One year ago, in November 2017, Jair Bolsonaro was no big reason to be concerned with. Michel Temer, the former vice-president of Dilma Rousseff who took over the presidency after her impeachment in 2016, was still unfolding a series of pro-market reforms and, as the Brazilian economy finally stopped falling after many semesters, there was a slight optimism among the traditional right-wing forces in the country. The center-right candidate Geraldo Alckmin, member of the PSDB – Partido da Social-Democracia Brasileira, nominally social-democratic, in fact a traditional pro-market party in the country – was seen as a strong competitor who would benefit the most from the expected economic stabilization. The worse scenario, which was having Lula da Silva, leader of the PT – the center-left Partido dos Trabalhadores, Workers’ Party – against Bolsonaro in the runoff, was rather unlikely to happen.
The paragraph above summarizes the report on the Brazilian political situation made by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the research and analysis division of The Economist Group, which publishes the famous magazine The Economist.
In November 2017 Lula was leading the polls and his conviction for receiving undue benefits from an engineering and contracting company was still pending in the appeal court. Months later, although the possibility of having Jair Bolsonaro in the runoff was already very real, Lula still had around 40% of voting intentions and was the clear frontrunner in the polls. After the decision to bar Lula’s candidacy in September 2018, the question was how fast Lula’s votes could be transferred to his running mate, Fernando Haddad.
How could it turn so bad that Brazil has now an extreme-right president-elected who said, shortly before the runoff, that the “red criminals” would have to choose between exile or prison? Or who said, during this same presidential run, that his mission was to put an end in all forms of social activism?
Most people following Brazil’s political situation are now relatively aware of Bolsonaro’s disgust for democratic principles and for the idea of tolerance towards the other. But misfortunes never come alone. Bolsonaro is not only misogynous, racist, authoritarian and a big fan of torturers, he also embodies the deepest neoliberal threat that Brazil has possibly ever faced. His appointed Finance Minister, a trained Chicago Boy named Paulo Guedes, has repeatedly expressed his wish to “privatize everything”. In Brazil, for instance, this strong version of neoliberalism is expected to promote severe cuts in the already meager social budget and an important flexibilization of labor relations.
How this combination of far-right conservatism and neoliberalism could win in Brazil?
The first thing to note is that Bolsonaro’s success is a direct effect of an accumulated rejection of Lula and Dilma Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, the PT. Playing the role of the anti-PT candidate, Bolsonaro became the opposite of the PT in every single topic. Whereas PT is culturally liberal, Bolsonaro is conservative; whereas PT is social-democracy, Bolsonaro is neoliberalism; whereas PT is corrupt, Bolsonaro presents himself as the champion of decency.
The anti-PT feeling has been instigated in the Brazilian population for many years now, much before Bolsonaro’s ascension.
But one should not think that the rise of conservatism and the rise of neoliberalism ran in parallel in Brazil. In fact, the anti-PT feeling has been instigated in the Brazilian population for many years now, much before Bolsonaro’s ascension. This has been made mainly by representatives of the neoliberal ideology operating in different fields (mass media, judiciary, think-tanks, business associations, etc.). In Brazil, thus, there is a chronological precedence of the neoliberal systematic attacks on the PT over the rise of this new extreme-right militancy. With the PT finally weakened after years of organized attacks, the dispute for being the anti-PT was open.
Bolsonaro wasn’t the option number one for the Brazilian bourgeoisie. The Brazilian upper classes wanted at first the polite version of neoliberalism, which was Geraldo Alckmin. But something went wrong with their plan: neoliberalism per se would not so easily catch on among Brazilian lower classes and the PSDB did appear as too much a establishment-party. Skillfully conjugating the critiques of PT’s role in corruption scandals, on the one hand, and a strong (not to say authoritarian) stance in security matters, on the other, Bolsonaro grew and displaced Alckmin presenting himself as a new political movement. The marriage was arranged when Bolsonaro gave up his life-long nationalist and corporatist positions and a great part of the neoliberal forces gave up their appearance of enlightenment. To win the elections, thus, neoliberalism took the elevator of the far-right conservatism. After all, the neoliberal reason needs subjectivities able to put forward its agenda.
In this sense, one could say that the macropolitics of privatization took advantage of a largely disseminated micropolitics of fear and revenge against progressive values embodied in the PT. The economic downturn during Dilma’s second term and the corruption scandals, intensively explored by those interested in the fall of the PT, galvanized masses of Brazilians around this form of micropolitics and opened the way for an extreme variant of the neoliberal reason.
