Bolsonaro’s authoritarian neoliberalism and the future of Brazilian democracy

The upcoming elections in Brazil take place in a context of crisis in which the countries are highly dependent on the fate of the market. If Jair Bolsonaro is re-elected, his authoritarian neoliberalism project will be strengthened and democracy will be in jeopardy. But if Lula Da Silva wins, that’s not necessarily the defeat for this system, Leonardo Fontes (LSE Latin America and Caribbean Center) argued.

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Brazil is experiencing one of its most serious and protracted crises. This crisis, affecting the economy, politics and society in general, can be traced back to the world crisis of 2008 and the large demonstrations of June 2013. These events have shown a large and widespread popular dissatisfaction with various aspects of Brazilian politics and social life, in particular the implementation of institutional politics and the quality of life in cities.

Despite the emergency issues at the time, I attribute the current crisis to a broader contradiction between neoliberalism and democracy that is at the heart of this year’s election dispute, polarized between former President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and current President Jair Bolsonaro.

This crisis, which is also being experienced in other countries of the world and especially in Latin America, reminds us of the problems that liberalism went through at the beginning of the last century, culminating in the rise of the Nazi regimes. By analyzing this context, Karl Polanyi (1944) identified a historical process surrounding a dispute between commodification and Protection of three “fictitious goods”: land, labor and money.

Polanyi argued that during 19thAt the end of the 19th century, liberalism sought to transform these three basic elements of human life into freely tradable commodities on the “market”, forces of “society” claimed their protection through political mechanisms.

One can say that neoliberalism follows similar ideological principles as its predecessor and seeks to withdraw or reduce to a minimum the mechanisms of social, environmental and monetary protection. As a result, land, labor and money would be subject to the “laws” of free competition and probable exploitation.

This political and ideological framework has unfolded in processes such as the privatization of public services, the dismantling of labor and environmental regulations, and the resurgence of austerity and the free international movement of capital.

Another essential part of neoliberalism is the discourse on worker self-government and increasing the incentives for entrepreneurship. My recent research in suburban areas in São Paulo has shown that entrepreneurial attitudes are growing among poor workers who are either unable to find better opportunities or yearn for less precarious and more rewarding ways to sell their workforce.

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The result of almost 40 years of neoliberalism in the world can be seen in the processes of job insecurity, worsening of the climate crisis, increase in wealth concentration and loss of legitimacy of democracy.

Once land, labor and money are largely under the rule of the market, national governments have few options for dealing with a crisis that began in 2008, hit Brazil harder from 2014 and was exacerbated by the pandemic.

As Polanyi warned, the (neo-)liberal project of reducing political regulation of the relations between workers and employers and between man and nature and weakening the role of the state in relation to economic activity tends to lead to the collapse of human society. The collapse can occur through the depletion of natural resources, impoverishment, the mental illness of workers and the loss of their social ties, the bankruptcy of economic crises, or a likely combination of these three processes as we are witnessing them now.

The need for a third sentence

However, the “dual movement” described by Polanyi, which would oppose “commodification” and “protection”, is not enough to understand the disputes at stake in the 2020s. Since at least the middle of the last century, a third political and social force has been gaining strength, trying to conquer forms of liberation in the face of oppression related specifically to gender and race issues. Therefore, as Nancy Fraser suggests, we must add a third movement to Polanyi’s analysis, which concerns the struggle for liberation (or emancipation, as Fraser prefers).

This agenda for liberation from different types of oppression has a strong cultural background and is crucial to understanding the mobilization of youth in the Brazilian outskirts over the past decade, as my previous research shows.

The Brazilian elections are taking place in the midst of this crisis and the struggles surrounding this “triple movement” (commodification x protection x liberation from oppression). Bolsonaro, elected in 2018 as an outsider of the traditional political system, has from the start championed a strongly neoliberal agenda, led by his economy minister, Paulo Guedes.

