Social unrest and popular conservatism

Headdress frontlet, ca. 1820–40.
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By LUIZ FELIPE FC DE FARIAS*

Brief essay on the meanings of Bolsonarism.

Today, we find ourselves assaulted by discourses and practices that seem to echo the periods of greatest social and political turmoil in the XNUMXth century. Especially the current rise of the extreme right across the world often brings to the fore in public debate comparisons with the experiences of nazi-fascism in Europe or with civil-military dictatorships in Latin America. Highlighting similarities (and differences) between the present time and these past experiences can be, in this sense, a fruitful method to outline some of the meanings that social conflict has been assuming in Brazil and in the world.

Initially, it seems possible to say that the years 2010/2020 correspond to a transition phase similar to that of the 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s, periods marked by large-scale economic and political crises that represent the exhaustion of large cycles of capital accumulation . Just as the 1929 crisis represented the end of the accumulation cycle of the classical liberal era and the 1970s crisis represented the end of the Keynesian era, it seems possible to say that the 2008 crisis represented the end of the neoliberal era. As a consequence, these transition phases are periods marked by the intensification of social concerns that increasingly overflow the hitherto prevailing mechanisms for regulating conflicts between groups and classes. Similar to the 1910s/1920s and 1960s/1970s, the 2010s/2020s have also been marked by the explosion of massive and simultaneous popular protests in various parts of the world.

All these transition phases also seem to be characterized by intense instability in the structures of cultural and political representation, more or less impermeable to the anxieties and impasses of everyday life for the masses. Consolidated institutions and leaderships sometimes suffer surprisingly fast collapses, trapped in discourses and practices that are less and less able to represent those insubmissive residues that take to the streets. This breaking of pacts that absorbed conflicts within the order made such phases to be at the same time laboratories for experiences of workers' direct democracy, but also for new seeds of authoritarianism. Echoing the social turmoil of the 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s, we see in 2010/2020 public spaces animated by new forms of collective action, in reaction to which sketches of authoritarian regimes mobilize new forms of violence associated with a new political grammar.

Social unrest and popular conservatism

At this moment, however, a distinction is imposed between the present time and these moments of greater economic and political turbulence of the last century. The 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s were marked by the social and political protagonism of the worker and peasant movements, capable of creating structures of “popular power” as revolutionary threats to the bourgeois order. As a result of a long and painful process of self-organization, workers and peasants throughout the 1920th century gave rise to diverse collective experiences of self-management of their workspaces and housing, often in opposition to trade union and Communist Party bureaucracies. . In this sense, the popular revolts during the 1930s/1960s or 1970s/1920s culminated in various situations of “dual power” around the world, revolutionary situations in which the classes in struggle build representative structures that dispute among themselves the direction of social life in territories from local and regional dimensions to national and international scales. Within this context, civil-military coups and extreme right-wing regimes in Europe between 1930/1960 and in Latin America between 1970/XNUMX can be understood fundamentally as reactions to such revolutionary situations, through which the ruling classes sought to ensure the obedience of the masses through the concentration of military and paramilitary violence.

In comparative terms, one of the most important distinguishing characteristics of the current transition phase between the 2010s and 2020s has been precisely the relative absence of worker or peasant protagonism. Recent protests seem to be animated especially by youth who are unemployed or underemployed in services scattered throughout urban spaces, the result of profound transformations in the world of work that make them relatively distant from social life and the accumulation of organizational experiences that previously marked both the factory space and the peasant communities. It is a youth marked by a relatively higher degree of formal schooling compared to past generations, therefore crossed by greater social expectations increasingly frustrated by the current intensification of concentrations of wealth, power and status. This young working class grew up immersed in work relationships and ways of life that were profoundly remodeled by the emergence and generalization of new information and communication technologies since the end of the XNUMXth century. As a consequence, these young workers seem to have a political culture that is markedly disconnected from the theoretical and practical accumulation of the subordinate classes in previous transition phases.

