Two years of misrule – the crisis of legitimacy



The defense of Bolsonaro’s impeachment must organize the policy of resistance and construction of alternatives for the left in 2021.

After the 2018 presidential elections, already held in an environment of democratic collapse following the 2016 coup, there was a debate on how to politically qualify the new government, how to assess its strength and stability, and on what strategic path to face it. The divergences that emerged are at the root of the difficulty of unity and national leadership of the left, which has manifested itself during these last two years and clearly in the municipal elections of 2020. Therefore, far from being just a retrospective exercise, a two-year balance of the Bolsonaro government must be able to create a field of prediction, conditioned and prudential, on its dynamics in the year 2021 capable of guiding a guideline and a unitary field of action for the Brazilian left.

The first mistake that can be seen in many balance sheets is that of analyzing Bolsonarism and its government as a fact dissociated from the neoliberal coalition that elected him, which supported him at first and which still continues to protect his criminal mandate. This is equivalent to stripping it of its class character, of being instrumental to a predatory international financial capital, of attributing Bolsonarism to a mere political perversion that should be well understood in its uniqueness. This error organizes the neoliberal media's judgment about Bolsonaro, but it is very frequent in left-wing analysts.

The second mistake is not understanding that Bolsonarism is an Americanism, which formed its political force in direct line with Trumpism in the United States, being in fact an organic force to it in its values, its program, its language, its way of doing politics, its technological apparatus of communication, its pragmatics. Without Trumpism, there would be no Bolsonarism as we know it. And it is evident that the electoral defeat of trumpism, the fact that he does not lead the still most powerful state in the world, despite maintaining its social base and electoral power, directly affects the strength and evolution of Bolsonarism.

The third mistake would be to not understand what is unique about the process of formation of Bolsonarism, its capacity and its impasses in the formation of its potency of power. Its origin there where the Brazilian State was most destroyed, in the territory of organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, its alliance with evangelical sects that make religion a sordid business of accumulation and fraud, its organic connection with the criminal propaganda machine of Steve Bannon in the electoral campaign and its anchorage in sectors of a military corporation that openly professes the pride of having tortured political prisoners, could only walk to the center of power because it had the coverage and omission of the maximum institutions of the Brazilian justice system centered on a dynamic of lawfare, in a war operation against the left.

Bolsonarism does not form a stable coalition of power and this is probably beyond its power: its factional nature makes it permanently hostage to the crises it generates in its political relations. The cult of violence and the extermination of opponents is therefore not foreign to its identity: Bolsonarism, in Machiavelli's famous metaphor, works with little consensus and maximum force. This narrows their social base and undermines the mediation of a broad and stable political coalition. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro does not have a Republican Party machine behind him. And even the evangelical “pastors”, as is well known, are faithful above all to their interests: in a situation of sharp decrease in the popularity of Bolsonarismo, they can even defect from supporting it, just as they did with other political leaders, including by a Moment, Lula.

This balance sheet of the Bolsonaro government works with a central hypothesis: that his government will deepen its agonizing condition of political legitimacy in 2021. The evolution, pace and political unfolding of this central tendency to the Bolsonaro government’s crisis of legitimacy will depend, to a large extent, on the response that leftist forces provide to it.

Bolsonaro and the neoliberal coalition

The relationship between Bolsonaro's political leadership and the neoliberal coalition has so far gone through six phases. The first of them, which covers the period of destabilization of the Dilma government and a large part of the Temer government, is of convergence in the work of frontal combat against the PT and forwarding the neoliberal agenda. This phase corresponds to an initial accumulation of forces by Bolsonarism as a political phenomenon.

The second phase, during the first round of the 2018 elections, is marked by the dispute over who would be better positioned to defeat the threat of a return of the left to the government of the country. In this period, there was already an organic relationship between Bolsonarism and Trumpism and a first acceptance by sectors of the Brazilian Armed Forces of his political project.

A third phase, of a second convergence, occurs in the second round of the 2018 elections, when all right-wing parties, including PSDB, DEM and PMDB, actively engaged in supporting Bolsonaro’s election. Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s abstention played a mere symbolic role: his party’s main candidates for state governments, in the second round disputes, openly supported Bolsonaro. Without this support, Bolsonaro would not have been elected president.

