Bolsonarism and liberalism



The foundations of Bolsonarism lie in a culture of reaction to liberalism, which in Brazil only appears as liberalism due to ignorance and intellectual indigence.

The recovery of Bolsonarism that we have seen in recent weeks suggests that the phenomenon will continue with us for some time. There are many reasons for the resilience of Bolsonarism after more than three million cases of Covid-19, 120 deaths, and even after its greatest leader, the president, carried out a series of attacks on the country in less than 90 days. unparalleled democracy in the history of our democratization.

The most evident of these attacks was having discussed military intervention in the Federal Supreme Court in a meeting. Among all the causes of resilience, one seems to me to be the main one: the so-called Brazilian liberals prefer the Bolsonarist project to a strengthening of the Workers' Party and other leftist forces, which could be the consequence of an eventual overthrow of Bolsonarism.

Three events in the political/intellectual field and public opinion point in this direction: the interview of the mayor Rodrigo Maia to the “Roda Viva” program, in which he says he sees no reason for an impeachment of President Bolsonaro; a response by several self-proclaimed liberal economists to a text by USP intellectuals on Brazilian fascism.

There, an effort is made to compare the Workers' Party with a supposed anti-liberal agenda; finally, a regrettable editorial about cutting the newspaper's expenses Folha de S. Paul called “Jair Rousseff” in which PTism is once again equated with Bolsonarism regardless of the fact that the former never threatened democratic institutions and accepted questionable legal decisions that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff.

In all three episodes we have a common element that explains the resilience of Bolsonarism: central sectors in the political system and in the country's intelligence misunderstand liberalism, crossing the border between liberalism and democracy without realizing the damage they inflict on the democratic order and , in the end, justify anti-democratic attitudes based on a pseudo-identification between the left and anti-liberalism.

The background to all these misconceptions is a profound misunderstanding of liberalism as a political doctrine. These authors/actors move easily among those who are enemies of an open society (I apologize to Karl Popper for the pun). In this article, I will try to show that the foundations of Bolsonarism lie in a culture of reaction to liberalism, which in our country only appears as liberalism due to pure and simple ignorance and intellectual indigence.

The conservative and anti-democratic origins of Bolsonarismo

It is worth using as the opening theme of this session a passage with which a group of economists sought to respond to an article by USP professors entitled “Urgência da União das Forças Democráticas”. The critics are a group of self-proclaimed liberal economists and their argument is that it is not fair to associate fascism and liberalism. I agree that it is not fair, although the question remains as to whether the USP intellectuals in question actually did so [1].

It is, however, absolutely surprising the shallow and primary way in which that argument was defended. They state: “Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Ludwig von Mises and Raymond Aron, some of the leading liberal thinkers of the century, were all exiled by the nazifascism. They dedicated their lives to thinking about the social order from a complex vision of human freedom, involving its intellectual, political and economic dimensions. These ideas served as the basis for the contemporary concept of open societies and their delicate balance between the guarantee of rights, respect for minorities, political democracy and market economy”.

At least two qualifications fit here: first, it is a tremendous conceptual error to identify fascism and Nazism. Fascism has as its core the exercise of open political violence against the left and popular sectors, while the core of Nazism is racism and the idea of ​​racial purity (see in this regard the excellent book by Zeev Sternhell, The birth of fascist ideology).

Thus, due to a completely deficient knowledge of fascism as an ideology and its differentiation from Nazism, it escapes the authors of the local liberal manifesto that three of the four authors they cite were exiled from Germany, Austria or occupied France just because of the fact that they qualified as Jews under the Nuremberg laws. The fourth, Von Mises, was exiled from Austria because he had participated in a far-right government that rejected Nazism and which closed the Austrian parliament, which would hardly characterize him as a democrat.

The second element calls the most attention in Brazil today. These are the radically different conceptions of liberalism and democracy that three of the four authors espouse (the fourth, as I said, could hardly pass for a democrat). Among these authors, we have two conceptions: liberalism as an open society where democracy is the method of government, defended by Karl Popper and in which we can also insert Raymond Aaron, and liberalism as a broad doctrine or a episteme thought in opposition to the very idea of ​​society (see here the excellent book by Wendy Brown In the ruins of neoliberalism).

It is important to differentiate the two conceptions because the first one actually has its origin in the Enlightenment and in the thought of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, while the second connects with the reaction to the Enlightenment and with a differentiation of liberalism that would become popularized in the second. mid-twentieth century by Isaiah Berlin. According to this second version, the center of liberal thought is a sphere of negativity that fails to relate either to the idea of ​​government as a virtue or to the idea that the foundation of political freedom is umbilically related to freedom in the field of culture. .

