Claudio Tozzi, "The Prison", 1968. Photo: Publicity.

* By André Singer, Christian Dunker, Cicero Araújo, Felipe Loureiro, Laura Carvalho, Leda Paulani, Ruy Braga, Vladimir Safatle


I. The bolsonarista project and the pandemic

In ancient communities, it was customary to choose chiefs with exceptional powers on two occasions: in war and in epidemics. The Romans called this concentrated power "dictatorship." In contemporary times, dictatorship has become the name, not of a government instrument that can be implemented in contexts of crisis, but of an authoritarian political regime, necessarily the result of usurpation. The coincidence of the name reminds us of a subtle distinction that the XNUMXth century proved to make all the difference, confirming an old adage: “opportunity makes the thief”. 

President Jair Bolsonaro's attempt to instrumentalize the Federal Police, which led to the resignation of the Minister of Justice, is just the last link in a long chain of an authoritarian project.

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, the hard core of Bolsonarism had been laying the foundations of an anti-democratic regime based on the submission of government practices to the logic of permanent mobilization – in the networks, in the streets, in the churches and, dangerously, in the barracks. Such mobilization starts from the diagnosis of the exhaustion of negotiation spaces proper to liberal democracy, but not in the sense of reforming it, much less replacing it with mechanisms of direct democracy. It is an authoritarian turn that centers on a personalistic cult leadership, whose actions and words are intended to symbolize the truth, without any opening for dissent.

We see the model spread across the world. With US President Donald Trump as its leader, Bolsonaro and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán form some of the main members of this far-right authoritarian international. Orbán has used the coronavirus crisis to gain exceptional powers, representing the best-performed authoritarian stealth experiment so far. It is said to be furtive, in Adam Przeworski's terms, because it does not stem from a coup d'état, but is implemented gradually, based on the letter of the law, and led by democratically elected leaders - similar, by the way, to the way in which certain regimes fascists rose to power, like German Nazism.

Still a candidate for the presidency, Bolsonaro had given numerous proofs of his authoritarian project, ranging from statements in favor of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) to encouraging extrajudicial executions by the police; from the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents to threats of coups d'état. Once president, attacks on the rule of law continued. At the end of October 2019, federal deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president's informal spokesman, threatened to edit, in case of radicalization, a new AI-5. A month later, Finance Minister Paulo Guedes repeated the threat. In January of this year, the government leader in the Chamber, Major Vitor Hugo (GO), stated that the Constitution provides for the suspension of individual and collective guarantees and freedoms in case of need. In February, the military police riot in Ceará, supported indirectly by the president, posed an even greater threat to democracy, with a breakdown of military authority, the emptying of power of governors, and a demonstration of the loyalty of the leaders of the mutineers to Bolsonaro.

In pre-pandemic Brazil, the pretext that had been forming for the closure of democracy was the mission to defeat the internal enemy, characterized as anti-national and anti-Christian. Here, a set of stereotypes and prejudices that permeate conceptions about family, sexuality, gender, race, drugs, security, education, culture, science, private property, international relations and, uniting everything, the role of the State in society and in the world are amalgamated. . Based on the construction of the domestic enemy, the Bolsonar power project imposes a dynamic of continuous transformation of the country, aiming at the consolidation of an intolerant, violent society, and focused on the preservation and deepening of historically unequal structures of power, status and wealth.

The biggest horizon of Bolsonarism is the ideological mutation of sectors of society, which start to operate, without any repression, from deep indifference, aversion to solidarity, and lack of respect for others. We are facing an attempt at a conservative revolution. This revolution has a foundation  highly mobilized – and, most dramatically, part of it armed – willing to blindly follow in the footsteps of the leader. Grounded in military unionism, a cult of violence, and glorification of the Armed Forces and the police, Bolsonaro maintains a faithful following in the ranks of these corporations, as well as in the militias. It is a power that cannot be underestimated.   

How does the pandemic affect this project? In Hungary, in order to use Covid-19 as a pretext to further close down democracy, Orbán had to recognize the seriousness of the public health threats that befall the world. The urgent adoption of restrictive measures to curb the transmission of the virus served for the Hungarian prime minister to disguise his dictatorial ambitions. In the context of the pandemic, the country's parliament, controlled by Orbán's party, approved the possibility for the prime minister to govern by decree, cancel elections and punish disseminators of what the Executive itself considered to be false information that put the health of the population at risk. There, it became clear that the pandemic could become a major threat to democracy, as it is a perfect alibi for the need to establish a regime of exception.