A fourth phase then opened, of a convergence of agendas, in which the neoliberal coalition parties formed media, parliamentary and political support for priority neoliberal reforms, centered on the destruction of public pensions. Maintaining autonomy in the face of more retrograde guidelines, particularly with regard to customs, the neoliberal parties focused on supporting the Guedes administration. The last months of 2019 were also marked by the campaign, for example, by the Globo group and all neoliberal media to announce a resumption of economic growth in Brazil, including data manipulation, which would be brutally denied in early 2020.

The first half of 2020, already in the context of the pandemic and a resurgence of Bolsonarist dynamics of attacking the STF and capturing the Federal Police and the Attorney General's Office, can be characterized as a fifth phase, of a self-limited conflict between the neoliberal coalition and the Bolsonaro government. The departure of Moro, the conflicts involving the leadership of the Ministry of Health and Education, the positions taken by the STF and the Federal Chamber, imposing limits on the most explicitly unconstitutional movements of the Bolsonaro government, are significant episodes of this phase. We call it a self-limited conflict because the parties and the neoliberal media, at the same time, politically blocked, in the media, in the STF and in the Federal Chamber, a potentially expansive movement of a campaign for the impeachment or judicial challenge of Bolsonaro, due to his flagrant crimes of responsability.

In fact, in mid-2020, there was an agreement to restore Bolsonaro's governance, directly involving the president of the STF, the presidency of the Chamber and Senate, the leadership of the neoliberal parties and the business media: this, on the one hand, retreated in his direct attacks on the STF, in his olavist campaigns led by his sons, he physiologically recomposed a parliamentary base in the National Congress, qualitatively deepened the insertion of Armed Forces cadres in its strategic center, changed the Minister of Education; on the other hand, the neoliberal parties softened their criticism of the Bolsonaro government, in search of a recomposition of the agenda around neoliberal reforms and new privatizations.

This truce, with the appropriation of the massive effects and profound social impact of the Emergency Aid, proposed by the left and center-left opposition, the Bolsonaro government saw at least a suspension of a dynamic of growing unpopularity, very strong and expressive from the beginning. of his government, and even of a recovery in the margin of popularity.

This fifth phase of a self-limited conflict, which even covers the period of the 2020 municipal elections, was expressed through a dispute in the first rounds (generally with negative results for Bolsonarism) and with a recomposition of a unitary electoral dynamic between Bolsonarism and anti-left neoliberals in the second rounds. In several capitals, such as Porto Alegre and São Paulo, where the left contested the second round, the final vote almost entirely expresses the polarization of the second round of the 2018 elections, revealing the continuity of the electoral convergence of the neoliberal coalition and Bolsonarism.

A sixth phase then begins, in which the delimitation and dispute of the neoliberal coalition with Bolsonarism will prevail, accumulating forces for a dispute in 2022, self-limited in the central issue of questioning the legitimacy of its mandate. A rupture of the alliance between the neoliberal coalition and Bolsonarism cannot be ruled out, but it is not yet a central hypothesis and depends on the worsening of its crisis of legitimacy of an uncontrolled government in an open political dynamic in which other forces and factors play their weight. .

This dynamic can only be better thought through an in-depth evaluation of the relationship between Bolsonarism and the historical program of neoliberalism of refounding the Brazilian State.

Neoliberalism, unity and conflict

Already in its historical formation, as documented by Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe in The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Harvard University Press, 2009), neoliberalism is a convergence of a series of intellectual and political traditions critical of socialism, the republican foundations of democracy and so-called “social liberalism” or “egalitarian” or Keynesian. In the contemporary world, in its breadth and complexity, neoliberalism converges in coalitions of power through many different political languages.

The identification of freedom with a mercantile ontology, which is at the center of neoliberal identity, can coexist with anything from a military dictatorship like Pinochet's to a liberal democracy in which the foundations of popular sovereignty are severely neutralized. Already in the seventies, analyzing the phenomenon of mass adherence to Thatcherism, including within the English working classes, Stuart Hall drew attention to the fusion between these market values ​​and conservative cultures in terms of morality.

This fusion is, in fact, already verifiable in Hayek's original thought, as Wendy Brown now insists, correcting a certain unilateralism of her previous interpretation of neoliberalism. The feminist and Marxist Nancy Fraser identified a “progressivist” neoliberalism, typical of the North American Democratic Party, that is, one that combined the centrality of market values ​​with certain anti-patriarchal and anti-racist values. This basic historical and conceptual understanding of neoliberalism serves to analyze the unity and conflict between the neoliberal coalition in Brazil and Bolsonarism.

