IT'S “BOLSONARO OUT” OR NOTHING?
The current wave of protests against President Jair Messias Bolsonaro exposes the population's dissatisfaction with the current Brazilian government and the left's ideological fracture in a shattered country.
The crisis of the Brazilian representative democracy resulting from the 2016 coup d'état has made the lives of most Brazilians precarious. The economic decline and sociopolitical instability of the past five years have directly affected the lives of working class and lower middle-class workers, who had some hope left on the Brazilian political horizon before the coup, but find their lives today threatened by a genocidal model of capitalism which is now governing them. After the election of President Jair Messias Bolsonaro in 2018, the chaotic Brazilian social environment has gained even greater intensity. Under Bolsonaro’s government, Brazil has added 14.8 million unemployed people; a three-decade setback in women's participation in the labor market; extremely high levels of labor precarization; a record number of police lethality in big cities; a growing number of hunger victims; an increasing violence against indigenous peoples; an increasing deforestation in protected areas and environmental crimes, and 600,000 victims of the Covid-19 pandemic so far. Today, Brazil is a pack of dynamite waiting to explode.
It is not surprising, though, that even in the midst of the health emergency provoked by Covid-19, the protests against Bolsonaro’s government gained massive acceptance of the population, for whom the government is more deadly than the virus. Since the first public demonstrations which took place between May and July 2021, the “Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro Out!) movement has spread across the country with more and more power. Besides the famous and necessary anthem "Bolsonaro Out!", the protesters add slogans like "vaccine to the arm!" and "food on the plate!". They demand mainly for the invalidation of the government, an expansion of immunization against Covid-19 and emergency aid of at least R$ 600. The demonstrations express the indignation with denunciations of corruption in the purchase of vaccines and the disregard of the government with the pandemic, since part of the deaths by coronavirus could have been avoided if the federal government had created measures to contain the virus instead of discouraging the vaccination. However, the claim to impeach the president goes far beyond such practical demands. The end of Bolsonaro’s government means for the Brazilian people the possibility of living without the macabre shadow of a far-right necro-capitalism which leads the country to a total eclipse.
The demonstrations are organized by left-wing political parties, trade unions, social and popular movements, feminist and even religious organizations. Among the main organizers are the leftist parties PT, PCO, PSB, PSOL, PCdoB, PSTU, PCB and UP, the trade union CUT and social organizations like Brasil Popular and Frente Povo Sem Medo. However, while there is a consensual harmony among the demonstrators around the slogan "Bolsonaro gone!", the backstage of the demonstrations shows the ideological fracture of the Brazilian left in which divergent electoral interests – that have little to do with the concrete needs of the population – clash. Among the main conflicts within the left, center-left, and radical left is the incorporation of the so-called "democratic right" into the movement. The “democratic right” is a group formed by the parties Cidadania, PV, PDT, PSB, PSDB, Rede and Solidariedade that seeks for a neoliberal alternative to Bolsonaro. They represent what has been called as “third way”.
Why do some of the main leftist party leaders regard the inclusion of right-wing parties positively in the protests?
Those who follow the political debate in Brazil know that former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva is the only leftist politician who has real chances to beat Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. However, there is a strong sectarianism and rejection towards former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the Brazilian left. Even within his own party PT, the party founded by the former president, there is a resistance to Lula's candidacy. It is precisely the sector within the left which does not identify with the former president that advocates for joining the movement with the “democratic right” against Bolsonaro. According to it, the candidate of the “third way” must be a strong candidate capable of defeating Bolsonaro in the polls, but this person should not necessarily be Lula. For the “democratic right”, however, this "third way" candidate must necessarily be a candidate aligned with the political-economic interests of national and international bourgeoisie, intensifying the agenda of privatization and the reduction of the rights of the working class. In other words, it must be a right-wing candidate who is capable of continuing the devastating neoliberal policy intensified since 2016. A policy that Bolsonaro has not only failed to maintain, but has also demoralized due to the immense economic crisis in the country.
