5-Brazil takes a step back: the big picture of the far right victory in Brazil and why progressives everywhere should pay attention

By Victor Strazzeri São Paulo, Brazil

The election of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil with 55% of the vote is a watershed moment for politics in Latin America with ramifications that extend far beyond it. What is at stake in the right-winger’s victory is what political formulas will prove successful in the post-2008 world and whether any horizon of liberation will be left standing if the increasing convergence of far-right politics and the radicalized neoliberal agenda favored by the capitalist classes grows more widely into a full symbiosis, as it did in the Brazilian case.

Political life since the 2008 global economic crisis and the ‘great recession’ has played out in very peculiar circumstances, as they have prevailed for a full decade now and risk being normalized. This period has had its share of tragedies and the balance sheet has been overwhelmingly tilted towards the right. It has also raised prospects of hope and profound change that, despite being in short supply lately, must come to bear on the analysis of any major political shift as is the case of last year’s Brazilian election.

The narrative of our times rings familiar by now. The system formerly known as ‘the end of history’, i.e., the unfettered, neoliberal variant of global capitalism, experienced a catastrophic crisis at its very core and the result has not only been the continued dominance of the economic doctrine and deregulating free-market policies responsible for the crisis, but an even more vicious cycle of attacks on workers’ rights in the aftermath of government bailouts of the financial system. The decision to turn ‘there is no alternative’ from slogan to policy in the post-2008 world has since spurred a global resurgence of bigotry in all its forms, from xenophobic nationalism and white-supremacism to overt racism and misogyny. Bolsonaro is the latest embodiment of this new global state of affairs, but far-right victories have not been the only hallmark of political life in the last decade.

After the signal for global revolt was given by Tunisia in late 2010, countless explosions of mass unrest have presented a challenge from below to the neoliberal status quo the world over and Brazil was no exception. Whether they were movements for democracy and social justice in countries long ruled by authoritarian regimes such as Egypt, the square occupations they inspired or a resurgent women’s movement, the crisis years have seen constant eruptions from a mass reservoir of popular unrest. In fact, the possibilities raised by these revolts are the key to understand both the aggressive right-wing resurgence that has now scored a major victory in Latin America, as well as how progressive alternatives to it can be built.

Until recently, Latin America represented a consistent glimmer of hope that another way of doing politics was indeed possible. That its progressive governments were riddled with contradictions, perhaps nowhere more than in Brazil, is something I will return to below. With Bolsonaro, however, the region decisively followed suit in the broader trend that has seen progressive alternatives crushed and bigoted politics tolerated as long as neoliberal orthodoxy remains in place. That, after a quarter-century of struggle for social justice, the region is again the stage for a right-wing experiment is highly significant. Seen from below, globalization is not about working people in different countries taking each other’s jobs or pushing down each other’s wages, but rather about how they intimately share in each other’s catastrophes (whether aware of this or not).

From this standpoint, these defeats must be understood in their interconnections, commonalities and particular traits. What distinguishes the Bolsonaro government is, in this sense, the toxic mix it brought into office: libertarians, hard-line conservatives, evangelicals and direct representatives of large landowners, banks and powerful interests seeking a more thorough privatization of the health and education sectors. Migration played next to no role in the elections, showing that the far-right can come to power without necessarily leveraging the issue. The rejection of ‘gender ideology’, i.e., policies of gender equality and LGBTQ rights, was, however, central to his discourse. This is by far the most universal fixture of the global right’s agenda, likely stemming from its claim to vindicate their core constituency, the self-victimizing middle-class white male. The ability to galvanize this sector, which gives it its most ardent supporters, is key for the right’s advance.

The same was true for Brazil, but Bolsonaro’s camp had to build a broader basis of support to win the popular vote. In a country ranking among the world’s worst in the concentration of income, wealth and land-ownership this demanded convincing the middle classes and even better-off segments of the working population that social justice — whether it translates to addressing racial, gender or class inequalities — generates losers outside the elites. The successful forging of a ‘bottom-up’ identification between the country’s struggling middle-classes and its ruling elites was perhaps Bolsonaro’s greatest feat.

The key to this was hypocritically blaming the economic crisis the country has faced in the last few years on the corruption scandals of the Workers’ Party administration, on the one hand, and on ‘excessive state intervention’, on the other. This paved the way for a return to an agenda of neoliberal reform and privatizations embodied in Bolsonaro’s Chicago-trained Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes. While other candidates offered a similar return to neoliberal orthodoxy, Bolsonaro was the only one capable of garnering mass support through a hard-line stance on crime — bolstered by his status as a former army captain — and the promotion of conservative values in line with a growing evangelical segment of voters.

Bolsonaro’s victory, built on a combination of nostalgia for the times of the military dictatorship and radical free-market agenda, is highly symbolic considering the peculiar role Latin America has played in the neoliberal epoch. The region is both the seat of the very first neoliberal experiment under the auspices of the Chilean dictatorship in the mid-1970s, but also where the first cycle of sustained mass opposition to widespread privatization and deregulation arose in the 1990s, leading to the election of a series of progressive governments in the following decade, the so-called ‘Pink Wave’. Few of these center-left governments still stand, but Brazil is no doubt a central piece in the reversal of the political fate of the region.

