Neofascism: a planetary phenomenon – the Bolsonaro case

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By Michael Löwy*

In recent years, we have observed a spectacular rise of the reactionary, authoritarian and/or “neo-fascist” extreme right, which already governs half of the countries on a planetary scale: a phenomenon without precedent since the 1930s. Some of the best known examples: Trump (USA), Modi (India), Urban (Hungary), Erdogan (Turkey), ISIS (the Islamic State), Duterte (Philippines), and now Bolsonaro (Brazil). But in several other countries we have governments close to this trend, even if without such an explicit definition: Russia (Putin), Israel (Netanyahu), Japan (Shinzo Abe), Austria, Poland, Burma, Colombia, etc.

In each country this extreme right has its own characteristics: in many countries (Europe, United States, India, Burma) the “enemy” – that is, the scapegoat – are Muslims and immigrants; in certain Muslim countries they are religious minorities (Christians, Jews, Yezhidis). In some cases, xenophobic nationalism and racism predominate, in others religious fundamentalism, or even hatred of the left, of feminism, of homosexuals.

Despite this diversity, there are some traits common to most, if not all: authoritarianism, integral nationalism – “Deutschand über alles” and its local variants: “America First”, “Brazil above all”, etc. – religious or ethnic (racist) intolerance against the “Other”, police/military violence as the only response to social problems and criminality.

Characterization as fascist or neo-fascist may apply to some but not all. Some political forces have directly fascist characteristics: this is the case of the “Golden Dawn” party in Greece, Casa Pound in Italy, and several nationalist parties in the Baltic countries; in Ukraine, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. Others, like the racist parties in Holland, England, Switzerland, Denmark, have no roots in the fascist past.

I propose to designate as “neo-fascists” leaders, parties, movements or governments that have significant similarities with the classic fascism of the 1930s – and often, historical roots in that past – but also some substantial differences. These are new phenomena, which are not identical to those we have known in the past. Some examples: Marine Le Pen's party in France, the FPÖ ("Liberal") in Austria, the party vlams belang in Belgium, Salvini and the Alloy Italian, Jair Bolsonaro (without organic party), etc. Trump has some neo-fascist aspects, but mixed with traditional reactionaryism.

Other concepts have been used to designate the current extreme right. The term “conservatism” is widely used in Brazil, but it is not the most appropriate: it is not a conservative current, in the sense of traditionalist, nostalgic for the past, more of a violent, modern authoritarianism, generally neoliberal.

Much worse is the case of the term “populism”, widely used by the bourgeois media and academic political science to designate the extreme right. It is an inoperative and mystifying concept for several reasons: (a) its definition is so vague and imprecise – “populists are leaders who directly address the people, intending to fight against the elites” – that it can apply to practically any leadership policy; (b) it has nothing to do with what is usually called populism, particularly in Latin America: Vargas, Perón, Cárdenas, João Goulart, a term that designates leaders with a discourse and, to a certain extent, a nationalist, anti -imperialist and a program of moderate social reforms; (c) works as a euphemism, hiding the reality of these extreme right-wing leaders and regimes, deeply anti-popular, intolerant, with fascist traits; (d) serves to confuse the public, lumping all critics of neoliberal globalization into the same bag as “populists of the right and left”.

To understand neofascism

How to explain this spectacular rise of the extreme right and neo-fascism, in the form of governments, but also of political parties that still do not govern, but have a large electoral base and influence the political life of the country (France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden etc.)? It is difficult to propose a general explanation for such different phenomena, which are expressions of contradictions specific to each country or region of the world. But, as this is a planetary trend, it is necessary to at least examine some hypotheses.

The most obvious, and undoubtedly pertinent, is that capitalist globalization – which is also a process of brutal cultural homogenization – produces and reproduces, on a world scale, forms of “identity panic” (the term is coined by the French Marxist critic Daniel Bensaïd). , fueling intolerant nationalist and/or religious manifestations and favoring ethnic or confessional conflicts. The more the nation loses its economic power due to globalization, the more the immense glory of the “Above All” Nation is proclaimed.

Another explanation would be the financial crisis of capitalism, which began in 2008, and its consequences: economic depression, unemployment, marginalization. This factor was undoubtedly important for Trump's or Bolsonaro's victory, but it is much less valid for Europe: in rich countries, less affected by the crisis, such as Switzerland and Austria, the extreme right has great power, while in countries hardest hit by the crisis, such as Portugal, Spain and Greece, it is the left or center-left that is hegemonic, while the extreme right is peripheral.

These two processes take place in a capitalist society in which neoliberalism has operated since the 1980s, deepening social inequalities and injustices and concentrating wealth – as happened in pre-1929 liberal capitalism.

These explanations are useful, at least in some cases, but they fall short. We still do not have a global analysis, which accounts for a process that is worldwide, and that occurs at a specific historical moment.

A return to the past?

Would it be a throwback to the 1930s? History does not repeat itself: there are obvious similarities, but current phenomena are quite different from past models. Above all, we do not – yet – have totalitarian states comparable to the Italian fascist regime or the Nazi Third Reich.