The argument in favor of incorporating the right (coming mainly from parties such as PSOL and PCdoB) claims that the union with the "democratic right" would strengthen the demonstrations. However, if we take into account that the right-wing parties have great popular rejection, the strategy of joining forces with the right against Bolsonaro seems untenable. For this reason, the radical left parties, especially the Trotskyist party PCO, sees the incorporation of the right in the demonstrations as a political maneuver to consolidate the 2016 coup that ousted President Dilma Rousseff from PT. Although, the radical left is critical towards PT and former president Lula, they believe in the hypothesis that the right is trying to disintegrate the movement and run an electoral campaign for 2022. Conquering the streets in 2021 means, in this sense, gathering voters to win the polls in 2022, defeating Bolsonaro and Lula to maintain the hegemony of the traditional right in the government. This hypothesis makes sense if we remember that right-wing parties such as PSDB were protagonists of the 2016 coup d'état. After all, what reasons would the right have to let the left come back to power? After articulating the coup d'état against President Dilma Rousseff and the imprisonment of former President Lula, any political maneuver that does not have direct implications for maintaining the political hegemony of the right would be nonsense.
It seems politically naive to believe that there is a real interest within the right in throwing Bolsonaro on the streets or within the parliament to execute an impeachment. The facts confirm that there is a resistance from the conservative political elites to heed and carry an impeachment process through to the end. From more than 120 requests for an impeachment against Bolsonaro none of them have been approved in the parliament in Brasilia. PSDB, a party that has 33 federal deputies in the Chamber of Deputies, has never taken any position in favor of an impeachment. And so far, none of its deputies, except for Alexandre Frota, has positioned himself in this direction. For the "democratic right", the problem is not Bolsonaro’s destructive policies, but the fact he is a troglodyte who demoralizes the coup of 2016. The interest of this group is indeed to elect someone from the right who can be a light sensed version of Bolsonaro.
In the July 3rd demonstrations, the ideological impasse within the movement provoked the expulsion of PSDB militants from the streets in São Paulo and the PDT in Florianopolis by PCO militants. The incident motivated a media campaign against the Trotskyist party. At the time, there were rumors that leftist parties and social organizations were considering the possibility of expelling PCO from the movement. In October, Ciro Gomes (PDT), one of the main names of the “third way”, was booed in a demonstration in São Paulo and was forced to leave the stage. On this occasion, Gomes responded to the booing by calling the protesters "fascists in red", leaving the demonstration at risk of being physically assaulted.
It is strange to notice that segments of the Brazilian left have become as anti-leftist as the right. The "new left" that has emerged in the last decade advocates a reformist policy that contradicts the historical demands of the traditional Marxist left. Its focus on identity politics has overshadowed the classic demands of the Brazilian left such as greater income distribution, protection of workers' rights and land distribution to rural workers. Even the historical anti-capitalist class struggle was pushed aside, creating ruptures within the entire left.
Since the 2018 presidential election, conservative groups within the left and center-left have been trying to rid themselves of the "stigma" of communism. At that time, the initiative which aimed to remove the color red of leftist campaigns was a sign that anti-Marxism within the left was growing. By using the argument that there was an anti-leftist wave among the population, this initiative encouraged the use of green and yellow (colors of the Brazilian flag) as a symbol of national unity. This “anti-red” impetus has been repeated in the current mobilizations. The same segments that defend the participation of the right in the demonstrations have encouraged demonstrators to go dressed in green and yellow to the streets. If we take into account that in recent years the colors green and yellow have become the official colors of the right far-right demonstrations, the exclusion of red generates distrust, to say the least. Despite this conservative campaign within the left, the massive presence of red in the streets shows that the anti-Marxist input exists more among some left and center-left parties than among the politically engaged population.
What is the aesthetic-political role of art in this scenario?
