The siren song of neo-fascism

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By RAFAEL R. IORIS*

Considerations on the crisis of democracy and the rearticulation of neoliberal logic

The surprising rise to power of Donald Trump, in the USA, in 2016, and of Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, in 2018, represented not only serious problems in the political structures of these countries, but also a broader crisis in the logic of functioning of democracy liberal, which even seems to be facing one of its greatest challenges today. Tragically, instead of offering real ways to meet the demands for new and more efficient practices of political representation, such leaders, and their peers around the world, accelerate their own ongoing structural crisis.

In fact, like renewed iterations of past authoritarian demagogues, Trump and Bolsonaro deepen the delegitimization of mediated political representation, but as a response they propose not the deepening of democratic logic, but rather the fragmentation of the social fabric, where the 'chosen ones' will be protected by the great leader, while 'rejected', of all kinds, would have to be excluded, if not completely eliminated.

This media salvationism even makes use of xenophobia and the resurgence of divisions as central instruments of its logic. And that's how, in a concrete way, Donald Trump exacerbated the image of the threatening immigrant, while Jair Bolsonaro reactivated, in a narrow but still effective way, the revived image of the communist threat. But, although effectively promoted on digital networks, such rhetorical devices would not have been enough to bring such characters to power if it were not for the case of many voters who already felt strongly frustrated with the institutional policy, as well as with various changes of economic, demographic bias. and cultural events taking place in their respective countries over the last few years.

It is a fact that the many transformations (political, ideological, economic, etc.) that have been rapidly unfolding since the end of the Cold War have indeed revealed, each day more clearly, their limits and contradictions. Let us remember that the neoliberal triumphalism of the 1990s, allied to the imposition of very harsh economic adjustments in the Global South and the spatial globalization of the productive process, was supported by the notion of gains that, if they occurred for some, also led to the deepening of structural inequalities across the entire spectrum. order. Furthermore, this process has been taking place in the midst of a broad complexification of the demands of increasingly diverse social groups, often self-excluding, while our basic logic of representation continues to be anchored in precepts and functions formulated in the XNUMXth century.

But before we throw the child out with the bathwater, it is worth remembering that if political Liberalism was not born democratic, over the last 250 years its scope and means have sought to guarantee not only the will of legitimately represented majorities, but also to ensure the participation of religious, ethnic, racial, cultural or ideological minorities in the deliberative process, expanded significantly, even if certainly not ideally.

It is also true that liberalism has historically been more concerned with the question of legal and formal equality than with achieving equality in the real conditions of existence. But even so, the liberal notion of intrinsic human dignity, if it was not capable of producing effective equality, was fundamental to support the very agenda of promoting equality throughout recent history. And it is exactly the centrality of the notion of formal equality, with inherent emancipatory potential, albeit historically limited, that has become the target of the global extreme right, on the rise in recent years.

As we know, leaders of several countries – such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil – have sought to erode constitutional guarantees of minority groups; destroy the investigative and judicial independence of autonomous organs of the State apparatus; delegitimize opposition voices; suppress freedom of the press; and to repress actors opposed to such developments, who end up being treated as enemies of the supposed true nation. And given the speed with which such events have occurred, as well as their complex nature, we still do not have a consensual conceptual basis to define them.

On the one hand, the formally democratic nature and popular appeal of such leaders could lead us to an all-too-easy eagerness to characterize them as a new version of populism, in this case, from the right. Still, I understand that it is perhaps better to characterize them through an analysis of the historical experience of Fascism, in view of the aggressive style, persecutory logic, destructive action against opponents and the promotion of the interests of big capital manifested by such politicians. . Such elements do seem to echo previous dynamics, although it is also worth noting that the mobilization that sustains them tends to no longer operate through mass parties, but through digital networks, and there does not seem to be a concern today with providing social assistance. selective to the fractions of the adhering lumpensinate.

And so, as epiphenomena of deeper forces, such experiences tend to occur at times of national economic crises, linked to broader processes of productive restructuring, and the weakening of the established party system. Likewise, they tend to present a moralistic discourse that attacks the formal political process, although they participate in it. There is also a recurrent use of a binary logic that opposes good citizens to bad citizens. And so, as the case of Jair Bolsonaro demonstrates, the appeal of salvationism is not linked today to the provision of concrete improvements in life, but rather to the constant reiteration, and in good sound, of the vilification of the enemy. In this sense, while the technocratic neoliberal critique (of the managerial State) of the 1990s sought to redesign the role of the State in society, today, the representative logic itself is attacked, presenting the great leader as an instrument of unmediated political action.

Interestingly, more than in the center of capitalism, where economic policies are increasingly protectionist, countries on the periphery, such as Brazil, India, Colombia, etc., seek to promote a whole series of fiscal, tax and regulations with a neoliberal bias – this time, by even more authoritarian means. And so, the "neofascism emerges today as a central instrument in promoting the agenda of big capital in contexts of economic upsurge. Its agenda is no longer limited to the structural economic adjustment of the 1990s, but seeks to dismantle central principles of the democratic logic and culture itself, such as formal equality and access to the formal deliberative process.

For this reason, we see an increasingly strong movement to revert fundamental achievements of historically marginalized groups through the deterioration of basic public services, elimination of economic matrix rights (labor and social security) and environmental legislation. Minorities of all kinds are, therefore, being persecuted in all countries where such leaders came to power and universal suffrage itself has been redefined not as a civilizing achievement necessary for the functioning of democracy, but as a privilege of some who would be usurping the will of a supposedly oppressed majority.

