmony”[v]. But, faced with the activism of rural sectors that act on the front line for the flexibility of land legislation and environmental norms, as well as for the possession and carrying of weapons in the countryside, agribusiness representatives who say they are concerned with institutional harmony allege "avoid taking a stand and declaring themselves openly, because they fear retaliation”[vi].

“We remove and install presidents when we want”, rejoiced, in front of the TV cameras, a deputy from the ruralist group, still in 2016. Why the display of this self-assigned power to make and unmake politics? What explains the aggressiveness of the coup-supporting ruralism and the complacency of the transnationals that adopt environmental rhetoric and are concerned with institutional harmony? What agendas would have brought interests closer together and avoided the exposure of “cracks” in ruralism and in extractivism in general until the eve of September 7th?

Considering the role of commodities in the list of Brazilian exports, in addition to credit and tax exemption, what the representatives of neoextractivism in Congress and the executive indicate that they want is that governments guarantee them safe and growing access to extraction spaces – whether for ores, soil fertility or water sources – as well as guaranteeing fluidity in the transit of goods through the logistical transport networks that converge on the exporting ports. Since the early 2000s, communicators linked to the perspective of large landowners had already begun to focus their attacks on the rights of traditional peoples and communities: “the weakened right to property”, they began to say, was being threatened “ by tribal, collective, or communal property.”[vii].

In the field of parliamentary ruralism, this was reflected in the creation of a Committee on the Right to Property and Minorities within the Instituto Pensar Agro (IPA) linked to the Parliamentary Front for Agriculture [viii] Reaching the expected income from their businesses would thus also imply the neutralization or removal of what they call “interferences” that may arise in the path taken by the companies. commodities towards foreign markets, whether they take the form of communities that have long been located on their traditionally occupied lands or of criticisms issued by social movements or indigenous leaders, who came to be, for this reason, persecuted by FUNAI itself[ix].

We have thus observed the constitution of a kind of affinity between neo-extractivism and authoritarianism. “Autocratism with a fascist bias” is the name evoked by André Singer for “the democratic erosion that takes place little by little, full of comings and goings and distortions of facts, without definitive ruptures”[X]. An “autocratism of results”, we could add, is what would unify, in particular, the neo-extractivist interests, for whose satisfaction the conjunction between a State authoritarianism and a market authoritarianism would compete with the aim of withdrawing rights and constraining those who criticize the abuses and regulatory setbacks.

For the agromining complex, even with the internal strategic and discursive nuances pointed out above, all means have so far been admitted to achieve the result of opening new spaces for business – flexibilization of rights and armaments, “agro is pop” and hyper-consumption of pesticides , “sustainable mining” and judicial harassment of researchers critical of degrading mining. This practical convergence between neoextractivism and authoritarianism is configured as a circulation movement of authoritarian forms between the State and corporations, between actions and schemes already experimented by the Brazilian State during the 1964-1985 dictatorship and similar forms that the large extractive corporations themselves have been undertaking since the its end, with a view to controlling the territories of interest to its businesses. Then let's see.

The practices of the so-called “corporate social responsibility”, for example, which, by offering some benefit, allow large extractive corporations to try to prevent communities adversely affected by their projects from mobilizing or joining social movements, is strongly in line with the so-called civic-social actions adopted by the armed forces as an anti-insurrection instrument[xi]. Be it the military or the corporate social responsibility departments, what is sought through these strategies is to make what is their constitutionally guaranteed right seen as a favor rendered to dispossessed populations, whether in the areas of health or education.

Large extractive companies thus seek to manage socially critical local conditions, taking advantage of situations such as, for example, the pandemic that broke out in 2020, to present themselves as more capable than the State of guaranteeing well-being in the localities of your interest. Anticipating conflicts, they seek to neutralize critical agents and prevent the free and informed debate on the forms of occupation of territories by business projects from involving the very populations that live and work in them.

On the other hand, it appears that as the neo-extractivist model has been consolidated, cases have multiplied in which interest groups whose projects are the subject of environmental controversy proceeded to judicially interpellate researchers, promoted public intimidation campaigns, filed lawsuits, constrained the right to speech and information, requested prohibitory interdicts to limit researchers' access to research areas, called on professional councils to obtain the disqualification of researchers, etc.[xii] Such so-called procedural harassment situations aim to inhibit the action of researchers and scientific institutions that fulfill their role of making the complexity of socio-ecological changes caused by large extractive projects more visible. Intimidating actions of this type also affect individuals belonging to the groups affected by the projects.

There are cases in which extractive companies criminalize their critics, resorting to the legal provision of the prohibitory interdict, prosecuting people who have demonstrated, for example, against being run over on ore transport routes, alleging offense to business operations, for being able to “directly affect the balance Brazilian commercial[xiii]. After the election of a liberal-authoritarian government in the country, alongside the worsening of the forms of embarrassment of leaders, researchers and critical intellectuals, such actions were once again adopted on the initiative of the executive itself[xiv], as well as a network of agents who preach ignorance as a way of managing public affairs, like those who threaten researchers who produce fundamental data on the impacts of the use of pesticides.

As is known, the practices of persecution of critics of authoritarianism. was associated, during the 1964-1984 dictatorship, with the operation of a surveillance system designed to identify and repress opponents. After the end of this regime, it was found that acts of this order were incorporated by large corporations in the extractive sector, when faced with criticism of aspects of their modus operandi. In a public hearing held in October 2013, at the Congressional Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation, a former employee of a large mining company presented evidence that the company in question maintained a spy network on its employees, politicians and social movements.[xv].

