Following the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the political Left must reflect on its own mistakes to overcome the Far-Right’s recent electoral hegemony.
History is a series of baffling circles, in part, because memories are short. Or, at least, very difficult to elicit at the right time. Over the course of the 2000s it was tempting to believe that Latin America had turned a corner as decades of fascism gave way to a ‘Pink Tide‘ of governments determined to deliver for the people the kinds of duties and services that ‘liberal democracy’ always claims to represent. In recent years, however, democratic procedures have thrown up the kinds of opportunities for elites that once were only achieved by military coup: Sebastián Piñera in Chile, Mauricio Macri in Argentina and, now, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. All supporters of their countries’ respective fascist regimes. All currently democratically-elected presidents. The political slogan Nunca Más (Never Again) has morphed, inexorably, into a vengeful thought: Para Siempre (For Always).
Latin America’s transition to democracy was only ever partial. In the course of transition, it was clear that capital would still largely run the show. If one wants to read a morality tale for the costs of stopping a democratic revolution halfway, one need only look at ‘The Land of the Free’. When George W. Bush was elected President in 2000, I remember thinking that the US would be hard-pressed to elect anyone with as much malevolent incompetence again. (I am told this was also a popular reaction to Reagan’s election a generation earlier.) The hubris of this thought occurred to me again with the election of Donald Trump. It couldn’t actually get worse than Trump, could it? Latin America, ever conscious, it seems, of living in a North American shadow, does not appear to want to be outdone.
Let the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil serve as a permanent reminder of Edgar’s refrain in King Lear: ‘The worst is not / So long as we can say / “This is the worst”’ (4.1 31-33). Here is a man who said on television that he had raped a chicken. A champion of family values that would sooner wish death on his son than have him fall in love with another man. An advocate of the poor that has rhapsodised about his fantasies of murdering them en masse. Bolsonaro won the election with 55 per cent of the vote. This means that he didn’t just tie up the votes of the sadistic rich but also a very large proportion of the people upon whom he intends to wage war.
In moments like this, one can easily throw one’s hands in the air and declare that democracy doesn’t work. In fact, of course, results such as these are symptomatic of democratic failures. Which is to say, failures of the Left. History may be a series of baffling circles, but it is also something we can circle out from – as long as we are willing to go beyond despair and cliché and really listen to it.
The following are some very general thoughts on what Brazil’s presidential elections tells us about the Left’s shortcomings. As an outsider looking in, they are very impressionistic and invariably pertain largely to our own domestic situations in the UK. I make no apologies for this, but comments, criticisms, updates, revisions and outright objections are very welcome.
1) Religion: the Opiate of the Masses. Perhaps, but the Right has never shied away from engaging with religion as a tool for political ends. In the run-up to Brazil’s election, Bolsonaro forwent a televised debate between presidential candidates in favour of televised chat with Edir Macedo, one of Brazil’s foremost evangelical pastors. Come election day he had the evangelical vote (more than 20 per cent of the population) locked down. The Left could and should learn from this. There isn’t anything necessarily reactionary about religion. Christianity was once the Church for the oppressed and dispossessed and still bears these marks today. Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti has shown both the radicalising potential of Biblical parable, sermon and collective worship ritual. Whatever the religion or denomination, religious buildings are on the corner of every street in the world. The Left needs to meet people where they are, not where they would prefer they were
2) Crime: The Left is often too reticent about issues of crime and security. Crime may be the only recourse to some of the poorest and most marginalised sectors, but it is also the poorest and most marginalised sectors that bear the brunt of crime. Brazil has astronomical rates of violent crime and homicide. This might go some way towards explaining why Bolsonaro’s brutal campaign pledge to restore order had such a positive reception. Bolsonaro has promised to send the military in to patrol violent areas, give police greater license to shoot suspected criminals and revise Brazil’s gun laws to make it easier for Brazilians to arm themselves. In practice, we know this is mere euphemism for killing poor people, but it’s nonetheless a radical response to a dire situation. The Left is right to be cautious about state violence, but wrong to believe that abstention from the problem is the answer. The Left need similarly bold, if very different, ideas for tackling crime. Poor people need security too.
3) The Personal is Political: A famous radical feminist refrain, and yet it seems the Right might understand this more than the Left. The Right is very good at formulating universal narratives of loss and decline and then tying these very personal emotions to a common enemy. Bolsonaro previously has turned his fire on women, black people and the LGBT community. One can easily underestimate how perversely unifying and empowering this vision can be. It does not matter that collectively these groups encompass a majority of the population. Ignore the numbers and focus on the underlying sentiment. There is (almost) always someone below you in the pecking order. People, especially when they are angry and desperate, often have a tendency to kick down rather than punch up.
The Left, meanwhile, has a tendency to render its personal politics in a liberal language of difference. In the process, black experience is ghettoised, gender and sexuality is domesticated. It needn’t be this way. One of the most powerful features of much feminist and race theory, as Joanna Ryan among others has pointed out, is just how incisive it is in elucidating the experience of anyone who finds themselves under someone else’s command (‘we all gotta serve somebody’). We need less BAME and diversity officers, and many more black people, women and LGBT people occupying real positions of power and championing universal themes. In this, Brazil has been something of a pioneer. Marielle Franco, a black lesbian councillor from Rio, would not be confined to minoritarian advocacy, rather she became a fully-fledged champion of the poor. Her murder and the joyous response elicited from Brazil’s Far-Right, is testament to how threatening to elites Leftist universalism can be.