Neither barracks nor big house

Image: Thijs van der Weide


The interpretation of Lula’s place and the election of Jair Bolsonaro were mediated by a radicalization of the meaning of “politics” and “power”

The days that followed the election of Jair Bolsonaro were one of interpretive effort, comparable to that of someone facing a huge jigsaw puzzle and trying to fit it together, but there were missing pieces. Afterwards, I realized that I was not alone. Over these four years, hundreds of books and articles were published that tried to answer: how to explain the rise and election of Jair Bolsonaro? It was not a question of rationalizing reality, but of interpreting it.

I am not aware of, in the history of Brazilian social thought, a moment of such intellectual production. We are still trying to reread Brazil and propose new analytical tools that oppose the classic theses of the “cordial man” and “racial democracy”. Perhaps, in the 1930s, something close to what we are experiencing happened. Different interpretations have been offered for the relationship between Jair Bolsonaro and the political/cultural heritage, but all try to analyze his rise as a phenomenon prior to and outside his own existence.

I observed that it is possible to systematize this considerable textual production in two blocks. One that points to the civil-military dictatorship as the referent of continuities. The barracks returned to power and brought with it the monsters that inhabited the Brazilian State throughout the 21 years of the Dictatorship. The second is dedicated to establishing connections between Jair Bolsonaro and the legacy of slavery. It was not, from this perspective, a matter of returning from the barracks, but of recognizing the continued presence in social and political relations of the slaveholder and his captains of the bush (read: ministers, secretaries). The barracks are part of the structure of Casa Grande.

This process of reflection on the challenges of interpreting Brazil had effects of reflexivity. Researchers began to critically review their training and positions on what makes Brazil, Brazil. The aim was not just to read and propose new theories, but to think about the silences and absences in our professional training and, at the same time, question the place we come to occupy as reproducers of sugary visions of social relations based on violence.

I include myself in this immense effort to produce new interpretations of Brazil. The biggest gain I had, on this journey marked by a sense of faceless loss, a long melancholy, was to conclude that Jair Bolsonaro is not an exception in the history of Brazilian politics. Jair Bolsonaro is a long-lasting symptom. He is not the exception, he is the rule. The tenacious vanishing point in our institutional history was the emergence of a leader like Lula. When trying to analyze Jair Bolsonaro, I had to review my positions on Lula.

It was a reckoning with my past as a left-wing activist. The left, in its dogmatic purity, attributed to Lula the role of a by-product of capitalist domination. Since I started voting, I was guided by the ideological vote in the first round (the most revolutionary candidate) and the useful vote in the second round (that is, in the PT). I was formed in spaces of the left, crossed by great debates about the future of the Brazilian revolution. I could say the name and income of the 400 largest economic groups in the country during the 1980s. We discussed the stage of development of local capitalism and how the economic sphere was articulated with politics. Today, I have no doubts: my vote for Lula will be ideological for the following reasons.

Four years ago, Lula was in prison. Between legal battles, analyzes that said Lula should have gone into exile, I saw the perverse enjoyment of the press, of a considerable part of the population, and the ecstasy of the elite. The puzzle didn't fit. How does this man, this by-product, manage to infuriate the ruling class to this degree? What do they see when they look at this northeastern man? Bankers, industrialists, media owners saw their profits grow during the PT governments that, in fact, did not pose any threat to the class position of those who toasted with champagne the victorious coup against Dilma and Lula's arrest. Certainly, one cannot deny the work done to identify the PT (and Lula, mainly) as a synonym for corruption. In that anti-corruption speech, there was something else. The horror was communism.

If not through the economy, how can this repeated hatred be explained? Anticommunism must be analyzed with a system articulated with the heterosexual family and racism. It is not possible to isolate one of the terms, just analyze the speeches of Salazar, Mussolini and Hitler. The defense of private property has always been at the same priority level as the defense of the traditional family.

For the first time, in the 114 years of the Republic, the PT governments (from 2003) proposed and implemented public policies for populations that previously did not exist as members of the nation. The advancement of studies on dissident sexualities and genders coincides with the PT governments. It coincides with the organization of internal policies at universities for admission and maintenance of quota students. It coincides with the approval of the PEC that equated the rights of domestic workers with those of all workers (with a delay of 68 years). “Coincide”, here, is not “coincidence”. The transformations took place in a combination of power disputes, tense rounds of political negotiations and with our invisible work of discussion, study, research in universities and social movements.

