Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid-19 has unleashed a layered crisis in Brazil

By Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos and Ruy Braga 4 August 2020

Food delivery workers protest in Sao Paulo amid the Covid-19) pandemic. The workers were demanding protective equipment such as masks, face shields and gloves. (Photo: Rodrigo Paiva / Getty Images)

This is the third in a six-part series that will look at how the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in the BRICS countries.

Part one: Introduction. Part two: Russia.  Tomorrow: China.

Around the world, people are bored in quarantine. But not in Brazil. Here, politics has accelerated at a frantic pace, led by a potentially suicidal president. Unlike Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Jair Bolsonaro did not take advantage of the pandemic to concentrate power and restrict civil liberties. Instead, he seeks to enhance support for his moral and political agenda: an inverted revolution, in the fashion of fascism.

Let’s review the context. After a successful decade, in which modest improvements for those from below combined with the usual privileges of those from above, Lulism lost traction. By Lulism we understand a mode of regulation of class conflict that engaged the passive consent of the subaltern classes to a government project led by a trade union bureaucracy entrenched in the state, which ensured modest but effective concessions to workers.

Demonstrators wearing face masks hold signs during a rally against President Jair Bolsonaro and Governor of Rio de Janeiro Wilson Witzel at Copacabana beach on 28 June 2020. (Photo: Andre Coelho / Getty Images)

A decade of relative social pacification ensued against the backdrop of economic growth fuelled by the commodities super-cycle. However, the conjunction of the June 2013 days (the largest cycle of mass demonstrations in Brazil’s history), corruption scandals, and economic recession, shifted the ruling class’ approach from inclusive neoliberalism to social dispossession, and from conciliation to class warfare. This is the background to the 2016 deposition of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff; the arrest of ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018.

For those from above, Bolsonaro offers the framework of authoritarian neoliberalism, which is the police state. Without a programme of his own, he outsourced the management of the economy to a genuine Chicago boy, Paulo Guedes. As a filling, he advances a retrograde behavioural, cultural and scientific agenda which the elite tolerates, but considers distasteful. Its support for the former captain is a marriage of convenience, as it ideally seeks Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro.

Members of the ‘Levante de Mulheres’ (Women’s Uprising) raise their fists during a rally against President Jair Bolsonaro in front of the National Congress on 2 July 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo: Andre Borges / Getty Images)

However, Bolsonaro has ideas of his own: a dynasty, with the military as its party and the evangelicals as its social base. In order to understand the popular support he enjoys, it is important to consider that the escalation of the government’s political violence reflects a social unease regarding the ongoing fraying of labour relations. In a world marked by the deepening of informality and widespread job insecurity, the resentment of subordinates against those perceived as “privileged” extends to the rights of organised labour.

In place of the unions, informal workers are welcomed by evangelical churches instrumentalised by the fundamentalist right-wing which, through a theology of prosperity, offers them both spiritual support and the will to work. After all, in order to function in an uncertain and violent environment, the entrepreneurship that typifies the informal economy requires massive doses of self-discipline that, in practical terms, only popular religiosity is capable of providing.

Mirassol and Corinthians players before a match between the football clubs as part of the State Championship semi-final at Arena Corinthians on 2 August 2020 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The match was played behind closed doors and with precautionary measures against the spread of Covid-19. (Photo: Alexandre Schneider / Getty Images)

Bolsonaro counts on elective affinities with the evangelicals to build an organic base, as part of his effort to convert the virtual support that elected him into real mobilisation – internet users into blackshirts.

In this, Bolsonaro follows an invariable script: he chooses enemies to attack, while portraying himself as a victim. Bolsonaro accuses people, but also institutions and the press, as obstacles to his project, contriving a logic of self-fulfilling prophecy. So when the president accuses Congress of boycotting him, he shifts responsibility for his failures to those who “don’t let him rule”, while at the same time mobilising popular support to face the institution that, in the eyes of citizenship, synthesises rotten and corrupted politics. 

Visitors wearing face masks walk in the Sao Goncalo Municipal Centre of Northeastern Traditions on 2 August 2020 in Sao Goncalo, Brazil. The city of Sao Goncalo authorised the opening of the centre on weekends. (Photo: Luis Alvarenga / Getty Images)

When Congress reacts, the president’s narrative is legitimised, and therefore he raises the tone. When it shuts up, the president advances another square. In this game of inversions, Bolsonaro appears as subversive, while the left brandishes the constitution in defence of order.

Bolsonaro’s simple answers to complex problems in Brasília correspond on internet channels to the narrative of a hero who faces successive villains, as in a video game. In this logic, the government’s achievements do not matter, because the rule of political effectiveness is different: to inflame its supporters and naturalise what was, until recently, intolerable. Bolsonaro rewrites what is normal, expanding the aspirational horizon of his base.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro waves as he rides a motorcycle in Brasilia, Brazil on 25 July 2020 after testing negative for Covid-19. Bolsonaro, 65, tested positive for the disease on 7 July. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andre Sousa Borges)

It is a movement that cannot recede, but, on the contrary, only accumulates mass, speed, and violence in snowball fashion. As such, the president summoned his base to demand the closure of the National Congress on March 15. Three days later, a demonstration was planned by various social movements, unions and left-wing party activists in defence of education, which under the circumstances took on the shape of a counter-demonstration.

