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Bolsonaro Rising

One key lesson from Brazil’s lapse into fascism: Don’t trust liberals

The world’s fourth-largest democracy has elected a neofascist as president. The editorial and opinion pages of respectable newspapers the world over warn of the dangers of Jair Bolsonaro; prominent foreign intellectuals and economists have signed open letters urging the country to reconsider. But educated cosmopolitan types in Brazil—the kind who would normally place great store in the words of the Washington Post or The Economist—take no heed. Here, the center never bothered holding; the coalition assembled behind Bolsonaro is more than content to tolerate authoritarian head-banging when the alternative is moderate social democracy.

The one thing that unifies Bolsonaro supporters—from big financiers to small businessmen, young urban liberals to neo-Pentecostal evangelicals—is antipetismo, or hatred of the Workers Party (PT), the former ruling party cofounded by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known familiarly as Lula. They stole the state and broke Brazil, runs the refrain in the centers of respectable opinion. They’re Bolivarian Bolsheviks come to turn Brazil into Venezuela and/or our kids gay. Who’d want that? Better to go with the guy who’s marketed himself as the anti-that.

Bolsonaro, though, is “beyond the pale, a military evil.” These are the words of Ernesto Geisel—not a leftist of any description, but Brazil’s military dictator in the late 1970s—spoken in an interview in the early 1990s. Bolsonaro represents an extreme dissident tendency even within the military establishment. For him, Brazil’s hard right 1964 military coup—the “day that lasted twenty-one years” —did not go far enough: the dictatorship “should have killed thirty thousand more,” he said in 1999, while serving the third of his seven running terms as congressman. “We’re going to machine gun down the petralhada”—a portmanteau of PT and the Portuguese name for the cartoon criminals The Beagle Boys—Bolsonaro exulted on the campaign trail. Lest anyone think this was a random moment of unscripted campaign excess—an occasion to take Bolsonaro—at an October 21 rally the candidate promised to “carry out a cleanup never before seen in Brazilian history,” in which “red outlaws would be sent to jail or into exile.” Driving the point home, he pledged to the leaders of the left opposition that the “police, with legal backing, would make the law felt on your backs.” When it comes to the use of state violence to punish and persecute his foes, the “outsider” politician has remained remarkably consistent.

It is this stated intention to smash the Left, to conduct civil war in lieu of politics, to outlaw and if necessary annihilate internal enemies, that makes debates about whether Bolsonaro’s election is a victory for a “populist” or “hard” or “far” or “extreme” right seem like sophistry. Words matter. Bolsonaro is a neofascist.

By now, most observers know the litany of Bolsonaro’s racist, misogynist, homophobic outrages, cited in every foreign newspaper report.

Words matter. Bolsonaro is a neofascist.

The brunt of such reports is clear: Bolsonaro transgresses against the cardinal liberal sin, prejudice against “minorities.” This is true enough, as far as it goes, but it grievously overlooks the real nature of his movement’s threat to democracy; indeed, set beside the specter of resurgent Brazilian fascism, the foreign press’ outrage over his provocations to gay and racial outgroups are a kind of titillation. The key question of relations of power gets swept under the rug. No one wants to say that Bolsonaro will take Brazil back fifty years—even though his campaign has reiterated his commitment to  just such a Great Leap Backward. In Brazil, liberals declare Bolsonaro and his opponent, PT’s Fernando Haddad, “equivalent extremes”—a familiar tactic among centrist commentators in the American political press. And in Brazil as in Trump’s America, this plainly false narrative is an alibi allowing elite liberals to remain above the fray. It’s at best an excuse to sit on the fence, and at worst a de facto justification of Bolsonaro as a lesser evil.

When the Bottom Falls Out

Bolsonaro’s rise has come as a considerable shock to outside observers who have long taken for granted the notion that, after its postwar run of hard-right strongman rule, Brazil had settled into democratic “normality.” Presidential elections were primarily fought between PT and the PSDB, which used to be a Clintonite third-way market liberal party. This center-right/center-left alternation was a supposed mark of political maturity. PT gained the presidency in 2002 for the first time, with Lula promising to play nice with the country’s neoliberal establishment. And sure enough, Lula largely maintained orthodox macroeconomic policies alongside mild redistributive programs. Brazil grew, the poor got somewhat richer, and the really rich got really richer.

