The Brazilian state could organize an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic – but not with Jair Bolsonaro as president, argues Vladimir Safatle, a philosopher and professor at the Universidade de São Paulo
This interview was conducted by Marina Amaral for Agência Pública, LAB’s São Paulo partner. It was published on 6 April, before the sacking of health minister Luiz Mandetta and the resignation of justice minister Moro, and before key military members of Bolsonaro’s government, such as Walter Braga Netto and Hamilton Murão, began to signal their independent stance.
Translated for LAB by Tom Gatehouse. You can read the original (in Portuguese) here.
Main image: Death certificates give ‘respiratory problems’ as cause of death. Image: Paula Cardoso/Piauí
Marina Amaral (MA): Amid the chaos we’re in, with the COVID-19 pandemic escalating, you’ve argued for the impeachment of President Bolsonaro. How could such a process be implemented under lockdown, with Congress meeting only from distance and occupied with measures to combat the pandemic?
Vladimir Safatle (VS): It’s precisely because of the pandemic that we must fight for his impeachment. Brazil can’t deal with two crises at the same time, and Bolsonaro is a walking crisis. He blocks or disrupts any measures taken to deal with the pandemic, encouraging his supporters to flout the rules necessary for even a basic degree of control. He’s exploiting the situation to create a system which destroys any possibility of a safety net for the working class and the poor. There’s no way Brazil can endure this for any longer.
With regard to mobilization, three congresspeople from the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) – none of them at all high profile – created a petition for Bolsonaro’s impeachment which received one million signatures, and was delivered to the speaker of the house, Rodrigo Maia, by the PSOL congresswoman Fernanda Melchionna. The most recent polls we have, from Atlas Político, show 47 per cent in favour of impeachment – and that’s without any mobilization. Imagine what would happen if all the opposition – or at least the left – were to mobilize properly?
MA: There was a dispute within the PSOL on this issue and there’s been no progress on the idea of a left-wing Broad Front. So who would lead this movement for impeachment?
VS: This is a key point. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that the Brazilian left is paralysed – I would say that it’s dead. In the fight against this debacle of a government, the people on the frontline haven’t been the left. It’s been the governments of São Paulo and Rio. João Doria and Wilson Witzel. Brazilian politics boils down to a struggle between the right and the far right. The left is nowhere, and the coronavirus pandemic has shown this clearly. What happened with PSOL is another example. The party went to the press to discredit the congresspeople who had taken the initiative and created the petition for impeachment, for which there is popular support. This is a kind of death knell of the left, in the strongest possible terms.
And I think there are deeper issues at play here. Because if there’s one thing that could come out of this experience – of the collective struggle against the pandemic – it’s a kind of basic political affection, a generalised sense of solidarity. A solidarity which expresses, very clearly, the idea that my life depends on people I don’t even know. People who don’t look like me, who aren’t part of my social circle, who don’t share my identity – and yet are fundamental. We have a collective destiny. But the left is completely preoccupied with other demands and hasn’t managed to express this. In fact they’re scared of saying something like this.
MA: Within the government we’ve seen disagreement over the gravity of the pandemic and the right course of action to take. Do you think that these internal conflicts could facilitate impeachment?
VS: It’s hard to say. There is a clear rupture between the more technocratic elements and the ideological core of the government, though it’s hard to know whether there’s tension between the government and the Armed Forces.
I tend to think that Bolsonaro is banking on two things. Firstly, that he’ll be able to hide the bodies. He is from the dungeons of the military dictatorship; he’s an admirer of Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra [a notorious dictatorship torturer]. Torture is in his DNA. This makes him think that he can just do what’s normally done in Brazil, which is to disappear the bodies, conceal the dead, so he can emerge from the pandemic more or less unscathed. At least he thinks he can – we’ll see if it’s possible or not.
Then, when the economic crisis comes, he’ll just blame everything on the state governments, saying that he argued the other way. Or he’ll just lift the lockdown altogether, giving in to the sector of the business community that supports him, which is genocidal – there’s no other way to describe it. In the rest of world this sector is despised, and the economic values they claim to defend are in fact suicidal.
The reasoning is very simple: if we suspend the lockdown, what will happen within five months? There will be bodies piling up everywhere. The government will try and cover things up, censor the death count, but the international community isn’t stupid, they won’t fall for that. And what will they do? These countries will be coming out of lockdown; it will have been traumatic. The first thing they’ll do will be to put Brazil behind a cordon sanitaire. Who will want to buy meat from a country which has been completed contaminated?