In this context, the outbursts of social unrest of this working youth do not seem to have been able to settle into a new (semi) institutionality, culminating in situations of “dual power”. On the contrary, most of the popular protests around the world today seem to assume a predominantly aesthetic and performative character, which begins and ends with the immediate act of demonstrations and occupations of streets and squares. In this sense, the hallmark of the present time seems to be an explosion of social unrest without form or representation, symptomatically expressed in spectacularized practices with temporality disconnected from the slow pace of creation of bonds of solidarity that underlie structures of popular power. With this we do not mean that there are no experiences of popular self-organization in the midst of increasingly frequent episodes of social turbulence, but rather that these experiences do not yet seem to have galvanized into gravitational centers capable of proposing the seeds of a new order. From this perspective, contemporary explosions of social unrest seem to have a markedly anomic context as their main result. Anomia refers here to the mismatch between the deconstruction of norms and values ​​that organize social life and the construction of a new institutional framework capable of establishing the collective parameters of a new order. The main specificity of the present time is, in this sense, a generalized cleavage between the anxieties that cross the daily life of this young precariat and the concepts or institutions that propose to represent it.

This is the context that underlies the re-emergence of popular conservatism and the strengthening of traditional values ​​linked to male authority as a reaction among workers to the breakdown of order. Historically, conservative thought emerged in the XNUMXth century as a defense of pre-modern ways of life and power structures against what was understood to be the degeneration that would then threaten modern society. The predominant social base of conservatism in the nineteenth century was the aristocracies of countries in Europe and the American South, who saw signs of chaos and disorder in the exacerbated individualism and plebeian impulse that permeated modern industrial cities. In contrast, conservatism proposed a revaluation of ties of solidarity and subordination that formerly integrated social groups and dampened their conflicts. At the same time, conservatism also found a social base in a large peasant population integrated into family work relationships and neighborhood and community solidarity networks, as well as in a growing working-class population recently emigrated from the rural world and rapidly concentrated in unhealthy neighborhoods. For a working class in formation, the memory and resilience of solidarity relations in the traditional rural world was an important raw material for the first struggles for social and labor rights. Especially in countries with late industrialization like Brazil, working classes subjected to socio-economic marginalization and political subalternity in chaotic urban peripheries resorted to religious institutions and community values ​​to understand their world and to preserve some social dignity.

Conservatism is therefore a rather ambiguous political phenomenon. On the one hand, the recovery of traditional family and religious values ​​has historically been an important basis for workers' organizations, as illustrated by the Base Ecclesial Communities in the emergence of social movements in urban peripheries or even the Pastoral Land Commission in the resumption of peasant and indigenous struggles at the end of the 1970s. On the other hand, this recovery of these same conservative values ​​can also take the form of a reaffirmation of lordly, authoritarian relationships, especially with regard to issues involving race and gender. Extreme right-wing regimes in the 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s were often based on a reaffirmation of values ​​based on male authority (Father, father, priest, pastor, boss), in contrast to the disorder supposedly caused by workers' subversion, black and feminist.

Understandably, the anguish faced with the unpredictability of life in society during transitional phases in which conflicts overflow regulatory mechanisms brings to the fore a series of conservative reactions. In these moments, popular conservatism becomes a decisive battle arena capable of pointing in different directions in the midst of an acute social crisis. Contexts marked by the social and political protagonism of workers and peasants were able to re-elaborate traditional values ​​deeply rooted among the masses as a raw material for structures of “popular power”, in the same way that the circle is one of the elements that make up a spiral. As a counterpoint, the current context of popular unrest so far amorphous and anomic seems to give rise to the more authoritarian aspects of popular conservatism as a reaction to the breakdown of the social order, building a popular base of support for possible new regimes of exception.

Meanings of Bolsonarism

In a first approximation, Bolsonarism seems to represent the hypertrophy of police and military coercive apparatuses in Brazilian social life, as a reaction of the ruling classes to the chronic ungovernability scenario since the 2013 revolts, in which no political force seems able to regain hegemony and re-establish the passive consensus among the masses. In this sense, Bolsonarism seems to be a consequence and cause of the increased protagonism of police forces and the acceleration of the military presence in the State apparatus, mainly after the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff on 08/2016. In addition to the police forces and military forces, the main point of support for Bolsonarism among the fractions of the bourgeoisie that currently make up the bloc in power seems to be the complex arc of forces called “agribusiness”, which extends from the production of machines and inputs for agriculture, passing through the production and agro-industrial processing of vegetable and animal raw materials, to the sophisticated range of distribution, consulting, research and marketing services that crosses this entire production chain. Despite the modernizing rhetoric and internal diversity, these actors seem to preserve a reasonable unity of political action with regard to the advance of the land market on the Amazon frontier, the largest pocket of resources on the planet not yet fully reduced to the status of private property. Similar to what happened during the Vargas Era and the Civil-Military Dictatorship, Bolsonarism seems to have as its priority horizon the acceleration of the primitive accumulation of capital in this region.