After losing its fourth presidential election in a row in 2014, PSDB decided it had had enough. With PT reeling from the “Car Wash” investigations into a massive graft scandal around the oil giant Petrobras, the center-right establishment pounced, eventually settling on the dodgy impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff as the means to divest PT of executive office. The ensuing, disastrous government of PMDB’s Michel Temer (Rousseff’s VP and eventual usurper), who ruled with PSDB support, implemented a program of neoliberal counter-reforms that ratcheted the core inequalities of Brazil’s precarious political economy back up; just the sort of program that had been repeatedly rejected at the polls. The net result was what Temer’s critics dubbed a “soft coup.”

PSDB assumed it would sweep into office in 2018. Instead, the soft coup’s decisive break with democratic norms only accelerated the collapse of the Brazilian establishment’s legitimacy in the eyes of the public. The great losers of 2018 were not the PT, as Bolsonaro and the foreign press have assumed, but PSDB and the wider center-right. Despite the business class and the media’s best efforts, to position the party as the best “third way” option between PT and Bolsonaro, PSDB’s candidate finished with 5 percent of the vote in this month’s preliminary vote; the party is fragmenting. PSDB’s middle-class base abandoned it in favor of the new champion of antipetismo, Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s base is the constituency identified in classic studies of fascism: reactionary small business owners and independent professionals, plus members of the state’s repressive apparatus, the police and armed forces. But it was the backing of the educated upper-middle class—you know, the sensible, cultured, rational types—who propelled him into the political mainstream. By the eve of the first round of voting, Bolsonaro had the support of 41 percent of those with a college education. The next candidate down only had 16 percent. He had around 50 percent support among those households earning over 10 times the minimum wage. On the eve of the second round, his support had soared to 65 percent (versus 27 percent for Haddad) among the Brazilian top 10 percent. Of the regularly tracked demographic groups, this is where Bolsonaro had the biggest lead. Bolsonaro’s rise was no revolt led by the lumpens; rather it was a unified push of Brazil’s socioeconomic power elite, something roughly akin to the specter of well-to-do Hillary voters and Never Trump Republicans coming out for Trump. Except, as should be clear, Bolsonaro is no mere “Trump of the Tropics”—he is much worse.

These are the kind of people who “have gay friends” (but probably not any black friends), who will smoke the odd joint, and who say they want a more powerful judiciary to “fight corruption.” Nevertheless, they voted in lopsided numbers for someone who hates gays, wants to massacre “drug dealers” (i.e., any poor favela resident he and his military supporters might regard as a threat), and intends to pack the Supreme Court with twenty-one justices to “balance things out.”

Bolsonaro’s rise was no revolt led by the lumpens; rather it was a unified push of Brazil’s socioeconomic power elite.

With Haddad claiming nearly 45 percent of the vote, PT might not be the biggest losers of 2018, but 2019 could be an entirely different story. There are genuine fears that Bolsonaro will seek to ban the party; he’s been clear throughout the campaign about his eagerness to classify the country’s landless and homeless social movements as terrorist organizations. An Erdogan-like strangling of the constitution is also probable. Brazil, according to one prominent analyst, will have the biggest “I told you so” moment in history. But as the campaign wore on, that began to look more and more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy. A far more likely scenario is that the well-heeled liberals who enabled all of this will pretend they never voted for Bolsonaro. So this abrupt lurch into the abyss is unlikely to yield even a retroactive teachable moment for Brazil’s debauched democracy.

Indeed, the effort to push back against the forces of Bolsonarism is already running headlong into the willful denial of a complacent elite. Here’s the general run of a conversation every democrat has had with their antipetista uncle/mother/neighbor, with only slight variations:

“I’ve got gay friends who are scared of being attacked, girls of being raped. You can’t vote for Bolsonaro.”

“Oh, come on, that won’t happen, stop exaggerating.”

“But it already does happen, a lot, with impunity. It’s not hard to imagine.”

“Yeah, and what did PT do about it? Nothing, things only got worse! Better Bolsonaro than PT!”

Likewise, one sobering maxim among left reformers has made the rounds this week: “It’s normal to lose an election in a democracy. The problem is when you lose a democracy in an election.” And the standard, sneering, response among the Bolsonaro-backing educated middle-class goes like this:  “Yeah? Whose democracy? The petralhas’ ‘democracy’?”

