Bolsonaro and the Institutionalization of Necropolitics

One part of Bolsonaro’s supporters believe in a democracy on paper and a dictatorship on the streets. Another part of his supporters openly defends the return of the military to power.

By Guilherme Soares Dias and Juliana Gonçalves.

As Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro (Partido Social Liberal/PSL) rises in the polls, more and more cases of political violence and death spread across Brazil. The country will have its second round of elections on October 27th. Fernando Haddad (Partido dos Trabalhadores/PT) has the difficult mission of rallying progressives against an imminent loss of rights and freedom.

Democracy is still a luxury word in Brazil. There have only been 33 years of democratic rule since the last dictatorship. It is a fragile and young democracy which has yet to be solidified for millions of Brazilians, especially Afro-Brazilians and marginalized peoples who, even in the democratic period, were constantly deprived of their rights.

What is happening today is the response of conservative and narrow-minded sectors of society to the social progress made during the PT governments, most importantly under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Under Lula the PT solidified public policies for the poor and marginalized majority, removed millions from below the poverty line and leveraged their social insertion into the middle class – all of this without taking anything from the rich. The banks never made as much money as they did during the PT period.

Even at the time, the advances made in the Lula era triggered a backlash of hate. It was also during this period that the largest black population outside of Africa witnessed its genocide levels surpass acceptable numbers for a democracy. Every 23 minutes a young black man is killed and homicides against black women rose by 54% in Brazil between 2003 and 2013, according to the Faculdade Latino-Americana de Ciências Sociais (FLASCO) Violence Map. If death politics already exist, with Bolsonaro in power they can become institutionalized. In this sense, the possibility of effectively solidifying Cameroonian Sociologist Achille Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics” has never been been greater in a democratic society. Mbembe defines “necropolitics” as political action centralized on the large scale production of death at the hands of the state, which decides who should live and who should die.

As political polarization rises in Brazil we see a rise in the violence – which has always mostly affected the bodies of blacks, women, LGBT’s, etc – which was elevated to new heights with the execution of Marielle Franco, a black, lesbian woman from a favela who was elected to City Council, represented the synthesis of many targets of violence. 7 months have passed without any answers about the political assassination which marked the arrival of dark times for Brazil.

With the rise of fascism, political killings increased, such as the murder of Master Moa do Katendê in Salvador on October 7th, a few hours after election results established a run off between Bolsonaro and Haddad in the second round. It was also during shouts of “Bolsonaro” and “Yes him” that, according to witnesses, a trans woman named Priscilla was murdered early in the morning of October 16th.

“Yes him”, is an allusion to the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim). Women created this huge social movement to confront Bolsonaro and became the great hope to stop him. In addition to a massive social network mobilization with millions of followers reproducing the hashtag, public demonstrations took over the streets in cities and towns across Brazil and around the world on September 29th. The many misogynist declarations made by Bolsonaro prove that, more than not respecting women, he views them as enemies.

A divided nation

What stands out in the profile of the newly elected Congress is the intense political party fragmentation and a rightward swing on social issues. Around 141 of the newly elected congressmen are from traditional political families, are evangelical leaders, hardline police officers or celebrities. They are, in the majority, white males. The total votes represents a solidification of polarization between the PSL and the PT, which are now the two largest parties in Congress.

If, on the one hand, far-right candidates took the spotlight repeating Bolsonaro’s most barbaric and violent ideas, there were also advances made on the left. Inspired by Marielle, some black women were able to win elections for the first time in different states across the country. Undoubtedly the most emblematic victory was that of Erica Malunguinho, elected to the São Paulo state congress for the PSOL party and the first trans women to be elected to public office in Brazilian history. In this country of alarming numbers of killings of young black males, which kills more LGBTpeople than any other in the world, the election of Malunguinho, who represents various bodies, was a breath of hope. With minimal financing and party structure, with a combative discourse on race issues and a campaign that was nicknamed “The Quilombo” (escaped slave/maroon community), and without fear of criticising failures by the left against Afro-Brazilians, Erica got 55,423 votes and is now building a “Quilombo-Mandate” in one of the main left wing parties in the country.

The class struggle in Brazil is more alive than ever. Erica and Jair, on opposite sides, are potent echoes of the winds of change. She represents the hope for policies that aim to bring the margins into a pluralist and inclusive center. He, incarnating the slave masters, represents the oligarchs who have gained strength in a country, which, in recent years linked citizenship to consumption.

