- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Brazil, once governed by the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) , is now under the rule of right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro.
For years, neoliberal ideology among the working class and the elite converged to prop up Brazil’s right-wing movement. But prospects seem to be shifting. Bolsonaro can no longer rely on climate denialism or anti-vaccine campaigns to gain working-class support. The Left can win if it opposes the moral vocabulary of neoliberalism and the dystopian future it promises.
In a recent interview on The Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast, host Daniel Denvir spoke with Rodrigo Nunes, a professor of modern and contemporary philosophy at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro, PUC-Rio) in Brazil and the author of Neither Vertical nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization.
You write in Radical Philosophy:
We should not speak as if there were a preexisting movement to which some groups latched onto in 2018, but, rather, think of what happened as the confluence of different vectors from above as well as from below that already had much in common.
Why is it, whether we are talking about penal populism or neoliberalism, that such similar forms of politics emerge from above and below? Why was it Bolsonarismo that had the power to facilitate this convergence of right-wing ideologies that continue to serve different roles for different classes?
What I meant by that sentence was precisely that you had several tendencies within Brazilian society that would be natural allies. They had been gravitating toward one another for some time, also in response to the electoral hegemony of the Left during the PT years. But it was only under the Bolsonaro presidential candidacy in 2018 that all those things clicked together.
On the one hand, you have this suture from above that ties things together, and it is given by politics. On the other hand, you can’t deny that there was already a strong elective affinity between those elements, and they had already been gravitating toward one another for a while.
“From above and from below” — in this case, “‘from below” means what is happening in society and how all those different social trends are moving and connecting to one another, and “from above” means from the sphere of institutional politics. But, obviously, this combination of from above and below also applies to the way these different trends connect in Bolsonarismo — connect different classes and different social groups and connect the country’s elite to the popular classes.
A good example of that is the way that neoliberal discourse has worked within this arrangement or this constellation of elements, because you have a strong resurgence of neoliberal discourse from, say, 2014 to 2018 in Brazil, which is the fruit of organization and agitation by a bunch of foundations and institutions and political groups that were created explicitly with that purpose of agitating in favor of neoliberal ideas.
For a while during the hegemony of the PT during the Lula years and the beginning of Dilma Rousseff’s government, it looked like neoliberalism had become completely toxic in Brazil. If you wanted to make someone lose an election, what you would say is, “This person is going to privatize public services.” And suddenly, neoliberal discourse, or an even more extreme form of market libertarianism than we had had in Brazil in the ’90s, came back.
But the PT didn’t have a strong candidate for the 2018 elections. At the same time, the economic crisis that began in 2015 was really damaging for what you could call “popular entrepreneurialism” that had flourished during the Lula years because the economy was booming, people had money, and there was a growing internal market. That was very heavily incentivized by the PT government. When the economic crisis hit, all those people were left in the lurch, and suddenly, they found in this resurgence of neoliberal discourse among the Brazilian elite and the middle class an explanation for what was happening.
It so happened that the economic crisis began at the same time as a huge corruption scandal. So, that created an association in everyone’s heads that the economic crisis was caused by corruption. That opened the door for a neoliberal discourse that equates the very idea of social justice with corruption and bribery through which governments buy off various social groups. Poor people who had invested in creating their own small businesses during those years suddenly found in this discourse an explanation to the situation that they were finding themselves in.
That created the condition for an alliance that we could describe as a form of neoliberalism from below, whereby poor people came to adopt a neoliberal frame to think of their own economic strategies and their own life strategies in a terrain that is being heavily reconfigured by neoliberalism — and a resurgent neoliberalism from above that had been fostered by these para-academic institutions and political groups like Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement), which surfed on the wave of the 2013 protests and then became huge afterward.
Before we get into more specifics about Brazil, is it fair to say that any functional hegemonic ideology always includes buy-in and inputs from both above and below — and perhaps the more from below, the more stable the hegemonic ideology?
Definitely yes to the first question. In order to have something that is successful in attracting a broad social base, you need the capacity to speak or at least sound like you’re addressing the concerns and anxieties and aspirations of different parts of and different sectors of society.
