Notes for a political economy of Bolsonarism: Brazilian specificities of the global far right

Issue: 175

Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque

On 2 October 2022, the first round of the Brazilian presidential elections will be held, with a second round scheduled for 30 October 2022.1 At the time of writing, the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, has 27 percent of votes, according to the most recent Datafolha poll.2 Given the collapse of movements for impeachment proceedings against him, such a level of electoral support at this stage means that Bolsonaro is a strong candidate in the presidential elections, although it is not possible to forecast the precise outcome. Indeed, the uncertain nature of politics in Brazil raises doubts about whether the 2022 presidential elections will take place at all—this is a scenario that cannot be completely excluded.

The strong electoral support for Bolsonaro is amazing given the tragic consequences of his government on public health, the environment, economic growth, employment, political freedoms, social rights and levels of poverty. Regardless of the outcome of this year’s presidential election, Bolsonaro’s brand of politics seems to be here to stay. This suggests that we are witnessing a distinct political phenomenon—Bolsonarism, a manifestation of the global rise of the far right under specific Brazilian conditions.

This article investigates the structural roots of the transformation of Bolsonarism from a temporary phenomenon into something more permanent and investigates the specificities of the Brazilian form of the international far right. The seeming permanency of Bolsonarism is part of an international process that affects other countries, as discussed previously in this journal by Alex Callinicos.3 The cover image of International Socialism 170 places Bolsonaro alongside Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi: international exemplars of “the far right today”.4

Let me begin with two disclaimers about the scope of this article. First, this is not an article about the origins of Bolsonaro and Bolsonarism. There is already a vast and growing literature on this topic.5 Second, this is not an article on the history of conservative politics in Brazil, which would demand a deeper discussion of historical inequality, the belated abolition of slavery in 1888, and the long story of limited popular political participation and economic underdevelopment. There are classical works by Gilberto Freyre, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Celso Furtado on these topics.6

These disclaimers narrow the focus of the article, which concentrates on developments over the past three decades. This period begins with the democratisation of Brazilian society; a military dictatorship lasted from 1964 to 1985, and Brazil had its first democratic presidential election in 1989. The subsequent three decades could have been enough time to at least trigger a dynamic aimed at solving historically deep-rooted problems of inequality and political disengagement. Instead, they have seen the emergence of new problems that have aided the transformation of Bolsonarism from a temporary phenomenon into a more permanent feature of Brazilian politics.

Three processes at the root of Bolsonarism

Bolsonaro’s election in 2018 was the result of a specific political opportunity opened up by a sequence of events triggered by former president Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016.7 Rousseff, a member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party), became Brazil’s first female president when she was elected in 2010, following Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s two PT governments between 2003 and 2010. Rousseff’s government lasted until 2016, when social movement demands led to her impeachment which, along with other factors, created space for far-right groups. Bolsonaro rose to prominence in this new political scenario, with the astonishing electoral growth in far-right support from 2016 to 2018 underlying his victory. This article will argue that Bolsonaro’s success in 2018 was an outcome of a political stalemate grounded in deeper economic and social issues. The election was also the first moment in a broader reorganisation of the Brazilian right. This initial moment of Bolsonaro’s victory produced an emboldening and rejuvenation of right-wing circles and movements. A second moment occurred during Bolsonaro’s first three years of government, when he engaged in efforts and “experiments” aimed at reorganising the entire right of Brazilian politics—a process that involved making references to military coups and military involvement in national politics.8 During this second moment, in 2020, municipal elections were held in which far-right groups had some electoral success, conquering positions in local assemblies in a vast number of cities throughout the country.

With the far right having survived attempted congressional investigations and impeachments, we may now be reaching a third moment. Bolsonaro is part of a broad political alliance and, in 2021, he joined a traditional right-wing party—Partido Liberal (PL; Liberal Party), which has 75 deputies in the Brazilian parliament. This marked an important difference between 2018 and 2022. Going into the 2018 election, Bolsonaro was part of the Partido Social Liberal (PSL; Social Liberal Party), which had just eight deputies; after the election it had 52. Now, after various upheavals, Bolsonaro’s coalition involves at least 174 deputies—75 from PL, 56 from Partido Progressistas (PP; Progressive Party) and 43 from Republicanos (Republicans).9 This is a sign of the reorganisation of rightist forces since Bolsonaro’s victory. These 174 deputies are a strong pole within an already very conservative parliament, which has a total of 513 seats. The size of support for Bolsonaro—which, as noted, has increased from eight to 174 deputies—is one determinant of the amount of time allocated to his supporters on television. So, Bolsonaro will have more airtime than the other presidential candidates in this year’s contest, which is another important difference with previous elections.

An important issue for investigation by political scientists is whether this new configuration of parties represents a structural change on the Brazilian right. Following the end of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, has the right finally found a political arrangement that might be stable, with an electorally viable candidate linked to strong parliamentary parties?

These political rearrangements, the persistent support for Bolsonaro—big enough (according to current polls) for him to enter the second round of the presidential election—and the general political environment in Brazil show the strength of Bolsonarism as a political force and as the specific Brazilian form of the current international rise of far-right politics and groups.10

Bolsonaro’s government and right-wing movements in Brazil have been investigated by scholars, resulting in a growing political science literature on this subject.11 This article draws on that literature but focuses on the structural roots of this Brazilian branch of the global far-right mobilisation.