However, Bolsonarism could not sustain itself solely on the basis of police and military forces and sectors linked to “agribusiness”, without mobilizing some level of consensus among a large portion of the population. To win this support base, Bolsonarism can be understood as a highly volatile outline of articulation of interests of the big internal and transnational capital to some of the most deeply rooted traditional values ​​in the masses, through an unstable alliance between ultra-liberalism and popular conservatism.

On the one hand, there are clear continuities between ultraliberalism and popular conservatism insofar as both assume an individualist/familist perspective and see the public space as a potential threat to the economic freedoms and religious freedoms of the faithful – entrepreneurs. In this sense, especially the ethics of prosperity cultivated within Neo-Pentecostal churches seems to represent an important transmission line of this curious experiment of building a new pact between classes. On the other hand, however, there are also discontinuities between ultraliberal and conservative social horizons, which in times of economic crisis puts defenders of fiscal austerity above all else at opposite poles and those who advocate some reserve of social dignity among the faithful – the unemployed. In this context, fissures multiply between sectors of the middle and upper classes (more or less concerned with the possible directions of the Bolsonarist crusade) and sectors of the popular classes (increasingly restless with unemployment, inflation and the retraction of government aid during the health crisis ).

In the midst of these fissures, Bolsonarism has recurrently inflated its bases through highly aggressive rhetoric, which gives rise to social unrest through a performative simulation of breaking order. This intensifies a distinctive characteristic of the extreme right forces today: the growing tension between their rhetorical and performative aggressiveness against the present institutionality and the deep resentment faced with the inability to directly mobilize the volume of violence necessary for their project. In this sense, Bolsonarism seems to be driven by a “speculative rhetorical bubble” in which political discourse inflates expectations of institutional rupture, apparently detached from the ability to fulfill its promises.

Extreme right-wing forces were able to consolidate themselves within the power bloc as strategic centers of the counterrevolution in the 1920s/1930s and 1960s/1970s as reactions to revolutionary threats to order, represented by the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Cuban Revolution ( 1959). Only when faced with the rise of self-organization and self-management experiences of the working and peasant masses, did the ruling classes in Italy and Germany in the 1920s/1930s and throughout Latin America in the 1960s/1970s overcome internal fissures and unified under the rule and direction of extreme right-wing military and paramilitary forces. In the current context of amorphous and anomic social unrest still Incapable of galvanizing themselves into minimally plausible revolutionary threats to order, extreme right-wing forces have today found it difficult to consolidate themselves as priority axes of the counterrevolution among fractions within the power bloc. As a consequence, the counterrevolution seems to assume a polycentric character, supported rather by the molecular insubordination of police and militia forces than properly centered under the control of a cohesive (para)military hierarchy. As recent events in Bolivia and the US seem to indicate, these are extreme right-wing forces that are capable of carrying out a coup attempt, but do not seem exactly capable of sustaining it in the medium term.

Still, the process of aestheticizing politics and the consequent performative simulation of the breakdown of order have been relatively effective in catalyzing some of the amorphous social unrest, offering an (incoherent) political grammar for the expression of the clear overflow of popular hatred. Interestingly, the extreme right forces in Brazil and in the world are currently the only ones that propose to express this popular hatred against the status quo. Specifically in Brazil, they are the only ones that affirm the exhaustion of the institutions that sustain the “New Republic” and the inevitability of extra-institutional referral to the current situation of social and political crisis. We thus see a strange dialectic going on in the present moment. There is a seed of historical rationality among the most overtly irrationalist forces on the planet today (such as Bolsonarism in Brazil), since they seem to be the only ones in the political spectrum to expressly recognize the radical dimension of our current transitional phase. On the contrary, there is a profound historical irrationality among the apparently more reasonable and civilized forces that propose themselves as the “center”, since they remain imprisoned in the perspective of an (eternal) return to conflict regulation mechanisms that have previously been overflowed. We are faced with the challenge of preventing the extreme right from continuing as the sole interpreter of popular hatred against “everything that exists”.

*Luiz Felipe FC de Farias he holds a PhD in sociology from USP.

 

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