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Brazil’s “False Consciousness of Time”: The Rise of Jair Bolsonaro

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

Guy Debord, the radical French philosopher whose words impacted the world during the protests of May 1968, once wrote: “The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.[1] His words say much about a phenomenon that has increasingly impacted constitutionalism worldwide: the spectacle, this “false consciousness of time”, has gained strength where history and memory have been suppressed. Brazil is living, at this moment, its own “false consciousness of time,” a phenomenon that has challenged the interpretations of the most prominent political scientists and constitutional scholars in the world. It represents a systemic disruption of the understanding of the political system, its normal rules of operation and expectations of deliberation. The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s next President is one of the most radical outcomes of this phenomenon. As such, it demands the continuous monitoring of the international community because it poses a real danger to liberal democracy not only in young democracies like Brazil, but even in mature ones.

Jair Bolsonaro was elected in a context of political crisis and deep distrust in the political system. Although he has been a Representative of the Lower House for 27 years and has been a member different political parties, he has presented himself as a political outsider. His current party – the Social Liberal Party (PSL) -, was, until recently, just one among many small parties in Brazil’s highly fragmented party system and was part of the so-called “under clergy”, a depreciative term that designates the group of congressmen with almost no influence over major political affairs. No more. Not only was Bolsonaro elected by 55% of the valid votes in the runoff, but also the number of PSL Congressmen jumped from 8 to 52 in the Lower House, and from 0 to 4 in the Senate.

This is a phenomenon never before seen in Brazilian history. Just for comparison, the Worker’s Party (PT), which competed with Bolsonaro in the second round, took more than twenty years since its foundation in 1980 to cross the threshold of 50 Representatives elected, and, unlike PSL, it is closely connected to grassroots movements that had already strength in the final years of the dictatorship (1964-1985). PT is still the second biggest and most ideologically identified party in the country, but it saw its parliamentary bench shrinking from 69 Representatives in 2014 to 56 now and from 13 Senators in 2014 to 6 in these elections. This is not, in my judgment, a normal political phenomenon. Something very unusual and strategically well thought out took place in Brazil, and, though similar movements can possibly be identified elsewhere, the Brazilian movement is also unique.

Even the most prominent political scientists in Brazil, until few months ago, did not see this coming. Fernando Limongi, from the University of São Paulo and the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), in a column for Valor Econômico, a major economic newspaper, wrote in September that “the candidate [Bolsonaro] conquered his niche, but he does not have ideas to expand it. And if he does not do it, he will die of starvation in the dug trench.” Marcos Nobre, from the State University of Campinas and CEBRAP, sustained, in an interview for El País in April, that “the polls do not show elasticity in his vote, he has a granite ceiling… That many people identify themselves with his candidature is really worrisome, but, from the electoral point of view, I cannot see the chances of his candidature moving forward.”

Interestingly enough, it was mainly political marketers and consultants who could foresee Bolsonaro’s political potential. Maurício Moura, who has also worked in political campaigns in the United States, was emphatic in an interview for El País in February: “Bolsonaro is the favorite to win if he competes, in the second round, with PT.” Nizan Guanaes, a political marketer with long experience in Brazilian politics, was even more accurate in a debate promoted by the Financial Times and Valor Econômico in March: “Bolsonaro is a Dorflex [a painkiller], he will win the election.”

Indeed, political analysts have qualified Bolsonaro’s rise as a symptom of antipolitics, of the “self-truth” or “post-truth” or of a political “bubble”. He also represents, in several ways, the disruption of traditional political campaigns. Bolsonaro’s campaign had, in the first round, only an 8 second spot in each allotted “electoral bloc” for TV and radio, since the time is allotted according to the number of congressmen pertaining to the political coalition. Geraldo Alckmin, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), had 5 minutes and many argued that this would be a huge factor for making him the likely second-round opponent to Fernando Haddad, the PT candidate. In the last six elections, the main dispute, either in the first or second round, had always been between PT, for the center-left, and PSDB, for the center-right. This time, however, Geraldo Alckmin obtained merely 4,76% of the valid votes, a humiliating fourth place finish. PSL, Bolsonaro’s far-right party, replaced PSDB as the opponent of the still strong PT. Fernando Haddad, a moderate leftist and former mayor of São Paulo and Minister of Education during Lula’s presidency, was the one to challenge Bolsonaro. Brazilians were offered a moderate from the Worker’s Party and a radical from the then unknown PSL. Unlike past tendencies that have normally guided Brazilian politics to moderate positions, this time Brazilians preferred a radical with an explicitly authoritarian mindset.