So, what are the structural roots of the emergence and consolidation of Bolsonarism? I identify three interconnected processes that have fed these developments: (1) a political stalemate produced by the Brazilian economy’s long relative stagnation; (2) the political consequences of deindustrialisation in the country; and (3) the political implications of the exhaustion of the alternatives of different political positions at the head of Brazilian economy since 1985. These processes form part of the explanation for the development of Bolsonarism and of its political economy.

The rest of this article is structured around discussion of each of these three processes. A fourth section looks at these three processes as a unity, relating them to Bolsonarism. A final section explores perspectives for Brazil’s democracy and development in the context of Bolsonarism having become a structural phenomenon.

Process 1: political stalemate and long-term stagnation

Brazil is a country caught in the “middle income trap”, a structural phenomenon also known as the “underdevelopment trap”.12 This trap is a complex, long-term phenomenon that Brazil has been caught in since at least 1870, with Brazil’s GDP per capita oscillating around 15 and 29 percent of that of the United States.13 Brazil’s middle income trap is a result of a vicious cycle that has four principal components: (1) inequality has blocked growth of domestic markets, obstructing development; (2) this has locked the country into a dependence on natural resource extraction and other relatively backward industries; (3) the country’s resources have been predatorily exploited, which leads to “the predominance of predatory economic dynamics over an innovative economic dynamics”; (4) a strong relationship has developed between economic slowdowns and political stalemates.14

Brazilian history demonstrates a correlation between phases of relative economic lagging (measured by a worsening ratio of Brazilian US GDP per capita in comparison to the US) and political crises. Some of these crises have even led to dictatorship. Until 1888, slavery continued in Brazil; before 1930, there was a political arrangement that tightly restricted political participation; between 1930 and 1945, there was a dictatorship under the first Getúlio Vargas government, with various phases within this period; and between 1964 and 1985, a military dictatorship held power. The frequent recurrence of authoritarian regimes is linked to Brazil’s inability to chart a consistent process of development that would increase the inclusion of workers and peasants in political decision making. The lack of persistent economic growth combined with inclusion—that is, development—has historically limited the room for the masses to participate in political life and opened the space for dictatorship.

With the end of military dictatorship in 1985 and the start of a transition to democracy, fresh challenges emerged. In 1988, a new constitution was created, which included important social advances for ordinary people, although it also contained limitations imposed by the conjunctural factors associated with the transition.15 Brazil now faced the question of how to drive economic growth and development under a democratic regime.

By 2021, it was clear that the outcomes of the attempts to respond to this problem had not been positive. Between 1990 and 2020, the Brazilian economy suffered from relative stagnation, as demonstrated by the data presented in figure 1, which shows the trajectory of the gap between Brazilian and US incomes from 1990 to 2020.16 In 1990, Brazilian GDP per capita was 26 percent that of the US, but it fell to 23 percent in 2020, and this decline seems to have continued in 2021. Indeed, the World Bank has estimated that 2021 GDP growth was 4.9 percent in Brazil and 5.6 percent in the US.17 World Bank forecasts for 2022 and 2023 also suggest Brazilian growth will be below US levels, so the income gap will continue to grow.18

Figure 1: Brazil’s GDP per capital relative to US’s GDP per capita (purchasing price parity (PPP) measure, constant 2017 international $s)

Source: World Bank, 2022.

Brazil’s lagging economy, particularly over the past eight years, has had effects with political implications: fewer opportunities for inclusion and employment, fewer good jobs, and less social mobility, however limited all these were in the first place. The relative stagnation also feeds defensive economic and political behaviours, with firms, entrepreneurs, trade unions and social movements more focused on preserving their positions rather than seeking long-term advances.

Here we can see the opposite of what Albert Hirschman and Michael Rothschild defined as the “tunnel effect”.19 The “tunnel effect”, experienced during periods of growth, is a tolerance for inequality due to an expectation that development will ultimately lead to generalisation of positive changes. Persistent relative stagnation offers no room for such expectations. The result could be called a “trap effect”: the feeling that nobody is moving forward. Indeed, Hirschman and Rothschild mention a “tunnel effect in reverse”.20 Of course, the chain of causation linking three decades of relative stagnation to specific political behaviours needs to be carefully investigated, and there are lots of mediating steps connecting them. Nonetheless, this period is openly discussed in the press and in day to day conversations as a series of “lost decades”. The crucial importance of optimism to the economy has been discussed by Daniel Kahneman, but experiences such as these propagate pessimism in all sectors.21 Pessimism affects different classes in different ways—emigration of skilled professionals, entrepreneurs’ fear of risky and innovative investments, the deployment of more defensive tactics by trade unions, discourse about austerity in the media and so on. All these reactive behaviours lead to further negative feedback loops and lock in the vicious cycles underlying the underdevelopment trap.

Importantly, relative stagnation can seriously affect investment decisions. Investors focus on existing opportunities and known paths rather than risking innovative investments and searching for new opportunities within the world economy. These defensive economic postures motivate a search for easy gains, which tend to be related to predatory practices rather than innovative ones. Long-term relative stagnation also shapes wider economic debates. As the president of Brazil’s central bank candidly put it, if growth were 5 percent or 6 percent a year, nobody would be talking about austerity measures such as the “teto de gastos” (“expenses ceiling”), which places a constitutional limit on public expenditure.22

Given the correlation between relative stagnation and predatory economic practices, a political current that facilitates predatory practices can begin to enjoy greater support. Predatory economic policies combine traditional ways of deriving profit from the exploitation of existing natural resources with patrimonial transfers of state and public assets—hence the importance of privatisation to this agenda. Privatisation of state and public assets is a predatory economic policy because it does not create new investment, employment, occupations or opportunities for economic and social inclusion—it is merely a patrimonial transfer and does not signify any real new investment.

