Bonapartism returns to Brazil

Bolsonaro’s authoritarian style is in keeping with Latin American history.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics World

There is little to cheer in the victory of former soldier Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential elections. He promises a brand of harsh authoritarianism, talking up the potential use of torture, empowering the police to shoot criminals, and, just to add lustre to the iron fist, waxing nostalgically about Brazil’s golden age of military dictatorship during the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

He seems willing to play his part in the illiberal to-and-fro of the culture wars, too. He promises to combat the so-called progressive championing of ‘gender ideology’ and gay rights with a socially conservative agenda that may well be inspired by his own avowed Roman Catholicism. His flagship anti-abortion stance seems designed also to appeal to Brazil’s substantial evangelical Christian populace.

There are other elements to his pitch, too, of course. In particular, he is making great play of being anti-corruption, a PR-savvy move given the extent to which Brazil’s political establishment, especially the hitherto ruling Workers’ Party, has been caught up in and ruined by Operation Car Wash – a police probe that has exposed the vast systemic corruption at the heart of the Brazilian state. That probe has led to the impeachment of one president, the imprisonment of several ministers, and the tarnishing of the entire Brazilian political class.

So, little to cheer. But much to understand. Yet understanding, let alone critical thinking, has been painfully absent in the global response to Bolsonaro’s victory. Instead, too many have been too willing to cry ‘fascist’, to see in the rise of this small-town military man little more than yet another rendition of the 1930s, when the Great Dictators bestrode the world.

How is that helpful? How does it allow us to make sense of Bolsonaro’s success? How does it allow us to understand why he won 55 per cent of the vote (which, incidentally, is far more than Hitler ever won)?

At a distance, which is the preferred vantage point of many fascism-hunters, Bolsonaro can be made to look a bit fascist. He is a military strongman. He indulges in anti-Communist rhetoric. And he is not afraid to demonise certain segments of Brazilian society.

But look a little closer, and a different, historically specific reality emerges. He starts to look less like Hitler, draped as the latter was in the wounded military mythology of the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, and more like what he is: namely, a Bonapartist leader in a Latin America still politically dominated by a long tradition of military generals, from Argentina’s Juan Peron in the 1940s and 1950s to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the 2000s.

The reasons for the Bonapartist strain in Latin American politics do not lie in a middle-class fear of a militant, largely Communist-dominated working class, as the rise of fascism did in interwar Europe. Rather, they are to be found in the material and political weakness of the bourgeoisie in South America; in its inability to sustain both a market economy and a liberal, democratic polity, torn, as it is, between a restive rural population and a fearful ruling class.

But none of this will become clear if one is content simply to label Bolsonaro a fascist. Nor will the concerns and motivations of those who voted for Bolsonaro. Because, while it might be hard to believe for those harrumphing about Mussolini 2.0, Bolsonaro is responding to the concerns and worries of many Brazilians. There is a rise in violent crime, with homicides topping 60,000 in 2017. There is a widespread sense that the rule of law is broken. And there is the fact that the economy, once blazing a trail alongside the other BRIC nations, has slowed – falling by nearly 10 per cent per capita since 2014.

These are the things that Bolsonaro voters talk of: not blood and soil, but crime, unemployment and, of course, political corruption.

Yet it is not a surprise that many Western pundits and politicos have been willing to reduce the Brazilian election to ‘a choice between a moderate social-democratic party and fascism’, with Brazilian voters ‘opting enthusiastically for the latter’. That is because, having been willing over the past couple of years to see fascism lurking everywhere, from Brexit to Trump, but without the fascism ever emerging, they desperately need a pantomime figure like Bolsonaro, pining, as he seems to be, for military dictatorship. He is their dream of ‘the global rise of fascist illiberal forces’ seemingly come true.

But that is all it is: a dream of fascism. A psychological projection. A phantasm. And as such it explains nothing about Brazil today. This is not mere pedantry. Political definitions matter. They matter because they allow us to interpret the world, to make sense of it – sometimes even to change it. And in all three regards, the use of ‘fascism’ fails. Instead, it distorts reality, transforming it into stage for some grim 1930s historical reenactment society.

The word ‘fascism’ may make those indiscriminately brandishing it feel morally pristine, but it tells us nothing about the political and social forces at work in Brazil today. Or indeed anywhere else in the world. It is a substitute for critical thought.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty