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10 October 2018updated 31 Aug 2021 10:26am

Brazil is set to elect a fascist as president, and business is on board

It is our generation’s wake up call.

By Paul Mason

“Despite misgivings,” reads the headline from Associated Press, “Brazil’s business community begins coalescing around far-right candidate”. Jair Bolsonaro may believe black people should not reproduce, want to expel environmental NGOs from the Amazon and have a record of inciting rape and advocating torture, but that is apparently not a problem for Brazil’s financial elite.

Unless a major reversal takes place in the presidential run-off, Brazil – the world’s ninth largest economy – will become the first major country to vote fascist in the 21st century. 

As justification, the bewildered commentators of the liberal centre will point to the Workers Party, whose last leader was impeached for corruption and whose figurehead, former president Lula, is in jail. 

Lula redistributed wealth downwards and pursued policies of social inclusion towards slum dwellers, indigenous people and ethnic minorities. Like the rest of Brazil’s political elite, he tolerated corruption and police violence – but that’s not really why the Brazilian business class rushed to support Bolsonaro.

In his march towards power, Bolsonaro ditched any remnants of the statist economics that traditionally attaches to the far right, hiring ultra-neoliberal economist Paulo Guedes as his advisor, and toured Wall Street to drum up support. Guedes, a Chicago-trained economist, advocates privatising the whole of Brazil’s public sector. 

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In case of trouble, the rest of the Bolsonaro government will be made up of former generals. Bolsonaro’s running mate, former general Hamilton Mourão, told a TV interviewer in September that, if civil society resists Bolsonaro’s programme, the incoming president could “self-coup” – calling the army in to run the government.

The story of how Brazil’s formerly democratic institutions have collapsed to the point of producing the world’s first modern fascist is easy to retrace. It was an immature democracy, with a strong workers’ movement, and that movement came to power by compromising with the real power and vested interests that swirl through all oil-and-resource rich developing countries.

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The story of why the bourgeoisie is flocking “despite misgivings” to fascism is more interesting, and should become a case study for those trying to prevent a repeat of the Brazilian scenario in the developed world.

At one level it is an old story. Probably the only important revolutionary speech by Karl Marx was given in March 1848 when, freshly deported from Brussels, he told a mass meeting of Parisian radicals to “throw the bourgeoisie overboard” in the fight for democracy. They would be untrustworthy allies, Marx said.

From 1848 through to the early 1930s, the non-liberal character of the liberal bourgeoisie became a recurrent theme of Marxist interventions in revolutions. The Russian business class preferred Kerensky to the Bolsheviks but when Kerensky evaporated they were happy to back a war of intervention led by pogromist generals and admirals of the old Tsarist elite. The German ruling class in the early 1930s wanted order, and a bulwark against the mass parties of the communist and socialist left. When the right-wing militarist Kurt Schleicher couldn’t deliver order, they turned to Hitler.

But in the mid-1930s, communism, social-democracy and liberalism each became learning organisms. A politician like Attlee was able to switch Labour from pacifism to anti-fascism and re-armament. Going from opposing intervention in the Spanish Civil War to visiting a communist-led unit fighting in it, and getting that company named after you, is a pretty big turnaround. 

An even bigger turnaround was engineered by the Communist International, which in 1935 abandoned the rhetoric of class warfare in favour of the “people’s front against fascism and war” – instructing communist parties throughout the western world to make alliances with anti-fascist sections of the ruling class.

Though Stalin himself reneged on Popular Front, signing a peace pact with Hitler in 1939, its spirit animated the anti-fascist resistance movements, and cultures, of Europe and America during the Second World War. In Casablanca, when the Spanish Civil War veteran Rick Blaine walks off into the fog to fight fascism with a former Vichy policeman, the entire choreography is that of the Popular Front.

But as we found in the 1930s, to have any kind of anti-fascist alliance with the liberal section of the business elite, there has to be one. The problem is, in the past thirty years, though the liberalism of centrist politics has remained strong, the commitment to democracy and the rule of law has become fragile.