Beyond its continental dimensions and place amongst the ten largest economies in the world, Brazil’s political developments have always carried broader significance. The overthrow of progressive president João Goulart in 1964, while not the first CIA-backed military coup in Latin America, was a major watershed for politics in the region and the US-led efforts to prevent the Cuban Revolution from igniting a turn towards socialism in its ‘backyard’. It is no coincidence that Bolsonaro is a product of the civil and military regime that ruled Brazil until 1984 and which he refuses to call a dictatorship. During the campaign, Bolsonaro has in fact gone on record claiming he wanted to restore the country to what it was ‘forty or fifty years ago’. In 1968 the Brazilian dictatorship suspended all remaining civil and political freedoms and stepped up the bloody repression of the opposition and insurgents. He has also repeatedly paid homage to one of the dictatorship’s most notorious torturers. Bolsonaro’s victory, much like the coup in 1964, represents not only a major political shift in the region, but another far-reaching Latin American experiment.

Will democracy survive the experiment or simply be hollowed out? The latter process has, of course, already been underway in Brazil since 2016. Bolsonaro would probably not have been elected were it not for a parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party that year and the subsequent prosecution of ex-president Lula by Judge Sérgio Moro, whose anti-corruption crusade has won him a controversial appointment as Minister of Justice in Bolsonaro’s government.

The more fundamental question remains, however, why the most moderate of the ‘Pink Wave’ governments, which never fully broke with neoliberalism and refrained from implementing any structural reforms that could address the country’s major social inequalities was precisely the one to end in a ‘soft coup’ and be succeeded by a far-right politician. In this respect there are close parallels to the fate of the Obama presidency. Lula’s election was, for Brazil, just as momentous as Obama’s. A former union-leader with roots in the country’s impoverished Northeastern region was swept into office with tremendous popular support in 2002.

Yet, the expectations of profound change his election raised were never truly met; the government’s desire to reassure foreign investors and local elites never allowed more than timid redistributive measures. These were, nevertheless, already enough to draw fierce opposition from the oligarchy and the media under its control. Lula will be remembered by the policy shift that marked the end of his first term in office, soon after an initial round of corruption scandals hit the Workers’ Party and put his reelection at risk. The shift comprised a state-led investment program, the massive expansion of credit and moderate rises to the minimum-wage which contributed to a cycle of growth — aided by the ‘commodity boom’ — between 2007 and 2012 and very high levels of government popularity.

Lula chose Dilma Rousseff as his successor, hoping the middle classes would identify with her image of a tough but efficient public administrator. Dilma Rousseff’s election again combined a highly symbolic character — not only the first woman president, but a former guerrilla-fighter — with the refusal to address the country’s secular legacy of inequality other than through very gradual, market-friendly policies.

In 2013, the country was suddenly gripped by a massive surge of social struggle. The country’s working youth demanded free public transportation and more investment in the public health and education systems rather than in football stadiums and costly mega-event infrastructure. At the same time, a record number of strikes indicated that the gradual pace of social change favored by the government was vastly out of touch with what the more active segments of the youth and working population were expecting. Significantly, the massive demonstrations led by social movements and small leftist parties, on the one hand, and the strike wave, on the other, were parallel phenomena that only rarely converged. This rekindling of protest went, however, entirely unheeded by a Workers’ Party government seeking to reassure the markets in the context of the worsening economic situation that marked the start of Dilma Rousseff’s second term in 2015.

The resulting political vacuum coupled with a turn to austerity and the emergence of new corruption scandals centered on Petrobras, the country’s state-owned oil company, saw right-wing supporters take to the streets, benefiting from massive positive coverage in the media. The far-right saw an opening in what had become a full-blown economic crisis and plunging support for Rousseff and stepped up its protests now aiming for an impeachment; an opportunistic vice-president, Michel Temer, offered the private sector a combination of austerity and neoliberal reforms the Workers’ Party would never be able to deliver thus sealing the fate of Dilma Rousseff, despite her never being directly tied to corruption scandals.

Temer’s time in office (2016-2018) was an unmitigated disaster for Brazil’s working people, as he took advantage of the democratic hiatus to approve a series of reforms attacking workers’ rights and, in a matter of months, reversing several hard-fought policy advances on the rights of people of color and of native peoples. This culminated in single-digit approval ratings — the worst ever by a president since redemocratization — and a despondent electorate, who also had to contend with a common refrain from corporate media that a return to Workers’ Party rule was synonymous with corruption, inefficiency and raised the prospects of becoming ‘another Venezuela’.

Instead of going on the opposition and denouncing the parliamentary coup and subsequent regressive legislation, the Workers’ Party bid its time expecting Lula’s victory in the 2018 election. His arrest and consequent removal from the presidential race led to a desperate campaign by all progressive segments of the electorate in favor of the moderate former mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad. Significantly, the women’s movement built by far the leading force in the opposition to Bolsonaro during the campaign, holding several massive demonstrations. Though Haddad made it to the run-off vote, there was not enough time to reverse the surge of Bolsonaro in the polls, though many in the left had their doubts on whether a Workers’ Party government would have ever been allowed to take office.

The opposition is still reeling from this massive defeat, but the campaign made it clear that social movements will likely lead the resistance to Bolsonaro, though they will need allies if the worst authoritarian threats and neoliberal dystopian scenarios are to be prevented. If the right has found a formula for coming to power in the Bolsonaro experiment, which the global right will look to replicate elsewhere, it is now the left that has to find the formula that can reunite the party left, the labor movement and the resurgent social movements which were either side-by-side (but distant) or at odds in the struggles opened up in 2013. Progressive forces everywhere should be watching.