ALMA Reviews Blog: The new Brazilian conservatism: from Reagan to Bolsonaro
Marina Basso Lacerda; Post-doctoral researcher at the Center for the Study of Citizenship Rights (Cenedic), University of São Paulo (USP)
The recent political rise of the far right in Brazil and the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018 has mobilised researchers from different areas of the social sciences to understand these phenomena. Why now, decades after the 1988 Constitution – which sought the formation of a Democratic State under the rule of law and the implementation of social welfare policies – and, more recently, after governments led by the Workers’ Party – which sought to overcome social inequality by implementing redistributive policies – has a force that expresses an antagonistic stance obtained an electoral majority and come to govern the country? The excellent book “O novo conservadorismo brasileiro: de Reagan a Bolsonaro” (The new Brazilian conservatism: from Reagan to Bolsonaro), written by the researcher Marina Basso Lacerda, points out some ways to answer this question.
Lacerda is a lawyer and political analyst at the House of Representatives in Brazil. The book was published in 2019, a few months after Bolsonaro’s election. This fateful moment in the country’s recent history is portrayed in the book as the apex of a process of ascension – in parallel with the US neoconservative movement of the late 1970s – of what the author calls the “new Brazilian conservatism”. Both of these movements refer to an alliance opposed both to social welfare policies and to the advance of feminist agendas and the LGBT movement. In the United States, the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 brought together a majority coalition of evangelical Christians, the secular right wing of the Republican Party and right-wing intellectuals. In Brazil during the 2010s, the same anti-feminist, homophobic and pro-gun ideology was mobilised and combined with the defence of an orthodox neoliberalism, with Bolsonaro’s candidacy as the catalyst that succeeded in consolidating such a neoconservative alliance and obtaining an electoral majority.
In showing how this movement succeeded, the book has many merits. Different aspects of Bolsonarism, which in many analyses appear scattered and fragmented, are effectively correlated here. And such correlation is not circumstantial, but the result of a historical process that is not isolated in the world, comprising a form of political action to implement austerity policies and withdraw rights, with the support of electoral majorities. In this analytical construction, Lacerda draws on earlier work by Sara Diamond (1995), David Harvey (2005) and, above all, Wendy Brown (2006) in discussing the relationship between neoliberalism and conservative thought.
To support her analysis, the author researched the work of parliamentarians in the House of Representatives, one of the main important spaces for shaping the national political agenda in Brazil. The House was also the main venue in the organisation of the coup against President Dilma Rousseff in 2016, an important milestone in the rise of the neoconservatives. Furthermore, Jair Bolsonaro himself, who served as an unknown deputy from 1991 onwards, gained national prominence from 2010 by using the House as a pulpit from which to spread the values that consolidated his victorious candidacy.
By analysing the work of the “parliamentary benches” (parliamentary groups formed around political agendas) – particularly those of the evangelicals and those that bring together defenders of gun rights and penal punitivism – Marina Lacerda shows how these different sectors and agendas have been articulated in recent years. In her view, the demonstrations in Brazil in June 2013 – huge mass demonstrations that took place that year and were appropriated by the right – were the initial milestone of a “conservative reaction”. The ideology that mobilised this new Brazilian right wing and grew stronger each year was the defence of the traditional patriarchal family, militarism, the State of Israel, a penal punitivism that greatly increases the imprisonment of poor and black youth, and anti-communism. This was skilfully combined with the defence of a neo-liberal economic agenda. Lacerda’s book explains how these different forces were coordinated in the defence and approval of legislation, as well as in the shaping of the national political agenda that underpinned the election campaign of Bolsonaro in 2018.
In the author’s words, “unlike other conservative articulations, the axis of gravity of US neo-conservatism – and of the new Brazilian conservatism – is the action of the Christian right and the idea that the family – and not the state – is the answer to every order of social dysfunction” (p. 11). Thus, the institution of the patriarchal Christian family gains prominence in the combination of different political agendas: it is up to the family, and not the state, to provide security through private arms, entrepreneurship and the market.
Much could still be written about the book and the important contribution it makes to contemporary debates. Some elements could have been better explored, such as the work of the landowners’ benches in Congress – an important political base for the rise of Bolsonaro – or the class basis of the new Brazilian conservatism, but the book points to important paths for academic analyses and political struggle. The research by Marina Lacerda shows us that resistance to the new conservatism will require the formation of a progressive alliance, bringing together feminist movements, LGBT and the black rights movement, as well as social and labour union movements. Only by overcoming the fragmentation of struggles, from a class, feminist and antiracist perspective, can we reverse this difficult moment in our history and resume a path of building democracy.
Reviewed by: Hugo Fanton
BROWN, Wendy. 2006. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization”, Political Theory, pp. 690–714.
DIAMOND, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.
HARVEY, David. 2005. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe