Two years of misrule – the rise of neo-fascism

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

The brown wave on a worldwide scale

Jair M. Bolsonaro is not a unique case. In recent years, we have witnessed a spectacular rise, all over the world, of extreme right-wing, authoritarian and reactionary governments, in many cases with neo-fascist traits: Shinzo Abe (Japan) – recently replaced by his right-hand man – Modi (India), Trump ( USA) – lost the presidency but remains a heavy political force – Orban (Hungary), Erdogan (Turkey) are the best known examples. To this we must add the various neo-fascist parties with a mass base, candidates for power, especially in Europe: the National Gathering of the Le Pen family in France, the Alloy of Salvini in Italy, the AfD in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria, etc.

Neo-fascism is not a repetition of the fascism of the 1930s: it is a new phenomenon, with characteristics of the 21st century. For example, it does not take the form of a police dictatorship, but respects some democratic forms: elections, party pluralism, freedom of the press, existence of a Parliament, etc. Naturally, it tries, as far as possible, to limit these democratic freedoms as much as possible, with authoritarian and repressive measures. Nor does it rely on armed shock troops, as were the German SA or the Italian Fascio. Certainly, several neo-fascist paramilitary groups mobilized to support Donald Trump, but they never took on a mass character. The same goes for the militia groups that gravitate around Bolsonaro and his children.

But the most important difference between the 1930s and today lies in the economic field: neo-fascist governments develop a typically neoliberal economic policy, far from the nationalist-corporatist model of classic fascism.

The left as a whole, with only a few exceptions, has severely underestimated this danger. He did not see the “brown wave” coming and therefore did not see the need to take the initiative in an anti-fascist mobilization. For some currents on the left that see the extreme right as nothing more than a side effect of the crisis and unemployment, these are the causes that must be attacked, not the fascist phenomenon itself. Such typically economistic reasoning disarmed the left in the face of the racist, xenophobic and nationalist ideological offensive of neo-fascism.

It is a mistake, shared by many on the left, to assume that neo-fascism is essentially based on the “middle class”. No social group is immune to the brown blight. Neo-fascist ideas, in particular racism, infected a significant part not only of the petty bourgeoisie and the unemployed, but also of the working class. This is particularly notable in the case of the United States, where Donald Trump has won the support of the vast majority of whites in the country, from all social classes. But it also applies to our tropical Trump, Jair Bolsonaro.

The main agitation theme of most of these regimes or parties is racism, xenophobia, hatred of immigrants: Mexican in the United States, black or Arab in Europe, etc. These ideas have nothing to do with the reality of immigration: voting for Le Pen, for example, was particularly high in certain rural areas that never saw a single immigrant.

The “classic” leftist analysis of fascism essentially explains it as an instrument of big capital to crush the revolution and the workers' movement. Based on this premise, some people on the left argue that since today the workers' movement is very weakened and the revolutionary threat does not exist, big capital would have no interest in supporting extreme right movements, so that the risk of an offensive brown would not exist. This is, once again, an economistic reading that does not take into account the autonomy of the political phenomenon. Voters can, in fact, choose a party that does not have the support of the big bourgeoisie. Furthermore, this narrow economic argument seems to ignore the fact that big capital can accommodate itself to all kinds of political regimes without much soul-searching.

Neofascist movements in Europe

In Europe today (in 2021) there are currently few governments of the neo-fascist type: Orban's Hungary is the prime example. But there are a large number of parties with mass support, which in some countries are serious contenders for power.

An attempt at a typology of the current European far right would have to distinguish at least three different types:

(1) Parties of a directly fascist and/or neo-Nazi character: for example, Golden Dawn, from Greece (recently dissolved); the Right Sector, from Ukraine; the National Democratic Party in Germany; and several other smaller and less influential forces.

(2) Neo-fascist parties, that is, with strong fascist roots and components, but which cannot be identified with the classic fascist pattern. This is the case, in different forms, of the National Reassembly, from France; of FPÖ, from Austria; It's from Fleam's concern, from Belgium, among others.

