October 2 is set to be a decisive moment in Brazil’s recent history. The country will hold elections for legislative and executive seats at the state and federal levels. Running for reelection is far-right incumbent president Jair Bolsonaro; against him are a handful of candidates, most prominently Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (often known simply as Lula), who served as president from 2003 to 2010. The backdrop is Brazil’s grave economic situation, chaotic political scene, and a widespread sense of hopelessness about the future.
The country has witnessed high levels of work precarization and unemployment as well as skyrocketing inflation over the last years. Clashes between spheres of government and over “fake news” have created a feeling of demoralization among the population. Environmental destruction and diplomatic fiascos have isolated the country internationally. The mismanagement of the pandemic, resulting in over 680,000 people dead, has moved the country back onto the world hunger map.
The situation is a stark contrast from the first decade of the 2000s, when Brazil lifted millions out of poverty and became a protagonist in cooperation within the Global South. Brazil under Bolsonaro clearly illustrates the way the neoliberal agenda has evolved amid discontinuities and readjustments in the twenty-first century — which is crucial to understanding both the forthcoming elections and what will transpire in their wake.
Neoliberalism is a specific stage of global capitalism in which free markets and free trade are presented as the proper functioning of the economy, private initiative is singled out as the solution to social needs, and the state is redeployed to enforce coercion and repression. In Latin America, Brazil included, neoliberalism was at first proposed as a set of reforms encompassing two main ideas: economic deregulation and openness to external investors. Bolsonaro campaigned and won on a platform grounded in neoliberal principles, primarily the reduction of social rights and a new round of privatizing state companies. He has sought to complete what neoliberalism left unfinished in the 1990s and early 2000s due to popular resistance and the administrations of Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
But Bolsonaro doesn’t have the cosmopolitan air that neoliberalism previously claimed for itself in the Global South. His term is part of the reactionary wave that has been on the rise in Brazil since 2014. Religious intolerance, homophobia, praising of masculinity and traditional gender roles, and anti-scientific rhetoric have figured prominently in the government’s policy proposals, such as new restrictions on abortion legislation.
Many still find the coexistence of what I call the “two wings” of Bolsonaro’s government — his reactionary values and his neoliberal platform — to be incongruent or merely coincidental. But these reactionary values are not a distracting smoke screen; they are central to implementing a neoliberal agenda. Neoliberalism requires an extremely individualistic culture, manifested, for example, in the upholding of consumerism, management of self, and entrepreneurialism. Bolsonaro has been an effective vehicle for consolidating an ideological and cultural landscape defined by spreading the capitalist ethos beyond the dominant classes. He has also promoted militarism and a law-and-order mentality that supports the use of extrajudicial force. Such a landscape won’t disappear overnight even if Bolsonaro loses reelection.
Through Bolsonaro’s seemingly irrational public pronouncements and anti-intellectualism, the idea of the public, in the sense of a whole people, disappears. And if the public disappears, so does the justification for the need of anything resembling a welfare state. Although Bolsonaro has not delivered on all the reforms he promised in 2018 — like the privatization of the postal service and sections of the prison system, and the undoing of civil-service careers — his administration did make inroads in this realm, mostly through a pension-system reform and the privatization of the country’s largest electric power company, Eletrobras.
Most importantly, Bolsonaro’s government has undermined the state apparatus in a way that hasn’t been seen before, with huge implications for politics in the country moving forward.
Destroying the Public
Brazil is a country in which the federal level of the administration is notable in both scope and scale. A strong federal government is what allows Brazil to offer rights such as free universal health care and free public education from kindergarten to PhD. But Bolsonaro has eroded the federal government’s ability to function throughout his four years in power.
On the one hand, the current government has cut the budget or constrained the power of several regulatory agencies. The agency responsible for indigenous populations’ affairs and the agency in charge of selecting students for public universities, for example, now lack the means to fulfill their charges. Such measures weaken state services and responsibilities and are also a backdoor to privatization, including via nonprofits.