In relation to the second question, you are probably right also, in the sense that the more a dominant ideology manages to address the preoccupations of the majority of the population — the poorest or the popular classes, as we would call them in Latin America — the more stable the consent on which you can count will tend to be. The less an ideology is capable of addressing those concerns, the more likely it is to eventually rely on force to retain its hegemony and to keep people in line.
Here, we have a contradiction between neoliberalism from above and neoliberalism from below in Brazil, because neoliberalism in the ’90s in Brazil and in Latin America as a whole did have a modernizing momentum to it, in the sense that you were dealing with these lumbering, badly designed, highly corrupt state apparatuses — the transformation of which was very likely to have several positive effects, by liberating economic forces that were being held back by the Frankenstein monsters built through populism, military dictatorships, and so on. That is now gone, and the tendency now — especially now that the tendency is increasingly for neoliberalism from above to be a more and more extreme form of ultraliberalism or of extreme market libertarianism — is for that to only exacerbate the premodern aspects of Latin American society that follow from extreme inequality.
There is a contradiction here in the sense that not only has that modernizing capital mostly been spent already in the ’90s, but, actually, if you follow what these people are preaching, the tendency is to just exacerbate the inequality and two-tiered citizenship arrangements that are sadly most characteristic of, but also what is most archaic about, Latin America. And neoliberals, particularly in Latin America, are very brazen and very shameless. When something they do does not work, they immediately explain it as not having really been liberalism. The support for Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s former president, in Brazil is a perfect example of that. He was the darling of Brazilian neoliberals until his government went very badly, and then Brazilian neoliberals were all going, “Well, he was not ever really a liberal.” They will always do that and dissociate themselves from the disasters that they create.
This move could work again in Brazil, so it is not a given that this will work in the Left’s favor, but there is definitely an opportunity for the Left because the effects of neoliberalism can already be seen in Brazil. Obviously, neoliberals will be able to point to the pandemic as something that hindered their plans, but poverty has been going up, inequality has been going up, and the number of people going hungry has gone up dramatically in the last few years — all in the context of five years of neoliberal reforms that were always promised as “these are going to create more jobs, these are going to make the economy boom.” The economy has tanked, unemployment is still high, and the quality of jobs that have been created is very low, so, at some point, the credit runs out, and I think it is not going to take long for that to happen. There is definitely a point when that happens, and I think it has already started to happen. There will definitely be an opportunity for the Left there again.
There are maybe not-yet-reconciled or impossible-to-reconcile contradictions in terms of the ideological convergence of neoliberalism from above and from below — because they had a formally shared diagnosis of the problem at one time, but now that the purveyors of neoliberalism from above are actually running the economy and running society and running politics, that creates a problem.
If we consider that one of the main elements of neoliberalism from below is what I was describing as popular entrepreneurialism, eventually it becomes clear to people that that was made possible because there was strong state intervention to redistribute wealth, to strengthen the internal market, to give more rights and guarantees to labor, and so on. So, people actually understand, “Oh, right, when neoliberalism from above is talking about creating a level playing field, actually, this is just the plain old inequality that we had before.”
That brings us to something you gestured at before, which is how neoliberal ideology was somehow nurtured under a left government. Argentine sociologist Verónica Gago coined this concept “neoliberalism from below,” a process whereby informalization of work, precaritization of life — all the features that we all know very well of the neoliberal hellscape that we live under — nurtures among poor working-class people and middle-class people an entrepreneurial mindset, where the hustle to survive is seen as the logical order of the universe.
It is a mindset that informs what people think is necessary to succeed on a personal level, and it is logically what it takes to succeed on a personal level. But that forecloses any systemic critique of oppression, exploitation, or broader systems of domination. It is very obvious how neoliberal immiseration and precarity helps shape the ideology. But what role was played by the PT’s own government, particularly its model for anti-poverty and economic redistribution — so-called “inclusion through consumption”?
For as long as Brazil exists and for as long as the Left in Brazil exists, we are going to be doing postmortems of the PT years or the period that went from Lula’s first term to Dilma Rousseff’s second term, which was interrupted by a very questionable impeachment. Even if we compared the way that Bolsa Família, which was the biggest wealth distribution program under PT, was designed to the way that the policies that Bolsonaro is trying to implement were designed, we’ll still recognize that “oh, wow, the PT policies were much better, they actually were good in their own way.”
