With the election of Jair Bolsonaro – who said he would rather be called a Hitler than gay – Brazil’s electoral system has brought fascism to power. It would be hard to overstate the impact this will have on the country, the continent and the world.
In his victory speech, Bolsonaro tried to appear conciliatory, or at least more careful and “presidential” and not just a flamethrower whose only setting is full throttle. He described himself as “president of all Brazilians”, not just those who voted for him, and made a “promise, as a man before God” to respect “democracy”. These words were intended to undercut the “He is not my president” sentiment already seething on social media and the streets, and keep it from becoming a mass movement to prevent him from taking office on 1 January 2019. This is a crucial moment, because experience with the rise of other fascist regimes shows that it will prove even harder to stop Bolsonaro once he normalises and begins to consolidate a new regime.
Earlier that day Bolsonaro pledged, “The red outlaws will be banished from our country. It will be a clean-up the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.” Brazil has seen “clean-ups” before. Bolsonaro is a former paratroop officer and current reserve army captain who has based his entire political career on his identification with the United States-backed military junta that ran Brazil from 1964-1985. But he intends to do more than simply rerun those terrible years when a generation was driven into exile or forcibly silenced. He has criticised the generals for “torturing but not killing”, for executing hundreds of people instead of tens of thousands. Among those who should have been murdered Bolsonaro included, by name, three of the country’s presidents since then.
By “reds,” Bolsonaro means members of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, or PT) for which almost 47 million people (about 45 percent of the electorate) voted, social reform movements like the Landless Movement (MST) hated by the country’s big landowners and cattle barons, now labelled “terrorists”, and “cultural Marxists”, identifiable by their “perverse ideologies”, meaning advocates of rights for gay and transgender people, women seeking to free themselves from the shackles of “family values” and anyone not conforming to the lifestyle of Catholic and Evangelical fundamentalism, as well as environmental activists and those who, whatever their colour, take pride in Brazil’s African heritage and demand respect for it. What many of his supporters hope will be his very first step – what they are leaving football stadiums chanting – is to kill all homosexuals. Some men aren’t waiting for him to take office before violently attacking people on the street.
In the name of fighting crime, Bolsonaro is promising a whole new level of brutal armed repression in a situation where armoured troops already occupy favelas(shantytowns) and hordes of police murder hungry kids in cold blood to keep them out of shiny shopping malls. He has called for new laws to provide “judicial support” for anyone who kills with their service weapon. His promise to overturn restrictions on the right to own and carry guns is not a response to a felt need of the average “honest citizen”, as he claims, but a way to allow landowner goons to brandish and use whatever weapons they like to terrorise peasants, and similarly give official cover to private militias terrorising slum dwellers.
In short, Bolsonaro is using the fact that he was elected to claim legitimacy for unleashing an unprecedented wave of repression against broad sections of the people. He may well move even faster than Trump in unleashing naked violence against many millions of people to install a long social and ideological night.
Bolsonaro intends to make a dramatic change in the state system through, which Brazil’s ruling big capitalists and landowners have ruled the country for the last three decades, bourgeois democracy. This is a form of class rule where it seems as if the state were neutral, the people have their say through electoral processes and parliamentary institutions, and are protected by the supposedly independent judiciary and other government bodies, and the constitution with its supposedly guaranteed rights.
This may or may not mean he will abandon all pretence of bourgeois democracy. During the years when Brazil was ruled by generals (Bolsonaro has portraits of them on the walls of his office), congress continued to function within limits, with a legal, housebroken opposition party, and there were some elections. What Bolsonaro does depends in part on the necessities created by the unpredictable unfolding of events. He has even floated out the idea of abolishing the current constitution and having a new one written up by his own appointees.
What is certain is that Bolsonaro will determinedly pursue the implementation of a fascist programme in the country and to brutally intimidate the opposition. As for the Supreme Court, which some PT members and other people are counting on to enforce the current constitution and save them, one of his sons bragged that it would take no more than a “corporal and a soldier” at its doorstep to shut it down.
It is also certain that the military will play a central role in the new set-up. In addition to himself and the freshly retired general who is his vice president, Bolsonaro named generals to key cabinet positions, including not only Defence Minister, but even Education Minister. The latter’s task will likely be to “clean up” schools and universities by removing teachers and textbooks that don’t meet Bolsonaro’s approval. There will be special emphasis on crushing opposition to homophobia and the questioning of patriarchal gender roles, which he calls “teaching children to be gay.” Even before the election, police raided dozens of universities with the pretext that “No to fascism” banners constitute illegal partisan politics in public institutions. Students were encouraged to call the police if teachers discussed even apparently neutral political topics like “fake news”.
In fact, the military played a flagrant role in Bolsonaro’s victory. Many informed observers believe that he would have lost if he had had to run against the PT’s “Lula” da Silva (president from 2003-2011, who was still fairly popular when he left office). Earlier this year when the Supreme Court was considering whether or not to order Lula to prison even while his conviction for accepting the use of a renovated beachfront condo was still under appeal, so that he would be barred from running again, top commanders threatened that the army would step in if the courts failed to stop him.