This is something totally basic and it demonstrates that the Brazilian business community is stupid beyond description. This can only be understood by looking at their origins in the slave trade – something they’ve never managed to overcome. They think like someone in charge of a gang of slaves. Two or three of them die? That’s no reason for business to stop. Normally they use this logic to repress certain sections of the population: the vulnerable working classes, most of whom are black. The difference this time is that they’re submitting the entire population to this slave-driver logic.
MA: Bolsonaro got very annoyed with a photo published in The Washington Post, showing a cemetery in Vila Formosa [São Paulo] with rows and rows of newly dug graves. Do you think the role of the press is important at the moment?
VS: Yes. The press has ramped up the rhetoric against the government because they’ve woken up to its suicidal character. And to its authoritarian instincts, which have been turned against them. This is typical of the Brazilian press: they support the worst possible option and then realise they made a terrible decision. They backed the military dictatorship and paid the price for it subsequently. But I think that the Brazilian press has been trying gradually to dramatize what’s going on, and I mean that in a good way. They’re providing a dramatic narrative, to make people understand the reality of what’s happening. And this is something new for them, they’re just learning how to do this.
MA: Trump changed his attitude when confronted with the gravity and spread of the pandemic in the US. Why does Bolsonaro continue behaving in such a blind and destructive fashion? Why is it so difficult for him to put ideology aside and assume responsibility for combating the disease and supporting the population with emergency social policies?
VS: They come from completely different backgrounds. Trump is a businessman; his background is marketing. He knows that he can’t hide the bodies. The US doesn’t have this history of managing [internal] wars. And he’s got an election coming up in November, so he realises that he has to do something.
Bolsonaro, on the other hand, is from the dungeons of the military dictatorship. He is linked to torturers, to the militias, to para-state sectors. He is a fascist dictator from the worst recesses of the Army – there’s really no other way of putting it. And because of this background he thinks he can use the state machinery to discredit information. He has no interest in governing anything, let alone Brazil. He’s already said that Brazil is ungovernable.
His aim is to create a situation of continuous mobilization and he’ll do whatever it takes to achieve this – even if it means creating piles of bodies. For him it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. He says that the dictatorship didn’t kill enough, that they should’ve killed 30,000. So he doesn’t care if 40,000 or 50,000 die now.
Do you remember how he reacted when the tailings dam collapsed at Brumadinho? Any semiotics student would have taken note immediately. He said, “It’s not the government’s responsibility.” That was it. He didn’t even display the usual hypocrisy of the political classes, when they say they’re sorry for the dead and cry with their families – not even that. So to think that someone like Bolsonaro would understand the significance of a pandemic is completely ridiculous.
MA: In a recent article, you wrote “Brazilian fascism and its proper name, Bolsonaro, finally found a catastrophe to call their own.” But how might a crisis or a pandemic work in favour of the government? Are there any positives for him in this?
VS: Firstly, the possibility of the continuous mobilization of his supporters. Secondly – and this is an idea that comes from theorists of fascism like Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno – that within fascism, there exists a desire for catastrophe. Because it’s not government, it’s a continuous movement. For example, a fascist war isn’t a war of conquest; it’s war for war’s sake, which must continue at all costs. If you look at it according to a logic of conquest, it’s irrational, because it’s the mobilization of a population for war, not war as a means of obtaining something. Part of the population submits to this dynamic, which can turn against them and become self-destruction. For example, Arendt points out that not even when the Nazi movement turned against its own supporters did they abandon it.
MA: It’s like what’s happening now. People know that they’re taking risks…
VS: That’s right. There’s this insane logic of certainty. Normally, anyone would think, “OK, this pandemic is something totally unprecedented”, which means uncertainty. What does it mean to govern in a context of uncertainty? Ever since the Greeks, we’ve known that the requisite quality in such a situation is prudence. And what is prudence? It’s the awareness that if the worst-case scenario comes to pass, there’s no going back. The dead won’t resuscitate. On the other hand, if the best-case scenario is what happens, then the economy will have to pause for a while, but it’ll recover. So prudence dictates you work with the worst-case scenario. This is what it means to govern. You recognise the intrinsic uncertainty of an unpredictable event like this and develop a whole system which aims to prevent the worst-case scenario.
