On 8 January, more than 4,000 supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro invaded, looted, and vandalized public buildings such as the Federal Supreme Court of Brazil, the Planalto Palace — seat of the President of the Republic — and the National Congress in the capital of Brazil, Brasília. The action had been organized and announced for weeks in social media and enjoyed the broad support of the military police, the Brazilian army, and the governor of Brasília and its secretary of public security — both of whom were ousted from office after the event.
With cell phones in hand, “bolsonaristas” filmed the looting and depredation and took selfies with the police. This was diametrically opposed to what is usually observed in left-wing demonstrations: truculent reactions from the military police with shooting, bombs, arrests, and beatings.
Vladimir Safatle is Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Psychology at the University of São Paulo. His work focuses on the relationship between philosophy and human sciences in contemporary French thought and the Frankfurt School.
Translated by Silvia Dies Peres.
The active participation of these police — some of the most violent in the world — is an issue of major concern for the Brazilian philosopher and psychoanalyst Vladimir Safatle. In the wake of Sunday’s riot, he spoke with Andrea Dip of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies about what led up to the explosion, why he thinks Bolsonaro’s supporters represent a rising fascist threat, and how Brazilian democratic society can respond.
You wrote that what happened on 8 January in Brasília was a fascist uprising, and Lula called the attackers “fascists”. Why do you consider it adequate to speak of fascism in this context? How does such a categorization help to understand what is happening in Brazil?
The configuration of the extreme right wing in the world responds to certain local specificities. In the case of Brazil, one of these specificities is the very strong history of national fascism.
That history was stolen from us, it was erased. We forgot, for example, that Brazil was the country with the largest fascist party outside Europe in the 1930s. The Brazilian Integralist Action had 1,200,000 members — no fascist party outside Europe had something of this nature. Its founder, Plínio Salgado, when running for president in 1955, got almost 10 percent of the votes. We forgot that in the military dictatorship, there was a coup within a coup, and who carried out the coup was a military junta composed of two Integralists: Augusto Rademaker, vice-president of Médici, and Márcio Melo. It’s impressive how we were able to erase this history.
Fascism has roots in the structural violence of the Brazilian state, due to its colonial origin. There is an organic relationship between fascism and colonialism. Techniques that were used in European fascism were initially developed in colonies. Concentration camps first appeared in South Africa and Cuba. Government against “inferior peoples” was a classic topic of European imperialism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — Hannah Arendt has an important paper on the matter.
Wouldn’t that be the case in Brazil, where these relationships were never overcome? They stabilized as a normal relationship of society, these colonial relationships in which the Brazilian state operates, almost under the logic of an internal colonialism.
I would say that Brazil has always been a country prone to the rise of fascism. There is a historical element. There is also a speech and action analysis of it. Bolsonaro’s speeches and actions analytically fit into any definition of fascism in the world. We can clearly see that his supporters have gone into insurgent mode. Brazil does indeed have a fascist uprising. There was a broad popular mobilization financed by sectors of the national economy and a mobilization that will not wane. People thought that within a week everything would be back to normal, but there is no such thing as “normal” in Brazil anymore. There will be no more normal in Brazil. It is important for us to understand this once and for all in order to be prepared for what will really come.
Was what we saw in Brasília another coup attempt? What was the main objective of those attacks? What do those people really want?
This topic of the coup d’état as a fundamental horizon of Bolsonarism is something that many of us have insisted on for years and have been ridiculed for many times. How many times have I heard “Hey, where’s the coup?”, and, well, the coup is there, it came.
It had already been tried on 7 September 2021 with the mass rallies that Bolsonaro managed to summon, with the risk of general shortages in the country due to the mobilization of truck drivers and this almost happened. Now it came back in a very explicit way. The three branches of power were threatened. There is an active complicity of the military police and the demonstrations. There is an active complicity of the armed forces, which even prevented the dismantling of a camp [of Bolsonaro supporters] in front of a military headquarters in Brasília with tanks and soldiers.
The insurrection has changed sides in Brazil — it is no longer a matter of the Left but of the Right. This is a serious problem, because to fight an insurrection, you need another insurrection.
