Latin America’s sharp turn to the right is set to be compounded on 28 October when, barring a monumental swing toward his competitor, Brazil’s far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, will win the second round of the election to become the country’s eighth president since democracy was restored in 1985. But how should this be interpreted, and what should we expect from a Bolsonaro presidency after a campaign that has fomented division, bitterness and sickening trepidation among the Brazilian electorate?
In 1845, Argentinian intellectual Domingo Faustino Sarmiento wrote his seminal work Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism, a political study of Argentina and an allegorical critique of erstwhile president Juan Manuel de Rosas. According to Sarmiento, Rosas was a tyrannical barbarian infecting the ‘civilized’ White European ideals of Buenos Aires with the sordid provincialism of the interior.
Facundo is widely considered a masterpiece of Latin American literature and helped to propagate the fictitious binaries of progress and regression; whiteness and indigeneity; modernity and primitivism; that have defined the historical contours of the region. It cemented the idea that development and prosperity could only be achieved by mimicking ‘civilized’ Europe.
While Sarmiento insisted on the unbridgeable divide between civilization and barbarism, his work shed light on what he saw as the irreversible entanglement of these two forces. His binary was exposed as literary figment; the reality it reflected carried the traces of the confrontation and eventual entanglement between civilization and barbarism that percolates all societies: not an either/or but always an and, the junction of civility and savagery, just as the title of Sarmineto’s book entailed.
Over 170 years on, Sarmiento and Rosas have faded but the fictitious divide and reified synchronicity they embodied endures. North of their homeland, a fractious contest between and within civilization and barbarism is in full swing. After the first round of elections on October 7, former army captain and seven-term congressman, Jair Bolsonaro, is on the cusp of reaching Brazil’s highest office, having received over 46% of vote.
More than 49 million Brazilians adhered to his ideal of civilization: the heteronormative, God-loving family, the patriarchal society that sees any expression of alterity as an existential threat, the violent police state unhindered by judicial accountability, neoliberal governance void of social welfare responsibilities, and the capricious and very visible hand of transnational financial entities dominating the economy.
In 1940, with the Nazis on the verge of knocking down the doors of his Paris apartment, Walter Benjamin famously exclaimed that “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another.”
The tainted barbarism of Bolsonaro’s civilizational message synthesizes and propels forward the virulent contradictions and the cacophony of hate that defines Brazil’s past and present. His message was effectively transmitted through WhatsApp and Facebook, simply delivered through soundbites and homemade images conveying the candidate’s familiar candour of folksy bigotry. Bolsonaro’s appearance of a concerned uncle and his discourse of distressed, wholesome citizen has been ardently consumed by millions of Brazilians.
The clamouring for racial and sexual equality, the courage of women coming together to challenge an eternity of abuse and the ascendancy of millions of peripheral political subjects from poverty during the 13 years of successive Workers’ Party (PT) governments (2003-2016) exposed the incongruences of Brazilian civilization and uprooted its arcane barbarism. The continuum of governance looked to be shattering, resembling ever so slightly another one of Benjamin’s adages, of a redemptive age that “strive(s) anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it”.
The past and the present fought back against future projections. Spiralling murder rates, the unveiling of sophisticated graft schemes at all levels of governance, a profoundly fractious impeachment process that removed the PT’s Dilma Rouseff from the presidency and an unflinching economic recession has divided the nation. Fictitious binaries that made Sarmiento seem like a prophet began to swell to the foreground of political discourse. Virulent conspiracies spread from obscure WhatsApp groups into the chambers of Congress. The barbarians were at the gates, claimed the barbarians inside. Enter Jair Messias Bolsonaro.
Outrage and religion
“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, taken from John 8:32, reveals more than just his successful attempt to attract the evangelical vote in Brazil. Over the last five years, he was gradually surged into the national consciousness by embodying a messianic figure.
Known as mito by his followers, Bolsonaro surged in popularity by embracing outrageousness. The more his homophobic and sexist statements were condemned, the more his public image grew. His political incorrectness obscured his incoherence when discussing policy proposals and his dismal performance in Congress, where he sponsored only 2 bills in 26 years.
Bolsonaro’s vague ideas revolved around a civilizational drive that found traction in a polarising political environment. The liberating truth he preaches is not post-truth. His Facebook live posts and WhatsApp messages are performances of veracity validated by Brazil’s barbarically violent past. It is a long-held vision of society actively challenged by 30 years of democratic discourse. Crucially, it is a truth centred around entitlement, inequality and institutionalised privilege that has always existed in Brazil and that found a messiah to redeem it before it was too late.
Trump of the Tropics?
The ceaseless comparisons between Bolsonaro and Trump by international media outlets neglects the particularity of his rise in Brazil. His prominence is not a direct product of previously acquired fame – instead, Bolsonaro stands at the helm of a conservative movement that is far from being centred around him. His candidacy has profited from the strength of various reactionary movements, including rural landowner’s caucuses, pro-market financial institutions, Pentecostal churches and military organisations. Bolsonaro’s campaign was a convenient vehicle for these movements to channel their influence into the higher echelons of power in Brazil.
"There has been no political debate, no proposals. It has been a campaign above all about sad passions: resentment, hatred, fear, violence, intimidation. This is such a sad election.” https://t.co/Y62ovLNi0P
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) October 7, 2018
The litany of crude statements made by Bolsonaro is seemingly endless and well-documented. He has claimed that a fellow Congresswoman did not deserve to be raped because she was too ugly, has stated that he preferred a dead son to a gay son and promised to end “all forms of activism” in Brazil while the final votes were being counted in the first-round of this year’s election. Ultimately, the danger posed by Bolsonaro lies not just in what he says but in what he incarnates.
Brazil’s 30-year democracy is sufficiently fragile without the revival of a corrosive civilizational message. The recent victories that have opened up universities to minorities, have given precarious labourers governmental assistance, have fed destitute children and have shed light on the ceaseless extra-judicial killings of peripheral subjects by police will quickly be eradicated in a Bolsonaro government. The stock market’s euphoria with his imminent victory magnifies the imminent disaster of a Chicago-trained technocracy selling off state assets.
Whatever the result of the run-off election between Bolsonaro and the PT’s Fernando Haddad, his civilizational message has already emerged victorious. The long-running cliché of Brazil as the country of the future filled with bubbling potentiality is temporally out of joint. The obsession with militaristic order and the unquenchable gusto for punishing those who dared to fight for alterity brings the past back into the fore.
The stakes of the upcoming run-off election are whether the junction between civilization and barbarism in Brazil will definitively tilt towards the latter. Synthesizing the most virulent form of civilization and barbarism in Brazil, Bolsonaro is set to propel the country forwards towards an irremediable past.