In other words, Brazil is a long way from mounting anything like a popular front-style resistance to the rise of fascism. Center-to-center-right political figures and intellectuals—those who haven’t outright backed Bolsonaro—have mostly stayed aloof or just wrung their hands about the supposedly “bad options” on all sides of the political spectrum. Most notable is former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso—sociologist, former exile, key player in re-democratization, someone whom Bolsonaro has said should have been killed by the dictatorship—who has rejected PT nominee Fernando Haddad’s overtures for support, despite noting that Bolsonaro “smells of fascism.” Anything, apparently, to avoid the taint of PT.

Brazil was always the most moderate member of the Latin American “Pink Tide” or wave of post-neoliberal governments in the 2000s, but no matter. The fact that Brazil’s national development bank invested in Cuba and Venezuela—an, ahem, rather capitalist practice—has fatally marked PT as Bolivarian red bandits in the antipetista mind. The irony of this all is that Lula’s PT was, if anything, institutional, republican and conciliatory to a fault. The corruption scandals that engulfed the leadership ranks of the party arose directly from their own willingness to play by the rules of a rotten political system, instead of reforming it. If they had sought to clear out the old corrupt order, it would have been a radical move. Of course, in that scenario, the well-to-do would have screamed and red-baited even harder—but it’s hard to imagine that conflict playing out in a more dismal dynamic than the present state of things promises.

Playing by the Rules

Still, for all the woeful prospects ahead for the Brazilian left, there are some vital lessons to be learned from the collapse of the PT governing project.

Lesson one: don’t govern for its own sake.

For more than a decade, PT held the fort for the establishment, trying to bring in a measure of social democracy through class conciliation and negotiation. N’épatez pas le bourgeois—take him out to lunch instead. The elite cooperated as billionaires blossomed. Then commodity prices fell, the crisis started to bite, and the bourgeoisie broke with PT. In retrospect, we can ask: what’s the point in playing nice if, at the end of it, the big boys are just going to take their ball and go home?

Worse, thanks in no small part to Lula’s own gradualist program, the PT have been abandoned by a good part of the masses. Outside organized sections of industrial workers and PT’s stronghold in the poor Northeast of the country, workers have not been loyal to the party. In its desperation to remain in power, PT allied with Temer’s PMDB, which would eventually overthrow it in a palace coup. To appease the business class, the to-be-impeached Dilma Rousseff implemented austerity policies that led to destabilizing spikes in unemployment. In the ensuing malaise, PT has been tossed into the same refuse sack as the Temer government; all prior leaders of the country are now responsible for Brazil’s political, economic, security, and even moral crises.

Among the poorest—still a large tranche of the population—Haddad led in the polls, but Bolsonaro mustered 38 percent support as late as mid-October. Among these sectors antipetismo, to the extent it exists, does not have the same class character. Instead the discourse is one of abandonment, treason. The desire is for change, any change. And so Brazil is poised to roll the dice on authoritarian disaster.

In this climate of desperation, it does little good to simply urge these voters to go for the safe option—PT.

The brutal levels of disaffection with the country’s political establishment should have been a red flag to PT long ago—say, to take just one example, when an actual clown mounted  a successful run for Congress in 2010 under the slogan “It can’t get any worse.” How many times have we seen center-left governments thrown out because they blithely assumed the loyalty of their “natural constituency” among the working class? Former PT voters went to the right not because they suddenly became neoliberals. They voted for Bolsonaro because, well, things can’t get any worse, right?

The outcome of this revolt may be tragic, but that doesn’t mean that a resurgent left in Brazil or the rest of the Western world shouldn’t understand, and learn from, the larger contours of the Bolsonaro moment. When a bigoted authoritarian candidate harnesses a significant following among the lower middle-class and working-class electorate, it’s important to heed the popular demand for something else, something better, that animates all radical movements. Indeed, the principal tragedy of Bolsonarism is the way it represents a lost revolutionary moment, with the establishment falling apart, and a mass electorate  rejecting the old strategic compromises, the old corrupt and compromised institutions. Instead it might be the last vote that Brazil has for a long time.

Brazil is a long way from mounting anything like a popular front-style resistance to the rise of fascism.

Surely the lesson for the Left in all this is that if you’re going to govern, you must implement your program. If you can’t see it through, get out of government. Ruling at all costs is for the Right. Let the forces of reaction take the flak when it all goes wrong. While there may be an honest desire to protect workers from the worst consequences of right-wing government, if you are the ones implementing soft austerity, you will be blamed for the social consequences. The Right will win the next election and undo whatever limited good you did. You won’t be thanked for softening the blow, and your credibility as a workers’ party will be blown.

