by Sonia Corrêa

 

Time to mourn

Politics is both reasoning and affect. This is how a first version of this essay, written in the immediate aftermath of the Brazilian 2018 elections, began. The reasonable charting of what happened in Brazil was urgent, but also a painful exercise to engage with. Having watched, for many years, the building up of Brazilian conservative politics around abortion, sexuality and gender, I was not exactly surprised with the electoral outcome. Yet, the full-blown materialization of multiple right wing active formations in the ireful electoral process, the brutal images of post-victory commemorations and the content of the elected candidate speeches have thrown me in an unknown land.

While processing these troubling sentiments, this “new reality” provoked re-read a number of classical articles on Fascism as well as some remarkable 2016 analyses of the Trump election. One of them was Teju Cole´s Time for Refusal. In it, Cole recaptures the Ionesco play “The Rhinoceros” in which the population of a whole village is mutated into rhinoceros, excavating in depth how subjectivities and the public sphere can be radically altered, meanwhile everything appears to remain normal. In November, 2018, as one of the Ionesco characters, I suddenly realized that the “unknown land” where I was had always been there, lurking in layers of inertial social conservatism that remained untransformed through decades of democratization. In a state of shock, I could sharply grasp how a vicious electoral process, based on Whatsapp and fake news had activated and converted deep stratums of racism, classism, hetero-patriarchy, into virulent rhetoric and violent acts.

Since then I have been torn between the anxiety to more fully understand what has happened to the country and harsh moments of sorrow. While navigating waves of estrangement, loss and grief, I became increasingly convinced that, in order to re-exist, it is necessary to continue examining the intricate paths that brought us here.[1] What follows is a preliminary exercise aimed at deciphering these intricate pathways. The original essay has been slightly revised and updated in order to briefly grasp what we have seen happening since October 2018. 

A composite of many images from protests and demonstrations overlaid with semi-transparent diagonal lines of blue and pinkPhoto credit: Álex Kalil

Systemic undercurrents

The overlapping undercurrents leading to the political catastrophe of the 2018 Brazilian elections are multiple and thorny. Years will elapse before they can be more thoroughly understood. Yet, in a rather incomplete bird’s eye view, they include continuing patterns of inequality and of structural violence that remained unresolved after three decades of democracy, as well as long history of entrenched political corruption. Another trend not to be circumvented is decidedly the growth of religious moral dogmatism, particularly in its evangelical expression, but not exclusively, as the post 1980’s Catholic conservative restoration has widely and deeply affected the Brazilian Church. The low and non-sustained economic growth of the country (since the 1980’s) must also be accounted for, in particular the post 2013 recession (2013 onwards) that devastated employment rates and the income of poorer sectors but also, as insightfully analyzed by Lavinas and Gonçalves (in Portuguese), propelled the rightward shift of the middle classes.

Not less significantly, the popular frustrations with the PT (Workers Party) because of corruption must also be accounted for. This political affect erupted in combination with many other claims in the course of the 2013 wave of street protests – known as the Fall Journeys – to be subsequently monopolized and magnified by far-right formations that gained leverage in the 2015-2016 protests to oust Dilma Roussef. The irascible anti–PT propaganda then crafted would later become the backbone of Bolsonaro electoral strategy. Additionally, as widely discussed nationally and internationally, this has been an almost fully cyber electoral campaign, mostly based on WhatsApp, whose legal and political implications have not been yet fully understood (see section 7 of the report on Bolsonaro voters and electoral strategies , authored by Isabela Oliveira Kalil and her team).

Last but not least, when situated in the global landscape, the far-rightward political shift materialized in the recent Brazil election – while quite drastic – is far from exceptional. It cannot be fully grasped, if not squarely placed onto the cartography of continuing neo-liberalization of the world economy and modes of living. From the internal point of view, it is not surprising either. Strong signs of a conservative restoration were quite palpable, at least since the mid 2000’s, in the realms of abortion and sexuality rights, but also HIV prevention (see the Brazil case here; also chapter 1 on the Brazilian response to HIV in troubled times).

Yet, until now, when gender and sexuality matters burst out at the center of the electoral campaign, these realms were not viewed as “politically relevant” by most mainstream actors and observers. This blind spot is intriguing, as transformations in these realms are quite flagrant in conventional socio–demographic indicators such as levels of female education and labor participation, sharp fertility decline and deep changes in family structures. They can also be measured in terms of legal reforms adopted in the course of the last thirty years aimed at ensuring gender equality and principles of non-discrimination. Not less important, they are visible in new modes and expressions of being a woman or a gender non-conforming person in social life, such as greater presence and visibility of women in public life but also the greater easiness for gays, lesbians and trans persons to be out in daily life, even when level of violence remain very high.

