Well, if people weren’t paying attention to the rise of the right before, they sure are now. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has marked a new stage in the rock-slide rightwards of recent years. Bolsonaro, elected by a middle and upper class deserting centre-right parties, but also by a tranche of former Workers’ Party voters, can reasonably be called fascist, where the term is otherwise too easily used.
Bolsonaro calls on a mythical Christian patriotic, real Brazil beneath its myriad actual complexities, and vows to defend it against “Communists”, by resort to mass state violence. He proudly makes a direct continuity with the 1964-1988 period of dictatorship in the country, which served as a foundation for the myriad other lethal dictatorships of the region.
In the spirit of Pinochet’s Chile — whose support was hitherto confined to pockets of the New South Wales upper house — he proposes not the economic nationalism of European fascism, nor the Bannon formula for the US, but a slashing, free-market program with substantial privatisations. Global capital will be lining up for this, and to support his government, and its attempts to spread reaction to the leftist governments that remain in South America.
The Bolsonaro victory is a pretty melancholy end to two decades of leftist politics in South America, and somewhat more-than-melancholy conclusions about the course of history. Fascism is here in something pretty much like the form it took in the 1920s and 1930s — myths, nation, religiosity, paranoia, militias and all. In particular terms, the stimuli are different — no civilisation-shattering war to come out the other side of, no desperate mass crowds adrift in the jungle of the cities, drawn to the radio, the newsreel, the corner soapbox speaker.
But in general terms, the conditions are the same, above all in this one constant: despair. The core of fascism, Nazism, Falangism, across the world in the 1930s was the old royalist right transferring their allegiance to men who set themselves up as ersatz monarchs, the embodiment of the national will. But the wider support was drawn from people who had lived and suffered through the two decades since the start of World War I.
They had seen the hopes of a glorious patriotic war turn into a charnel house, followed by brutal civil wars, followed by stagnation, and then a fresh depression. By the 1930s, anyone who’d been aged between 10 and 30 years in 1910 could now see that they were missing a chance to have a life, to have any sort of existence that wasn’t scratching at the edges unto death.
It’s in such circumstances — in Russia in the 2000s, in the US in 2016, in Brazil now — that fascism crosses its critical mass, from core crazies, to people who simply want political change, a last shot, and simply do not see the world in left-right terms (or did, but abandoned such). But it relies on another process, which is the recombination of social relations of media and money. The 1920s saw the crucial shift from industrial to finance capital as the dominant force, at every social level, from new forms of everyday credit to global banking sped up by new communications.
The world suddenly appeared less in control, money rising and falling, huge fortunes made, the half-understood payday debt ballooning by the dark magic of interest. Mediaeval anti-Semitic beliefs in Jewish witchcraft was easily transferred to Jewish involvement in finance. How were they making money, while I am standing still? At the same time as this was occurring, communities had been destroyed by the general chaos and mobilisation of the war. Millions were marooned in the cities, their identity and social meaning no longer created by the village and the family, but by the new broadcast media — radio, newsreels, cinema, the cheap press — and by the mythical community it called on, the nation. How was a state of tens of millions “a community”. By the symbols that concretised it, circulated by the media, and offering a new opiate to soothe mass pain.
Now we have a repeat of the process, but in different terms. Without a war, decades of neoliberalism have laid waste to Western communities, turning US and British towns and cities from working-class civilisations into destroyed areas, and the business-friendly free-movement directives of the EU have turned liberal monocultural northern societies into chauvinist-nationalist ones, while their neoliberal fiscal policies have devastated the south. Amidst this onslaught, new, social media, have offered a new form of integration and affirmation. As the physical world disappears into cyberspace, race — embodied identity — has become the yet more concretised collective form. Thus, the bizarre revival of anti-Semitism, for the Jew is taken to be the “concrete abstract” — the embodiment of the impersonal forces of globalisation pulling apart anything that could be held onto.
It is these material factors, rather than simple media gulling, that determine the progress of fascism when historical periods reach a crisis point. Years, decades prepare the kindling, so it’s no wonder that the whole landscape goes up once a match is struck. What protects societies from it is not policing the output of tabloid media, but making sure the mass of society is not so alienated, filleted, beaten down and destroyed by attacks on the constituents of life — which included some sense of control of what flows in and out of it — that they abandon a social contract they believe has been abandoned on the other side. At that point, the collapse from the abstract (the rational, principled, institutional, procedural) to the concrete (the heroic, mythical, embodied, paranoid and violently expressive) happens almost at once. Anyone who thinks we haven’t, in our usual mode of dozy improvisation, spent decades preparing the ground, hasn’t been paying attention.