Neoliberalism with An Inhuman Face
How Bolsonaro won and how the Left failed in Brazil
The consolidation of the Brazilian extreme right is a recent fact and deserves to be debated in a more analytical fashion. Even though Brazil had significant parts of its society immersed in the tacit defense of the military dictatorship and in actions marked by the absence of any social solidarity with vulnerable groups – not to mention the cult of violence as an answer to the generalized fear characteristic of a nation that constituted itself through the oppression and war against indigenous, black and poor people – the New Republic prevented these parcels to constitute themselves as relevant political actors. A conjunction of international and national factors enabled the awakening of these sleeping cells.
In fact, a comparison between the European and the Brazilian extreme right may help us to comprehend what is happening with us at the moment. Let’s start by remembering how two episodes were fundamental for the consolidation of the extreme right in the axis Europe-USA: 2001 and 2008. The first concerns the global usage of terrorism as a principle of social cohesion, while, the other, the most serious economic crisis of capitalism since 1929.
After the attacks on September of 2001, it became clear that from then on the legitimacy of the State’s sovereign force in advanced capitalist societies would regress to its original ground, namely, the employment of insecurity and fear as main political affects. It was not just a few those who insisted in the manner which actions directed to the ‘war on terror’ were not, by and large, guided by the reckoning of the struggle between causes, and the global consolidation of alliances. Soon the disproportionality of actions such as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the effective results concerning the safety of citizens in First World liberal democracies stood out. But this could not be different, since these actions were linked mainly to the logics of producing social adherence through the impact of generalizing fear.
However, it was clear that within this horizon the extreme right would be the biggest political winner of the new situation. Its ideology has always been the result of a paranoid notion of the Nation-State in which frontiers, limits, invasion, necessary immunization and contagion, were the main elements. Now its discourse was moving into the center of political debate. It was enough to force the amalgam between immigrants and terrorists, a relatively simple operation considering how the signifiers ‘arab’ and ‘turk’ (the most relevant groups of immigrants) were linked to colonial wars and their primary stereotypes in the European imaginary.
But one more element was lacking for the consolidation of the European extreme right and it arrived with 2008. The economic crisis demonstrated the misery of hegemonic politics based in the balance between social-democracy and liberalism. The same ‘austerity’ policies were applied by governments from the right and the left. From the standpoint of their economic policies, Schroeder and Merkel in Germany, Sarkozy and Hollande in France, Zapatero and Asnar in Spain, Tony Blair and David Cameron in the United Kingdom didn’t mean any change, and it became clear for the population impoverished and submitted to increasingly brutal regimes of social insecurity. The extreme right understood this and positioned itself with an anti-liberal discourse marked by the critique of free market, the return to protectionist practices, the critique of international financial markets, and the social security agenda shared with the left. Its difference was that these proposals were combined with a national and xenophobic grammar. The topic of international solidarity and of indifference to nation in praise of a concrete universality, so dear to the left, was excluded. In this sense, the European extreme right retrieved its fascist and national-socialist roots, i.e., assumed its matrix from a nationalist and anti-liberal discourse.
This anti-liberalism of the European extreme right showed what it could create with the British Brexit and with the threat of bringing back national currencies and customs control. This obliged European neoliberalism to displace itself to other political spheres creating a ‘neoliberalism with a human face’, with Emanuel Macron’s France as a laboratory: a government that applies the most brutal policies against social rights [políticas de desmonte de direitos sociais], the most explicit police brutality against every form of demonstration, while cultivating discourses of tolerance, cosmopolitanism and Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy remixes.
However, it became clear that this model could not be applied in Brazil. Neither the war on terrorism was a relevant topic in a country completely outside the colonial axis, and not even the 2008 crisis made room for the application of ‘austerity’ measures in the European fashion. In principle, the horizon that enabled the rise of the extreme right in Europe looked far away.