But Jair Bolsonaro's position has been, on the contrary, to deny and hide the enormous risks brought by the disease. At first, even the depth of the economic collapse caused by the pandemic was minimized: on March 16, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes still declared that the Brazilian economy “could perfectly grow 2,5% this year”. In a second moment, the Planalto started to recognize the economic danger, but only to attribute it to the restrictive measures taken by mayors and governors. In this sense, by minimizing the pandemic, Jair Bolsonaro gave up the possibility of taking the reins of the situation himself, accumulating exceptional powers like Orbán; on the contrary, he has been presenting himself as a champion of individual freedoms, the right to work, to come and go, and even data privacy.

To the general perplexity, however, the signs that the horizon continued to be the realization of the authoritarian project did not cease in the midst of denialism. On March 15, suspected of carrying the virus, Bolsonaro decided to mix with protesters in Brasília who were calling for the closure of Congress and the Federal Supreme Court (STF). A few days later, he declared that decreeing both a state of siege and a state of defense would be “relatively easy”, a matter of “a few hours”, through “legislative action for Congress.” If approved by Congress, this would make it possible to restrict assembly rights, telephone secrecy and freedom of the press, in addition to making it possible to search and apprehend at home without a court order and even imprisonment for “crimes against the State”. On April 19, Army Day, Bolsonaro addressed pro-military intervention protesters in Brasília in front of the Army HQ, saying that there would be no more “negotiation” possible with the scoundrels (read: Rodrigo Maia and STF, main targets of the demonstration), and that “now it is the people in power”.

The escalation against the rule of law, denialism and the tactic of fraying institutions have inflated opposition to the president in the Legislative, STF and within his own ministry, in addition to having caused a loss of support for the government in part of the economic elites of the country. parents. The STF's guarantee of the autonomy of states and municipalities to determine policies of social isolation and the difficulties in dismissing the former Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whose policies were diametrically opposed to presidential rhetoric, signal a context less favorable to the bolsonarista project. Likewise, the departure of Minister Sérgio Moro represents a hard movement to deconstitution of the network of institutional support that supported the president.

It so happens that Bolsonaro’s political and institutional isolation works to reinforce the myth of the “chained savior”, hostage to corrupt and anti-national institutions, allowing him to maintain the practice of playing on the backs of supposed internal enemies – now represented especially by the governors and the president. of the Chamber, Rodrigo Maia – blamed for a potential disturbance of public order, while the president would be the only one concerned with defending the population's employment and income. With this, Bolsonaro aims to expand support among the unprotected popular strata and consolidate his relationship with business sectors – such as retail, for example –, which will suffer profound impacts from what must be the biggest annual drop in GDP in our history.

Despite being a very high risk bet, it could prosper depending on the longevity and severity of the crisis. Adding the quasi-religious cult of Bolsonaro's personality with the fact that a significant part of the supporters are armed, concentrating on the lower ranks of the Army (corporals, sergeants, lieutenants and captains), the police and the militias, we have an explosive combination. for contexts of instability and uncertainty, especially when dealing with a figure whose project is precisely to destroy democracy. It is, in short, a project of conservative revolution that is capable of putting Jesus Christ behind a gun and militarizing our schools.

II. The contradictions of Bolsonarism

But the pandemic also creates an opportunity for opponents of the president. By constituting a literally invisible enemy, the fight against the virus needs to be collective to be effective. Acting collectively, however, represents diluting the divisions with which Bolsonarism operates, with its dehumanization of internal enemies and its permanent polarization of good against evil. Hence also why Bolsonaro denies the existence of a threat to public health, recreating dichotomies that keep supporters permanently mobilized. 

The crux of his argument is: how to compare the physical death of a few to the economic death of the country, prevented from producing, working and supporting its children, which would result in an infinitely greater number of deaths? Brazil is being faced with a false choice: either probable physical death or certain economic death. The third and obvious way out, which rejects the dilemma between economic death and physical death, involves minimizing the lethality of the virus as much as possible, via social isolation - the latter coordinated with states and municipalities and supported by broad emergency support to the public health system. health -; and also mitigate, in the magnitude and time required, the loss of income and employment, from the approval of measures to protect and support economic sectors in collapse.