Whatever it says in books by Hayek, in practice neoliberalism was about curtailing choice; imposing market forces coercively on all aspects of human life; gutting democracy of any alternatives. Workplaces, which in the heyday of antifascism were ideological battlegrounds, became forcibly depoliticised: even to mention trade unions is, for an Amazon employee, to invite the attentions of hostile managers. In the enforced quiet and obedience of the warehouse, or the coffee bar, the modern workforce is taught to smile and mean it.

At the same time, business management itself became depoliticised. It is no accident that the corporate interests that put Trump in power were drawn from the sector of the economy most resistant to the rule of law and the level playing field: privately held property and casino empires, where dealings with the mob go back decades, combined with privately held hedge funds whose material interest lies in creating as much volatility in the economy as possible.

But the businesses that need the level playing field – the big automakers, aircraft manufacturers and big tech – quickly fell into line behind Trump, just as they will do with Bolsonaro.

That does not mean that liberal democratic principles have disappeared from politics. Witness the hapless centrist party in Brazil, the PSDB, committed from its birth to Third Way paternalism and the social market. Its presidential candidate, who ran on a joint ticket with the centre-right Progressives, came a very poor fourth.

The problem is, under stress, liberal centrism tends to lose its bearings, rapidly followed by losing its will to govern. Beyond Emanuel Macron, no politician of the centre has understood how to create a liberal populism, and even with Macron it is likely to end in tears.

It is possible, even now, that by moderating his own radicalism and through an appeal to all sections of Brazilian society, the Workers Party candidate Fernando Hadad can head off a Bolsonaro victory. If so, stand by for a strategy of tension from the Brazilian right. Bolsonaro has already claimed irregularities with the first vote and his supporters obsess about the “self coup” scenario. But the very precondition for Haddad winning is just not there: a liberal conscience and culture among the financial, oil, logging and technology elite who would have to throw their weight behind saving democracy.

Brazil is, of course, a unique situation, but there are lessons to be learned in the northern hemisphere democracies struggling to head off far right movements and insurrectionary xenophobia. The number one lesson is to try as hard as possible for as long as possible to maintain an alliance between the centre and the left.

For this to happen, responsible centrist politicians have to make a choice: to stop calling the left fascists, to stop patronising media empires that stoke xenophobia and rancid nationalism. To agree to disagree, yes, but to commit to a common defence of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The left, in turn, has to decide which is the bigger enemy: neoliberal corporations or neofascist movements whose sentiments are simmering beneath the surface, often misunderstood or downplayed by a complacent media. Too often, especially in the left Anglosphere, this dilemma is dismissed.

For clarity, if Tommy Robinson and Gerard Batten are a real danger, with their strategy of spreading tension and hatred on Britain’s streets, with the right of the Tory party and most of the tablod media as their echo chamber – I will make common cause with the board of Goldman Sachs against them, should the latter wish to join the struggle.

If Bolsonaro wins there will be resistance on a scale bigger than that which was possible against Hitler. Brazil in this case will look more like Spain in the 1930s than Germany. But it is our generation’s wake up call nonetheless.

There are three concrete things a modern, liberal business elite should do, but is not doing.

First, stop providing a platform for xenophobic disinformation. Whether it’s the comments section of Mail group websites, phone ins on talk radio, or Google-owned Youtube, the alt-right’s platform is being provided by rich, tolerant people who meet each other in socially liberal settings when off duty. Google, Facebook and the big media groups need to stop giving a platform to hate.

Second, start loudly advocating and defending democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. In the closed Facebook groups of the right, and therefore on the smartphones of teenagers, the modern myths propagate: civil war is coming, the Islamisation of Europe is taking place etc. I want to see politicians of all stripes understand this is out there and unite – like standing next to each other in front of a billboard – to shout it down.

Third, suppress fascism. The state apparatus – police, intelligence and security services – used in the past to harass and sabotage the animal rights, environmental and anti-racist movements, and heavily engaged in disrupting Islamist terrorism, should be deployed with full force against those stirring up far right violence and racism. The unwillingness of the liberal centre to do this is one of the most worrying signs of its lack of self-belief.