When relative stagnation stimulates predatory investments, the resulting economic policies can, in turn, reinforce further negative feedback effects. These vicious cycles constrain long-term growth and block the beginning of catching-up processes, keeping the economy trapped in relative stagnation. This feeds a lack of initiative and political determination to conquer new positions in the international division of labour. Instead, the policies pursued aim at passive insertion into the existing international division of labour.

This passive insertion into the global division of labour does not demand economic policies that depend on big investments in education, the formation of new institutions for scientific and technological learning, investment in new firms and industries, and an active role for government and public institutions. Instead, it demands only that political organisations be responsive to what the most economically powerful countries want to buy from the range of existing products under existing conditions. Passive insertion responds to the pressures emanating from the dynamic centres of global accumulation. It operates within a hierarchical and structured economic environment, the pressures of which are hard to contain and manage. Active insertion, by contrast, demands strong political coalitions to build domestic institutions that can feed economic development.

The division between the centre and periphery of the global economic system is a structural divide in which the centre continually generates new technologies, new industries and new products. This dynamic consolidates the role of peripheral countries as sources of natural resources that respond to new demands for raw materials. A historical example of this is the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the consequent rise in the demand for oil. This triggered a global search for new reserves; new regions were drawn into the global economic system, and countries already integrated into the system were transformed into sources of this new strategic input, changing their role in the global division of labour. The dynamic at the centre endlessly provides new demand for old products. The forces emanating from the centre of the capitalist system push countries at the periphery, especially those rich in natural resources, to improve their role as global suppliers. If the peripheral country is relatively stagnant and there is not enough investment to move up the technological ladder, those forces will permanently shape its economy.

Strong integration into the global system locks these economies into their role as suppliers of primary goods and blocks efforts to break with this trajectory. Over time, this may encourage deindustrialisation when new opportunities to act as a source of raw materials open up, stimulating predatory economic practices. One example of this relationship between predatory economic dynamics and passive insertion into the international division of labour is the export of leather from Brazil for the US automotive industry, which has had a role in deforestation.23

Brazil’s long-term relative economic stagnation, and particularly its lagging behind after 2013, has politically delegitimatised policies that aim at a more active insertion into the international division of labour, generating political stalemates and leading to an environment that favours defensive and predatory policies.

Process 2: deindustrialisation

The relative stagnation shown in figure 1 and the resulting defensive and predatory policies interact with an economic phenomenon that has already been widely investigated: deindustrialisation. Passive insertion into the international division of labour means that a country is increasingly transformed into an exporter of primary products, especially the products of mining.

The link between long-term relative stagnation and the deindustrialisation of the Brazilian economy may result in yet more examples of negative feedback loops within the underdevelopment trap. Deindustrialisation is, among other things, part of the process of passive insertion in the international division of labour. This form of insertion pressures a country to give up on the most profitable forms of international trade, instead concentrating on traditional sectors—sectors that have less backward and forward linkages and that therefore are not strong starting points for the mutually reinforcing processes that underlie development. Hence, deindustrialisation may in the long term become as a source of relative stagnation. There is a huge literature about the deindustrialisation of Brazil; researchers Mario Castillo and Antonio Martins Neto have shown that the peak of the manufacturing sector’s share of GDP was reached in 1982, with a decrease thereafter.24

Figure 2 presents an index that hints at the pattern of deindustrialisation that has taken place in Brazil over the past two decades. It shows the size of manufacturing exports compared to the sum of exported mining and agricultural products. In 2000, manufacturing exports were more than five times greater than mining and agricultural exports. In 2021, the two had almost converged.

Figure 2: Manufacturing exports (US $s) relative to the sum of mining and agricultural exports

Source: Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade—

Deindustrialisation pushes the economy towards a lower technological path, once more locking in the income trap. This traps firms, entrepreneurs and policy-makers in a search for less technologically rich sources of profit, thus reinforcing the temptations of predatory economic dynamics.

Deindustrialisation changes the economic structure of countries, reshapes economies and reorganises future alternatives. Therefore, deindustrialisation can have implications for political activity, with diverse impacts on the political arena. On the one hand, it affects the political and economic horizons of the so-called “economic elites”—entrepreneurs and the local capitalist class. When industrial and manufacturing sectors weaken, more far-sighted sections of the capitalist class become less relevant, opening up greater space for sectors with more limited, short-term interests and less interest in risky investments in more technologically advanced areas. This regressive selection of entrepreneurs and business leaders, with a higher corporate mortality rate in more sophisticated economic sectors, opens room for an increase in investors seeking more predatory investments.

The relative growth of agricultural production can sometimes be based on higher levels of technology, intensification of production and the achievement of more production from the same area of land. However, important sectors of Brazilian agribusiness are connected with demands focused on extensive growth. This means more land is needed to increase production, driving deforestation, privatisation of public lands and invasion of areas protected for indigenous peoples. Researcher Caio Pompeia describes how businesses and organisations representing this predatory agenda met with Bolsonaro at the start of his election campaign in 2018.25 After the election, those sectors had a direct representative at the centre of government, which explains the environmental deterioration that has taken place under Bolsonaro’s government.26 Bolsonaro’s political aid for predatory industries has extended and consolidated the open support he enjoys among those sectors. This is one key example of the structural roots of Bolsonarism.