(3) Far-right parties that do not have fascist origins but share its racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and Islamophobia. Examples are the Italian Lega North, the swiss UDC (Democratic Union of the Centre), the British ukip (UK Independence Party), the Dutch Freedom Party, the Norwegian Progressive Party, the True Finns Party (True Finns) and the Danish People's Party. The Sweden Democrats are an in-between case, with clearly fascist (and neo-Nazi) origins, but which have made great efforts, since the 1990s, to present a more “moderate” image.

As with all typologies, reality is more complex, and some of these political formations appear to be part of several different types. It is also necessary to take into account that this is not a static structure, but in constant movement. Some of these parties seem to move from one type to another.

Neofascist movements in Eastern Europe – the former “People's Democracies” – like the Hungarian party Jobbik, the Party of Greater Romania and the Atak, from Bulgaria, as well as similar parties in the Balkan Republics, Ukraine, former Yugoslavia, etc., have some common features that are, to some extent, distinct from their counterparts in the West: (a) the scapegoat is less the foreign immigrant than the that traditional national minorities: Jews and Gypsies; (b) directly connected to or tolerated by these parties, violent racist gangs attack, and sometimes kill, Roma [Gypsy] people; (c) rabidly anti-Communist, they consider themselves heirs to the nationalist and/or fascist movements of the 1930s, which often collaborated with the Third Reich. The disastrous failure of the so-called “transition” (to capitalism), under the leadership of liberal and/or social democratic parties, created favorable conditions for the emergence of extreme right tendencies.

A misconception: “populism”

The concept of “populism” (or “right-wing populism”) employed by certain political scientists, the media and even the left is wholly inadequate to explain the nature of neo-fascist movements in Europe, serving only to sow confusion.

In Latin America from the 1930s to the 1960s, the term populism corresponded to something very specific: national-popular governments or movements around charismatic figures – Vargas, Perón, Cárdenas – with broad popular support and an anti-imperialist rhetoric. However, its French (or European) use from the 1990s onwards is totally misleading. One of the first to use the term to characterize Le Pen's movement was the political scientist P.-A. Taguieff, who defined populism as “a rhetorical style that is directly connected with the appeal to the people”.[1] Other social scientists refer to populism as “a political position that sides with the people against elites” – a characterization that fits almost every political party or movement! When applied to National Reassembly or other far-right European parties, this pseudo-concept turns into a misleading euphemism that helps – whether deliberately or not – to legitimize them, making them more acceptable or even attractive – those who are not for the people against the elites ? – while carefully avoiding the disturbing terms racism, xenophobia, neo-fascism.[2] “Populism” is also deliberately used in a mystifying way by neoliberal ideologues and the media in Europe, in order to make an amalgamation between the extreme right, for example, in France, and National Gathering (RN) of the Le Pen family, and the radical left, the France Insoumise by Jean-Luc Melanchon, characterized as “right-wing populism” and “left-wing populism”.

Jean-Yves Camus, respected French political scientist, explained that parties like the RN could be called “populist” as they “pretend to replace representative democracy with direct democracy” and oppose “popular common sense” against “naturally perverted elites” . This is a very mistaken argument, since the appeal to direct democracy, the criticism of parliamentary representation and political elites is much more present among anarchists and other extreme left political currents than among the extreme right, whose political project emphasizes authoritarianism. Fortunately, Camus, who is one of the best experts on the French and European far right, has recently corrected his point of view, arguing in 2014 that one should avoid using the term “populism”, which has been used “in order to to discredit any criticism of the neoliberal ideological consensus, any questioning of the polarization of the European political debate among conservative liberals, any expression at the ballot box of popular sentiment in defiance of the malfunctioning of representative democracy”.[3].

The Brazilian case: Bolsonaro's neo-fascism

Jair Bolsonaro is neither Hitler nor Mussolini, despite adopting some Mussolinian postures. Sure, one of his ministers had the unfortunate idea of ​​quoting Göbbels, but he had to resign…

Nor is it a new version of Plinio Salgado and his integralist «green chickens», admirers of European fascism. It is a new phenomenon, with its own characteristics.

