COVID-19: A Brake on the Desire for Fascism in Brazil

Cláudia Perrone and Rose GurskiCovid-19

I am here because I believe in you. You are here because you believe in Brazil. We won´t negotiate anything. What we want is action for Brazil …

Jair Messias Bolsonaro

These words were spoken by Jair Messias Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, in the middle of his call for the end of the social isolation measures recommended by the World Health Organization as a means of containing the harmful impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Brazilian experts, the moment is worrying as the country approaches the peak of the transmission curve, with some 615 deaths in 24 hours—and this even without the disease’s having reached the most socially vulnerable members of the population. The event at which Bolsonaro spoke these words took place on April 19 and gathered a small group demanding the closure of congress and the army’s presence on the streets.

In keeping with this group of supporters, who consider him a “legend,” the leader of the far right in Brazil has continued to use nationalist catchphrases, expressions that send us back to the Fascist and Nazi leaders of Europe in the 1930s: “We have a new Brazil ahead of us. Patriots have to believe and do their part to put Brazil in the spotlight it deserves. And to put an end to this villainy. The people are in power. For scholars of Brazilian society and politics, this demonstration was no surprise; populist speeches like these, loaded with hate, redolent of authoritarianism, and full of the kinds of threats to democratic life that led Captain Bolsonaro to the Presidency of the Republic. In the 2017 election, analysts wondered what led 55% of the Brazilian population to elect as president a politician whose public trajectory, during over thirty years in the congress, was ruled by death and not by life. He fought not for education, health, or social protections, but in defense of violence, above all lethal violence, especially against minorities. His speeches and public actions spread a dangerous combination of violence and intellectual delinquency, trivializing the breakdown of social ties by offering clear incentives to enjoy the torture and the erasure of others. Were Brazilians symbolically announcing their desire for manic leadership unto death? What, after all, is this desire for fascism made of?

Sigmund Freud’s Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, written in 1921, is remarkable in its anticipation of what was to come in Europe in the 1930s. Freud offered an analysis of totalitarian governments from the historical standpoint of the First World War, showing that the masses’ relation to the leader worked to suppress the plurality of political life in favor of the dimension of totality.1 To translate this into Lacanian terms, we could say that the totalitarian leader seeks to make One of the Other. That is, he effects the erasure of difference and of the plurality of meanings in the construction of positions and ideas. Following Freud, we note that the leader plays a central role in the production of mass psychology in totalitarian systems, representing the ideal ego; the leader ties his figure to the members of the group and establishes the premise that mass identity is forged in and through the operation of exclusion, which implies the segregation and hatred of anyone who does not conform to the mass and/or its ideal.

We may thus be confronting new fascisms, as evinced by the impoverishment of language, the erosion of progressive values, the fortification of racist practices, sexist and xenophobic forms of hate and violence, and the loosening bonds of solidarity and sharing between subjects. To this current scenario, in which Brazil is of course not the only representative, we can add the impact of global financialization of through wild neoliberal practices, a phenomenon whose effects are not only economic, but also take the form of individualism among subjects who commercialize various areas of social life, including bonds and emotions.

Walter Benjamin argued that fascism should be examined not as an inexplicable regression in the post-Enlightenment world or a possible parenthesis in the history of humanity, but rather as a phenomenon that appears in the social history of a world built on constant acceleration and linear progress.2 Benjamin understood the modernity of fascism, as well as its intimate relationship with the future, in terms of the association of political barbarism with an illusory idealization of scientific, industrial, and technological progress. In his view, the development of increasingly financialized societies made fascism an issue not only of the past and present, but a concern for the future.

In a recent article analyzing the effects of the current pandemic in Brazil, Vladimir Safatle borrowed Paul Virilio’s notion of “the suicidal state,” first formulated in the book L’insecurité du territoire, to describe the current operation of the Brazilian state. Such a state, reliant on neoliberal premises, would by this account not only oversee the management of death and the disappearance of bodies through necropolitics, but also manage its own catastrophe through new forms of state violence. In the case of Brazil, Safatle suggests that the state can be the guarantor of its own catastrophe, as it compulsively repeats its history of social inequality and the genocide of parts of population in response to COVID-19.

