In 2018, most Brazilian citizens decided to live under a government that daily weakens our democracy and attacks its institutions, instilling terror in part of Brazilian society. By electing Jair Bolsonaro, we elect someone who not only openly defends the military dictatorship of 1964 but defends it in its worst aspects: the practice of torture, silencing, and murder of critics and opponents. Jair Bolsonaro is not merely a representative of the well-known conservatism and authoritarianism of part of Brazilian society. He represents the most radical military sector, which did not accept Brazil’s return to democracy, although to some degree and for as long as there was no opportunity it had conformed to it. In contemporary Brazil, this sector has associated itself with a predatory business sector, with leaders who have, in recent decades, built religious ventures, some even transnational, and politicians whose only ideology is money. How was Bolsonaro’s election possible? How is it possible that a society democratically decides for its end?
The similarities between the period leading up to Bolsonaro’s election and the one ending with the coup of 1964 are striking. Then, as now, the country saw a flourishing of institutions and their rooting in a more and more vibrant society. The period preceding the dictatorship was a period of democratic social mobilizations, which demanded integration into society. Their demands were beginning to take shape in a series of fundamental reforms that would carry out a process of integration via the universalization of political and social rights. The coup of 1964, which occurred in the context of the Cold War, interrupted this process. Then, the military, associated with the leadership of the business sector and supported by the mainstream media, used the pretext of an internal communist threat to start a dictatorship that lasted 20 years.
In the process leading up to 2018, big business, the mainstream media, and the opposition irresponsibly and criminally destabilized the government of President Dilma Rousseff, leading to her impeachment in 2016 and the end of her government. This political crisis, however, was not a deliberate invention. Starting in 2013, several of the country’s major cities were the scene of large demonstrations against the political class. The far-right easily captured this anti-political sentiment and directed it against the PT. Thereby, the opposition saw the opportunity to regain the power it had lost once again in the 2014 election. Although there were voices in the streets throughout this period calling for military intervention, the military did not have the same prominence as before. In their place enters a figure that was not present in ‘64: the judiciary, which is now viciously corrupted for political purposes. After all, having no way of appealing to a communist threat, the internal enemy is systemic corruption, which they claim was represented in the Workers’ Party and its prominent leader, Lula. The first alarming manifestation was when the then-General Villas-Boas hinted during the trial of former president Lula that a decision favorable to the former president would not be accepted by the military.
Between 1964 and 2018, we have the 1988 Constitution, the milestone of our re-democratization process. The Constitution is the result of a broad movement and compromise among actors. The result is a rich and detailed text that affirms political rights and extends to affirming social rights. Interestingly, it affirms such rights and establishes the fiscal mechanisms for their implementation. Thus, it is not at all mistaken to see in the Constitution a political pact and an agreement between capital and labor that sought to resume the social inclusion movement interrupted by the 1964 dictatorship. It happens, however, that the agreement between capital and labor proved to be an illusion, a mirage.
It is well known how the idea of progress, in its numerous images, deals with the tensions in society and prevents the social fabric from being ripped apart. The idea of progress opens a horizon of expectation that finds its political face in democracy and reformism. With the Constitution of 1988, a new horizon of expectation opens up for Brazil. The dictatorship, however, does not only bequeath us a memory of violence and brutality; it also leaves us with a severe economic crisis with multiple dimensions, whose end began with the Plano Real, under the Itamar Franco administration, and ended with the handing over of the presidency from Cardoso to Lula. This period of economic crisis was marked by high inflation, infrastructural problems, and technological and human capital deficit. Its solution was centered first on the inflation problem, which imposed on the political agenda that prevented us from seeing that capital never had an actual disposition to accept the pact with labor, as affirmed by the ‘88 constitution. At first, it used inflation as a kind of fiscal relief, and at the same time, it protected itself with daily monetary correction of the values placed on the financial market. Then, with inflation under control, it started increasing demands for tax relief, thus making the sustainability of social inclusion and protection policies unfeasible. In place of the communist threat of before and the recent PT corruption, a new internal enemy appears: fiscal populism.
