Bolsonaro and conservative thinking

Bill Woodrow, Untitled (94_04), 1995
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By RONALDO TADEU DE SOUZA*

Commentary on an article by Martin Vasques da Cunha

Since Jair Messias Bolsonaro was elected President of the Republic in 2018 and demonstrated what would be the constitutive axes of his government, several researchers in the humanities, political writers, journalists and public opinion makers began to claim that conservatism and liberalism had nothing to do with Bolsonarism.

The last intervention in this regard was that of Martin Vasques da Cunha in the supplement Illustrious from the newspaper Folha de São Paulo of 05/09/2021 from a reading of Russell Kirk's book, the conservative mindset recently released by É Realizações publishing house. The publisher's painstaking work in translating important conservative political thinkers for the Brazilian public should be recognized in advance, in addition to Kirk himself appearing in the house's catalog, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton.

The question that organizes Vasques da Cunha’s text is “is it still valid to discuss conservatism in a country where the chief patriarch [Jair Bolsonaro] is proud to claim to be a follower [of conservatism]?” The answer is self-evident. But Vasques makes an effort to say that despite the catastrophe of Bolsonarism in the government, debating conservative ideas is not only valid but essential, in view of the work of Russell Kirk.

It would be a waste of time and intellectual energy to try to catch Bolsonaro or a member of his immediate government circle reading Russell Kirk's book with pencil, highlighter and Post-it by hand. (We were just lucky enough to testify over his table in a live celebration after the consummation of victory in the 2018 electoral dispute, the book The least you need to know to not be an idiot by Olavo de Carvalho.) Hence, conservative thinking of any kind cannot be observed in these naive terms to which Vasques, in a certain way, refers. In the case that conservatism as a set of ideas and its main authors “had and has to do” directly and rationally with the concrete attitude of Bolsonarism. It is not necessary to be a Marxist and postulate the social division of labor (practical and intellectual); it is enough to turn to Max Weber and the notion of unique spaces of value that came with the modern era to understand Vasques' “misconception”. And with the professionalization of politics with the emergence of mass bureaucratic parties analyzed by Robert Michels in “Sociology of Political Parties” and the growing specialization of social sciences analyzed by Weber, this differentiation became better delineated and objective.

It is different to state that ideas do have the capacity to drive history and politics. Admitting this does not mean that one should not dwell on conservative and liberal thought. No serious theorist of any kind and current will utter such a consideration. Quite the opposite. Well, on the other hand, saying that ideas and thought have no importance in the proportionality of political forces is like saying that the disciplines of political philosophy, political theory and social theory should be neglected as aspects even of the concrete history of human societies. Take Edmund Burke, beloved author of Russell Kirk – and, supposedly, of Vasques and a whole cohort of Brazilian conservatives.

The French Revolution had even entered its most radical phase, the period of the Committee of Public Safety with the Jacobins in the organization, when Burke wrote “Reflections on the French Revolution” in 1790. This collaborator of the Duke of Rockingham and deputy in the House of Commons since 1765 for the Whigs, not only made Burke an author of authentic fame, but also circulated throughout Europe, earning translations into French and German. Before Burke died in 1797, "Reflections..." eleven editions in a single year and had reached 30.000 copies during its author's lifetime. In England, on the other hand, Burke's ideas – and here we do not know in numerical terms how many of those actually read the conservative initiatory text – mobilized the political action of the Whigs, since it is unlikely that the declaration and attitude of counterrevolutionary war without truce against Jacobin France did not have had the Burkean spirit at some point crossed the English environment at the time.

Meanwhile, Edmund Burke crossed the English borders. It is very unlikely that this fine theorist of aesthetics, who was always averse to geometric generalizations and a sworn enemy of men of letters, intended that the book written for the public in England would reach Germany and France. But ideas are not as Martim Vasques da Cunha suggests: the lapidary construction of topics to be used in politics by politicians and parties. They propagate. And so it was with Burke's conservatism that reached Friedrich von Gentz ​​(1764-1832), a German writer and politician, and Joseph De Maistre (1753-1821), a Sardinian diplomat in St. Petersburg. In both cases, the relative affection for what happened in revolutionary France no longer existed when they read Burke's work – Gentz ​​moved to notoriously anti-revolutionary positions and Maistre, in a letter to his interlocutors, confessed to being anti-democratic and anti-Gallic. Burke's ideas are known for us to detail them in this space, suffice it to say that the Whig asserted: immemorial customs, hierarchical organization, authority, contempt for philosophers, incapacity of the people for government and aristocratic virtues. JGA Pocock brilliantly synthesized Burke's thought when he said that “taking the 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' as a single text we can see that the social system is being claimed, in the first place, as sacred: as part of a current of an eternal order linking men to God […] hence the inclusion of the organization of the Church [as a fundamental institution]; and secondly as a natural [order] . . . as part of the eternal law implanted by God.”

