Esther Solano, political scientist, professor at UNIFESP and one of the authors of “Mascarados- The true history of the Black Bloc tactics supporters” (Photo- Carolina Piai)
Esther Solano, political scientist, professor at UNIFESP and one of the authors of “Mascarados: The true story of the Black Bloc tactics supporters” PHOTO: Carolina Piai

  • by Carolina Piai

During the last month, the MBL (Movimento Brasil Livre) and its speech gained even more strength in Brazil. The group, which emerged from the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, was the author of the criticisms that led to the closing of the exhibition. Queermuseu, in Rio Grande do Sul, as well as attacks aimed at performance The Beast on MAM. Furthermore, in September, an army general spoke publicly about military intervention more than once.

The scenario of escalating conservatism has become the center of research by the Spanish academic who has lived in Brazil for seven years, Esther Solano. A social scientist and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), she received the report from the page B! for an exclusive interview in his apartment, in the central region of São Paulo. For over 40 minutes, she explained how her analysis and research made her one of the #1 enemies of movements like MBL.

In the conversation, Esther recalls her trajectory, the difficulties she encounters as a woman in the academic environment and in the progressive field, debates the influence of social networks in the current political moment, in addition to telling how she believes the left can dispute the discourse with this group, that exerts more and more influence on the internet.

“In a moment of crisis, many people think that democratic functioning is to blame, that if we had a tougher, more authoritarian, more centralized regime, we would solve the crisis. We cannot give wings to that kind of thinking, because it is too dangerous.”

In recent years, she has conducted field research on the São Paulo protests, together with academics Pablo Ortellado and Marcio Moretto, with the aim of recording the protesters' perceptions. Among the diagnoses, some points stand out: in 2015, in the mobilization for the impeachment of Dilma, one of the answers pointed out that more than half of those interviewed believed that the PT wanted to establish a communist regime in the country. For the researcher, results like this reveal the danger of fake news: “Democracy without information is not democracy. So when we have such poor information, so full of rumours, we end up greatly reducing our democratic capacity”.

Esther defends that the progressive field must dispute the discourse, the street and the internet, “call for a continuous struggle”. Therefore, the political scientist often receives xenophobic and sexist attacks on her social networks. “You have to fight harder to have your voice heard, simply because you're a woman and even more so because you're a young woman,” she says.

“It's like a militia trying to patrol your mind. But at least I have no intention of shutting up, so it's ok: you can go on and I'll go on too!"


Check out the full interview:

page B! – We could start our conversation with you by telling you a little about your trajectory at the academy, how you chose your area, how you came here…
Esther Solano –
 I arrived in Brazil in 2010, I was finishing my doctorate in Spain, but it happened at that moment when the crisis arrived in Spain, so the situation became extremely complicated and here the expansion of vacancies at Reuni took place - these many vacancies that were opened at the time of Lula. I arrived here and managed to pass the contest at UNIFESP. My research actually started in 2013, with the demonstrations, because I am a sociologist and my focus has always been demonstrations, popular dynamics, etc., so it is very much the focus of what happens on the street. So in 2013 I went to the demonstrations, like a lot of people in Brazil, and I started to get very interested in the issue of violence, black blocs, the police… State. Then I started to study the black bloc and police repression as well (Esther Solano is co-author of the book “Masquerades: The True Story of Black Bloc Adherents”). In 2015, the impeachment demonstrations started and I basically joined one research to the other. I started to study, along with Pablo (Ortellado, professor at EACH – USP and columnist for Folha de S. Paulo) and Marcio (Moretto, also a professor at EACH – USP) the conservative demonstrations and now we are a little on that wave, of studying the most conservative movements, right… Another totally different approach.

You recently publicized xenophobic attacks that you suffered on the networks. Do you deal with these attacks a lot?
Much. We get a lot of exposure because we publicize our research a lot in the press. Our idea has always been this: to do research, but not just for the academy, but also to publicize it. So we publish a lot of research, because we think it's important. So there's a positive side, that you can talk to people, but there's a negative side, that you often say things that some people don't like... So I, for example, have two points that are always a source of attack: the misogyny – I am the only woman among my colleagues, so I always suffer much harsher attacks, from all kinds of content, sexist, patriarchal, sexist, etc. – and another that I am a foreigner. There are always misogynistic attacks, and I'm going to say that unfortunately it's not just on the right, there are times when on the side of the progressive camp, on the left there are also these attacks. But unfortunately we have to deal with that – it's hard, because they are very unpleasant attacks and usually come en masse, when you give an interview, something generates an impact, this type of attack comes en masse. It's like a militia trying to patrol your mind. But at least I have no intention of shutting up, so it's ok: you can go on and I'll go on too...

