Jeffery R Webber. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 32, Issue 2, 2020.
Jair Bolsonaro’s government was inaugurated on 1 January 2019. A former army captain and marginal congressperson, he won the second round of the presidential elections in October 2018 with 55 percent of the popular vote, defeating Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), who garnered 45 percent.
The pithy phrase “the bull, bullet, and bible bloc” captures the centrality of agribusiness, the arms industry, and religious conservativism in securing Bolsonaro’s victory. Following a late surge in the polls, representative bodies of domestic and international capital abandoned their traditional party home—the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB)—and rallied behind Bolsonaro, who they saw as the only way out, on their terms, of the country’s protracted economic and political crisis and as a means of thwarting any return to office by the PT. Bolsonaro captured all of the country, outside of PT strongholds in the northeast, and secured votes across the range of social strata, apart from the very poorest, who remained loyal to the PT. The most enthusiastic typical supporter of Bolsonaro was evangelical, male, with above-average educational attainment, a salary more than five times the minimum wage, and residency in the south of the country. Voters with this profile wholeheartedly embraced Bolsonaro’s ideological signifiers of anticorruption, antipathy toward the PT, hatred of “traditional” politics and politicians, conservative religious values, and the promise of law and order.
The difference separating Bolsonaro and Haddad was 10.76 million votes (Oualalou 2019, 69). Roughly 56 percent of the electorate is Catholic, 30 percent evangelical, 7 percent nonreligious, and 1 percent a composite of Afro-Brazilian religions. In this event, the Catholic vote was divided across the candidates, with a slight advantage going to Bolsonaro. Haddad drew more concentrated support than Bolsonaro from the numerically insignificant affiliates of Afro-Brazilian religions, as well as from the nonreligious (69). Crucially, the evangelicals acted as a bloc as never before, with their leaders harvesting years of dedicated political organizing. Although evangelicals represent less than a third of the electorate, they delivered 11 million votes to Bolsonaro, more than the difference separating him from Haddad (70).
So conservative evangelism is a key part of the story, but it needs to be linked to the changing sociological conditions of a specific section of the population: a working-class layer accounting for more than a third of the electorate that receives between two and five minimum wages—that is, impoverished workers, but not the poorest of the poor. This bracket of society used to vote consistently PT, but, in 2018, 61 percent voted Bolsonaro and only 39 percent for Haddad. The poorest, by contrast, persisted in their alignment with the PT. “We can infer, then,” Ruy Braga (2019) suggests, “that the changing loyalties of those who receive between two and five minimum wages … is what explains the election of the PSL candidate.” Joining the downwardly mobile lower-middle-classes-turned-precarious-workers in their support for Bolsonaro was a petty-bourgeois layer of commercial retailers and liberal professionals—doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like—with a shared animosity for taxes and state provision of social rights (Garcia 2019). Intermediate tiers of the social structure gravitated to Bolsonaro in large numbers while capital cohered behind him as a last way out of crisis.
The regime is constituted by an unsteady alliance between extreme cultural authoritarians (Bolsonaro, his sons, and the ministers of education, foreign affairs, and the family, all of whom are indebted to the worldview of Ovalo de Carvalho, a bizarre astrologer-cum-philosopher who resides in West Virginia), militarists (figures from the armed forces who occupy 103 positions across different levels of the state, from the vice presidency, to ministries, to federal banks, to municipalities, to strategic state enterprises, such as Petrobras), and neoliberal technocrats (crucially, in the ministries of finance and justice). The policy paralysis of Bolsonaro’s first six months in office suggest that the Bolsonaro government is a weak and internally divided far-right regime, with declining popular support. And while capital came to Bolsonaro’s side in the elections as a way out of crisis, the markets are losing faith in the government, as the cultural authoritarians hamper a clean rollout of the privatization, deregulation, and pension-reform agenda promised by the neoliberal technocrats.
But how best to characterize a regime that emerged out of capitalist crisis with the social bases and ideological composition I’ve just outlined in cursory form?
Brazil and Classical Fascism
The above question necessarily means engagement with the renewed theoretical and historical debate on fascism. Discussion surrounding the emergence of new right-wing leaders around the world in recent years has generated a series of comparisons, some more and some less serious, with the era of classical interwar European fascism (1922-39). In his outstanding contribution to these debates—a systematic comparison of Trump’s America with classical Italian and German fascism across the terrains of geopolitics, capitalist crisis, class and nation, and civil society and political parties—Dylan Riley (2018, 7) contends that much of the framing of the puzzle has been wrongheaded from the outset. “For the issue is not to explain why, in the aftermath of a severe financial and economic crisis in the capitalist core, accompanied by a massive upward transfer of wealth by ruling centrists, blue and red, right-wing—and, in a few instances, left-wing—outsiders have come to power,” Riley insists, “but rather why these politicians have largely remained within the established framework. In short, the question is not why our contemporary politics resembles those of the 1930s, but why it does not.”