But the original ideas that had been proposed lay a lot more emphasis on using those wealth transfer programs to build and strengthen citizenship. So, there was this idea that this is not just giving people money. This is also a sort of political education. A lot of that was abandoned very early on. Certainly, in official discourse, it increasingly became less and less important, and the emphasis was all placed on, “Isn’t it great that now you can buy your own car?” There was strong incentives for the auto industry during that period, which obviously was a very bad move from the environmental point of view but also from the point of view of public transport and quality of life and cities generally.
And there was this overall emphasis on, “Isn’t it great that you can buy your own car, you can have a motorbike, you can have barbeque with your friends every weekend,” and so on. All the discourse on citizenship and rights fell by the wayside, while what was really emphasized was consumption — that dignity comes from the capacity to consume.
A very direct effect of that was, once the economic crisis hit in 2015 and people could not consume anymore, they started turning against PT, because the one thing that had been held up as this sphere from which they could draw their sense of dignity and worth was taken away from them. That was one of the reasons why lots of ethnographies of Bolsonaro voters pointed out fairly early on that lots of people who had been PT voters — many of whom would have maybe voted for Lula if Lula had managed to run — turned to Bolsonaro in the elections, which is very indicative of the fact that the success of those wealth transfer programs did not create a corresponding level of political awareness and a sense of “this is a state policy rather than the policy of this or that government” or “what are the political choices that are compatible with the continuity of this kind of state policy.”
Is this a problem particular to Brazil, or does it tell us something about the limits and contradictions of left governance under capitalism generally everywhere throughout history? Because it sounds to me quite a lot like the history of the United States, in terms of the contradictions of the New Deal order and how they have played out in the last seventy or eighty years in this country.
Absolutely. This is a constituent problem of social democratic politics. And yes, there is some extent to which it is unavoidable. That confusion between the citizen and the consumer — that the individualization of politics is something that is going to address people’s problems individually rather than as a class or as a social group or as a collective of some kind — is inevitable under capitalism. It can be counteracted by different forms of political education, which can be built into the design of public policies.
But in the long run, these tendencies win. If you are not ready to shake things up, and if you are not open also to the challenges that are coming from new social subjects and trying to respond to those in ways that transform those policies and take them in a new direction, inertia will probably win in the end.
The frustration that people had in the case of PT was that they did not try. From the start, they never tried very hard to counteract those tendencies.
Ideologies are not entirely materially determined, obviously. But at the end of the day, they are materially grounded, and so the challenge seems to be finding what sort of reforms create a material basis for more radical ideologies to emerge from those reforms, even though we’re talking about social democratic reforms under capitalism instead of reforms that create a material basis for reactionary ideologies. And I wonder if this doesn’t make the case for universal basic services over universal basic income as a social democratic reform.
For a long time, since the early 2000s when I first heard the case for universal basic income, I thought, “Yes, this makes perfect sense.” But recently, I have tended — perhaps in part precisely because of this experience of living in Brazil through this period of PT electoral hegemony, but also seeing what has happened in other Latin American countries with left-leaning governments that were quite successful in the same period — I have started to think maybe there is a limit there and going back to the less fashionable, more old-school idea of basic services for everyone for free.
About the convergence of penal populism from above and from below, you write:
The difference is obvious. For those living in dangerous areas, the hankering for unrestrained state violence supposes a clear demarcation between the working people and the criminals in the neighborhood with some collateral casualties in between. For those in well-off areas, policing is about protecting them from the poor, making the gray zone of potentially disposable life much larger.
How did these two forms of penal populism emerge and then converge? Earlier, you pointed out that it was impossible to reconcile contradictions between neoliberalism from above and from below. Has the combination of penal populism been a neater and more seamless one, or does it likewise contain contradictions that have yet to be resolved or maybe just can’t be?
Here I think the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe can be quite useful. You could say the connection between the two, between penal populism from above and from below, is largely rhetorical. And it hinges on ideas such as impunity. “There is too much impunity”; this can mean both that there is too much impunity for white-collar crime, but it can also mean that the police should just shoot and kill. And one word which I mention in this Radical Philosophy article is “mamata,” which comes from “mamar,” to suckle. So, mamata would mean an undue privilege.
