As of April 23, Brazil is reporting 46,182 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2,924 Covid-19 deaths. No believes the numbers because there is little testing and sources estimate the real toll is at least twice as high and growing fast. Brazil will soon break into the international press as a global hotspot in no small thanks to the reckless behavior if its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro who has systematically denied the severity of the pandemic, while personally flaunting social distancing measures. Late last week, Bolsonaro fired Health Minister Luiz Mandetta who had set out mainstream, if ineffective, public health policies. His dismissal has created a potentially violent political crisis in the biggest economy in Latin America as Brazil – a major oil and gas producer – pitches into a brutal depression. In this conflict, Bolsonaro joining his supporters in the streets, going even further to back “open the economy” protests than President Donald Trump has done in the United States.
Vladimir Safatle is a professor of philosophy at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He is a well-known public figure, writing frequently for Folha de S. Paulo and many other outlets. This column originally appeared in El País and was translated by Dylan Stillwood from the Portuguese. Republished here as part of No Borders News daily international coronavirus coverage.
In 1939, shortly before Hitler attacked Poland and started World War II, Freud put out his last book, Moses and Monotheistic Religion. In this book, which dealt with the construction of collective identities through identifications and leaderships, there is a surprising idea, summed up in a short phrase: “Moses created the Jewish people.” That is, it wasn’t just a case of the leadership reflecting its people’s characteristics. In reality, the picture was upside-down. Those who had a position of power and promised a great transformation ended up constructing the people, defining the dominant characteristics of its collective identity. Power had a productive force, not just a coercive one. From the image of power came a force of identification that gradually molded the subjects beneath it, that transformed their feelings, their mental structure, their actions. Power molds those who are subjected to it.
Freud never went to Brazil, and he never heard of Jair Bolsonaro. But recent days have precisely demonstrated his thesis of how power molds its subjects, making them into its image and semblance. Everyone can see the change, where expressions of disdain, indifference, and violence, until now unimaginable in broad daylight and in front of others, have become daily occurrences, in a seemingly endless spiral into the abyss. Or did anyone really expect to see, in the middle of a pandemic, people demonstrating on São Paulo’s main thoroughfare Avenida Paulista dancing with a coffin, honking their horns in front of a hospital, openly mocking the pain and desperation of thousands of people who are infected and fighting for their lives in precarious medical situations? As if they wanted to express, in the most open and brutal way, their indifference towards the 2,500 dead, at least if we believe the underreported numbers. As if they wanted to repeat the “slips,” the “skid marks,” or better yet, the character traits of the person in power.
Some might say that this has always been there, in the upper classes’ indifference towards the fate of the most vulnerable classes and the massacres perpetrated against them. But the worst mistake one can make is not noticing that the tectonic plates are moving when your eyes are submerged in the repetitive logic of “it’s always been like this.” No, there’s something new happening. Because we’re not just dealing with the well-known necropolitical machine of the Brazilian state. We’re dealing with the explosion of public rituals of sacrifice and violence. We’re dealing with a suicidal dynamic. Anyone who thinks these hoards wrapped in the flag “don’t know the risk they’re running,” are that they are “dumb,” as if it were just a case of just clearly explaining what a pandemic is so everyone will go back home, is mistaken.
In the face of fascism, Adorno and Horkheimer once said that there’s nothing stupider than trying to be smart. Our pretensions of intellectual supremacy are going to get us killed. They blind us to the fact that, deep down, there’s a part of the Brazilian population that wants this, and offers itself up to play Russian roulette with everyone and with themselves. This desire is what we need to understand. Because this will be their way of fighting for an ideal, even if the ideal promises nothing more than their own self-sacrifice, nothing more than a permanent movement towards catastrophe.
In this sense, we’re seeing a startling mutation. Even with the worst government on planet Earth in terms of dealing with the pandemic (only comparable to Belarus, Turkmenistan, and the renegade who rules Nicaragua), Bolsonaro’s approval rating isn’t falling. Rather, it is moving gradually. Sections of the upper class have been abandoning him while he makes up for these loses from lower classes, repeating a process that we first saw happen to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s support over the course of his terms in office. It will be hard for Bolsonaro’s polling numbers to change. They won’t go up, or down. But the nature of that support will change. It will go from simple support to deep, aggressive identification. In the end, we will have a country with 30 percent blackshirts willing to do anything, because they believe they’re participating in a revolutionary process of national resurrection. There is no turning back from this process.
It won’t be the first time in history that a dynamic of feelings and beliefs of this nature has taken shape. This open implosion of any basic principle of solidarity, this disdain for those who die, this cult of their own suicide as a proof of “courage,” this violence that is permitted more and more, including the formation of open militias, this belief in a redemptive national revolution, all of this has a name. It usually simply goes by “fascism.”
Movements of this nature always take advantage of their enemies’ weaknesses. While Bolsonaro molded a part of society in his own image, there were always the specialists in palace intrigue able to point out the inside moves that could “paralyze” him, the errors he committed that showed it was “all over for him.” Up until not long ago, Bolsonaro was described as a “queen of England.” That is, up until he sent his health minister packing without any of the anticipated cataclysms actually happening. No, none of this will stop him, there won’t be any retreat. A project like this is only stopped by brutal means. But the necessary brutality is not in Brazil’s current political figures’ mindsets.
We could have started continuous mobilizations for impeachment a month ago. Again, respectable analysts said that it wasn’t the right time, that this would only strengthen the government’s talk of being persecuted. As if the government needed us to feed their persecution complex and fire up its own troops. No, now Bolsonaro’s supporters denounce a “plan” to overthrow him, even though the opposition hasn’t even gotten an impeachment process started, they have not even let the majority say the word. At most, their leaders endorsed a call for him to resign. They only forgot to ask Bolsonaro “please” so he could step down of his own accord. As Machiavelli said, audacity is fundamental when faced with fortune. But the only player who’s shown enough audacity for the situation is the government itself. Not long from now we’ll have a coup attempt sold as a “preventive counter-coup,” with the opposition doing nothing except for writing petitions and open letters. The last people who believe in a parliamentary democracy that no longer exists.
The picture is getting worse with the macabre calculation the government has managed to impose on parts of the population. For the people, it’s a matter of choosing between their wallet and their life, between certain economic death and probable physical death. In this calculation, certainty beats probability, even more for sections of the populations subjected to extermination, disappearance, massacres. This is the grain of truth in the situation presented by Bolsonaro. It only makes sense because the third option is cut off, namely, neither your wallet, nor your life, but both.
Faced with this, hopefully society will build self-defense networks against the worst that is to come. Two weeks ago, people who banged their pots and pans against the government were victims of shotgun blasts. Opposition citizens were violently attacked in the midst of pro-government protests. How many weeks are left before the lynchings start and the real bullets begin to fly?
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