What is new here in Brazilian history, and a terrifying development for the world is the merging of the military and a fascist religious fundamentalist movement that has been built up to massive proportions.
The fall of the PT and the rise of Bolsonaro
This movement emerged almost overnight through many factors, including a widespread rejection of the PT for its corruption. This perception was largely created by rival, right-wing politicians later convicted of obscene self-enrichment schemes themselves. But disillusionment with the PT also came from the fact that it promised and initially seemed to achieve real change for the poor majority and significantly expanded the size of the middle class while Lula was president, but it turned out to be little different than the traditional parties. This was seen as not just a failure, but also a betrayal.
Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff (president from 2011 until 2016, when her rivals had her impeached), found her government faced with a disastrous economic situation and fiscal crisis due in large part to the end of the international boom in oil and agricultural commodity prices that had allowed Lula to implement some welfare schemes. Rousseff took measures (like public transport price hikes) painful to most people, especially the poorest, and more openly resorted to repression. This was not due to a change of heart in the PT, but because the international imperialist-dominated market and capital trashed the party’s foundational lie, that the bourgeois state stands above the functioning of the capitalist economy and can be used to serve the interests of the masses of people. This view implies that the army, without which no state ultimately has any authority, is also something other than the ultimate protector of the interests of the ruling classes and the economic and social system they represent.
The PT’s electoral success was a crucial factor in successfully re-establishing bourgeois democracy after the years of military rule, helping ensure the continuity of the rule of the finance capitalists and landowners under both forms of state. In doing this, the PT also protected the military, which had organised the transition to bourgeois democracy. Aware of the danger of confronting the army, the PT preferred to stay away from the question of accountability, even though many of its founders, including President Rousseff, had been imprisoned and tortured under the junta. The PT’s 13 years as the governing party allowed many exploited and oppressed Brazilians, intellectuals and others who had been hunted by the junta or haunted by its memory to believe that the state is not a class dictatorship.
The corruption that was used to bring down Rousseff and demonise the PT was not just a product of self-interested cynicism fed by the falseness of its promises. It is the way electoral parties function under bourgeois democracy: by making deals in congress, building connections with powerful men, gathering votes however they can and raising the money without which elections can’t be won, all while tethering their supporters’ sights to the existing bourgeois framework. The rot came from the PT’s core, the conviction that whatever they do to get into office within this system is justified because otherwise worse people would govern.
Since then the PT has consistently done whatever necessary to demonstrate its loyalty to Brazil’s prevailing political and economic system. At every juncture it avoided confrontation with the right-wing forces out to destroy it, instead of calling out their increasingly fascist character and mobilising people in their millions to stop them. It failed to heed the tens of thousands of PT supporters who literally surrounded Lula on the eve of his imprisonment, begging him to refuse to surrender to the authorities and instead to lead them in an all-out political battle in the streets. The party raised and then abandoned the slogan “Elections without Lula are a fraud,” because carrying through on that would have led towards stepping out of the electoral arena. The PT replaced the imprisoned Lula with the mild-mannered, self-styled centrist politician Fernando Haddad. It dropped the red flag that had always been false advertising and replaced it with the same official Brazilian banner raised by Bolsonaro, inscribed with the words “Order and Progress”. This is a flag that represents the continuity of the state and its armed forces since Brazil abandoned monarchy and outright slavery in the late 19th century.
There is a critical necessity right now to mobilise the many and growing numbers of people who deeply believe that what Bolsonaro represents is wrong no matter how many votes he got, and who would take tremendous risks to stop him from implementing a programme they see as totally illegitimate. But instead of a movement like this that breaks from the normal channels of dissent, almost the entire political spectrum in Brazil that, like the PT, is continuing to oppose Bolsonaro now argues that refusing to accept his election as legitimate would mean rejecting “democracy”, and that this “democracy” – Brazil’s electoral processes, institutions and constitution – is the best hope for stopping him from doing what he promises to do. This is about as realistic as agreeing to be hanged with the hope that the rope might break. The judge who sent Lula to jail and enabled Bolsonaro to become president has just been named Justice Minister.
What Bolsonaro represents
What does it mean that Bolsonaro adopted the paratrooper brigade slogan, “Brazil above everything and God above all”? Some people contend that he represents above all an economically-driven phenomenon, an “authoritarian liberalism” (liberalism here meaning “free market fundamentalism” opposed to state intervention in the economy), where extreme repression is to be used to implement free market policies so that the rich can get richer. But the challenge Bolsonaro’s rise poses is far greater than this.
What we are witnessing are dramatic changes in Brazil’s system of governance and the country’s place in the international imperialist system.