It is in this sense that we propose to analyze the current wave of denialism in Brazil amid the spread of COVID-19. To what extent could the virus, in our country, be working to destabilize the state’s acceleration in the direction of own destruction? Could the social and political effects of the current president’s reactions to the virus function as a kind of emergency brake,3 bringing the operations of the suicidal state to a halt?

Bolsonaro’s Brazil was the first country, among 190 on the planet, to see demonstrations denying the deadly potential of the disease and protesting against social isolation as an emergency measure provoked by the pandemic. In addition to directly opposing the recommendations of the World Health Organization, walking through the streets of Brasilia, greeting voters, and promoting public events, he compares the pandemic to “a little flu” and says that “staying at home is cowardice since everyone will die someday.”

Moreover, Sunday, April 19, 2020, the day when Bolsonaro gave the speech quoted at the beginning of this text, marked the culmination of a destructive discourse generated by a false dichotomy between health and the economy. With his participation in the event calling for a military coup, an event staged in front of the main military barracks in the Federal District, Bolsonaro showed total indifference to the health of the population and their sanitary conditions, especially considering the number of people living below the poverty line in the country. Bolsonaro’s presence incited his followers to attend a demonstration against the democratic state in which the crowd called for the closure of state institutions and for military intervention.

It is important to underscore that COVID-19 may be bringing about a certain reflective pause in the country’s current political scenario. This is because, after more than a year of Bolsonarist “mismanagement” in Brazil, where progressive arguments based on humanitarian and social ideals have been unable to stop the gradual destruction of democratic processes, we see a certain movement among the leaders of the country’s main national democratic institutions.

The wave of neoconservatism combined with historical revisionism and denialism fueled by Bolsonaro’s rise to power constitutes one of the new forms of fascism described by Zeynep Gambetti.4 The denial of science and history, previously related to the problems of climate change and the dictatorship in Brazil, is now brought to bear on scientific accounts of the pandemic. This seems to bode ill for Bolsonaro’s popularity, especially given that the current denials are likely to result in immediate deaths and not only in the kinds of climate-related repercussions that will be disproportionately felt by future generations.

Our question about the desire for fascism follows from the Freudian account of ​​the leader of the mass, and it relates to the problem of jouissance in Lacan. In Seminar 17, Lacan spoke of jouissance as a movement toward totality, a movement that seeks to make One of the Other and what, therefore, does not bind but rather attacks the social tie.5 The fascination with leaders like Bolsonaro may be related to the jouissance that accompanies the destruction of the other in this sense. The crude style, the impoverished language, and the anti-civilizational behavior all seem to authorize the humiliation, the death and the destruction, of the other, leaving the subject released from any social modesty, as if the libidinal knot posited by Freud, tying the subject to culture, had come undone.

Through the chaos of COVID-19 in this country, we see an erosion in the totalitarian project of the Brazilian far right. In this scenario, we cannot stop dreaming, because we do not know what will be possible in the future. For now, we should celebrate this brake on Brazil’s acceleration toward a totalitarian state. The virus has taken off the King’s clothes. Now the King is naked!

About the Author

Cláudia Perrone and Rose Gurski

Cláudia Perrone is a psychoanalyst and Professor in the Department of Psychoanalysis and Psychopathology at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. She is Associate Coordinator of the University’s Núcleo de Pesquisa em Psicanálise, Educação e Cultura and a member of the international collective Coletivo Amarrações.

Rose Gurski is a psychoanalyst and Professor in and Coordinator of the Programa de Pos-graduação em Psicanálise: Clinica e Cultura at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. She is a post-doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at the Universidade de São Paulo and a member of the international networks Coletivo Amarrações and the Red Interamericana de Investigación en Psicoanálisis y Política.

  1. Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (New York: Norton, 1990). []
  2. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 392. []
  3. Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,”402. []
  4. Zeynep Gambetti, “The Post-Totalitarian Condition,” presentation at The Ends of Democracy: Populist Strategies, Skepticism About Democracy, and the Quest for Popular Sovereignty, November 7-9, 2017, SESC Unidade Pompeia, São Paulo, Brazil. []
  5. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, trans. Russel Grigg (New York: Norton, 2007). []

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