Latin America: What will it take to defeat the radical right?

December 1, 2022
Lula da Silva with Indigenous leaders at COP27. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert @LulaOficial/Twitter
Lula da Silva with Indigenous leaders at COP27 in Egypt. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert @LulaOficial/Twitter

Pablo Stefanoni is editor of the progressive Latin American magazine Nueva Sociedad and author of La rebeldía se volvió de derecha? (Has rebellion become a thing of the right?).

Green Left’s Federico Fuentes spoke to him about the situation in South America after the left’s victory in Brazil — and the stronger-than-expected showing for the extreme right.

Some have read Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s win in Brazil as simply the latest in the new wave of progressive electoral victories, while others have focused on the consolidation of the new right, given former extreme-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s vote. How much emphasis do you place on either of these two readings when analysing the vote in Brazil?

Both readings are correct.

On the one hand, we saw the triumph of a very broad electoral alliance behind Lula da Silva, which encompassed almost everyone from the socialist left to the centre-right, along with sectors of the economic, media and judicial elites that found themselves in conflict with Bolsonaro. This alliance was, in part, a result of the centre’s inability to come up with its own attractive electoral offer.

But Lula’s victory was not the result of a clash between the people and the oligarchy or between left and right. In the end, what won out was a kind of democratic front, led by Lula, formed in opposition to the enormous deterioration of civic, social and institutional life caused by Bolsonarism.

And while Lula was able to “resurrect” himself, the Workers’ Party (PT) continues to be relatively weak. There are dynamic sectors to its left, such as the Freedom and Socialism Party (PSOL), but they are still a small party.

At the same time, Bolsonaro demonstrated that he is the expression of a substratum of the right that has radicalised in recent years and whose broad reach transcends him. It is a movement that rejects recent advances made in gender and racial rights and holds denialist positions when it comes to climate change.

Behind Bolsonarism are concrete interests: agro-industry; paramilitaries and sections of the security forces; and conservative evangelists — what in Brazil is called the “three Bs”: Boi (Beef), Bala (Bullets) and blia (Bible). Bolsonaro was the “fourth B” that united these sectors in the last election.

We will have to see if he can maintain his leadership or if other right-wing leaders will emerge to challenge him. But it is clear that these sectors have held onto a strong institutional presence in parliament and in the governorships.

How do you explain the electoral pull of the new right?

Bolsonarism demonstrated its effectiveness as a generator of fake news and a virtual dirty war.

But, beyond this, there are societal changes that we need to look at more closely: transformations in the religious world; truncated social mobility; sustained improvements in consumption that were not matched by improvements in public services under PT governments.

All this has generated frustrations among sections of the so-called “new middle classes” and has led to reactions from others against the plebian “invasion” of universities, airports and shopping centres.

While the PT promoted redistribution without class struggle — giving to the poor without taking from the rich — there was a strong class-based reaction against these symbolic transformations.

Additionally, the Lula period saw a leap in the importance of agro-industry. The deindustrialisation of the south-east was accompanied by the consolidation of a strong agricultural sector in the centre-west. It was in this region that Bolsonaro obtained his best results.

Finally, on a more regional scale, we should not forget that almost half of the Latin American population is employed in the informal sector. Within this economy there exists a kind of popular capitalism, which is permeable to meritocratic and even anti-state discourses.

In Latin America, many see themselves as small business owners operating within a precarious economy. This means that the discourses of the new right — which mixes libertarianism and conservatism — has a larger base than the left sometimes imagines.

This issue cannot be resolved by saying people voted against their own interests or have “false consciousness”. The left in the region, and in Brazil in particular, has made consumption the basis of its politics, without at the same time strengthening public services.

It is no coincidence that the protests against [PT president] Dilma Rousseff in 2013 began around public transport and demanded “FIFA-quality public services”, in reference to the public funds spent on the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics held in Brazil.

You argue the new right has built itself on anti-progressivism. Sections of the left have sought to similarly build themselves by mobilising around anti-fascism. Do you think this strategy has been successful? Or do you see weaknesses with it?

I see anti-progressivism (now “anti-woke-ism”) as the glue that binds together a highly diverse extreme right, but one that operates — not without tensions — on common grounds. The idea that we live under a woke dictatorship; that the elites come from the left; all these ideas circulate among rightist movements and parties, and on social media.

The problem when it comes to talking about fascism is that it does not allow us to capture the differences between this new right and classic fascism. Today there are no militias; these movements are not palingenetic (they do not seek a kind of rebirth); and they interact with democracy, albeit in a complex manner.

Democratic fronts have halted the extreme right in many parts, for example in France and Brazil. The issue is that “all against fascism” seems to confirm the right’s criticism that the component parts of this “all” are part of the same bloc, and often sees the left tail-ending neoliberal forces.

Meanwhile, the new right has largely been able to de-demonise itself: in France, the extreme right went from 8 to 89 deputies; Giorgia Meloni was elected Italian prime minister in alliance with the centre-right; Vox has allied itself with the Popular Party in various parts of Spain; José Antonio Kast won the votes of vast sectors of the moderate right in Chile.

Then the question arises: where is this fascism that the left speaks of?

There is something paradoxical here: it is true that the normalisation of the extreme right pushes the limits of the thinkable/desirable; yet, at the same time, it places the right in a position of being at risk of becoming too “normal”, of becoming part of the system, of the elite, of the political “caste”.

Some of the difficulties the left faces when it comes to changing the world are the same ones that the radical right faces. For example, in Europe’s case, the European Union imposes many limits.

Today, everyone has less power in the face of the “system” — if by system we mean globalised capitalism. And everyone seems to disappoint those who want deep changes — not just the left.

What is the biggest challenge facing the left?

In my opinion, the challenge is to reformulate the reform-revolution duo.

With revolution not on the immediate horizon, we need to breathe new life into social reforms, which the reformists have abandoned. There are a series of enormous issues to deal with: climate change; new forms of alienation and precarity; the need to rebuild welfare states.

It is unlikely that this can be done using the parameters of hyper-political-correctness or by attempting to consolidate niche identities. Instead, it will require combining emancipatory perspectives — on issues such as feminism and sexual diversity — with a capacity to win over even broader popular sectors with all their diverse and contradictory sensibilities — on a multiplicity of societal problems.

In a precarious world in which the future seems bleak, it is not enough to deconstruct everything. We need to construct images of what a better life could look like.

I believe we need a certain de-hipsterisation of leftism, to reconnect with those below, and once again take up “hard” economic questions. Catastrophism can be pedagogical, but it cannot help us refound emancipatory projects.

I do not know how to do all this, but it will depend on concrete experiences that allow for certain universalisation, forms of rebuilding community, and creation of spaces for discussion and decision-making.

Despite having written a book that seems quite pessimistic, I do not believe the right is winning on all fronts. In fact, I believe its radicalisation is often due to the fact it is losing. But what it has achieved is an increasingly unequal capitalism that comes with a “progressive” discourse regarding gender, race, sexual minorities. That is why there is so much confusion.

The problem is that parts of the left have focused on discourses that in large part abandon a more universalist/class-based perspective. While talking all the time about intersectionality, the class dimension in this equation of unequalness is the least discussed.

Without recuperating some kind of class identity — which will not be the same as those of the past, nor can the issue be resolved by adopting conservative or anti-woke positions — it will not be easy to wage the battles that await us.

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