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As Brazil Elects Its President, We Need to Consider Scenarios for the Day After

With democracy in the fray as Lula and Jair Bolsonaro go head to head, a look at social dynamics simmering beneath the political surface.

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At the cusp of the 2022 presidential elections, Brazilian politics stands polarised between Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro. The urgency to defeat the latter has been evoked to shut down critical thinking. However, Bolsonaro embodies social forces that will not go away with an electoral defeat even as an eventual Lula comeback would only respond in part to popular aspirations.

In order to avoid illusions and find alternative paths, it is necessary to look at social dynamics beneath the political surface. Critical thinking cannot be replaced by wishful thinking. This is the context in which we have drafted our note. We are a group of professors, researchers and artists who are also activists, and gather regularly to discuss Brazil and the world we live in, as part of an effort to devise new landscapes for Left politics.

The election matters

Those signing this piece are for Bolsonaro’s defeat. So we want Lula to win in the October election. But everything indicates that this is not a conventional election, because its outcome may lead to developments well beyond what we might normally expect from the electoral process.

A Bolsonaro victory could open the doors for a coup – as could his defeat. Nothing is certain. And yet, Bolsonaro’s electoral defeat would at least guarantee that any coup-mongering would remain illegitimate and illegal.

Democracy is an asset

In defence of legality, a new consensus has emerged within civil society – one in which the political spectrum represented is even wider than that seen in the campaign for re-democratisation that birthed the New Republic in the 1980s.

Parties, trade unions, social movements, personalities, a large part of the media and the bosses’ associations – and, indirectly, the US government, as various authorities there have stated that the result of elections must be respected – have united in defence of democracy and the rule of law. This consensus has surfaced in political gatherings, manifestos and other public stands – both collective and individual.

Why has this happened so late in the day, given that Bolsonaro has never concealed his contempt for democracy? Our impression is that this consensus, in defence of institutions that have long been under threat, signifies a general accord to endorse a Lula presidency.

Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures during an event with members of political parties and social movements in Porto Alegre, Brazil June 1, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Diego Vara

The masses left out

The aspirations of a significant part of society to oppose Bolsonarism and its coup-mongering speeches and demonstrations are understandable and legitimate. A wide consensus can provide a feeling of relief in the face of the far-right avalanche of recent times. The more support against Bolsonaro, the better.

However, it was only when the economic elite took a stand – with the backing of the mainstream media as well as the United States’ seal of approval – that a national campaign against Bolsonaro’s coup-mongering began. This only took place in the final stretch of Bolsonaro’s term. Nevertheless, in contrast to the diretas já pro-democracy campaign of the 1980s, this campaign has not been accompanied by mass awareness-raising and support.

Meetings take place indoors, sometimes in exclusive places. It seems that this “democratic consensus” has been stitched together in the upper reaches of Brazilian society. If Lula wins, he will have wide support from the establishment. This is a very different scenario compared to his first candidacy at the eve of the New Republic in 1989, when the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) had a wide popular constituency but no support from the establishment.

Also read: Bolsonaro’s Popularity Continues to Slip Before 2022 Brazil Race, Poll Shows

From acceleration to containment

The new democratic consensus can be seen as an accord signed by political leaderships and elites. Its electoral effect is to undersign a probable Lula victory. But why? It was with elite support that Bolsonaro accelerated various destructive and uncontrollable tendencies – ones which have now become counterproductive to the smooth functioning of Brazilian capitalism. Burning the Amazon has hindered a deal with the European Union (EU); defaming the Chinese has hurt agro-business exports; overall, political instability has contributed to devalue the Brazilian currency and inhibit foreign investment.

As it was starkly put by one of the organisers of the “Charter for Democracy” (launched at the University of São Paulo’s law school, a bastion of the establishment): “The chaos in the country is making the business world lose money.”

Could it be that in the name of fighting authoritarianism, there is an attempt to put a stop to this self-destructive tendency, at least temporarily? Behind the new consensus, is there not a new attempt to contain Brazil’s crisis? Is it possible that capitalists in Brazil and elsewhere can unite to save capitalism from governments like Bolsonaro’s?

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro smiles during a ceremony in Brasilia, Brazil October 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adriano Machado

Who will pay for the consensus?

It may be that the strength and breadth of the new consensus is actually a symptom of its weakness. This is because the country is faced with short and long term economic and social degradation on a scale that will restrict the room for manoeuvre of any new consensus. In this context of ongoing devastation, it is possible that even very limited social policies, such as those Lula promises, will have a major effect.

There are many indeterminate elements in the short term – and the election itself is undecided. But nothing indicates the return of the favourable international winds that benefited Lulismo in the 2010s, when the commodities supercycle favoured win-win policies: business made money but those from below also had benefits. Hence our unease, caused by the feeling that we’re dealing with an “unrealistic pragmatism”: an attitude that ignores what needs to be done in the face of a crisis that cannot be resolved at the ballot box.

Who will pay for this indifference in the face of crisis?