Riley (2018, 16-17) clearly identifies what he takes classical fascism to have meant, as well as its underlying causes: “The interwar fascist regimes were a product of inter-imperial warfare and capitalist crisis, combined with a revolutionary threat from the left. They emerged within the late-coming, second-rank powers that had been excluded from the imperialist game, where civil societies were characterized by a high degree of political mobilization, with a nationalist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie pitted against an internationalist working class, and offered an imperialist-revisionist solution to the crisis.” A careful assessment of the Trump era next to interwar Italian and German fascism, understood along these axes, reveals decisively that the current government of the United States cannot seriously be characterized as fascist, and that it is a major concession to the liberal politics of the Democratic Party to argue otherwise.
Perry Anderson (2019) has suggested that this is no less true of Brazil under Bolsonaro, and for a similar set of reasons: “Fascism was a reaction to the danger of social revolution in a time of economic dislocation or depression,” he stresses. “It commanded dedicated cadres, organised mass movements and possessed an articulated ideology.” While the South American nation featured a serious fascistic movement in the late 1930s—the Integralistas, under the leadership of Plínio Salgado, whose million or so members were mobilized in reaction to the communist insurrection of 1935—there is no sense in speaking of fascism in Brazil at the moment. “Nothing remotely comparable either in terms of a danger to the established order from the left, or of a disciplined mass force on the right, exists in Brazil today … In 2018, the Communist party of old was long gone, combative trade-unions were a back number, the poor passive and dispersed, the PT was a mildly reforming party, for years on good terms with big business. Breathing fire, Bolsonaro could win an election. But there is scarcely any organizational infrastructure beneath him and no need for mass repression, since there is no mass opposition to crush.”
In a similar vein, the Argentine political theorist Atilio Borón (2019) has weighed in against claims that Bolsonaro represents some kind of resurgence of Brazilian fascism. In fact, for Borón, fascism was only ever a European phenomenon, and one which was possible only under very specific, unrepeatable conditions. Borón’s analysis departs from the basis that fascism is an exceptional form of the capitalist state, divergent from bourgeois democracy, its ideal mode of domination. The fascist state was a particular response by specific capitalist states in Europe in a context of interwar crisis. It can never be reproduced because the conditions that made it possible have disappeared from the world, and thus fascism is today an exclusively historical analytical category.
Attached to this baseline, Borón makes four narrower claims. First, fascism involved a political configuration of power in which the dominant bloc was hegemonized by the national bourgeoisie. This fascist political formula was a means of resolving a crisis of hegemony brought on by the mass insurrectional capacities of the subaltern classes and internal contradictions within the ruling bloc at the close of the First World War. Today, transnational and financial capital have replaced the national bourgeoisies, and in the absence of its chief protagonist, no fascist regime is possible.
Second, classical fascist regimes were radically statist and illiberal. They featured highly interventionist forms of political economy designed to build up protectionist barriers to foreign trade, protect national industry, and expand the number and scope of national enterprises. Leaders like Bolsonaro, even if they wanted to, would find it impossible to roll out such an agenda today, given global economic conditions and the complexities of contemporary state institutions. In any case, the new right-wing leaders don’t want to pursue such a path, as indicated in Brazil by the appointment of neoclassical economist Paulo Guedes to the ministry of finance.
Third, classical fascisms in European history were regimes rooted in mass organization and mobilization, with the middle classes constituting their key support base. The mobilization of the middle classes was orchestrated under the rubric of the proletariat’s destruction, involving particularly brutal assaults on trade unions. In some cases, such as the Italian scenario, the mass character of fascism even extended into the labor movement itself with the construction of vertical unionism. In contradistinction, Borón (2019) expects Bolsonaro to deepen the depoliticization of Brazilian social life through the acceleration of civil society’s disaggregation and atomization.
Fourth, and final, European fascist projects were intensely nationalist and sought, through the projection of military and commercial power beyond their territories, to confront the dominant powers and reconfigure the world order in their favor. Bolsonaro, in contrast, is not a genuine nationalist in Borón’s (2019) account, as his foreign affairs orientation involves the abject subordination of Brazil to U.S. power.
