A revolution of inverted signs

Image: Inga Seliverstova


This election is certainly the most dramatic moment in Brazilian history. It shows that there is no longer a country where it was still possible to sew great pacts

Perhaps it was the case to start by remembering how many times, in recent years, we have heard analysts say that Jair Bolsonaro was politically dead. How many times do we hear that he was isolated, demoralized, with no more than 12% voters in his hard core. However, he ended the first round making two key governors of the federation, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, with his candidate coming first in São Paulo and with a strong, expanded and cohesive parliamentary bench.

If, in fact, he elects the governors of the three richest states in the federation, his ability to block any and all action by the federal government will be enormous. Jair Bolsonaro sees his project for society plebiscitated by the ballot boxes for almost half of the Brazilian population. After 700 deaths from Covid-19 and an economy breathing for emergency aid, he ended the first round with almost 44% of the valid votes.

I say this not because of some masochistic exercise, but because it is not possible to continue to take our desires for reality, to confuse analysis and calls for mobilization. As has long been known, underestimating the enemy is the surest way to lose a war. It would be good to start the analysis of the situation by trying to understand what gives Jair Bolsonaro such strength. And it would be equally good to stop analyzing this phenomenon once and for all using categories that only serve to support our alleged moral and intellectual superiority. For one has to wonder what categories like “hate speech”, “resentment”, “obscurantism”, “death drive” actually explain and whether they only serve to reassure us of our possible superiority.

I insist on this point because it is no longer possible to have merely “deficit” explanations for phenomena linked to the extreme right and fascism. Deficient explanations are those that understand such phenomena as reactions, regressions, defenses. As much as this dimension is effectively present, we lack something fundamental, namely, what makes Bolsonarism a true project of society with the power to project the future. Even losing, this project will not disappear from us, sad as it may be to say something of that nature.


Not just a government project, but a society project

Bolsonaro is effectively carrying out a revolution in Brazil. That's why his speech is so irresistible to almost half of the population. The term “revolution” is not there for free. Bolsonarism spent four years creating the image of being a government against the State, of being in a struggle against the alleged ties put in place by all the oligarchic powers (Federal Supreme Court, parties, press, etc.). In that spirit, he managed to mobilize the largest street demonstration in this first round of elections, on September 7th. There was nothing similar on the part of Lula's campaign in the first round. At Jair Bolsonaro's demonstration, we saw fierce, convinced, enthusiastic and willing supporters. Because they see themselves as bearers of a great national transformation. This transformation would have at least two main axes.

First, it would make Brazil a freer country. In this case, freer from the State, more suited to entrepreneurship. This notion of “freedom” stems from a real finding, namely, there is no more space in capitalism for the promise of building protective macrostructures. Attempts to reissue the social pacts that allowed the advent of the welfare state proved unsustainable because the working class was no longer able to accumulate the strength to demand compensation. The Bolsonarist response is the standard response of neoliberalism: it is no longer about trying to create macrostructures, but giving individuals the “capacity to choose” and the possibility of fighting for their own survival.

Thus, the school passes to individuals (through the homeschooling), health passes to individuals (as we saw in the pandemic, when the State gave emergency aid instead of consolidating the SUS system), security passes to individuals (who can and should carry weapons). Likewise, all obligations of solidarity with more vulnerable groups are gradually annulled, as they are tacitly understood as obstacles to the individual struggle for survival taking place openly.

Already, at the second point of the Bolsonarist transformation, we would have a more popular country and no longer subjugated by its cultural elite and its ways of life. The division between elite and people is there, but with inverted signs. It is not the division between the dispossessed mass and the national rentier elite, between the rural working class and agribusiness. Before, the division would be between the people and the cultural elite of the country: this one that would allegedly live off the benefits of the State, that would be ensconced in the Universities, that would dream of imposing their ways of life, their “globalism” and their conceptions of sexuality on the people . This was already a constituent strategy of Integralism and consists of stating that the true elite is not the one that would hold economic capital, but rather the one that would hold cultural hegemony and cultural patterns “strange to our people”.

Contributing to this situation is the fact that the extreme right, all over the world, has grown thanks to the naturalization of the use of the cultural industry as a standard of political communication. Its main leaders came from entertainment (Trump, Berlusconi), Jair Bolsonaro became nationally known thanks to his participation in television programs… with humor! That is, in a historical moment, in which information and entertainment become indistinguishable, in which the communication standards of the cultural industry become “natural”, it is not surprising to find politicians who speak like this “people” constructed by the culture of mass, with its dichotomies, with its conception of history straight out of television series, with its action movie heroism. That is, at a time when the cultural industry has definitively provided the grammar of politics, it is easier for the extreme right to pass as the one that speaks the language of the people.

It would then be the case to insist that Bolsonarism can only be fought with a double articulation that focuses on its two pillars. This implies, on the one hand, the refusal and radical criticism of the “freedom” that his program brings. On the other hand, it implies going out of your way to construct the people/elite antagonism. However, it must be recognized that this was everything that, until now, did not happen in this campaign.

I write this in the hope that the campaign of the opposition to Jair Bolsonaro changes course in these last few weeks, in the name of victory and the preservation of a margin of political action necessary for real transformations. A second Bolsonaro government would make the first term seem like a mere dress rehearsal towards authoritarianism and generalized violence. Talking about human rights, about ecology, in those years, will seem like preaching in the desert. We know that far-right governments effectively implement their authoritarian policies, especially from the second term onwards. Just remember what happened in Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Because they then find the necessary legitimacy to bend what is left of institutional resistance, to mobilize their supporters in an increasingly brutal way. But it will not be possible to stop Bolsonarism if we do not understand once and for all that we are facing a revolution that has changed signs. And, against a conservative revolution, only a political process that is not simply based on fear, on “Bolsonaro out”, that is not just talking about how the past was better than the present.