Naturally the political and economic crisis that followed the Car Wash probe, which has directly affected the whole political class as it has unveiled entrenched and longstanding corrupt practices, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff’s in August 2016 and the unpopularity of current President Michel Temer played a major role. In such a scenario, Bolsonaro adopted a typical populist strategy. First, he clearly defined the enemy – the so-called “petistas”, that is, the ones who support Fernando Haddad or, more generally, the Worker’s Party – by arguing that they had caused the most orchestrated plan to steal public money in Brazilian history. The association could go even further, drawing a link between “petismo” and communism. As a way to point out a concrete example, it always made reference to Venezuela and Cuba, which became the “the Other we do not want to become.”

The second strategy was thus the adoption of a direct and simple vocabulary with the people, which drew on emotional words and connections. Never mind that the associations were often anachronistic and out of context. Venezuela, with its current social, economic and political calamity, is, after all, a major example in popular consciousness and the fact that the dire situation there has driven thousands of Venezuelans to the Brazilian border was a tangible example for a political campaign. The same reasoning was applied to the high rates of crime that Brazil is enduring. Rather than presenting a proposal that could be seriously called a public policy resulting from thorough analysis of the reality, it was much more straightforward to say that everyone will have access to weapons for self-defense, thereby erasing all the strict regulations now in force.

The third and fundamental strategy for Bolsonaro’s campaign was the adoption of direct communication with his supporters. Like what took place during the last presidential campaign in the United States, the use of social media and the spread of fake news were crucial campaign strategies. In Brazil Facebook was not the main vehicle for such a purpose, but rather WhatsApp, which, unlike in the United States, is widely adopted in the country. WhatsApp – which, by the way, is also owned by Facebook – is the perfect mechanism to spread fake news: it is structured in chains of groups of people, who normally have confidence in one another and spread the news to other groups in a frenetic way. Also, every conversation is encrypted and potentially untraceable, which makes any investigation of the origins of a story a very challenging or even impossible endeavor. Bolsonaro’s campaign strongly benefitted from a social media disinformation strategy. In fact, Folha de S.Paulo, the major newspaper in the country, published an investigative report that showed that certain companies paid millions of dollars to buy mass text messaging and boost disinformation in the week before the second round, in clear violation of Brazilian election laws since corporate campaign contributions are not allowed. The Worker’s Party filed a lawsuit in the Superior Electoral Court, which could even lead to Bolsonaro’s removal from office (although this is highly unlikely). The Federal Police and the Public Prosecution are also conducting investigations.

Yet Bolsonaro is more than an “outsider,” he is the representative of the social backlash brought by a still very unequal, conservative and authoritarian society. In recent years, the progressive agenda has gained strength in the country, and legislation and judicial precedents aimed at including minorities and promoting social welfare passed in Congress or were issued by the Supreme Court. Examples are many, from the so-called “Bolsa Família”, a huge income transfer program for the most in need (and which has been praised as a success) to same-sex marriage, from the constant rise of the minimum wage to social and racial quotas in public universities and offices. At the same time, Brazil has seen the rapid expansion of evangelical churches – especially (neo)Pentecostal ones – , and, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the number of evangelicals in the country rose 61% in ten years and will be possibly be the majority by 2020. It was exactly this segment of society that has largely supported Bolsonaro and which was decisive for his victory. In Congress, the evangelical caucus that had already gained strength in the past elections reached new highs in the 2018 elections. It is thus no wonder that Bolsonaro’s agenda is strongly detrimental to minority rights and to secularism. His motto during the campaign was “Brazil above all, God above Everyone.” It could not be more direct.

Bolsonaro’s victory is certainly alarming. His authoritarian impulses are easily identified in many of his speeches before and during the campaign. The international community has since provided interesting analyses comparing him to Donald Trump (The Telegraph called him “The Trump of the Tropics”), Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban. However, though there are many possible connections, there are also crucial differences. Miguel Lago, a columnist for Piauí, a magazine, wrote that “Brazil will be the first in the world to enter the hyper-history”. As he says, Bolsonaro “did not conquer a traditional party from within (like Trump) nor has he built an important political party (like Salvini); he did not have a successful experience in local administrations (like Erdogan); he did not construct a very strong socially-based movement for decades (like Orbán). He will be elected exclusively thanks to the digital phenomenon.” Mario Lago’s words are certainly a wake-up call for the democratic world. In fact, a Chilean Senator has already proposed the so-called “Bolsonaro Act” to combat fake news in political campaigns in his country.