The State Form and Power Blocs
In what to date is the strongest counter to this basic thread of argumentation, which links elements of the otherwise disparate perspectives of Riley, Anderson, and Borón, Armando Boito Jr. (2019a) has offered an intricate three-part series of essays assessing the potentiality of Brazilian fascism in the twenty-first century, with the first piece appearing the week Bolsonaro took office and the last appearing three months into the new administration. His carefully calibrated essential claim is that fascism cannot be excluded from the range of possible developments growing out of Bolsonaro’s rise to the presidency, even though the regime at the moment is not fascist and the possibility of it becoming so is not very likely.
Boito Jr. (2019a) begins with Borón, identifying a theoretical ambiguity of argument insofar as Borón oscillates in his characterization of fascism as first having to do mainly with the state form (a deviation from the ideal mode of bourgeois democracy) and then later mainly with types of power blocs (led by national bourgeoisies). For Boito, it is correct to start with fascism as a problem of the state form, whereas it sows confusion to think of it in terms of power blocs. Fascism in Boito’s view is a form of state in the same way that bourgeois democracies and military dictatorships are forms of state. In actual historical cases of bourgeois democracies and military dictatorships, the power blocs in question have been composed of highly varied classes and class fractions: that is, there are many possible power bloc configurations within the same form of state. Why would we exclude this possibility from our definition of fascism? Even if it were true that national bourgeoisies have disappeared from the scene, as Borón contends (highly dubious), would the state form of fascism be an impossibility as a result? Why should we not consider the potentiality of new fascist forms with distinct power blocs appropriate to the novel setting of internationalized and financialized capital?
Another question arises from Borón’s intervention. Was fascism actually European in some exclusive sense? Enzo Traverso (2019a), rehearsing a set of arguments first put forward by Federico Finchelstein (2010), has insisted on the global rather than European history of fascism, a view that if taken seriously rules Borón’s position out of court. Latin American fascism, as Anderson recognizes in his brief aside on the Integralistas of Brazil, reached its height in the 1930s. From a global perspective which takes into account the non-European world, the causal force of the First World War in the rise of fascism ought at least to be relativized (Traverso 2019a, 170-1). In the Argentine context, for example, the fascist tradition was rooted not in the experience of World War One but rather in “internal colonialism” and wars of extermination against the indigenous population. Argentine fascism had its own traditions of militarism, dictatorship, and nationalism, its own cultures of violence and racism (171). Through the lenses of Traverso and Finchelstein, we can see both how European fascism played a part in the origins and ideological construction of Latin American fascisms and at the same time how Latin American experiences were always irreducible to their European progenitors. More than mere disciples or imitators, Latin American fascists were inventive and syncretic (171).
It is in such a broad spirit of a global frame for fascism that Boito (2019c) conducts his more theoretical argument. In imperialist countries, the power bloc of fascist states will not resemble those of dependent capitalist societies. At the level of theory, it is therefore reasonable to imagine an eventual fascist state in Brazil serving the interests of international capital, rather than those of the national bourgeoisie, as in the classical interwar European experience. It is furthermore conceivable that, rather than a political economy of state intervention, such a fascist state would adopt a neoliberal program of economics and a neocolonial relationship with the dominant powers of the world order. Borón’s a priori dismissal of such an outcome stems in part from the conceptual collapsing of state form and power bloc in his treatment of the issue.
Fascism, as one of the dictatorial forms of the capitalist state, also requires fascist ideology in Boito’s schema, as well as a mass movement that materializes that ideology and seeks to embed it in the state, spreading it throughout society through the seizure of state power. As they struggle to implant fascism in this way, fascist movements make tactical decisions based on the balance of forces and the sense of the possible in any particular conjuncture, just as any movement would. Thus, even if fascists have captured the state or part of a state, it is a tactical question whether they will pursue or postpone the struggle for the implantation of a fascist dictatorship. It is therefore important to register, theoretically, that it is possible for a fascist movement to arrive in government and not to implant a fascist dictatorship. In the Brazilian case, for Boito, what we see is a neo-fascist ideology, a neo-fascist movement, and a government in which neo-fascists are engaged in a struggle for hegemony with other factions internal to the regime. Yet, instead of a fascist regime, Brazil under Bolsonaro remains a deteriorated bourgeois democracy in crisis (Boito 2019c).
At this stage, Boito (2019c) offers his most succinct attempt to capture the general characteristics of fascism in a definitional sense: it is a mass reactionary movement based in the intermediary classes of capitalist social formations and driven by an ideological discourse that is superficially critical of the bourgeois economy and state. Fascism is a movement that seeks power, not to represent the intermediary classes of its mass base but rather to act as the representative of the bourgeoisie or one of its factions, in a particular political project of overcoming crisis through the establishment of an antidemocratic, antiworker, and antipopular dictatorship.