And at the gym do you also find xenophobia and misogyny?
No, at the gym I don't find xenophobia, but misogyny I do. At the gym, what you find is that you, as a woman, have to fight a lot more for your space. Because the academy is a place of privilege for the white man, middle class, etc. So for women it is more difficult to have a recognized voice in the gym. I would say specifically that the misogyny in the gym is this: you have to fight harder to have your voice heard, simply because you're a woman and even more so a young woman – it feels like you have two disqualifications at once.

Masquerade book cover

Do you find the manifestations of machismo in universities in other countries too?
Misogyny is found everywhere. For example, speaking a little about academia, I have academic colleagues in other countries and the narratives are the same. You being invited to a lecture, to a seminar, having a lot of men and you were invited because you are the female quota, you have to be there and that's it. Or, for example: when men talk, people pay much more attention than when you talk. Unfortunately, my colleagues who live abroad, mainly in Europe, which is my point of reference, have already told me very similar things to here. The academy, which is a place that should be at the forefront of inclusion, of dialogue, is unfortunately still a very patriarchal place. I have heard several experiences from colleagues who have suffered this as well. In theory you find more possibilities in the academic field, in practice unfortunately you still have obstacles that are quite large. In addition to these things like motherhood, for example, which still has enormous difficulties – women have left the career, but men have not…

And how do you see the situation of the absence/very little presence of women, blacks and indigenous people in politics?
Sinister… We have only 11% of federal deputies, for example, we are number 115 in the international ranking of women parliamentarians. Brazil is a sinister thing, the problem with all this is that a lot is discussed about political, district reform, whether it is open or closed, campaign fund, but very little, or nothing, is being discussed from the perspective of political minorities. How could we work on a political reform that would include more women and blacks? That's half the population. We are absolutely underrepresented. Unfortunately, we have a Brazilian congress of men, whites, middle class, business people, so it represents very little. That is why it is difficult to expect this congress to adopt a really effective measure to increase female representation. This is something that the feminist movement should also start weaving these reins on, because without female representation in politics we achieve very little, legislative agendas will be blocked all the time. We have very important issues such as abortion, which will be criminalized even more, so the data is appalling. I think the greater participation of women and blacks in politics should be one of the left's fundamental starting points. But unfortunately it is difficult, it is not one of the fundamental points because the parties themselves are patriarchal, for example. Breaking this cycle takes time. So we women have to press yes… all the time. Each space is a space of dispute. Politics is a space of super dispute.

Thinking about the streets, today we have much greater dissatisfaction with the government and in 2013 the mobilization was much greater on the streets. How do you see this process?
It was an exhausting process. If you take 2013 was a very historic moment, then you can't measure everything by 2013 because it was a collective catharsis. And you think: we had almost 3 years with many manifestations, an extraordinary thing. At the same time, we have Lava Jato, which has been increasing, so I think people have seen that the system as a whole is rotting. A dissatisfaction that in the beginning was more with the government, with the PT, started to spread against the entire system. And what has increased a lot is the idea that Brazilians cannot see a way out. Then he realizes that not only the political class is rotten for him – a very anti-political feeling, nobody is good, everyone is corrupt –, he also realizes that there is no way out, that no matter how much he goes to the street, protests, nothing will change – so it's that one: “nothing really changes, right? Everything remains the same”. These two things come together, I think we've reached a moment of great political frustration. We have reached a breakthrough point. People go to the street and nothing changes, Lava Jato advancing so much gave the impression that the whole system is corrupt. And this is very dangerous, because it leaves the doors open to outsiders, like the phenomenon of Dória, Bolsonaro, etc. So I think it will be difficult to reverse this issue of mobilization. This denial of politics, this collective fatigue, happens all over the world. It is difficult to reverse this again…

We have now closed the Queermuseu. Do you believe that MBL has been so strong for what reason?
They do have strength – their strength is not trivial. I always think that the left tries to belittle these groups, but no, they dialogue and they communicate. I think we have to think first that Brazil is a conservative country, so the bubble is ours, the progressive bubble. The vast majority of the population is conservative – it is a very punitive country, which has many racist, class problems. So the MBL started first with a very neoliberal line in the economy, so the main objective was this. This idea of ​​the minimal state and neoliberalism has no conscience in Brazil, people don't want that. So the MBL changed its strategy and moved to more moralist agendas in politics, because that way they really have an echo, so when you move on to moralist agendas, the LGBT population, women, punitivism, you will always find sectors that are very great members of society who support you, because they are agendas that still have cross-cutting issues of racism and classism that are difficult to overcome. MBL is very important, Bolsonaro is very important. As much as we like it or not, they are groups that communicate with society. So perhaps a self-criticism for the left is that we have lost the ability to communicate with society. I don't know if this serves to instigate the left to communicate again, because this is very urgent. We've reached a point where some groups on the right communicate better with society than the left.

How do you believe that the left could dispute the discourse with the MBL, for example?
I think the problem now is that the left camp is still very much tied to a PT project and this is very dangerous, because the left and progressivism have to be much bigger than just one party. So I think the PT crisis ends up being the crisis of the left as a whole. In other words, we actually have this fragility: how to organize ourselves now? I'm thinking here and I think we're not even at the level of disputing the speech, we're still at the level of organizing our field, so the matter is much more precarious. We need to be able to reorganize ourselves, get out of the PT's orbit, gain autonomy. The left has to be much more than a party. Everyone is very lost now, the election is also a difficult time, so all efforts will be focused on the electoral scenario, and not really to restructure the base. So the first step has to be this, and then actually try to really dispute the discourse, because without this prior reorganization it's difficult. For example, the feminist movement is very strong in Brazil, very much so, something very powerful for me. But the feminist movement does not have enough political representatives to give a voice to the institution, in parliament, etc. This bridge with institutions is complicated, it has to be restructured, all of this is urgent…

How do you see the elections in 2018?
So scary! (laughs). I was looking at the last rejection poll and Lula went up 40 points, it's an impressive thing, right, so Lula has reduced his rejection and his positive reception is increasing... If he managed to run, obviously he would win, maybe even in the first round. As Lula's candidacy is very dubious, we have to leave all this in parentheses. If he doesn't manage to run as a candidate, I still think he will be a very important electoral corporal, because symbolically, the person he supports will have great support. So the candidate chosen by the PT will not have the strength of Lula, of course, but he will still have strength because Lula will support him in some way. If Lula is convicted, there will be all that discourse of victimism, “Lula victim”, all of that. So I can imagine a person on the left moved by Lula's strength, but even so, it will be complicated because a condemnation of Lula will be very critical.

I can now see Dória and Alckmin, who are in dispute there, Dória is better in the polls, but he is worse within the PSDB, let's see who will win the internal dispute in the PSDB – which is terrible. And Bolsonaro is very well placed. It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro is more of a social phenomenon than an electoral one, right, because he has a very small party. So let's see if he guarantees himself when the free election time starts, his very small party will hurt. So it is enough to see if it is a mobilizing social phenomenon or an electoral fact. And then there's Marina, who I don't see much possibility, because I think she's her own problem... But that way, if the PT candidate can't go to the second round, we have the possibility of having a second round only. with right-wing candidates. And it is a possibility, yes, that we saw what happened in other countries, in France, for example, ultra right with a liberal right. It could be like that here too...

Considering also the recent statement by General Antonio Hamilton Martins Mourao (army general who, in a lecture held in Brasília during the month of September, spoke publicly more than three times about the possibility of military intervention), do you see a danger of military takeover in Brazil?
I don't see a danger of taking a military coup, but what I see is that people who support and legitimize this speech can increase, that yes. The Mourão episode, for me, was very symbolic. Not because of what he said, because I think there are more people who think that too, but because of the absence of a punishment after what he said. If he said that but was later punished or expelled for saying that, it might be more pedagogical. We have Bolsonaro, who is also this discourse, for me the threat is not the coup, it is that these ideas spread and gain support.

General Mourão (Photo- Pedro Ribas : ANPr : Disclosure)
General Mourão PHOTO:
Pedro Ribas / ANPr / Disclosure

We already live under a coup isn't it...
We already live in a democratic order in quotes. This type of behavior (of General Mourão) is totally illegitimate, so when you see this kind of behavior without any kind of punishment or reprisal you are sending a message that: “Gee, let's support this guy because it's possible!”. We are already in a very fragile moment, democracy has gone a long way, so we should be very careful with that. Because when that happens, you end up instilling in society the idea that democracy is more of a regime, maybe it's not so necessary, in a moment of crisis it may not last...

