The Current Paradox 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).

What has happened in Brazil? After parading its successful formula of economic growth, democracy, and social justice during one of the worst crises of globalization, why does it now dive into the dangerous uncertainty of populist and far-right ventures? To repeat the question people cannot stop asking: “Something must have happened, but what?”

This question is not simple, as it opens into two radically divergent ways of approaching it. The first clings to the causality game a posteriori, through which the present time is explained by plotting a straight line of successive political, economic, and social facts whose paroxysm is displayed by the global explanation of conspiracy theories. The second casts aside causal and temporal associations in favor of anonymous conditions of possible experience, placing us at the edge of something imperceptible. On this view, all events, remark Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987, 183–84), have a formal dimension that belongs to the order of secrecy, of the unknown and impenetrable which revives in living present: “what is this nothing that makes something happen? . . . Whatever could have happened for things to have come to this?”

In June of 2013, without anyone’s anticipation, something happened in Brazil. Amid the euphoria of preparing for the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016), as well as the great projects that encouraged the developmentalist turn of Dilma Roussef’s Workers’ Party (PT) government, millions of people went out into the streets in hundreds of Brazilian cities, generating the most impressive sequence of marches in the country’s recent history. Sparked by a rise in bus fares, and enfolded by the antecedents of the Arab Spring, the massive uprising spread exposing all that was intolerable in the Brazilian society: the oligarchic negotiations between public and private sectors, the terrible services granted to the populace, the high cost of development projects with no investment return, the constant police and paramilitary violence in poor areas, and the lack of an actual democracy in making public decisions (Judensnaider et al. 2013; Arantes 2014; Cava and Cocco 2014; Mendes 2018).

In the face of an irreversible fracture, the establishment tried to reorganize itself during the period from 2014 to 2018 in two ways. The first, headed by Dilma, used the presidential elections of 2014 to reshape a supporting base founded upon the denial of imminent economic depression and the promise of a “pink tide against neoliberalism.” Nevertheless, and contradicting elements of her campaign, on the day following her election Dilma lost the conditions to govern amid a new wave of protests and a jumbled plan of fiscal adjustment. The second attempt to reorganize the establishment, captained by the Congress and Dilma’s Vice President, Michel Temer, was founded on the impeachment of Dilma (2016) and the search for necessary stability by making economic structural reforms. It, too, was frustrated by the unpopularity of the government and the emergence of new corruption scandals (Avelar 2017; Solano, Ortellado, and Moretto 2017; Cocco 2019).

Starting in 2016 and launched by a generalized rejection of the previous political system, the emergence of Jair Bolsonaro as a political leader, and of bolsonarismo as a real social movement, has been acquiring such elasticity that it reaches both the popular sectors and the Brazilian elites, especially in big cities. In order to define it correctly, it would be necessary to consider that bolsonarismo is not a completely organic and cohesive phenomenon, but rather the result of a buoyant coalition articulated to defeat both the Left—formerly in power for almost fifteen years—and the political elite, which has been consolidated since the country’s democratization in 1985 (Cleto and Corrêa 2019).

On its vertical and governmental axis, this instability is represented by diverse fronts that engage in permanent conflict: (1) the military front, led by a group of generals that, paradoxically, had gained political consistency during Lula and Dilma’s management and the UN peace missions in Haiti and Congo; (2) the culture wars front, represented by the ideologist Olavo de Carvalho and nurtured by both alt-right and religious groups in social media; (3) the neoliberal front, encouraged by Paulo Guedes, a minister coming from the Chicago School of Economics, who envisioned the structural reforms and is a radical supporter of privatizations; (4) the juridicalist front, represented by former judge Sergio Moro, protagonist of the anticorruption agenda and the prison sentences brought against politicians (including former president Lula) and entrepreneurs during the operation called Lava Jato. On its horizontal axis, the bolsonarist political front features heterogeneous figures, from Pentecostal evangelical pastors to new activists, pop artists, and soap opera stars, new mediatic philosophers, YouTubers, police officers, paramilitary group members, entrepreneurs, farmers, rising merchants, etc. (Cava and Paolo 2019).

What guarantees the relative union of such a heterodox group? First, a strict interdiction against the return to power of the PT, the party blamed for the economic disaster and for old political and corporate castes. Second, the pervasive desire among the far-right to change and to transgress as a result of the elimination of any possible political innovation by the establishment itself. Third, the efficacy of the methods of quashing political dispute, including illegal, aggressive, and unscrupulous actions, carried out by the bolsonarismo against other political players (Cleto and Corrêa 2019).

Here dwells the current paradox of Brazil: a citizenry that has never before been so politically involved, and, at the same time, so close to destructive, archaic, and oligarchic abysses. A society in constant motion, blackmailed by forces that are filling the open terrain created by the mass demonstrations of June 2013. Popular desire for transformation is colonized by leaders who erect a hall of mirrors where images are inverted—and it is here that lulismo and bolsonarismo meet (Cleto and Corrêa 2019). However, at the margin of apparently inexorable facts, something of a different nature might be happening: a quiet nuisance seems to be looking for the conditions of a new possible experience.


Arantes, Paulo. 2014. O novo tempo do mundo: E outros estudos sobre a era da emergência. Coleção Estado de Sítio. São Paulo: Boitempo.

Avelar, Idelber. 2017. “Os levantes de Junho de 2013 e o esgotamento do pacto lulista: Sobre antagonismo, contradição e oximoro.” Revista lugar comum: Estudos de mídia, cultura e democracia 50.

Cava, Bruno, and Giuseppe Cocco, eds. 2014. Amanhã vai ser maior: O levante da multidão no ano que não terminou. São Paulo: Annablume.

Cava, Bruno, and Lucas Paolo. 2019. Bolsonaro: La bestia pop. Buenos Aires: Red Editorial.

Cocco, Giuseppe. 2019. Entre cinismo e fascismo: Depois de junho de 2013, narrativas e constituição. Rio de Janeiro: Autografia.

Cleto, Murilo Prado, and Murilo Duarte Costa Corrêa. 2019. “A hipótese bolsonarista: As trincheiras e as linhas.” Lugar comum: Estudos de mídia, cultura e democracia, no. 54: 266–90.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mendes, Alexandre. 2018. Vertigens de junho: Os levantes de 2013 e a insistência de uma nova percepção. Rio de Janeiro: Autografia.

Judensnaider, Elena, Luciana Lima, Marcelo Pomar, and Pablo Ortellado. 2013. Vinte centavos: A luta contra o aumento. São Paulo: Veneta.

Solano, Esther, Pablo Ortellado, and Marcio Moretto. 2017. “2016: O ano da polarização?” Análise 22/2017: 1–20.