the deep Brazil



Authoritarian conservatism takes root in Brazil

Having been the largest slave society in history, it is not surprising that Brazil remains a nation with a deeply hierarchical and authoritarian culture. Just to remind you, in the 1930s, it was exactly there where the largest fascist-oriented party existed outside Europe. Likewise, at the height of its last military dictatorship, in the early 1970s, when torture was state policy, ARENA, the official support party for the regime, enjoyed wide popular support and boasted of being the largest party in the western hemisphere in affiliate numbers.

It is not surprising, therefore, that even after the gradual, controlled and insufficient process of redemocratization that the country went through throughout the 1980s, the narrative hard hand, authoritarian and salvationist approach of right-wing populist politicians has always managed to garner support among growing social strata, especially in periods of economic crisis and/or rising crime rates. Such appeal was often reduced to right-wing regional politicians who tended to take up positions in state legislatures. But there were always also some characters who, although elected by very specific interest groups, managed to exert some influence on the broader debate, even on a national scale.

One of these characters was the deputy Jair Bolsonaro, elected for the first time in 1991, based mainly on the votes of retired military conservatives in the state of Rio de Janeiro. After years when he was seen as a folk figure of the National Congress who repeatedly defended the defense of the crimes of the dictatorship, a series of tragic events for the very consolidation of the democratic regime made the quixotic figure of Bolsonaro succeed, contrary to the expectations of almost all, rise to the highest authority position in the country.

Firstly, the global economic crisis at the end of the first decade of the century arrived late in Brazil, at the end of 2012, quickly eroding the important gains of previous years, especially among low-income populations that, with the high cost of living , especially in large cities, began to demand, in the middle of the following year, improvements in the provision of social services. Conservative middle-class groups – who, although they also benefited from the economic improvement of the first decade, were increasingly dissatisfied with the advance of popular groups in social and cultural spaces traditionally restricted to the included –, see in the 2013 protests for more and more better inclusion an excellent opportunity to reorganize as a political bloc.

The country arrives in 2014 with a growing ideological polarization, but still within the democratic framework of the so-called New Republic. That would quickly change when the defeated party in the year-end election refused to accept the results and began to mobilize the opposition forces to the PT government of Dilma Rousseff so that by all means it could remove her from power. The coup process accelerated with the worsening of the economic crisis throughout 2015, culminating in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff the following year. O Thermidorian government by Michel Temer, Dilma Rousseff's vice-president, takes on the conservative agenda that is growing in popularity among the main economic, political, media and cultural groups in the country and major anti-popular reforms are established (labor reform and limits on public spending).

But even though the establishment was happy with the nation's new directions, the discrepancy between a revived neoliberal agenda in power without a clear popular mandate acquired at the polls generated a fragility to the new historic bloc. And during the 2018 election, the traditional parties behind the 2016 parliamentary coup, such as the PSDB and PMDB, were engulfed by a reactionary wave, with strong popular appeal based on customs and authoritarian resolution of the growing problems suffered by broad layers. society, in particular the most disadvantaged. In the end, the mediocre character of Jair Bolsonaro becomes the instrument for conducting a turbulent process that culminates in the consolidation of the reactionary authoritarian agenda in the power of the largest Latin American society.

In power, Jair Bolsonaro did not surprise and his misrule can be best represented in his intentionally disastrous crisis management of Covid-19 in Brazil, which caused the death of almost 700 thousand people. Likewise, his well-known misogynistic, homophobic posture is not appeased by being in power, and his promotion of environmental devastation deepens as state policy. In addition, the fallacious narrative of greater efficiency of military personnel in public administration leads to the greater occupation by military personnel of civil functions since the dictatorship, and the dangerous discourse of the need to close institutions of democratic political representation, in particular the Supreme Court, being normalized in the government and among its staunchest supporters.

In light of all this, one could say that the fact that Jair Bolsonaro did so well in the October 2nd election, having won 51 million votes and prevented Lula from being elected in the first round – thus forcing the country to a fierce, potentially violent and dangerous second round – would perhaps be the clearest expression of the rooting of authoritarian conservatism along neo-fascist lines in Brazilian society. And if in 2018, in the midst of the biggest party crisis faced by the country possibly since the late 1970s – perhaps even the mid-1960s, when the parties were eliminated by the new military regime – there was a strong motivation to “vote for something different”, today there is a clear history of the performance of Jair Bolsonaro and his accomplices in power.

In fact, together with the election of his closest allies, especially the fundamentalist pastor and Minister of Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, to the Senate for the Federal District, and Eduardo Pazzuelo, army general, former Minister of Health during the disaster of the pandemic, as a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro, with a huge vote, it seems clear that for a large part of the population it is more important to keep loyal squires of a reactionary, economically neoliberal and politically authoritarian cultural agenda in power than to have an efficient public administration towards the isonomic provision of quality public services.

We could also say that for most voters, central themes in Lula's platform, such as environmental protection, gender inclusion and even democracy are not seen as that important by almost half of the country's population. In summary, it seems that if in 2018, the authoritarian conservative narrative headed by Jair Bolsonaro could have appealed for its novelty content, today its appeal is structurally capitalized on broad social layers that, although geographically not the majority in all regions, are indeed , increasingly representative of what a large part of the Brazilian population politically supports.

Interestingly, although it does not seem to be as key as themes of a more socio-cultural bias, such as family, patriotism and religion, especially for lower social strata, especially in the country's urban centers, the neoliberal agenda also implemented by Bolsonaro meets the wishes of influential people. wealthier social groups, especially linked to the expansion of the agro-export matrix, as well as ideologues of state privatization in the mainstream media. Finally, in the middle classes, the appeal of the new (and old) holders of power, especially the military, is also consolidated by the fallacious and chauvinist rhetoric of unlimited access to weapons by the man supposedly provider of the private defense of his family members.

The fact is that deep Brazil is, yes, still very, perhaps even increasingly, conservative, prejudiced, organized in a structurally hierarchical way where authoritarian salvationist leaders tend to be seen as easy solutions to difficult daily problems. And although Lula has a good chance of winning in the second round, which means there is a great mobilization to resist the deepening and consolidation in power of neo-fascism under way, his new government faces a much more polarized country than at the beginning of the century, and its efforts in power will have to focus not on major innovations in social policies, as in 2003 to 2010, but rather on rebuilding Brazilian democracy itself.

On the other hand, if Jair Bolsonaro wins, then we will have clear legitimation that the worrying course that Brazilian society has taken in recent years is that most of its members approve and want to continue. This could even lead to Bolsonaro, understanding that he has the power to do so, could try to destroy democratic institutions in the country once and for all, maintaining the appearance of liberal democracy, in a de facto authoritarian regime – his project since forever.

Finally, even in the event of Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat, the fact is that Bolsonarism’s authoritarian conservatism was largely approved at the polls on October 2 and will continue to influence the country’s course for a long time. That is, Jair Bolsonaro may even lose, but Bolsonarism is here to stay.

*Rafael R. Ioris is a professor in the Department of History at the University of Denver (USA).

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