So, deindustrialisation has seen the selection of a more predatory economic elite in Brazil, and this may be related to the analysis presented by Callinicos in his analysis of Trump and Trumpism.27 There, Callinicos draws on Mike Davis’s description of the former US president as having been surrounded by a sort of “lumpen-bourgeoisie” during his term in office.28 However, the US possesses more innovative sectors in its economy than Brazil, where often it is the less innovative sectors that have survived deindustrialisation. The political consequence of this is that the Brazilian elite is more inclined to predation. The changing nature of the Brazilian capitalist class is an important basis for the politics of the right wing.29

The predatory economic dynamic depends on further exploration of natural resources without sophisticated technological capital—extensive economic practices prevail over intensive ones. In agricultural production, increases in production correlate to the use of more land, rather than increasing productivity in already cultivated areas. This extensive method of increasing agricultural production drives deforestation. In mining, when increases in production do not come from more advanced technologies, it tends to leave behind far greater environmental damage; for each tonne of mineral exports, another tonne of waste threatens human populations. These two examples of predatory economic growth require policies that disrespect people’s rights and wellbeing and rip up environmental protections. Such policies, supported by those at the heart of the predatory economy, contribute to a general rightward shift.

One characteristic of developmental catch-up processes is moving up the technological ladder, even when limited to specific sectors. However, the deindustrialisation of Brazil over the past 30 years has meant going down this technological ladder. When deindustrialisation takes place during a period in which new technologies are emerging at the centre of the capitalist system, new problems are created in labour markets: unemployment (11.2 percent in Brazil February 2022, representing 12 million people), precarisation, the growth of “self-employment” (24.8 million people were counted as self-employed in the second quarter of 2021), and emigration of people with technical skills.30 Again, these processes feed the disorganisation of society and frustration among its members, lowering political expectations and feeding support for the right wing.

Deindustrialisation also reshapes the working class when it closes firms in more technologically sophisticated sectors; regression down the technological ladder changes the economic structure of society. Job losses, the disappearance of occupations, weakening of unions and working-class social movements—all this change the political mood of dislocated workers.31 These developments also feed the type of precarisation of labour taking place in Brazil.32

Deindustrialisation in times of accelerated technological change, especially the growth of technologies for automation and robotisation, opens the way for further deterioration of conditions in the future and new anxieties in the present. Deindustrialisation, added to a lack of industrial and technological policies for development, leads to a pattern where jobs becoming vulnerable to automation. In Brazil, 80 percent of occupations are classified as “low technology”.33 Some 60 percent of employment is classified as “routine work” (manual or otherwise).34 This suggests there is potential for formal occupations in Brazil to be displaced by automation—a new source of anxiety that has consequences for workers’ political viewpoints and inclinations.

Deindustrialisation amid the emergence of new technologies can also contribute to further problems with insertion into the international division of labour. As a report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development suggests, “Developing countries risk becoming mere providers of raw data to global digital platforms”.35 This vulnerability can prepare still further deteriorations in labour conditions, exemplified by the working practices faced by a growing mass of workers for apps such as Uber and iFood, a Brazilian food delivery platform. These new sectors and the conditions in them have political implications due to the resulting disorganisation of workers, lack of collective organisation, and so on.36

In sum, the political impacts of deindustrialisation are pervasive. If a country steps back industrially, it becomes more difficult to enter new and promising emerging sectors, which contributes to the contraction of political horizons.

Process 3: exhausted alternatives, degraded debates

The two processes discussed in the previous sections are both long-term processes that, as the figures show, have been taking place over the past two decades with politically corrosive effects. These persistent vicious cycles have also led to a third process: the failure of successive democratically elected governments.

Since 1985, almost all political parties, involving almost the entire political spectrum of alternatives, were at some point at the head of the Brazilian national governments. The sequence begins on the right under the Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (MDB; Brazilian Democratic Movement) in 1985 with the presidency of José Sarney, who was followed by Fernando Collor de Mello. Collor was followed by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB; Brazilian Social Democratic Party) from the political centre. He was succeeded by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and then Rousseff of the centre-left PT. Then back to the right-wing MDB with Michel Temer as president. This sequence represents a series of attempts and failures.

The logic of Brazilian electoral politics since 1989—when the first direct presidential election since 1960 took place—can be understood as a chain of events in which each previous failure defines the subsequent president. In 1989, the candidate of the incumbent MDB, Ulysses Guimarãesm, received only 4.6 percent of the vote, coming in sixth place. Similarly, Collor’s failure led to his impeachment. Then PSDB was elected as a new alternative, but the party’s failure and consequent frustration with its policies led to Lula’s election in 2002. The PT was in national government until Rousseff’s impeachment, which was a consequence, among other things, of the PT’s failure and the crisis after 2013. The frustration with the PT, Rousseff’s impeachment, and Temer’s government and its failure then opened the space for Bolsonaro’s rise. He was the candidate who stood against everything, surfing a wave of confusion and a widespread feeling that nothing had worked after 1985. If we look at the economic figures discussed above as indicators of the economic policies of successive governments, we can conclude that over the past two decades Brazil has seen a series of failures—and a corresponding succession of political frustrations.

A comment made by the economist Thomas Piketty regarding the recent French presidential election might be useful for thinking about Brazilian politics since 1989. According to Piketty, “By appropriating the economic programme of the right, President Emmanuel Macron’s centrism also contributed to the rightward shift of the country”.37 Broadly speaking, something similar happened in Brazilian politics during those two decades: the PSDB assumed the economic programmes of the right, and later the PT assumed PSDB’s economic policies. These shifts contributed to a general swerve to the right in national debates and also contributed to the legitimation of right-wing economic recipes. Bolsonaro was there waiting for his opportunity, and 2018 was his chance.