The grand alliance did not work

In this sense, resuming the ability to guide the debate agenda is the only way to effectively win. This involves insisting that the notion of freedom propagated by Bolsonarism, based on entrepreneurship and free enterprise, is a fraud, simply a farce. Entrepreneurship is not a form of freedom, but of bondage. It is the violence of reducing all social relations to relations of competition, of competition and the understanding of all experience as capital in which one “invests”. It is the implosion of every obligation of solidarity. No social emancipation will pass through entrepreneurship.

But fighting against such servitude means, concretely, fighting for a society that does not make workers “entrepreneurs” of their own suffering, it means having concrete proposals about the world of work, it means remembering how mental health is destroyed by subjection. to the imperatives of flexibility and “initiative”. Today, Brazil is the country with the highest number of cases of anxiety disorders in the world and has one of the highest rates of depression diagnoses (13,5% of the population). These are central political issues because they show the price paid to live in this society. As the graffiti on a wall in Santiago, Chile said: “It wasn't depression, it was capitalism”.

The second point deserves to be remembered: there is no policy organized by the left without placing the people/elite division where it is most inclusive and politically strong, namely, in denouncing the class spoliation to which we are all subjected. We need to ask questions like: what do we have to say to someone who is a man, white, poor, an Uber driver, working 12 hours a day in conditions worthy of the 19th century? Given our reigning discourses, it is absolutely rational that he would want some guarantee that he will not be forgotten due to the prevalence of his first two predicates.

These days, we see operators of the financial system who, until now, supported Lula, claim that he should abandon once and for all any pretense of reviewing labor reforms and clarifying his economic program. This is that kind of forced choice, in which you lose in any situation. If Lula does what he is asked, he simply runs out of speech to oppose Jair Bolsonaro and has no guarantee that the liberal elite will not demand more and more from him to continue to support him.

In the end, the promises of Jair Bolsonaro, who defended the interests of the Brazilian elite like a watchdog, can and will end up speaking louder. That is, we will have the worst of all worlds, which consists of losing in silence. But if Lula does not do what they ask, the liberals will have a reason to abandon him, although we would be better able to do what really matters: having a concrete alternative about the future to tell the people and win elections by mobilizing another possible world. . Example: why not use these last few weeks to guide the election with proposals such as reducing the working day to 35 hours, raising the real minimum wage and taxing large fortunes for the expansion of the SUS?

We are aware of the difficulty of guiding the debate in this way. Because the Brazilian left was placed in a situation of continuous blackmail. To stop Bolsonarism, it should be the operator of a great “democratic pact” with all the forces contrary to the government. This means allowing such a grand coalition to take place, removing from the country's political agenda all points “that divide the population”, starting with “statism” and the mobilization of the class struggle.

We must act as if the time had come for a great national alliance between capital and labor and claim, as we saw in a terrible editorial in a major Brazilian newspaper, that we should “recognize that the liberal agenda of recent years has brought lasting advances”. As if waking up in a country with queues to buy bone in supermarkets was now a sign of “lasting progress”.

However, this model of a great democratic pact has already been tried in other countries, with catastrophic results. He was the axis of Italian politics and all that was achieved was to pave the rise of an effective fascist government with Giorgia Meloni. It was also applied in Hungary, without any effective electoral success, apart from winning the prefecture of Budapest. As if that were not enough, the first round of the Brazilian elections served to show that such a model did not work in our lands either.

Perhaps the most emblematic failure of the general strategy adopted by the opposition occurred in Rio de Janeiro, under the command of Marcelo Freixo. Articulating a wide alliance that brought figures like César Maia to life, giving up several guidelines that characterized his history and openly flirting with evangelical aesthetics and communication in the name of a great pact “against barbarism”, he ended up eliminated in the first round.

This model national alliance, likewise, has not accomplished what it promised. The left has grown little in the Southeast, compared to Lula's previous elections, and little among voters who normally vote and voted in the center-right field. The axis of national salvation and support for Lula's candidacy continued to be the Northeast. Which shows how correct one of the greatest intellectuals the country has known, Celso Furtado, from Paraíba. He showed us that an effective regional development policy would be immediately felt by the population, producing strong social mobility and bringing lasting political ties to those who bet on it.

In this difficulty of the opposition, we must not let ourselves be guided by despair. It is difficult to imagine that there is any real gain in imitating Bolsonarism's type of communication, as if this did not have the opposite effect, that is, showing how right Jair Bolsonaro was to communicate in that way, appealing to atavistic prejudices. This strategy just normalizes Bolsonaro. Exemplary here are the videos trying to associate Bolsonaro with Freemasonry. It is not by copying the opponent's grammar that an election is won, but by cutting the game and imposing another grammar. You don't win an election by speaking like your opponent, you don't win an election by assuming your opponent's economic fundamentals.

This election is certainly the most dramatic moment in Brazilian history. It shows that there is no longer a country where it was still possible to sew great pacts. That country is over. There is no longer any social base to support it. We have definitely entered the era of extremes. Therefore, it must be remembered that a re-elected extreme right means its project for society plebiscite and normalized.

The Brazilian opposition is currently showing strength and awareness of the size of the risks that lie in wait for us. We see spontaneous articulations coming from all parts of the country. This shows us that Brazil will not accept the course of this conservative revolution that has threatened us for so many years. Against it, let us clearly enunciate the forms of another society.

*Vladimir Safari, is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).


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