Why New Fascism is Ruling Brazil

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Marcelo Camargo / Agência Brasil

After more than a decade, the progressive governments in South America are in retreat. Since 2014 they have lost their economic momentum (in part due to the decrease of commodity prices), jeopardizing the possibility of further improving the living conditions of their population and expanding people’s rights. Many South American countries once ruled by progressive forces are now in the hands of right-wing politicians: in Argentina since 2015, Brazil since 2016, and Ecuador since 2017. Before that, other progressive governments were overthrown by conservative forces through coups, as in Honduras in 2009 and in Paraguay in 2012.

The only survivors of the progressive cycle are Venezuela and Bolivia, although the first one is facing an economic war and increased US pressure since the self-proclamation of politician Juan Guaidó as the President of Venezuela. Since Venezuelan right-wing parties and opposition have not won sufficient support within society, they have required the backing of the US government. Trump was the first head of state to recognize Guaidó’s presidency, and the Trump administration is directly involved in deepening the country’s crisis.

Bolivia, on the other hand, is the only country in South America with a strong economy, although it is threatened by its proximity to and dependence on Brazil. Just recently, the conflict in Bolivia around the extradition of Italian political activist Cesare Battisti, has shown how Evo Morales and its government try to avoid any conflict with its neoliberal neighbor.

In Uruguay, although the center-left political alliance Frente Amplio (Broad Front) Party continues, the current government of Tabaré Vazquez is making important compromises to large corporations and right-wing parties. There is no doubt that with Tabaré Vazquez, Uruguay’s position concerning the influence of the US in the region has changed, from supporting the left to an increasing alignment with the Pacific Alliance, a Latin American trade bloc including Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. As for countries such as Colombia, Peru or Chile, their elites and the traditional parties were able to avoid big changes in their neoliberal polices since the nineties.

Most of the new neoliberal governments in the region are in the hands of politicians raised in the post-Cold War era, yet with a decisive difference to the first wave of neoliberal governments in the 1980s and 1990s: they are young, successful business people. Most of them have no relations with traditional parties, but rather represent the idea of a capitalist post-modernity. They believe in free markets, globalization and in the republic institutions. Before taking control of the state, they were successful CEOs of important corporations or owners of well-known family businesses in their respective country. The best examples of this type of politicians are Sebastian Piñera in Chile, Horacio Cartes (President until 2018) in Paraguay, and Mauricio Macri in Argentina.

Still based on the neoliberal Washington Consensus of the 1990s, their policies aim at bringing development to the region through Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), usually in alliance with transnational corporations and investment funds. The so called “volver al mundo” (return to the world), proclaimed first by Argentine president Mauricio Macri, aims at relocating the region under the wing of neoliberal globalization commanded by the US and the EU, and away from the influence of China and Russia. Certainly, this implies the obliteration of institutions and agreements which were thought to foster regional integration without the control of the US such as UNASUR (Union of South American Nations), CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), and ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America).

Of course, whenever there is a rule, there is an exception. After the institutional coup d’etat in Brazil, orchestrated in 2016 by deputy Eduardo Cunha against Dilma Rousseff, which put Michel Temer in power, the people’s confidence in the parties and in democracy in Brazil began to abruptly fall. This tendency was deepened when the supposedly democratic Cunha was sentenced to 24 years in jail for corruption and former president Temer admitted that the coup d’etat against Rousseff was planned as such from the beginning.

In this context, the 2018 election of Jair “the myth” (as his followers call him) Bolsonaro as the new Brazilian president is exceptional for many reasons. On the one hand, he shares some of the strategic elements with the new right-wing governments, such as the commitment to free trade and neoliberal policies, which is as strong as his faith in God, family and property. Bolsonaro, as well as Macri and Piñera, was presented to society as an outsider and does not have a big and traditional party behind him. Actually, in his 25 years as deputy of the Brazilian parliament, he changed his party affiliations eight times.