Russell Kirk as Martin Vasques da Cunha claims was a Burkean (convict); “Kirk saw in Burke a kind of 'soul mate', a mirror of his political and existential concerns. Both looked at the world where they lived immersed in religious decadence, in contempt for the community [...]”. Before being a prestigious conservative writer, Kirk wrote a book that had little impact compared to his later work. “Randolph of Roanoke”, about the politician from Virginia in the late XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries, did not raise Kirk to the place he would later occupy in the American conservative movement with the The Conservative Mind [the conservative mindset].

With the praise of Robert Nisbet, TS Eliot and Henry Regnery, supports George Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Kirk's immense volume won the approval of the New York Times and Times. So Kirk and the conservative mindset were decisive for the rearticulation of the American right “to reach full flowering”, says Nash. His ideas circulated, his style of understanding American society crossed public debates, his Burke was read as the thinker for any intellectual and cultural project envisioning the social order and the stability of state institutions. It is Vasques who has to argue that Kirk's conservative thinking did not influence the political balance of forces – in the 1950s and 1960s in the context of the emergence of New Left manifestations.

From a critical point of view, a question can be formulated about conservatism and some liberalisms (even Vasques da Cunha emphasizing that Kirk advocated in the moral imagination the fact that it “accepts human fallibility, but also, and mainly, the only necessary way to face the great problem that torments us all, regardless of our political situation: death and suffering.”); what are the political and social implications of this thought given that we live in a historical era in which the immanent-discursive structure is the existential denial by individuals, classes and groups of a life naturally destined for “death and suffering”?

Wasn't modernity the incessant quest – what Habermas understood as the opening to the new, the “more recent time”, the “continuous renewal” – to attenuate our natural destiny with political struggles and daring? Conservatives invariably never meditate on this. It is as if all of humanity had to accept the intransigent imposition that the natural order (hierarchy, authority, suffering of some, virtue of a few, harmful customs) is insurmountable: even having already demonstrated that they have not accepted it and will continue to not accept it. .

But what about the relationship between the Jair Bolsonaro government and conservative and liberal thinking, Vasques da Cunha's side concern? Since his text is much more the history of Anglo-Saxon ideas and their still validity for our context than a treatment of those vis-à-vis Brazil. A procedure that would most likely not please the original enemy of generalizations and abstractions recommended to particular national societies. It is easy and cynical today, for conservatives and liberals alike, to maintain that Bolsonaro and his close group “have nothing to do” with the ideas of Burke, Russell Kirk and Michael Oakeshott (not fortuitously the elegant and mannered English traditionalism). That Bolsonaristas do not even remotely understand prudence and care liberal-conservative in political conduct. I do not believe that scholarly writers on political philosophy like Vasques da Cunha and others truly profess such primary reasoning with seriousness and conviction. We live in times of obscenity; but there is a limit, I hope, even to the obscene.

The question that Vasques da Cunha could have asked himself is: what thoughts and ideas systematically circulated in Brazilian society in the years leading up to Jair Bolsonaro's victory in the 2018 elections? What did various columnists, journalists, writers, essayists, philosophers and opinion makers of Burkean-Kirkean temperament write, speak and disseminate in the political and historical arc from 2014 to 2018? (Well, thoughts and ideals are entangled by the historical ground of disputes and social and political struggles, especially in modern times – they are mobilizing even though they maintain their brilliance and sublimity.) The character Joker (Heath Ledger) from Batman the dark knight Christopher Nolan was right when he said – “madness is like gravity, it just needs a little push […]”. Unfortunately, dear Martin Vasques da Cunha, ideas and thoughts in a society with different material interests circulate and can give a push to madness: in this case, madness has cost the lives of thousands of poor people, black people, women and LGBTQI+.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.

 

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