fascism and epidemic



Bolsonaro brings together the worst characteristics of all neo-fascist leaders and releases the repressed instincts of his followers

The use of the epidemiological metaphor in politics is not a privilege of fascism, but no other movement has used it so much. The temptation to talk about fascism in the same way (as a virus, disease, bacteria, etc.) is great because we do not conceive evil in banality. The “Spanish Flu” was very close to two structural changes. The first of these was the change in everyday life produced by the First World War. Attitudes towards death were violently modified on an unforeseen scale and the way of life itself, marital relations and the job market were transformed.

The second was the fascist foundational meeting in Piazza San Sepolcro in Milan on March 23, 1919 (and the year after the creation of the Nazi Party in Germany), the consequence of which would be a new world war. Other epidemics followed after the fascist defeat in World War II, but it was not until 2020 that a profound transformation in everyday life and in the political sphere coincided with a pandemic. Confinement in the XNUMXst century coincides with the new rise of fascism in several countries and an unprecedented virtual experience.

From Hungary to Poland; from Italy to Great Britain; from the United States to the Philippines; and in much of Latin America governments are conquered by fascist bands or quietly allow their strengthening. In addition, the popularization of whatsapp, social networks and massive access to internet communications exposed people to the dissemination of fascist ideas even before we got used to the new technical, scientific and informational space to which we would be forced to confine ourselves.

That space is crossed by commercial interests and social inequalities. O home office for some and precarious and contagious work for others; real isolation for the elderly and virtual coexistence for middle-class youth quickly changed the routine.

These phenomena are combined because fascists have found fertile ground both on the internet and in the frustrations of the economic rise promised by neoliberalism. Thus, they quickly mobilized all sorts of resentful people and exploited through social networks the popularized criticism of a political and academic world cut off from society.


Five centuries of capitalist modernity have produced a boastful normative discourse grounded in science. And yet, faced with a phenomenon that threatens everyday life, the only response that health authorities found in the middle of the XNUMXst century was the same as that of Venetians in the late Middle Ages: quarantine.

The long duration of human suffering has always called into question the scientific message. Academics were surprised because they rarely conceive of their speech as one more in the public space, since they produce the truth. Now, “truths” have to be convincing and be in line with people's practical lives, but how to convince them when they have been subjected to negligent consultations or lack of basic health services?

Is there anything new under the sun? In the bulletins of 1865th century geographical societies there is a myriad of news of imperialist expeditions in Africa, but what catches our attention are the discussions about quarantine. In November XNUMX "we were in quarantine” lamented Enrico Giglioli aboard a frigate. The experience of that confinement was not essentially different from ours in the XNUMXst century, oscillating between the search for a hobby and the excessive workload. To win "le lunghe pray” (long hours) of seclusion, that Italian studied the sea creatures that fell into the hand nets, the only object that the health authorities allowed to use.

Public demonstrations for opening trade and ending confinement, generally led by neo-fascist leaders like Bolsonaro or Trump, have a logic that goes beyond the need for fascism to coincide with permanent mobilization. It also responds to the needs of capital accumulation.

In the 1874th century, quarantine was fought on behalf of economic interests. The Sanitary Conference of Vienna (1918) condemned the quarantine, but it was trade that abolished it, as countries lost money with the diversion of steam lines and merchant ships, as well as the fact that passengers did not buy during the period in which they were detained. . Some countries, such as Portugal, only abolished lazarettos at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, creating a maritime disinfection post. But the Spanish flu of XNUMX once again forced people into a cloistered life: did it have anything to do with later events? This is the same question a primary school teacher asks in the film Das weisse Band (White Ribbon, 2010) by Michael Haneke. This is after in 1913 strange acts of violence shock a small village in northern Germany.


Was it through confinement on a computer screen or in a tablets that a short film was disseminated (the term is still analogical) whose duration could not be more adequate to the medium, be it the Streaming or simply downloading data. The form of digital distribution is consistent with a cloistered perception. In the past, he would be seen in the movie theater, preceding a feature film.

The movie I'm referring to is The Fall, directed by Jonathan Glazer in 2019, with a score by Mica Levi. In it, a masked group punishes a lone man who also wears a mask. The mob in the forest is enraged; the fixed faces; she swings the tree until the pursued man falls. Then he puts a rope around his neck; grunts and frightening sounds are heard. The animalization is also in the soundtrack. Thrown down a deep well, he starts to rise again after that group leaves satisfied.