Of course, discussing these long-term issues is difficult and should be done with care, especially at a moment when the key political task is to defeat Bolsonaro politically and electorally. Such a discussion necessitates an open consideration of state policies, which would involve a balance sheet of Brazilian politics and economic performance since the end of the military dictatorship. Assessing the weight of the PT’s responsibility in this sequence of failures is a crucial but delicate matter and must involve a consideration of long-term strategic alternatives. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were very rich discussions within the PT about such alternatives; a sample of its strategic hypotheses can be found in its journal, Teoria e Debate.38 However, these ended with a “strategic shortcut” in 2001-2—an attempt to strengthen the electoral viability of the PT in presidential elections through alliances with right-wing parties. This stood in stark contrast to the PT’s earlier practices. During the 1980s, the PT tried to grow its political presence in cities, local governments and state governments from its initial bases in trade unions and popular movements. This path was an opportunity for experiments and social innovations such as participatory budgets.39 It was also a chance to learn to broaden the party’s political support and create the basis for a big network of movements. This whole learning process was, in the long term, one that would consolidate activities that could provide an alternative to traditional—and conservative—political practices in Brazil.

This strategic shortcut was reflected in the composition of the 2002 PT electoral ticket, on which Lula had a Partido Liberal member as vice-presidential candidate. Indeed, that party was at the core of his government. This was a return to a traditional way of doing politics in Brazil, and it triggered a process of internal transformation within the PT that made it more and more similar to other parties. There was a tight logic locking in this new path: the PT government needed support in a parliament that had a strong conservative bias, and thus it had to increasingly play by the existing “rules”, which reinforce “coalition presidentialism”. Perversely, this opened the way for judicial actions against the PT such as those known as the Mensalão scandal and Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”).40

Questions of corruption are important and need to be discussed publicly. In the current political debate the PT is uncomfortable every time these questions are asked. Nevertheless, it is important that the Brazilian Supreme Court decided to free Lula in 2019 and to recognise the partiality of Sergio Moro, the judge who sentenced him to nine years in prison. The recent findings of a committee of the UN that “the investigation and prosecution of former President Lula da Silva violated his right to be tried by an impartial tribunal, his right to privacy and his political rights” is also important.41 These developments allow us to re-evaluate recent Brazilian history and offer the opportunity for an important debate within the PT and the democratic movement. In that context, we can draw up a more complete balance sheet about the relationship between the PT and conservative parties participating in its parliamentary coalition, and between public policies, state resources and Brazilian big business. The problems and mistakes considered here are a consequence of political choices flowing from the so-called strategic shortcut, a search for short-term electoral gains at a cost of immersion in “really existing” Brazilian politics.

This perverse dynamic also trapped the PT on a path that limited its capacity to formulate and implement policies that would lead to development, which, as Celso Furtado has taught us, would involve structural reforms and substantial improvements in income distribution.42 The PT’s 14 years in national government did not change the economic trajectories shown earlier in figures 1 and 2. Therefore, the 2001-2 strategic shortcut ultimately meant the PT became yet another episode in the pattern of parties playing up expectations, having their time in government but failing to escape Brazil’s relative stagnation and consequent political frustration. In 2002, the PT repeatedly used the word “hope” to ask for an opportunity to govern—something that could not be done now, given its disappointing record in government.43

Due to the sequence of failures and frustrations since 1985, the level of political and economic aspiration in Brazil is very low. The tragedy of Bolsonaro’s government adds to this problem, not least since his attacks on democracy mean resistance movements are forced to defend very basic gains. The exhaustion of the transformative energies of the PT, which can be seen by the ageing of its leading cadres and the lack of rejuvenation of its public figures, means the political debate lacks a programme that combines the struggle for democracy with the struggle for economic development and social progress. The weakness of alternatives on the left of the political spectrum is a problem for Brazilian democracy, which has seen many years in which each leading party in turn moved rightward and then three and a half years of Bolsonaro. These factors have limited the horizon of political debates, with no alternative capable of mobilising people in favour of transformative policies.

Bolsonaro is the latest in the long list of failures—and a very bad failure indeed, especially given how far Brazil is now lagging behind economically. However, as discussed in the introduction of this article, Bolsonaro’s support is based on a different logic. It does not rely on his capacity to push Brazil onto a developmental trajectory and produce general improvements in wellbeing. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s focus on consolidating his right-wing support has led to a further deterioration of the public sphere and a lowering of the tone of political debate. This diminishing of the quality of public debate undermines the discussions that are a necessary part of a search for alternatives. This is another vicious cycle that must be overcome.

Bolsonarism: a consequence of the three processes

Bolsonarism is now a stubborn political force. Despite Bolsonaro’s coronavirus management—causing more than 660,000 deaths—stagnation, high unemployment and general social deterioration, he still won 27 percent in recent polls.44 The result of the coming election is uncertain, but Bolsonarism is here to stay.

Bolsonarism can be interpreted as a consequence of the three processes discussed in the previous sections. These three processes are relatively recent, but they overlap with longer-term factors such as the rootedness of conservative politics in Brazilian society. These factors are important, providing ground for the fermentation of the new three processes, but are unfortunately beyond the scope of this article. New communication technologies—Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and so on—have been used intensively by far-right movements in Brazil, helping them to find conservative people who are ready to be mobilised in support of new right-wing leaders.