Like a parasite of sorts?
Yes. So, a parasite is someone who enjoys mamata or someone who has the sort of privilege that they do not deserve.
Because it is a sort of dependency of a baby who’s being breastfed but who is an adult and thus has no legitimate right to such dependency.
Yes. This idea that you are treating someone as a baby or you’re giving someone special treatment. There was something that was said a lot during the campaign by Bolsonaro and by his voters. In the week or two weeks before the second round of the elections, there was this wave of homophobic and transphobic attacks all over Brazil. And one thing that was recurring in the accounts of these attacks was that the people doing the attacks would use this word. They would say, “A mamata acabou” (“Your privilege is going to end,” or “The coddling is going to end”). This word “mamata” could mean absolutely anything. It could mean white-collar crime impunity. It could mean the high salaries of judges and politicians. It could mean affirmative action at universities. Or it could mean policies to protect LGBTQ people.
So, here you can see how these words function precisely because of how vague they are and the power they have to address lots of different sources of discomfort that people might have. They can produce the coming together of these very different social positions.
Having said that, there is a deeper connection. Brazilian society is, for several historical reasons, very authoritarian. Also, like most Latin American countries, it is a place in which the armed forces have played an important role in public life throughout history, particularly the republican history of Brazil. But also, it is a very unequal, originally slaveholding society where equality before the law is not guaranteed, so full citizenship tends to be understood not as equality before the law but as a form of privilege. To be a full citizen, to be treated as a full citizen, is a privilege. So, the guaranteed exercise of rights depends on one’s social standing, and punishment on the other hand is only guaranteed for people whose social status doesn’t exempt them from observing the same rules as everyone else.
That creates a situation in which the maintenance of order is seen as something that is above and, if necessary, against the law. And the demand for justice is confused with special treatment for those who deserve and the suspension of rights for those who do not deserve justice. There is this idea that justice is not treating people equally, but it is giving special treatment to those who deserve it and giving a special negative treatment to those who are seen as not deserving. And, obviously, the right to decide who deserves and who does not is put in the hands of a judge, or ultimately in the hands of a cop who is going to decide on the spot if someone does or does not deserve to live.
Bolsonaro embodies this confusion between punitivism and permissiveness. He is at once the strict disciplinarian who comes from the army and is going to put an end to mamata, and he is the common man who understands that there are just too many laws and just too many rules getting in the way of the upstanding citizen.
One thing that creates a really strong identity between him and his base is his obsession with traffic regulations and his aim to abolish traffic regulations as much as possible, because that is posed by him and seen by the Bolsonarista base as this absurd interference in your private sphere as a car owner and someone who should just be entitled to enjoy the property of the vehicle.
But he also has a personal vendetta against the main environmental control agency, because he was once fined for fishing in a protected area. Since he’s been president, he’s attacked this public organ again and again, and obviously that is connected to the government’s agenda in the Amazon. An element that he absolutely does not hide is his personal vendettas. And that idea is absolutely . . . that sense that making it in the world is getting to the point where your rights are always valid but the laws don’t necessarily apply to you if you step outside of them. The idea that this is what “making it” in Brazilian society means is absolutely widespread, as is the idea that order, maintenance of order, and laws can be broken for that very reason. This is how people imagine society or envision society as working: the idea that laws can be an obstacle to the maintenance of order and if laws get in the way of maintaining order, then you should just step outside the law and maintain order by whatever means.
The way the figure of the “mamata” can describe everyone from a welfare recipient and the racialized beneficiary of affirmative action to a corrupt elite businessman and politician seems so important for understanding how all these various reactionary ideologies from above and below converge. I think the same thing has been evident in the United States with right-wing populism, where, looking back a little over a decade, we see a backlash against a bank bailout after the financial crisis really quickly with the Tea Party become an attack on irresponsible homeowners facing foreclosure, who are asking the taxpayer for bailouts they don’t deserve. The two figures of both the greedy banker relying on a bailout, something that actually happened, and the irresponsible homeowner facing foreclosure getting a bailout from a taxpayer, something that didn’t really happen at all, become morally and functionally identical in the right-wing populist worldview.