It is in this context that Covid-19 landed in Brazil. The March 15 act ended up cancelled, but some diehard supporters took to the streets and were personally greeted by the president. Against the background of Bolsonaro’s negationism, the demonstration of 18 March became a successful national hitting of pots and pans. It unexpectedly revealed that Bolsonaro’s support is declining among the rich and the middle class, the first to be hit by a virus that arrived through Brazilians who hold passports.

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The president responded by radicalising denial and collected enemies in the process. At each of his speeches, the beating of pots rings out of windows. Was the president lost in his parallel world? In the survival calculations of this perverse political animal, any death drive is a political opportunity. It is necessary to seek reason behind the madness.

Bolsonaro assumes that the crisis has two dimensions, sanitary and economic. The discourse against horizontal isolation dialogues with those who die of hunger, not of Covid-19. Bolsonaro correctly assumes that workers want to work. Evangelical leaders, whose churches have been emptied, are also opposed to the social isolation measures implemented by governors and mayors, as are traders and businessmen.

The other side of this is the certainty that the Brazilian state, concocted under slavery, will never assist workers as in Europe: on the contrary, legal measures have facilitated wage cuts and layoffs. The neoliberal fundamentalism of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes supports Bolsonaro’s political calculation.

Obviously, this is a risky bet, which is leading the country to a catastrophe. As noted by University of Paris emeritus professor and Latin America poverty studies expert Pierre Salama: if fighting Covid-19 is depicted as a war, then Bolsonaro is a war criminal. In this scenario, the fact that a suicidal and genocidal president is tolerated by the population and by Congress, indicates the despair of those from below, and the cynicism of those from above.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro doubled his bet, in a government that has more military in top posts than the military dictatorship of 1964 to 1985 ever did. Criticised in the press, intimidated by the judiciary, harassed by the ruling class and with his popularity threatened, Bolsonaro contemplated a fuite en Avant (headlong rush). He announced emergency aid of R$600 (about R2,000) for each of more than 50 million people, that is, four times more money to four times more people than the Bolsa Família, the social star of Lulism.

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Then, surrounded by the military and without the economy minister, he announced a public investment plan opposed to neoliberal orthodoxy. The move was clear: to strengthen direct links with those from below, supported by the military, to the detriment of class solidarity with those from above. A kind of Lulism in reverse, as philosopher Paulo Arantes said.

However, the president walks on thin ice. Political turbulence troubles capital and has forced Bolsonaro to retreat, reaffirming full powers to the minister of economy. Against the pot-striking of his opponents, his constituency drives its cars and honks in front of hospitals, opposing confinement and everything in the way of their leader.

At the moment, none of these camps has the strength to tip the balance, and the future of the country is held hostage by parliament – the one the president intends to close. Without the strength to do so, Bolsonaro buys his stability through horse-trading politics, with the “large centre” being a heterogeneous cluster of small venal parties full of love to give, in exchange for posts and funds. In short, he does politics as usual. 

Beyond Brasília, Brazil became the global epicentre of the epidemic in June, surpassing the United States in daily coronavirus deaths despite notorious underreporting of cases. Studies showed a correlation between the president’s popularity, disrespect for isolation and the collapse of the public health system in several regions. In urban peripheries, isolation is impracticable, while workers crowd together to receive their R$600 at the banks. In the countryside, chances of getting medical assistance are slim and the virus has reached indigenous territories, with potentially devastating consequences. In short, it’s social apartheid as usual.

Many hit pots, but didn’t let their maids go. Others lived in confinement with their servants, who did not return to their homes. Companies increased the commissions charged to bike couriers who supplied “home offices” with necessary supplies, while the couriers themselves at first protested in vain, on empty avenues. The senzala (slave quarters) are revamped as always.

However, on 1 July, a national courier strike mobilised tens of thousands of informal workers in at least six state capitals. The spectre of senzala rebellion looms as always, too.

Against the indifference of the rich and the cynicism of Brasília, networks of solidarity blossomed in poor communities. An iconic image shows 425 “street presidents” in a favela in São Paulo who gathered in a soccer field, six feet away from each other, to discuss their solidarity campaign. The landless movement (MST) had donated over 2,300 tons of food they produced before June. Thousands of initiatives have been mapped at a grassroots level, completely disconnected from the state but also from the established left, whose focus is Brasília. On that front, more than 20 impeachment demands were filed against Bolsonaro in the first month of the pandemic – none started by the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT) which just recently changed its game. The established left seems condemned to irrelevance, as never before.

Crime has fallen, the sky has cleared up and birds sing in the windows of the middle class. Underneath the calm, suffering is creeping. The economic crisis hits everyone unequally, spreading tension in a society hoping for a future better than the present, but without hope that it will be better than the past.

In Brazil, there will be no Keynesian reflux or a revival of a welfare state that never existed. Instead, the trend towards dispossession will be resumed with redoubled fury, amid a population anxious to return to some kind of normalcy, even if more and more debased – with or without Bolsonaro. DM/MC

Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos is Professor at the Federal University of São Paulo and author, most recently, of Power and Impotence: A History of South America Under Progressivism, 1998-2016. Ruy Braga is Professor at the University of São Paulo. His most recent book published in English is The Politics of the Precariat: From Populism to Lulista Hegemony.

This article is the third in a collection that comes out of a collaborative project comparing neoliberal politics and social movement responses in the BRICS countries, generously supported by the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences (NIHSS) in South Africa. It is republished with permission from The Wire, an independent online publication in India, and the original can be found here.

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