How do those three processes—the long stagnation of the Brazilian economy, deindustrialisation and the exhaustion of political and economic alternatives—combine?

Each process has political implications. The long relative stagnation has fed political stalemate and blocked the inclusion of more sectors of the population in the social and democratic life of the country. Economic horizons have been downgraded to mere passive insertion into the international division of labour. Deindustrialisation, strongly correlated with stagnation, has further lowered political and economic horizons, stimulating a search for predatory sources of profit, which are widely available in a country with great natural resources. The exhaustion of political alternatives systematically degrades public debate and feeds scepticism about the country’s potential to change and develop.

These three processes interact, leading to an outcome that affects democratic life at both the top and bottom of society—organising the minority at the top and disorganising the majority at the bottom.

At the top, the leading sectors are, to a certain extent, shaped by stagnation and deindustrialisation, resulting in a regressive landscape of leading entrepreneurs and firms. Predatorily inclined sectors have gained weight: a specific Brazilian form of “lumpen-bourgeoisie”, as Callinicos and Davis term it in their discussions of other far-right movements.45 As these sectors become more powerful and influential, they lower expectations and political and economic horizons, preparing the ground for access to predatory sources of profit and ensuring passive insertion in the international division of labour. This stimulates a search for political leaders who will push policies in line with predatory economic interests.

At the bottom, stagnation and deindustrialisation has disorganised workers, eliminated jobs in technologically advanced sectors and weakened working-class organisations, causing a deterioration in labour rights and conditions. Disorganisation, the growth of the informal labour market, “self-employment” and precarity are consequences of these two processes that, in turn, lower the political horizons of previously active parts of the population. These trends feed mistrust and scepticism about the capacity of the working class to fight. Mistrust and a lack of working-class self-belief are two wellsprings for far-right politics.

Organising the top, disorganising the bottom—these two processes provide the groundwork for new right and far-right leaderships, and the rise of Bolsonaro was driven along by them.

The third process—the complete exhaustion of alternatives after decades of democracy—completes this picture. Degrading public debate is important for Bolsonaro because his programme lacks any policies for development. After all, no policy is necessary to speed the process of passive insertion into the global division of labour; inertia is enough. The exhaustion of alternatives also intensifies mistrust at the bottom of society, leading to pessimism and resignation, emotional forces that either lead to political inaction or push the unorganised masses to the right.

These three processes also interact with the rise of a certain type of right-wing activism. During Bolsonaro’s election campaign, there was a strengthening and rejuvenation of right-wing movements. Right-wing activism spawned demonstrations in support of his attempts to weaken democracy in 2019 and against public health measures to contain Covid-19. There have also been organised movements such as Escola Sem Partido (“Non-partisan School”)—an initiative pushing educational institutions to teach “conservative values” and block open discussion in schools. The rise of such movements, which have greatly contributed to the consolidation of Bolsonarism, has gone hand in hand with the consequences of the three processes analysed above.

So, though there are other political, psychological and economic sources, it is in these three process that Bolsonarism is rooted.

Three years under Bolsonaro

Born out of these processes, Bolsonarism witnessed a deep transformation after conquering national government in 2018. Since his presidential inauguration in January 2019, Bolsonaro has been at the centre of the Brazilian state, and this has inevitably had effects on the nature of Bolsonarism. Politically, Bolsonaro’s insertion into mainstream right-wing parties may well mean a new phase for the Brazilian right. Economically, Bolsonaro’s government has been a lever for implementing a predatory turn in the Brazilian economic dynamic.

De-democratisation of Brazilian society was in progress before Bolsonaro, but it intensified during his three and a half years in office. He achieved this through a whole list of measures, each of which signified a small social or political regression.46 However, these small regressions add up to a substantial backwards step for Brazilian democracy.47 Moreover, they form the framework through which Bolsonaro has been able to enact his programme of unleashing predatory capitalism.48

There has been some resistance to Bolsonaro which, though weaker than necessary, has managed to mitigate his assaults on democratic freedoms and public institutions. An example of this was the vaccination drive against Covid-19. Two public centres—the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (also known as FIOCRUZ) and the Butantan Institute—produced vaccines. Meanwhile, the Sistema Único de Saúde (“United Health System”), the Brazilian national health service created by the 1988 constitution, organised the country’s mass vaccination campaign.

To provide an overall balance sheet for those three years, we must ask: how far did Bolsonaro get with his agenda? On the one hand, Brazil still faces the risk of further democratic regression, environmental degradation and a lagging economy. On the other hand, the implementation of elements of Bolsonaro’s economic programme for a predatory economy went far enough to preserve his supporters at the top—they kept profiting and doing business as usual, free from limits and constraints. This has meant a consolidation of Bolsonarism among his supporters following his three years of government and his electoral strength at this stage of the 2022 presidential campaign.

The three years of Bolsonaro have also added new problems to the three processes that generated Bolsonarism: three more years of relative stagnation and lagging behind, three more years of deindustrialisation, and three years of degradation of political debates. The processes that generated Bolsonarism have been reinforced, leading to new problems for Brazilian democracy.

Perspectives: democratic freedoms and our time to learn

Bolsonarism has been consolidated. Given the threat this poses, preserving democracy is a key task—a central and immediate goal. The 2022 election takes place under the new conjuncture established by Bolsonaro’s government.

