Neo-Nazism – understanding and fighting

Image: Umberto Boccioni


The emphasis on the terms Nazism and fascism often complicates our analysis and understanding of the contemporary extreme right.

As a historian by training, I can only think about phenomena in process and context – that is, in time. And I think that before confronting what we call neo-Nazism, we need to understand the phenomenon. It is about this that I present some hypotheses.

Studies by anthropologist Adriana Dias that mapped neo-Nazi cells in Brazil showed that in 2019 there were 334 active cells across the country. In 2021, their number jumped to 530 cells; in 2022 a new jump to 1.117 cells. The south of Brazil accounts for 2/3 of these cells (744, approximately). And in Santa Catarina alone there were more than 300 cells mapped in 2022.[I]

It would be very easy, based on this information, to conclude that we live in a fascist state. But easy conclusions are often also mistaken. I think that our emphasis on the terms Nazism and fascism often complicates our analysis and understanding of the contemporary far right. I believe that there is a kind of inflation in the use of these terms and a certain intellectual laziness among those who cannot “see in the current extreme right more than the simple repetition of a political phenomenon”[ii] 90 years ago.

Much of what was labeled Nazi fascism in the 1920s/1930s does not exist today, namely: (i) totalitarian corporate states; (ii) mass parties such as the German National Socialist; (iii) paramilitary groups such as the Italian Blackshirts or Storm Troopers, the German SA; (iv) rejection of liberalism; (v) the desire for revolutionary transformation. What I want to say is that when we refer to fascism or Nazism as a parameter to measure the threats to democratic rights today, we end up disarmed to face the real and current threats to democratic freedoms.

The question we need to answer is: what do groups that define themselves as neo-Nazis want to express with their adherence to this ideology? For me it is clear that the prejudices they announce, whatever type they may be, are not just psychic responses, but mainly socially determined. More than that: we need to understand which needs – real or symbolic – in people’s lives are met by these prejudiced and authoritarian ways of thinking? In other words, what does this authoritarian and violent conception of life concretely provide in the experience of subjects who adhere to neo-Nazi configurations?[iii]

The registration of neo-Nazi cells in Brazil begins in the 1980s with the Skinhead movement. Before the 1980s, there were no records or studies about its existence in the country. Therefore, it is this situation of economic stagnation and political uncertainty during the period of redemocratization that gave rise to this form of organization.[iv] The only study I know of from this period is by Helena Salem: The evil tribes.[v]In it, the author mentions the existence of 12 neo-Nazi groups active in Brazil in the 1980s, located in São Paulo and the south of the country. These groups persecuted northeasterners and homosexuals, considered responsible for the country's economic backwardness, without sparing blacks and Jews. But, what is the context of the emergence, in Brazil, of neo-Nazi groups?

Globalization and neoliberalism

Since the beginning of the 1980s, we have experienced a new and profound restructuring of capitalism, characterized by production just in time, the multifunctional workforce, the flexibility of contracts and the mass transfer of companies from central capitalist countries to those in which the workforce is miserably paid. This was called “globalization”. Since then, we have seen the strengthening, vigor and militant confidence of the high bourgeoisie taking back the reins of public action, since the welfare state had limited its action. We usually call this set of new actions “neoliberalism”.[vi]

The expansion of informality is the result of transformations in the world of work over the last 30 years. The number of informal workers and those who will never find a registered job throughout their lives is increasing. Insecurity is now the rule.[vii] We call this phenomenon “precariousness”.

Fake news: lies at the service of the market

Economic transformations have their political counterpart. In 2006, a survey by Freedom House – an American center for studies and analyzes on democracy – pointed out that there is a global decline in democratic values ​​since: (a) democracy has become very expensive, only groups with many resources can compete effectively; (b) to function well, democracy requires a minimum of social equity, but what has happened in the world since the end of the 1980s is the brutal growth of inequality; (c) the corruption of the political class undermines the belief in democracy.