What Bolsonaro has in common with classic fascism is authoritarianism, the preference for dictatorial forms of government, the cult of the Boss (“Myth”) Salvador da Pátria, hatred of the left and the labor movement. But he does not have the conditions to establish a dictatorship, a fascist regime. His wish, openly evoked by his children, would be to impose a new AI-5, dissolving the Federal Superior Court [STF] and outlawing trade unions and opposition parties. But for this he lacks the support of both the ruling classes and the Armed Forces, who are not very interested, at the moment, in a new dictatorial adventure.

Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism is manifested, among others, in his “treatment” of the epidemic, trying to impose, against Congress, against the state governments, and against his own ministers, a blind policy of refusal of the minimum sanitary measures, indispensable to try to limit the dramatic consequences of the crisis (confinement, vaccination, etc.). His attitude also has traces of social-Darwinism (typical of fascism): survival of the fittest. If thousands of vulnerable people – the elderly, people with fragile health – die, that is the price to pay: “Brazil cannot stop”!

Another specific aspect of Bolsonarist neo-fascism is the obscurantism, contempt for science, in alliance with its unconditional supporters, the most backward sectors of evangelical neo-Pentecostalism. This attitude, worthy of flat earthism, has no equivalent in other authoritarian regimes, even those whose ideology is religious fundamentalism. Max Weber distinguished between religion, based on ethical principles, and magic, the belief in the supernatural powers of the priest. In the case of Bolsonaro and his neo-Pentecostal pastor friends (Malafaia, Edir Macedo, etc.) it really is a matter of magic or superstition: stopping the epidemic with “prayers” and “fasting”…

Although Bolsonaro has not been able to impose his deadly program as a whole, he has made a notable contribution to making Brazil the second hardest-hit country (after Trump's United States) in terms of the number of deaths on an international scale.

As is known, the great political model for Bolsonaro is Donald Trump. Right, Bolsonaro does not represent an imperialist power like the United States! In addition, he does not have the support of a large conservative party, such as the US Republican Party, which controls half of Congress and the Senate. But they have several elements in common, in addition to the crude, vulgar, sexist and provocative style:

(I) Hatred on the left. Trump denounces all his opponents, even the most moderate ones, as responsible for a conspiracy to impose “socialism” in the United States. For Bolsonaro, anti-communism is a real obsession, in a climate of exacerbated hatred outside any international context (the Cold War ended thirty years ago). His greatest desire would be to “kill 30 communists” to “clean up Brazil”, with the term “communism” referring to any moderately progressive political force (such as the PT).

(II) The repressive ideology, the cult of police violence, the defense of the death penalty, and the stimulus to the massive dissemination of firearms. The impunity of the police officers responsible for the death of countless innocent people, usually black, is a fundamental principle for both. For years, Bolsonaro was one of the leaders of the “bullet bench” in the National Congress and his relationship with paramilitary groups – among which Marielle Franco’s killers were recruited – is well known. As for Trump, the gun lobby (National Rifle Association) is one of its main pillars.

(III) The nationalist rhetoric, “America First”, “Brazil above all”, without questioning neoliberal capitalist globalization. An essential characteristic of Bolsonaro's neo-fascism is that, despite its ultranationalist and patriotic discourse, it is completely subordinate to American imperialism, from an economic, diplomatic, political and military point of view. This was also manifested in the reaction to the coronavirus, when Bolsonaro and his ministers were seen imitating Donald Trump, blaming… the Chinese for the epidemic.

(IV) Climate denialism. While Trump withdrew from the Paris accords and destroyed all controls and obstacles to the unrestrained exploitation of coal, oil and gas, in close alliance with the fossil oligarchy, Bolsonaro took advantage of the Covid 19 crisis to (in the words of his Minister of Environment) “letting the cattle pass” in the Amazon. The result: the biggest fires in the Amazon in recent decades and a fierce offensive by agribusiness against the forest and its indigenous defenders – these “enemies of progress” according to Bolsonaro.

With Trump's electoral defeat, Bolsonaro lost his main international support, and his authoritarian and dictatorial pretensions are undermined. It is difficult to imagine an AI-5 coup in Brazil today without the green light of the American empire, which could have been the case in the days of Trump, but not with the new American administration (which defends other modalities of imperialist policy).

