The victory of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Latin America’s most populous country and co-founder of the BRICS bloc, has understandably caused much fluttering in the dovecotes of leftists and liberals around the globe.
But what the Bolsonaro victory shows is not so much the strength of far-right ideas as the weakness of the left.
First, though, a word about fascism.
It has become in vogue for left wing people to brand everyone to the right of them ‘a fascist’. This is not just wrong it is entirely self-defeating. As the famous ‘Boy who cried Wolf’ found out, it can end up with one being eaten when folks conclude that if everybody is a fascist then, for practical purposes, nobody is.
Ontology is important.
Some fools describe Theresa May as a fascist, and think Britain lives under a fascist government. Others (with a little more justification) think Donald Trump is a fascist. Neither are of course – both could, may well be brought down by the existing institutions of the Bourgeois state even before they are forced to go to the universal adult suffrage of scheduled elections.
Neither, yet at any rate, is the new president of Brazil a fascist. Having hateful opinions about gays – he’d rather his son was dead than gay, or vile views on women does not make him a fascist. Actually it makes him, like Trump, a vulgar knuckle dragging reactionary. It does not make Brazil 2018 a replica of Chile in 1973. Bolsonaro is not Pinochet. Not yet.
The president-elect IS a nostalgist for the former, actual, fascist military rule in Brazil in which mass murder, torture, ethnic cleansing, environmental disaster and white-supremacy were the rules. But that doesn’t mean he will, or can return to dictatorship even if he’d like to.
Moreover a substantial number of poor, black and minority ethnic voters cast their ballots for him and against the Workers Party (PT) which on paper defended them.
As Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool football manager, once said “football isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass.”
On grass, the record of the PT was found wanting by the nation’s poorest and a section of the working class, thus the defeat.
And as fear of the right grew, Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate shifted – to the right!
Fear of crime – the kind of crime that’s in voters faces, climbing through their windows as opposed to white-collar grand larceny – was a major driver. A left-wing movement, especially when it holds state power, which cannot protect its people from such crime, as the Bolsheviks did, as the Cuban revolution did, as the Irish Republicans did, will not retain support for long no matter how red their flags.
A left-wing movement which accepts neo-liberal orthodoxies of austerity and which fails to dramatically redistribute wealth to the masses, and in a country like Brazil which does not mobilize, even militarize, the advanced sections of the workers in defense of an actual (as opposed to a rhetorical) transformation will be overthrown. And they have been.
More than 30 years ago I lent the then impoverished Brazilian trade union leader Lula the grand sum of $200. It was a fine investment. As the heroic leader of what became the PT government of Brazil Lula had the right stuff. Despite disadvantageous changes to the international balance of forces he became the undefeatable leader of a working class, ethnic minority, lower middle class coalition. Which is why they came for him on trumped-up corruption charges – rather than politics – without the slightest basis in truth.
That was the moment when the movement if it had been armed with the wherewithal should have made its stand. Instead a long dance to defeat took place, accepting the legitimacy of fascist-era courts, bent policemen and an oligarchy parliament, all of them the enemies of the workers and their party.
Ironically if this legitimacy had been contested it would, even if it had failed, have ineluctably led to a boycott of last weekend’s farce once the candidacy of Lula had been judicially murdered by the courts. In those circumstances Bolsonaro wouldn’t have even been the candidate of the right, the oligarchy wouldn’t have needed such an ugly brute.
It may be that Bolsonaro will turn out to be “merely” a “business-friendly” deforesting bigot of no great lasting historical moment. On the other hand, the left in Brazil urgently need to start preparing themselves to fight him in the case he turns out to be more Pinochet than Populist.