In 2018, the European Union promoted a survey between citizens and journalistic organizations with the aim of evaluating the relationship between market agents and fake news. Eighty-four percent believed that fake news they were disseminated to guide political debate; 65%, that they were produced with the aim of generating revenue for companies and individuals. The consequence is that hope in democratic institutions has suffered severe shakes over the last 40 years.

The belief that democracy is still capable of solving society's problems is currently between 10% and 20% of the population, even in countries with consolidated democracy. In situations of crisis and accelerated social transformation, people “can assume an anti-democratic aspect of supporting acts of violence against minority groups – in the same way that it is possible, conversely, for the same individuals to support and reinforce democratic values ​​in other contexts .”[viii]

Belief in democratic values ​​gives way to an authoritarian type of thinking and life. Today there seems to be a combination between “the ideas and skills typical of a highly industrialized society with irrational or anti-rational beliefs”. What emerges from this combination is a behavior that is at once “enlightened and superstitious, proud of being individualistic and constantly afraid of not being like everyone else, jealous of its independence and inclined to blindly submit to power and authority. ”[ix]

Religion, science and technology

Another parallel effect is the growth of religiosity, which had been declining since the Enlightenment.[X] This growth is the expression of the search for community, camaraderie, social bonds, acceptance and solidarity in a world with less and less community, camaraderie, acceptance and more competition and meritocracy. A study titled Public perception of Science & Technology in Brazil 2019, carried out by the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE), interviewed 2.200 people from all regions of the country and found a decrease in the number of individuals who consider that science and technology only bring benefits to humanity: from 54% in 2015, to 19% in 2019.[xi]

The extreme right in Santa Catarina

These general data help us understand a global change that favored the increase in religiosity, the encouragement of misinformation and disbelief in science and democracy. This framework helps us understand the emergence of Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism, the rise of the extreme right and the proliferation of neo-Nazi groups. But there is still a lack of explanation as to why Santa Catarina has been the protagonist in this setback.

I don't have a sufficient answer, but I will raise three hypotheses: the first hypothesis concerns land ownership. Between 1985 and 2006 there was a reduction of 41,3 thousand agricultural units in Santa Catarina. [xii] The 2017 agricultural census showed that family farming and small properties still represented 78% of rural properties in Santa Catarina. But, in 2006, family farming represented 87%, and in 1995, 96%[xiii]. In other words, between 1995 and 2017, 18% of small family rural properties disappeared, while the cultivated agricultural area, in the same period, increased by approximately 10%.

There are two phenomena: Santa Catarina is no longer a paradise for small properties and the concentration of property is accelerating. Whoever loses access to land does what? Either he becomes a wage earner in rural areas or migrates to the cities. But in both cases I suppose that anger will increase and that someone will be held responsible for what is experienced as a loss.

The second hypothesis refers to the study of anthropologist Giralda Seyferth and her notion of settler-worker. She studied mainly the northeast region of the state of Santa Catarina and showed that large families and small properties pushed – between planting and harvesting – a part of the settlers into industrial work. However, they never identified themselves as workers or became involved in labor organizing. This, at least in part, helps to understand the low occurrence of strikes in Santa Catarina.[xiv]

The third hypothesis concerns the fact that Santa Catarina, most likely, is the Brazilian state that most identifies itself as European. This appears in the propaganda of repeated municipal and state governments. It is how the state presents itself on the national stage and sells itself in the tourism industry. Paradoxically, this was accentuated in the last 40 years with the great floods in the Itajaí valley in 1983. The recovery of cities (with the help of the German government) and the creation of Oktoberfest (sold as the biggest German festival outside of Germany) reinforce the Santa Catarina's self-image as the most European state in Brazil.

There are known cases in which city halls in the valley region offer tax exemptions to those who build houses in the “German half-timbered” style. And since the devil is in the details, people start to believe and take seriously what the tourism industry sells as a product. This gives rise to a self-image of the people of Santa Catarina and an image that the rest of Brazil buys of Santa Catarina, as if it were a more German, more hard-working, more serious state. A different state, with more progress, culture, less miscegenation, whiter. A state in which the black presence was irrelevant.