At this time, the international community should be vigilant of future developments in Brazil. It will certainly be an important case to watch carefully. International observers should also, however, avoid falling into anachronistic and over-simplified comparisons. Brazil is indeed a young democracy and its institutional framework is dysfunctional in many respects, but there is a certain institutionalization, a relatively strong civil society, and a free press (though rather concentrated in a small number of hands), which have all gained strength over the years of democratic life. Moreover, as Rogério Arantes Barros, from the University of São Paulo, argued: the Brazilian political system is “ultraconsensual”, which means that, except for the President, who can say he or she represents the majority, “all the remaining institutional framework seems to be founded to counterbalance it, bestowing representation and veto power on the politically forged minorities.” According to him, such a configuration could lead to three distinct scenarios: Bolsonaro would adhere to this “coalition presidency,” follow an authoritarian pathway or be an erratic government. It is also certain that the Supreme Court will be called to action as possibly never before since the transition to democracy, and the odds are that it will be there one of the main battlefields during Bolsonaro’s government.  Only the future will tell which direction his government will take and whether Brazil’s institutional framework is enough to fend off more direct attacks on its democratic credentials. His election, however, is already a huge step backwards since it legitimates both a symbolic and real violence against pluralism.

Moreover, it also represents the triumph of the spectacle. Brazil is experiencing its “false consciousness of time” because it has not really challenged the evils of its past dictatorial years. For example, unlike its neighbors Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, where amnesty laws were reversed or judged unconstitutional by their Supreme Courts, Brazil kept granting de-facto impunity to all those who perpetrated human rights violations during those dark years and had this understanding confirmed by its Supreme Court in a controversial ruling in 2010.[2] Amid its political and constitutional transition to democracy, which involved the effective participation of distinct sectors of civil society,[3] Brazil kept much of that past untouched at its core. Brazil is now paying the price for having paralyzed its history and memory.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Brazil’s “False Consciousness of Time”: The Rise of Jair Bolsonaro, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 10, 2018, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2018/11/brazils-false-consciousness-of-time-the-rise-of-jair-bolsonaro/

[1] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Aldgate 2005, p. 90)

[2] See Nina Schneider. “Impunity in Post-Authoritarian Brazil: The Supreme Court’s Recent Verdict on the Amnesty Law.” Revista Europea De Estudios Latinoamericanos y Del Caribe / European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, no. 90, 2011, pp. 39–54.

[3] Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, ‘The Forgotten People in Brazilian Constitutionalism: Revisiting Behavior Strategic Analyses of Regime Transitions’ (2017) 15 International Journal of Constitutional Law 332, 332-57.

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Published on November 10, 2018
Author:          Filed under: Developments
 

One Response

  1. Fernando Amaral

    Prezado professor,o texto é bastante interessante mas faltou mencionar que a população entendeu relevante a prisão do maior lider do Partido dos trabalhadores – PT, o ex-presidente Lula,por corrupção passiva, que apoia o governo venezuelano sem qualquer pudor. Além disso, o descalabro que se tornou administração Dilma, quanto à economia, que causou uma das maiores recessões econômicas do Brasil, mais de 13 milhões de desempregados, e ainda continua até hoje. Tudo isso foi muito bem compreendido pela população do país, que já foi considerada que não sabia votar (Pelé), e não “false consciousness of time” . Acho que seria bom rever a afirmação sobre o impulsionamento de “fake news”,já que foi mera especulação sendo posteriormente desmentida pelos próprios meios de redes eletrônicas. Cabe também destacar que no texto há um grande alarde sobre o extremismo de direita, talvez por se tratar de um militar, encarado de forma tendenciosa e arraigada pela militância do partido derrotado. Assim, tudo parece exagerado, uma vez que ainda não houve qualquer ato capaz de demonstrar o que foi dito a respeito do novo presidente eleito, apenas por opiniões jornalísticas sem qualquer fundamento que fazem do nada os seus espetáculos.

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