Massimiliano Mollona: Authoritarian Brazil redux?

On Sunday, 7 October, the Brazilian people will go to the polls to elect their next president. There has never been such a dramatic election since 15 January 1985, when Brazil returned to the polls after 20 years of dictatorship (1964–1985)—although voting took place still within the electoral college system put in place during the dictatorship. Following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff two years ago (which Alfredo Saad-Filho described as a “coup”) and a chaotic interregnum led by the corrupted Michel Temer (PMDB)—who nonetheless was very effective in curbing workers’ rights by amending part of the famously pro-labor Consolidated Labour Laws, regularizing outsourcing, and cutting workers’ pensions—the future of Brazilian democracy hangs in the balance. Much of it will be decided at the polls.

Leading with 35 percent of vote intentions is Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), a right-wing populist and evangelical Christian who is brilliantly taking advantage of the popular rage exploded against the political establishment after the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation, which led to the imprisonment of the ex-leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) Ignacio Lula da Silva and the impeachment of Dilma, although on unrelated charges. Trailing behind him with 22 percent of is the candidate for the PT, Fernando Haddad.

Bolsonaro’s popularity is growing vertiginously despite or perhaps because of his misogynist, homophobic, and classist public outbursts—he famously said to prefer a dead son to a gay one and that people living in former slave settlements (quilombos) are fat and lazy. Running in parallel to Bolsonaro’s outbursts are those of General Hamilton Mourão (PRTB) (his vice presidential candidate), who recently declared his intention to abolish the thirteenth month salary and scrap the 1988 Constitution (incidentally, Haddad agrees with him on this) and famously described families without strong father figures “factories of outcasts.”

It’s easy to dismiss the Bolsonaro trend as a form of “tropical Trumpism” (The Guardian, 6 September) (Bolsonaro’s son recently boasted that Steve Bannon is their political consultant) and to point out the vast array of anti-Bolsonaro demonstrations sweeping across the country. Mirroring the anti-Trump women marches in the United States and abroad, millions of Brazilian women have joined an anti-Bolsonaro Facebook group and organized a very successful social media campaign, supported by Brazil’s top female singers, with the hashtag #EleNão (#NotHim).

But Bolsonaro’s new ground among poor constituencies is worrying. The big electoral swing in support of Bolsonaro happened only a few days ago, when the bishop of the ultra-powerful evangelical Universal Church of God, Edir Macedo, declared his support for him. Among the poorer evangelical constituencies, Bolsonaro has 40 percent of intention of vote. A supporter of Cardoso in the 1998 elections, Macedo shifted his support to Lula in 2002, which allowed him to woo poor evangelical urban voters who were at the time suspicious of Lula’s left-wing liberalism—especially his take on abortion. This week, Macedo and Jose Wellington Bazerra da Costa, the president of all the Congregation of all Universal Church of God in Brazil openly declared their opposition to Haddad, exacerbated by the gathering momentum of the #EleNão campaign. This development is pulling a big section of that vast Brazilian urban lumpenproletariat (the informal and illegal workers, unemployed, or “criminals” living in the shantytowns of big cities) away from the PT. Lula da Silva, the self-declared “friend of the people” and “ex-poor,” had captured the loyalty of such marginal strata with generous programs of poverty reduction, popular housing, and the democratization of credit. Now the support among women and black people (the grassroots force of evangelical churches) toward the PT is rapidly dwindling. For the first time in years, favelas are breeding their own right-wing candidates (Folha De Sao Paulo). It turns out that if middle-class women tend to back Haddad, the vast majority of women from poor backgrounds support Bolsonaro, and overall more women (53 percent) than men (47 percent) support him (Valor Economico, 3 October).

The second important form of empowerment for Bolsonaro came from the endorsement of Nabhan Garcia, the president of the Ruralist Democratic Union (Uniao Democratica Ruralista) and of the all-powerful Parliamentary Front of Agriculture (Frente Parlamentar de Agropecuaria) that counts 261 MPs—40 percent of the Congress. With Bolsonaro as president and Garcia as Minister of Agriculture, the government will pay homage to the powerful rural oligarchy and possibly lure in Brazil’s rural masses who allowed Dilma to be reelected with a strict margin in 2014 but were subsequently alienated by her austerity measures and the Car Wash corruption scandal. Bolsonaro is also making inroad into the bastions of rural support to Dilma in 2014, that is, into Brazil’s northern and northeastern regions, where respectively 25.8 percent and 28.4 percent were recipient of the Bolsa Familía in 2017.

