Bolsonarist nihilism

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By RENATO PERISSINOTTO*

Bolsonarists' scientific denialism is just one dimension of their ideology. What they reject is not just science, but “authority” relations in general, as they are configured in contemporary societies.

"But is it true, as Arkady Nikolaych told us a moment ago, that you don't recognize any of the authorities?" Don't you believe in them?

– Why should I recognize them? And what am I going to believe? When they tell me something worthwhile, I agree, and that's it.

(Parents and sons, Ivan Turgenev)

The earth is flat. Who would have dared utter that statement in public a few years ago? How would it be possible to accept it after so much evidence to the contrary, ancient, modern and contemporary? Several other statements that deny widely known facts and unveiled by science are said today by Bolsonaristas hosts without the slightest ceremony: Nazism is leftist; there was no military dictatorship in Brazil; the holocaust never happened, covid-19 is just a little flu or Dória is a communist. A denialist discourse expanded to the nth power with the help of the internet.

This is a fundamental point of this surreal script that we have been living since 2018. If these statements were just the product of the brain of a president of a sad tropical country, then we could just dedicate ourselves to lamenting our own luck until the next elections. But not. Millions of people believe this; millions of people mobilize this discourse, including taking to the streets in defense of the president and his speeches. This discourse is not, therefore, the simple expression of a personal idiosyncrasy, but a social phenomenon in its own right. Even now, in the midst of the disastrous handling of the health crisis, the positive assessment of the government remains stable, around 30%[I]. It is fundamental, therefore, to know why and how a meaningless discourse (from the point of view of science, but not from its bearers) fills the lives of millions of people with meaning.

To paraphrase a contemporary saying, it's the ideology, stupid! Ideology understood, in this case, not only in its narrow sense of political party preferences, but as a diffuse set of beliefs and values ​​that constitute, at the same time, a specific way of representing the world made possible by certain social positions and the ideational weapon used collectively by the occupants of these positions in the political struggle against their opponents. Ideology thus fulfills a dual function: it routinely provides people with the mental categories from which to interpret the world and the practical problems that face them; in more acute periods of social struggle, it serves to guide politically engaged collective actions. In both cases, it always contributes to stabilizing or contesting forms of organization of social life and, for this reason, it is an essential component of power relations. In this way, ideology is not a lie or a falsehood to which true knowledge is opposed (although its claims can be contested by science). Ideology can even use scientific knowledge in order to reveal what interests it and leave in the shade what it dislikes, that is, what does not fit into its argumentative structure. Finally, to the extent that ideology corresponds to a given social condition and allows individuals to live it, it cannot simply be seen as an error. It is undoubtedly partial, biased and interested (more for its effects than for its conscious use), but it is also the lens that allows us to live in the world that fits us. In this sense, contrary to what Bolsonaristas say, we are all bearers of ideologies, including them.

Understood in these terms, the question arises: what social condition would it be that allows the naturalization of absurd propositions (I reiterate, in the light of scientific knowledge)? What is specific among Bolsonarists that leads them to attribute meaning to a meaningless speech (when tested in the light of already widely established knowledge)? What social condition allows a discourse completely contrary to the recent and ancient findings of science to have such simple acceptance? The answer to this question requires clarification. In fact, I think that Bolsonarists' scientific denialism is just one dimension of their ideology. What they reject is not just science, but “authority” relations in general, as they are configured in contemporary societies.

But why would Bolsonaristas be prone to this denialist attitude? In order to answer this question, we have to speculate a bit based on some data presented by various surveys on street demonstrations by this group. These data always show that the main support for Bolsonaro (in the street demonstrations and not in the general voting public) comes from men with education and income above the average of the Brazilian population. The data also show that, among the most radical Bolsonaristas (that is, those willing to invest time and energy in street mobilizations and who form the “hard core” Bolsonaristas), only a small contingent is made up of civil servants, with the overwhelming majority being majority composed of formal employees, self-employed, entrepreneurs and retirees, that is, people who make their living from the market[ii]. How does this social position produce aversion to various forms of authority?

A possible answer seems to me to be the following: frustration and resentment. In my view, terraplanismo, anti-scientific postures, olavism and the evident aversion that Bolsonaristas express towards all the institutions of the “system” that they intend to fight are an amalgam of contradictions that express a type of social and political despair. It is the despair of the average man, reasonably well placed, but never heard with the attention he thinks he deserves; of the average man who, economically, earns his daily bread subjected to the relentless logic of the market; that contingent of people who perceive their economic existence as a permanent walk on a razor's edge, without stability, without guarantee that their income will be maintained in the following months and without any policy that gives them security; of the average man who is not consulted for anything, removed from a political system that recognizes him only as a voter, on his knees before an extortionate State that systematically denies him compensation in the form of public services; of the average man resentful of the social and political advancement of those formerly submissive to his power; finally, a “subject” who, paradoxically, controls his own life less and less.

These people look at the political authorities and perceive in them only a feast of privileges that they have to support with the sweat of their brows (the early retirements of politicians, the stability of civil servants, corruption without punishment, housing assistance for judges, welfare and electoral policies); they look at democracy and see a farce that tends to systematically contradict their aspirations and that gives too much space to those devoid of merit; look at the authority of science and see a troupe of arrogant technocrats defining policies and guidelines which they can only obey (it is good to remember that Bazarov, Turgenev's character in the quote above, is a Bolsonarist with the wrong sign, a fanatical believer in science that is unaware of any other authoritative source); they look at labor rights and see an unjustifiable privilege which, instead of being granted to all, should be universally suppressed; they look at the rights of minorities and see the usurpation of their right to command. The world is against them, and that world is a world of institutions and authorities whose functioning is seen as an ever-expanding limit to their impulses for economic and political satisfaction. Ultimately, they want to be (re)empowered through a return to traditional forms of authority. State, democracy, authorities, science, social movements, feminists, gays, all this represents a stone in the retaining wall that produces frustration and more frustration in this mental universe. The refusal of science is just one facet of this general refusal of a “system” of authorities completely beyond its reach.

Frustrated and resentful, Bolsonaristas intend to promote that “emotional seismic displacement” referred to by a scholar of fascism, expropriating the progressive field of transformative discourse and promoting a rhetoric of scorched earth: it is necessary to end everything that is there; it is necessary to completely clear the land and put everything down; all forces that oppose their wishes must be destroyed so that the way is opened for the direct participation of the “people” in all instances of social life (what is negationism if not the direct participation of this “people” in the scientific debate? ). And this direct participation of this virtuous, pure and proud people (Sennet would speak of a “satanic pride”), who see themselves as honest to the core, who see any approach to institutions as a contamination, this participation can only be made possible (after all, even Bolsonaristas are aware of the practical difficulties of a direct democracy) through an incorruptible, anti-systemic, pure and honest leader, a leader whose rudeness is just the manifestation of his original virtue, uncontaminated (yet) by his current position in the system". The discourse arising from this obsession with purity, with the generalized cleanliness to be carried out by the “people” through the “myth”, will necessarily be a speech of anger and hate.

In the resentful, bellicose and intolerant speech of the Bolsonarist, many words will be resignified to give vent to their yearnings for purity. If we are pure and the world is impure, then we need a term to identify "dirt". This is how the word “communist” completely lost its original meaning and today, in Brazil, it can be applied both to designate a militant of a Leninist party as well as the governor of São Paulo, João Dória. The astonishment that this argumentative operation causes us ceases to exist when we realize that “communist” now means only the “other”, the one who thinks differently from me or, to be more precise, who does not think exactly like me (since João Dória is very little different from this troupe) and therefore must be destroyed because, if he is not identical with me, he is necessarily against the ideal of purity that I represent. Paradoxically, a “communist”, formerly a revolutionary, becomes anyone who, against them, defends order and institutions.

