One of the most disturbing phenomena of recent years is the spectacular rise, worldwide, of far right-wing, authoritarian and reactionary governments, in some cases with neofascist traits: Shinzo Abe (Japan), Narendra Modi (India), Donald Trump (United States), Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil) are the best known examples.
It is not surprising that several of them reacted absurdly to the coronavirus pandemic, dramatically denying or underestimating the danger. This was the case with Trump in the first weeks, and of his English disciple, Boris Johnson, who even proposed letting the whole population become infected with the virus, in order for “herd immunity” to take effect in the entire nation – at the cost of a few hundred thousand deaths. But in the face of the crisis, both had to retreat and in the case of Johnson, he became seriously ill himself.
The case of Brazil is therefore special, because Bolsonaro, the head of the government, persists in his attitude of denial, characterising the coronavirus as a “little flu”: a definition that deserves to be included in the annals, not of medicine, but of political madness. But this madness has its logic, which is the logic of neofascism.
Neofascism is not a repetition of fascism in the 1930s: it is a new phenomenon, with 21st century characteristics. For example, it does not take the form of a police dictatorship, but respects some democratic forms: elections, party pluralism, freedom of the press, existence of a Parliament, etc. Naturally, it tries to limit these democratic freedoms as much as it is able with authoritarian and repressive measures. Nor does it rely on armed shock troops, such as the German SS or the Italian Fascists.
This is also true for Bolsonaro: he is neither Hitler nor Mussolini, and he does not even have as his reference point the Brazilian version of fascism in the 1930s, Plínio Salgado’s integralism. While classic fascism defended massive state intervention in the economy, Bolsonaro’s neofascism is fully identified with neoliberalism, and aims to impose a socioeconomic policy favourable to the oligarchy, without any of the “social” pretensions of ancient fascism.
One of the results of this fundamentalist version of neoliberalism is the dismantling of the Brazilian public health service, which was already quite weakened by the policies of previous governments. In these conditions, the health crisis resulting from the coronavirus could have tragic consequences for the poorest sections of the population.
Another characteristic of Brazilian neofascism is that, despite its ultranationalist and patriotic rhetoric, it is completely subordinate to US imperialism, from an economic, diplomatic, political and military point of view. This also manifested itself in the reaction to the coronavirus, when Bolsonaro and his ministers were seen to imitate Trump, blaming the Chinese for the epidemic.
What Bolsonaro has in common with classical fascism is authoritarianism, a preference for dictatorial forms of government, the cult of the Chief (“Myth”) Saviour of the nation, and hatred of the left and the workers’ movement. But he is unable to organise a mass party or uniform shock troops. Nor is he able, for the time being, to establish a fascist dictatorship, a totalitarian state, close Parliament and put unions and opposition parties outside the law.
Bolsonaro’s authoritarianism is manifested in his “way of dealing” with the epidemic, trying to impose, against the Assembly, against state governments, and against his own ministers, a blind policy of refusing the minimum sanitary measures, indispensable to try to limit the dramatic consequences of the crisis (lockdown etc). His attitude also has traces of social-Darwinism (typical of fascism): the survival of the strongest. If thousands of vulnerable people ‒ elderly people with weak health conditions ‒ die, it is the price to pay: “Brazil cannot stop!”
A specific aspect of Bolsonarist neofascism is obscurantism, contempt for science, in alliance with its unconditional supporters, the most backward sectors of Evangelical neo-Pentecostalism. This attitude, worthy of Flat Earth Theory, has no equivalent in other authoritarian regimes, even those whose ideology is religious fundamentalism (such as ISIS). German philosopher Max Weber distinguished religion, based on ethical principles, from magic, the belief in the priest’s supernatural powers. In the case of Bolsonaro and his neo-Pentecostal pastor friends (Silas Malafaia, Edir Macedo and others) it is really about magic or superstition: stopping the Pandemic with “prayers” and “fasts”.
Although Bolsonaro has not been able to impose his lethal program as a whole, a part of it ‒ for example, an easing of restrictions ‒ may impose itself, through the president’s unpredictable negotiations with his military or civilian ministers.
Despite the delusional behaviour of the sinister character currently installed in the Palácio da Alvorada (Presidential Palace), and the threat he poses to public health, a significant portion of the Brazilian population still supports him, to a greater or lesser extent. According to recent polls, only 17% of voters who voted for him regretted their vote; and a majority of the population is opposed to him being removed from his role.
The struggle of the left and the Brazilian popular forces against neofascism is still in its infancy; it will take more than a few nice pot protests to defeat this teratological political formation. Sooner or later the Brazilian people will break free from this neofascist nightmare. But what will be the price to pay until then?
On April 2, Bolsonaro made a significant statement: “70% of the population will be contaminated by COVID-19, this is inevitable.” Following the logic of “herd immunity” (initially proposed by Trump and Johnson, later abandoned), this could perhaps happen. But it would only be “inevitable” if Bolsonaro managed to impose his policy of refusing containment measures: “Brazil cannot stop”.
What would be the consequences? The death rate of COVID-19 in Brazil is currently 7% of those infected. A small arithmetic calculation would lead to the following conclusion:
1) If 70% of the Brazilian population were contaminated, it would be 140 million people.
2) 7% mortality of 140 million is about 10 million.
3) If Bolsonaro managed to impose his policy, the result would be 10 million Brazilians dead.
This is called, in the language of international law, genocide. For an equivalent crime, several Nazi dignitaries were sentenced to hang by the Nuremberg Tribunal.
[Reprinted from Global Ecosocialist Network.]