Lesson two: don’t play fast and loose with words.

The Left has shouted about fascism plenty, for decades. Now it is faced with the real thing: someone whose idea of politics is the very termination of politics, the erasure of the enemy within. This is what is known as ultra-politics. It is merely a fancy term for fascism. Should the Left be surprised, now, when faced with a genuine neofascist threat, that it is not believed?

The same boy-who-cried-wolf moral applies to the debased uses of “democracy” in our neoliberal age. The word has come to mean a reflexive fealty to institutions, the transactional status quo, even the state. But if democratic politics comes to mean, for a great number of people, unfulfilled promises for better public services, blatant corruption, and repression by the police—would you be in favor of it? Democracy, in reality, is a weapon: it is the means by which you can force your collective interests upon the world, and give yourself a voice in power. Over the years of PT government, this key truth was forgotten.

Liberals, by contrast, see in “democracy” a nice, warm place in which the species can reproduce, while the adults in the room get on with the important business of making things work. This is the basic vision of democracy as a convenient social habitus; another word for it might be “para-politics.” Under this set of arrangements, popular power is closely circumscribed; the people are merely one of the parties with a stake in political conflict; they share government with the elite. It’s a regime that takes on the appearances of an oligarchy to the oligarchs, while appearing to function, superficially at least, as a kind of democracy for the demos. In Brazil, for a moment, under PT, the system did look like democracy to the demos; the people felt they had one hand, or maybe just a finger, on the wheel of power. But what happens when that appearance is gone? And what if, at the same time, the oligarchs also decide to dispense with these appearances? The adults can get their work done much more smoothly without all that rigmarole of “participation” and pluralism. Suddenly the para-political world collapses, and oligarchic power seizes what it believes to be its true prerogative: to rule without dissent.

Lesson three: liberals are not to be trusted.

There are basically two types of liberals: political liberals, who value equality and want to expand democracy, and economic liberals, who are keen to protect private property and the market. Jointly, these twins may sign on to an order that makes some basic guarantees of social welfare. Brazil’s 1988 Constitution was just such a thing, promising rights to housing, education, health care—social rights.  But what happens when someone shows up wanting to cash that check—to try to hold the state to those promises? At such moments, those two liberal camps can be forced apart. Economic liberals, once separated from their erstwhile collaborators, will have to run to someone else for help. In a more tradition-bound age, they could run to conservatives, dressing up their defense of order and property in aristocratic privilege. Today, that’s not possible.

So economic liberals have recourse to authoritarianism instead. Through the 2000s, they were still signed up to uphold a lawful order that they created with political liberals. They posed as democrats against the Bolivarian dictators. The problem, though, is that political liberals’ rhetoric of inclusion opened the door for materially excluded populations to demand their share. In times of crisis, when the consensus view is that there’s not enough to go around, liberals feel the need to shut that door. Liberals run to daddy.

A Historic Tragedy

That daddy should be summoned when there was no communist, not even a socialist, threat is the most galling feature of Bolsonaro’s rise—and an unutterably  saddening one into the bargain. For it’s yet another defeat—another tragic reversal for the “country of the future.” Still, it’s misleading to describe this moment as  a national tragedy. That already happened.

The principal tragedy of Bolsonarism is the way it represents a lost revolutionary moment.

Maybe the national tragedy was the fourteen years of PT government. What a missed opportunity—a commodities boom, wasted! But how can forty million taken out of poverty, simple folk seeing their kids go to college for the first time, be a tragedy? If that’s “corruption,” can we have more, please?

Maybe the national tragedy, then, was the soft coup of 2016. Sure, the prior division of power under the PT was an imperfect system, but it was one in which the Brazilian oligarchy was constrained by a set of rules. But that all came apart at the behest of the “liberals” in the PSDB who had had enough. The soft coup cleared the way for  proto-fascist reaction on a mass scale, and Brazil is now reaping that whirlwind.

This, now, the impending doom, is worse: a historic tragedy. From Brazil’s history, we know that promises to “sweep away” corruption end in disaster, or dictatorship, or both. And they are not short-lived. Days last decades. And of course, the fallout will extend well beyond our borders: Brazil has the size and weight to influence events across the continent. Let us hope that Bolsonaro’s election does not represent the closing of a historical horizon once again.