Thus, all the attempts to win presidential elections in Brazil with a neoliberal agenda drowned and would keep drowning. This could not be different. A research made by Ipsos Institute and released in August 2018 showed that 68% of the Brazilian population was against privatizations, 71% was against the social security reform according to Datafolha (May 2017), and 85% was against the labor law reform according to Vox Populi (May 2017). This was not the result of some kind of ‘Iberian heritage’, but of a simple pragmatic acknowledgement. Labor relations in Brazil are characterized by brutal dispossesion, as wage differences between the richest and the poorest exemplify. According to the data from IBGE (Brazilian Institue of Geography and Statistics), the richest parcel of the Brazilian population earns wages (not considering rewards and stock-options) that are 36 times bigger than the poorest parcel. In this context, the poorest parcel sees the State as some kind of safeguard against the brutalized relations in labor market.
In other words, in Brazil the neoliberal agenda could only be applied in conditions offered by an authoritarian government or through a completely altered electoral process. For this to happen, it would be necessary initially to recreate an alliance among political agents off the axis of the New Republic governability, meaning PT (Workers Party) and PSDB (Brazilian Social-Democrat Party), since both parties compromised, each in its own way and through different inflections, with a certain regime of conciliations and pacts proper to the post-dictatorial period. This would mean attempting a model that was initially tested in Pinochet’s Chile when it aligned neoliberalism and authoritarian extreme right.
In Brazil, this would entail grounding things on the sleeping cells left untouched since the end of the military dictatorship. This operation was possible in a country that created an infinite democratic transition, made to be endless, never applying elementary principles of transition justice and duty of memory, differently from other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. It would be necessary to reedit the alliance of 1964 among businessmen, the agricultural sector, churches, and conservative press, not to mention the military, something that finally was accomplished in this election thanks to the axis supporting Jair Bolsonaro.
But it would not be possible to directly present the true matrix of the economic agenda and its claim to ‘privatize everything’ (something that was never, I repeat, never done in any country in the world) in order to pay the public debt, its sacred respect to the limit of expenditure of the Brazilian state, the consequent final dismantling of the public services, and the autonomy of the Central Bank. It would be necessary that these discussions exited the scene and gave place to an axis in which ‘disorder’, ‘corruption’ and ‘violence’ were the greatest elements in the political struggle. And in this aspect, 2013 was our 2001, because it was the moment in which fear could be consolidated as the main political affect.
One must remember how the paradigmatic image of 2013 was the destruction of a symbol of State and order. I’m speaking of the mass of demonstrators in Brasilia setting the Itamaraty Palace ablaze since they were hindered to do the same with the National Congress. Never in national history was there a more evident expression of disindentification between the population and the bodies of State order. Together with this, the Brazilian population saw, for months, uninterrupted series of demonstrations in which the visibility of invisibles was materialized. Vulnerable groups (such as women, LGBT and blacks) demanded visibility and legal rights, showing how the shape of living standards within Brazilian society tended towards change.
It is not by chance that it was from this moment on that discourses demanding ‘order’ acquired significance. Every real movement of social revolt has always as its counterpoint the production of reactive subjects that will attempt to negate the emancipatory strength of the events. Facing a Brasilia on fire, it is not surprising that many started to demand ‘their country back’, wrapped in the national flag and dreaming of a ‘military intervention’.
This was about consolidating a significant quilting operation. ‘Violence’ and ‘corruption’ could be the gateways for a leftist hegemonic discourse in Brazil. It only needed ‘violence’ to be associated with the obscene inequality of Brazilian society and ‘corruption with a political system detached from popular deliberation and direct participation. But the signifier ‘order’ created another hegemony in which the lack of a strong government, of military traits, appears as the cause of the republic’s degradation, even if tyranny was the fundamental form of corruption, as the corrupted history of the Brazilian dictatorship can show. In fact, along with the neoliberal anti-statism, the struggle against corruption was only the password for the middle and the upper classes to legitimate their unavowed desire of eliminating every social solidarity through tax systems. It was this way that the Brazilian extreme right was created by this neoliberalism with an inhuman face.
Vladimir Pinheiro Safatle is a philosopher and professor at University of São Paulo, lecturing and writing at the nexus of politics, critical theory, and psychoanalysis, especially the theory and practice of Lacan.
Translated by, Allan M. Hillani, who holds a Masters of Theory and Philosophy of Law (State University of Rio de Janeiro, UERJ) and is a PhD student of Philosophy (New School for Social Research). He is the author of Na urgência da catástrofe: violência e capitalismo(Gramma, 2018) and other writings on critical theory and political philosophy.