One difference between the current election campaign and the one in 2018 is that Bolsonaro has now offered his own contribution to the exhaustion of alternatives. His main claim in 2018 was that he would solve Brazil’s problems. Now, everyone can ask, “What did Bolsonaro actually do?” The answer is that he has done nothing to address the problems Brazil faces; he has only added new ones. Will this clear lesson from his government have an electoral impact? Perhaps. Unfortunately, however, the strength of Bolsonarism means that the effect will be non-existent among his supporters.

The main problem for the democratic and socialist left now is that it is weak and unable to present an alternative. An effective and comprehensive programme to overcome the left’s crisis would be an important step towards protecting Brazilian democracy, helping to stall the shift to the right and beginning to mobilise for a social and political transformation.

Any provisional programme must include initiatives to reverse the damage that has been done. We need to rebuild institutions, public regulation, public conditions for debates and so on. We need measures that foster recuperation in regions and among sections of the population that have suffered particularly harshly due to predation that has taken place in Brazil in recent years. If there is rebuilding and reparation, it could be done on a new basis, connected with a new programme, even if this is a limited, tentative and preliminary programme. However, this may need more time to mature. Given the changes both within Brazil and globally, now is the time for a long process of learning to fight under new conditions, a learning process that might take years or even decades. Remember the coup in 1964 that started the military dictatorship: it took at least ten years for people to recuperate their energy and learn how to fight against that regime. It took time to raise new people, new generations of active citizens, to join the struggles for democracy. It takes time for new social and trade union movements to emerge.

Right now, we must appreciate and understand the factors contributing to the recomposition of the popular and democratic movements under these new political, economic and technological conditions. Our learning process must include a programme for democratic and social transformation in Brazil, within a broader agenda of changing the societies at the periphery of the world system and overcoming capitalism globally. Such a programme is the only way to defeat the far right.

Eduardo da Motta e Albuquerque is a professor at the Department of Economics and the Centre for Development and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil, and author of the book Agenda Rosdolsky (Editora UFMG, 2012).


1 I would like to thank Joseph Choonara for suggestions, criticisms and comments during the preparation of this article. I would also like also to thank Luis Eduardo Fonseca, José Afonso Assis Cabral and Juarez Guimarães for their comments on an earlier draft, Hugo Eduardo da Gama Cerqueira for our talks about the structure of this article, and Gilberto Libânio for clarifications related to data on Brazilian exports. Special thanks to Cláudia Feres Faria for her recommendations and criticisms. All mistakes are my own responsibility.

2 Folha de São Paulo, 2022.

3 Callinicos, 2021.

4 The nature of Bolsonarism and its political characterisation is still open. What Bolsonarism will become depends on future events and on the relationship between Bolsonaro and Brazilian democracy. Two important questions are: (1) Will the presidential elections take place this year? (2) If Bolsonaro loses the election, will he respect the results? Bolsonarism could be defined as a far-right movement in the sense given by Callinicos, and connections between Trumpism and Bolsonarism can be illustrated by the influence of Steve Banon. The specificity of Bolsonarism involves a genealogy that goes back to a section of the Brazilian military during the dictatorship, including Sylvio Frota, a general with links to the most brutal elements of the repressive apparatus. One specific feature of Bolsonaro’s government is the increase in civilian governmental positions held by military personnel—Agostini, 2020. Another Brazilian particularity is Bolsonaro’s use of social media to draw upon with a deep reservoir of conservative support within the population, which has also sustained a rejuvenation of right-wing movements. So, the Bolsonaro project could mean the leveraging of conversative social attitudes to return Brazil to some sort of military dictatorship. More pragmatically, a sort of illiberal “democracy” could be his goal. As discussed in the final section of this article, the political priority for the left in Brazil is the struggle for democracy.

5 See, for example, Rocha, Solano and Medeiros, 2021.

6 Freyre, 1933; Holanda, 1936; Furtado, 1987.

7 Rousseff’s impeachment is discussed in Albuquerque, 2016.

8 On 7 September 2021, during far-right demonstrations on Independence Day in Brasília and São Paulo, Bolsonaro made threats against democracy and explicitly stated his inclination towards coups—see Holanda, Vargas and others, 2021.

9 Lima, 2022.

10 Callinicos, 2021.

11 Examples include Avritzer, Kerche and Marona, 2021, and Faria and Resende, 2022.

12 Furtado, 1992.

13 Albuquerque, 2019, p25.

14 Albuquerque, 2019, pp51-53.

15 These limitations were mentioned in two previous articles—Albuquerque, 2016, p30, and Albuquerque, 2019, p26.

16 Figure 1 uses the purchasing price parity (PPP) measure of GDP per capita. PPP takes into consideration relative living costs—the same amount in dollars would buy very different baskets of goods in New York compared to Belo Horizonte. Measurement using PPP makes countries such as Brazil appear closer to the leading economy, the US, than would be the case using current US dollars. PPP is used here because it is commonly employed for international and long-term comparisons in the literature on income traps.

17 World Bank, 2022a, p4, table 1.1.

18 Saraiva, 2022, presents information on data for January 2022.

19 Hirschman and Rothschild, 1973.

20 Hirschman and Rothschild, 1973, p547.

21 Kahneman, 2011, chapter 24.

22 Moreira, 2022.

23 Andreoni, Tabuchi and Sun, 2021.

24 Castillo and Neto, 2016, p8.

25 Pompeia, 2021, p320.

26 Constantino, 2022; Matavelli and Oliveira, 2022.

27 Callinicos, 2021.

28 “Trump’s key allies are post-industrial robber barons in hinterland places…from real estate, private equity, casinos and services ranging from private armies to chain usury.”—Davis, 2020, pp18-19.