This is yet another artistic transposition of the short story. the lottery, written by Shirley Jackson and published on June 26, 1948 in The New Yorker, causing an angry reaction from many readers. The ritual of small townspeople in the United States gathering for a lottery draw was common. Provincial meanness and cowardice also appear in countless cinematographic works by High Noon (Kill or die, 1952) by Fred Zinnemann to Dogville (2003) by Lars Von Trier. The revenge of the individual who returns to take revenge on the small community by exposing its hypocrisy is the theme of both the brilliant tale The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg (1899) by Mark Twain (naturally prohibited in the age of McCarthyism) and by The Visit of the Old Lady by Dürrenmatt, written in those same McCarthyist 1950s.

in the tale the lottery of Shirley Jackson, a rural community of 300 inhabitants meets annually, at the beginning of the summer, for a lottery. A person ends up being chosen to be stoned to death as a kind of sacrifice so that there is a good harvest.

Beneath the appearance of unanimity among the mass of small farmers, there are those who are anxiously awaiting the draw with stones in their hands, but there are also those who are nervous, those who feel embarrassed or even hope that a particular young woman will not be chosen.

A certain Mr Adams comments: "They say that, in the village to the north, they are talking about abandoning the lottery". The Old Man Warner beside him snorted and put it down to young fools. Yet Mrs. Adams came back and said, "In some places they've already abandoned the lotteries." As soon as the first stone hits the head of the poor lottery, old Warner is the one who encourages: “Come on, come on, people”. But at the head of the crowd is Mr. Adams himself, who had ventured to question the ancient custom. We don't know if he throws stones, but apparently everyone rushes to the poor lot.

In 1979 Louis Malle traveled to the Midwest and interviewed the inhabitants of a farming community for his film God's Country. Six years later he returned, after Reagan's election, and saw a city in crisis. Faced with it, the reactions are multiple: from belief in the good people of the country to the promise of an armed reaction against taxes, Jews and blacks. Malle had already produced a controversial film (Lacombe lucien, 1974) in which he portrayed daily life in collaborationist France during the German occupation. Your character from a small southwest village tried to join the Resistance; refused, he became a spy for the Gestapo (Geheime staatspolizei). The “community” involves differences and conflicts, but also a degree of ignorance and indifference.


The spread of the Internet has not fulfilled the expectation of a virtual agora. On the contrary, the small community was projected into it, idealized as a social place without relevant internal contradictions. the same as the tale the lottery. Instead of 300 people there may be XNUMX million, but the provincial behavior of the angry mob is exactly the same. In the first spaces for virtual relationships, such as Orkut, “communities” were forged.

In 2015 Umberto Eco declared that the “drama of the Internet is that it has promoted the village idiot to bearer of the truth”; whereas before he had the right to speak “in a bar and after a glass of wine, without harming the community”, now his sayings are worth as much as those of a Nobel Prize (although the comparison is debatable).

What the village idiot spewed out in the tavern remained in his small neighborhood circle, in his family or in the room of his unspeakable desires. But now prejudices continue in the small community, although it is numerically large. Virtual space tends to confine us in ghettos of shared prejudices in the same way as in the village.

The phenomena of persecution of people on the borders of European countries intensified in times of epidemic. pogroms, lynchings and fortification of border checkpoints became more frequent.

Well, the first thing that the dissemination of social networks provided was the experience of virtual lynching. By seeing a series of negative and destructive comments about a person we can anonymously throw another stone and no one will know exactly who was responsible for the act causing the virtual (sometimes real) death of the victim. Virtual death also has a historical background: the civil death penalty in Brazil was provided for in the tough rules of the Diamantino District in the XNUMXth century. It was “as if the person ceased to exist”, defined the laws of the time.

Above real confinement, we can experience false virtual coexistence. The animalization of human beings that fascism promotes is much more effective when we can offend and threaten under the protection of a computer screen. But the cowardice of the keyboard hero is the same as that of the exalted office writer or the “brave” of the mob.

The virtual wave discourages even those who could defend the victim and fears being execrated. Certainly there is nothing new in this except the speed of the insults. In the Argentine dictatorship, neighbors who saw someone being taken away by uniformed assassins resigned themselves by saying: “it will be for something”.