Bolsonaro is the personification of Brazilian fascism

The Brazilian election comes on the back of other elections around the world where the extreme right is gaining space. In the US, after the Barack Obama era, Donald Trump triumphed promising to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Brexit is causing Great Britain to withdraw from the European Union. In France, Marine Le Pen nearly won the elections. In Latin America, the businessman Mauricio Macri won in Argentina, promising austerity reforms and economic growth.

It seems like the world is undergoing a counter-flux against human rights and that each country in which there were even modest social advances has chosen to go backwards. It is for this reason that Bolsonaro’s promise to end race-based quotas in Universities and civil service exams has been so effective. The candidate also promises to end the public school system’s gender policy – this is one of his only campaign promises related to education – despite the fact that there has not yet been an effective methodology on this theme implemented by the Brazilian public school system.

Security is another of his key campaign issues, although there have been no clear promises for anything in this area beyond castrating rapists and relaxing gun ownership legislation. His frequent racist, misogynist and homophobic statements are reproduced by his followers. Bolsonaro is viewed as being honest and many of his followers don’t believe that he will end rights that affect them in their everyday lives.

The Bolsonaro myth is consolidated through hatred against the PT, but he is also portrayed as not being corrupt and saying what he thinks. He is portrayed as a leader ready to confront everyone and everything to make the country grow and free it from the specter of corruption. But during the campaign the ex-Army captain has shown little disposition to engage in dialogue with anyone and says that he plans on ending all forms of “activism”. Some specialists believe that “Bolsonarism” will be a model in which, if he takes office, his supporters will beat up possible opponents to his government.

In the economic field, the financial markets are in an anachronistic moment: the stock exchange rises and the dollar falls every time a new poll comes out showing Bolsonaro in the lead. But his economic policies are a mystery. He has already shown total ignorance on the matter and promises that he will outsource his economic policy decision making to the ultra-neoliberal Paulo Guedes.

Fernando Haddad (PT) promises measures that were practiced by previous PT governments, during which many people in the markets made a lot of money. The fact is that the market has bought into the idea that Bolsonaro is more neoliberal and willing to privatize the state companies with the goal of reducing the public debt. The enigma is whether he will be able to lead a divided country that has left an economic crisis and confronted social disparities which the candidate promises he will ignore.

Can Brazil still be saved?

In 1946 the Bahian banking oligarch Clemente Mariani gave a speech in the Constituent Assembly and, in all of his anti-communist furore, said, “the democracy that we want to install in Brazil is not social or proletariat democracy, but a formal, bourgeois democracy that is based on freedom and not on equality.”

That quote sets the tone for what one part of the supporters of Bolsonaro believe in: a democracy on paper and a dictatorship on the streets. Another faction of his supporters openly defend the return of the military to power.

A moment of chaos is never the right time to point the blame, but we should start building a resistance that is different from the guidelines that brought us this incomplete democracy that we live in. Race, gender and class need to be at the center of our concerns when we dream of a democracy which is not so distant from the people that it serves, and that does not guarantee rights to the rich while penalizing the most poor.

In order to make this reflection reality we need to fearlessly face the limits of democracy within capitalism. The Portuguese intellectual Boaventura Souza Santos says that “radicalizing democracy means intensifying its tension with capitalism.” We need to work so that this base, abandoned by some sectors, serves as the starting point for the pluralist construction that is so urgent.

Regardless of the results of the October 27th elections, Brazilian democracy will remain in peril. Fascism is a monster that will not want to go back in the closet. Now they know its size. Luckily, we know it to. There is going to be a fight.

Guilherme Soares Dias

Guilherme Soares Dias is a journalist who has written for big Brazilian newspapers such Valor Economico and Estado de São Paulo. He is a member of the São Paulo Commission of Journalists for Racial Equality, and is a founding editor of the digital magazine Calle 2.

Juliana Gonçalves

is a journalist and human rights activist. She is a member of the São Paulo Black Woman’s March, and the São Paulo Journalists for Racial Equality Commission, which is a consultative body of the Journalists Union. She is a frequent contributor to the main Brazilian leftist newspapers and magazines, such as Carta Capital and Brasil de Fato.

Translated by Brian Mier

This article originally appeared in New Socialist, and has been reprinted with their permission.