Introduction: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

“Brazil is not an open ground where we intend to build things for our people. We have to destroy many things.” On March 17, 2019, standing before a small audience at a diner, Jair Bolsonaro used these words to describe his project as the newly elected president of Brazil. It was his first time in the United States as president. Standing next to his intellectual guru, Olavo de Carvalho, and former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, he described his election as a miracle, a divine intervention to liberate the country of all leftist ideology. And indeed, his project was not based on the creation of anything new, but on destruction—in his first six months in power, he lifted gun control regulations, liberated the use of dozens of agricultural pesticides that are prohibited in most of the developed world, attacked labor rights, accused scientists—all scientists—of being “leftists,” cut college education and research budgets by a third, and drained the Brazilian environmental protection agencies of resources. No image sums up his destructive agenda better than the recent fire that took over parts of the Amazon, the result of a coordinated action among farmers induced by the president’s project to tear the forest down—or, as his minister of environment stated: “to bring a capitalist solution to the Amazon.”

The temptation to present the rise of Bolsonaro as a radical turn in Brazilian history, toward fascismo, is all too common in the country’s intellectual milieus. After thirteen years of government control, Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party’s alliances with economic elites were broken and a constitutional coup impeached President Dilma Rousseff in the second year of her second term. As depicted in Glauber Rocha’s film Entranced Earth (1967), this moment of turmoil brought to light spectral fragments of slavery and the colonial plantation, colliding past, present, and future. The larger historical context of Brazil, in fact, demonstrates that totalitarian traces were never absent from the practices of the state: Brazil’s thirteen-year military presence in Haiti, despite being contested and resisted by local civil society organizations, and perennial accusations of police violence against the poorest sectors of society, regardless of the colors of the party in power, are two infamous examples. In addition, the neoliberal model based on austerity was put in place by the Workers’ Party itself, in 2014.

And yet, Bolsonaro’s brutality, reflected in his words, tweets, and deeds, seems to take the coexistence of formal democratic structures and authoritarianism to a new level. This poses a clear challenge to the social sciences. Given Bolsonaro’s counterparts in the United States, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and other places where right-wing populism has reached power or is on the rise, this discussion transcends national traditions in anthropology and other social sciences. In Latin America, the legacies of the PRI party in Mexico, of Fujimori in Peru, and of Uribe in Colombia precede the current Brazilian context, in what concerns putting necropolitics (Mbembe 2003) at the center of the business of the state. Against this background, it seems that the world in which anthropology and sociology acquired their international standing—one in which the social sciences shared with their “natural” cousins the ambition to properly describe, model, and predict social realities—is no longer in place. The tsunami of the far right seems to have caught anthropology by surprise in most places. If the new political winds reflect the crisis of the republican model, anthropologists in Brazil, as elsewhere, seem to be trapped in a sort of terrible Garfinkelian (1967) experiment—one in which worlds are purposefully disorganized, revealing to analysts the structures not only of a shattered reality, but also of their own so-recent political illusions. One unavoidable question for the audiences of this Hot Spot series is this: was anthropology, with its perceptual and conceptual capacities and incapacities, ready for what was to come? What must anthropology be in the current context, and become in the future?

It is here that one of the current debates in the discipline becomes relevant: the issue of whether anthropological theory is different from ethnographic theory, and to what consequence. Is it the moment for investing in the reconstruction of grand anthropological theories (as proposed by, among others, Tim Ingold [2017]) as a way to reposition anthropology at the center of current political debates? Or, in the face of the collapse of modern illusions, is investment in ethnographic engagement a more promising enterprise, given its molecular nature (to use Deleuzian terms)? Indeed, a number of authors suggest that it is in alliance with the so-called societies against the state (Clastres 1977) that the most productive political efforts in anthropological action lie (see, for instance, Viveiros de Castro 2017; Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 2017). In the current political Brazilian context, anthropology, as a profession, is in no better position than any other academic collectivity following recent, dramatic cuts in funds for universities, scholarships, and research. Visceral ties to the state made us all equally vulnerable. And yet, ethnographic understanding of specific realities allowed scholars very quickly to identify who would be the preferred victims of the new government’s truculence, and how.

We invite readers to look back at the 2013 Hot Spot on Protesting Democracy in Brazil, organized by Rosana Pinheiro-Machado and Alexander S. Dent, as we see this new political situation today as intensely connected to what happened in the streets all over Brazil in June 2013. As many contributions to this Hot Spot collection show, through ethnography it is possible to understand how political support is built and how conservative agendas find their way through different marginal contexts, such as favelas, neo-pentecostal churches, urban peripheries, and digital social networks. At the same time, by analyzing the many Ubuesque facets of Bolsonarismo, writers in this collection reveal not only its causes and effects, but how different cosmopolitical collectivities engage creatively with it, establishing new forms of association and trying to (re)create their worlds against all odds. Understanding how they manage to do so, and what metaphors and concepts they employ, can be more than just forms of inspiration, but new grounds for our present search for new alternatives to this authoritarian moment. This is, perhaps, the opportunity for anthropology to reshape its strategies and contours, making itself less dependent on the state, as it has historically existed in Brazil, and more resilient to political turmoil—since, thinking beyond current sources of anxiety, the Anthropo/Capitalo/Plantation/Chthulu-cenic futures will surely bring us new political troubles in abundance.


Clastres, Pierre. 1977. Society Against the State. Oxford: Blackwell.

Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros De Castro. 2017. The Ends of the World. Translated by Rodrigo Nunes. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Ingold, Tim. 2017. “Anthropology contra Ethnography.” Hau 7, no. 1: 21–26.

Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11–40.

Rocha, Glauber, dir. 1967. Entranced Earth. Brazil: Mapa Filmes.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2017. Cannibal Metaphysics. Edited and translated by Peter Skafish. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.