It is well known that in June 2013 the street riots changed the Brazilian political environment. It is not delirious to say that both the 2016 coup d'état, the imprisonment of former president Lula and the election of Jair Messias Bolsonaro in 2018 are consequences of the conservative reaction against those popular mobilizations. It was also the violent reaction to the 2013 riots that made the oppression of social minorities an unavoidable political agenda in Brazil, forcing the art system to pay attention on urgent agendas such as racism, homophobia and gender violence.
Even though the goal of this article isn’t to debate on the representativeness, institutionalization, and commodification of marginalized identities in the art world, nor to deeply discuss about the deterioration of culture under Bolsonaro, it is worth remembering that in the field of art there is a general refusal to Bolsonarism, and that the most consistent criticism of the government comes from artists belonging to groups of social minorities. If the debate on identity has brought social minorities to spaces of resonance such as art institutions, it is happening in a moment of a profound cultural war in which cultural and art institutions are precarized by the government. Art under Bolsonaro’s government is political but extremely fragile.
The politicization of the Brazilian art scene, however, is not synonymous with autonomy, nor is it able to cross the walls of institutions and galleries. Slogans against the government are recurrent in exhibitions and on profiles of artists and curators on social medias, but they do not achieve greater resonance beyond the well-demarcated boundaries of the official art scene. Art does not reach the streets and is still far from being part of the lives of the Brazilian population. Although activism informs the practices of many artists active in the Brazilian scene today, their works and projects do not mobilize anyone outside art's micro-cosmos. In fact, there are more lonely cry outs and careerism than collective proposals and direct actions in the social fabric.
It is a bit sad to see that in São Paulo, for example, the “Bolsonaro Out!" demonstrations are often concentrated in the courtyard of the Museum of Art of São Paulo, but there is very little interaction between the art scene and the streets. More alarming than that is to realize how intertwined and dependent art is on power. After all, the current president of the São Paulo Biennial is the banker and collector José Olympio Pereira, a former Bolsonaro supporter who today defends the "third way". Repentant or not, before the Biennial’s opening, José Olympio Pereira made it very clear that he was interested in making a biennial of (class) conciliation and hope. This civilized speech may convince some people, but it is nothing new to those who are already used to the pseudo-democratic maneuvers of the right. Whenever the right has the opportunity to use the discourse of class conciliation and democracy it is to maintain the hegemony of the elites. And maintaining class hegemony also means maintaining the control of culture and art.
Besides José Olympio Pereira, the 34th São Paulo Biennial opened in September this year under the title “Though It’s Dark, Still I Sing”. Curated by Jacopo Crivelli Visconti, the 34th edition of the biennial is mainly showing politically engaged artists and is the edition with more indigenous representation in its history. Although the statistics are motivating, there has been no critical campaign against the reactionary position of the Biennial's president. No boycott, no curatorial project in response to the biennial of "hope", no protest or critical pronouncement by the artists, nothing. Just an embarrassing silence that contrasts greatly with the reality of the streets.
In a polarized political scenario where even the left cannot unite around a simple agenda such as "Bolsonaro Out!", the need to create strong dialogues and radical mobilizations becomes urgent. What aesthetic-political actions could be created to tense not only the art scene, but also the Brazilian macro-political environment? When the political imagination of a country is scarce, it is up to artists to make a greater commitment to the people. There is a broader aesthetic-political horizon beyond art institutions and events.
Just as activists shouldn't expect too much from the political establishment, politically engaged artists should move away from the mainstream art scene. It is necessary to be always alert and to move as far away as possible from the bourgeois order. This demands ethical commitment and courage to avoid complicity and collaboration with specific institutions, parties, individuals and politicians who support Brazilian necro-capitalism. Although the Brazilian political horizon is quite cloudy, the good news is that people are crowding the streets. All dressed strictly in red. Now it is “Bolsonaro Out” or nothing!