In classical European fascism, for Boito (2019c) as for others, a mass party rooted in the petty bourgeoisie, together with militants and leaders recruited from the most marginalized lumpen sectors of society, responded to insurrectional workers’ movements and mass parties that were openly threatening the overthrow of capitalism. Anticommunism was a defining feature of classical fascism in Europe throughout its reign, its militant counterrevolutionary impulses galvanizing an amalgamation of “the disparate elements of fascism and … transforming its ideology into a political project and its worldview into an active movement. In other words, fascism could not have existed without anti-communism” (Traverso 2019b, 118). It was precisely the antisystemic threat of communism that led European ruling classes to facilitate the entry of fascists into state power, more often than not through legal elections. Today, then, the absence of a credible antisystemic Left allows a certain space for the development of the radical Right in many parts of the world, but it also tends to constrain the depth of allegiances those in the Far Right can win from the capitalist classes, who prefer, in the absence of systemic threats to capital’s rule, more predictable political representation in the state (13).
In Brazil today, according to Boito, neo-fascism is not a response to an insurrectional anticapitalist movement since there isn’t one. But Brazilian neo-fascism is mobilized upon the basis of a mass movement of heterogeneous popular class composition typical of dependent-capitalist societies: a composition of “workers of the marginal mass”—the lumpenproletariat—together with fractions of the middle class. The critical instances of mass mobilization of a neo-fascist character were the huge demonstrations of 2016 and 2017, which grew out of the anti-Workers’ Party (PT) impeachment protests of 2015. For Boito (2019c), neo-fascism in contemporary Brazil operates without a mass party, mobilizing its bases instead through social media and right-wing movement organizations like Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement), Vem pra Rua (Come to the Streets), and Revoltados on Line (Online Rebels), which was first forged in the anti-PT impeachment mobilizations of 2015.
Richard Seymour’s (2019, 171) penetrating study of contemporary social media, or “social industry” as he prefers, is pertinent here: “We should begin to take seriously the possibility that something about social media is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism,” he argues. While warning consistently against any technodeterminism, Seymour is correct to “take seriously the fascist potential of the social industry, or its potential to intensify and accelerate proto-fascist tendencies already at work.” For Seymour, there is “something about the way in which we interact on the platforms [Twitter, Facebook, and so on] which, whatever else it does, magnifies our mobbishness, our demand for conformity, our sadism, our crankish preoccupation with being right on all subjects” (175-6). If in its classical European form fascism “built its organization through recruitment from social organizations, such as veterans’ clubs, germinal neo-fascism recruits from those loose associational practices of the platforms. The networked social movement has acquired jackboots” (191). Outside of party structures—and drawing on the novel identifications allowed by social-media interaction—Bolsonaro has harvested the libidinal bonds forged with his core supports—roughly 30 percent of the Brazilian population. But only by constantly reproducing instantaneous and direct identification, stoking Twitter controversy, resurrecting the country’s institutional decay, and tilling the soils of moral panic can Bolsonaro continue to titillate his hardcore followers (Nobre 2019). The sensation of participating in a Bolsonarista WhatsApp group is one of popular power, however illusory in reality, and of the capacity to support, sculpt, and scold the politics of one’s leader while rallying to his defense against enemies, internal and external. The sensation of immediacy, of “participatory ecstasy,” is something many Bolsonaro supporters had never experienced via the traditional political system (Nobre 2019).
Bolsonaro’s grip on the grassroots organizations of the anti-impeachment movements of 2015 may be slipping, however, as the first two of the movements mentioned above have become openly critical of aspects of the government and have refused to participate in recent pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations in late May of 2019. The contrast with Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India is clear in this respect. As Achin Vanaik (2018) has explained, the BJP is an ideologically disciplined and cohesive party, with a cadre or base developed over decades and an organization of violent foot soldiers that can be easily mobilized.
Whereas in classical fascism, national capital implanted its hegemony over a petty-bourgeois movement, in Brazilian neo-fascism, it was international capital, together with segments of big Brazilian capital and the upper middle class, that rallied to Bolsonaro after their traditional representative, the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), proved incapable of properly contesting for presidential office in 2018 (Boito 2019c). A mass movement led by the upper middle class took shape between 2015 and 2017 and was ultimately captured politically by international capital and segments of big Brazilian capital when they ultimately backed Bolsonaro and ensured his consolidation as the head of state. Geopolitically, the new power bloc has shifted the Brazilian state into an open alliance with the United States in its world-hegemonic dispute with China (Boito 2019c).