It is not difficult to see that, if there is a liberal thought in Brazil at the beginning of the XNUMXst century, this constitutes a form of narrowing of liberalism associated with the cultural reaction to liberalism itself that occurred in the XNUMXth century. It is this form that allows liberals to be associated with the president who defends in his political motto the idea of ​​“God above all” and who every day demonstrates the end of the idea of ​​virtuous government. Allow me to develop this topic.

Three authors founded the liberal doctrine in the eighteenth century, John Locke, Jean Jaques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Each of them contributed a fundamental conception to liberal thought. Locke with the idea that individuals have the right to rebel against tyranny, Rousseau with the idea that lack of freedom is the result of human action and can be reversed, and Kant with opening the way for the advancement of science and culture as his famous phrase "audi".

The tradition to which Jair Bolsonaro and even Paulo Guedes belong - and I would dare to include in it some of the signatories of the manifesto article published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul – operates on the motto of cultural continuity as a category superior to the will of individuals, that is, as part of the tradition of reaction to the Enlightenment and liberalism. This is what explains the motto “God above all” not bothering the liberals on Avenida Faria Lima. Let's try to understand what is involved in this tradition that most Brazilians are mistakenly identifying as liberal.

The anti-enlightenment and anti-liberal tradition arises almost simultaneously with the tradition of enlightenment and liberalism (here I follow once again the recently deceased historian of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Zeev Sternhell in his book The Anti-enlightenment Tradition). Its main representatives – Burke and Herder – carried out two operations that will be identified until the middle of the XNUMXth century with anti-liberalism. For Herder, in For another philosophy of history, institutional continuity should have no value. What should have value is cultural continuity, the continuity of habits and the preservation of the social order.

It's not difficult to see Herder in all the anti-culture demonstrations we've seen in Brazil, from the attack on Santander for sponsoring an exhibition in Porto Alegre to the attack on an exhibition in Belo Horizonte and support for the law that prohibits exhibitions with art involving nudism in the Federal District . We also have in Herder the attempt to rescue other historical periods, in particular Greek and Roman, through which he intends to question a philosophy of history that understands reason as the basis of all political and cultural processes (Sternehell, 2004: 79) .

Thus, Herder questions the tradition of the “audi”and has Edmund Burke as a partner, who questions the tradition of political rationality introduced by the French Revolution. Burke was critical of Locke and especially of the idea found in Second Treaty of Government that it is legitimate to overthrow governments. For Burke, “no government could hold for a moment if it could be overthrown by something so loose and undefined as an opinion of misconduct” (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, P. 59). Such an opinion, it seems, inspires Rodrigo Maia). Burke then reiterates his unfavorable opinion of the idea of ​​popular sovereignty. For him, “the question of .

We thus have the core of anti-liberal and anti-enlightenment thought as it emerged from the end of the seventeenth century onwards. It consists of three paradigms, all of which are very dear to Bolsonarism, despite being ignored by the economists who signed the manifesto: first, the denial of a broad concept of individual autonomy applied to science, culture and politics; secondly, the rehabilitation of a conception of religion and tradition that are reconstituted in the face of criticism; thirdly, the negation of the relationship between reason and political sovereignty as conceived by Locke and Rousseau. Bolsonarism drinks from these three sources despite being repeatedly defended by individuals who proclaim themselves liberals. It is worth understanding what Brazilian-style liberalism is to understand the argument of our liberal economists.

Brazilian-style liberalism

Certainly Bolsonarism and Brazilian conservatism are not just an import. They express strong traits of Brazilian authoritarianism, especially in the anchorage that Bolsonarism has in the Armed Forces and had, until the departure of Sérgio Moro, in the judicial corporation. Both sectors were formed apart from European and North American liberalism, as General Hamilton Morão made a point of reminding us recently in a curious letter written to the newspaper State St. Paul where he rescued the jurist Amaro Cavalcanti, minister of justice of Prudente de Morais and member of the STF.

Amaro Cavalcanti was remembered by Mourão with the intention of making it clear that Brazilian liberalism does not accept the characteristics of North American federalism and the idea of ​​broad prerogatives of the states in the elaboration of public policies. And it does not accept it, just as it does not accept civil power without military tutelage. Recently, the conservative jurist Yves Gandra Martins defended in a text published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul that Article 142 of the 1988 Constitution allows the intervention of the military in politics at the call of the executive branch.

Two questions arise here. First, it doesn't hurt to remember that the Brazilian Republic is an institution under military tutelage and that all constitutions since 1891 have had some version of chapter 142; the second is that Brazilian conservative Catholicism has elements that communicate with authoritarianism and with the defense of dictatorship carried out by the main jurist of national socialism, Carl Schmitt. Schmitt and Yves Gandra drank from the same source, that of conservative Spanish Catholicism and its main theorist Donoso Cortes [2]. Thus, a certain circle is closed on the local sources of authoritarianism that are in the togada corporations, in the military and in part of our Catholic thought that recently received significant contributions from neo-Pentecostalism via the idea of ​​moral majority.

These different sectors of the Brazilian elites never adapted well to democratic thinking and consider themselves above popular sovereignty. That's what explains passages from Rodrigo Maia's interview and the manifesto of the self-styled liberal economists. It is worth mentioning some general elements of the impeachment law, n° 1079 of April 1950, enacted by the UDN liberals at a time when Vargas was preparing to return to the presidency through elections.

Impeachment, which is part of the tradition of some countries [3], has a broad configuration in Brazil that destabilizes presidential power. In the Brazilian case, impeachment does not follow the international pattern of presidentialism, in particular the Anglo-Saxon one, according to which these should be very rare events. For this, they cannot involve political opposition or administrative issues (maladministration). In the case of impeachment, the 1988 Constitution did not revise Law No. 1079/1950. Thus, impeachment remained a strongly political element in the New Republic tradition.

A key issue in the impeachment process in Brazil is the intra-elite consensus on the removal of the president. I offer two examples for this interpretation. The first is the justification offered by Rodrigo Maia for not accepting Jair Bolsonaro's impeachment request. Maia claims that there is no justification even with the president's participation in undemocratic acts: “Not that they are not serious issues, I publicly manifested myself in almost all these events that the president participated. […] I think the president makes several mistakes, but there is a part of society that also supports the president, despite my disagreements with him. I will not be pressured to defer something that I think is not a crime” .

The President of the Chamber's justification is extremely curious. On the one hand, there would be no crime in going to anti-democratic demonstrations, even though we know that the president did more than that. He summoned some of them and defamed the judiciary from networks installed inside the Planalto Palace. But what is really curious are the last two sentences: when referring to the society that still supports Bolsonaro – not to mention that, in fact, he speaks of the support of the elites – and when he claims that there is no crime – which would almost be the same as saying only there is a crime when there is a consensus among the elites on the matter.

Maia's interview can be complemented by two passages in the article by our liberal economists. The first of these could be a normal policy analysis if we didn't know what it was about. They state: “The victory of the retired captain is the result of the emergence of new political forces in society and the legitimate exercise of the alternation of power. It is in this dimension that it must be understood by those who share a plural vision of democracy”. It seems like a questionable analysis coming from people who call themselves liberals.

After all, what characterizes the Bolsonaro government are two deeply anti-liberal conceptions: the rejection of decisions by institutions against majorities such as the STF and the rejection of an agenda of human rights or institutions such as the press and women's autonomy. It is interesting how none of these questions interest our economists. Perhaps because they understand liberalism from the narrow matrix of the second half of the twentieth century as an uncontested defense of private property and the reduction in the size of the state. In this field, even the liberal Folha de S. Paul needs to show support for the agenda of the Avenida Faria Lima liberals.

I intend to end this text in the same place where I started: how is it possible that Bolsonaro remains stable or even improving his approval rating? It is possible because the forces of the center understand it as part of a transition of political hegemony that defeated the left with an impeachment without legal basis and then elected the extreme right through an electoral campaign financed in a fundamentally illegal way. But if the result seems to be the expected mismanagement and completely unnecessary deaths in the case of Covid-19, none of this seems to deter the guardian of the impeachment door, the mayor Rodrigo Maia.

For him, impeachment is a process determined by the thermometer of public opinion and he does not intend to open that door while the forces of local liberalism – namely market sectors and self-described liberal economists – think it is worth having an extreme right-wing government and anti-rights if the objective of having a privatized economy can prevail. Rodrigo Maia seems to have this mission: to provide the half-sole that limits Bolsonarism and makes the enormous aggression to the rights and life that this government sponsors palatable.

*Leonardo Avritzer is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of The Pendulum of Democracy(Still).


[1] In the text in question also published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul on 24/04/2020, the authors talk about the closure of democracy and conservative revolution. They also point out that “by showing himself indifferent to the task of protecting citizens against the threat of death, Bolsonaro breaks with the basic principle of the social pact and with the justification for the existence of the State itself: the guarantee of the right to life”;

[2] Carl Schmitt, in his book on dictatorship, dedicates extensive passages to Donoso Cortes. See Carl Schmitt and Donoso Cortes by Bueno Roberto.

[3] The tradition of impeachment varies across presidential traditions. In the US, impeachment is written into the constitution, but it can only happen for serious crimes and is practiced exceptionally. The country that had no tradition of impeachment was France until 2014, where it remains nearly impossible to remove a president. See Sunstein, Cass. Designing democracy. What constitutions do.



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