Is Bolsonaro a neofascist?

October 24, 2018

Brazilians will go to the polls on Sunday, October 28, to decide a winner in the second round of presidential elections. After winning 46 percent in the first round, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro holds a commanding lead over Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), who scored just over 29 percent.

Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump, and for good reason. As previously reported: “Bolsonaro is a racist, homophobic and anti-democratic provocateur whose victory will embolden most treacherous elements of Brazilian society. During his years in Congress, he took pride in his litany of vile attacks. He once threatened a federal deputy of the PT, Maria de Rósario, saying she was ‘not worthy of being raped,’ and he openly opposes equal wages for women.”

But Bolsonaro isn’t merely a renegade politician. He has developed a genuine mass following among the middle classes, and even sections of Brazil’s impoverished in a context of economic crisis, social dislocation and dizzying street violence. As Matthew Aaron Richmond recently wrote in Jacobin, “But Bolsonaro’s low-income supporters need to be persuaded that the police militias and vigilantes whom they believe can offer greater ‘security’ will only become ‘bandidos’ themselves in the process.”

But all is not hopeless. Brazilian workers defeated a nearly two-decade-long military dictatorship in the early 1980s through mass strikes, which led to the formation of the Workers’ Party. In the decades since then, Brazil has been home to some of the most radical and largest mass movements of workers, youth and students, the urban poor, and landless peasants, as well as boasting among the most important feminist, LGBTQI, Indigenous and Black civil rights movements in the world. Brazil’s $6.5 trillion economy accounts for nearly half of South America’s entire gross domestic product. What happens in Brazil matters — obviously to the 210,000,000 people who live there, but no less so to the fortunes of the entire continent’s working classes and oppressed.

Here, we publish an assessment of Bolsonaro and the threat he represents by Brazilian Marxist Valério Arcary, who is a leading member of Resistência, a revolutionary socialist current inside the Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL). PSOL ran its own candidates, Guilherme Boulos and Sônia Guajarara, in the first round of the elections, and got 617,000 votes. The party is supporting Haddad in the second round. The article was translated from Portuguese by Todd Chretien, who also wrote this introduction.

The bird of prey does not sing. Doom does not make appointments. Ignorance and the wind are the most daring.

A DEBATE has opened, even on the left, about whether or not Jair Bolsonaro, the frontrunner in Brazil’s presidential elections, is a neofascist or not.

Far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro speaks with Brazilian generals
Far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro speaks with Brazilian generals

This is not an academic question. It demands a rigorous reply. What should our criteria be for classifying a political leader? We must be very serious when we study our enemies. One who does not know against whom one is fighting cannot win.

Obviously, casually qualifying just any political current or leader of the far right as fascist means making a judgment that is generally careless, historically mistaken and politically faulty. Fascism is a danger so grave that we must be deliberate in defining it. The entire far right is radically reactionary. But the whole far right is not fascist. It is necessary to evaluate, consider, calibrate and characterize our enemies with great care.

Bolsonaro is a neofascist. He is a fascist arising from our own historical era — that is, after the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and China. Those who believe this is an exaggeration are fooling themselves.

Bolsonaro is extremely dangerous. Even though he has not yet built a nationwide fascist political party. Even though the majority of his voters are not themselves fascists. What matters is that the nucleus of a fascist leadership is being formed.

Of course, neofascism isn’t an exact copy of fascism from the past. Fascism was, for Marxists, essentially a political form of counterrevolution that emerged from the threat of a European-wide workers’ revolution inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

All fascist parties defended the necessity of a totalitarian regime. The elimination of democratic liberties associated with elected governments was instrumental in the destruction of working-class organizations.

Yet Italian fascism was not exactly like German fascism (with its obsessive anti-Semitism), or Francoism in Spain (based on the formal preservation of the monarchy) or Salazarism in Portugal (and its fanatical Catholicism). All had their peculiarities. But despite these nuances, they all deserved to be qualified as fascist.