Today's neo-fascist parties do not organize uniformed paramilitary shock troops to terrorize the left, as was the case with Mussolini's "Black Shirts", or the Sturm Abteilung (SA) of Adolf Hitler.

The classic Marxist analysis of fascism defines it as a reaction by big capital, with the support of the petty bourgeoisie, in the face of the revolutionary threat of the labor movement. One might wonder whether this interpretation really explains the nature of fascism in Italy, Germany or Spain in the 1920s and 1930s.

In any case, it is not relevant in today's world, for several reasons: (a) there is not, in any of the countries where neo-fascism is on the rise, a “revolutionary threat”; (b) big capital shows little enthusiasm for the “nationalist” economic program of the extreme right, although it may come to accommodate this policy; (c) support for Trump, Bolsonaro or Le Pen is not limited to the petty bourgeoisie, but includes large popular contingents and even the working class.

This set of differences justifies the use of the term “neo-fascism” to designate political forces that have fascist traits, but are not a reproduction of the past.

the french website Mediapart (https://www.mediapart.fr), in a recent editorial, on the rise of the extreme right in France and in the world, wrote: “it is five minutes before midnight”. But it's not too late to try to stop the “resistible rise of Arturo Ui” – to quote the title of Bertolt Brecht's famous anti-fascist play.

In Brazil

The Bolsonaro phenomenon has much in common with this planetary “brown” wave (the shirt color of the Nazi militias of the 1930s). But there are some important differences when we compare, for example, with Europe:

(1) in several European countries there is a political and ideological continuity between current neo-fascist movements and the classic fascism of the 1930s, but this is not the case in Brazil. Brazilian fascism, integralism, came to have a lot of weight in the 1930s, even influencing the Estado Novo coup in 1938. But the Bolsonaro phenomenon has little or no relation to this old matrix; very few of its supporters know what integralism was.

(2) unlike most of the European extreme right, Bolsonaro did not make racism his main flag. Certainly, some of his statements were clearly racist, but it was not the central, mobilizing theme of his campaign.

(3) the theme of the fight against corruption is present in the discourse of the European extreme right, but in a marginal way. In Brazil it is an old tradition, since the 1940s, of the conservatives: the flag of the fight against corruption is raised to justify the power of the traditional oligarchies and, depending on the case, to legitimize military coups. Bolsonaro managed to manipulate this legitimate feeling of indignation against corrupt politicians to impose himself, and won the dispute of opinion in society, by (falsely) identifying the PT as the core of the political system of the Brazilian State and as the main person responsible for corruption.

(4) hatred of the left, or the center-left – in the case of Brazil, the PT – is not a major issue for the extreme right in western Europe; he is present in the pro-fascist currents of Eastern Europe, territory of the former “people's democracies”. In this case, it is a reference to a real experience from the past; in the Brazilian case, Bolsonaro's violently anti-communist discourse has nothing to do with present or past Brazilian reality. It is all the more absurd when you consider that the Cold War ended several decades ago, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the PT obviously had nothing to do with communism (in any possible definition of that term).

(5) While a good part of the extreme right, particularly in Europe, denounces neoliberal globalization, in the name of protectionism, economic nationalism and the fight against “international finance”, Bolsonaro proposes an ultraliberal economic program, with more globalization, more market , more privatizations, and a complete alignment with the US Empire. This guaranteed him, especially in the second round, the decisive support of the forces of financial and industrial capital, as well as of agribusiness. The Brazilian capitalist oligarchy preferred other candidates, but when it realized that Bolsonaro was the only one capable of defeating the PT, it massively adhered to it.

(6) While religion played a limited role in the rise of the European extreme right (except in Poland and Hungary), in Brazil the neo-Pentecostal churches, with their ultra-reactionary homophobic and anti-feminist discourse, played an essential role in Bolsonaro's victory.

What is comparable in the European, North American and Brazilian extreme right (Bolsonaro) are two themes of reactionary sociocultural agitation: (a) the repressive ideology, the cult of police violence, the call to reinstate the death penalty and the proposal of distributing weapons to the population for their “defense against criminality”; and (b) intolerance of sexual minorities, in particular with regard to homosexuals. It is a subject of agitation that is successful in reactionary religious sectors, with a Catholic reference (Opus Dei, Civitas, etc.) or, above all, Neo-Pentecostal evangelicals.

These two themes were decisive for Bolsonaro's victory. Other factors were important: (a) the erosion of the PT and the conventional centre-right. But there were other candidates who could also present themselves as defenders of the fight against corruption and the slogan “outside the system”, like Marina Silva. Why weren't they successful? (b) the nefarious role of the media. She, however, was divided: not everyone agreed with Bolsonaro; (c) the fake news, sent via in-app messages WhatsApp, to millions of Brazilians. It remains to explain why so many people believed such blatant lies; (d) the desire of a significant part of the population for a “Savior of the Homeland”, a “Strong Man”, a “Myth”, capable of “restoring order” and “cleaning up the country”.

