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Brazil: “We’re on a precipice”

Professor João Cezar warns of Bolsonarista coup


For the university professor João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Bolsonaro and his followers are defined by a revanchist and revisionist vision of Brazilian history. This narrative justifies the systematic creation and elimination of enemies, while simultaneously making it impossible to govern.

Translated by Tom Gatehouse, as part of LAB’s ongoing partnership with Agência Pública. You can read the original article (in Portuguese) here.

João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a professor in comparative literature at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), has been studying what he calls thecultural war’ waged by Bolsonaro and his followers. The fruit of this research is a book entitled Guerra cultural e retórica do ódio: crônicas do Brasil (Cultural war and the rhetoric of hatred: chronicles from Brazil), which looks in detail at the cultural war currently raging in the country.

In an interview with Agência Pública, he summarises the basic elements which underpin the thinking of the bolsonarista militants and warns that in the event the government collapses, they may become even further radicalized.

João Cezar Castro Rocha Professor of Comparative Literature at the UERJ

Ciro Barros: You believe we’re seeing a cultural war which is specifically bolsonarista, distinct from a broader conception of the term. What are the foundations of this bolsonarista cultural war?

João Cezar Castro Rocha: I don’t deny that there are elements of this bolsonarista cultural war which are transnational. You’ll find them in the so-called ‘alt-right’ in the United States, and in Steve Bannon’s ‘The Movement’. There’s a range of strategies, especially those bound up with very skilful exploitation of social networks, which aren’t specifically bolsonarista or even particularly Brazilian.

What determines the mentality of Jair Messias Bolsonaro and his clan? He’s more of a franchise than a politician, with a franchise of politicians in his image.

But what I’m proposing is that the bolsonarista cultural war is the very fulcrum of the government. What determines the mentality of Jair Messias Bolsonaro and his clan? He’s more of a franchise than a politician, with a franchise of politicians in his image.

Bolsonaro’s thinking was formed by the Brazilian Army, and a current of the Army characterised by its resentment following the impact of the book Brasil: nunca mais [Brazil: Never Again], published in 1985. It’s a book of monumental importance, because it denounced in undeniable fashion the torture, abuses and forced disappearances that took place during the military dictatorship (1964-1985).

In trials that took place in military courts – in other words, trials overseen by the dictatorship – the prisoners revealed to the judges the torture that they had suffered. Brasil: nunca mais brings together a series of testimonies from young people around 20 years of age, taken from these military trials. They all tell the same story, with some saying they were used as guinea pigs in torture classes. It’s remarkable, the military dictatorship’s black book.

The book was a great success when it was published. It sold more than 100,000 copies and had enormous repercussion abroad. During the period of democratic transition, it helped consolidate an image of the Armed Forces associated with repression, torture and death. This had a big impact on a generation of the Brazilian Army and the consequence is this revanchist and revisionist political project.

in bolsonarista thinking, torture doesn’t exist

That’s why, in bolsonarista thinking, torture doesn’t exist. It’s not just COVID-19 that doesn’t exist, but the torture practised by the military dictatorship.

So, we have this revanchist and revisionist thinking in the Army, convinced that although the military won the battle – in the coup of 1964 – they managed to lose the war for public opinion. So what did they do? They decided to fight fire with fire. From 1986 to 1989, they compiled documents, particularly from the Army Information Centre (CIE, in its Portuguese acronym), which was an organ of the repression.

They were looking for evidence of what they considered to be the crimes committed in the armed struggle against the dictatorship. And it’s true, the left-wing armed struggle in Brazil did kill innocent people.

The military then launched Project Orvil – Orvil being the Portuguese word for book spelt backwards. It is literally Brasil: nunca mais turned on its head. There were no crimes committed by the dictatorship; everything is blamed on the armed struggle. It’s a long list of armed groups, their dismantling and the crimes that the military holds them responsible for.

Their understanding of the history of the Brazilian Republic is completely insane, but it explains perfectly the bolsonarista mentality. In a cabinet meeting on 22 April [the recording of which is part of an investigation into Bolsonaro’s alleged interference in the Federal Police, and which was made public in May], Bolsonaro suddenly came out with the following: ‘If they had won in 1964, you lot would be cutting sugarcane and earning $20 a month.’

It seems absolutely deranged. We’re in 2020, 56 years have gone by since 1964. At the time of that meeting, Brazil had nearly 50,000 reported cases and 3000 deaths from COVID-19. How is it possible, that in a meeting which was supposed to address the economic recovery post-pandemic, out of nowhere he comes out with something like that?