Clearly, we are not in conditions similar to the 1930s, after the catastrophe of the First World War, the victory of the Russian Revolution and the economic depression of 1929. Since the global economic crisis of 2008, we aren’t simply repeating the “1930s in slow motion.” For instance, there is no imminent threat of a new October Revolution. Nevertheless, on a worldwide scale, we have witnessed the strengthening of an extreme right over the past decade.

Neofascism in a semi-peripheral country like Brazil cannot be exactly the same as fascism was in Europe in the 1930s. In the first place, fascism is not growing in response to the danger of revolution.

Instead, it emerges from the experience of certain sectors of the middle classes during 14 years of class-collaborationist Workers’ Party governments, first under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and then Dilma Rousseff before her impeachment in 2016. It has been fueled by economic stagnation and social regression characteristic of the last four years, the worst in recent history.

The anti-Workers’ Party sentiment that has advanced over the last five years is a specifically Brazilian form of anti-leftism, like the anti-communism of the 1930s. Yet this doesn’t mean that the leading sectors of the bourgeoisie have turned to fascism to ward off the danger of revolution in Brazil.

Until only the last few weeks, the immense majority of the bourgeoisie supported Geraldo José Rodrigues de Alckmin Filho, the presidential candidate of the centrist (and thoroughly capitalist) Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).

Bolsonaro is a strongman. His candidacy expressed the movement of the most reactionary sections of the middle classes, supported by only a minority fraction of the bourgeoisie, spurred by the economic crisis of the past four years.

THERE CAN be various theoretical models to explain this. Some are simpler, and some are more complex, with a larger or smaller number of criteria. Here is an outline of 10 criteria by which to analyze whether or not Bolsonaro and his movement are fascist:

1. Social origin

2. Actions and trajectory

3. What they defend — that is, their political program

4. What is their political project?

5. What relations do they maintain with state institutions, such as Congress and the armed forces — that is, what is their attitude toward the political regime?

6. What relations do they maintain, respectively, with the ruling class and with the working class?

7. What type of political party or movement do they use?

8. Who supports them and what is their social base, including the electoral dimension of their audience?

9. What kind of international relations and support do they maintain?

10. Where do they get their money, and who are their financial backers?

CONSIDERING THESE 10 criteria, we can conclude the following:

1. Bolsonaro’s social origin is plebian petty bourgeois. He rapidly climbed the social ladder through a military career, a common path followed for generations by Brazilians of European descent.

This route required a less demanding academic performance than professions like medicine, law and engineering professions in the public universities, as well as providing a salary from the beginning. The military also offered stability and a comparatively higher paycheck than that of, for instance, a physical education teacher.

His class origins explain some of Bolsonaro’s obsessions: harsh racism, social resentment, ferocious anti-communism, suburban nationalism, fascination with the American middle class and anti-intellectual rancor.

2. We should not only judge a political leader by what he says, but also by what he does. Bolsonaro’s trajectory over the course of the last 40 years was that of an unruly insubordinate officer, and then of a marginal corporatist deputy in Congress, the lowest of outsider politicians.

Bolsonaro was never brilliant. He was always a mediocre man, an outrageous man — in fact, an imbecile. Bolsonaro has been a minor figure in the political struggle for 30 years, winning office six times as a federal deputy.

But one cannot understand the qualitatively different place he occupies today without analyzing the Lava Jato’s (Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations. Since 2014, sections of the bourgeoisie have appropriated the anti-corruption banner.

This is not without precedent. Fractions of the Brazilian bourgeoisie previously raised this flag in their internal struggles in 1954 to overthrow Getúlio Vargas; in 1960 to elect Jânio Quadros; in 1964 to legitimize the military coup; in 1989 to elect Fernando Collor de Melo; and in 2016 to legitimize the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Bolsonaro himself emerged from obscurity during the pro-impeachment mobilizations in 2015 and 2016, when the demand for military intervention won an audience among tens of thousands of the millions who took to the streets.

3. Bolsonaro responded to the demand for strong leadership in the face of government corruption, a worsening public security crisis, resentment at the increased weight of taxes on the middle class, the ruin of small businesses in the recession and impoverishment due to inflation in the costs of private education, health and safety.