This has been very much the case in the US over the last few years, although the process goes further afield. Let us remember that the neoconservative movement (Neo-Con), which emerged in the late 1960s, was fundamental in bringing Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to power through a culturalist biased discourse that articulated the notion of a majority threatened by social changes in course. Competently, the Neo-Cons thus set the tone for the Republican party to articulate an economic vision of a neoliberal matrix, but which nevertheless found strong support among the white, poor, religious and conservative electorate.

Upon coming to power, especially in the 1980s, with Reagan, the notion of “theState as a problem, making room for the rapid deindustrialization and financialization of the US economy. The capacity, as well as the legitimacy of the State as an agent capable of meeting the collective demands of the population, was questioned, thus deepening the very delegitimization of democratic representation as a way of responding to the real growing needs of broad sectors of society.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 further exacerbated resentment against the formal political system, especially among the Republican party base, which proved very receptive to the appeals of the outsider in full, Donald Trump, in 2016. Let us remember that, under a xenophobic and racist rhetoric, already in his first campaign speech, Trump demonized the image of the immigrant who would come to the country, especially from the southern border, not only to supposedly take jobs from white Americans, but also to steal their property and rape their women.

Donald Trump thus managed to activate the frustration of at least two generations of these poor and conservative white segments in order to mobilize them to finally go to the polls excited to defend your America. For that, an innovative communication strategy anchored in digital media was used. was promised a America that would be reborn from the ashes of the industrial decay of the last decades and the shame of the defeat of military interventions, but of course, without adopting the corporatist and multiclassist strategies enshrined in the US by the New Deal 1930s and solidified in the two decades after World War II. Yes, it would bebig america again,” but only for some.

In Latin America, in Brazil in particular, the neoliberal authoritarian wave gained weight in the reaction to the reformist governments of the so-called Onda Rosa, in the early 2000s. Specifically, Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Lula in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, or even Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – the main governments of the Onda Rosa – were able to implement significant changes in the pattern of public spending, significantly expanding social programs, as well as setting a new, more inclusive tone in the public debate. in relation to the question of the historical exclusion of ethnic and/or cultural minorities (often, in fact, majorities).

But although they have tried to implement some new growth strategies aimed at the domestic market, these governments followed a path of reprimarization of their economies, taking advantage, in large part, of the high demand for commodities in the global market, a result of the strength and voracity of the economy chinese. Thus, although critical of the global economic order, the governments of the Onda Rosa did not manage (many times, did not even try) to escape the dependence of their economies on the export of primary products, in high demand in the international market at the beginning of the century, but which from from 2010-2012, suffer a sharp drop in prices. In fact, from the beginning of the second decade of the century, the economic effects of the US real estate market crisis and, in an associated way, of global liquidity and demand, began to be felt by regional governments in a forceful way. The economic growth recorded in the region as a whole between 2014 and 2020 was, on average, the lowest in the last 70 years.

In a particularly striking way, workers, the central political base of the Onda Rosa governments, were the first to feel the drop in domestic production for export and, consequently, their new levels of consumption. They even began to question, surprisingly quickly, the gains, certainly fragile, that such governments had promoted. But this frustration and the search for alternatives was not restricted to sectors more directly linked to production for export. And often as a result of the critical work of oligopolistic and conservative local media, the so-called middle classes were also decisively involved in conveying their discontent, including occupying the streets, traditionally an arena of the left, since at least the transition process from dictatorships to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, the region as a whole began to experience a series of political crises, where the liberal representative logic itself would be increasingly questioned. Even groups that had gained a lot from economic growth during the boom at the beginning of the century, such as the agribusiness elites, quickly became voracious critics of the governments of the day. Such groups even started to lead a veritable crusade for the end of social programs, which thus assumed the metonymic role of representing everything that would be going wrong in a context of historically low growth rates.

The first right-wing governments that came to power based on the rearticulation of regional conservative forces attacked the programs implemented by previous administrations and reestablished the foundations of the neoliberal logic of the 1990s. At first, they would still be coalitions that accepted formal democratic institutions. And so, Sebastián Piñera, in Chile (2010-2014), Mauricio Macri, in Argentina (2015-2019), Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, in Peru (2016-2018), as perhaps even Michel Temer, in Brazil (2016-2018) , still occupied themselves with maintaining the functioning of liberal democracy as a means even of achieving the pursuit of “reforms that the country needs”. But this phase seems not to have been sufficiently efficient in implementing the economic agenda of regional oligarchies linked to global capital, increasingly oligopolized.

And so, Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil, but also Jeanine Anez, in Bolivia, Nayib Bukele, in El Salvador, and Ivan Duque, in Colombia, deepened the attacks on the logic of representation in liberal molds, guaranteeing the existence and manifestation of the opposition and control bodies of the central power – thus creating a true Shock situation (Naomi Klein)[1] – in order to promote, in the most authoritarian and effective way, the reforms that big capital sought in a global context of deepening economic, geopolitical and military disputes, which are increasingly fierce and violent. And even if some of these characters no longer occupy the presidential chair, and that others are weakened, the fact is that they are clear expressions of the obsolescence of institutional policy, as well as the call for authoritarian solutions that have been presented in recent years. .

Although sometimes out of power, as in the case of Donald Trump, but especially still under his control, the current neo-fascist alternative will remain a central factor in defining the directions of democracy in the world. Understanding it and resisting it are central tasks that we will have to carry out in the coming years.

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

 

Note


[1] The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York, Picador, 2007.

 

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