On the other hand, modernization is not part of his main goals. Once he got into the Planalto (Presidential residence in Brazil), he announced three measures which differ quite a lot from the ones taken by Mauricio Macri and Sebastián Piñera: 1) He eliminated the LGBTQI community from the ministerial bylaws regarding human rights. 2) He changed the name of the Fundación Nacional del Indio, which defines the territories that are part of the indigenous communities, and named it the Ministry of Agriculture. Interestingly, this ministry is now controlled by Tereza Cristina Correa, former chairperson of the parliamentary bloc which represents the landowner deputies and is an important landowner as well. 3) And he reduced the planned increase in the minimum wage. In this sense, his conservatives ideas related to the LGTBQI community, minorities, social movements, human rights and democracy are rather similar to the ones of Donald Trump.

Therefore, Bolsonaro – more than Macri and Piñera – represents a new wave of right wing politicians who have more in common with the historical conservative parties of the region. In fact, he is even fond of the military dictatorship which reigned in Brazil from 1964-1985. During the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro, ex-captain of the Brazilian Army, announced that he would vote in favor of the destitution of President Rousseff, “in the name of Liberty, God, Family and against Communism, the World Social Forum, and in memory of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra.” Even though this quote is quite self-explanatory, we shall make one clarification: Brilhante was the one in charge of the illegal arrest and torture of Dilma Rousseff during the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Thus it appears that Bolsonaro combines the historical features of Fascism with new economic policy, creating what could be called a new form of Fascism.

In order to explain what we mean by this term and why we consider Bolsonaro to be representative of this new form of Fascism, let us dig into some relevant details. Taking into account the need to name the monster which brings all diseases into the world, we have to look for features that identify the creature as such.

A few months ago, the Argentine writer and political activist Martin Mosquera wrote: “Marxism, however, developed the most sophisticated analysis of Fascism at that [interwar] time, which was also quite different from the position of the Comintern (the writings of Guerin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Togliatti, Otto Bauer). Despite the differences, these authors present common features in their writings: they place the development of Fascism in the frame of the severe social crisis of interwar Capitalism, in its imperialist and declining phase, and in response to the presence of a revolutionary threat from the working class, that is, within the framework of a dynamic of social and political polarization. Based on the petty bourgeoisie in crisis, Fascism is going to be a mass political phenomenon endowed with a certain autonomy with respect to the big bourgeoisie, despite the fact that it developed a policy favorable to its interests. Trotsky will define it as a ‘particular State system, based on the extirpation of all the elements of proletarian democracy in bourgeois society’, a sort of institutionalized civil war against the working class and democratic freedoms. Togliatti’s definition of Fascism as a ‘mass reactionary regime’ reflects that peculiarity that differentiates it from other authoritarian movements: the great mass mobilization that precedes its advent and that assumes the form of a ‘plebeian rebellion’ against the ‘Elites’. In fact, Fascism defined itself as a ‘revolution against the revolution.’”

In the case of Brazil, this revolution against the revolution is not against a huge working-class movement or the actual possibility of a revolution (conditions that do not exist in the region and in the country). It is rather a political revolution against the institutional structures built by liberal democracy. Important parts of Brazilian society understand the supposedly democratic institutions of the state, corruption, and the political parties to be the underlying causes of their poverty, unemployment, and constant uncertainty in their lives. In 2015, Dilma Rousseff had only 7.7% of support among the population and Michel Temer was even worse with as little as 3% of popularity in 2017. According to a survey by the Datafolha Institute, in 2018 78% of Brazilians consider the military to be the most reliable institution in the country. Hence, it is no surprise that the people have reacted favorably to the messages against corruption and democracy sent by Jair Bolsonaro.

Still, it is not just institutional or cultural reasons which explain the rise of this new type of Fascism. Since 2014, Brazil has been facing an economic crisis due to the decreasing prices of commodities and the flight of capital to the US and Europe. This had a strong impact on the social policies of the country, but at the same time paved the way for the rupture between the middle classes and the state.

Although more than 35 million people ascended from lower to middle class during the first governments of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT – Workers’ Party led by former President Lula Da Silva) from 2003 to 2010, later on the PT betrayed its social values and voters. Originally committed to giving vast parts of the popular sector access to mass consumption, reducing poverty, working for economic growth and the expansion of social rights, during the mandates of Dilma Rousseff (2011-2015 and 2015-2016), and especially after 2014, the support of the urban popular and middle-class sectors for the PT began to crumble.