The set of transformations of capitalism in the last 40 years – composed of neoliberalism, globalization, increased religiosity, militarization of life, disbelief in democracy and rejection of science – objectively changes our lives, but, above all, the way we feel and think. collective life.

If my suggestions make any sense, our problem is much bigger than fighting neo-Nazi cells, because they are one of the symptoms of profound transformations in capitalism and our way of life.

But what can we do here and now?

(a) Emphasize that there is no individual way out of these transformations of capitalism; (b) fight with all our energy for transparency in public actions and political decisions; (c) rebuild the hope that “another world is possible”; (d) restore the political practices of universalist collective action in which we are indifferent to our differences, in the name of what unites us as humanity; (e) understand that democracy is not just a means, but the central purpose of our political action.

I hope we have the wisdom to understand the gravity of the moment we are immersed in.

*Adriano Duarte He is a professor of contemporary history at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).



[ii] Mosquera, Martin. Is Milei a fascist threat? Jacobin.

[iii] Adorno, Theodor. Prejudices in interview material. In: Authoritarian personality studies. São Paulo. Editora da Unesp, 2019, p. 265

[iv] Andrade, Guilherme Ignacio Franco de. The trajectory of the extreme right in Brazil: integralism, neo-Nazism and historical revisionism (1930-2012). Proceedings of the V International Symposium on Social Struggles in Latin America: revolutions in the Americas: past, present and future. 10 to 13/09/2013. GT 9. Right-wing thinking and chauvinism in Latin America.

[v] Salem, Helena. The evil tribes: neo-Nazism in Brazil and the world. 3rd ed. São Paulo. Current, 1995.

[vi] This is the central argument of the book: Duménil, Gérard and Lévy, Dominique. The Crisis of Neoliberalism. São Paulo. Boitempo, 2014.

[vii] Stability is an increasingly rare condition in the work experience of men and women: precariousness and instability are the most common experiences for those entering the job market today.

[viii] Coast, Virginia. Summary of The authoritarian personality. Adornment. Theodor. Authoritarian personality studies. São Paulo. Editora da Unesp, 2019, p. 40. A definition of fascist: “…anyone who expresses open hostility toward minority groups and endorses the use of force when 'necessary' to suppress such groups: and who explicitly advocates a 'strong' government to protect business power against the demands of unions and progressive political groups – even to the point of suppressing them by force.” (p. 66).

[ix] Preface by Max Horkheimer to Adorno; Frenkel-Brunswik; Levinson; Sanford. The authoritarian personality. New York. Harper & Brothers, 1950. In: Costa, Virginia. Summary of The authoritarian personality. Adornment. Theodor. Authoritarian personality studies. São Paulo. Editora da Unesp, 2019, p. 29.

[X] Vovelle, Michel. Ideologies and mentalities. São Paulo. Brasilense, 1987.

[xi] The survey also recorded a reduction in the proportion of those who considered scientists to be people who do useful things for society. In 2010, this number was 55,5% of those interviewed, in 2015 it fell to 52% and, in 2019, to 41% and continues to fall (Andrade, Rodrigo de Oliveira. “Resistência à Ciência”. Fapesp Research, no. 284, October 2019).

[xii]. “From the beginning of the 1980s (…) the growth in the concentration of land ownership and the increase in land conflicts in many regions of the state became increasingly evident; concentration of agricultural income; generation of a mass of impoverished and marginalized small producers and landless people; increased control of the production process by large agro-industrial complexes; lack of interest among young people in agricultural activity and rural areas; decrease in agricultural employment; deepening inequalities within and between regions; rural exodus; degradation of agricultural soils; pollution and reduction of water sources; occupation of soils and regions unsuitable for agricultural use; compromising biodiversity; among others." Marcondes, Tabajara; Agriculture in Santa Catarina: current scenario and main trends. NECAT magazine – Year 5, nº9 Jan-Jun 2016, p. 11.

[xiii] Ditto, p. 31.

[xiv] Seyfert, Giralda. 1984. Peasants or Workers? The Meaning of the ‘Settler’ Category in a Situation of Change. Paulista Museum Magazine, no. 29, 1984.

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