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Bolsonaro's Handling of COVID-19 Has Unleashed a Layered Crisis in Brazil

This is the forth piece in the series on BRICS and Covid that is being published in The Wire. The piece is written by Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos and Ruy Braga

Read the full piece on The Wire here

Read part one of the six-part series here and part two (Russia) here, part three (South Africa) here


Around the world, people are bored in quarantine. But not in Brazil. Here, politics is accelerating at a frantic pace, led by a potentially suicidal president. Unlike Vikor Orbán or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 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.

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 demonstration in Brazil’s history), corruption scandals and economic recession shifted the ruling classes’ approach from inclusive neoliberalism to social dispossession, and from conciliation to class warfare. This is the background to Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff’s deposition in 2016, Lula’s arrest and Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018.

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 a Bolsonarism without Bolsonaro.

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 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 unions, informal workers are welcomed by evangelical churches instrumentalised by the fundamentalist right wing which, through a theology of prosperity, offer 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.

Bolsonaro counts on 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 black shirts.

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, of being 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 citizens, synthesises rotten and corrupted politics. When the 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 Brasilia 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.

It is a movement that cannot recede, but on the contrary, only accumulates mass, speed and violence. 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 the COVID-19 pandemic 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 March 18 became a successful national strike. 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.

The president responded by radicalising denial and collected enemies in the process. At each of his speeches, pots ring 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 distancing is aimed at 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 politics 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 the economy minister supports Bolsonaro’s political calculation.

Obviously, this is a risky bet, which is leading the country to a catastrophe. As Pierre Salama noted, if fighting COVID-19 is depicted as a war, then Bolsonaro is a war criminal. In this scenario, the fact that a president who appears both suicidal and genocidal 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 (1964-1985) 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. He announced emergency aid of R$600 for more than 50 million people – that is four times more money to four times more people than the Bolsa Família programme, the social star of Lulism.

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 ringing of his opponents, his constituency drive their cars and honk in front of hospitals, opposing confinement and everything in the way of their leader.

At the moment, none of these camps have 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”, 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 R$ 600 in the banks. In the countryside, the chance for medical assistance is small and the virus has reached indigenous territories, with a potentially devastating effect. In short, the 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 everything, while the couriers themselves at first protested in vain, on empty avenues. The senzala (slave quarters) revamped as always.

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

Against the indifference of the rich and the cynicism of Brasilia, 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 tonnes 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 Brasilia. On that front, over 20 impeachment demands were filed against Bolsonaro in the first month of the pandemic – none started by the PT, who 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 hopeless 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, amidst a population anxious to return to some kind of normalcy, even if more and more debased, with or without Bolsonaro.

Fabio Luis Barbosa dos Santos is Professor, Federal University of Sâo Paulo and author, most recently, of Power and Impotence: A history of South America under progressivism, 1998-2016 (Brill: 2020).

Ruy Braga is Professor, University of São Paulo. His most recent book published in English is The Politics of the Precariat: From Populism to Lulista Hegemony (Haymarket: 2019).

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