This unit is, in the first place, organic to the ruling classes, and is based on the radicalization of the neoliberal program to which not only financial, international and national capital, industrial and media capital, agribusiness and commercial capital converge. This unity is programmatically expressed in the neoliberal refoundation of the Brazilian State through a rupture with central dimensions of the democratic and republican conquests present in the 1988 Constitution.

There is unity in five central dimensions of this neoliberal refoundation of the Brazilian State: a substantial reduction in the degree of sovereignty of the Brazilian State vis-à-vis the US, adhering to its geopolitical interests internationally and in Latin America, opening the Brazilian State to a profound dynamic of organic and subordinated to the US State; the privatization, inside or out, of the entire public sector economy, including Petrobras, the public banks and what remains of the public companies; the destruction of labor rights, formed in the Varguista tradition and enriched over decades of struggles by the working classes, collective bargaining, the Labor Court and the dynamics of union representation; the reduction to a minimalist standard of all policies that, in a partial and uneven way, form the core of the policies of the Social Welfare State, such as the SUS, public education, Social Security and social assistance policies; the breakdown of the participatory dimensions and social control of the Brazilian State, the drastic reduction of the democratic sense of electoral processes and the full commodification of the means of communication.

These five central dimensions of unity converge to a violent pattern of reproduction of patriarchal and racialist inequalities in Brazil. Not only do women and blacks have their historical reparation policies blocked, but they suffer a brutal regression in this neoliberal program of refounding the Brazilian State.

In all these five dimensions, with their patriarchal and racialist consequences, no fundamental difference has been observed so far between the neoliberal coalition and Bolsonarism. Rather, deep convergence. At the state level, PSDB, PMDB or DEM governments actually practice these fundamental programmatic guidelines.

The fundamental agreement on this vast program of destruction of what has accumulated what was democratic and republican in the Brazilian state ceases when there is a dispute over what to put in its place: there is certainly – and to ignore it would be a major political error – a difference in political regime between the proposed by Bolsonarism and the one proposed by the neoliberal coalition. That is, between a militarized and extreme proto-fascist political regime in its coercive dimensions, and a neoliberal constitutional regime, in which democratic and popular forces appear excluded from the pact of domination and subjected to a system of political disruption and strong coercion.

This programmatic unity, organic to the ruling classes, and this central political conflict explain the complex narrative of the six phases referred to above; subject to the circumstances and indeterminations inherent to politics.

But an assessment of the Bolsonaro government and its dynamics requires a central effort, not additive or complementary, in its international relations. As a phenomenon of a semi-periphery country, in which adherence to market values ​​extreme subordination and loss of sovereignty, Bolsonarism now has to settle accounts with the even more powerful State in the world, which was a fundamental source of support in the two years of its mandate.

Trump, Biden and the future of Bolsonarism

We owe to Celso Furtado's historical conscience the understanding that national sovereignty depends fundamentally on the degree of real democratization of the Brazilian State, observing that the Brazilian ruling classes historically tended to a cosmopolitan liberal conscience and without a nation project. Now, this historical understanding is also an analytical key: the breakdown of Brazilian democracy, even within its post-1988 limits, exposes the Brazilian State to a strong resurgence of the loss of its sovereignty, particularly vis-à-vis the US.

Any analysis of the Brazilian situation since the process of destabilization of Brazilian democracy actually started since the 2014 presidential elections must incorporate – not as an externality – the strong presence of US State interests. In fact, Arminio Fraga, nominated to be Minister of Finance in the presumed Aécio Neves government, is a man of more than Wall Street than Avenida Paulista. This strong presence of the US State and its network of economic and financial power is already abundantly documented in the relations between Operation Car Wash and the US State Department in the Brazilian legal democratic tradition.

A certain understanding of politics works this US participation in these relevant events in Brazilian history from conspiracy theories or as a mere expression of corporate economic interests. But if politics is the art of mediations and also of indeterminations, it would be necessary to understand better conceptually these relationships between the Brazilian ruling classes and the centers of political and economic power of neoliberalism at the world level.

Gramsci's method of establishing degrees of organicity between direction and political force is fundamental here. This method makes it possible to “internalize” the influence of the US State in Brazilian politics without simplifying or skipping national mediations of phenomena and, above all, without losing the complexity and indetermination of political events.

The PSDB, centered in São Paulo, in its financial and industrial power and its relations with agribusiness, has always maintained historical relations with the North American Democratic Party, as well as with its intelligentsia and its power networks. Bolsonarism, in turn, as already extensively noted, is organic to Trumpism and its power networks. If we are right in this regard, the Democratic Party, then in the US state government when the Dilma government was destabilized, and Donald Trump, then in the US state government when Bolsonarism rose, through their mediations and networks of power, have been an organic part of the direction of the Brazilian State since the Temer government.