The convergence of critiques of the PT governments progressively became a new political stance, with passionate supporters, its own symbols and strident leaders. That was how conservative and neoliberal forces formed a new power bloc in the Brazilian politics.
If Bolsonaro’s election is the product of a now long-disseminated anti-PT feeling, we should understand how this regressive affect could win minds and hearts in Brazil. My aim is to point out some specific grounds to the rise of the anti-PT political affect in Brazil.
Much has been said about the conservative nature of the Brazilian elites and their role as catalysts of the political crisis the followed the huge protests of June 2013. In this sense, the uneasiness of parts of the Brazilian middle and upper classes with re-distributive programs and other social-democratic policies are often presented as evidences of the strong conservative character of these groups, and hence as the ultimate reason for the anti-PT feeling. But clear-cut episodes of hatred of social policies, however disturbing, seem to indicate the existence of a more pervasive political affect, one that goes rather diffuse and underground. In order to grasp a broader meaning of Bolsonaro’s election, one should look deeper at the Brazilian standards of sociability.
My idea is that the conservative continuum connecting the rise of far-right movements during the protests of June 2013, the impeachment of Dilma and the election of Bolsonaro was built upon the historical rigidity of parts of the Brazilian elites towards policies of inequality reduction. The current anti-PT movement is related to a structural rigidity, both objectively and subjectively grounded, of part of the Brazilian middle and upper classes regarding any political project of social inclusion.
In what follows, I will briefly explore two objective reasons and one subjective ground for this structural rigidity. All of them are connected to the country’s peripheral condition in the global capitalism as well as to the colonial and slavery past of the Brazilian society.
To understand the rigidity of the Brazilian middle classes, one should think that, in countries with high levels of inequality, inequality reduction based on a rapid increase in consumption power of the lower classes – and this without challenging the historical privileges of the most rich – tends to creates economic pressures over economically squeezed middle classes, which is typical for a middle income countries like Brazil.
The slow, but remarkable improvements for those living at the bottom of the Brazilian social pyramid squeezed some advantages enjoyed by the middle classes.
In the concrete case, one objective reason for parts of the middle class to be anti-PT resulted from the indirect effects of the economic growth during the PT years. Despite the average increase of 18% in incomes between 2001 and 2015, there were differences regarding the relative participation of each social group in these positive results. The wealthiest 10% increased their participation in the national income from 54% to 55%. The participation of the poorest 50% increased from 11% to 12%. But the 40% in-between, which includes the middle classes, experienced a decrease in their participation, from 34% to 32%.
The slow, but remarkable improvements for those living at the bottom of the Brazilian social pyramid squeezed some advantages enjoyed by the middle classes. The rapid inclusion of larger groups in the consumer market favored increases in the prices of standard household goods. Boosted by the economic growth, general costs of living increased (rents, private education, leisure, etc.).
To illustrate the ambiguous effects of the social improvements under PT, one can look at the example of the public transport system, the catalyst of the 2013 protests. Brought about by the emerging poor, the arrival of thousands of new cars and motorcycles in the Brazilian streets appeared as a sign of the economic dynamism of the country. However, it also put an additional pressure on the already strained transportation systems of many urban centers of Brazil. The growing discontent about increasing bus fares and the decreasing quality of urban mobility grew unbearable. Comparable effects could also be observed in the fields of housing, security, healthcare and education, all lacking proper investments and hence noticeable improvements. The middle classes were particularly exposed to the contradictions brought about by the years of economic growth. The unspoken feeling was that improving the living standards of the most poor should not be made at the expenses of the middle classes. The fallacious idea that the Brazilian state is too big and that it can’t solve structural problems gained terrain. And here structural rigidity met neoliberalism.
But there is another objective source of discontent for the Brazilian upper classes when confronted by the re-distributive policies such as those promoted by the PT. In Brazil, the high level of inequality has always operated as a means compensation for capital owners and the bourgeoisie, that is, the groups that have historically profited from the low wages paid for unskilled labor. A great part of domestic workers (almost all women) that until very recent times used to inhabit windowless small rooms in the back of middle-class-apartments is only the most evident reminiscence of the Brazilian economic system that separated the landlord’s house from the slave hut.