For Boito (2019c), the securing of neo-fascist hegemony within the governing coalition and the subsequent establishment of a fascist dictatorship in the country is a genuine possibility, although not the most probable of available pathways. The present state of decayed bourgeois democracy might persist, or the government in its present form might be replaced by a military dictatorship of a nonfascist variety. A military dictatorship, as distinct from a fascist one, does not organize a popular movement of support and tends to underestimate the centrality of the struggle for cultural and moral hegemony in society (Boito 2019b).
Ideology is part of Boito’s framework as well. For Olavo de Carvalho—according to Boito, the key ideologist of neo-fascism in Brazil—the military dictatorship of 1964-85 is criticized for having failed to carry out a cultural war against Marxism when it had a chance. In the eyes of Carvalho’s followers, the dictatorship did good work on the economic front, but politically and culturally it neglected the systematic destruction of the roots of the Brazilian Left. What is it that Carvalho’s followers, including Bolsonaro, are telling us when they speak of the dictatorship in this way? For Boito (2019b), they are saying that, instead of a military dictatorship of the standard variety, what is required is fascism. Under the conditions of the latter, a proper struggle against “cultural Marxism” could be waged.
In an incisive intervention on the political culture of classical fascism, the historian Jairus Banaji (2017) explains that “fascist ideology is actually only a pastiche of motifs, it is a pastiche of different ideological currents, it has very little coherence on its own.” Following this line of inquiry, one can identify a comparable eclecticism in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, even if fascist dictatorship has not been installed. Bolsonaro’s weltanschauung revolves mainly around conspiracy, the political Left, women, black and indigenous people, LGBTQ+, and environmentalists. He has famously explained that he would be incapable of loving a homosexual son, that he would rather such a son die in an accident than survive while gay (Anderson, J. L., 2019). But we might be in danger of overstating the similarities in the eclecticism of Bolsonaro’s far-right worldview and the ideological platforms of classical fascism if we go down this road too hastily. For Traverso, on the one hand, the variegated far-right manifestations of the current period in world history do exhibit “a certain coherence” in their discourse but are “no longer grounded in a strong ideology.” On the other, while he recognizes that “classical fascism was characterized by incoherence, tension, and conflict” in a way that overlaps with Banaji’s view, Traverso (2019b, 29) parts ways with Banaji insofar as he stresses that such incoherence, tension, and conflict was in the 1920s and 1930s nonetheless overlaid with a prominent role for ideology—pivoting on anticommunism: “And certainly far more so than it does among the forces of the radical right today.” As ideology has receded in importance for the new Far Right, so too has political style—images and slogans—become far more prominent, often wedded to an antipolitics of “postideological ecclecticism” (33).
If Boito underestimates the importance of the difference between mass fascist parties with developed cadres and loose coalitions of right-wing movement organizations networked through social media, and if he did not anticipate how prone to paralysis Bolsonaro’s administration would be in its opening months, he nonetheless raises some important questions that competing frameworks cannot sufficiently address. Unlike Borón, both Riley and Anderson do not preclude the possibility of fascism assuming a new relevance at some point in the future: that is, fascism for them is not by definition a historical category. But the way they pose their investigations as a systematic comparison with the 1930s tends to blind them somewhat to possible mutations to which any new fascism would be subject; fascism in the twenty-first century, given the mammoth changes of global capitalism and world politics, would obviously not look the same as it did in the interwar period, even if it shared some core characteristics, just as capitalism in the twenty-first century is a mix of unforeseen novelties and underlying similarities (certain laws of motion consistent with capitalism in earlier eras). Riley and Anderson’s similar method of inquiry—a method more explicit in Riley and implicit in Anderson—impedes a fuller sociological imagination of neo-fascism in the present and near future, in this respect at least.
On this methodological terrain, Traverso (2019b, 4) once again proves insightful. Stressing that concepts such as fascism “are indispensable for thinking about historical experience,” Traverso also points to the ways they can be “used to grasp new experiences, which are connected to the past through a web of temporal continuity.” In lieu of the “homologies and repetitions” toward which one is oriented to detecting in the frameworks of Riley and Anderson, Traverso instead urges us toward “analogies and differences” through his historical comparison of the contemporary Far Right and classical fascism, always attentive to “this tension between history and language.”
Mechanics of Historical Comparison
In pointing out that most inquiries into the comparability of the present and the 1930s turn the relevant question on its head, Riley suggests that the real puzzle is why new right-wing leaders have continued to operate within the “established framework.” That is, why are the politics of our time so unlike, rather than similar to, the 1930s? This makes sense if we restrict our focus to the United States under Trump. But even if no one is seriously arguing that Bolsonaro’s Brazil is already a fascist dictatorship, at the least it is not straightforward to say that the country has been operating within the “established framework” since the 2016 parliamentary coup ousted Dilma.
