Jair Bolsonaro's Victory in Brazil Carries a Grave Warning for the West
Last month, more than 150 Brazilian artists and intellectuals denounced then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro as a “clear threat to our civilisational heritage.” This weekend, under threat of arrest for violating election law, Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters told concertgoers in the city of Curitiba, “This is our last chance to resist fascism. … Not him!” (a reference to the popular #EleÑao campaign on social media).
Their pleas largely fell on deaf ears. In a runoff with Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), Bolsonaro captured more than 55 percent of the vote on Sunday to become the country’s 38th president—this despite calling for his political opponents to be shot, pledging to open up the Amazon rainforest for mass extraction and openly praising former military dictator Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, among countless other barbarities. As Alex Hochuli observes in The Baffler, the triumph of neofascism in the world’s fourth largest democracy is a “historic tragedy” with grave warnings for the West, perhaps none more urgent than that liberals cannot be entrusted to preserve liberalism.
“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,” he writes. “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.”
Brazil’s recent history would appear to bear out his thesis. Following President Dilma Rousseff’s dubious impeachment in 2016, support for the rival conservative Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) has cratered amid a growing economic crisis, record-high murder rates and a rapid increase in austerity measures that had begun under the prior PT administration. While both parties have been enmeshed in a sweeping corruption probe, the PMDB earned just 5 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, and President Michel Temer will likely leave office with an approval rating in the single digits.
Enter Bolsonaro, a former military officer and fringe congressman promising a “cleansing” like Brazil has never seen. Prior to the first round of voting, the Social Democratic Party head—who leads a party that is anything but—had the support of 50 percent of households earning 10 times the minimum wage.
“Here, the center never bothered holding,” rues Hochuli. “The coalition assembled behind Bolsonaro is more than content to tolerate authoritarian head-banging when the alternative is moderate social democracy.”
Brazil’s business elites have lined up behind the violent right-wing extremist in no small part because he has outsourced his economic policy to University of Chicago graduate and Milton Friedman acolyte Paulo Roberto Nunes Guedes. (During the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Guedes taught at the University of Chile.) But these elites are not alone. Corporate interests across the Americas are openly salivating about the investment opportunities that a fascist Brazil might present.
“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,” Hochuli continues. “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.”
That the forces of capital have bared their teeth without a true threat of socialism, much less communism, makes Bolsonaro’s triumph all the more grotesque. If his victory carries a lesson for the Left not just in South America but the United States and Western Europe, as Hochuli suggests, it is this: Simply holding power can never be enough.
“If you’re going to govern, you must implement your program,” he writes. “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.”
Read Hocchuli’s essay in its entirety at The Baffler.