Among the large corporations of extractive capitalism, it is common to resort to mapping what they consider “social risks” to their businesses, that is, those arising from the public repercussion of reports of abuses associated with their practices. There are empirically verifiable records that, alongside so-called “corporate social responsibility” projects, some large corporations are adopting practices to monitor organizations and social movements considered to pose a risk to business activities or reputation. It is not without purpose the perception that this type of practice has even become a consultancy service that is expanding its offer to other fields of social life, such as governments (such as the survey of “detractors” commissioned by the Minister of Economy)[xvi] and regulatory agencies, such as the National Mining Agency[xvii].

Differently from what is currently called industrial espionage, in which a company seeks to access information about competitors' research, plans or confidential documents — a practice considered unfair in the logic of the free market — the compilation, sometimes confidential, of data on activists, community leaders and researchers identified as capable of influencing business operations or public opinion seems to mimic what was, until now, an exclusive attribute of the State[xviii].

A case of international repercussion came to light in May 2019, when the French press reported the discovery of a monitoring scheme that the multinational biotechnology and agribusiness Monsanto had promoted with hundreds of politicians, scientists, journalists and activists.[xx]. Selected by the public position regarding the pesticides produced by the corporation and the degree of influence they could exert in the public debate, the mapped figures were called “targets” and classified according to four categories: “allies”, “potential allies to recruit”, “the to educate" and "to watch over". Bayer itself, the corporation that owns Monsanto since 2018, recognized the likelihood that such monitoring has been done across Europe, indicating the existence of a possible scheme aimed at identifying critics and disseminating favorable positions to pesticides.[xx].

Neoliberal governmentality, which intended to overcome politics, conflict and deliberation around common ends, brought with it processes of conceptual and practical disruption of institutions that had, until then, constituted the western architecture of the democratic form. Some analyzes point to the way in which Hayek, a reference thinker of ultraliberalism, had already disconnected liberalism from democracy, admitting its circumstantial reconnection to dictatorships[xxx].

Faced with the facts of the adoption of formulas by the economists of the University of Chicago by the Pinochet dictatorship, this author stated “to prefer a liberal dictator to a democratic government lacking liberalism”. Under the discourse of the free market, as well as the free access of corporations to the sources of profit of extractive capitalism, what the neoliberal project advocates is the validity of a coercive apparatus committed to preserving, for the purposes of capitalist accumulation, the functioning of the market system[xxiii]. In the recent Brazilian experience, the blatant intransparency of government processes, associated with the falsification of facts, the stimulus to the arming of extrastate forces, the disrespect for academic freedom, as well as land and environmental legislation seem to give meaning to this informal system of norms by which extractive capitalism puts into circulation authoritarian forms of action that cross, alternatively or simultaneously, fields of action of the State and corporations.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] Robert Boyer, Economie Politique des Capitalismes, La Découverte, Paris, 2015, p. 97.

[ii] On September 16, 2021, the Ministry of Economy of the Bolsonaro government, claiming to satisfy the demands of the private sector, released a “Cost Reduction Project” that proposes the adoption of licensing by lapse of time, waiver of license to use waste from mining, redefining the size of the Amazon, encouraging Brazil to become a global hub for the production of pesticides, among other measures to deconstruct environmental legislation. “Civil society organizations repudiate the Ministry of Economy's anti-environmental package”, 23/9/2021;

[iii] Daniel Giovanaz, Did the agro crack? Environmental agenda and coup threat expose division “before and after the gate”, Brazil of Fact, 6/9/2021.

[iv] Political formation of agribusiness, live for the launch of the book by Caio Pompeia,, 12/5/2021.


[vi] Viviane Taguchi, Why did the agro crack?

[vii] NRBarretto, The Quilombola Revolution – Racial war and agrarian and urban confiscation – collectivism, Artpress, SP, 2008, p.13.

[viii] Leonardo Fuhrman, Landowners lead the front in Congress against indigenous rights, 25/9/2021


[X] André Singer, After Bolsonaro's troll march on São Paulo, Democrats need to isolate the lunatic right, Folha de São Paulo, 19/9/2021.

[xi] Henri Acselrad, Corporate and military strategies for controlling territory – authoritarian confluences  Le Monde Diplomatique Brazil, no. 82, May 2014.

[xii] Raquel Giffoni Pinto, Research on environmental conflicts and procedural harassment of researchers in Brazil, Anthropolitics - Contemporary Journal of Anthropology, (36). 2014

[xiii] Thiago Domenici, Processed by Vale, Public Agency, 23/11/2017,


[xv]  Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation of the Chamber of Deputies, 2013. Espionage and infiltration of Vale SA, available at Chico Otávio; Alexandra Duarte. Dictatorship agents create a network of traps, newspaper The Globe, 25/04/2011; Amaral, Marina, “Information leak exposes Vale's espionage”, Publica: Reporting and Investigative Journalism Agency, 13/09/2013, available at:

[xvi] Mônica de Bolle, The detractors of Guedes, The state of Sao Paulo, 2 / 12 / 2020

[xvii] Workshop of the word, Mapping of Digital Influencers, Report, National Mining Agency, Nov.Dec.2020

[xviii] Raíssa Veloso, Social in corporate strategies – security aspects in risk and “stakeholder” management, Master's Dissertation, IPPUR/UFRJ, Rio de Janeiro, 2019.

[xx] “Glyphosate: des centaines de personnalités secrètement fichées et ciblées en fonction de leur soutien à Monsanto”. Poll France 2. Available at: , accessed on 3435581/27/09.

[xx] "Monsanto may have kept files on influential people across Europe, says Bayer." G1. Available at: .ghtml accessed on: 18 May. 2019.

[xxx] Eleutério Prado, State Neoliberalism, the earth is round, 26 Jul. 2020. Available at: Accessed on: 18 Apr. 2021.

[xxiii]  Frederick A. von Hayek, The foundations of freedom. Brasilia: Ed. from UNB; Sao Paulo: Vision, 1983.

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