The government of Jair Bolsonaro, while having some similarities with neo-fascist movements in Europe, has several specific characteristics. Let's look at some of the main differences that make Bolsonarism a phenomenon sui-generis:

( 1) While in Europe there is, in several countries, a political and ideological continuity between current neo-fascist movements and the classic fascism of the 1930s, this does not occur in Brazil. Brazilian fascism, Integralism, gained a lot of weight in the 1930s, even influencing the Estado Novo coup in 1938. But Bolsonarism has little to do with this old matrix; its main reference is much more the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), with its climate of “hunting communists”. As is known, Bolsonaro's political idol is Coronel Brilhante Ustra, responsible for DOI-CODI in São Paulo, where countless resistance fighters against the dictatorship were tortured or murdered.

(2) There are no neo-fascist mass parties in Brazil, as in Europe. Bolsonaro, although he has a significant popular base, has never been able to organize a large party; to get elected, he joined the small PSL (Social Liberal Party), with which he ended up breaking shortly after.

(3) Contrary to Europe (and the United States, with Trump), neo-fascism in Brazil did not make racism its main banner. Racist themes were not absent from Bolsonaro's election campaign, but that was by no means his main subject. A Brazilian party that tried to make racism its fundamental program would never get 25% of the votes like in several European countries, or 45% like in the United States…

(4) The theme of the fight against corruption is present among neo-fascists in Europe, but in a relatively marginal way. In Brazil it is an old tradition, since the 1940s, of the conservatives: the flag of the fight against corruption is raised to justify the power of the traditional oligarchies and, depending on the case, to legitimize military coups. In Bolsonaro's campaign it was a key theme, falsely presenting the Workers' Party (PT) as solely responsible for corruption.

(5) Homophobia is not a frequent campaign issue on the European far right, with some exceptions. Brazil has a long tradition of homophobic culture, but this has never been the subject of political struggle. With Bolsonaro's neo-fascism, in alliance with the neo-Pentecostal Churches, it became, for the first time in history, one of the main themes of his electoral campaign, denouncing the PT, in a veritable flood of fake news, as the instigator of a program aimed at “turning Brazilian children into gays”.

Weakened by the various political and financial scandals involving his family, the health catastrophe and the defeat of his international protector (Trump), Bolsonaro manages to remain in power thanks to the support of the Brazilian ruling classes – agribusiness, the industrial and financial oligarchy – and the corrupt and opportunistic political class that controls the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. For the Brazilian bourgeoisie, what is essential is the neoliberal program – tax cuts, wage squeezes, cuts in public spending, privatizations, etc. – represented by Minister Guedes. In addition, he still has the support of an important part of the Brazilian population, motivated by reactionary neo-Pentecostalism, or by hatred of the PT.

The fight of the Brazilian left and popular forces against neo-fascism is still in its infancy; it will take more than a few rallies or a few nice saucepan protests to defeat this teratological political formation. Sure, sooner or later the Brazilian people will free themselves from this neo-fascist nightmare. But what will be the price to pay until then?

There is no magic recipe for fighting the neo-fascist extreme right. We must be inspired – with an appropriate critical distance – by the anti-fascist traditions of the past, but we must also know how to innovate, in order to respond to the new forms of this phenomenon. The antifascist movement will only be effective and credible if it is motivated by forces outside the dominant neoliberal consensus.

The capitalist system, especially in periods of crisis, produces and reproduces phenomena such as fascism, racism, coups d'état and military dictatorships. The root of these phenomena is systemic and the alternative has to be radical, anti-systemic. That is, a libertarian and ecological socialism that overcomes the limits of the socialist movements of the last century – the social-democratic commitment to the system and the bureaucratic degeneration of the so-called “real socialism” –, but recovers the Brazilian revolutionary traditions, of Zumbi dos Palmares and Tiradentes to Carlos Marighella and Chico Mendes.

*Michael Lowy he is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books, of Marxism against positivism (Cortez).

Notes


[1] P.-A. Taguieff, Le populism et la science politique, Vingtième siècle, 1997. p. 8.

[2] See the interesting book by Annie Collovald. Le “populisme du FN”, a dangerous contresens. Broissieux: Editions du Croquant, 2004. p. 53 and 113. (Col. Raisons d'Agir.)

[3] Jean-Yves Camus. Extreme mutant droites in Europe. The Diplomatic World, P. 18-19, Mar. 2014.

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