It’s the Orvil rhetoric, a rhetoric designed to pave the way for a coup. In the introduction to Orvil, the military say that the history of the Brazilian Republic since 1922 has been characterised by constant attempts to take power by the communists, aiming to creating a dictatorship of the proletariat which would turn Brazil into a kind of tropical China, given its continental size.

The fourth attempt, which they claim is the most dangerous yet, they describe as the infiltration of institutions, especially cultural institutions. The goal is to create a diverse way of thinking, susceptible to the advent of communism which will now come not via the armed struggle, but the ballot box. Is that not a central discourse of this government?

If you accept this narrative, what follows is the next point: the National Security Doctrine.

CB: You’re referring to the idea the military adopted of transferring the wartime logic of elimination of the enemy to the internal domestic context?

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JCCR: Exactly. According to the Orvil narrative, international communism hasn’t let a single day go by without trying to impose a dictatorship of the proletariat in Brazil. So, if from 1922 until today, there’s been this constant struggle to take power, there needs to be a defensive counterweight. This is the National Security Doctrine.

It’s not an invention of the Brazilian military dictatorship: it was developed in the context of the Cold War and exists in other countries. It lays out specific conditions for the defence of the nation’s integrity when attacked by an external enemy. This right to self-defence exists in international law: if a country is attacked by another intending to subjugate it, it has the right to use any means necessary to repel the aggression, even if this means the elimination of the external enemy.

The National Security Doctrine transposed this idea to the internal environment, to justify the elimination of the enemy within, the communist subversive. According to Orvil, as the communist subversive is an agent of the international communist movement, they are, in a sense, external. What must be done therefore, once they’ve been identified? They must be eliminated. Full stop.

CB: Would this idea of elimination be implemented physically, or would it occur in a moral sense, via destruction of reputation?

JCCR: How do you translate the National Security Doctrine to the democratic period? I have two hypotheses. One is that you just mentioned. The bolsonarista militants online carry out massacres of reputations with a violence and malice which is unprecedented in Brazil.

Destroying reputations is nothing new; it has always been part of politics. But the systematic way in which the bolsonarista cultural war creates enemies and then carries out expiatory rites is extraordinary. Overnight their characterisation of a given individual is turned on its head. This individual then suffers a personalised symbolic destruction.

According to the Orvil narrative, the fourth attempt at taking power consists of an infiltration of the institutions, above all cultural institutions: the press, the arts and the universities. Everything the Bolsonaro government has done has aimed to destroy these institutions. When the bolsonaristas talk about the ‘extreme press’, the origin of this lies in Orvil.

President Jair Bolsonaro speaks to the press in the Palácio da Alvorada, Image: Marcello Casal Jr/Agência Brasil

One unexpected translation of the National Security Doctrine has been the systematic destruction of institutions. What happens when you hand the Zumbi dos Palmares Foundation [a public institution responsible for promoting and preserving Afro-Brazilian history and culture] to someone who denies the existence of racism in Brazil? Is that not tantamount to the destruction of the Foundation? Or when you hand the National Institute of Historic and Artistic Heritage (Iphan) – one of the oldest and most enduring organs of Brazil’s precarious cultural structure – to a blogger who defines herself as a ‘tourismologist’? What about when, overnight, they cut 6,000 postgraduate scholarships? The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development [CNPq] has just announced that it is to remove all the humanities from its programme of scholarships. This has never happened anywhere else.

This is all shocking, but it corresponds with the Orvil narrative. For the moment, they can’t eliminate their enemies physically. So instead of eliminating me physically, they can destroy the university where I work, which will eliminate me in a professional sense. If the government manages to instrumentalize all state institutions in its favour, there’s no need to stage a coup – it’s already happened. In this case, it’s not about instrumentalizing institutions, but destroying them. Look at what’s happening in the Ministry of Environment. It’s a radical dismantling of all forms of control and monitoring, and the same thing is happening across the board.

CB: You say there are three pillars: aside from the Orvil narrative and the National Security Doctrine, there’s the popularization of a rhetoric of hatred that comes, to a large extent, from the writer Olavo de Carvalho. How does this third element work?

JCCR: Discussing the philosophy of Olavo de Carvalho is a trap I’m not going to fall into. In my opinion he has no philosophy whatsoever. What I will say is that during his sermonising over nearly two decades, he’s developed what I call the Olavo de Carvalho belief system. This belief system is a kind of vanishing point that intensifies to the maximum the elements of Orvil and the National Security Doctrine. He has developed a rhetoric of hatred with great skill.

