Why is today's far-right growing without any stimulus from threatened revolution? Why is it that, from Birthers to Brazil, today's reactionaries instead hallucinate a communist threat against which to agitate?
Remember the protests beginning in 2014, after Dilma Rousseff won a fourth term in office for the Workers' Party. Dilma and Lula, of all people, were "merely communists in disguise". Their Brazil, "a new Venezuela". "We do not want communist in Brazil, SOS military." "Army, Navy and Air Force. Please save us once again of communism."
In some other ways, the story of Bolsonaro's success is quite a familiar one: capitalist crisis, social breakdown, polarisation, stalemated government, corruption inquiries, the failure of the traditional Right, the weakness of the Left. In this context, with the middle class agitating for military intervention, business rallied behind a fascist who has called for the bloody "cleansing" of leftists.
Bolsonaro was helped to power by investors, who celebrated his victory with markets soaring like corks on so many champagne bottles. Pop, pop, pop. He has been welcomed by the anglophone business press too. The Wall Street Journal opinion section, wherein Bolsonaro is described as "center-right" and his election as a "primal scream for freedom", is a human face pieing itself forever. But more serious is the Economist's cautious, toe-dipping endorsement of the scruffy populist and his "good ideas" for the economy. Likewise, Fortune's anticipation of the prospects after the nightmare of "12 years of left-wing rule". These are the same business publications that lauded Lula's record.
And the story of the neoliberal hawks circling Brazil's underdeveloped welfare state, with economic liberals coat-tailing an open fascist, has ample precedent: from Ludwig von Mises acting as economic advisor to Engelbert Dollfuss, to Friedrich Hayek's special relationship with General Pinochet.
But, again, the difference here is that all of this is happening without any palpable threat of revolution. Far from it.
Remember that when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ('Lula') left office in 2010, he was still on good terms with capitalism, and there were many paeans to the strong economic growth and job creation legacy of his administration. The Economist carried a glowing account of “Lula’s legacy”, crediting him with economic growth, job creation and rising incomes.
There was a lot of myth-making in this. Brazilian growth was not especially strong even before the credit crunch in 2008. And prior to 2008, the unemployment rate was typically a little higher than that under the Workers' Party's (PT) predecessor. New jobs were created, but they were poor jobs, in a deindustrialising economy which became even more dependent than before Lula on raw materials exports. Ironically, the biggest falls in unemployment came after the credit crunch, when the government temporarily abandoned fiscal orthodoxy and began investing.
In 2002, when Lula was on the way to taking office, the markets were jittery. He wrote a letter, ostensibly to "the Brazilian people", but actually addressing the worries of investors and creditors. His government, he assure them, would respect business interests, property and international agreements. It would pay its debts. It would not run up deficits. It would adhere to the Washington Consensus. So, he was asking them not to destabilise his government which, given that the PT had a small minority of seats in a hostile congress, would be weak. In exchange for class peace, he would be permitted to do something about poverty and the worst social injustices.
Lula's strategy, of sticking to fiscal orthodoxy, and forming alliances with centrist and conservative parties, didn't allow him to promote a rapidly growing economy. He was tied to a deflationary agenda. But it enabled him to achieve a minimum wage rise, the expansion of higher education and the anti-poverty programme, Bolsa Família. Bolsa Família built on the cash transfer programmes of his predecessor, Fernand Henrique Cardoso. It was a conditional payment to the mothers, tied to moral uplift: they had to be looking for a job, their children had to be in school and receiving vaccinations. It cost significantly less than debt repayments, which Lula prioritised. But it also reduced absolute poverty by about 28 per cent and ended some of the visible squalor. Even Fortune saluted its success. The minimum wage played a similar role, increasing over the PT reign from $100 to $250 a month.
It seemed like a success within the PT's significantly narrowed horizons. Lula's moderate social reforms won the support of millions of voters, creating a lasting electoral base for the PT. The areas with the highest uptake of Bolsa Família were also the most loyal to Lula and his successor -- albeit, there were also very high rates of electoral non-participation. And, with Chavez frightening the investors, the government had considerable sympathy and political space for embarking on a farther-reaching industrial policy after the credit crunch. Lula left office with the New York Times's admiration for “staying well within the accepted covenants of global capitalism”. Newsweek hailed him as “the most popular politician on earth”. The Wall Street Journal lauded Lula’s “ample credibility with financial markets”.
But it didn't take long for this reputation to blow up. Unable to touch the property of the wealthy, the PT was too dependent on high commodity prices to fund its spending. World prices in key Brazilian exports like iron ore and soybean collapsed in 2014. It exposed something quite difficult. Despite Lula's international prestige, and the widespread belief that the Brazilian economy had 'come of age' under him, its position in the international division of labour had probably worsened under his watch. Its trading relations had improved, and it had benefited from China's growth, but its export of manufactures had fallen sharply. Household spending had expanded, but most of it was driven by debt, and it was paying for imported goods.
The question then was what Dilma Rousseff, Lula's successor, was supposed to do about this, especially faced with a growing and rancorous middle class mobilisation. For a period of time, she continued with the expansionary policies of her predecessor, but it was unable to restore the high growth rates of the preceding era. She could, then, pursue the traditional PT strategy of accommodating the Right, and building a cross-party alliance that implemented austerity while protecting the core gains of the PT years. Or she could risk a left turn, convince her base that there was no alternative but to radicalise the reform agenda or lose it for good, and hope they would fight for her.
The trouble with the 'left turn' strategy, even if Rousseff considered it for a second, was that the PT had done nothing to organise or mobilise its base in a long time. In the past, struggling against the dictatorship, the PT had shown considerable political imagination in organising people. But their strategy for holding the presidency in a young constitutional democracy meant ruling in a very orthodox way. Cash transfers addressed the worst of poverty, but created a passive base. The unions, devastated by the Cardoso-era whirlwind of privatisations and economic reforms, had regained none of their strength. Who would fight for Rousseff, if she chose to fight?
Rousseff chose the traditional path. Shortly after winning re-election on an anti-austerity ticket, she explained that a burst of austerity was needed. Under the traditional deflationary mantra, she drove up interest rates, cut social spending, and restricted credit. With the immediate result of plunging the economy into recession and destroying her government's popularity. The answer, when it came to it, was that there was no one left to fight for Rousseff.
There was, if nothing remotely similar to a communist threat, (or even a Bolivarian threat), no sign of any insurrectionary situation either. There was very little sign of combativeness on the part of organised workers. Most of the initiative, especially once recession bit, was held by the middle class, angry that their position had deteriorated, that the expansion of higher education had reduced the economic value of their degrees, that changes to the class structure had reduced their income, and that their taxes were paying for welfare programmes that they had decided were too costly. Given the chance, they voted for Bolsonaro.
How does the spectre of communism still haunt quite well-to-do people after long spells of centrist administration? Perhaps it isn't irrelevant that Brazil is a society built on racial slavery, where the class system is still powerfully structured by race. Brazil was one of the biggest consumers of slaves, importing forty percent of the total in the Americas, and one of the last states to abolish slavery in 1888. It was subsequently one of the last to have a long, stable period of democratic government, which has now lasted for just over thirty years. The majority of workers identify as either black or multiracial. The vast majority of the middle class and bourgeoisie identify as white. These identifications don't have any 'phenotypical' validity, but they do link different classes in a symbolic chain back to the relations between African slaves and European slave-masters. History, as always, is sedimented into the unconscious.
It may be that 'communism' here, as in South Africa, Australia and the Jim Crow South, functions as a racial fantasy. In this fantasy, so I have argued, the communist is a racially ambiguous monster. One that is dangerously both anarchic and imperial, both a leveller and master, both a revolution and a conspiracy. Historically not quite black or white, though often identified as Jewish or Slavic or Asiatic. Not quite belonging, nor not-belonging: treasonous. A mongrel which, by threatening the integrity of racial order, impoverishes 'whiteness' and its promise of plenitude.
But this shape-shifting, communist racial monster isn't the whole fantasy. It is a functional element of a mise-en-scène, in which an impossible fantasy takes account of its own impossibility. Call it a fantasy of order and perpetual peace, without anything lacking. Historically, slavers fantasised that a social order based on their limitless enjoyment of and power over black bodies, could last forever. For a thousand years at least. They were wrong, but the fantasy was based on the idea that, if it weren't for outside agitators, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the system. Certainly, they did not think black people were fundamentally unhappy with, or even capable of resisting, the system. The defenders of segregation later reasoned in a similar way.
So, the monster embodies something internal to a system, which is intolerable. It enacts the "moral splitting" that the late Joel Kovel talked about, where everything threatening or dysfunctional to a system is projected onto an ambiguous enemy. This monster, for all its seeming perversity, its Iago-like motiveless malignancy, is the only agency really capable of challenging the system. It is subtle. It penetrates everything. Remember that the Federal Government was once, supposedly, taken over by communism.
But at least in the past, one could identify real insurrections, real popular movements, real threats, against which property and class could be mobilised under this countersubversive banner. Even if the threat was exaggerated, or barely existent, it was part of a global context where the existence of the USSR and the presumed 'long arm of Moscow' inflated every little strike or protest into an existential threat. What seems to be happening now, is the rise of a specifically far-right anticommunism without communism. The supposed reds are centrists. The proof of red conspiracy is a combination of slow, molecular social change, and sharp systemic crisis. And on this basis, the countersubversive thrust against 'corruption', the demands for military intervention, the vote for a fascist, took place.
And all of this raises a question. Bolsonaro is a fascist who does not command a fascist party, administration or state. Yet he may end up, with allies in the military, taking the state in a Bonapartist direction while retaining some of the constitutional framework of presidential democracy.
Bolsonaro threatened during the election to 'purge' what he called left-wing 'outlaws', threatened to economically strangle the 'fake news' press, and began his administration by declaring war on the indigenous population. He is currently trying to build a mass party out of the radicalised middle class who marched against Dilma, although how successful this is, is contingent on circumstance. It may depend, for example, on whether there is a serious popular mobilisation against him, forcing a counter-mobilisation of party and state. It may depend on whether capitalism enters into a renewed crisis, leading fractions of Brazilian capital to become more dependent on the state. Whether or not his project is in any sense presently a fascist one, it could become so. It may be, as with many other reactionary tendencies, pre-fascist rather than not-fascist.
And the question that would raise would be this. Fascism has historically been counter-revolutionary. That has been essential to almost every marxist analysis of fascism since the Twenties. But if all of this could happen without evidence of a revolutionary threat, if fascism could emerge without being counter-revolutionary, wouldn't that pose a serious challenge to our inherited political typologies?