In an interview by Leneide Duarte-Plon for Carta Maior, writer, philosophy professor and psychoanalyst Vladimir Safatle spoke of the coming elections and Brazil’s democratic collapse.
In 2018, Safatle, then a regular columnist at Folha newspaper, was ridiculed for a literal reading of his suggestion that there would be no election that year. Three years later he considers himself vindicated: “Today we know that there was no election in 2018. It was an Old Republic election, completely forged. It was a new coup model. It was a slow-motion coup. It was done over years.”
Regarding the 2022 elections, the philosopher, now lecturing at University of Paris is equally pessimistic: “This project is a long one. Nobody occupies the Brazilian state with 7,000 soldiers to leave the next year,” Safatle says, “The military dictatorship ended by negotiation. That’s why it never ended. That’s why it preserved itself, that’s why it returns now.”
Safatle sees US President Biden making agreements with Bolsonaro, and notes that “relying on US policy to defend our real interests is another form of suicide. This has never happened and never will.”
The following is a selection of excerpts from the interview.
Carta Maior: What is the project of the Brazilian military today and what are the differences and similarities with the 1964 dictatorship?
Vladimir Safatle: The level of state violence in Brazil is indescribable. And incomparable. We can see what happened days ago in the police intervention in Jacarezinho, this massacre with a complete lack of institutional reaction to the 28 dead.
Carta Maior: What institutions should the reaction come from?
Vladimir Safatle: Even in a liberal democracy, the state must hide its violence. He does not show his violence as in the Brazilian case. Not that the state isn’t violent in other liberal democracies but it doesn’t do it in the open. This explanation is one more element, it is the expression that violence can circulate anywhere.
Carta Maior: And the explicitness of violence conquers hearts and minds…
Vladimir Safatle: This image of violence can circulate anywhere. Why? Because you have several sectors that will identify with this brutal force of the State without any major problems. The history of the Brazilian State is a history of massacres, built on the management of massacres. This is just one more.
Carta Maior: Is the current military’s project to stay for a long time?
Vladimir Safatle: As it is based on state violence against vulnerable sectors of the population, this is a project that not only needs the military, but it is the constitutive project of the Brazilian Armed Forces. They have this function, they always have. The role of the Brazilian Armed Forces is to manage an undeclared civil war.
Carta Maior: They are rehabilitating, resurrecting the figure of the enemy within…
Vladimir Safatle: Yes, he never disappeared. No wonder that communism has to appear as this great figure because communism is the only force which in the 20th century managed to mobilize armed popular will against those who held power. Hence this privileged place that the figure of communism occupies. On the other hand, the question of whether they will want to stay in power or not, I would insist. The military project has always been a project for the militarization of Brazilian society. Not only to remain in power but to create society in its image and likeness.
We see this in the intervention of training, with military schools. The entire discourse of brutalized modernization of the Brazilian Armed Forces comes a little from its positivist matrix. Brutalized modernization means the understanding that the fight against nature is a fundamental axis of development. The idea that the Amazon is a “green hell”, that Brazil is a country with the potential for permanent insurrection. So violence is needed at all times. Violence against sectors that do not fit the image of national development. Hence this process of psychological destruction of the black populations, of the Amerindian populations, as if they were the mainstays of the backwardness of national development. So it is necessary to treat them with a tight rein.
Carta Maior: To forcefully impose the model that the Armed Forces have, whatever the cost.
Vladimir Safatle: Of course, because it is the model of concentration, because the Armed Forces constitutes one of the castes that preserve the model of income concentration in Brazilian society. This project is a long one. Nobody occupies the Brazilian state with 7,000 soldiers to leave next year.
Carta Maior : Is there today a climate for a coup and annulment of the presidential election, if there is an election and if Lula is a candidate?
Vladimir Safatle: I had said in 2018 that there would be no election that year. A handful of people ridiculed me that it was absurd. Today we know that there was no election in 2018. It was an Old Republic election, completely forged. You take out a candidate and then the candidate you want to elect wins. This related directly to the Armed Forces’ threat against the Supreme Court (regarding Lula’s arrest)… There was no election in 2018.