Truce

From the point of view of elites, the new consensus may be a tactical repositioning in pursuit of pacification: an indication of conciliatory politics that seeks to remedy the immediate ills of the country. But this accord does not represent a return to the New Republic. Instead it looks like a moment for reorganisation. Something, it seems, is being cooked up. In the long run, an agenda similar to Bolsonaro’s might come back, but in different political hands.

The return of the Lulista consensus may be a step back, by a ruling class seeking a way out of the New Republic. In essence, it would be the antechamber of new battles. The new consensus seems to be a truce, in view of then returning to the inevitable war.

The daily war

The dynamic of war emerges out of the forms of reproduction of Brazilian life. There is a war from above, against those below. There is a war by the state against the black and poor population. But, above all, there is a daily war, because we have a form of life based in competition: the unemployed compete with the unemployed, and also with the employed. In turn, the employed compete with their work colleagues. On TV, Big Brother reflects this dynamic of competition and exclusion: without the spectre of eviction, there is no spectacle. In sum, daily life is lived as a war: “I’m struggling.”

This war has not been voted for: it doesn’t matter who wins the election, the war will continue. But what political forms will this dynamic take? Which political bodies will clash?

Two worlds unknown to each other

For the vast majority who experience this war, democracy seems like a concern of the upper reaches of society. There are two worlds mobilising, but which ignore each other. In the world ignored by those above, the social imaginary is that of a political battlefield. Police officers and pastors see themselves as defenders of the fatherland and of good against evil, while Christians give themselves up to an eternal war for the redemption of a corrupt world and of the evils that, one day, will disappear. These desires go well beyond the immediate needs of material survival. One of the keys to the far right’s success appears to be their embrace of these desires that mobilise the popular imagination.

Also read: In Brazil’s Politics, Populism and Religion Make Natural Bedfellows

The war for eternity

We are faced with two paths. On one side, where the masses barely figure, there’s a campaign for legality and for the defence of institutions, rooted in conciliation. On the other path there is a torrent crossing through the elections, carrying political mobilisation. It fills the streets with Marches for Jesus (a yearly evangelical demonstration that draws millions) and other events in which change is understood as coming through salvation – the outcome of the war. Although not organised by Bolsonaro, they have been staunch supporters of his politics.

From their point of view, with Lula’s win, a battle would be lost but not the war. On the fringes of the liberals and progressives who have now joined hands are those who are also preparing for an inevitable war. But their war appears to be against both sides: the liberals and the PT.

Jair Bolsonaro visits the church of the Holy Sepulchre while on a trip to Israel on April 1, 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Palácio do Planalto CC BY 2.0.

Does a war of all against all produce society? Or does it produce a violent social dynamic that appears ungovernable? For many, the ungovernable demands order – at any price. It provokes a desire for a violence that orders. Bolsonaro can be seen as one iteration of this politics. It is likely that other, more capable versions will be developed. The future of this present will be contested by these new iterations.

The world in crisis is here, and our politics have little to say

We are facing a total environmental crisis, in relation to which Brazil’s responsibilities are decisive. A change in the energy paradigm is urgently needed, and there are risks of planetary food shortages. There is a global crisis of investment and in the production of wealth – a crisis that has now reached the proportions of a European war, and which threatens to become a world war.

China’s industrial might and its emerging technological supremacy is leading to the threat of an embargo by, and even war with, a US that is unable to revive its economy. Authoritarian, fascist and regressive tendencies are appearing in various places around the world. This all indicates a social and economic crisis of the system itself, one which exceeds the capacities of national responses. And yet we must respond, on the basis of our national experiences and powers, to this universal impasse.

The impossible as politics

We live in a world that produces abundance, but this abundance is experienced as scarcity. This curse has a name: the commodity. We must recognise that scarcity, which puts us in competition with each other, is a political construct. Is it not of the utmost urgency that we politically confront this politics?

The Brazilian electoral debate does not go beyond the surface of the problems society confronts. Politics beyond election might be needed to change what elections do not.

It is technically possible to liberate people from alienating work and to share social wealth. But it is politically impossible at the present moment. And yet, it appears that only such an impossible politics is capable of disarming the war.

So, doesn’t the impossible need to become possible?

The path on the other side

It is unclear whether peace has a future. But what is clear is that we will only have an emancipated future to match our imaginations if we are able to escape from the politics of the commodity. Elections, at our current stage, serve only to disguise this fact. On the other side of the elections, perhaps we will be able to find a path.

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Signed by members of the Coletivo Desmedida do Possível (Unbridled Possibility Collective):

Antonio Mota
Daniel Feldmann
Debora Goulart
Fabio Agostinho
Fabio Luis B. Santos
Fernando Cunha Sato
Fernando Kinas
Frederico Lyra
Gabriel Rocha
Guilherme Meyer
Henrique Costa
Isabel Loureiro
Patrícia Mechi
Tales Ab´Saber
Thais Pavez
Thiago Cannetieri