The adoption of the third path would require the abandonment of two of the main pillars of Bolsonarism. To stop the contagion of the virus and avoid the collapse of the hospital system, it is necessary to value science and the university more than ever, leaving aside the anti-intellectualism that is at the essence, above all, of the Olavist wing. To preserve the population's income as much as possible during the isolation phase and prevent a depression of the economy after the pandemic is under control, it is necessary to put an end to the market fundamentalism that helped elect Bolsonaro. This issue did not need to be addressed, for example, by Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who joins the authoritarian platform with a strong opposition to neoliberalism and globalization. 

To be elected president in 2018, instead of blaming foreigners for the loss of jobs, as far-right leaders did in countries of the global North, Bolsonaro took advantage of the population's growing frustration with the worsening living conditions since 2014-16. to reinforce the common sense that the corruption of the political establishment – ​​and of the left, in particular – was responsible for the economic recession. For the economy to grow again, it would be necessary, therefore, to get rid of the State itself in its various spheres of action, except that of security and incarceration.

In the midst of the current crisis, which requires state action more than ever, the government finds itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, if it does not abandon market fundamentalism, it will have to deal with the loss of popularity among those most affected by the crisis. On the other hand, by radically changing the discourse in the economy, it exposes internal contradictions. So what we're seeing are attempts to do a little bit of each.

In an improvised but substantive change, when pressured by projects approved by Congress, the government ended up implementing measures that were radically contrary to the neoliberal DNA, including the granting of large resources for the emergency basic income program, the part of unemployment insurance for workers with reduced working hours, the exemption of several economic sectors, and the offer of subsidized credit lines for companies in difficulty. On April 22, without the presence of any representative of the Ministry of Economy, the Minister of the Civil House, Walter Braga Netto, announced an economic recovery plan of R$ 30 billion in infrastructure investments until 2022. On the other hand, despite the important changes, the economic team maintains the neoliberal discourse that structural reforms, aggressive spending cuts and privatizations will be necessary in the post-pandemic context.

In the case of the anti-intellectual pillar, the response was less ambiguous. The president completely refused to value science and support isolation measures, opting, in his capacity as head of state and government, for a veritable death sentence for risk groups. By showing himself indifferent to the task of protecting citizens against the threat of death, Bolsonaro breaks with the basic principle of the social pact and with the justification for the existence of the State itself: the guarantee of the right to life.

The information that emerges every day about the dynamics of the spreading of the pandemic, the nature of the disease produced by the coronavirus and the effective therapies to treat or prevent it still need to be submitted to the scientific method of empirical verification and refutation - something that requires time and caution. However, based on what has already happened in other countries, evidence is accumulating on the degree of lethality of Covid-19 and the wide variety of risk groups. In the context in which reality tends to impose itself on conspiracy theories with the persuasive force of the number of dead and sick, the modus operandi typical of Bolsonarism risks losing strength.

There is also strong evidence that the poorest will be much more affected, not only by the greater number of contaminations (public transport, number of people in the household, lack of access to sanitation, difficulty maintaining isolation without excessive loss of income or employment) , but also due to the greater severity of cases due to the incidence of comorbidities. Inequality in access to healthcare is abysmal: almost five times more ICU beds per 10 inhabitants in the private network than in the SUS. That is, those most vulnerable to economic death are also the most vulnerable to physical death, which can make pressure for less inequality a matter of survival. 

In this sense, it is in the profound indifference of Bolsonarism to the right to life that its Achilles heel lies in the context of a pandemic. This weakness deserves the full attention of the democratic sectors, since it can be converted into a powerful factor to stop the authoritarian project and remove its boss from the presidency. The solidarity and community spirit that are formed around the collective experience of illness represent the antithesis of the typical affections of the neo-fascist wave.