But Bolsonaro is doing the exact opposite. He has this kind of insane, arrogant certainty. He says, “I know”, but nobody knows what lies ahead. We have projections, but they’re just that – projections, which may come true or not. This is science – it operates in the realm of uncertainty; it doesn’t provide guarantees. So, as a governor, the only rational thing to do is work according to the worst-case scenario. What his behaviour demonstrates is that he’s managed to get part of the population to subscribe to a logic of self-immolation, self-sacrifice. They think “I’m going to be brave and go out to work in the worst conditions in the world,” as if that were some expression of courage when in fact it’s pure idiocy. To return to the Greeks, they knew how to distinguish between courage and temerity. Courage is a virtue, but the excess of courage is just stupidity. It means putting yourself in a situation where you can be sure of suffering the worst consequences.
That’s why I say that it’s a logic of suicide. And this is something new. We have a necropolitical structure, the administration of death. This is a legacy of slavery, in which part of the population are considered only objects, not people. When they die no-one grieves, no-one cares, it doesn’t matter. This has always been present in Brazilian society. Depending on who dies they’re just numbers, not people, not histories. But now there’s a new element: the state is generalising this process. And it’s creating a situation in which the state itself is heading for catastrophe.
MA: Do you think that a mobilization against the government is possible without the leadership of a political party?
VS: Yes. We will have to learn how to do this, because right now it’s a question of life and death. In fact this would be healthy, because Brazilian party-political structures have shown themselves to be incapable of addressing the challenges that the country faces – and not just today. So the appearance of some kind of horizontal structure is absolutely vital. And there are positive signs. For example, I live in an area where there’s been a panelaço [pot-banging protest] for the last ten or eleven days. This is all completely spontaneous; there’s no organization behind it. This shows clearly that society is resisting the government, even if no-one is vocalizing it as such. Perhaps we’re still not fully conscious of the danger in which we’ve put ourselves. The only countries in this type of situation today are Brazil, Belarus and Turkmenistan. Look at what’s become of us!
Life after these deaths
MA: A more general question: in Brazil and all over the world, we’ve seen families unable to give their dead a proper burial. As a philosopher, what symbolic weight do you think that has for society?
VS: A society defines itself by the way it deals with the dead. This is the true foundation of social life. The Greeks have known this since Antigone. A society which abolishes the ritual of remembering the dead, whoever they may be, can no longer survive. What grounds universality is the right to memory; we all have this right. And so in this situation, where people are being buried without any ritual, without any mourners, nothing – this will cause enormous social trauma. We will feel the impact of this. What comfort there is in this situation lies in knowing that this sacrifice isn’t in vain – it’s out of social solidarity. We don’t want to get infected and we don’t want to infect anyone else.
But in countries where you don’t have this mentality, the infected are seen almost as losers. “How can you have died from this? It’s just a little flu [‘gripezinha’, the phrase used by Bolsonaro]!”
MA: Right. We published a report on the online bullying of people with coronavirus. Someone even had their house stoned…
VS: It’s medieval behaviour which has been encouraged by the government’s stance. Of course, all societies have a regressive dynamic. If in Norway they had the same kind of discourse that we do here, they would have similar behaviour. It liberates the regressive dimension of society. Legitimises it. That’s why I say that it’s impossible to manage this process with this government in charge.
MA: Do you think that a different world will emerge from the pandemic?
Yes, but which? There are various possibilities and it’s hard to know which way things are headed. For example, one scenario is the strengthening of the far right, of fascism. But this would be based on the European model, where the far right is antiliberal when it comes to economics, not like in Brazil where the far right is ultraliberal. So perhaps we might see the strengthening of the welfare state, alongside a far-right approach to borders, immigration and so on.
Another scenario: the Anglo-Saxon neoliberal model of Thatcher, Reagan and the Chicago school – which is in force in Brazil – will collapse. In fact this is already happening; the pandemic has redefined the concept of government. Because this won’t be the last one, there will be others, this is just the first. And you need government structures to respond, which demand a type of social cohesion and state intervention which is incompatible with the neoliberal Chicago model.
But neoliberalism had three initial spaces of application. There was the UK and US under Thatcher and Reagan. There was Chile under Pinochet. But then there’s the social market economy, the model developed by German liberals after World War II. This remained in place and it’s been successful. In fact, out of all the European countries, it’s Germany which has had the best response to coronavirus. Their death rate is extremely low. So it’s possible that this German model – which dates back to the 1930s, combining neoliberalism with some degree of protectionism and interventionism – becomes stronger. This could happen in Brazil, where a section of the right is leaning towards this model.
And then there’s a third scenario, in which Brazil begins a process of effective transformation, given the complete ineptitude of the government. People might wake up to the structures of inequality and social injustice, and in a context like this the left could bounce back. But it’s also possible to envisage a coup, the declaration of a state of exception. If that happens, it’s hard to know what it will be like or how long it will last – but it is also a possibility.