Yes. One of the reasons for neoliberalism’s elective affinity with conservatism is that it has a really strong moral grammar, which is based on ideas of sacrifice and the idea that anyone who is not ready to make sacrifices should be punished. This was evident in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. The same thing happened in Europe with Greece, where suddenly the problems with Greek banks turned into, “The reason for that is that Greek people just love sitting in their squares and drinking coffee and playing chess all day.”
Alex Hochuli has called Bolsonaro the embodiment of an “anti-politics” that pervades Brazil. Do you agree, and, either way, what is anti-politics? Is anti-politics just another name for neoliberal ideology in an age when neoliberal ideology can no longer articulate any sort of utopian or plausibly utopian promise?
We can understand anti-politics in two different ways. I’d say the first meaning of anti-politics is the neoliberal voiding of politics in favor of management: the encasement of economic mechanisms and institutions in such a way that you exclude certain substantive questions — for example, of distributive justice — from political debate. So, that would be anti-politics: certain options are completely taken off the table and political debate actually becomes about very little, mostly about the technocratic details of how you’re going to service a market economy and hopefully try to avoid most people dying in the process.
But then there’s another sense in which we could understand anti-politics, as the reaction to a political system that has turned into a competition between self-serving technocratic elites, who all appear to stand pretty much for the same set of interests and have very little differences between them.
Bolsonaro definitely embodies the second, but his coalition embodies an alliance of the two meanings of the word. One of neoliberalism’s greatest strengths is the capacity it has to feed off the crises and problems and sometimes the disasters that it creates. What we are seeing today with the alliance between neoliberalism and the far right, which is at least half of the explanation as to why the far right is resurging all over the world, is that it has the de facto support of neoliberals. What we see in this case is the second sense of anti-politics, which could be described as a perfectly reasonable response to decades of neoliberal hegemony and the dominance of anti-politics in the first sense. We are seeing this frustration and this discontent being repurposed in the interest of entrenching the economic conditions that created the crisis that led to these sentiments of frustration and discontent in the first place.
Thinking back to my interview with Wendy Brown, she uses Herbert Marcuse’s concept of “repressive desublimation” to explain this emergence of a nihilism that was always latent and present within neoliberalism but has now become its governing ideology — the will to power under neoliberalism liberated from its superego and in thrall to the violence and domination and power of the reigning order. It doesn’t feature the pretense that accompanied neoliberalism’s optimistic early advertising.
I wrote a Public Books essay in which I was trying to propose an interpretation of something on the far right that doesn’t get enough attention, which is the way that far-right conspiracies offer an alternative, distorted, fun-house-mirror version of the crises of late capitalism that we on the Left are talking about. Most of our talking points have their own bizarro-world version in far-right conspiracies.
People sense the increasing fragility of the economic, political, territorial, and geo-bio-physical arrangements that we live in. The far right responds to this with stories that at once speak to this anxiety but also displace this anxiety onto migrants, feminists, “cancel culture,” gender ideology, and so forth. In doing so, they offer an anti-systemic politics for people who don’t really think the system could change.
It naturalizes the idea that inequality will continue to rise, nothing will be done about climate change, the democratic deficit in institutions will not be closed, resources will become scarcer, and competition will become more cutthroat. The far-right is telling people:
You strike first. You strike at those people who will compete against you for the scraps that are left. You’re entitled to strike against these people, because it is their fault that all of these things are happening. They are creating these worsening conditions for you.
In that sense, far-right politics is a perfectly rational response to a world of diminishing expectations. We can see this in the way that it seems that the Right has started to pivot from straightforward climate denialism to folding climate emergency into their politics. So, rather than deny that climate change is happening, they are incorporating the increasing realization that there is a climate emergency going on and saying we have to close up borders because there are going to be all these migrants trying to come in. We have to be ready to defend our lifestyle at whatever cost.
Of course, the picture that the far right paints at the present is far from rosy. On the contrary, it is a narrative of war, of slow-building civilizational conflict finally coming to a head. But this is exactly where its perverse rationality lies. For while it on the one hand meets the demand for disavowal by fabulating easier problems with easier solutions, it does not fail on the other hand to acknowledge just how bad things are.