Logistics require a long time to be organized. It’s a massive rally of people, there were hundreds of buses, roadblocks — one can’t do that with just two or three WhatsApp messages. This was thought through for months so that something of this nature could be set up. Even the fact that Bolsonaro is out of Brazil is not anodyne. It was definitely one of the reasons he left, because if he were here right now he would have been arrested right away.
All this shows that not only do we have a coup attempt, but an organized coup attempt. There’s nothing spontaneous about it. This will not end now, other attempts will happen. Even if this attempt did not immediately achieve its objective, it determines the balance of forces. It blocks the government. It shows the fragility of the government at various points, so it accomplished its function.
In one of your works, you claim that “we are witnessing the complete redescription of the motivational logic of political action in a grammar of emotions. It is increasingly evident how political struggles tend to no longer be described in eminently political terms such as justice, equity, exploitation, dispossession but through emotional terms such as: hate, frustration, fear, resentment, anger, envy, hope.” What role does this “redescription” of the logic of politics play for what happened in Brasília and, in broad terms, for the phenomenon that some call “Bolsonarismo” or even “authoritarian populism” in general?
I initially used categories that may look like psychological categories to talk about political facts such as affections, and I had no idea it was going to unfold the way it did. I think that in fact there is an analytical problem there, which is the following: all the explanations that are given for phenomena like Bolsonarismo are deficient, that is, the explanations try to analyse the phenomenon from a standpoint of deficiency of the agents. For instance, a cognitive impairment — they are mobilized by fake news, they are obscurantists, they are not able to understand the real structures of phenomena. Or moral deficiencies: hatred enters as a moral deficiency, resentment enters as a psychological deficiency, always explaining through deficiency.
This explanation is first of all innocuous because it only serves to justify our alleged intellectual and moral superiority. One has to ask who the announcer of this type of analysis is and what the annunciator imagines of himself to be able to describe the phenomenon this way. If you say they are “marked by hatred”, do you imagine you are not marked by hatred at all? You are in a superior moral position in relation to the object you are analysing. I think this is epistemologically very bad.
Secondly, it erases the fact that fascism is a bad answer to real problems. It is not because someone is marked by hatred or resentment that they will act this way, but because there are real contradictions within our socioeconomic structure that we are not able to respond to. Fascism gives an answer — a bad one, but still an answer.
The aesthetics of the authoritarian Right is the aesthetics of the culture industry, that’s why they win. It is our natural aesthetic, the aesthetic of our society.
Wolfgang Streeck analysed this very well. We have arrived a time when capitalism is no longer able to guarantee any structure and framework of social protection. When you no longer have a framework and protection structures, it is rational that one of the ways out is coupling fascism and neoliberalism. Individuals will be responsible for their own survival, and with this comes the whole discussion about abandoning not only all obligations of generic solidarity, but also abandoning the entire system of localized protection for vulnerable sectors of society.
I ran for federal deputy months ago. I remember a meeting with Brazilian Uber drivers that overwhelmed me. They are mostly bolsonaristas — more than 80 percent. We tried and couldn’t find a way to present our arguments. Until one of them said to me, “Do you know why we don’t like the left wing? Because you have nothing to say to us. I’m a man, I’m white, I’m poor, I work 12 hours a day and I don’t have any guarantees for anything. What’s your speech? What do you have to tell me other than the fact that I’m a potential oppressor?” He approached a real problem. We no longer have the idea of a certain militant universalism. Even the idea of universalism sounds to us potentially reactionary.
So what is the proposal of neoliberal fascism? Because from now on there will no longer be neoliberalism without a fascist trait. The answer is that it is important to increase the responsibilities and decision-making capacity and freedom of individuals. Everything goes through the individual. School is the responsibility of individuals — home-schooling. Healthcare is responsibility of individuals — what did Bolsonaro do in the pandemic? He didn’t improve the public health system, he gave 600 real to everyone. Security is the responsibility of the individual — so you have the right to self-defence and arms.
It is important to understand a phenomenon like this in its affirmative dimension, what they actually try to do. They organize themselves based on the discourse of freedom. It is important to understand this. What kind of freedom is this? This freedom boils down to the capacity to endeavour by one’s own initiative, which has often been naturalized by the Left itself.
We naturalized these concepts many times. In Germany, for instance, anti-vax advocates made demonstrations using the language of “my body, my rules”. The premise is wrong — this body is not mine as a property of absolute usufruct, this body is a system connected to several other bodies so the idea of my body is an abstraction — what is real is the relationship between bodies. But many times, we used language like that. They make use of our contradictions and build on it. No grammar of emotions, no psychologism is needed to understand this.
In 2013 in Brazil, during the “June Days” that began when legitimate social movements called for a reduction in bus fares in São Paulo, we could observe an appropriation of left-wing symbols by far-right actors . For example, the slogan “those who don’t jump want fares” became “those who don’t jump are communists”, the slogan “come to the street” used by the Free Fare Movement became the name of an extreme right-wing movement, and so on.
Today, we are witnessing an uprising that reminds us of the images from 2013, with people occupying the National Congress, but it is that image in reverse. Historically, the Left has been the agent of insurrection and change — yet today it finds itself defending the conservation of public buildings. What can you tell us about this apparent reversal of roles?
Welcome to the logic of 1930s fascism! It is the hijacking of left-wing agendas and the activation of these agendas within another articulation. But the topics are there. It is always good to remember that within German Nazism there was left-wing Nazism. They hijacked the agendas.
As we are talking about an insurgent process, the problem is that the insurrection has changed sides in Brazil — it is no longer a matter of the Left but of the Right. This is a serious problem, because to fight an insurrection, you need another insurrection. It is not by placing the Left as the party of the order that we will stop this process. What you are talking about is really interesting because we see the way in which the positions are being modified, they are being inverted.
In these last couple of days, I heard terms like “terrorist”, “subversive”, and “exotic ideology” [to refer to the bolsonaristas in Brasília]. Three terms that were used in the military dictatorship to refer to the Left. What is the risk of that? Brazil has a huge institutional demand, for good reasons, because the institutions were not able to organize what they promised. But the force of rupture goes all to one side, to the right.
I have been insisting on this point for years: it is suicidal if the Left allows this to happen. It forces us to make an alliance with the oligarchic Right because in fact what happens in Brazil is that you have a fundamental level of conflict that is not between the Left and the Right, it is between the fascist Right and the oligarchic Right.
The fascist Right is popular, it gathers more than 4,000 people, puts them in a bus, and takes them to Brasília. The oligarchic Right does not do that. But this oligarchic Right is on our side now. Because they understood that there is no agreement with this fascist Right because it is hegemonic, it will not negotiate. This makes us gradually lose what is most important to us, which is the ability to project a rupture with the present, projecting a different future. This is part of the way the far-right will try to take us out of the game. I fear that they are quite skilled in doing that, and we are quite unskilled in being able to defend ourselves.
As with the storming of the Capitol in Washington, DC two years ago, the livestreaming, the creation of images, and the mobilization of affects via social media seem to have played a crucial role for the events in Brasília. Are we witnessing a new kind of “aestheticization of politics”, as Walter Benjamin ascribed to historical fascism? If so, who is “behind it” — who or what are the motors of this aestheticization of politics, and how could we characterize it?
The aesthetics of the authoritarian Right is the aesthetics of the culture industry, that’s why they win. It is our natural aesthetic, the aesthetic of our society. This is the most dramatic side. That’s why they do so well in publications on social media, they do so well in mass communication. It is their natural environment.
We have known about this since the 1950s. The authoritarian personality is basically the personality produced by the culture industry. To find this functionalized personality, marked by stereotypes and paranoid narratives, you just have to turn on the history channel. You don’t need to look for any extreme Right meetings, just turn on the television.
Brazil runs a serious institutional risk if it maintains the military police. Its entire structure is politically corrupt from top to bottom.