Carta Maior: So you can consider as a coup, both the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the one that followed…
Vladimir Safatle: Yes, we experienced a softly spoken coup, a prolonged coup, a coup without screaming. It was a new coup model. It was a coup that uses institutional structures, that mobilizes sectors of the population, that disguises itself as a fight against corruption and that is carried out in several stages. From the point of view of political science, what has happened in the last three years is a deterioration. The axis was changing position and they were abandoning figures that were in power. They used the traditional oligarchy, Temer. Removed the traditional oligarchy and joined the military in a composition with coup sectors of the judiciary. Afterwards, these sectors are removed from the judiciary and only the military remain.
It’s a slow-motion coup. It has been done for years. There is this concept of furtive authoritarianism, you are gradually removing the elements of democratic “normality”. But in the Brazilian case there is an extra element, the characters are changing, the power is passing from one hand to the other until the most radical character.
For 2022, there are two scenarios. If he loses, Bolsonaro will make a script à la Trump, with the Armed Forces, which implies an unimaginable degree of conflict, which we have never seen. Even with Lula’s negotiating skills, if he manages to guarantee his victory, he enters like an inverted Getúlio, in such a tough pact with the center and right.
I think it’s one of the classic delusions within Brazilian society. It will not be negotiated. There is no possibility. The military dictatorship ended by negotiation. That’s why it never ended. That’s why she preserved herself, that’s why she comes back now. It is impossible to imagine a military dictatorship returning to Argentina. Or even in Chile, which had a very difficult situation, or in Uruguay. But in Brazil it returns.
Carta Maior: Why did it never end?
Vladimir Safatle: It was underground: the institutional structures were there, the national security paragraphs of the 1988 Constitution were a copy of the 1967 Constitution, the amnesty was negotiated to protect military and civilian torturers. The amnesty was a project of the military and they negotiated with themselves. Just remember how Amnesty was voted in the Chamber of Deputies. It was just Arena votes, there were no opposition votes. I have never seen an amnesty of this nature. It was self-amnesty. There was no transitional justice in Brazil. There was no accountability for crimes against humanity. There was no accountability for cases of torture.
The result is that Brazil is the only Latin American country where cases of torture today are more numerous than during the military dictatorship because the Military Police preserved their habits. It is a country where there is a military police force, which is already a complete aberration, which has never been deactivated, which is now transformed into a militia nucleus and whose tendency is to provide the State with the militia base for its support. All of this demonstrates, among other things, that this Brazilian strategy of coming out on top is a catastrophe. And we’ll try again…
Carta Maior: Is Jair Bolsonaro a fascist, neo-fascist, nazi-fascist or a demented person who acts without a compass or ideology, guided by his intuition and personal interests, manipulated by the generals?
Vladimir Safatle: Not demented. He’s someone who has incredible political skill.
Carta Maior: But he is absolutely crude and ignorant from a historical point of view, he has no culture at all…
Vladimir Safatle: As all the extreme right leaders have always been. They don’t need to be more than everyone else to be able to function, they just need to have the ability to identify with a certain type of average citizen and manage to make the fears and ghosts of this average citizen resonate in the discourse of power. They are cunning.
Carta Maior: Is Bolsonaro manipulated by the generals or does he manipulate the generals?
Vladimir Safatle: He managed to change the entire military leadership and nothing happened. In reality there is no difference. I don’t believe there are the military on one side and he on the other. He is a project of the military…
Carta Maior: He is not a graduate, the generals obey him. Who defines the line of government?
Vladimir Safatle: This is our illusion, we need the belief that the institution of the Armed Forces still has some sense of responsibility that we can count on. Because that’s how the military dictatorship sustained itself. There was this idea that there is a rational core of the Armed Forces. There’s the hard line and there’s Golbery. So we talk to Golbery to stop the hard line. In a way, the military managed to be both the opposition and the government.
This game of the good cop and the bad cop is the game of the Brazilian Armed Forces. And they’re playing it again and we’re getting into this same story. There is no good side to the Armed Forces. Whoever has a minimum of responsibility is out of the game, out of the game. However, they are used to give us the impression that there is a division in the Armed Forces. Bolsonaro is the Armed Forces project. There will be no split between Bolsonaro and the Armed Forces.