In this same sense, Brazilian businessmen are also used to compensate for their competitive backwardness in the global market by relying upon a system of low wages and poor standards of living of the working class. Economic growth, given the subordinate position of the Brazilian capitalists in the global chains of value, depends on the reproduction of low wages among masses of historically underpaid workers. The PT administrations adopted a deliberate policy to continually increase the minimum wage. As a consequence, traditional manual services and unskilled labor turned more expensive both to middle classes and employers. The fight for the reduction of the costs of labor united the Brazilian elites under a common flag. Here again, structural rigidity met neoliberalism.
The PT, with all its flaws, symbolized an attempt to re-balance this situation, but reached its limits when its attempt to re-industrialize the country during the Dilma administration has proved to be too fragile in face of the prevailing economic structures, the limited intervention power of a peripheral state and the by then already adverse political circumstances.
These two objective forms of distributive struggle – one more indirect and concerning the relative benefits of growth or its side-effects; the other more direct and touching the dispute between classes around the absolute appropriation of wealth – were followed by a psychosocial and hence subjective challenge for the middle classes.
The Brazilian poor have never enjoyed quality education, efficient hospitals, good housing or urban security. Substantive citizenship has never been extended to the majority of the Brazilians.
At the bottom of the issue lies a question of alterity, one that has been hunting the Brazilian elites for decades now. The Brazilian poor have never enjoyed quality education, efficient hospitals, good housing or urban security. Substantive citizenship has never been extended to the majority of the Brazilians. An invisible line has always separated a minority enjoying higher standards of citizenship from the excluded majority. This has created a structural indifference of the well-off minorities towards the marginalized majority. This indifference made the middle classes develop a rigidity against the idea that a priority should be given to the fight against poverty and inequality.
This is reinforced by the fact that social distinction has always been a life-and-death issue for the Brazilian middle classes, even more so than for the Brazilian rich. The middle classes know that being poor in Brazil means descending into the hell of social exclusion. Poverty is thus something to be psychologically repealed as a malediction. In a country where half of the population lack decent housing, hence minimum standards of material dignity, the middle classes must struggle to stay above that invisible line that separates citizenship from exclusion.
In a widespread form of social conscience, as the ’true’ citizens (those deserving social respect and enjoying a minimum of material comfort) are never poor, the poor are not regarded as true citizens. That is why a regular middle-class citizen would only accept the incorporation of the poor in his or her own space of social dignity if and only if the poor could be converted into a peer. As poor, the Brazilian poor are deemed to a form of sub-citizenship.
Of course, any individual pertaining to the Brazilian middle classes would deny that improving the living standards of the country’s poorest is something positive. But a regular middle class individual would not easily accept to share his or her social spaces with someone poor, partially due to a unconfessed disgust of being taken as one of them.
In the present-day political debate, a typical middle class individual would possibly translate his or her discomfort by saying that it is not fair to give money to poor people (as with the well-known cash transfer program Bolsa Família), because it supposedly encourages the poor to work less. These resources, he or she would instinctively think, could be put to a better use, which would be to improve the living standard that a middle class citizen feels entitled to live: one allowing for more consumption and for moving as far as possible from the world of social exclusion. If poverty is to end, then it should happen spontaneously, through the benefits of capitalist development – and not through public policies. This diffuse feeling easily turned into resistance against the idea that the public resources should be used to fight poverty. And here again social rigidity met neoliberalism.
A provisory conclusion is that conservatism and neoliberalism, although seemingly disparate in their rhetoric, can perfectly match in reason of each one’s refusal of taking the other into consideration. Whereas the neoliberal reason reduces humanity – and thus the human difference – into a matter of economic calculation, conservatism rejects all values that do not correspond to its own image. The crisis and common interests just united them. In a country where, only a bit more than a century ago, the economic liberal discourse lived together with a slavery system, this is actually no big surprise. Either way, the fact remains that the existence of a power bloc uniting neoliberals and conservatives is very frightening.
 Marc Morgan, Extreme and Persistent Inequality: New Evidence for Brazil combining National Accounts, Survey and Fiscal Data, 2001-2015, 2017. Available at: http://wid.world/document/extreme-persistent-inequality-new-evidence-brazil-combining-national-accounts-surveys-fiscal-data-2001-2015-wid-world-working-paper-201712.
 Much more than in Western Europe, for instance, where the welfare system, though fragile and currently under menace, still provides for a comparatively higher level of social inclusion.
 The average value of the allowance in August 2018 was $188,00 BRL (around US$ 50,00) for an entire family. See https://aplicacoes.mds.gov.br/sagi/RIv3/geral/relatorio.php#Vis%C3%A3o%20Geral%20Brasil.