The Left no longer has the idea that if we have a different content, we need a different form. If we have different ideas, we cannot announce them in the same way. But we have to stress the mode of annunciation. As Mayakovski would say, there is no revolutionary process without a revolutionary form. However, that no longer makes sense to us. Because we are in this disorientation typical of the contemporary Left. We naturalized the fact that there is only one form of communication. But this form of communication is the natural form of the extreme Right. If the point is creating stereotypical characters, paranoid narratives, they know how to do it much better than us, and they always will. How can you counterattack that?
The military police played an important role in the attacks on 8 January. This is not something new in the history of Brazil — the way in which the police treat left-wing demonstrations in an absolutely violent way and not only cross their arms but also support and participate in acts of the fascist extreme right. Do you think this finally became clear to those who didn’t see it or pretended not to see it? That we need to talk about the military police?
I think this is a fundamental issue, because the Brazilian military police is a political party. It acts like a political party. It is not a state police, it is a factional police. Thus, there is only one solution, which is the dissolution of the military police. There is no other way to solve this problem.
The risk to which the Brazilian population is submitted if the military police is preserved became very clear in this episode. We not only saw complicity but joint action. Those demonstrators would never have reached the point of invading the Planalto Palace if the military police did not provide cover. We saw conversations, because they are naive to the point of recording videos, in which the police officer says, “You can go to the end, you can go to the Praça dos Três Poderes.”
I think this is impressive because I grew up in Brasília during the military dictatorship. I’ve never seen the city with a blockade on the esplanade of ministries, but it was blocked during Christmas. The symbolism of having to block access to representations of power in a city that wanted these accesses to be totally free and open is sad, but in fact it was blocked since Christmas, and they opened it the day before the demonstrations. What for? To enable the demonstrations.
I insist on this point: Brazil runs a serious institutional risk if it maintains the military police. Its entire structure is politically corrupt from top to bottom. As if being a people extermination police was not enough, it is an administrative massacre police.
Do you think this uprising was a way of assuming failure? A suicidal act or even a puerile way of dealing with frustration? Bolsonaro promised power all the time, literally but also with several threats of coups, etc. Do you think it’s over? What will happen now?
I’ve been hearing “now it’s over” for years. “Now they made the wrong move”, “they crossed the line”, “now it won’t work” — and actually, it only gets worse. I think it’s important to change this kind of analysis. A total failure doesn’t mean anything and actually means that you’re demonstrating your strength, remobilizing, and generating a new dynamic. There is no revolution without a dress rehearsal, and that goes for both sides. It would be important for us to stop saying that Bolsonaro is dead, that Bolsonarismo is over, that he has crossed the red line. “Now society will mobilize against it” — they own 50 percent of society, so this will never happen.
On the other hand, what is symbolically the image of people invading government buildings and taking the symbols of power? Do you think this means a defeat? Never! This only strengthens this group. How this will strengthen them we do not know. Whether it will be direct actions by bolsonarist groups, whether they will manage to blackmail the government… The armed forces have already shown their side. The Bolsonaro administration was a government of the armed forces — so much so that there were soldiers who did not even want to hand over their positions, displaying explicit insubordination.
Brazil has only one way out if it does not want to live with the ghost of institutional degradation all these years. A solution made up of two actions: the dissolution of the military police and the dismissal of the high command that participated in that government. All of them have to be ousted, as happened in Colombia. It’s the only way out we have.
This has to be done quickly, it is not possible do it three or four months from now because you lose momentum. I am part of a group that is insisting on the need for a popular trial of the crimes committed by the past government and for a demilitarization of the Brazilian state. The 7,000 military officers who currently occupy positions in the Brazilian state, of first and second rank, have to be dismissed and the high command of the armed forces have to be retired. They cannot command any troops. Someone who is in command and allows what happened in Brasília does not have the slightest condition to be in front of a troop.
Brazil has to put an end to these delusions that come from the times of João Goulart, who used to say that a military device guaranteed the survival of the government. In such a situation, it’s no use thinking you can negotiate. You don’t negotiate with someone who knows your strength very well. It is important to enter the confrontation. I hope that someone in this government has the clarity not to commit the same type of mistake that was committed in Brazilian history.