Carta Maior: Are they the only ones that guarantee the permanence of a president who has never tried to control the pandemic and does everything to boycott the efforts of governors?
Vladimir Safatle: Who keeps him in power are the Armed Forces, the national financial system that had record profits in a situation of world crisis, the private banks had bigger profits and in the middle of a pandemic. This demonstrates the degree of obscenity. It’s not just a matter of economic rationality, it’s a matter of looting. It is a withdrawal logic and this is guaranteed by the government. Agribusiness is another pillar. Due to the logic of the devastation of nature, they manage to take possession of what was not an object of possession, land that was not available, areas of environmental preservation. They impose the logic of ownership in a space where there was no ownership. The fourth support is the fascist core of Brazilian society. The New Republic made us believe that it didn’t exist, which was totally wrong.
Going back to the question of whether he is a fascist or not, I would say that he is an absolutely typical case of fascism. He is a fascist leader in the classic sense of the term. All elements are there. You have the cult of violence from the generalization of militia logic, indifference and absolute insensitivity to sectors of the population that are completely vulnerable, the paranoid conception of the social body, where identity appears as a defensive structure, where the border, immunization, the risk of contagion by a foreign body that will degrade us (the communists) plays a fundamental role. Finally, you have a conception of power based on a leadership, in addition to good or evil, which supports a narcissistic identification with its followers. He is not a paternal leader, but is the image and likeness of those he leads: the same weaknesses, the same violence, the same impotence. He is them in power. There are no elements missing. He just doesn’t see who doesn’t want to, he’s a typical case of fascism. Perhaps the most typical case in the entire world.
Carta Maior : Isn’t he just a right-wing populist like Marine Le Pen, Trump and others?
Vladimir Safatle: No, this demonstrates very clearly the kind of ignorance of our history, in which fascism is a key chapter. Brazil had one of the biggest fascist parties outside Europe. It was South Africa and Brazil.
Carta Maior : Why is Brazilian fascism not nationalist, doesn’t it defend national sovereignty like Italian fascism? They deliver all the country’s wealth, oil, the Brazilian subsoil, ore, to multinational companies while they talk about the Homeland and say “Brazil above all.” Where is sovereignty, nationalism?
Vladimir Safatle: Yes, but this contradiction must be analyzed in its two terms. It does not produce an object devoid of concept. The speech is and is not nationalist. The speech is nationalistic, the practice is not. But the speech needs to be nationalist and that has a function. The function is in fact the understanding that the great Brazilian history must be defended and it produces a people, a nation, a State. But we know that it is a story of massacre, genocide, violence, exclusion, and all of this has to be erased because this justifies society as it is today. Giving up this story would mean saying “this society would need to be totally transformed” and that is not the level of transformation they want. This they want to preserve at all costs. Brazil was the greatest necropolitical experiment in history. of 4,5 million slaves were sent to the Americas, 35% went to Brazil. There is no comparison with what was done in Brazil. This is what Celso Furtado writes, who says that “Brazil was an economic experiment in primary exporting latifundium before being a society”. It was a primary exporting slaveholding latifundium. And he is the basis of the national imagination to this day and is part of the current political project.
Carta Maior : The Brazilian left seems lost in a labyrinth. What do you think of a union between PSOL and PT? Would there be a better chance of fighting the Planalto palace’s current guest?
Vladimir Safatle: I wrote a text that said: “The Brazilian left is dead.” And I keep insisting. The project of the national left that began with the Brazilian Communist Party is over. To recover its capacity for organization and mobilization, it must understand why it died. In order to open a second phase. But the Brazilian left does not want to do this under any circumstances. It is resistant to any process of self-criticism as if it were the expression of some kind of weakness.
And all groups should go through this process. Without any exception, all groups and all classes that surround these groups, including us teachers. Everyone has to make self-criticism, not as a masochistic exercise, but with the confidence that we have much more strength to make a second moment more capable of operating the transformations that we have not been able to achieve so far. The left has been in power for 14 years and is incapable of telling Brazilian society what it wants to preserve and what it wants to give up.
Carta Maior: Frei Betto wrote that “the left was in power but it never had the power…”
Vladimir Safatle: So we have to start there. What kind of situation is this in which we never manage to occupy power?