In so doing, it speaks to the atmospheric dread of a world haunted by climate change, a stagnating economy, precaritization, the lack of democratic oversight, and global pandemics much better than most well-meaning liberals would. In what I am calling denialism, disavowing the enormity of the challenges facing humankind is made all the more necessary by the conviction that no major structural transformations are possible. Now, if none of the big variables can change because a real challenge to those at the top is inconceivable, all that is left for those at the bottom is to fight each other for ever-diminishing scraps, and this is exactly what the alternative reality that the far right puts in place of the disavowed traumatic context prepares its inherence for.
Are we stuck in this perverse situation, then? That the worse things get, the greater the demand for ever more insane, denialist right-wing politics becomes, until the Left can figure out a plausible and imaginable alternative future — a horizon that’s not so dystopic?
Even if and when we manage to elaborate that, if anyone has an easy job in the future, it is the far right. And if anyone will have a hard sell to make, it will be the Left, because for a long time, both Right and Left could count on the association that modern Western thought made between human emancipation and affluence or abundance.
For a long time, we thought, sure, the future holds emancipation for humankind, because the future holds ever more material abundance. But that association is increasingly impossible on a global scale. The promises of neoliberalism now sound very hollow compared to the trust and hope they elicited in the ’90s.
If we accept that we’ll barricade ourselves and exploit and go to war against whoever we have to in order to sustain our lifestyles, we will also purge the social body of any unwanted elements — so that even though resources are dwindling, there are more resources to go around. In a sense, the far right is the last refuge of the association between human emancipation or autonomy and affluence that has been dominant in the Western political imaginary since early modernity.
On the other hand, the Left, if it remains internationalist, if it continues to take a systemic view of things, is in the position in which it has to say to people, “Many will have to live with less in material terms so that more can live and flourish and find fulfillment in things other than material goods,” which is not easy in a world in which, for centuries, people have associated the fulfillment of human potential with material goods and people are anxious about loss of status, their livelihood, their present conditions of life, their culture, and so on.
It may well be that one of the reasons that Bolsonaro’s popularity went up among the poor despite his disastrous handling of COVID-19 was that framing the situation as a choice between life and the economy was, for them, objectively true. It showed him as more in touch with their reality than anyone telling them to stay at home when they had no option but to go to work.
And then there was also, of course, this Bolsa Família–style emergency cash transfer that Bolsonaro orchestrated. But you suggest that it is even more than this — that the Right is in touch with the deathly vibe of the pandemic at the deepest level, which is not just the pandemic as a biological event but the pandemic as expressed materially through the neoliberal reality that we live under. It is neoliberalism from below taking its most morbid turn possible.
That was definitely an element, particularly in Brazil. One thing that the pandemic showed is that the Brazilian “devil-may-care attitude” is deeply nihilistic. Rio, where I live, is the place where most internationally recognized stereotypes about Brazil were formed. This actually comes from a situation of extreme unpredictability, the constant fragility of arrangements and political-economic labor arrangements, and ultimately of life itself. It is the most violent city in the country. The drug trade is as violent as the police. The paramilitary — militias formed by the police that are very close to Bolsonaro — dominate lots of areas in the city and are as ruthless, or even more ruthless, than the criminals.
Bolsonaro definitely knew how to play on this. The government’s plan from the start was not to offer any kind of support, so that people were forced to naturalize the pandemic — to naturalize the idea of, “Well, what am I going to do? I just have to carry on normally because I still need to feed my family.” And everyone who supported restrictive measures as a consequence would come across as hypocritical and insensitive to the economy and to the plight of the people.
In fact, the emergency income that was instituted by the government — they did not want to do that either. They were forced to do that by civil society mobilization and the support of the political class. Then, eventually, they thought, “Oh, actually, this could be good for us politically, so maybe we stick with it,” but definitely their plan was to play on the idea of, “Look, it is what it is, there’s no alternative. Just carry on.” It worked for as long as you could really say there was no alternative.
