Brazil Is Falling Under an Evil Political Spell

By Thomas Palley

Brazil is falling under an evil political spell. The leading candidate in the presidential election is Jair Bolsonaro, an extreme right-wing politician. It is as if voters are sleepwalking their way to destruction of Brazilian democracy. Under the spell’s influence, they have become blind to the truth about Brazilian politics and blind to their better nature.

The resurrection of the fascist political tradition

Bolsonaro represents the resurrection of the fascist political tradition. That tradition discards norms of decency, tolerance, compromise and due process whenever they obstruct taking power.

He is an open advocate of racism, sexism, torture, and police execution squads. Those views are paired with a neoliberal economic program which aims to savage Brazil’s welfare state and privatize key state assets. That economic program has won him the support of the business elite, which has been willing to overlook his fascist inclinations as part of the bargain.

Brazil is sleepwalking

Bolsonaro’s popularity is inconsistent with Brazil’s expressed political preferences, which is why it is as if Brazil is sleepwalking. Past polls have shown about 65 percent of Brazilians support democracy.

Even more striking is the fact that former President Lula was the most popular political figure prior to the election. However, Brazil’s corrupt political elite imprisoned him on fake corruption charges and, with Lula barred from the election, Bolsonaro has become the front-runner. That speaks to the blinding power of the evil spell since Bolsonaro is the polar opposite of Lula.

A poisonous political potion, voter amnesia, and shapeshifting

Voters’ zombie condition reflects the poisonous political potion the elite has force-fed them. The feeding tubes have been a parliamentary coup and a dishonest media.

The potion has induced an amnesia whereby voters have forgotten history. They have forgotten how President Lula’s administration oversaw an economic miracle of growth with rising wages and declining inequality.

At the same time, the potion has enabled a shapeshift whereby the Workers’ Party (PT) has been falsely tarred as the party of corruption. The reality is the massive decades long thievery for personal enrichment was restricted to the business elite and political establishment. The PT received a relatively small amount of money, which it used for political purposes to grease Brazil’s corrupt Congress. Sadly, the novice PT government was confronted with the fact that Brazil is ungovernable without such grease.

Economic history rewritten

Worse yet, the long recession has been falsely blamed on the PT. The truth is Brazil’s long recession was triggered by the financial crisis of 2008 that began on Wall Street. President Rousseff advocated modest fiscal stimulus to help recovery, but her political opponents obstructed her and then impeached her for using improper budget accounting procedures that previous presidents had also used on a smaller scale.

A political vacuum and the appeal of authoritarianism

The charge against President Rousseff was technical budget improprieties. The real motive was to regain power and stop the “Car Wash” corruption investigation that implicated most of the political establishment, but not Rousseff.

The political elite regained power through its parliamentary “impeachment” coup. However, it was unable to hide its massive criminal corruption, which discredited it and created a political vacuum Bolsonaro has filled.

With the PT falsely smeared and the political establishment discredited, Bolsonaro’s neo-fascism began to appear attractive. He combines authoritarianism and nationalism. Authoritarianism offers false certainty, while nationalism exploits Brazilians’ loyalty to their country. All that is wrapped in the blanket of social conservatism, which incites the self-righteous and deceives the exploited.

Bolsonaro and the five big lies

Ninety years ago Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis learned the power of the “Big Lie”. Tell a big lie often and loudly enough, and it will be believed. Bolsonaro’s candidacy is built on five big lies.

Lie number one, and the most important lie, is that the PT is corrupt and the same as Brazil’s thieving elite. The reality is the elite has enriched itself, stealing tens of millions from the Brazilian state and people. There is no equivalent behavior by the PT.

Lie number two is the PT is responsible for the long economic recession. The truth is the recession was triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, and deepened by Brazil’s political elite which suffocated President Rousseff’s economic stimulus plans.

Lie number three is Bolsonaro is the candidate of patriotism. The truth is he is the anti-Brazil. Brazil is the country of the “beautiful game” and Pelé, of Samba and Bossa Nova, of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Those are what have made Brazil a global cultural force. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, Brazilians have struggled for social progress and succeeded. Bolsonaro is the opposite of all that. He would destroy tolerance and multi-culturalism, roll-back social progress, and inflict a new dictatorship.

Lie number four is Bolsonaro is the anti-crime candidate. Brazil has a gang and street crime problem owing to narco-trafficking and poverty. The solution is economic recovery and jobs, plus a narco-trafficking strategy. Bolsonaro will worsen poverty by his anti-worker policies. He also wants to kill the gangsters. The reality is many innocents will die, civil rights will be anihilated, and street gangsterism will be supplemented by police gangsterism. Brazil will have both street crime and police crime, making Bolsonaro the king of crime.

