Brazil faces an inglorious end to a democratic experiment that has marked two generations

Brazil faces an inglorious end to a democratic experiment that has marked two generations

The country’s democracy is besieged by the authoritarian neoliberalism of a rabble of inexperienced and inept mobsters and conmen, led by President Jair Bolsonaro.

The rising tide of authoritarian neoliberalism in the world is symptomatic of the impact of the global financial crisis (GFC) that started in 2007, followed by years of “fiscal austerity” and, in sequence, by crises of political systems and institutions of representation in several countries. Their mass discontent has tended to be hijacked by the far right, fronted by “spectacular” politicians committed both to the intensified reproduction of neoliberalism and to their own self-referential power. These experiences are common to several countries, including Brazil. 

Cycles of the Left

The next significant aspect of the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism in Brazil concerns the tribulations of the left, especially its dominant force since the 1980s, the Workers’ Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT).  

PT leader Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected president in 2002, and his administrations (2003-2006  and 2007-2010) benefited greatly from the global commodity boom. In those favourable circumstances, Lula’s policies tended to follow a “path of least resistance”, which refers to the PT’s commitment to political stability, that is, not trying to change the Constitution or to reform finance, land ownership, the media or the judicial system, not mobilising the workers and the poor, and not challenging the hegemony of the traditional elites.  

Consequently, PT governments had to rely on unwieldy alliances and case-by-case negotiations with unprincipled politicians and, for reasons of “credibility” with capital, kept the neoliberal economic policy framework imposed by previous governments. 

The limitations of the path of least resistance emerged, first, because of the deterioration of the post-GFC economic environment and the gradual tightening of Brazil’s balance of payments constraint; and second, through the country’s persistent productivity slowdown, the government’s inability to deliver improvements in infrastructure and living conditions in urban areas, and the continuing dysfunctionality and speculative character of the financial system. 

These limitations implied that economic growth and potential gains in the distribution of income depended heavily on the global commodity boom. When it faltered, in 2011, the Brazilian economy ran out of oxygen. 

The model of growth and distribution pursued by the PT in the administrations led by Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2014 and 2015-2016), also implied that the middle class would be squeezed by the preservation of the privileges of the rich, the improvement of the lot of the poorest, and the deteriorating quality and rising cost of urban services. These structural pressures, and the political shortcomings of the Rousseff administration, led to a steep erosion of support for the government.  

In the meantime, an alliance of elites, including most right-wing political leaders, finance, the media, the upper middle class, business and the higher echelons of the civil service, with strong US support, moved to impeach the president on trumped-up charges of fiscal malfeasance. 

After the judicial-parliamentary-media coup against Rousseff, the administrations led by her former vice-president, Michel Temer and, in sequence, by Jair Bolsonaro, imposed a vicious modality of authoritarian neoliberalism in Brazil, including a disabling attack on the fiscal policy tools available to the government, and the partial dismantling of the country’s emerging welfare state.  

Bolsonaro and the rise of the right

The emergence of the alliance of elites marks the third key aspect of the election of Bolsonaro.  

In contrast with previous rightwing mobilisations, the alliance of elites did not appeal centrally to Cold War-type anti-communist discourses, and it was not inspired by Catholic values, due to the much greater influence of Protestant sects. Instead, the alliance of elites mobilised against a mythical danger of “Bolivarianism” and the threat of “leftwing authoritarianism”. The alliance also called for “the end of corruption”, which was code for “destruction of the PT”, and for the closest possible links with the US and Israel, bordering on outright submission. 

President Bolsonaro emerged from this milieu. His campaign was supported by an assortment of small parties and neophyte politicians representing different forces within the alliance of elites. Their campaign focused, first, on allegations of “corruption” against the left, drawing upon Bolsonaro’s purported status as a “clean” political outsider (despite his 28-year career as a federal deputy).  

Second, it promoted conservative moral values and the rollback of citizenship. The candidate attacked social movements and the left because they are “corrupt”, “communist” and “godless”, and advocated the restoration of “lost” values by deathly violence. 

The campaign’s third point of focus was public security and easier access to weapons, which has a strong appeal in a country enduring over 60,000 murders per year. The fourth point was a neoliberal economic programme, drawing upon the intuitively appealing notion of reducing bureaucracy and the deadweight of a corrupt state. 

The election

Bolsonaro’s election can be examined from four angles. 

First, since 2013 Brazilian politics has been defined by a convergence of dissatisfactions. Disparate demands and conflicting expectations have buttressed the alliance of elites supporting an authoritarian neoliberal programme that is destructive of collectivity and citizenship. 

Second, the history of the Brazilian right suggests that the powerful tend to rise up if their wealth is directly threatened, or if economic privilege fails to secure political prominence. Nevertheless, mass support for rebellions of the elites depends on the mobilisation of the middle class. 

Third, in the period leading to Bolsonaro’s election, the far right achieved ideological hegemony and a solid electoral majority, despite the lack of stable leadership, strong movements and solid political parties.  

While in other countries well-organised rightwing movements led by experienced leaders achieved power by traditional means, in Brazil the state was hijacked in 2016 by a squabbling band of reactionary and corrupt politicians who, in turn, passed the baton to a rabble of inexperienced and inept mobsters and conmen, led by Bolsonaro.  

Their ambition is to impose an uncompromising neoliberal and anti-national development strategy, backed up by a militarised state ruling over a gangsterised society: their government must rely on authoritarian means, and its rule will create political impasses that will be difficult to resolve within the Constitution. 

Fourth, despite the fractures and insufficiencies on the right, the Brazilian left remains hampered by internal disputes about the past (especially the role of the PT and the achievements of its administrations), and it lacks a cogent programme for the future, apart from the restoration of democracy. 

Brazil is tearing itself apart socially, economically and politically. Whether or not the country will slide into an overt politics of violence drawing upon drug wars, gun trafficking and state terrorism, or, alternatively, whether or not democracy will implode because of a military coup, it is likely that we are witnessing the inglorious end to a democratic experiment that has marked two generations, and that achieved significant successes.  

The only alternative to these negative outcomes for the majority demands the protagonism of a new wave of left movements and organisations. They would offer the best hope to lift the political curse that has gripped Brazil. DM/MC

Alfredo Saad-Filho is a professor of international development at King’s College in London, and was a senior economic affairs officer at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. He has published extensively on the political economy of development, industrial policy, neoliberalism, democracy, alternative economic policies, Latin American political and economic development, inflation and stabilisation, and the labour theory of value and its applications.

This is the third in a series of 10 essays by authors of chapters in Destroying Democracy, neoliberal capitalism and the rise of authoritarian politics, Volume 6 in the Democratic Marxism series recently published by Wits University Press and edited by Michelle Williams and Vishwas Satgar. The sixth volume centres on how the global democratic project is being eroded by decades of neoliberal capitalism and how authoritarian politics are gaining ground. The essays focus on four country cases — India, Brazil, South Africa and the US — in which the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the pre-existing crisis. They interrogate issues of politics, ecology, state security, media, access to information and political parties, and affirm the need to reclaim and rebuild an expansive and inclusive democracy.

Destroying Democracy is an invaluable resource for the general public, activists, scholars and students who are interested in understanding the threats to democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the global south and global north. It is freely available as open access at: Destroying Democracy. DM/MC


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