Such right-wing swing of marginal constituencies is worrying, especially in light of Bolsonaro’s admiration for the dictatorship. He famously dedicated his vote to impeach Rousseff to the commander of a unit responsible for 500 cases of torture and 40 murders under the military regime, and declared that his first measure as president will be to step up the war against “criminals” especially in favelas—a war that in 2016 led to more than 4,000 killings by the police (The Economist, 22 September 22). If Bolsonaro becomes president, some ministries will be run by generals. But his support in Congress will be weak, and he will not be able to impose any authoritarian rule. But there is a general feeling that at least on the cultural level, the dictatorship is coming back—whitewashed and bourgeoisified for popular consumption. And this is both ironic and tragic, in light of the immense impact of the publication of a damming report on the atrocities committed under military rule in Brazil, back in 2014 when it was revealed that Dilma herself had been persistently tortured. Signs of such comeback are all around. This week, President of the Federal Supreme Court José Antonio Dias Toffoli turned down two journalists’ request to interview ex-president Lula da Silva in his cell in Curitiba by making appeal to the 1967 Press Law created during dictatorship. On 2 October, at a symposium on the 1988 Constitution organized by the prestigious law department of the University of São Paulo, lawyers and scholars were taken aback in hearing Toffoli describe the 1964 coup as a right-wing “social movement” coexisting with equally pernicious left-wing organizations.

The 150 eminent Brazilian artists and intellectuals who signed the Democracia sim (Yes to democracy), collecting more than 180,000 signatures, are worried. The manifesto says:

It’s never too often to remember how throughout history and to this day fascist, Nazi leaders and many other autocratic regimes were first elected with the promise of rescuing the self-esteem and credibility of their nations, before submitting them to the most varied authoritarian excesses.

Indeed, for the famous historian Boris Fausto—who survived Getulio Vargas’s Estado Novo and the military regime to become one of the world’s leading dependent development theorists—the other dark force lurking behind Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism is the authoritarianism of the PT, incarnated in the phenomenon of Lulismo (Valor Economico, 2 October).

What about the PT and Lulismo? What went wrong?

Soon after being elected president in 2002, Ignazio Lula da Silva, an ex-metalworker from the ABC industrial belt and leader of the PT, set up the massive program of poverty reduction Bolsa Familía, which today reaches 13 million families—one quarter of the national population. As a result of the Bolsa Familía, the population below the poverty line decreased from 36 percent in 2003 to 23 percent in 2008. With a buoyant global commodity market, Lula managed to combine pro-labor policies—such as a stunning 50 percent increase of the minimum wage; cheap credit; and subsidized working-class housing—and exorbitant interest rates and currency overvaluation. Lula’s pro-labor and pro-finance policies alienated the industrialists, who nonetheless did not have enough political clout to catalyze antigovernmental forces. In the second mandate, Lula cut welfare expenses and deregulated the labor market, which radically increased capsulized work. Seeing their nominal wages increase, wageworkers turned to cheap credit to finance their new conspicuous consumption. With the end of the commodity boom, the compass between financial profit and social redistribution became unsustainable. The industrialists and the financial and banking oligarchies now joined forces against the government. Advised by Ministry of Finance Joaquim Levy, a Chicago-trained economist, Rousseff radically cut social spending and credit, privatized state assets, and put together the proposal for Lei 4330, which, if approved, would radically deregulate Brazil’s labor relations system. According to Perry Anderson, the PT’s sudden fall from grace is due to the electorate feeling “cheated” by Dilma suddenly embracing right-wing austerity policies.

On a basic level, Lulismo is simply the outcome of the charismatic leadership of Lula da Silva, who was able to combine the diverse “moralities” of grassroots Catholic organizations, socialism, and businesslike pragmatism and, in so doing, capture diverse social constituencies—from the urban and rural poor to the financial and banking elites and the rural oligarchies—while in the process, alienating the grassroots constituencies that propelled the PT to power and the very base of the PT.

