Conservatism, Reactionism and Fascism

Image: Hatice Köybaşı


Jair Bolsonaro is not conservative: it's time to treat the bacillus by its real name

There are some concepts in political theory that fall out of favor, while others are overused. Reactionism and fascism are two that are in that first group, forgotten and replaced by theoretical aberrations, usually coupled with an unnecessary prefix like “ultra” conservative. Well, no, Jair Bolsonaro is not conservative. Indeed, few politicians could be as antithetical to conservatism as Jair Bolsonaro. But why?

It is clear that no concept is watertight, frozen in a univocal interpretation. Liberalisms, socialisms, conservatisms, fascisms and so on are plural, in permanent mutation. For, for example, American liberalism is absolutely distinct from European liberalism. Ideologies and concepts change within themselves, as was the case with Italian fascism, which emerged with a progressive bias, experienced a liberal period, embraced imperialism and corporatism, and finally merged with Nazism.

That said, it is natural for conservatism to alter endlessly. But it is necessary, when working with these concepts, ideologies and notions, to apprehend their intersections. They are what allow us, despite all the differences, to understand them. It is essential, therefore, when displacing a political concept from its original manifestation, to work with points of intersection, as well as with dissent.

In the case of conservatism, some assumptions are necessary. If we take Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre, respectively, as fathers of conservatism and reactionaryism, as they commonly are, then conservatism is guided by opposition to a rupture based on abstractionism, which breaks the notion it understands by verisimilitude, but which does not reject slow and gradual changes. As Edmund Burke says, “A state where nothing can be changed has no means of conserving itself. Without the means of change, he risks losing the parts of his Constitution he would most ardently want to keep.”

There is, in conservatism, an appreciation of the present. He understands that human societies are not perfect, but neither will they ever be, and that politics is the result of the work and dedication of thousands of previous thinkers, so that this collective construction should not be discarded in favor of a supposed ideal built by a individual. True freedom, therefore, would result from these institutions and from this gradual construction, which would connect the past, present and future, the dead, the living and the yet to be born.

Conservatism is not the only concept referring to right-wing thought. For some reason, a taboo was created around two other concepts: reactionaryism and fascism. As if, for some reason, they no longer existed in the contemporary world, but were limited manifestations of outdated experiences. Although the boundaries are often not so clear, there are clear divisions between these three concepts.

Reactionism is a more intense kind of conservatism. It is precisely what, under the juggling media, has become “ultra” conservatism. If the conservative's utopia is about the present, for the reactionary the future resides in the past. He sees the present – ​​and the institutions that flow from it – as degenerate, failed, corrupt. In the same sense, the past is idealized and a reaction, at least rhetorical, is employed on an attempt to return. The conservative can easily be included within the democratic spectrum, the reactionary hardly. There is, in its very essence, a rejection of the principles of agonistic democracy, of the idea of ​​a permanent dispute between legitimate groups.

We also have fascism. Perhaps of the three, the most controversial concept and certainly the most difficult to understand, given its diverse interpretations and its historiographical existence as a movement and regime. There are those who understand that a generic concept is needed for fascism, considering it as the greatest political invention of the XNUMXth century; but there are those who limit it only to its historical version. Be that as it may, the fact is that fascism, historical or conceptual, cannot, by its very essence, be conservative. The rhetoric of Benito Mussolini and Plínio Salgado is explicit: they didn't want to conserve, maintain, but return. For both, the nation was in a rotten state, captured by corrupting forces such as communism, liberalism and democracy. And only with their respective leaders would it be possible to take it back to greatness. Any resemblance to the contemporary is no coincidence.

Jair Bolsonaro is not much different. It is even possible to argue that Jair Bolsonaro is not a fascist, as long as the concept of fascism is limited to its Italian version from 1920 to 1940 – even though, as has been said, fascism itself has changed enormously in its 20 years of existence. But not even under the best of juggling would it be possible to classify Jair Bolsonaro and his entourage as a conservative. For nothing is more symptomatic than a government program called Phoenix Project, than a Messiah who proposes national rebirth. And the name for this is not “ultra” conservatism, because “ultra” conservatism is antithetical to the concept of conservatism. Jair Bolsonaro has another name: reactionary. That at best, not to call him a fascist.

It is not just a coincidence that a Messiah from Brazil in 2022 flirts with Nazi-fascism on so many occasions, mentions Mussolini, invents a grandfather who supposedly fought for Hitler, recycles mottos such as “God, homeland and family” and “Deutschland über alles”. Jair Bolsonaro is not a conservative, nor is he just a populist. It is necessary to call the bacillus by its name. Calling him a conservative is false, calling him a populist is not enough for the movement, as the former president is much more than just that.

With our democracy weakened after four years of attacks, it is always relevant to remember the Mussolini method: plucking a chicken, feather by feather, until there is nothing left. The capture of democracy to be used in the death of democracy itself is not a new phenomenon, but a typically fascist characteristic of slow weakening of institutions. Mussolini's coup, after all, did not actually take place until 1926, four years after he was named head of government. The second parliamentary election since taking office proved crucial to his authoritarianism, finally allowing him to concentrate the power needed to install an outright dictatorship. With effort, Brazil refused to follow the same path.

*Sergio Scargel is a doctoral student in political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


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