Now Bolsonaro will crack open Brazil’s relatively closed domestic economy like a piñata, showering global finance with opportunities to privatise the country’s businesses and exploit its natural resources. He will suppress wages by attacking organised labour and slash welfare payments to the poor. His programme is so clearly one of upward redistribution that his opponent, the Workers’ Party Fernando Haddad, won in 98 per cent of the country’s poorest districts.
If Hannah Arendt’s description of fascism – an alliance of elite and mob – applies to Brazil, it is an alliance of the global financial elite with the “mob” of middle class people enraged at the enduring social power of the poor. Bolsonaro will align Brazil firmly with Trump’s design for an American world disorder. His supporters have wasted no time in taking to the streets, firing guns and torching offices to intimidate minorities and the left.
And that’s how fascism happens. There is, in all modern societies, a seething reactionary consciousness that remains unexpressed behind the politeness and performativity demanded by globalised technocratic norms. Arendt said that what the mob and the elite needed was “access to history”. That is what figures like Trump and Bolsonaro provide. The ability to roll back social liberalism, welfarism and the rule of law whose progress had seemed as certain as the arrow of time in the decades when the free market model worked.
We are living through a period where one crack in the system generates another. Bolsonaro could have won without Trump, but it would have been harder; Trump could have won without Brexit, but he modelled his entire campaign on Brexit, and dabbled with Russian influence in the same way as the Brexiteers.
So where’s next? The most fragile political economy is Europe. In Western Europe, the far right has been contained so far by proportional representation systems, and by the refusal of traditional conservative parties to entertain coalitions with authoritarian nationalists. In Eastern Europe, it is authoritarian conservatism that holds the whip hand.
If Timothy Snyder’s contention that we had a year to stem the tide of authoritarianism is true, that opportunity has lapsed. What’s important to remember, though, is that however well-informed a history professor who specializes in tyrants and totalitarianism is, like all of us he can only guess at what the future holds. His guess just happens to be educated.
Ineluctably, we have entered Year One of a disorienting epoch. Our faith in institutions has eroded, as they have been made to erode. Once-hidden prejudices are voiced with impugnity. From bad to worse to what the fuck, we can’t predict the future, but we too can hazard a guess at where things are headed.
It’s going to be another long year.