If neoliberalism reveals itself programmatically more clearly due to the centrality given to the occupation of the centers of economic power of the State, Meirelles (with his career formed in the Bank of Boston), Temer's Minister of Finance, and Ilan Goldfajn (former chief economist at Banco Itaú), President of the Central Bank of Temer, and Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro's Minister of Finance, (financial speculator and founder of Banco Pactual, a vero "chicago boy”) and Roberto de Oliveira Campos Neto (from Roberto Campos’ lineage and coming from Banco Santander), president of Bolsonaro’s Central Bank, demonstrate this organicity of these governments with the powers of international and national finance. It is notable that, in the face of the economic disaster of the Bolsonaro government, the president of its Central Bank was chosen in 2020 as the best President of the Central Bank of the year by the British magazine The Banker, linked to Financial Times.

It is from this organicity between the Brazilian neoliberal coalition and the North American Democratic Party and between Bolsonarism and Trumpism, that the contingency dimension of politics must be incorporated. For Temer's rise, from the PSDB-led destabilization campaign, coincided with Trump's election in the US and Bolsonaro's government coincides with Trump's overthrow of the leadership of the US State. There were, then, there, due to the contingencies of politics, two disjunctions.

What interests us here is to think about how the Biden-Bolsonaro disjunction affects the latter's government. The central hypothesis of this article is that this disjunction strongly affects the legitimacy of the Bolsonaro government: it ceases to be an organic and subordinate part of the US State and loses its geopolitical anchor. Its destiny becomes purely the object of a political calculation by the neoliberal coalition and even by the Brazilian Armed Forces, at this point very subordinate to the direction of the US State.

If this is true, the neoliberal coalition's self-limitation in protecting Bolsonaro's entire mandate, as revealed in the article by Fernando Henrique Cardoso at the beginning of 2021, can be revised in the face of a worsening crisis of legitimacy of the Bolsonaro government and any hypothesis of political control, “from above”, over its replacement. But this hypothesis is certainly based on the indeterminacy of politics.

In fact, the position of the Brazilian neoliberal coalition in relation to Bolsonarism has been more ambiguous than the position of the Democratic Party itself in relation to Trumpism. There, the Democratic Party confronted Donald Trump with an impeachment request, majority in the Federal Chamber, and from the beginning it delimited itself from his policies. Here, as we have seen, the PSDB and DEM maintained relations of strong convergence with Bolsonarism and still protect their mandate from impeachment.

Bolsonarism, faction and popularity

By defining Bolsonarism as an expression of a faction – there is no lack of elements to characterize it even as a criminal faction – we are identifying its opposition identity with a democratically constituted public interest or with a freely expressed majority general will. But this does not mean that it cannot conquer, in certain situations of crisis and instability, a condition of the masses and, contingently, a majority.

Despite being organic, one cannot put a sign of identity between Trumpism and Bolsonarism. The first is an expression of an imperialist power, the second is a phenomenon of updating the coloniality of power. The first was built within the political system, taking over the Republican Party; the second maintains a fluid relationship with the Brazilian party political system; the first comes from the margins of lawless capitalists and the second from organized crime in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, the political resilience of Bolsonarism seems more fragile than that of Trumpism.

A faction can gain massive support if it expresses certain values ​​that respond to uncertainties, feelings and hopes typical of a time of crisis. It may even be majority if, at certain critical moments, it seems to express possible ways out of an acute political crisis in relation to a crisis of civilizational values. It can form an enduring power bloc, like Hitler and Mussolini, if it can cement varied class political interests into a power coalition, relying on the massive use of force and some degree of passive consent.

We work here with the notion that Bolsonarism has a massive vocation (responds to certain racialist and patriarchal, reactionary values) still a minority expression, but broad in the long history of political continuities in Brazil, it has strong difficulties in being a majority (the second round of the 2018 elections being an exceptional moment of convergences) and lacks a plan to form a lasting historic bloc of power (this would be in the realm of the possible if Trump continued at the head of the US State).

Regarding the important field of questions posed by André Singer – the possibility of the Bolsonaro government stabilizing a mass base based on the impact of the Emergency Aid – , the answer is very focused on the narrow limits posed by his tough neoliberal macroeconomic management. These fiscal management conflicts between Bolsonaro and Guedes, very present in 2020, tend to be reproduced in this year of deepening social crisis.

