Category Archives: Authoritarianism

Brazil’s Neo-Liberal Fascist Road to Power

The decisive electoral victory of far-right Brazilian presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro startled politicians and analysts of the traditional parties of the left and right.

The possible implications for the present and near future raises a number of fundamental questions whether it represents a ‘model’ for other countries or is the result of the specific circumstances of Brazil.

We shall proceed by outlining the socio-economic events and policies of Brazil which led up to rise of the highly authoritarian, neo-liberal Bolsonaro regime. We will then discuss if similar circumstances are emerging elsewhere and whether anti-authoritarian popular-democratic politics challenge the threat. We will conclude by evaluating the future of far-right regimes and their enemies.

Brazil :Two Decades of Military Rule and the Legacy of Impunity

Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship between April 1964 and March 15, 1985. Though the military formally withdrew from the regime it retained many powers and prerogatives, including impunity for the thousands of cases of arbitrary violations of human rights, including torture and assassinations.

However, during the height of the so-called ‘economic miracle’ during the 1970s, sectors of the middle class supported the rule by the triple alliance of private business, state enterprise elites, and the military. Only when the regime faced a major crisis in the early 1980’s did the military give way to electoral politics. The authoritarian legacy remained embedded in the political culture of the military and its followers. With the deepening economic crises of neo-liberalism, the corruption of civic culture and the increase of crime during the second decade of the 21st century, a militarized political movement headed by Jair Bolsonaro came to the fore.

The Social Bases of the Authoritarian regime

Most commentators have emphasized the amorphous mass of voters’ discontent with political corruption as the basis for the rise of the right. Moralism and insecurity with street crime were cited as the driving force of right-wing extremism.

Yet powerful economic power elites played a decisive role in propelling Bolsonaro to power. While masses were in the street, the Brazilian National Agricultural Confederation, the Federation of Banks and other prominent elite associations provided the funds, the legitimacy and legislative muscle. Over 40% of the Senate and Congress was controlled by the ‘ruralist bloc’, which came out in favor of Bolsonaro. Many of the voters who previously supported ex-President Cardoso’s center-right candidate Geraldo Alickman defected to the authoritarian right reducing his estimated vote by half.

The judiciary, under the influence of the agro-business and banking elite exploited political corruption to discredit and prosecute the center-left and the traditional political parties, leading to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and the arrest and prosecution of the leading left candidate Lula Da Silva.

From Authoritarianism to Fascism

Bolsonaro’s appeal to the elite is grounded in his program of savaging the working class: he promises to freeze public salaries for twenty years; lower pensions and increase retirement age up to twenty years; increase the role of the military and police in repressing strikes and land reform movements; end all restraints on pillaging the Amazon forest; lower taxes for the rich, deregulate the private economy and privatize the public sector.

In effect the Bolsonaro’s policies follow the script of a corporatist-neoliberal state: fascism with ‘free markets’. The pro-military policies are code words for mass repression; his pro-business strategy is disguised by an embrace of ‘family values’ and virulent hostility to working women, Afro-Brazilians, gays and indigenous people. His crusade against crime excludes bankers, landowners and industrialists who bribed politicians and congress-people – only the latter were prosecuted.

The Future of Neo-Liberal Fascism; Wave of the Future?

Will Bolsonaro’s version of neo-liberal fascism set the mark for other Latin American countries? Will his regime intervene and overthrow progressive countries? Will his victory in Brazil spur similar developments throughout the world?

In the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s first round electoral rout, the real (Brazilian currency) rose 3% against the dollar and the stock market jumped 4.5% in expectations of the total de-regulation of markets, and the privatization of the entire public sector.

Though Bolsonaro is compared to President Trump, there are both similarities and differences. Both share hostility to minorities, flaunt a rabidly chauvinist ideology and embrace ‘nationalist’ slogans. Yet Bolsonaro cannot embrace Trump’s protectionist policies and trade war with China. The agro-business elite in Brazil, which is an essential social bloc, would not permit him to undercut their vital export markets.

Bolsonaro’s neo-liberal fascist policy resonates with several regimes in Latin America, namely Colombia and Argentina. In Colombia large scale militarization and death squads’ collaboration in support of neo-liberalism have been in place for decades prior to Bolsonaro’s rise to power. Moreover, Colombia’s oligarchic regime does not depend on the mass base and charismatic leadership of a ‘fascism’ regime.

Argentina under President Mauricio Macri might like to imitate Bolsonaro, but his dependence on the IMF and its austerity program precludes any ‘mass base’ which might have been mobilized at the start of his neo-liberal regime.

This takes us to consider the stability and duration of the Brazilian experience of neo-liberal fascism. Several considerations are foremost.

Bolsonaro’s embrace of radical attacks of wage earners, salary employees, pensioners, debtors, small farmers and business-people may erode his ‘mass appeal’ and charisma.

The mass electoral fervor may not withstand the deterioration of basic socio-economic living standards.

Bolsonaro’s regime lack a congressional majority will obligate him to form alliances with the same corrupt parties and politicians which he denounced. The post-election political deal making may disillusion many of his ‘moral’ supporters.

If his free market program deepens social polarization and the class struggle, general strikes may result – though Brazil lacks the Argentine working-class tradition.

The agro-mineral elite, the military and the bankers will back Bolsonaro’s ‘war on crime’, and even benefit from the war in the slums, but unless he can stimulate investments, export markets and incorporate skilled workers and innovative technology, Brazil would be reduced to becoming merely an agro-mineral economy run by oligarchs and warmed over corrupt politicians.

Bolsonaro’s hostility to blacks, women, gays, trade unions and urban and rural social movements may win votes, but it does not increase profits and growth. Reactionary policies may attract amorphous middle-class voters, but it is not a program for governing nor does it serve as a coherent economic strategy.

