Wednesday 2 January 2019

Bolsonaro and Authoritarian Populism

The New Year came and went, and now sat in the Presidential Palace in Brasilia we find Jair Bolsonaro. Misogynist, racist and, some might say, fascist. His convincing victory in Autumn's presidential election is a disaster for Brazil and for the whole world. Bolsonaro is sure to inspire others of his ilk (and not a few "mainstream" politicians willing to do anything for power's sake), while his disavowal of climate change and desire to let the loggers loose in the Amazon is going to have consequences for the rest of us, regardless of where we live. Known then for incendiary rhetoric, was there anything in his inaugural presidential address that suggested anything new?

No. As the Graun reports, Bolsonaro declared his election a "liberation from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state and political correctness", advocating a pushing of Judeo-Christian values and an education system that turns out work ready people, not "political militants". As they noted at CBS, he doubled down on the anti-socialist rhetoric, stating "Our flag will never be red ... Our flag will only be red if blood is needed to keep it green and yellow." A statement of intent or racy rhetoric to fire up his supporters?

There were conciliatory words in sharp relief to the usual fire and brimstone. “We have a unique opportunity before us to reconstruct our country and rescue the hope of our compatriots,” "We're going to unite the people", and "My vow is to strengthen Brazil's democracy." Promises of national unity and purpose, of extending a filial hand to all the people and bringing them together, it's something even you-know-who wasn't averse to. But in terms of substantive policy, what Bolsonaro is defining as his priorities are interesting - and worrying. The first is the creation of a "culture of impunity", allowing the police to effectively operate without legal checks as they become accountable to a body outside of the judicial process. He knows what this means, but doesn't particularly care. What value do the lives of criminals have, regardless of how they're defined, if you're fighting crime? Bolsonaro has already calculated that this isn't likely to cost him his support - unfortunately the wretched example of Rodrigo Duterte's government-sponsored murders has shown little electoral blowback nor much in the way of international opprobrium or consequences for the Philippines. Though, perversely, Bolsonaro is planning to bring the law into line with what happens already. In various parts of Brazil the police have carte blanche to do as they please already, and some are existing players in the drug trade. All-out war won't stamp crime out, but will allow corrupt units and stations to eliminate and take over the competition. Once the blood letting is done we have a managed and, theoretically, more peaceful "illegal" market.

Bolsonaro is going to need the police on side. As we saw previously, Bolsonaro was successful because the mainstream liberal and centre right parties threw their lot in with his candidacy. Never forget that they did so not under threat of socialist revolution or an upsurge in workers' struggle, but because they preferred a ranting, would-be dictator to a mainstream social democratic president. Nevertheless key to cementing bourgeois interests to Bolsonaro's coalition was adapting himself to the neoliberal priorities of the ruling class. This means cutting back on regulations, privatising state-owned assets and the "reform" (i.e. cuts to) the pensions system. It is the case the workers' movement was, to a degree, demobilised when the Workers' Party was in office, but if the old military governments ended up bringing a militant opposition into existence the possibility of Bolsonaro doing the same can't be discounted. Especially as there already exists a de facto coalition of resistance encompassing indigenous groups, feminist movements, LGBTQ groups, leftists and trade unionists. If your programme for government consists of throwing masses of people out of work so your new friends can loot state property, and hobbling pensions to lower their obligations to employees, you're going to need the police for the confrontations to come. I would expect who is and isn't classified as a criminal starts getting fuzzier as these battles are touched off.

Unfortunately for Bolsonaro, and like Trump (who, incidentally, sent him congratulations in the usual way) he does not have arbitrary power and the Brazilian constitution provides for a number of checks on the executive. The president can issue executive orders, which he has already done on the management of indigenous reserves. However, while it does come into force immediately, under the Brazilian constitution such orders can be amended or rescinded by either House of Congress - they are provisional for 60 or 120 days when they require approval. While thought of as emergency measures constitutionally speaking, all presidents of Brazil have routinely used them since the new constitution was enacted in 1988. This means there is plenty of potential for Bolsonaro to get bogged down in disputes with Congress, just like someone else we know. This is compounded by his Social Liberal Party having only 52 Deputies in the lower house (out of 513) and four senators out of 81 in the upper house. Bolsonaro has already declared that he won't be forming a formal coalition between the PSL and others, but rather approach matters on an issue-by-issue basis - certainly a recipe for protracted wrangling and horse trading. However, again there is the weight of tradition to factor in - self-described liberal and centre parties have tended to back the incumbent in a House of Deputies whose normal state is fractured and split between many parties. No US-style "Resistance" here. As leading figures in these outfits sold their professed love for democracy down the Amazon, the position of Bolsonaro's programme sadly looks better in real life than it does on paper.

Yet, despite the brutality and stupidity we're sure to see over the coming years, what we're seeing - albeit at a very early stage - is something less than fascism. It's authoritarian populism with violent, Brazilian characteristics, and our guide is Margaret Thatcher not Hitler or Mussolini. Bolsonaro is embarking on a class project to subsume the whole of Brazilian society under the law of value by widening the purview of the market into, well, whatever he can get away with. The impunity law shows he is prepared to use repression, up to and including the extension of extra-judicial killings the Brazilian cops are notorious for. Meanwhile, his ranting about "gender ideology" and talking up religious inspiration (coincidentally, Bolsonaro's middle name translates as "messiah"), we have a latter day equivalent of Thatcher's preoccupation with Victorian values. Like everywhere when authoritarian populism takes root, its leader articulates an establishment-friendly anti-establishment poise, an identification of enemies - usually minorities, social movements, and their institutions - and a broken programme of obsolete values. The intended results are uniform, even if the means differ from country to country: freedom of capital for the few, and cowed, chastened discipline for the many. Bolsonaro is in a strong position, but the seeing off of a military dictatorship by mass struggle resides well within living memory. He might just find that things don't go all his way.

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