As William Nozaki has shown, in a series of articles, the military leadership has consolidated itself as the core of the Bolsonaro government, expanding its occupation in strategic positions, (8450 reserve soldiers and 2930 active military personnel) and, mainly, establishing in it a strategic power-building action. This central militarization of the Bolsonaro government is another important difference in relation to the experience of the Trump government and certainly complicates, in democratic terms, the solution of an eventual terminal crisis of the Bolsonaro government.

Due to its factional character, the values ​​and strong interests it mobilizes, Bolsonarism certainly suffers from a strong dialectical dynamic between popularity and unpopularity. That is, the passage from a condition of popularity to one of unpopularity tends to be quick.

This was noted by research analysts in the first half of 2019, noting that in just a few months of government he already constituted a record of unpopularity. This dynamic of growing unpopularity suffered a certain suspension at the beginning of the second half of 2019, with a strong media appeal around the beginning of Brazil's economic recovery, it was resumed in early 2020 and suffered a suspension and an inversion at the margin mainly due to the massive and historically unprecedented flow of income from Emergency Assistance for tens of millions of Brazilians in the process of becoming precarious and impoverished. In view of the volume and breadth of the benefit – from 250 billion to 68 million Brazilians –, appropriated by the government, although proposed by the opposition, what is surprising is not that Bolsonaro's unpopularity has not grown, but that his popularity has so little changed. recovered.

Faced with the fiscal crisis of the Brazilian state and the neoliberal options that continue to prevail in the Bolsonaro government, it is possible and likely that some compensatory solution will be reached for the end of Emergency Aid, although in qualitatively different volume and scope in 2021.

The likely trend is, therefore, for a strong resumption of the unpopularity of the Bolsonaro government. The result of the elections for the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies and the degree of control of the Bolsonaro government over it is not known for sure. But it can be said that they will have a strong influence on how this probable growth of unpopularity will relate to the institutionality in crisis of Brazilian democracy.

The politics of impeachment and the unity of the left

The “Fora Bolsonaro” thesis was a minority in the 7th. PT Congress and did not centralize the political activity of the PSOL in the first two years of the Bolsonaro government, being in fact very distant from the positions of the PC do B, which centralized the defense of a policy of leftist alliances that included the main Brazilian neoliberal parties, who were frontally opposed to a policy of impeachment. In the first half of 2020, the national directorate of the PT, the PSOL, the PDT and the PSB and even the PC do B seemed to move in the direction of Bolsonaro's impeachment, but a political campaign in this direction was not organized, with the theme practically disappeared in the municipal electoral disputes of 2020.

There are, from the beginning, reasons of a civilizing order (Bolsonarism publicly presents a frontal attack on all human rights, which form the basis of civilization), of a democratic order (dozens of crimes of responsibility were committed based on a minimally impartial examination of the 1988 Constitution), of a humanitarian order (radical denialism in the treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic) to indicate that the path is not one of normalized opposition to a democratic government with which one strongly disagrees.

The majority positions of the PT, of the majority of the federal bench and of the Senate, of half of the PSOL bench, of the PC do B, of the PSB, of the PDT in relation to the elections of the presidencies of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate, show all the ambiguity of the left and center-left in relation to an absolutely necessary democratic policy of demanding the end of Bolsonaro's mandate. The calculation of occupying positions at the table of the two houses of the National Congress to the detriment of launching a unified candidacy of the left and center-left in the first round reflects well the subordination of the necessary democratic confrontation of the Bolsonaro government, public and mass, to a opposition that is guided by the possibilities of the institutional mined ground and alliances that profoundly contradict its own program of resistance to neoliberalism.

This path disorganizes the left's own identity, program and necessary unity. An alternative program to Bolsonarism can only be constituted if it is an alternative to the neoliberal coalition and its project of neoliberal refoundation of the Brazilian State. If the party's own electoral dynamics prevail and the calculation centered on electoral and institutional dynamics, the lefts and center-lefts will again be fatally divided.

Without a unified, broad and mass political campaign, which brings together all the potential strength of Brazilian democratic consciousness, Bolsonarism's agonizing legitimacy crisis will continue to be morbidly experienced as an impasse in the management of the State by the dominant classes, but as a tragedy for Brazilian workers and people, dramatically exposed in terms of hunger, preventable death from the pandemic, femicide and the upsurge of racist violence.

*Juarez Guimaraes Professor of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Risk and future of Brazilian democracy (Perseu Abramo Foundation).


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