There is no doubt that the explosive appeal of the ‘anti-establishment rhetoric has initially successful. There is no doubt that the military-regime alliance can withstand and repress a popular backlash, but can the regime rule sitting on bayonets?

The defeat of neo-liberal fascism in Brazil and its possible imitators elsewhere depends on the scope and depth of organized resistance. Bolsonaro’s ability to implement his assault on the living standards of the popular classes will depend on the scope and intensity of the class struggle. For starters Bolsonaro has won an election – but it has yet to be determined whether neo-liberal fascism is a viable, durable alternative to populist nationalism and social democracy. Likewise, it is not yet evident that the declining Left, fragmented and discredited can regroup and offer an alternative road to power.

Resisting Illegitimate Authority in the Era of Trump

In the current era of Trump, much of American society finds itself frustrated, angry, and traumatized by an authoritarian president whose leadership is being perceived increasingly as illegitimate. Oddly, a large reason for Trump’s success in getting elected in the first place as well as his continued seemingly inconceivable support is largely due to the illusion that he is anti-authoritarian and will shake things up and create change.

Trump, of course, is no anti-authoritarian. Rather, he is an authoritarian who resists power only when he doesn’t have it. Anti-authoritarians challenge and resist all forms of illegitimate authority. Bruce E. Levine, in his newly released book, Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian, tells us that the traits of an anti-authoritarian include a compulsion to speak out against cruelty and illegitimate authority no matter what the political cost, a willingness to sacrifice one’s own freedom for the cause of freedom, a compulsion for truth-telling, and a repulsion with hypocrisy. In his profiles of several U.S. anti-authoritarians, Levine details how, from Thomas Paine to Ralph Nader, many of them experienced great rejection, marginalization, and suffering for their views.

Trump so often lies, doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and has engaged in so many cruel and hypocritical acts that not only is there an anti-Trump resistance, but Trump may actually be the greatest contributor to this movement. Those anti-authoritarians who are already part of this resistance may find direction, comradery, and support in Levine’s profiles of anti-authoritarians who suffered before us, fighting so many of the same battles.

Levine makes clear that his book is not about Left versus Right or Democrats versus Republicans, but, rather, it is about challenging oppression, coercion, blind submission, and hypocrisy. Such a trove in a time when these factors are rampant is refreshing, indeed.

For quite some time, a powerful allegiance between politicians, Wall Street, and the military industrial complex along with clergy have often provided a means through which dissent in the United States has been silenced. In recent times, mental health professionals have become the new clergy. As Levine states, “By pathologizing and thus depoliticizing malaise, psychiatry helps maintain the status quo, meeting the needs of the ruling power structure” in the same way that police and clergy have controlled the population in times past.

Many who would likely oppose illegitimate authority are increasingly being drugged and outcast as mentally ill at a young age. A label of mental illness and the powerful tranquilizing drugs that tend to accompany these labels, now commonplace among American youth, are powerful means of delegitimizing dissent.

Doctors, along with politicians and military personnel, are historically among the most authoritarian of professionals. They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and assuring that resistance and opposition be silenced. A perfect example of this can be seen in the recent expulsion of Peter C Gøtzsche, MD, an internationally respected founder of the Nordic Cochrane Center, a purported independent evaluator of medical research. Gøtzsche, because of his years of opposition and non-compliance, was voted out after his very vocal criticism of the corruption in pharmaceutical company funded research and the falsehoods being spread to the public. His stance not only threatened a lucrative and powerful partnership, he dared to actively challenge the status quo and break rules. Doctors, particularly psychiatrists and psychologists, have also been a central force in genocide, as defined by the United Nations, both during Nazi Germany as well as within the United States, especially with respect to Native Americans, past and present.

Levine notes: “Today, a potentially huge army of young anti-authoritarians are being depoliticized by mental illness diagnoses and by the attributions that their inattention, anxiety, depression, and disruptiveness are caused by defective biochemistry—and not by their alienation from a dehumanizing society and their resistance to illegitimate authorities.”

In addition, children are being indoctrinated through the school system to blindly obey and never think independently, lest one be labeled a troublemaker or worse. Levine describes how the educational system has directly contributed to our difficulty in assembling and effectively being able to fight back against an authoritarian regime.

A century ago, when only 6% of Americans graduated high school, Populists had power to form cooperatives and politically astute organized resistance, effectively challenging corporations and politicians. Now that 85% of Americans graduate high school, little organized resistance exists beyond symbolic marches that affect little to no change whatsoever. People who don’t eventually conform and submit are considered “behavioral problems” or “oppositional,” and few are willing to embrace such accusations, even as children.

As Paul Krugman notes in “Why it Can Happen Here,” the death of democracy is a very real possibility in America. And, our education and mental health systems are almost guaranteeing it, as the more we drug, diagnose, and indoctrinate our children, the less likely anybody will have the will, capacity, or awareness to resist authority.

In examining the history of those who have sacrificed much in the name of justice, Levine provides us all many warnings, while also imbibing hope. He highlights both the ways in which anti-authoritarians can basically ruin it for us all (i.e., The Ted Kaczynski/Unabomber) as well as providing examples of ways anti-authoritarians foster compassion and peaceful resistance while honing one’s rage into getting things done.

From Malcom X’s rebellion against the oppression of capitalism to Edward Snowden’s exposing how the U.S. government is spying on its people, anti-authoritarians have paved the way for many to have the advantages and civil rights that currently exist. Levine’s Resisting Illegitimate Authority is an anti-authoritarian handbook of sorts. We all need anti-authoritarians who will challenge and overcome illegitimate authority—without them, we will never be the Land of the Free and certainly not the Home of the Brave.