Fascism and dictatorship: the limits of analogy

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By PAULO BUTTI DE LIMA*

In Brazil today, the political struggle drives the polemical use of classical concepts. Civil conflict reshapes even the vocabulary itself.

The current Brazilian political experience places us in the shadow of extreme representations of authoritarianism. To explain the new status national it is necessary to resort to a particularly rich repertoire of analogies. Broad categories, such as fascism or neo-fascism, are evoked when it comes to describing the country's government, aspects of its activities, its ideology or certain facets of the groups that support it. The unprecedented character of the situation in which the country finds itself leads to the frequent use of comparisons with distant historical places and periods.

Thus, what appears to be original (in the field of barbarism) is transformed into something more familiar, at least from the point of view of the history of ideas. In fact, this was possible thanks to the ambiguous relationship established between terms such as “liberalism” and “democracy”, defended at the very moment when arbitrary forms of power are accepted and their excessive concentration is tolerated, both at the political and economic levels. The inevitable resort to analogies opens the field for historical memory exercises. An appeal is made, as a guide for reading the present, to the intellectual authorities who interpreted the examples of a past, now felt as close. Characters as different as the historian Robert Paxton and the medievalist Umberto Eco are cited to justify the description of the Brazilian reality as “fascist”.

This resort to analogies is a natural and frequent process, accompanying the spread of the political lexicon in our tradition, when applied to realities other than those for which it was created. This occurred with terms derived from classical languages, as in the case of democracy or dictatorship, and can be verified with more recent words, such as fascism or nazism. But the game of analogies and the redefinition of political understanding schemes become more acute and relevant in times of strong civil conflict. This is the case in Brazil. The interpretation of the object is contaminated by the same conflict that resides in its origin, merging object and theory.

The phenomenon was noticed by the Greek historian Thucydides, in the description of the civil war in Corcyra. Thucydides says: “the usual value of words was altered in relation to the object, according to the evaluation of each one”. Conflict not only impedes coexistence between citizens, but distances any shared judgment of the facts. It should be noted that the main problem in Thucydides' statement is the meaning of the expression translated "the usual value of words". The moment of conflict, stasis, is seen here as something exceptional, revealing the erosion of political order and consensus.

The mechanism for creating analogies must be judged from the polemical nature of the terms used. The polemical use of political concepts was one of the main lessons of an extreme right theorist in writings of almost a century ago. The German jurist Carl Schmitt then sought to revise the definition of certain values ​​present in the Weimar Constitution as “democracy”. The use of concepts thus became an instrument of immediate political struggle. For Schmitt, the word “democracy” lost some of its polemical value during the XNUMXth century, when his opposition to monarchy softened (he should have in mind British constitutional reforms with a “democratic” stamp, as in the case of the expansion of suffrage). Schmitt's constitutional theory seeks to reinsert an apparently empty term within the political struggle, accompanying the rise of Nazism with an effort at conceptual revision.

The Brazilian political fever can be measured through the current diffusion of the term “fascism” by different sectors of public opinion. Interestingly, the same tension does not occur, in the national public debate, with the term “dictatorship”, which, if on the one hand it does not apply in the same way to movements and ideas, on the other hand it is already well rooted in the political tradition of the country and remains to the fore, given the support of military and police groups to the current government. In this case, one can see both an attempt to reassess the term, to which a part of the reactionary forces gives a positive meaning, and a more ambiguous position assumed by conservative groups and the liberal elite.

A sector of this elite preferred to apply a kind of conceptual coup. Already during the last elections, the same newspapers that refused to classify the rising political movements in Brazil as extreme right tried to forge the perception of the government of a neighboring country, Venezuela, as a dictatorship. For them, the dictatorship was not what threatened the Brazilian future, a form of exercise of authoritarian power openly defended by one of the presidential candidates, but the sin that lives next door.

The repeated attention paid to Venezuela became part of the internal political debate of Brazilian society. Also in this case, the political struggle is transferred to the level of the polemical use of political concepts. Conservative and liberal forces, finding it difficult to admit their own complicity with the stasis Brazilians, aware of their contribution to a situation they themselves now view with disdain and concern, have often begun to propose a paradoxical use of historical analogy. For these forces, it does not matter that the image of the Venezuelan “dictatorship” does not withstand serious analysis. It has its roots in a kind of deliberately constructed imaginary in which the neighboring country, demonized, assumes a negative role that automatically spreads to positions on the left and is reflected in the Brazilian scenario.

The example of Thucydides cannot be forgotten. In times of strong civil conflict – such as the one that pervades Brazilian society today –, the very interpretive categories applied to the present moment undergo a process of re-elaboration, along with their object. Thus, the allegedly objective substrate on which such categories seemed to be based is unmasked, undermining the very principles of liberal objectivity. The theory of stasis, or civil conflict, became the main instrument for understanding the Brazilian political laboratory. The ability to interfere in intellectual debate and political propaganda reveals the degree of maturity of the parties involved in the conflict, with the defense of principles of social justice at stake. The use of analogies is one of the most relevant instruments in the context of this struggle.

* Paulo Butti de Lima is a professor at the University of Bari, Italy. Author, among other books, of Democracy. L'invenzione degli antichi e gli usi dei moderni, (Firenze-Milano 2019) [Portuguese translation in press by EdUFF].

 

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