After a drop at the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s popularity actually went up, and he was the most popular that he had been. Since then, it has just kept going down, even if not as sharply as we would hope. It was only from the moment in which people could look at something and say, “Ok, there is an alternative here, and the alternative is vaccination.” Once there was a vaccine and vaccination had begun in several countries and Bolsonaro was seen as actively sabotaging the purchase of vaccines and the vaccination campaign, then it started to hurt him politically. Because then the discourse according to which “this is all there is, there’s nothing we can do, we all have to make sacrifices,” which is the position that neoliberalism defaults to in these situations precisely to justify the absence of state intervention — “Oh, state intervention would be too costly, it would damage the economy, so I’m sorry guys, you will all have to take one for the team and endanger your lives and the lives of your families.” Until there was an alternative in the form of the vaccine, this discourse actually worked.
Now, thankfully, the public health system is very popular in Brazil, and people hold it to be a public utility of the greatest value. Brazil has a good enough infrastructure to do a vaccination campaign, but it also has a strong vaccination culture. The government’s attempts to create some sort of anti-vax movement in Brazil have not worked at all. In November, Vincent Bevins wrote a piece in which he interviews a Bolsonarista who says, “Hey, look, I am a Bolsonarista, but I think he is wrong on this one. I’m going to get the shot, and all my friends are Bolsonaristas, and they’re all going to get the shot.”
Can Bolsonarismo survive Bolsonaro? You write:
Bolsonarismo is a real convergence of different trends in Brazilian society with the potential to consolidate itself as a major force for quite some time. But the arrangement of political forces that expresses it is neither coherent nor necessarily stable. In fact, one of its key sources of instability is precisely Bolsonaro and his sons owing to their divisiveness, shady connections, and constant attacks on potential challengers to their total control of this political capital.
Is Bolsonaro too erratic a figure to lead a right-wing project that requires a seriousness and discipline and ideological coherence that Bolsonaro just lacks? Neither Bolsonaro nor Donald Trump project the sort of project-building discipline of a Viktor Orbán. Is that a weakness? Or, given that Bolsonaro seems to thrive on chaos and drama like Trump, is that also their sort of singular strength as individuals who can embody this broader phenomenon?
All things considered, Brazil has been very lucky. We dodged the bullet. Bolsonaro ended up where he was as the result of a series of contingent factors that produced this perfect storm that put him in the place he is now. We actually were lucky that it was him and not someone else, because as awful a person as he may be, he is also just a small-time, local politician. His political skill is very limited. He doesn’t have the nose or the strategic intelligence or the level of ambition that it would take to really build a hegemonic project.
If he had tried a very quick, accelerated institutional transformation that would put him in a situation like Orbán in Hungary, lots of people would have supported him then. But he didn’t have the vision, or if he did have the vision, he had absolutely no idea how to get there. But also, he and his sons still think like small-time, local politicians.
On the other hand, we come back to that idea of something that required a political operation from above to click but something that, once it clicked, was also a very natural coming together of different elements that had a lot in common and were already gravitating toward one another. If the Bolsonaros lose control of this political capital, there will be lots of other people who will try to inherit it, and it will probably remain a political force in Brazil for at least a decade, probably two. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to ever elect a president again in and of itself, but still — whether the Bolsonarista vote is in the hands of Bolsonaro or one of his children or whoever else manages to take control of this vote afterward, if you start a political campaign with something between 12 and 20 percent of the electorate as your floor, this puts you in a very comfortable position. Maybe you are too divisive to win an election for the executive, but it still puts you in a good position to negotiate with other political forces and to dictate the terms of the debate and exercise a gravitational pull that tends to draw the debate toward the far right. So, in that sense, you can tell that Bolsonaro is more of a Trump-like figure than an Orbán-like figure.
There is a very important difference between him and Trump. He definitely followed Trump’s playbook in the sense of, “I’m not even going to try and pretend that I’m everyone’s president. I am governing for my supporters, those 20 to 30 percent who are with me no matter what.” But there is a very important difference — which I am glad to say for us Brazilians and sad for you Americans — that tends to play in our favor, which is the political system. That way of operating, where you’re just concerned with those 20 to 30 percent that are with you, can still be hegemonic in a two-party system if that 20-30 percent is enough for you to take control of one of the major parties, and it clearly is.
And because of our antidemocratic minority-rule system, that gives Republicans sometimes seemingly intractable demographic advantages based on the states within which they are concentrated.
Exactly. Clearly, the fight for the Left and within the Democratic Party will be around proportional representation and a radical overhaul of the electoral system. Otherwise, the tendency is more and more to be ruled by a brazenly white-supremacist rump that, because it controls one of the main parties and, because the system is built in such a way that gives it all sorts of demographic advantages, it will manage to make themselves hegemonic even if it continues to be the numerical minority in the country.
Earlier, we were discussing your argument that denialism creates demand for denialist politics. Does this moment, in Brazil and the United States but also some other places that come to mind, also demand a specifically cartoonish sort of right-wing politics? What do you make of the fact that the right-wing base seems in so many cases to demand that its leader be a clown or buffoon, someone who doesn’t have what it takes to build a real political project?
Right after Trump won in 2016, I wrote a piece called “The Triumph of Insanity.” I proposed this category of insanity for understanding figures like Trump. At the time, we were already talking about Bolsonaro; no one imagined that he could ever become president, thus proving that we were failing to heed the most important lesson of 2016, which was, “Don’t ever trust that what you can’t imagine can’t happen.”
But the idea was precisely that there was something about that moment that is maybe less strong now. That moment was still the hangover from, on the one hand, the 2008 crisis and, on the other hand, the 2011 cycle of protest or the wave of social unrest that began in response to the recession that followed. Once those protests were defeated, it really reinforced this anti-political feeling that had already been created by the 2008 crisis: “Fuck this. The system is completely rigged. They are all the same. They are all a bunch of technocrats who don’t care about us, who are in the pockets of corporations and financial institutions.” That moment, which came later in Brazil because the economic crisis hit here much later and the protests in Brazil happened early in 2013 or 2014, was a moment in which the less you looked like a professional politician, the more viable you were as a political proposition.
This worked in the favor of Bernie Sanders as well — not in the sense that Bernie was a buffoon, although he does have that sort of avuncular, cranky-old-man charm that certainly worked in his favor — but in the sense that you suddenly had this person who had been in Congress forever without anyone noticing who was saying the quiet parts out loud. That was the appeal in all these figures in very different ways — that they were all figures that were saying the quiet parts out loud; they went against all the media training and all the conventions of ’90s centrism that had been dominant from the Bill Clinton era up until the middle of the last decade.
The far-right figures that have appeared since are more sinister, which may also mean that they are more competent than these buffoonish figures that the United States and Brazil got were. But yes, there was definitely a moment where that was the kind of figure that would work.
I want to close out by talking about Brazilianization. Alex Hochuli writes:
The West’s involution finds its mirror image in the original country of the future, the nation doomed forever to remain the country of the future, the one that never reaches its destination: Brazil. The Brazilianization of the world is our encounter with a future denied, and in which this frustration has become constitutive of our social reality. While the closing of historical horizons has often been a leftist, indeed Marxist, concern, the sense that things don’t work as they should is now widely shared across the political spectrum.
Indeed, the story of regression is now perhaps most conspicuous in the Global North, which today is demonstrating many of the features that have plagued the Global South — not just inequality and informalization of work, but increasingly venal elites, political volatility, and social ungluing. Is the rich world not also becoming modern but not modern enough, but in reverse? What do you make of the fact that so many in the Global North now look to Brazil to understand what seems to be our own bleak political, social, and ecological future or, perhaps better put, lack of a future?
We are it; we are the future. This piece by Alex puts forward a really brilliant idea. Brazil is a large-scale experiment in what happens when you try to make extreme contradictions coexist without resolution and you postpone indefinitely the resolution of those contradictions, so that you have forever this extreme combination of the archaic and the ultramodern — like every peripheral society, but at a much more extreme scale, because Brazil is much bigger in size but also in economy, population, everything.
It turns out what happens if you don’t solve those contradictions, the developed world seems to be discovering now, is that you start sliding back from the modern to the archaic. If you don’t solve those contradictions, many of the things that you might have judged were permanent conquests of the working class and society as a whole — in terms of institutional stability, for example — many of those things may start sliding back.
What you will end up getting is not ever-more modernity and ever-more justice and ever-more freedom but actually a slide back toward the situation in which the periphery of the capitalist world system has always found itself, which Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliviera calls “a platypus,” this weird Frankenstein monster that combines bits from different eras and different sources into a delightfully dysfunctional whole. So, welcome to Brazil everyone.