Carta Maior: The military was always surrounding, threatening, putting pressure on, even against the Truth Commission….
Vladimir Safatle: …during a government that had 84% popular approval… when will we be able to occupy power, then? This process of occupying power is wrong. So there is another model of power occupation that must be tried. The left did not have any kind of popular mobilization. The far right is teaching us a lesson in this regard. They mobilize.
Carta Maior : The left was in the palace but the people were not mobilized in the street…
Vladimir Safatle: There is nothing more legalistic than the Brazilian left. It believes in legality, is the last to abandon legality. It believes that operating within legal limits will be able to make changes. And never managed to do them. The transformations it made, it lost. All the transformations that Lula made were lost in four years. There was a discourse, we were in a weak reformism, which was slow but sure. And it wasn’t.
Carta Maior: Wasn’t there a lack of pedagogy? Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the revolutionaries entered Havana on January 1, 1959. The next day they were doing pedagogy explaining to the people why it was necessary to defend the revolution, that the Empire was ready to enter Cuba and destroy everything. The Brazilian people did not know why they received a family grant, why the children of the poor could go to university…
Vladimir Safatle: I fear that this kind of reading gives the impression that people need someone to explain what is going on. I think the people understood very well what was happening. There is another problem. Key sectors of the elite on the Brazilian left are made up of dissident middle and upper class factions. These are groups that are very clearly aware of the unsustainable and unbearable character of Brazilian society, they are part of a certain class and give up defending it. This is a constituent element and the basis of the Brazilian left in its core leadership to a large extent. Because they came from there, they tend to trust the institutional structure that produced them.
The left believes that if the law works well, we will be able to do what must be done. If we manage to negotiate with Congress, we will succeed. The Brazilian left is super republican. It’s one thing for you to be a republican in Sweden…
This creates a completely absurd situation because the real left is not republican in that sense. She is insurrectionary and revolutionary. She understands that the republican pact is a paralysis pact. Even more in countries like Brazil.
Carta Maior : Which left understands this?
Vladimir Safatle: The one who managed to make effective transformations. The Brazilian left does not understand this. Why is Marighella the most tragic figure on the Brazilian left? Because he was the guy who put it on the table. He said: “We made a pact throughout this period from 1945 to 1964 to support gradual reforms within the republican structure, making a pact with left-wing populism, with Labour, and look what happened. There was a coup. Nobody was prepared.” This demonstrates the inability to read the real dangers facing Brazilian society. I remember in 2012, 2013, when we had heated debates at the university and there were those who said: “Brazil is the most stable democracy in the BRICS.” This demonstrates a difficulty in seeing our reality.
Carta Maior: José Dirceu says in a recent interview that Joe Biden is taking positions of accommodation, conciliation, in relation to Bolsonaro. Because, according to him, Lula is the absolute horror, they do not want a president close to the BRICS, who has a vision of national sovereignty that naturally distances Brazil from the United States. According to José Dirceu, Biden’s policy is to approach Bolsonaro. Do you agree?
Vladimir Safatle: Yes, I think it’s an accurate analysis. Relying on US policy as an element to defend our real interests is another form of suicide. This has never happened and never will. The differences that may exist between Biden and Bolsonaro do not touch the positions that the US takes in its foreign policy, the wildest ones, as always: the hegemonic interests of the business-military industry to which Bolsonaro knows very well how to respond.
The idea of consolidating regional leaders who have a relative autonomy is good to remember the shameful role that Brazil played in Haiti playing the role of the US police. One more element that was never object of self-criticism. Even this relative autonomy is seen by the United States as something on the order of the intolerable. Even more a country like Brazil that represents 45% of all gross national product in Latin America. Where Brazil goes, Latin America goes with it. It’s a quarter of the world, Brazil forgets how strategic it is in world geopolitics.
For sure, Biden will find a way to establish some form of agreement with Bolsonaro who has already proved extremely pragmatic. He is ideological for the internal discourse but he is pragmatic for the outside, he needs to mobilize his bases, he knows how to mobilize but he also knows that he can do something else. One thing is what you say, another is what you do. It is enough to remember that President Carter had reservations toward the Brazilian dictatorship and that was not what made the dictatorship fall.