Anderson, meanwhile, in stressing the importance of a mass movement to fascism and ruling out contemporary Brazil as a case study of this political phenomenon because it lacks any such movement, misses the significance of the street mobilizations of 2015-17, as well as the possibility of their return in defense of Bolsonaro. It is true that there is no established cadre and no fascist party. But there has been, indeed, a Far Right mass movement composed of intermediary classes. And has not capital seized upon the very presence of this movement to back Bolsonaro as an exit to Brazil’s monumental socioeconomic and hegemonic crises? And is not the ideology of the culturally authoritarian current of the government coalition centered on the aim of a military revival, this time accompanied by a popular cultural counterrevolution? Might this be the form that neo-fascism would assume in its early stages in twenty-first-century Brazil were it to hegemonize the state?
In the end, Boito is absolutely correct to point out the conceptual slippage in Borón’s analytical framing of the question (much cruder than Riley and Anderson’s); meanwhile, the evidence for the global rather than European character of fascism, as offered by Traverso and Finchelstein, suggests that Borón is no closer to the target in his historical analysis.
Still, long-time observer of Latin American politics Claudio Katz was circumspect and sobering on this issue when I interviewed him in early May 2019 in Buenos Aires. “I think that one can say that Bolsonaro has ingredients, fascist elements,” Katz argued, “but fascism is a process, and what the process of the fascization of Brazil would be is unknown. Bolsonaro could represent only the point of departure.”
There is a long way yet to go between Bolsonaro’s rule and the implantation of fascism in Brazil, as any systematic comparison with other Latin American Far Right experiences would suggest. According to Katz (pers. comm.): “In order for there to be a fascist regime in Brazil, repression would have to set down deeper roots and have a very clear rightist leadership. There are two antecedents of what this fascism might look like, the first being Augusto Pinochet. Bolsonaro would have to first reach the level of Pinochet, that level of repression and that level of counterrevolutionary authority within the middle class, in the face of a threat … as a reaction to Salvador Allende, to have that. And for that anticommunist ideology to take root, and that solidity of a regime, and he would have to develop the social bases that Álvaro Uribe enjoys in Colombia. Not only a structure of paramilitaries, but also the support of a sector of the right-wing middle class in the tradition of the Colombian oligarchy. Well, Bolsonaro is very far from beginning to reach those two things.”
Furthermore, the first several months in office don’t suggest momentum in this direction: “The problem is that the government of Bolsonaro, the three months or so that he has been in power is a joke,” Katz (pers. comm.) points out, “a laugh, a record of nonsense. Even at Carnival, there were troupes making fun of Bolsonaro, because of his comic program; what he says is a set of crazy ideas, but it’s a delirium within a government that is in full paralysis. It could be that Trump is also delirious, but Bolsonaro is not Trump. Bolsonaro’s is a government which does nothing.”
The Militia State as Precursor?
Any accounting of the potentiality of neo-fascism in Brazil would be remiss if it excluded a discussion of the militia form that has taken root in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro since the 1990s, albeit with roots stretching back to the death squads of the military dictatorship (Cláudio 2003). If in 2016 the election of an evangelical cultural authoritarian to the mayoralty of that city foreshadowed the rise of the same forces to the level of the national state in 2018, the racialized militia terror of Rio today is precisely the sort of paramilitary force that could be utilized and extended in an expressly authoritarian future.
It remains an open question to what extent Bolsonaro’s regime could instrumentalize the militias to fascistic ends of its own, given their relatively autonomous sources of independent power. Likewise, we cannot know in advance the prospects for extending the militias—under the guidance of the state—beyond their heartland in Rio, except to speculate that, while not a trivial task, such an extension under Bolsonaro is within the realm of possibility. While it is true that the militias predate Bolsonaro and have elaborated networks of relatively independent power of their own, it is also true that the lines between militia power and state power in Rio have long been blurred and that, crucially, Bolsonaro’s familial-political dynasty, rooted as it is in that city, is the best-positioned network of politicians in Brazil today for building on preexisting ties to the militia underworld. If Vanaik (2018) has correctly stressed the centrality of violent foot soldiers to the fascistic elements of the BJP in India today, and Katz has pointed to the paramilitary connections to the state under Álvaro Uribe’s former government in Colombia as a potential model for any development of fascism in contemporary Latin America, the militias in Rio, with their familial connections to Bolsonaro, are the most probable source for foot soldiers should fascism actually consolidate itself in twenty-first-century Brazil.
