Anthropology in Times of Hatred Politics
From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil
In times of democratic crisis, despair, and hopelessness in Brazil, what answers can we grasp from anthropological and on-the-ground ethnographic knowledge?
In 2018, the year of the election of Jair Bolsonaro, mainstream political analysts made predictions about the presidential election results. They confidently trusted in a reorientation of the polarized system that had been ruling the country for ages, swinging between the “traditional” right (the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, PSDB) and the traditional left (the Workers’ Party, PT). Though as we now know, this was not a normal race, but rather the election of the collapse of the political system.
From 2009 to 2014, we conducted ethnographic research on social inclusion via consumption and political subjectivity in a low-income community in the city of Porto Alegre. This was a time of economic growth and widespread hope. In 2016, amid profound political and economic crises, we returned to the field site to gain a longitudinal understating of our interlocutors’ situation in a time of national disillusion. To our surprise, a great proportion of our interlocutors—the “new consumers,” those who accessed the finance and credit system for the first time in the Lula era and began buying manufactured goods—were now supporting the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro. Consequently, our fieldwork was engulfed by the Bolsonaro effect.
At the beginning of 2018, some newspapers reported the initial findings of our research with Bolsonaro’s low-income sympathizers. While the standard argument in the public debate suggested that the Bolsonaro movement represented an Internet-based niche phenomenon, we were trying to sound the alarm regarding an emergent grassroots groundswell. Public reaction to our report was negative. We were accused of humanizing and giving voice to fascists. We were normalizing and relativizing fascism—so people said.
Not surprisingly, our interlocutors, the new consumers, were the same subjects that, just a few years ago, progressive and left-wing public intellectuals and academics had been celebrating as a symbol of a new inclusive Brazil.
What is the appropriate academic posture in relation to those people who changed their votes? Should we deny this reality? Should we despise them as fascists? Our anthropological view is that we do not need to agree with people, but instead that we are to put facts in historical, contextual perspective. Anthropologists have long warned about the importance of understanding how rage is socially constructed and built upon a reproducing cycle of violence.
Grasping the phenomenon that led to the election of Bolsonaro—or of Trump and other authoritarian populists—requires us to observe the terrain upon which both hope and hatred are built; in other words, how political subjectivity is negotiated and transformed according to political and economic context.
What we observed in the field was that some of Lula’s neoliberal policies, such as social inclusion via consumption, empowered people. Consumption of manufactured goods, such as branded clothes and cell phones, had become a source of the poor’s self-worth, a way of being gente (somebody, a person). However, this happened side-by-side with the gradual demobilization of the PT’s popular base and an emptying of democratic and collective forums, thereby eroding the social fabric.
In times of abundance and national euphoria, demobilization was not a problem; it became problematic when economic recession started in 2014. The four years leading up to Bolsonaro’s election were a period of turmoil. Urban violence in capitals like Porto Alegre was brutal. Our interlocutors were unemployed and indebted. The men were facing a crisis of masculinity by not being able to act as breadwinners for their families.
If consumption had become one of the main venues for the social inclusion of the poor, the crisis brought about a fundamental problem: our interlocutors could no longer buy things, and they lost the few remaining objects they owned, such as cell phones, in everyday muggings. This meant that people were losing a structural element of their identity. What we saw in the field was a crisis of self-worth, where misfortune was experienced in a highly individualized manner since there were no longer community forums to discuss people’s shared anxieties.
Amid the crisis, Bolsonaro offered simple but radical solutions to complex problems. People were flooded with fake news that blamed the neighbor, the Other, as an internal enemy.
After two years of fieldwork among Bolsonaro voters, we can summarize their motivations toward supporting him around one overarching argument. In a time of liminality, Bolsonaro meant a reconciliation with personhood within a hierarchical structure. This was a very commoditized process with his main campaign icon being firearms—a symbol of individual power, self-defense, and masculinity. To many, he meant order and authority in a perceived-as-lawless country. Moreover, great numbers of people engaged in his online campaign, embracing it as a form of political belonging.
The social crisis happened silently, in the contours of daily life invisible to the mainstream analytical gaze. The denial of such a reality in political discourse is one of the factors that led to the election of Jair Bolsonaro.
But if by engaging in ordinary people’s everyday lives we could anticipate a wave of hatred, it is from the same ground that we can reimagine new scenarios of hope. Something important to be said about Lula’s drive for social inclusion via consumption is that such a policy impacted women and men in disparate ways. By becoming consumers, women engaged in networks of reciprocity. By being the recipient of the cash transfer benefit (Bolsa família), they were empowered within their families. This is why, at least in the community we studied, most of the women voters did not stand with Bolsonaro.
The daughters of these women belong to a new generation of feminist girls. They continue to represent the radical transformation of Brazilian society, especially within patriarchal, low-income communities.
During the period of our fieldwork, we witnessed the emergence of a new generation that fiercely rejected Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project. If we may dream again, we could say that these women will be decisive actors in resisting authoritarianism and restoring democracy and solidarity in Brazil’s near future.
An extended version of this essay will be published in the section "Currents: Ethnographic Views of Brazil's (New) Authoritarian Turn” in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 10, no. 1 (2020).