Brazil’s catastrophic policy response to the pandemic cannot be put down wholly to Bolsonaro’s leadership: it is the consequence of a fusion of the logics of neoliberalism, war and conspiracy theory.
Brazil’s management of the Covid pandemic has gained international notoriety through the controversial statements of President Jair Bolsonaro and the fact that the country has so far produced the second largest number of deaths in absolute terms, at over 430,000. However, the focus has been almost exclusively on the President due to the strident nature of his statements. Little attention has been paid to the political rationalities within the government, which underlie its disastrous handling of the greatest challenge of the century. Management of the pandemic has been defined by an arrangement between the three main groups in the government and their take on reality: the competition logic of neoliberal economists; the war logic of the military; and the conspiracy theory anticommunism of the neoconservatives.
The coalescence of these three views sees the pandemic not as a public health issue but as a biological or psychological war weapon created by China to gain competitive advantages in the global market and expand communist domination. This interpretation has resulted in a strategy of deliberately exposing the population to contamination to achieve a supposed herd immunity. This in turn would enable the economy to continue working in the name of freedom and competitiveness and maintain a war against the internal enemies connected to international communism. By minimizing the disease’s seriousness, preventive measures have been seen as arbitrary authoritarian acts. The deaths among risk groups have been accepted as casualties of war that would have the secondary positive effect of natural selection in the population, thus reducing the social security deficit and improving the country’s economic results.
Thus, rather than organizing a response based on public health terms, Bolsonaro’s management of the pandemic has been based on a conspiracy theory and has implemented a competitive war logic. It is astonishing that a conspiracy theory has been adopted as a guideline for a matter of life and death for the population. Based on this, two important considerations must be made about the conception of truth according to “Bolsonarism”.
First, this is a government that seeks the permanent subversion of institutionally validated statements and subject positions, as according to the neoconservative viewpoint there is leftist cultural hegemony in the press, universities, arts and civil service working towards communist revolution. This conspiracy-theorizing is at the core of the discourse of Bolsonarism and neoconservatism. Rather than basing its truth criteria on coherent logic and correspondence with reality, it believes in the permanent revelation of a secret war and in the tactical effectiveness of discourse within this war.
This viewpoint has created a tense relationship with science, where rather than being completely abandoned, the pursuit of evidence is instead subordinated to confirmation of the revelation’s “invidence”. The revelation of a secret war seeks to create empathy during a crisis of capitalism and direct the followers’ emotions towards defending the market, the family and the nation through the use of social media. Thus, “Bolsonarism” has resorted to scepticism of orthodox science, producing “alternative evidence” to corroborate emotionally based convictions. This is how Bolsonarist doctors have backed the thesis that Covid-19 is a much less serious disease than what the WHO is purporting in supposed collusion with China. They also defend a cheap and accessible medicine kit with no proven efficacy for preventive use or early treatment. According to them, this medicine kit has not been officially recommended against the disease because it would go against the vaccine sale interests of big pharmaceutical companies.
The second consideration is the strategic dimension of this conspiracy theory. From the start, this allowed the Brazilian government to have a subordinated alignment with Donald Trump’s neoconservative strategy in the geopolitical dispute with China. Trump was the first to call Covid the “Chinese virus” or “communist virus” as soon as the WHO declared the pandemic. A month later, Trump`s statements were repeated by the Brazilian former Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo and by Bolsonaro’s son and chair of the Lower House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Eduardo Bolsonaro. Later, Brazil’s Finance Minister Paulo Guedes and the President himself also made declarations to this effect, with the latter saying that the military knew that they were dealing with a war.
This strategic operationality is also intrinsic to the government, as this viewpoint has enabled the three main groups within Bolsonarism to seek their own goals and coordinate efforts. Firstly, the neoconservative group led by the President’s son has managed to reinforce its ties with the U.S. Movement, most specifically with strategist Steve Bannon. Additionally, they have become even more indispensable to the government by putting their virtual fake news production and dissemination machine at the centre of the biggest challenge faced by the Administration so far.
As a result, they have managed to convert their key role into funds obtained through government advertising or through undeclared financing from sympathetic businessmen. This group has turned the pandemic into a political issue by positing communism as a bigger threat than the deaths caused by the disease. Furthermore, they have succeeded in redefining the Brazilian “community of destiny” away from a population collectively combatting transmission of the virus, towards a militarized protection of the people by the government against internal enemies allied with the international communist plot.
The second group in the government is comprised of neoliberals and ultraliberals in the Finance Ministry. This group is led by Minister Paulo Guedes, a graduate of the University of Chicago and a former partner at local midsize brokerage houses. Guedes’ project is to radicalize the managerialist reform already carried out in the Brazilian State at the end of the 1990s by, in his own words, promoting a transition from the “social-democrat” model implemented by the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 to the “liberal-democrat” model. This entails an effective reduction to the civil service and to civil servant numbers and an increase to market competition.
In order to achieve this, he has proposed a series of structural reforms that include Social Security Reform; widening Labour Reform; more tax incentives alongside an already severe 20-year constitutional cap on public spending; Central Bank autonomy; converting entrepreneurial freedom into a constitutional right; imposing a legal limit on state regulation of the economy; a pledge to privatize all state-run companies; decentralizing the federal budget to favour autonomy for states and municipalities (thus hindering current developmentalist policies); and the decapitalization of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES).
When the pandemic started in March 2020, Paulo Guedes planned two decisive reforms. One was Administrative Reform, which would end job security for many Brazilian civil servants by transferring their jobs to the private sector or by temporarily hiring serving and retired military personnel in their place. The second was Tax Reform, aimed at simplifying and reducing the tax burden on businesses to create the necessary competitive conditions for a radical opening of the Brazilian economy to international markets. As handling the Covid crisis and the economic consequences thereof threatened his plans, Paulo Guedes repeatedly refused to meet with the then Health Minister and insisted that neoliberal reforms were the best response to the pandemic.
By interpreting the pandemic as a Chinese conspiracy, neoliberals have been able to justify their insistence on reforms as a competitiveness strategy at the core of the alleged war of competition for global markets. To maintain or improve Brazil’s position in this dispute, the neoliberals in government have backed a speedy reopening of the economy – a position also prompted by immediatist pressure from businessmen and investors. Thus, to justify an easing of restrictive measures and to discard the possibility of a (devastating) second wave, these neoliberals did not hesitate to produce studies based on econometric models that projected the pandemic finishing at the end of 2020. This exposed the population to severe risk in the name of an economic freedom which, according to the President, is more valuable than life. A Finance Ministry aide assessed the death of elderly people as a positive, as it would contribute towards reducing the social security deficit and would consequently improve the country`s economic performance. The pursuit of herd immunity has led to a type of natural selection aimed at eliminating the risk group that poses a low benefit-cost ratio to public accounts. In this very particular type of neoliberal biopolitics, the aim is not racial purification (despite the undeniable racial implications), but rather economic purification to “cleanse” the population of those who hinder profitability during a global trade war.
A government at ‘war’ with itself
The third and last group in the government is the military. The political thinking that has largely ruled the Brazilian armed forces is the military logic of war against an internal enemy, as defined by the National Security Doctrine enforced during the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). During the Cold War, the Brazilian military’s main concern was with revolutionary insurrection, based on the fear that international communism allied to hidden internal enemies would create a psychological war aimed at inciting part of the population to rise against the State. As the enemy was hidden, the Dictatorship built a huge surveillance, information and repression apparatus that did not treat the population as citizens with rights and guarantees, but as a potential threat. In practice, every opponent to the government was considered a subversive and it was up to the National Security State to define how to fill the vacant spot named enemy.
Given the plasticity of the construction of the internal enemy, this political rationale has continued to operate since re-democratization (1985) in the guise of the war on drugs and on organized crime, while also criminalizing more combative social movements. Rather than being subject to reform, the security forces have undergone countless localized and unsuccessful measures to erase its remaining authoritarian features. As poor neighbourhoods and favelas have been the strongholds for these newly prioritized forms of criminality, we have witnessed a militarized management of poverty, which has in turn led to a suspension of the rights and guarantees of the vulnerable and predominantly non-white population. This state of exception has been a permanent fixture of the New Republic (1985-2016).