29 There are business leaders critical of Bolsonaro—see Scaramuzzo, 2021. However, they are a minority, even after the tragedies inflicted by his government—Holanda, 2021.

30 Vieceli, 2022; Brigatti, 2021; Dias, 2021.

31 This is the opposite of what took place within the Brazilian working class during industrialisation. The emergence of new trade union movements in the 1970s depended on the growth of industries in São Paulo, the ABC industrial triangle (Santo André, São Bernardo de Campo and São Caetano do Sul) and other major centres. The origins of the PT are also linked to these developments. Historian José Murilo de Carvalho, writing about political innovation in the 1970s, remarks on the new trade union movement: “The trade union movement came from workers of the new sectors of the economy that had expanded during the ‘economic miracle’ under President Emílio Garrastazu Médici between 1969 and 1974, driven by durable consumer goods and capital goods. They were metal workers from transnational automobile companies and national firms in the steel sector and the mechanical industries, concentrated in the industrial cities near São Paulo.”—Carvalho, 2016, p184. Deindustrialisation has had the opposite effect, adding to the impact of the long stagnation and shaping more defensive political behaviour.

32 Barbosa and Machado, 2015.

33 Oliveira, 2018, p81, figure 2.

34 Oliveira, 2018, p78, figure 1.

35 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2019, p99.

36 Canofre, 2022.

37 Piketty, 2022.

38 See volumes 11 and 12 Teoria e Debate from 1990. The quality and scope of this debate is seen in Guimarães, 1990.

39 Participatory budgets were a democratic innovation implemented by local PT governments during the 1980s and 1990s. They aimed at increasing citizens’ participation in the allocation of municipal resources for public works and investment—see Avritzer and Faria, 2022, and Baiocchi, 2003.

40 The Mensalão scandal triggered a judicial process that investigated how sections of the PT interacted with conservative parties—see Anderson, 2011. Operação Lava Jato was a judicial process that investigated how public authorities dealt with private companies, with some firms organising whole departments to bribe officials. For the role of Lava Jato in the emergence of Bolsonaro, see Albuquerque, 2019, p30. For the problems with Lava Jato, see Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2022.

41 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2022.

42 Overcoming underdevelopment is not easy. The mechanisms locking countries into the underdevelopment trap impose their logic across the whole economy. These mechanisms, especially those that block improvements in income distribution, are strong enough to capture political movements and integrate them into their logic. Indeed, this seems to have been the case with the PT, and one major lesson of the last two decades of economic policies under democratic conditions is how strong these mechanisms are. We need to openly discuss these traps, the vicious cycles they create within the economic and social system, and what could be done to break them. Such a discussion is an essential part of any agenda for democracy and development in Brazil. The difficulties in addressing these problems openly are related to the exhaustion of political alternatives in Brazilian society.

43 An introductory and tentative analysis of the 14 years of the PT government can be found in Albuquerque, 2016. Furthermore, one of the bases for the limited economic growth during PT governments was the growth of exports of natural resources, a policy that also led to environmental problems—see Albuquerque and Faria, 2019.

44 Folha de São Paulo, 2022.

45 Callinicos, 2021; Davis, 2020.

46 Albuquerque and Faria, 2019.

47 Avritzer, Kerche and Marona , 2021.

48 This article is not the place to provide a complete overview of Bolsonaro’s policies, about which there are already excellent academic and journalistic works. Rather, it is intended only to indicate how his political actions make sense as a programme for unleashing predatory capitalism. Nevertheless, it is worth highlighting three journalistic articles that usefully summarise these policies. First, Vanessa Barbara presents a general view with an emphasis on the environmental tragedy—Barbara, 2022. She also describes Bolsonaro’s behaviour during the pandemic, his decrees on loosening gun controls, his “dismantling and defunding of environmental enforcement agencies”, his support for mining in indigenous people’s lands in the Amazon region, and his five bills “to loosen regulations on pesticide uses”—see also Ferrante and Fearnside, 2022; Matavelli and Oliveira, 2022; Constantino, 2022; Oliveira, 2022. Second, Rodrigo Zeidan concentrates on the economic side of Bolsonaro’s government, which he refers to as “history’s worst economic team”— Zeidan, 2022. Zeidan describes Bolsonaro’s Brazil as “a country with worse income distribution, more deforestation and more hunger, and without any educational investment. Stagflation with 660,000 dead.” Third, Maria Cristina Fernandes explores ten issues that aptly summarise Bolsonaro’s record in office— Fernandes, 2022.

Of the relevant academic works, two give a particularly broad and useful view. Leonardo Avritzer and Marjorie Marona have edited a collection on “democratic regress and political degradation”, and its fourth section has ten chapters describing the decomposition and dismantling of public institutions, policies and regulations— Avritzer, Kerche and Marona, 2021. Bolsonaro’s deconstruction of these allows an unleashing of predatory capitalism, since previous public policies constrained deforestation and mining in the Amazon as well as the transfer of public assets to private hands. Another scholarly work by Cláudia Feres Faria and Marcos Paulo Dias Leite Resende characterises Bolsonaro’s agenda as one of “de-publicisation” and demonstrates how public policies and arenas have been weakened by his actions and threats— Faria and Resende, 2022. All these degradations and decompositions of public policies and the process of de-publicisation are part of a conscious agenda aimed at the consolidation of predatory capitalism and Brazil’s passive insertion into the global division of labour.


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