Bolsonaro with the ‘philosopher’ Olavo de Carvalho

I believe that this rhetoric of hatred translates the National Security Doctrine to the media language of the social networks. Olavo de Carvalho is over 70 years of age. What’s he playing at, when he goes to the trouble of changing someone’s name, when he’s angry with them? When I change someone’s name as a form of ridicule, what is this but a way of disqualifying them, nullifying them as a person? Is the ultimate aim not to eliminate the other?

Aside from this, there’s another method in Olavo de Carvalho’s rhetoric of hatred, which I call de-characterizing hyperbole. For example, he says, ‘Never before in history has a philosopher been attacked as I have. 100,000 pages have been written attacking me, in 15 different languages.’ This is de-characterizing hyperbole, because obviously there’s no way that 100,000 pages written attacking Olavo de Carvalho exist on the face of the earth, even less so in 15 different languages.

What’s the effect of this hyperbole? Thought gets nullified. Because either you agree, or you reject it. Thought becomes impossible; it’s only possible where there’s mediation. Carvalho’s strategy with his rhetoric of hatred is, on the one hand, to disqualify the other, turning them into a nothing, and on the other hand, a set of hyperboles which preclude thought by supressing mediation.

Basically, Olavo de Carvalho is concerned with strategies of psychological manipulation. A belief system is unfalsifiable; it’s a logical system centred on itself which becomes stronger the more it is attacked. People become convinced that the reason Carvalho gets attacked is because he’s in the right.

So there’s a convergence of these three elements: the National Security Doctrine, Orvil and the rhetoric of Olavo de Carvalho, which has popularized the first two. A considerable part of what Carvalho talks about in his work – a Gramscian infiltration which aims to take power – is in Orvil. This is a powerful trinity.

In terms of mobilizing the masses – especially online – the bolsonarista cultural war is a phenomenon without parallel in recent Brazilian political history. It exploits the most primordial feelings in human culture. Violence, the most primordial of all, is at the very surface of this cultural war. There is nothing more primitive than the constant invention of enemies and incitement to lynching, and this is the very foundation of the bolsonarista cultural war. We’ve been seeing how powerful a mobilizing force this is, how violence and hatred have brought people together.

But there’s a paradox at work. Without the cultural war, there’s no bolsonarismo. But with cultural war, there can be no Bolsonaro government. As long as these all ridiculous ideas are flying around – all part of the plan of cultural war – nothing concrete gets decided. There is no objective data on which to build policy. You can’t be constantly creating enemies if you’re taking into account objective data, but without considering objective data it’s impossible to govern.

The pandemic has greatly accelerated this process, because while you might be able to spend four years in narrative disputes about economic stability, you can’t do the same when it comes to death. I can’t spend even a minute arguing about whether my father died or not. I can’t spend 30 seconds debating whether it’s a gripezinha [a little flu, the term used by Bolsonaro to describe COVID-19], if I’m in hospital on a ventilator. The chaos to which the current situation is leading us, alongside the proximity of death, will make narrative disputes pointless.

If that’s the case, then we can’t be cautious enough. We’re approaching the darkest moment of Brazilian life since the return of democracy. There will be an economic recession, and it’s not yet clear how we will recover. And the collapse of the Bolsonaro government is inevitable. The bigger the collapse, the more vicious the cultural war will be, the more likely this virtual war will spill out into the streets. It will accelerate the process of violence: the social networks will be increasingly violent, the bolsonaristas increasingly aggressive. Their numbers will drop off, but those who remain will be the real fanatics, who will tend towards unexpected and uncontrolled acts of violence.

Bolsonarismo will be left with just two choices: accept the sad failure of a government which never even really existed or go down the path of an authoritarian coup. I think they will choose the latter. They’ve been trying to arm citizens all over the country, as well as co-opt members of the Military Police in some Brazilian states. And there’s a literal takeover of the government by the military – Bolsonaro has more military men in his government than any of the military governments did during 20 years of dictatorship.

We’re on a precipice. There’s a serious risk of an authoritarian coup. This one will be even more violent than the military dictatorship, because while the dictatorship wanted to create institutions in its own image, this movement wants to eliminate them altogether. This desire is new. And we will only be able to stop this process if we understand the perverse logic that dominates this government. We must do something to save democracy, but our institutions have been slow to react. If the Armed Forces embark upon a coup led by Bolsonaro, the outcome will be grim.

Agência Pública

Agencia Pubica Blog Latin America Bureau

Founded in 2011 by women journalists, Agência Pública is the first non-profit agency for investigative journalism in Brazil. Their courageous public-interest reports have been republished by over 900 outlets in the past year, under Creative Commons agreements. You can find English translations of our collaborative picks from Agência Pública’s coverage, below.

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