If all this makes any sense, two observations are important. The first is that not everyone who shares the same social conditions will be unequivocally adepts of that ideology. All theorists who deal with this problem show how futile the effort to find a point-for-point correspondence between social position and ideology is. The process of socialization of individuals is too complex and heterogeneous for this kind of frankly unrealistic claim to be possible; even those who adhere to a certain ideology do not do so in the same way or with the same intensity. Furthermore, not only are social groups and their members subject to complex situations, but ideologies are not coherent and monolithic totalities. It remains to be explained, then, why people with the same social attributes as Bolsonaristas do not allow themselves to be seduced by this same ideology or, if they succumb to its seduction, why they do not adopt the same radical and destructive orientation.

From the point of view of the political struggle, this means that the hearts and minds of Bolsonaristas can be objects of dispute (Olavismo, for example, in its tireless “cultural battle”, knows that this is what it is about). The social groups that today give themselves to Bolsonarism should not be seen as a land forever occupied. I even think that in the destructive rage of some, in that desire to tear everything down, there is something “potentially” progressive, namely, the always healthy distrust of authorities (political, scientific, cultural, etc.), since, as As we know, absolute and blind trust in institutions and authorities is fertile ground for totalitarian experiments. The Bolsonarist problem is that, in the case of some of them, distrust has taken on morbid and strictly destructive dimensions. Even so, I believe it is possible to think that this anti-systemic rebellion could be, so to speak, reworked by a progressive political field in order to channel the energy it releases to other struggles. Perhaps this is excessive optimism, but it is necessary to know the social sources of frustration of Bolsonaristas so that we can offer them another political perspective.

In this battle for hearts and minds, a perhaps potentially promising starting point is to explore what is characteristic of all ideology, namely its 'performative contradiction'. In the case of Bolsonaristas (as with anyone who seeks a complete break with everything that exists), it is always problematic to coherently articulate what is said with what is done. This difficulty grows exponentially in the case of the top leader. The president fights every day to keep his ideological discourse as coherent as possible: he constantly attacks all institutions; he criticizes congress, criticizes deputies and senators, criticizes governors, criticizes the electoral system; criticizes the WHO, leaves all the usual procedures aside to speak directly to the “people”. At the same time, he surrenders to institutions because he cannot help doing so; it benefits, with privilege after privilege, the most consolidated interests of Brazilian society (big businessmen and banks); he and his family practice the same old “crimes” as the traditional foxes; hand over office, negotiate with the “centrão”, in short, carry out the old policy (the resignation of Sérgio Moro is the most striking current manifestation of this Bolsonarist performative contradiction). This insoluble contradiction is one of the areas in which Bolsonaro must be systematically attacked. Evidently, this is not enough, above all because for a Bolsonarist, as for any passionate individual, proof of the error of the “myth” tends to function, at least initially, as its opposite, as evidence of its virtue. But the performative contradiction is potentially destabilizing and must be part of a permanent counterdiscourse that offers a way out of this crossroads between the “authoritarianism of others” (politicians, technicians, scientists, social movements) and their authoritarianism (that of “the people”), which allows them to be removed from the lap of fascism and the alliance between middle classes and dominant classes that this presupposes. A good start would be to contain our desire to ridicule them and try to understand them, without ever tolerating their authoritarian and violent rage.

*Renato Perissinotto Professor of Political Science at UFPR. Author, among other books, of Ruling classes and hegemony in the Old Republic (Unicamp).

  1. S. Thanks to Adriano Codato, José Szwako and Vinicius Figueiredo for reading and commenting.

Notes

[I] https://noticias.uol.com.br/politica/ultimas-noticias/2020/05/12/cntmda-avaliacao-negativa-de-governo-bolsonaro-chega-a-434.htm

[ii] As an example, see http://dagobah.com.br/pesquisa-na-avenida-paulista-durante-o-26-de-maio-de-2019/

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