Politics and economics are intertangled here. The United States helped carry out and strongly backed the 1964 Brazilian military coup not only because of immediate economic considerations, but its global strategic interests at the time. The same is true today. Bolsonaro intends to dismantle barriers to further American penetration of Brazil’s economy, and strengthen the US’s hand against its rivals. He is very hostile to China and its powerful and rapidly rising economic influence in Brazil. He vows to work closely with the US (and Israel) in every front. Despite official denials, the Brazilian army (joined by Colombia) could carry Bolsonaro’s war on “communism” to neighbouring, much smaller Venezuela and bring it more firmly under US control. Trump, one of the first to call and congratulate Bolsonaro, afterwards announced, “Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!”
Brazil is the world’s fifth most populous country and eight biggest economy. Bolsonaro dreams of it becoming an even more powerful regional power, rising in the world and as a junior partner to Trump’s efforts at more open US supremacy, lording it over rivals like Argentina and smaller countries, with the prospect of a whole new volatility on the continent.
When men chant, “Kill the homosexuals”, this is not mainly a matter of the rich trying to distract the poor and middle classes from their immediate class interests. It is a product of a religious fundamentalist outlook that is deeply embedded in class society and has become one of the defining features of today’s world. We are witnessing a global backlash meant to restore the reign of brutally imposed ignorance and soul-crippling traditional social relations, outlooks and values being challenged by changes in the economic and social structure of countries everywhere. There are all sorts of very important particularities, but the process is being driven most fundamentally by developments in the imperialist system as a whole (again, see Bob Avakian’s essay “Why Is Religious Fundamentlism Rising in Today’s World” from Away With All Gods! at revcom.us).
Bolsonaro sees these changes and challenges as an intolerable, mortal threat to the existing social set-up not least because Christian values have been basic to Brazilian society’s cohesion since the subjugation of the Indians and the kidnapping of Africans into slavery all the way through to today. His unexpected climb out of decades of political marginality in only a year, and his ability to draw on support from throughout society, including the most excluded people, couldn’t have happened without the proliferation of Evangelical churches. The Evangelicals, in turn, had the doors opened for them by the Catholic Church’s propagation of a superstitious and patriarchal worldview.
Bolsonaro, a practising Catholic, has also become a born-again Christian in the Evangelical mould. He personally embodies the two rival movements, one more traditional and formal and the other more recent and freewheeling, the Catholics focused on banning abortion and Evangelicals obsessed with eradicating homosexuality, that hold millions of Brazilian minds in their grip, even as fundamentalist forms of Christianity clash with new social realities and thinking, such as the breakdown of the traditional family and the widespread prevalence of different kinds of sexuality.
Many millions of people can’t accept what Bolsonaro represents. Yet most look for leadership to reformist political forces who have conciliated with fascism over and over again for years now – and this is a big part of why he has been able to become such a literally mortal threat. There is both an urgent need and a possibility for new forces to rupture with the idea that the way to stop this fascist regime is to work within the normal channels – when it is exactly these normal channels that have led to the situation that Brazil is in today. A broad, increasingly mass movement is needed that is fiercely determined to stop him before it is too late.
While there are differences in the situation of Brazil under Bolsonaro and the US under Trump, people in Brazil urgently need to learn from the analysis by the architect of the new synthesis of communism, Bob Avakian, in his video presentation on the rise of the fascist Trump regime in the US and the need to drive it from power (at revcom.us) and how this could be done, along with the scientific method and approach he employs in tracing the rise of the fascist trend in the US in the two articles referenced at the end of this article.
In country after country, like Brazil fascist forces are gathering strength – Bob Avakian offers a case study of the US for dealing with this in a way that actually offers hope for defeating the rise of these forces and opening up possibilities for revolution too to get rid of the capitalist-imperialist system that has inflicted horrors on the oppressed of the world for generations, and is now preparing for even worse. Avakian has followed this with a video (alo at revcom.us) just out in October on “Why we need an actual revolution and how we can really make a revolution” – a presentation that should offer lessons to and inspire many others around the world.
Some people in the Brazilian ruling class (judging by the media they own) and the military, along with imperialist mouthpieces like the United Kingdom Economistand others, are warning of the extreme danger to the system’s political stability in Brazil and more widely if Bolsonaro’s fascist gamble fails – if he is not able to consolidate a regime and, from their point of view, rule successfully. This is further evidence of the deep cracks in the enemy ranks, and that the success of this regime is far from certain. It is also an indication that waging and winning this battle to drive out this fascist regime could open up new perspectives for fighting for revolution.
Many corpses will pile up in vain if some people don’t break the chains of reformism and other kinds of wishful thinking that amount to waiting for something other than the conscious, courageous action of a growing section of the people to save the situation. The idea that “The people, united, will never be defeated” ignores that fact that the people are disastrously split and the question of the day is how to fight to unite all who can be united on a basis that corresponds to the most fundamental interests of the Brazilian people and humanity.
To most effectively fight Bolsonaro or any fascist current requires uniting as broadly as possible on that basis and continuously working to broaden those possibilities. It also requires encouraging and leading a society-wide emergency discussion about what kind of society and what kind of world people want to live in, with what kind of relations between people, based on what morals and values, what kind of system can allow that kind of world to come into being, and how to get there – and building a movement to do that.
*Juan Sui writes for A World to Win News Service, where this article originally appeared.