On the other hand, Bolsonaro has modified the country’s fiscal practices and delegated federal expenditures budgeting to legislators. In exchange, these politicians, spread through several self-proclaimed center or right-wing parties, have tacitly agreed to make up Bolsonaro’s base in Congress. Throughout his administration, Bolsonaro has responded to potential political isolation by consolidating an alliance with traditional politicians, who now have their power more entrenched locally and can rely on state money to execute political maneuvers to maintain the status quo and their own positions.
At times, clashes between Bolsonaro and some prominent right-wing figures, such as former São Paulo governor João Doria and former minister Sergio Moro, seemed a threat to Bolsonaro. But these were mostly personality clashes, with no disagreements around core policies. The lines between “radical” and “sensible” right-wingers have been blurred in this new round of neoliberalism.
Bolsonaro plans to push all of this in a new term. His campaign plainly associates entrepreneurialism with the creation of jobs and dignity — with zero mention of addressing inequalities. Erosion of the state’s ability to provide public goods and services will be pursued through more privatization, and taxes are to be reduced. Private access to guns is said to contribute to public safety, and unsurprisingly, voluntarism is mentioned extensively in campaign materials. Presenting the family as the “point of departure” and “point of arrival” for all government actions, Bolsonaro articulates what he calls a “prosperity path,” an alleged strategy for the country’s development, which would stand, he says, in opposition to the “poverty cycle” enacted by Lula’s Workers’ Party.
Lula in a New Brazil
Compare Bolsonaro’s platform with that of Lula. Currently the front-runner, Lula speaks of reinstating the social and economic model of his previous terms, calling for the reconstruction and transformation of Brazil. He stresses that Bolsonaro’s rule meant the overturn of what the country achieved in the years of Workers’ Party rule, and proposes a combination of emergency actions and structural policies to reverse the damage.
The former would include combating inflation, renegotiating private debt (now at scandalous levels), and measures to address widespread hunger. At the structural level, Lula mentions reindustrialization, investment in infrastructure and housing, raising the minimum wage, and the reinstatement of his flagship social program, Bolsa Família (gutted by the current administration). The Workers’ Party’s commitment raising the minimum wage came about through the pressure of social movements during Lula’s second year as president, in 2004, and is the key to explaining the transformation of so many Brazilians’ lives in those years.
From the outset, Lula has sought to build alliances and imprint a national-unity character on his third-term bid. His running mate is an old political adversary, Geraldo Alckmin, who has led São Paulo State through several years of austerity policies. In these final days, Lula’s campaign has intensified the claims that those committed to democracy should unite their efforts and guarantee his victory in the first round, eliminating the possibility of a subsequent runoff between him and Bolsonaro. Such a win would send a powerful message to bolsonarismo.
But it’s crucial to consider that Lula and his team have been unclear about the possibilities of reimplementing an old formula. The campaign has run on a “back to the glorious past” appeal — with no consideration of the shortcomings of the Workers’ Party’s social and economic model.
Brazil under Lula and Rousseff was one of the leading countries of the so-called Pink Tide that washed over Latin America in the first decade of the twenty-first century. As self-proclaimed left-wing and center-left governments, Pink Tide administrations positioned themselves against the right-wing Washington Consensus recipe. But their relationship with neoliberalism was more complicated.
Professing inclusive citizenship, these governments were able to enact tangible changes. For example, in Brazil, the inequality between blacks and whites has shrunk due to policies carried out by the Workers’ Party. But the Pink Tide has never been about rejecting the market, and these progressive governments worked diligently to favorably position their national economies within the global capitalist economy.
Some differences in the countries’ respective approaches aside, participation in the global economy was mainly through exporting primary goods to wealthier countries like the United States, thus maintaining the dependent (and highly vulnerable) character of Latin America’s national economies. Particularly in Brazil, state investment supporting “national champions” resulted in made-in-Brazil conglomerates like JBS Foods — the largest meat-processing company in the world — whose financial activities make up a crucial share of their corporate profits. Banks saw their margins grow fabulously during the Workers’ Party era, so the social mobility then seen in the country also meant the richest moving further upward.