The PT government, in its attempt to manage capitalism, found structural limits to its policies, leading to a depletion of confidence in progressive governments. Examples of such policies include the PT government’s lack of structural reforms seeking to break with the social and economic dependence on capitalism; anti-worker labor reforms; the designation of an economist of the liberal orthodoxy, Joaquim Levy (Levy has now been the General Director of the World Bank Group since 2016) to manage the destiny of the economy; the increased militarization of the most populated cities of Brazil; and finally, the deeply unpopular organization of two mega sport events, the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. In this sense, the PT has had its role in the rise of Fascism in Brazil.

Most of the urban middle class started to be afraid of an emerging crisis. The media and the conservative forces started to spread the idea that the culprits of everything going badly were the left, corrupt politicians, and the loss of traditional values. The corporations and elites of Brazil and from abroad pressed for a solution which would safeguard their interests and privileges.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro was not automatically the best option or the first choice. The new Fascism’s supporters in Brazil would have preferred a better version of the modern, rich presidents like in Chile or Argentina. Therefore, Geraldo Alckmin from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) received much support from the elites and entrepreneurs, not only in the region, but also in Europe and the US. Yet, by bombarding society with messages about the flaws of a representative, liberal democracy and its institutions on a daily basis and through all media outlet (including Whatsapp and Facebook), common sense in Brazil turned into an extremely conservative direction.

The sensation that everything was broken grew in Brazilian society, and the table was set to transform fear into anger against diversity in a multicultural country. This included stirring up hatred against the women’s movement and other social movements. Like the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi (Bifo) says: “Not being able to say what he wants to be (I mean, not being able to elaborate a rational strategy in front of the world that surrounds him), the fascist is limited to affirming aggressively what he is, to exalt his own ethnic, national or religious identity. Unable to control the complexity of development or admit its weakness and inadequacy in the face of complexity, the fascist seeks to know the solution, although he does not know anything: the solution is the affirmation of himself.”

Jair Bolsonaro was able to appeal to the conservative feeling in society, but at the same time he fostered the intensification of public fears and anger. In fact, he is very open about his opinion concerning everything which is outside of the ideal traditional family and his idea of “cleansing Brazil,” a phrase that targets the LGBT community and the left in general. New information was recently found about the links between his son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, and the mercenaries who killed left deputy Marielle Franco in 2018. Furthermore, the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Party for Socialism and Freedom-PSOL) member and first deputy in Brazil from the LGTBQI community, Jean Willys, has just recently announced that he is not taking his chair in Congress, but instead will leave the country due to threats from Bolsonaro supporters. He said that he is afraid for his life and does not want to be a martyr.

Unfortunately, the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil might only be the beginning. A process that will consolidate the conservative, xenophobic, and racist feelings in the region is within the range of possibilities for South America’s near future. Continuing with Mosquera’s analysis: “Fascism was never implemented abruptly. We must think of Fascism as a political dynamic and rather speak of a process of Fascism, which necessarily crosses mediations, transitions, leaps and breaks. Fascism is not adopted from one day to the other, because it is not a ‘button’ that the bourgeoisie presses in crisis situations. It is never an instrument or an epiphenomenon of the needs of capital, but the product of a complex and relatively autonomous process, where ideological issues, political dynamics and even unexpected electoral ‘accidents’ settle.”

We are possibly facing the dawn of a new regional political process that we do not yet understand in depth, and which actually might not be led primarily by the figure of Bolsonaro, but by the conservative ideals that nest in our societies. We thought we had a social consensus around certain progressive values which were non-debatable. However, the ones who have unleashed this dangerous political trend no longer have control over it and the consequences are uncertain.

In 1932 the Nazi Party won the elections with 33% of the votes, followed by the social democrats with 20%, and the communist party with 16%. So, there was a chance to stop Hitler’s ascending path, but sadly for humanity, the communist party and the social democrats decided not to form a political coalition. In that moment, they saw each other as the primary enemy. The rest of the history is well known. We cannot predict future but we can be sure of one thing: if we don’t learn from our past, we will be condemned to repeated it.

Dario Farcy has a degree in Political Science and is a member of Democracia Socialista. He is involved in the self-management movement in Argentina, and he is part of the board of directors of Fedecaba (Federación de Cooperativas Autogestivas de Buenos Aires – The Federation of Self-Managed Cooperatives of Buenos Aires).