Public policies (read: budget distribution) were disputed with each project, program and LDO (Budget Guidelines Law) vote in the National Congress. We were and are in a hurry. But the temporality of the State and the interests that dispute there does not obey our urgency. And whoever submits reality to individual or group desires does not want to engage in politics, but to practice beliefs. Learning to deal with these temporalities and, at the same time, not bowing down to them, was a permanent challenge.

Hatred of Lula is not exclusively because of the economic issue, but because of the possibility of opening channels of dialogue around issues commonly known as “identity issues”. The dogmatic left (and “dogma” is the best expression to represent it) denies the political character of these struggles because, after all, politics is defined by the disputes that take place around class interests. Strangely, it was not exclusively the dimension of the class struggle (in the sense of economic interests) that repeatedly provoked the symbolic assassination of Lula.

Left-wing orthodoxy does not recognize that the class struggle is racialized, sexualized and gendered, nor that, for the first time in the history of this country, these agendas began to compete for resources within the bowels of the State. Combating neoliberal savagery is not in opposition to the right to life of people who live under threat and in constant fear of losing their lives because they are black, trans, women.


horror of changes

How do elites (economic, gender, racial, sexual) deal with transformations? Next to the phrase “Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world”, one should add: “We have the worst elite in the world”. A quick historical glance: it took two laws, that of 1831 and 1850, to put an end to the trafficking of black people. When the free womb law was passed (in 1871), it was already law in all Spanish colonies. We were the last country to abolish slavery. The Republic was the result of a pact between the military and slaveholders as a measure of retaliation against the imperial family for the legal end of slavery. The elite is terrified of change. Therefore, Lula was an exception. We have already heard the phrase “it is better to hand over the rings to guarantee the fingers” to refer to retreats by elites in other countries. In Brazil, on the contrary, the principle is: “do not deliver anything! Suck out every last drop of blood.”

It is in this context of absolute refusal of any change towards social justice and economic equity that I understand Lula's place in history. The policies developed during the PT governments were timid for us, who are in a hurry to change Brazil, but they were unbearable for the economic elites and defenders of traditional family values. Lula's election will represent the reinstallation of the tug of war, in which multiple collective subjects will be disputing access to material and symbolic resources made available by the State.

As I pointed out, in trying to understand Jair Bolsonaro, I had to dwell on Lula's place in history. There is an abyss between my desire for a world without injustice and full equity (a socialist world) and the country that has 522 years of genocity in its biography (continued practices of eliminating certain populations). I want to elect Lula and I hope that the exceptionality that still represents his presence in power will be overcome and that my will, at some point, meets the history of this country that still lives under the sign of the Casa Grande. We will have our disputes in the institutional dimension, but let us not forget that it is there, on the corner, in the classroom, in the diffuse and rhizomatic debates, that new values ​​must be disputed.

We are going to elect benches identified with the struggle for social justice and the defense of the common good, but let us not delude ourselves that doing politics is limited to the sphere of the State. The dispute happens every day, in all dimensions of life. There is no single straight path. The question “How did Bolsonaro happen?” led us to see that the defense of torture, death and murder is not only trivialized, it is valued. It is a discourse with strong social support and has even become electoral currency: “let's sell hate, intensify the mantra that 'a good bandit is a death bandit'”. To stop this appreciation, other policies must be implemented before, during and after Lula's election. The sphere of culture and values ​​is the daily battleground.

The interpretation of Lula’s place and the election of Jair Bolsonaro were mediated by a radicalization of the meaning of “politics” and “power”. To turn the analytical key is to understand that there is an immense power of non-state institutions (the family and the school, mainly) to define who can and who cannot inhabit the world. The worker, before becoming a worker, is subjected to socialization in which values ​​are transmitted and incorporated as truths. The working class is not born an adult. And in this process of becoming, shared values ​​that permeate social life are apprehended.

From the most precarious worker to the banker, there are shared learnings that hierarchize existences in gender, race, sexuality. So power is not exclusively in the state. It is not possible to “wait” for the great day of the revolution when the “ideological state apparatuses” are taken over by the working class and a new humanity is born. This birth is slow and continuous. And Lula's election is the continuation of a birth interrupted institutionally in the last four years.

*Berenice Bento is a professor of sociology at UnB. Currently she isvisiting scholar at the University of Coimbra. Selfamong other books, by Brazil, year zero: State, gender, violence (Editora da UFBA).


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