Or Lulismo can be seen be seen as part of a wider neo-extractivist consensus (Svampa 2013) through which Latin-American left-wing parties in power combined financial speculation, commodity extraction, and radical programs of poverty reduction. Lulismo can also be interpreted as a failed “social neo-developmentalism” (Singer 2016) whereby the Brazilian state morphed form being an agent of social redistribution to becoming the main force of capitalist expansion. The sociologist Ruy Braga (2016) describes Lulismo as the combination of the passive incorporation of the marginal working class and the active incorporation of the top echelon of the trade-union strata who, becoming pensions fund manager, “financialized themselves” and turned into a new state bourgeoisie. Besides, according to Braga, central to Lulismo is a schizophrenic attitude toward the working class, visible in the PT’s opposite economic policies of reduction of job precariousness and increase of formal employment for marginal constituencies, especially the poor, blacks, the young, and women, and, on the other hand, of mass tertiarization and flexibilization of productive activities leading to the massive increase labor turnover and work accidents and the sharp curtailment of social rights.

Finally, Lulismo can be seen as a variant of past presidentialist regimes, typically Vargas’s Estado Novo, whereby the failure of the bourgeois counterrevolution—the social contract between urban masses and urban bourgeoisie (Fernandes 1981)—put democracy under constant threat by the dominant ancient oligarchies and was kept alive through personal deals presidentes made across the political spectrum and with the logistical support of strong authoritarian bureaucracies.

Against the baroque equations of social neo-developmentalism, Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s main economic adviser (who was educated at the University of Chicago) proposes simple recipes: free market, extensive privatizations, and further curbing of labor rights. Such Chicago-style manifesto wooed the big capital and the financial sectors that, as the centrist candidate Geraldo Alckmin (PMDB) loses steam, are turning their support to Bolsonaro. But these recipes are unlikely to appeal to the urban precariat or the rural dispossessed or the unionized wageworkers whom the election results ultimately rest on. Indeed, the 2013 June uprising—a series of antigovernment movements that paralyzed the country—saw the rearticulation of the urban precariat and unionized workers around a newly radicalized Left, which included the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), the new trade union, the Homeless Workers’ Movement, and a vast section of the radicalized youth.

In a famous book on the dictatorship, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1973), at the time still a well-respected scholar of underdevelopment, argues that the historical forces of authoritarianism in Brazil never crystallized into a political party, which meant that the interests of a restricted bourgeois and oligarchic elite had to be met through violence and political repression. Perhaps it is such lack of institutionalization of authoritarianism that gives to the specter of dictatorship its long-lasting aura. But Brazil’s unprecedented wave of grassroots mobilization will not necessarily be co-opted by another dictatorship or by yet another populist leader. It may be the case that instead of dictatorship redux, we will witness the coming together of a new revolutionary socialist coalition, one in which the role of women, the youth, and the marginalized black population is central. The ascent to popularity of Marielle Franco (PSOL)—the feminist, human rights activist who relentlessly campaigned against police brutality in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro—and her dramatic killing in March 2018, symbolizes both the enormous potential and the risks associated with this election.

Massimiliano Mollona teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London. His work focuses on labor, class, and political economy and on visual art and film.


Braga, Ruy. 2016. “Terra em transe: O fim do Lulismo e o retorno da luta de classes.” In As contradicoes do Lulismo: A que ponto chegamo? ed. André Singer. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial.

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique. 1973. “Associated development.” Authoritarian Brazil: Origins, policies and future, ed. Alfred Stepan. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Fernandes, Florestan. 1981. Reflection on the Brazilian counter-revolution. London: Routledge.

Singer, André. 2016. “A (falta de) base política para o ensaio desenvolvimentista.” In As contradicoes do Lulismo: A que ponto chegamo? ed. André Singer. Boitempo Editorial.

Svampa, Maristella. 2015. “Commodity consenus: Neo-extractivism and the commons in Latin America.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114 (1): 65–82.

Cite as: Mollona, Massimiliano. 2018. “Authoritarian Brazil redux?” FocaalBlog, 6 October.