Brazil’s Anti-Politics Election

My Brazil election preview in Jacobin:

The election – and general political conjuncture – is polarized, fragmented, and corrupt. Here’s an excerpt on polarization:

The election’s main polarization, then, is between the PT and Bolsonaro. To some it may look like a fight between two extremes. Bolsonaro poses as an authoritarian outsider who will wash the scum away — both politicians and criminals. Lula meanwhile would be a left-wing populist, standing for the poor against an illegitimate republic.


This would be a serious mischaracterization. Bolsonaro represents merely the most reactionary face of a backwards elite. A former economic nationalist, he is a recent convert to rabid free-market liberalism, favoring privatizations, lower taxes, and central bank autonomy. His kill-the-poor law and order proposals are merely an extension of existing repressive relations between the state and poorer Brazilians.


Lula, for his part, is a centrist, whatever his hysterical right-wing critics might say. This is not so much a question of policy: fundamentally, his program is the realization of the rights promised by Brazil’s 1988 constitution, his modus operandi in government one of accommodation and moderation. Only Brazil’s rightward drift has made him appear in any way radical. His dauphin’s victory represents a hope to arrest the horrific turn in Brazil, at least in the immediate term.


Social media accentuates this dynamic. One analysis of online economic discussion shows that 58 percent of activity circles around these poles, a greater polar concentration than in 2014, around Rousseff and the center-right Aécio Neves. What we have, then, is a radicalization of the Right. While the Left highlights the decline in Brazil since the coup — in terms of rights, inequality, social investment — the Right denounces the political elite and state bureaucracy as corrupt. The solution: privatization, a smaller role for the state in the economy, and a focus on public security.


Here is the denouement of the wave of right-wing “anticorruption” protests: a deep skepticism of the capacity of the state to do anything, and consequent demands for authoritarian solutions. The irony of this form of anti-politics is believing the state can successfully police or exterminate people, but not develop society.


While some media will therefore finger Bolsonaro as Brazil’s Trump, this is misleading. Bolsonaro is a far more traditional authoritarian conservative of the semi-periphery, more akin to the Philippines’ Duterte, than the postmodern Trump. It is only in Bolsonaro’s social media popularity among white, upper-middle class youth (dubbed “Bolsominions”) that he resembles Trump. Instead, the new Brazilian right is infused with a latter-day anticommunist hysteria. These forces fixate on the idea that the PT somehow illegitimately inserted itself in, or took over, the state. The reactionary demand is to take back what is “rightfully” theirs through strong neoliberal stances.

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