Lie number five is Bolsonaro is the anti-corruption candidate. The reality is he is allied with the neoliberal bankers who want to privatize and pillage the Brazilian state. He is an authoritarian, and authoritarianism always breeds corruption and economic inefficiency because it lacks accountability and checks.

The magic question: is that what you really want?

There is an antidote to the spell. Bolsonaro is the anti-Brazil. He is openly racist and tacitly approving of rape; a supporter of torture, extra-judicial killing, and dictatorship; and his neoliberal economic program aims to slash the welfare state. The antidote is to show the real Bolsonaro and then ask Brazilians “is that what you really want from your next president?”

Since the end of the last dictatorship, Brazil has enjoyed three decades of social progress. That history means voters know the answer if only they are asked the magic question.

The September/October Issue Is Out!


Our September/October issue went to electronic subscribers last week and is in in the mail to print subscribers now.  We’ve just posted one of the two cover stories, Zelda Bronstein’s California Yimby’s: The Growth Machine’s Shock Troops.  Attendees of the YIMBYtown 2018 conference, which just got underway in D&S‘s hometown of Boston, may be interested in our take on the ostensibly progressive, yet pro-development, deregulatory movement.  Getting below the surface may help us understand why Trump’s HUD secretary, Ben Carson, seems to have endorsed Yimbyism.

Here is the issue’s editorial note:

Addressing the Housing Crisis

The United States faces a crisis of housing affordability and displacement. It has been brewing for a long time, and it is getting worse. A Pew Charitable Trusts study released this spring found that, as of 2015, 38% of the over 40 million households that rent their homes were “rent burdened,” handing over 30% of their income (and often much more) to rent. Cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco receive the bulk of attention because of the dramatic and large-scale examples they provide of gentrification and tenant hardship. But these trends now extend to dozens of small- and medium-sized cities across the country where populations have grown while the housing stock hasn’t—and public policy has done little to alleviate the problem.
Our cover stories in this issue focus on the situation in California, where over half the renting population is rent burdened—the highest percentage in the United States. But they hold lessons for people anywhere struggling with rising rents and inadequate or substandard housing. Journalist Zelda Bronstein’s analysis of the “Yimby” (Yes in My Backyard) movement, centered in the Bay Area, uncovers the shortcomings and inconsistencies of a “build baby build” strategy. The Yimbys believe that a lack of supply is the main cause of the crisis, and their principal solution is to roll back nearly all zoning regulations to make way for private development. Bronstein calls on us to question the neoliberal growth machine, and makes the case for policies that pay attention to the demand side: rapid population growth that strains existing city infrastructure. Then urban studies professor and activist Jane Paul brings our focus down to Southern California, in the third part of her series on building a solidarity economy in Los Angeles. She covers a number of housing initiatives underway that could curtail displacement while strengthening and democratizing urban communities—and points toward policies that would help these projects flourish.
In the other feature in this issue, David Bacon exposes the long-term causes of Central American migration to the United States. Current U.S. border and detention policies bring suffering to migrants who have already suffered from over three decades of U.S. trade policy and support for right-wing regimes in Central America. As a friend of Bacon’s from Guatemala argues, migration to the United States is a form of resisting empire. People in the United States should fight to end cruel immigration practices, but they must also work to dismantle policies that make it impossible for many Central Americans to remain in their home countries. Elsewhere in the issue, geographer William G. Moseley examines the damaging effects of current trade policies in Africa. Trump’s reckless and racist protectionism threatens to set back the development of real alternatives to the Washington Consensus on free trade, which has had such devastating consequences for many African economies.
John Miller’s “Up Against the Wall Street Journal” column revisits the recent debate around “secular stagnation”—a long-term, structural slowdown in growth in the Global North. Contrary to the pronouncements of the right-wing business press, the pace of growth in the United States under President Trump doesn’t change the fact of deeper problems related to shrinking private investment and inequality. The “Trump recovery” is sustained by tax breaks, corporate borrowing, and instability in financial markets, and it merely pushes the big problems down the road. When it comes to job growth, we’ve seen similar superficial signs of health—a long expansion of employment since the depths of the Great Recession that has continued under Trump. Some of this news is undeniably good, as Gerald Friedman shows in his “Economy in Numbers” column, but the labor force participation rate is far below its pre-recession peak, and job growth has done little to increase wages.
Also in this issue: our columnist Arthur MacEwan answers a reader’s question
about labor devoted to social control; MacEwan shows how closely “guard labor” is correlated to inequality. And Steven Pressman reviews of one of the best Marx biographies in living memory, translated just in time for the bicentennial of Marx’s birth.