The pandemic has triggered a coordination of solidarity efforts that directly confronts the government's deep social neglect. A kaleidoscope of movements focused on assisting peripheral areas of large cities has gained strength, especially in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, the largest in the country and the most affected by the virus so far in absolute terms. Some of these groups are old, others were born from the event itself or from the union of pre-existing popular movements. All, however, from the G10 Favelas to the UNAS Heliópolis and Region, from the Popular Movements Against Covid-19 to the Jd Campaign. Ângela Against Covid 19, they articulate through social networks, with the help of volunteers - religious and lay - who work on-site visit in the peripheries, forming a front line as important against the crisis as the one constituted by health professionals in hospitals.

The constitution of experiences linked to mutual dependence and vulnerability has the potential not only to break the polarization between patriots and enemies of the nation, but also contain, in its germ, the very denial of the logic of emptying the state capacity for action and mobilization. of resources, meeting, from the base of society, the social policies recently approved by the National Congress and the new ways of “governing” raised by the pandemic. Solidarity initiatives can constitute the embryo of a new agenda for political combat.

It is easy to see the potential for mobilization there to make the social protection measures adopted during the phase of combating the pandemic permanent and for the creation of effective systems of taxation of the income and wealth of the richest, in order to better distribute the costs of the crisis and prevent the return of austerity policies. The guarantee of resources for public health, scientific research, basic sanitation and other areas that the pandemic makes a priority will also require the intense mobilization of civil society around the revision of the spending ceiling. These demands will certainly face strong resistance from supporters of the minimal state, but the context engendered by the aggressiveness of the new coronavirus has opened space for the construction of an effective agenda for social transformation, which should serve as a pillar in society's fight against authoritarianism.

III. the decision time

The problem is that by provoking what could become the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, amid the large number of deaths derived directly from the virus, the coronavirus also threatens  produce a turbulent environment conducive to attacks on democracy. An authoritarian leadership, like that of the current president, will launch into all kinds of adventures, using the worst stratagems – from massive doses of disinformation and smokescreens to the instigation of violence against “enemies”. Bolsonaro is the kind of figure who doesn’t skimp on the habit of pointing the finger and lynching “guilty people”, encouraging followers to destroy the obstacles that would be keeping the “myth” in chains and that would prevent him from governing for the good of the nation. All in the midst of an armed and fanatical gang. Does anyone doubt how tragic this story could be if nothing is done to stop it?

Given that the pandemic has opened windows of opportunity for democratic sectors, exposing the contradictions of this nefarious project, now is the time to act. We have never been so close to the precipice, as Bolsonaro's speech on Army Day makes clear, when he didn't even bother to disguise his willingness to mortally strike democratic institutions. There is no way to imagine that the fanatics who follow him will restrict themselves to the plane of rhetoric, refraining from drawing their weapons if they are summoned to save the one they blindly idolize. Newspaper editorials, admonitions, “scoldings”, edifying sermons, even resolutions to contain the other constitutional powers, none of this will have the gift of dissuading them. In fact, the more these manifestations are repeated without bringing consequences, the more they lose authority.

Only a blunt and decisive gesture will be able to achieve what words alone are no longer capable of achieving. We know that conservative and liberal sectors, predominant in the National Congress, and important in various sectors of civil society, hesitate to take this step and are still looking for ways to avoid the inevitable confrontation. Let us recall to them what the then congressman Winston Churchill said about the strategy of the rulers of his country, at the time led by the also conservative Neville Chamberlain, in order to appease Hitler in the context immediately before the outbreak of the 2nd World War: “They prefer to lose the honor to have the war. In the end, they will lose their honor and have war.” But with one difference: they will have the war in worse conditions.

When the pandemic crudely shows the inhuman and violent face of Bolsonarism, it is urgent that all democratic forces in Brazil unite once and for all to put an end to the escalation of the authoritarian project, putting Bolsonaro's removal from power as number one priority. from the agenda. Before it's too late.

* André Singer, Professor at the Department of Political Science at USP
* Christian Dunker, Professor at the Institute of Psychology at USP
* Cicero Araújo, Professor at the Department of Political Science at USP
* Felipe Loureiro, Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations at USP
* Laura Carvalho, Associate Professor at the Department of Economics at USP
* Leda Paulani, Professor at the Department of Economics at USP
* Ruy Braga, Professor at the Department of Sociology at USP
* Vladimir Safatle, Professor at the Department of Philosophy at USP

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