Living in a community is based on self-surveillance. Historical examples are many. For the moment, think of just two books of what is conventionally called microhistory, a type of historiography that looks for “connections between the general currents of historians and the living experience of people”: Menocchio, a character by Carlo Ginsburg in The cheese and the worms, he could not escape both the denunciations of ordinary people and his own language: he read and spoke too much for a simple miller. The famous Martin Guerre, on the other hand, wandered through villages that revealed a living picture of the patterns of interpersonal relationships and gossip in the towns of southern France in the XNUMXth century, according to historian Natalie Zemon Davis.

But community self-surveillance only exists with the help of established power. On the Internet itself, algorithms, cameras, mobile phone records, financial transactions, message exchanges, etc. already exercised control over users. The epidemic provided the pretext for the State to control the right to come and go by mapping movements recorded on cell phones, among other things.

Here, too, there is nothing new, except in the medium used. The quarantines of the XNUMXth century were complemented by the so-called sanitary cordon: troops that prevented people from crossing borders. the entry sanitary cordon of the Garnier-Pagès Dictionary discussed whether or not that measure was useful to contain an epidemic. But in the middle of the 1815th century, he warned: “in our days [the cordon sanitaire] has come to serve as a political instrument, destined for something other than the fight against contagion”. Under the Restoration (1830-XNUMX), continued the author of the entry, the cordon sanitaire located in the Pyrenees, since the yellow fever was contained, “was much more destined to monitor the movements of the liberals in Spain than to serve as a barrier to the progress of a disease” that no longer threatened.

It was not by chance that the expression sanitary cordon it was evoked again during the Spanish flu epidemic by Georges Clemenceau as a metaphor for the set of capitalist countries bordering Soviet Russia whose task was to prevent the spread of the “Bolshevik infection”.

the little men

The overlap of community ties and national sentiment is well known to historians. It did not erase it, rather it reproduced the ideal of the little people against the “Jewish” banker who harmed the shop keeper denying him credit or scorching him with unpayable interest. Every Little Man's Gatheringder Kleine Mann, le petit commerce) in a false union based on anti-Semitism was the “socialism of idiots”, as the German social democrat August Bebel called it.

French radical and socialist newspapers proudly displayed the titles of Le Petit Niçois, The Little Provencal, La Petite Charente, Le Petit Troyen… in Brazil there was, v.gr., the always “impartial and newsworthy” small newspaper from Guaratinguetá (SP, 1885); O small newspaper from Bahia (1889); and the Small Newspaper of Manaus (1911). in Recife or Small Newspaper it was founded in 1898 and many years later it assumed a fascist line.

Cosmopolitanism crushed the pretensions of the provincial Lucien de Rubempré in Lost Illusions (1837) by Balzac. He returned desolate to his insignificant Angoulême. But the twentieth century generated the fascist attitude that rejects the great world of recognized ideas and exalts the small universe of roadside tavern chatter. Like Fellini's welcomes (I Vitelloni, 1953) she oscillates between late adolescent adventures and frustrated social or cultural pretensions.

That attitude is not casual. It bases its unreasonableness on a very reasonable cause, and that returns us to the beginning of our exposition. The arrogance of enlightened knowledge rejects spontaneity and, a fortiori, the elements of consciousness that inhabit common sense. in a forgotten best sellers Brazilian, the protagonist of The Bean and the Dream (1938) by Orígenes Lessa is the little intellectual mocked by the men of the village. He can only react with contempt for the routine of ordinary people. It is the portrait of the mismatch between a literary pretension and any practical meaning of life.


Extravasated feeling does not necessarily contradict rational equilibrium. In a fractured, utilitarian society, fascism offers a reunion of intimacy, emotion, and community. fake and promises engagement in a transcendent cause. That it is a mask for the permanence of exploitation, inequality and the unbearable oppression of everyday life does not matter because adherence to it is not rational. And this is true both for the computer age and for the post-World War I era. In this strict sense, it was not a mere coincidence that Bolsonaro took power on the centenary of the meeting of the Piazza San Sepolcro. He brings together the worst characteristics of all neo-fascist leaders and releases the repressed instincts of his followers.

To oppose the fascist mass with another of equal intensity, but armed by reason, it is not enough to stick to reason itself. It is necessary to awaken something else that perhaps is already there, confined in each one, in the hidden homes where one waits for one's turn to be drawn.

*Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of Gramsci and the Revolution (Avenue).

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