A convincing explanation is still lacking for the incredible success, in just a few weeks, of Bolsonaro's candidacy, despite his preaching of violence, truculence, misogyny, the absence of a program and his blatant apology for dictatorship and torture.

Armando Boito recently published a very interesting article in the earth is round (aterraeredonda.com.br), where he defines Bolsonaro as a “neo-fascist”. I share this characterization, although I disagree with the definition he proposed, quoting Togliatti, of fascism as “a reactionary mass movement rooted in intermediate strata of capitalist social formations.” This definition might have been correct in the 1930s, but it is far less pertinent in the 21st century. Today, Marine Le Pen and Bolsonaro – to cite two examples of neo-fascism – enjoy wide support among sectors of the popular classes, including workers.

One of the most important contributions of Boito’s essay is his characterization of Bolsonaro’s neo-fascist ideology: “fascism and neo-fascism are driven by a superficially critical and at the same time deeply conservative discourse about the capitalist economy and bourgeois democracy – criticism of big capital and defense of capitalism; criticism of corruption and “old politics” combined with the defense of an authoritarian order. The ideology of both is heterogeneous and unsystematic; it highlights the designation of the left as the enemy to be destroyed (didn't Bolsonaro openly proclaim in a speech broadcast on the big screens on Avenida Paulista that the left in his government should emigrate or go to prison?); the cult of violence (any doubt about that with regard to Bolsonarism?); its mainly destructive, negative, non-propositive character (Bolsonaro did not clarify, to justify his lack of positive proposals, that his government will be like chemotherapy for Brazil?); irrationalism (the earth is flat and global warming is an invention, right?); an authoritarian and conservative nationalism (cult of the homogeneity of national society and rejection of “deviants”) and the politicization of racism and machismo, herbs that spontaneously sprout in the soil of capitalist society – in class inequality, in the patriarchal organization of the family, in the authoritarianism of the capitalist enterprise – and which fascism raises, with its party program, to the political scene” (https://aterraeredonda.com.br/a-terra-e-redonda-e-o-governo-bolsonaro-e-fascista/).

Marilena Chaui also published a very interesting article on the same site about the authoritarianisms of our time. Marilena rejects the term “fascism” for these new phenomena, preferring the concept of “neoliberal totalitarianism”. According to Chaui, fascism was militaristic, imperialist and colonialist, which is not the case with current authoritarian regimes. It seems like a mistake to me because there are several examples of fascism from the past without an imperialist vocation, Spanish Francoism, for example. The concept of “neoliberal totalitarianism”, as she proposes it, is very rich, but it can adopt several forms, one of which corresponds to what we are calling neo-fascism.

His analysis of the discourse of these authoritarian governments, including Bolsonaro, of course, is very accurate: “Ideologically, with the expression “cultural Marxism”, the managers pursue all forms and expressions of critical thinking and invent the division of society between the good people, who supports them, and the diabolical ones who contest them. By guidance of councilors, intend to clean up ideologically, socially and politically, and for that purpose they develop a communist conspiracy theory, which would be led by left-wing intellectuals and artists. The advisers are self-taught who read textbooks and hate scientists, intellectuals and artists, taking advantage of the resentment that the extreme right has for these figures. As such advisors are devoid of scientific, philosophical and artistic knowledge, they use the word "communist" without any precise meaning: communist means every thought and every action that calls into question the status quo and common sense (for example: that the earth is flat; that there is no evolution of species; that the defense of the environment is a lie; that the theory of relativity is baseless, etc.). It is these advisers who offer racist, homophobic, sexist, religious arguments to government officials, that is, they transform fears, resentments and silent social hatreds into discourse of power and justification for practices of censorship and extermination” (https://aterraeredonda.com.br/neoliberalismo-a-nova-forma-do-totalitarismo/).

By way of conclusion

I would like to close by proposing a brief reflection for action in Brazil and Latin America: we need to build broad Democratic and/or Anti-fascist United Fronts to combat the wave of the “Brown Plague”. But we cannot fail to take into account that the capitalist system, especially in periods of crisis, constantly produces and reproduces phenomena such as fascism, racism, coups d'état and military dictatorships. A root of these phenomena is systemic. The alternative therefore has to be radical, that is, antisystemic. Concretely this means an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist alternative: socialism. Or rather, ecosocialism, because the ecological issue will play an ever-increasing role in the confrontation with Bolsonaro and his Yankee protector, Donald Trump. An Afro-Indo-American ecosocialism (to paraphrase José Carlos Mariátegui) that overcomes the limits of the socialist movements of the last century – the social-democratic commitment to the system, and the bureaucratic degeneration of the so-called “real socialism” – recovering the Latin American revolutionary banners, from Simon Bolivar to Ernesto Che Guevara, from José Martí to Farabundo Marti, from Emiliano Zapata to Augusto Cesar Sandino, from Zumbi dos Palmares to Chico Mendes.

*Michael Lowy é director of research at Scientific Research National Center

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