Vera Araújo has worked as a journalist for thirty years in Rio, specializing in public security reportage. In March 2005, she published a piece in O Globo, the city’s lead newspaper, revealing how eleven groups of paramilitaries controlled 42 favelas in the city, principally in its western zone. She was the first to use the term “militia” to describe these paramilitary groupings, which are constituted in the main by a mix of active and former police officers, firefighters, and prison guards who establish firm holds on communities under the pretext of fighting drugs while actually extorting huge amounts of money from residents and local shops, running arms, usurping control over informal service markets, and often becoming players in the drug trade themselves (de Abreu 2019; Fogel and Richmond 2019).
The proliferation of militias has proceeded apace since Araújo’s path-breaking report. According to state officials, militias are present in 88 of 1,018 communities in the city, often having moved into control of drug trafficking or open competition with organized crime syndicates (de Abreu 2019). Just over a year ago, Marielle Franco, a 38-year-old PSOL (Socialism and Liberty Party) councilperson and prominent local activist in black, feminist, and LGBTQ struggles, was returning home from a public forum on “Young Black Women Moving Structures” when she and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, were shot and killed in a premeditated professional assassination in the center of Rio (Neuenschwander and Giraldes 2018). Franco (2018) was raised in the Complexo da Maré, a conjoined area of sixteen favelas in the northern zone of the city with a population of 130,000. As a councilperson, Franco’s brief tenure was characterized by a militant defense of women, Afro-Brazilians, and the LGBTQ community, as well as frequent and sharp criticisms of police violence. The day after her assassination, 50,000 people gathered in front of the municipal legislature in Rio to protest, and there were simultaneous popular demonstrations in seventeen Brazilian states. She has since become a symbol of popular resistance to the Bolsonaro regime (de Abreu 2019).
In mid-August 2018, O Globo made the initial claims of a link between Franco’s assassination and a militia group named Escritório do Crime (Crime Bureau), headed by an ex-captain of the military police in the city, Adriano Magalhães da Nóbrega. The newspaper explained how the Crime Bureau carries out regular assassinations for payments ranging from $R200,000 and $R1 million, depending on the profile of the victim and the complexity of the task (de Abreu 2019). Nóbrega, who is now a fugitive at large, was honored on two occasions in the Rio legislative assembly by then assembly deputy Flávio Bolsonaro for honorable service to the community. On one of those occasions, Flávio was instrumental to Nóbrega being awarded the Tiradentes Medal, the highest honor awarded by the assembly. Flávio would later be the only assembly member to vote against Marielle Franco receiving the award posthumously (de Abreu 2019). Here, the overlap of militia violence, state legitimation, and the Bolsonaro familial-political dynasty in Rio is plainly evident.
Flávio is also linked to the story of Franco through his role in Wilson Witzel’s successful run for the governorship of the state of Rio in the October 2018 contest. The support of Flávio helped to launch the then-unknown ex-federal judge to victory. During the campaign, a video and photographs were taken with Witzel’s cell phone in which Witzel appears in the back of a pickup truck in the city center alongside two PSL candidates for the state and federal legislative elections. They are wearing Bolsonaro t-shirts and are holding a plaza sign, broken in two, with the name Marielle Franco on it. Left-wing activists had earlier replaced a sign on the plaza officially known as Plaza Marechal Floriano, in the centre of Rio, with the Franco sign. In the video of the event, Rodrigo Amorim, one of the PSL candidates in question, can be heard saying, “We’re going to sweep away these tramps. PSOL is finished, the PCB [Brazilian Communist Party] is finished. All of that is goddamn finished here. Now it’s Bolsonaro, damn it.” Daniel Silveira is the PSL candidate for the federal assembly appearing in the video. Both Silveira and Amorim were subsequently elected, with huge numbers of votes (de Abreu 2019). Flávio vociferously defended their actions in the plaza on social media. Recently, in 2019, it came to light that Amorim, now a member of the state legislative assembly, has the broken street sign on display in his office (Vianna 2019). Witzel, now governor, has since “initiated a ‘shoot to kill’ policy against armed criminals and recommended that police helicopters patrolling the favelas carry snipers to ‘slaughter’ anyone openly carrying a weapon. In February, police officers in the Fallet-Rogueteiro favela killed thirteen young men, most of whom were reportedly executed after they had surrendered” (Anderson, J. L., 2019). While there is then a relative autonomy to militia power, there is also a symbiotic relationship between the militias and the state apparatuses controlled by the Far Right. This established dynamic is gaining momentum under Bolsonaro.