In a moment of crisis, you have to root out authoritarian discourse because it takes a lot. In a moment of crisis, many people think that democratic functioning is to blame, that if we had a tougher, more authoritarian, more centralized regime, we would solve the crisis. We can't give wings to that kind of thinking, because it's too dangerous. We have just now seen in the elections in Germany that neo-Nazis have won 13% of the parliament. That's very expressive. Either you nip it at the root, or you have a problem that spreads through society.

So you also see these issues in the global panorama.
Yes No doubt. Globally, you have a feeling of frustration with democracy, you have a globalization that is not working for many people, you have migratory problems that are very great, you have the problem of capital itself, the precariousness of work, the vulnerability that had this precariousness. These are very structural problems that the whole world, at different levels, is suffering. And democracy has become very hostage to economic power, so democracy is not giving the answers that many populations wanted. Here comes this anti-political discourse, the denial of politics… And if you look around the world, extreme movements are popping up. In the United States, with Brexit in Great Britain, Marine Le Pen herself in France, the second most voted. So unfortunately it is of a global order, without a doubt.

Returning to Brazil, how do you evaluate the behavior of citizens on social networks?
There's a problem there – I don't know if it's Brazilian, but in general – the social network is a space where a lot of politics and social issues are discussed. And we have a bit of an easy duo because on the one hand it's an interesting place, especially for people who don't have a voice, who are much less heard, to have a platform with more possibilities of access. But, on the other hand, you have a very powerful hate speech, because you also have total anonymity. And we have this issue with Facebook, which works with ideological bubbles, this algorithm thing. So you're actually discussing politics in perhaps the worst place to discuss politics because you can't talk to others. It's all very polarized, the social network is also polarized, so I think the main problem is this: you promote a very unilateral discourse, you can't debate, you can't dialogue. And hate speech is also very free, I think that people have perhaps not yet understood the dimension of the social network. I see that there is this negative side that we talked about, the hate speech, that you expose yourself a lot too, right, because you get great visibility, you are also very fragile on the one hand. But on the other hand, there is a very positive thing, which is dialoguing with many people. So while I tell you that I find a lot of speech against me, I also find a lot of positive speech with me, above all – this is a very important thing – as a woman, for example, there are some girls who write to me saying that the example I set is important as a woman, because, again, we women don't have that possibility of putting ourselves in the public debate. So if I put it on balance, I think that my role as a woman and how I can talk to girls all over Brazil is very important. And I wouldn't be able to do that if it wasn't for social media.

In the research he developed with Ortellado and Moretto, during the impeachment demonstrations, 42% of respondents say that the PT brought more than 50 Haitians to vote for Dilma and 64% believed that the PT wants to establish a communist regime in Brazil. In this sense, 64 and today are very close too…
One thing that we study a lot that is very dangerous is this thing about rumors and fake news, which is not a new phenomenon, there has always been false information. But it is a phenomenon that with the internet you extrapolate a lot. So when the agent measured this, we were seeing just that, how powerful false information, which precisely attacks and delegitimizes the other, is. We measured that too: the most shared news on Facebook each week and you always find fake news among the most shared. And this is very dangerous: the quality of information is very low, you have pseudo information that ends up disqualifying the other, and this impoverishes the debate a lot, which is already very impoverished, you end up in a very warlike dynamic, of destroying the enemy. This was good precisely for those who take advantage of the outsiders' moment, but it ends up greatly diminishing the democratic quality as well. Because democracy without information is not democracy. So when we have such poor information, so full of rumours, we end up greatly reducing our democratic capacity.

In conclusion, do you have any final thoughts?
The left has a lot of this arrogance thing, of those who think they own the absolute truth and we are suffering a lot of losses: impeachment, municipal elections, we can lose many disputes that are coming... It is time to have the humility to recognize that something important is happening on the other side, because this thing of caricature the MBL people, I don't think it's going to go that way, and then go straight to the fight. You can't watch what happens either, you have to dispute the discourse, the street, the internet... Dispute everything. So I think it's a time when none of us can shy away from work, because each one of us also has a responsibility. Call for continuous struggle. Even disputing with your family, in the demonstration, any place is a place of dispute.


Read more research conducted by Esther Solano:

Research in the demonstration against the impeachment of March 31, 2016

Culture Wars Survey – March 26, 2017

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