This background perhaps explains, but only in part, the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. It leaves aside the reasons for voting for a government that not only aims at total deregulation of all economic activity and destruction of public services but whose authoritarianism is proud of its fascist elements. If we add to the explanation the massive use of social networks, to the point of generating brutal cognitive dissonance, we have a somewhat more complete picture. Nevertheless, it still lacks an element that seems central.
The horizon of expectation opened by the Constitution of 1988 clashes with the reality of a brutally unequal and violent society. The Constitution of 1988, for millions of Brazilians, is less than an illusion; it is a term lacking any meaning, whether objective or, even worse, subjective. For this population, the lived experience from generation to generation is the experience of violence and exclusion, whose roots are profoundly linked to slavery. It is not that Brazil has known a policy of open racial segregation, with the force of law, as part of the USA did. The integration of black people in Brazilian society was never properly achieved. Brazil has never known transitional justice: it did not know it with the end of slavery, and it did not know it with the end of the dictatorship of 1964. It is time to settle accounts with the past, be it the distant past or the near past if we still intend to have any future.
One factor that we cannot lose sight of when we analyze the corrosion of democratic institutions in Brazil, therefore, is a certain indifference of the population. Why would a population that does not live the reality of democracy defend democratic institutions when threatened? Furthermore, how can institutions that remain distant from the lives of the enormous majority of the population be democratic? For people to see democracy as a value, they need to live democracy as the exercise of freedom, solidarity, care, and protection. They also need to see in democracy a particular way of exercising power and politics, with all the inherent imperfections and precariousness. We do not need a new constitution for Brazil to get back on the road to democracy and move away definitively from authoritarianism. What we do need is for this Constitution to reach all the people. For this, however, for the text of the law to have the impact on everyone’s lives that it sets out to have, we must be very clear about the transition we need to make and the mechanisms that helped us make it.
In Brazil issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation have appeared as identity issues. These issues will not disappear, no matter how strong the reaction against them may be. If they appear under the rhetoric of identitarianism, it is because this is the way they have managed to obtain space in the public debate. It does not seem that there is an impediment, at least from the logical point of view, for these demands are not to be articulated in a universalist grammar of respect and inclusion of difference. Alongside these issues, we have the climate crises, which will require the transition from one energy production and consumption pattern to another, a transition that is more complex in democratic regimes.
Nevertheless, before concluding, let us go back a bit. Our most significant difficulty, that which perhaps constitutes the greatest obstacle to the horizon of expectations opened by the 1988 constitution, is in the fragility of any common experience that gives it support, that turns a population into a demos (because even if imagined, a community–a demos–is formed from a shared experience). Therefore, it is not surprising that the Brazilian extreme right, which presents itself as Christian-conservative, makes intense use of the new information technologies and social media platforms and is engaged in a strong movement of historical negationism of our authoritarian, violent, unjust past. Against this negationism, we need to reaffirm our shared experience as an experience of injustice and the blocking of expectations of emancipation. It is not wrong to characterize modernity as this dialectic between opening horizons of expectation and blocking their realization. When those who intend to close our horizon feel strong enough to come public and dispute the imaginary, we need to respond with the creation of a great forum. The defense of democracy has to gain capillarity. It must occupy small and large spaces of interaction and interlocution, and present and discuss our reality as anchored in everyday life and collective memory. Although not a sufficient condition, the defeat of Bolsonaro in October 2022 is necessary for Brazil to resume the path of its transition, always incomplete and precarious, to democracy. Moreover, this transition is also a transitional culture, a transition done by political and social imagination. We have to make real the society as represented in our own Constitution. We must end with the split between those that share the benefits of democracy and those that are condemned to live as outsiders, strangers in their own country, in places where violence, poverty and precariousness is the rule.
Daniel Peres is Professor at the Department of Philosophy of the Federal University of Bahia-Brazil (UFBA) and researcher of the National Council for the Development of Science and Technology (CNPq). He works with political philosophy and is finishing a book on political judgment and political imagination.