Is Bolsonaro a “fascist”?

The use of “fascist” as an insult has a long history around the world which, in many cases, has led to a banalization of the term. But it is important to understand what is essential in fascism, not just for scientific reasons, so as not to become confused, but above all for condition an adequate response to the neofascist threat, there where it does exist.

(This is a quickly translated version of a post I wrote last week (see below), in response to a debate in Brazilian (social) media. Some of the references might not be clear – I will translate the original sources later, if I get a chance.)

We’ve already seen the “fascist” Berlusconi who led the Italian Left and liberals to unite under the umbrella of a supposed new “resistance”, in the 2000s. It was futile; Berlusconi remained on the national stage, eventually becoming a key part of the “anti-populist resistance” (!). We also have the “fascist” Trump, this moniker allowing the most elite sectors of the United States to dress up as the “Resistance” and thereby assume the noble role of antifascism.

We should, therefore, remain skeptical and frugal in the use of the term. This is why Pablo Ortellado’s intervention in this column in Folha de S.Paulo yesterday (25 September), on the question of the “fascism” of Bolsonaro, was very welcome.

Ortellado was explicit: Bolsonaro is many things, but he is not a fascist. The author’s logic is that, the fact the candidate of the Social Liberal Party (see, man things are badly named in the world of politics) is not a nationalist means he is not a fascist. The logic is suspect – I explain why below – but it was a legitimate intervention, to be debated, and not denounced.

But parts of the Left reacted hysterically, thinking Ortellado’s article was a way of softening the thread presented by Bolsonaro. “What the hell is this? For the love of…. You’re losing yourself in the ivory tower,” commented one. Another, hyperbolically, said: “Pablo Ortellado has joined the fascist camp”. A third thought the text “justifies the democratic legitimacy of a candidate who, from the heights of the podium, proposes to machine gun down political enemies.” How’s that?

Many saw in the framing of Bolsonaro as a “culture warrior” as a way of legitimizing him. But why? Culture wars can kill too. Just look at the events in Charlottesville last year. It was a violent event – an activist was killed, run over. This is terrorism. And yet, it didn’t necessarily go beyond the logic of the culture wars. Where Ortellado is wrong is in thinking that, in the emergence of “Bolsonarism” – which in some ways can be seen as radicalized “antipetismo” [hostile anti-Workers Party sentiment] – one can see a culture war. It’s not that this phenomenon doesn’t exist in Brazil, but that it’s not the predominant factor. In the US, it remains much more important. We will return to this question.

In reaction to critiques, Ortellado replied, sarcastically: “It is forbidden to analyze. We can only shout slogans.” I sympathize. However, as some interlocutors highlighted, there are valid criticisms, despite Ortellado’s complaint – with a degree of justice – that, “I’ve only received abuse [in response]”. The comments that warned of “serious implications” to the article are correct. The analysis conditions our response; there are practical implications. But this goes beyond the question of the “gravity” of the situation or the threat presented by Bolsonaro. Ortellado and his critics are in agreement. The situation is extremely grave; the danger is present and it is frightening. The question is another one: the concepts we mobilize in our analysis inform how we react. And, yes, Ortellado’s article had a serious problem: the role of class was absent. This absence would entail, as a consequence, mistaken political responses.

Fundamentally, Ortellado’s argument is based on two points: Bolsonaro is not a nationalist; and he is a creation of the culture wars. In relation to the first, it is important to say that nationalism is indeed an essential component of fascism. Ortellado highlights the fact that Bolsonaro is not an economic nationalist. But the nationalism and corporatism of the 1920s and ‘30s were conjuntural aspects of historic fascism; they were responses to the crises of the time in the global core. The economic form of management or economic regime is not an essential factor in fascist ideology. What matters in this first point is the question of class domination. In the 19030s, fascism and nationalist worked as (ultra-)political means of saving the capitalist system. In our times, fascism can adopt different modes of economic management, such as an extreme neoliberalism. In fact, there are historical currents that indicate an affinity between these two – such as the Friedman-Pinochet axis, as well as in the history of Brazilian integralism.

Bolsonaro’s nationalism does not inhere in his economic proposals, nor in attacking external enemies, but in the annihilation of internal enemies, as Esther Solano highlighted in her response to the original article. Bolsonaro aims for a “patriarchal, white, heteronormative nation, in which the enemy is the black man of the periphery, the feminist, the leftist, the professor.” All of this in search of a hierarchical and homogenous nation. It is here that is expressed Bolsonaro’s anti-liberalism, an essential factor in fascism, and not in his macroeconomics.

But what is the difference between this anti-liberal nationalism and the ideology of culture wars conservatives? What makes Bolsonaro a “soldier in the culture wars”, according to Ortellado. It is that he puts “in the center of his discourse moral themes such as the sexualization of childhood, ‘schools without political parties’, the right to bear arms, punishing criminals, and anti-feminism.” However, there are two factors that differentiate Bolsonarism from the conservative culture warrior. Firstly, we have the violent methods that distinguish it from culture wars conservatism, despite both valuing an integral concept of the nation. Bolsonarism preaches state violence as well as non-governmental violence (see the militias, the assassination of Marielle Franco, the shooting at Lula’s electoral caravan.)

Secondly, there is the question of class. Bolsonaro’s anti-pluralism or anti-liberalism are not only one ideological vision of society that puts itself into competition with liberalism. It is a means of smashing the people, from top-down. The distinctive factor of the culture wars is that they happen on the cultural plane. The conservative side is composed equally by elites from rural states, such as big farmers, as by precaritized workers; the liberal camp, equally by urban cultural elites – say, the owner of an art gallery – as by industrial workers. It is in culture that class distinctions dissolve. See the case of the US over the past 30 years and the “division” between the Democrats (party of the bosses and imperialist war) and the Republicans (party of the bosses and imperialist war).

Despite Bolsonarism strengthening itself in part through the new culture war that has emerged in the past few years in Brazil, it is not the nucleus of this ideology, of neofascism. Bolsonarism, like radicalized antipetismo – both having significant participation of upper-middle class and elite sectors – aims at the smashing of the working class; it is a means of saving Brazilian capital from the crisis by means of a social radicalization.

Here we can see Ortellado’s mistake. In framing Bolsonaro as a culture warrior, focusing on the oppression of a collection of identities (blacks, gays, women, etc.) and highlighting the relative position of these groups, Ortellado transposes the debate to the cultural plane. Yes, it is true that black women on the periphery are those who most have to lose with a Bolsonaro government. But Bolsonaro also represents an attack on the working class as a whole, on the majority of the Brazilian population. Indeed, Bolsonaro’s neoliberalism is a way of realizing this threat.

That Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism present aspects that are different to interwar European fascism is not enough for them not to merit the label “fascist”. As Henrique Carneiro warned in another response to Ortellado, “fascism, in its strict sense, is something very different to the contemporary hybrid neofascisms.” He continued: “Misogyny, homophobia, racism, horror at culture, anti-intellectualism, and anti-rationalism are central marks of this barely consistent and organic ideological hybrid. But they are not what definite its political and economic program, which consist in applying the most brutal, antisocial plan via the most violent, merciless and regressive means.”

The kernel of Bolsonarism is hatred of the organized working class, of trade unions, which today – despite the absence of the threat of socialist revolution – is incarnated in PT and, above all, in the image of Lula. Fascism is, at root, a radical bourgeois solution that consists in not just defeating but also annihilating the working class; it is recourse to civil war. Yes, neofascism is a syncretic and inconsistent creation, but there exists an ideological nucleus that defines it: the enlisting of the middle class, in the ultimate interests of capital, by means of an organized party that idolizes violence, in a war for the absolute domination of the masses.

The focus of some commentators on the hate, the anti-pluralism, the presence or absence of economic nationalism – these are all peripheral factors when considering the question of fascist ideology. As Adrian Pablo Fanjul highlighted in a Facebook post, in dependent countries there exist phenomena that already “looked like fascism in their essence (that is, in proposing to combat popular and social movements with the methods of civil war) [but which] had this ‘factory defect’ relative to the fascisms of central European countries” – that is, the absence of economic nationalism.

Agreeing, then, that aspects of Bolsonarism are similar to neofascism, two questions remains as to the status of Bolsonaro as fascist.

Firstly, why seek the annihilation of the organized working class? In the 1920s we had the Russian Revolution, the German Revolution, a working class organized under the banner of Communism; in Chile there was the Allende government, probably the most radical attempt at socialism via electoral means ever tried. And in our Brazil? There was the soft reformism of PT which, by the way, has already suffered a coup. So, if, as Walter Benjamin said, “every resurgence of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution,” where was the failed revolution? Slavoj Zizek has responded to this question, with respect to eastern European neofascisms and the emergence of xenophobic populisms in the West. Zizek defends Benjamin’s conceptualization with recourse to the idea of absent revolution: there should have been a revolution, and this absence opened a void. One needs only to consider the disastrous situation of post-communism or, above all, the stagnation and decline post-crisis in Western Europe and the US. Perhaps this notion can orient us in Brazil. The crisis here, above all the political crisis, of governing institutions, was an opportunity for revolution (at least for a political revolution). The authority vacuum left by the broken institutions of the 6th Republic is being filled by Bolsonarism.

The second question pertains to the problem of the political vehicle. Many Bolsonaro supporters evoke culture war themes, of moral or religious conservatism, phenomena attested to by the hugely important research carried out by Pablo Ortellado. These are not fascists. Moreover, the party Bolsonaro joined so recently is weak and disorganized, and the group around him is barely coherent, ideologically. However, there is a very frightening factor which is the presence of military officers of the highest rank around Bolsonaro. And it is this, much more than his “legend” status on social media, that has the capacity of realizing neofascism.

Resistance, then, must be ample, uniting Brazilians. And uniting them not only as representatives of threatened or underprivileged identity groups, but as a mass, ready to defend popular autonomy.

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