Two suspects involved in the Franco assassination were finally named in March 2019, after federal police intervened in the local investigation following months of intentional bureaucratic mismanagement of the case—apparently the result of pressure from militia thugs, local state officials, and a sundry assortment of Rio politicians. Ronnie Lessa, the alleged shooter, is a retired police officer turned contract killer in the employ of the Crime Bureau. Élicio Vieira de Queiroz, the suspected getaway driver, had also been a police officer until his expulsion from the force for organizing security for an illegal gambling establishment (Barbara 2019).
Of course, Lessa and Queiroz are not the ones who ordered the hit, even if they carried it out. “Last November,” Vanessa Barbara (2019) writes in an important piece on the Rio militias published in the New York Times, “Brazil’s public security minister at the time said that it’s ‘more than a certainty’ that powerful people are involved in the murder. Some say, half-jokingly, that it might be easier to pinpoint who is not involved. By now the federal task force has searched the residences of a former state representative, a former civil policeman, a former federal agent and an active-duty federal police officer.” Again, the imbrication of the militias and networks of state power could hardly be clearer. Despite repeatedly denying that he knows the two suspects, many Brazilians suspect that it is more than a coincidence that Bolsonaro and Lessa were once neighbors in a gated seaside Rio community, and that the president’s son dated Lessa’s daughter. Bolsonaro has also been captured happily posing next to Queiroz in a photograph. Throughout his career as a congressperson, Bolsonaro (quoted in Barbara 2019) lent vocal support to the militias, suggesting that “as long as the state does not have the courage to adopt the death penalty, those death squads, in my opinion, are very welcome.”
The myriad ways in which public officials and politicians appear to be enmeshed with the militias suggest that there is no clear demarcation separating the state from paramilitaries. “It looks like there’s no need to legalize militias in Brazil, after all,” Barbara (2019) writes. “Today one might have the impression that paramilitary groups are not merely acting as a parallel state—they are the state.”
The military, the military police, and the militia often correspond in their aims and actions. In 2018, with Rio de Janeiro’s favelas under military intervention at the behest of Temer, there were 1,532 officially registered killings by police. In 2019, the numbers were equally impressive: 170 dead in January alone. After the apparent execution of fifteen young men by police after they had been detained, Witzel, as governor, immediately declared the police actions to have been legitimate (Vianna 2019). The militias serve a gamut of powerful interests, within and outside the state, and are therefore not to be confused with mere drug-trafficking outfits. “Militias want to transform their territorial domination into electoral capital,” Marcelo Freixo (2019) insists. “In other words, the project of the militias is economic and political. Their cadres help elect city councillors, deputies, prefects, and senators.” If Bolsonaro presently lacks a fascist party and cadre on a national scale, it is not difficult to imagine that the extension of the militia form beyond Rio might be an important element in his reversal of this situation, should he ever prove capable of carrying it out.
But it’s unlikely that he will. Policy bottlenecks in the first several months are themselves an expression of the enormous challenge of sustaining such a heterogeneous social base in a context of persistent world-market stagnation and a first-quarter contraction in Brazil’s economy. Unless he enables the neoliberal technocrats of his government to carry out their agenda, Bolsonaro will quickly be abandoned by capital, and his government weakened still further as a consequence. The government’s debilitation was heightened in early June 2019 when investigative journalists at the Intercept unveiled incontrovertible evidence of ex-federal judge and current minister of justice Sérgio Moro’s clandestine collaboration with state prosecutors in the conviction and incarceration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, just as the former president and PT presidential candidate was leading the polls and looked set to beat Bolsonaro in the 2018 elections by a landslide (Fishman et al. 2019; Greenwald and Pougy 2019; Greenwald, Demori, and Reed 2019). The installation of a fascist dictatorship in Brazil looks even less likely today than it did in January 2019. Yet the most persuasive theoretical, historical, and political frameworks, then as now, are those that do not rule out the possibility altogether.
While Traverso’s (2019b) recent neologism “postfascism,” used to describe the present moment of the international Far Right, seems to me ultimately unsatisfying, methodologically he points us in the right direction for the further development of this debate through his defense of the concept. First, Traverso’s (4) method points to the “chronological distinctiveness” of new Far Right formations “and locates [them] in a historical sequence implying both continuity and transformation; it certainly does not answer all the questions that have been opened up, but it does emphasize the reality of change.” Second, his method suggests that the new Far Right in Brazil and elsewhere in the current period is a “phenomenon in transition, a movement that is still in transformation and has not yet crystallized,” and thus we need transitional concepts that necessarily do “not have the same status as the concept of ‘fascism’” (6). Finally, Traverso points to the contingent—if not wide open—future for Far Right developments, as well as for popular resistance to them. All of this is “moving in a direction whose ultimate outcome remains unpredictable” (6).