Lula and his team are committed to revitalizing the federal level, insisting that Brazil should tap into its largest potential: its internal market, a source of mass production and consumption. But today’s world is not the same as the one in which he first rose to power. No one can truly say whether the development pattern previously adopted — i.e., using economic growth to build state revenue for social programs and to sustain the higher minimum wage — will generate the same fruits. Also, the undermining of the state by Bolsonaro will most likely restrict a new Lula administration, requiring a series of negotiations (and concessions) with more empowered lawmakers and in a more challenging landscape.
In this precarious scenario, the Left has been invited to take a leap of faith in supporting Lula.
The Ordeal Won’t End
The situation encapsulates the dilemmas of social movements in the country over the past two decades. Despite some contradictions, the Workers’ Party governments (and the Pink Tide in general) have made real gains. But their years in power have also meant the complete disorganization of the Left through the integration of movement leaders into the administration, the weakening of movement bases, and the withering away of movement organizations.
The dramatic state of the Left comes down to disagreement and confusion around balancing incremental and structural change — making the broader Left subordinate to the Workers’ Party’s moves and destroying its capacity to resist attacks and mount responses. The rise of Bolsonaro has added insult to injury.
Since Bolsonaro’s government has promoted the pulverization of Brazil’s modest welfare state, the feeling is that the entire house is on fire. But the Left has been reactive rather than proactive, leveraging outrage yet unable to build substantive campaigns.
Bolsonaro has made clear that the challenge of the Left is to combine tasks whose paces don’t coincide. On the one hand, stopping Bolsonaro and his destructive neoliberal project is urgent. On the other hand, countering the ideology strengthened through and throughout his administration and forging a real alternative to neoliberalism is crucial. But this is a process that takes time.
The Left’s fragile position is evident in the danger of a coup or some disruption to the electoral process by Bolsonaro. As he is making final attempts to win over sectors of the business class and improve his standing among women, he has also used his final days of campaigning to escalate his rhetoric about voter fraud, aiming to erode public trust in democracy.
This particular misinformation effort has been in the making for over a year — in fact, the attempts to discredit elections in the United States provided a model to Bolsonaro. Yet the capacity of popular resistance, should Bolsonaro decide to follow up on his threats to reject the legitimacy of an electoral loss, is hard to measure. Throughout his term, Bolsonaro has consolidated a third of the electorate. With the rise in gun ownership, it’s no secret that his supporters can go beyond the cases of physical violence already seen in this election cycle. But since Bolsonaro’s main strategy has been to cast doubt on electronic voting machines, any form of power usurpation, should it happen, is most likely to rely on allegations of voting misconduct.
Such an endeavor finds resonance amid Bolsonaro’s most important allies in this fraught historical moment: the military. Since re-democratization in the late 1980s, Brazil’s armed forces have rebranded themselves, claiming to be specialists in management and logistics and the country’s most efficient segment. Through such a cover, the military has slowly gained positions in democratically elected governments, from Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s in the 1990s to Dilma Rousseff’s in the 2010s.
With Bolsonaro, the military’s numbers in the administration have increased dramatically, key positions included, thus advancing the idea that civilians aren’t fit for governing and that democracy, in the end, doesn’t work. Military personnel now echo the thesis that voting machines aren’t to be trusted, and have assumed the task of auditing vote-counting systems — the first time the armed forces will participate so deeply in the electoral process since the end of the dictatorship.
A vote for Lula is a consequential choice at this crossroads of history. The chances of him winning in the first round of the election are favorable, assuming no interference, and a third term of his should be celebrated by leftists, especially considering the years of ferocious anti–Workers’ Party and anti-Left discourse following the removal of Dilma Rousseff from the presidency. But even if Lula wins, the prospects aren’t yet bright. Brazil’s ordeal will go on.