He stood for order in the face of strikes and demonstrations, clear authority against political paralysis between institutions and a national pride in defiance of the last four years’ economic crisis. He played to a certain nostalgia among the alienated fringes of the exasperated middle classes, who longed for the order represented in their minds by two decades of military dictatorship.

And if this weren’t enough, he attracted the spotlight by giving voice to a backlash against feminism, the Black and LGBT movements, and even environmental activists.

4. Bolsonaro aims to construct a Bonapartist regime. Bonapartism — a term referring to Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s regime in France between 1852 and 1870 — means an authoritarian regime in which the presidency rises above the other institutions, such as Congress and the judiciary, and concentrates powers in the name of defending the unity of the nation. This explains Bolsonaro’s slogan “Brazil above all else.”

In fact, there are several types of Bonapartism. Bolsonaro’s project, supported by the mobilization of a mass movement of desperate layers of society, suggests an authoritarian regime that, depending on the conditions of social and political struggle, may become semi-fascist.

5. Bolsonaro’s relations with state institutions, as far as one can tell, indicate a strong representation of the armed forces and the police in his government.

Bolsonaro is not a right-wing populist like Trump. Nor is he simply an authoritarian leader, who will easily be neutralized by pressure from leading elements of the ruling class after he defeats the PT in the second round of the elections.

Instead, after winning an electoral victory — which will, in all likelihood, include a majority in Congress primed to carry out reactionary constitutional amendments — and counting on full support in the Army, Bolsonaro will enjoy a mandate to wield power under economic and social conditions that nobody in the presidency has faced since the crisis of 1985.

6. Bolsonaro has improvised a relationship with the big bourgeoisie by appointing investment banker Paulo Guedes (with a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago) as his super-minister of the economy.

He is thereby signaling his intention to carry out ultra-neoliberal policies, with an emphasis on indiscriminate and accelerated privatizations, brutal fiscal shock and frontal attacks on workers’ rights, beginning with pension reform. Bolsonaro’s strategy is to reposition Brazil in the world market alongside the U.S. against China, while attracting U.S. investments to rescue Brazil from stagnation.

This strategy aligns with strategic plans favored by the most powerful nuclei of the bourgeoisie, but it cannot be put into practice without sharp social confrontations. Why? Because the Brazilian working class has not yet suffered a historic defeat. Such a defeat occurs when a generation loses self-confidence, and a whole historical gap is required before a new generation moves in to take up the fight.

Between 2015 and 2016, the process that culminated in the parliamentary coup that toppled Dilma Rousseff’s administration was a bruising defeat for the working class and the left, but it was not a historic defeat. What we experienced was an unfavorable inversion of the social relation of forces, a political-social defeat.

This characterization should in no way be understood to downplay the rise of our current reactionary dynamic. If it is not reversed, Brazilian workers are facing a very serious threat.

7. Bolsonaro has not consolidated a fascist party. He is essentially renting the Social Liberal Party.

But this organic weakness was largely offset by the mobilization of a pro-Bolsonaro mass movement. Nor does the lack of a party nullify his classification as neofascist. He can, if he wins the elections, build a party based on control of the state. In fact, a recruitment campaign for the PSL has already been announced with the intention of signing up tens of millions of members.

8. Of course, the vast majority of Bolsonaro voters are not fascists, but this alone should not discount characterizing him as a neofascist. After all, a hard-core minority of his constituents are.

What defines a movement, in the first place, is the direction in which it is moving. Bolsonaro’s audience is already broad and dynamic enough for this political current to be the largest in Brazil at the moment.

9. Underestimating Bolsonaro or the ability of his current to operate in the international arena would be a grave error. There is an international right wing, even if still embryonic, being built around the world, with robust funding from some powerful economic groups — for instance, from that fraction of American capitalism that aims to resist China’s rise as a proto-imperialist power.

10. Funding for Bolsonaro’s electoral campaign remains more or less obscure. However, the reach of his presence and visibility in social networks suggests that major business groups are seriously engaged. Some of these groups are already widely known.

First published at Esquerda Online and translated by Todd Chretien.

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