As of 2015 the military, which had withdrawn from political life since the 1990s and kept a silent public profile (despite maintaining a deep internal mistrust about democratic institutions and actors), has returned to centre stage. This return to the political scene was prompted by government measures aimed at expanding the institution’s democratic elements, which the military perceived as a threat to its autonomy and image. A decisive contributing factor was the National Truth Commission, which aimed at documenting and denouncing the crimes committed by State agents during the Dictatorship. As a result, the military put the Workers Party’s centre-left Presidents back on the list of internal enemies to be combatted. Under the influence of the Brazilian new right’s neoconservatism, the “internal enemy” classification has been extended to all “cultural Marxists” such as artists, teachers, a large part of the mainstream media, part of the civil service, identity-based activists, social movements and trade unions.
This new right has created a new power project aimed at waging a culture war against the left and occupying and reforming the State, which they perceive as having been stacked by “communists” during the New Republic. Since then, the military has become very politically active, supporting the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff; pressuring the Federal Supreme Court to create legal obstacles against former-President Lula’s candidacy; occupying important positions in the Temer Administration (2016-2018); submitting the presidential candidates to an approval process in the 2018 elections; and secretly and openly supporting Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign.
Since Bolsonaro became President, this has become the best represented group in the Administration. Since January 2020, it has conciliated neoliberal reforms with a militarization of public administration. Public bodies made dysfunctional by budget and civil service cuts have been authorized to hire retired military personnel on a temporary basis, without their having to take the civil service exam. Currently, the military heads a third of Brazil’s Ministries and state-run companies and occupies over six thousand jobs in the federal administration. Basically, the ideological interests behind the culture war have combined with the material interests connected with the benefits of occupying the machinery of government.
By interpreting the pandemic from a war-based logic, the military has been able to expand further into the State. In May 2020, the military took charge of the Health Ministry by replacing former Ministers who were doctors and by substituting career employees within the Ministry who had been forbidden from making public statements. The military has publicly minimized the seriousness of the pandemic by seeing it as a misinformation war rather than a real threat. While running the Ministry, the military acted against public health and social distancing measures; promoted a deliberate policy of exposing the population to contamination to achieve herd immunity; postponed the purchase of vaccines; and with the help of government-aligned businessmen and doctors, has manufactured and encouraged the preventive use of medications without proven efficacy to provide the population with the necessary confidence to return to work.
Meanwhile, the President has demanded from workers the same type of courage demanded from soldiers going into battle, while suggesting that lost lives are casualties of war. The government has also resorted to legal actions to overturn Covid prevention measures adopted on a localized level and even threatened to use the army against mayors and governors. Those who have defended measures to restrict the movement of people have been treated as internal enemies, as such measures are considered an authoritarian strategy used by international communism. These threats of force have not yet turned concrete, however, and after the number of deaths spiralled out of control during the first months of 2021, the military left the Health Ministry.
Bolsonaro’s individual perverseness is not the sole cause of Brazil’s humanitarian tragedy. The country has been pushed into the abyss by a fusion of war-based military logic, neoliberal logic of competitiveness, and neoconservative anti-communist paranoia. The government has treated the pandemic as though it were a conspiratorial war of competitiveness, with a herd immunity strategy to boot. This has resulted in almost half a million deaths – and not even economic growth. In fact, it has created a diplomatic crisis with China that has hindered Brazil’s acquisition of inputs and vaccines. The more successful the Bolsonarist culture war is, the more deaths there are. In view of this, the President`s impeachment would only be a first step, as the main course of action must now be to dismantle the militarized neoliberalism that has occupied and is currently reforming the Brazilian State.
Daniel Pereira Andrade is Sociology Professor at FGV-EAESP and associate researcher at the Laboratoire Sophiapol, Université Paris X, Nanterre La Défense. He tweets at @danielpaaa