During his administration, despite several maneuvers to increase public spending during the pandemic and on the eve of the elections, Bolsonaro tried to follow austerity recipes and passed a law guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, thereby expanding the process of money commodification and reduced the state’s ability to act.


Bolsonaro also relaxed legislation and weakened environmental control agencies. He also approved a new legal framework for sanitation, which allowed for the privatization of water and sanitation services and privatized Brazil’s main electricity company. As a result of reduced environmental protection, deforestation rates in the Amazon are at their highest in 15 years.

Finally, referring to the commodification of work, Bolsonaro argued that workers should choose between “fewer rights and jobs, or all their rights and unemployment,” and defended reforms endorsed by his predecessor, Michel Temer, that made labor relations more flexible. Earlier in his tenure, he also approved new social security reforms and weakened Brazil’s main remittance program.

Freedom and protection with inverted meanings

On the other hand, Bolsonaro wanted to deliver a protective speech that won over a large part of the Brazilian electorate. His target, however, was not the predatory market forces that disrupt workers’ social relations and mental health, or destroy Brazil’s ecological heritage. Instead, Bolsonaro positions himself as a “protector” of values ​​like family, nation, God, and liberty.

It is important to emphasize that “freedom” for Bolsonaro has a purely negative character. It only refers to the lack of restrictions on the actions of individuals. He claims “free speech” when someone is accused of being sexist, racist or homophobic; freedom of movement against hygiene measures during the pandemic; and the freedom to purchase and carry a weapon for self-defense and to defend one’s private property. In the context of the “triple movement” mentioned above, this means freedom to uphold oppression, not to overcome it.

Additionally, Bolsonaro is a former army captain who has built his political career by maintaining close ties with public and private security forces. More recently, his ties to sections of the police force that sell “protection” to illegal markets — like the Rio de Janeiro militias — have become more apparent, particularly in the drug market, but also in the real estate, logging, mining, immigration and irregular markets Agriculture, as emphasized by Gabriel Feltran.

The authoritarian neoliberal project beyond the election

Bolsonaro consolidated the authoritarian neoliberal project by uniting pro-market groups with security forces operating on the fringes of illegality around moral values ​​that often reinforce the oppression of minority groups in Brazilian society, such as blacks, women, and the LGBTQIA+ community. His possible re-election puts the democratic regime in Brazil in great danger.

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On the other hand, Lula da Silva’s victory does not mean the defeat of the authoritarian neoliberal project. During the 14 years that the Workers’ Party (PT) ruled the country (eight of them under Lula’s presidency), Brazil made strides in protecting workers and the environment and emancipatory agendas for oppressed groups.

However, these social improvements have been timid given the size of Brazil’s social debt and have failed to change the correlation of social forces.

Many of Lula’s results in terms of social mobility have focused mainly on growth in consumption power and some gains in access to higher education. In addition, most of these achievements turned out to be fragile and were quickly lost again at the beginning of the economic crisis, as my previous research has shown. These weaknesses in economic gains and the new dynamics of work in the face of new digital technologies point to the need to extend social protection beyond work, with the guarantee of fundamental social rights and a universal basic income.

Furthermore, many demands for emancipation were aimed at the market rather than at the state, leading to a Brazilian version of “progressive neoliberalism”. Currently, my research has pointed to the growth of a particular type of peripheral entrepreneurship, which makes demands on both the market and the state to increase their levels of protection and seek emancipatory gains in the face of gender and racial oppression. Once again the challenge is to engage with the triple movement to ensure protection and deliverance.

Bolsonaro’s defeat is the first step in restoring confidence in the democratic process. However, without a project that resumes and expands emancipatory achievements, protects employees and the environment from overexploitation, promotes income redistribution and restores the democratic ability of the state to act in the economy, new authoritarian threats will arise in the near future.

• The views expressed here are those of the authors and not of the Center or the LSE
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• Banner image: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, 2022 / Isaac Fontana (Shutterstock)

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