The far-right and authoritarian formations that materialized in the Brazilian political landscape in the last five years must be definitely situated in relation to the systemic dimensions briefly outlined above. But they cannot be fully apprehended if not recognized as a deep and wide backlash against these transformations in gender and sexuality, as limited as they may have been.

De-democratizing trends, late capitalism and anti-gender politics

After the 2016 US elections, a SPW short note underlined that, without minimizing the weight of the US hegemony, Trump’s arrival to power should not be read as exceptional, but rather as a new chapter in a chain of conservative restorations or undemocratic shifts that had been sweeping the world for some time. The same applies to Bolsonaro election in 2018. Taking a long view, this chain of de-democratizing events can be said to have started with 9/11/2001 and the subsequent “war on terror” that ruptured with a cycle of democratization, which began in Latin America and the Philippines, in the 1980’s, to later sweep post- Soviet countries and parts of Africa . Right after 9/11 Putin and Erdogan, two current icons of autocracy, came to power. Less than ten years later, democratic regressions were sweeping across all continents: the coups in Honduras and Paraguay, the demise of the Arab Spring, the victory of National Hindu Party (BJP) in India and of Orbán in Hungary, and the Nicaraguan constitutional reform allowing Ortega to be perennially re-elected. Then came the 2016 trail that began with the Brazilian parliamentary coup and moved towards the election of Duterte in the Philippines, the Brexit referendum, Erdogan’s state of exception in Turkey and the Trump victory. Since then, ultra- right-wing forces gained muscles in France, Germany and Sweden before winning the Italian elections. Meanwhile, right-wing candidates were also elected in Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

After the October 28th electoral results, Brazil fully joined the trail. It may be the new kid in block but not a minor piece in the global domino of de-democratization. As observed by CELAG (in Spanish), Latin America is now squeezed between right-wing powers ruling the “two big ones”. From a broader global South perspective, the BRICS, initially comprising authoritarian or autocratic regimes (China and Russia) and democracies (Brazil, India and South Africa), is now almost entirely undemocratic.

De-democratization enabled

With very few exceptions, these de-democratizing strands have materialized “through democratic procedures”. Not all the political regimes listed above are bluntly repressive and brutal, but can be described as functioning democracies, nor their leaders are grotesque as Trump, Bolsonaro or Duterte. A number of them, are sustained in power through less stark means such as the squashing of political competitors and more subtle silencing of dissidents (see David Leonhard’s article on Hungary). A whole library is now available that scrutinizes how present and past democracies can deteriorate and have deteriorated towards autocracies, dictatorships and fascism. While it is not possible to fully recover the wealth of this vast literature, one key line of interpretation to bear in mind when examining the Brazilian post –electoral scenario is the intersection between late capitalism, democracy and de-democratization.

Ultra-neoliberalism and the anti-gender crusade

One main argument of this line of thinking is that, despite the faith in classical liberal tenets, capitalism in its current neoliberal and financial forms neither depends on or much less to ensure political democratic environments. Neoliberalism is highly adaptable. It was piloted in the Catholic Pinochet dictatorship to be later transported to the most diverse political environments across the world, including “Communist” China. In this context of analysis, it is worth recalling that the Pinochet regime was also firmly allied with the ultra-conservative sectors of the Catholic Church and imposed a rigid morality on Chilean society, including the complete criminalization of abortion.

While the argument may be raised that such a collusion is typical of dictatorial regimes, Wendy Brown has shown in The American Nightmare how these two formations intertwine in late capitalism, even under so called democratic conditions. In her scrutiny of the US during the Bush era, she critically examines how a rationality based on deregulation and amorality (neoliberalism) and a rationality based on regulation and morality (neo-conservatism), which appear not to have many affinities, became deeply imbricate, producing political subjects that, indifferent to truth, political freedom, and equality, tend to easily adhere to anti-democratic political agendas.

This overlapping is quite blatant in the US, where it has been maturing for many decades. But this is not the case everywhere. Worldwide, the detrimental effects of neoliberalism in terms of inequality and exclusion have, indeed, created disabling environments where de-democratization can prosper. But in not all settings where these effects are palpable right-wing populism and proto-fascist formations have surged. Hierarchical, androcentric (when not bluntly patriarchal), homophobic and disciplinary politics – either religious or secular – are functional to authoritarian orders. Yet not all societies subject to autocratic regimes have been deeply penetrated by neoliberal rationalities. Context always matters.

In reading the Brazilian context in connection with de-democratizing trends underway in other Latin American and European countries, it is not excessive to say that the Vatican crafted crusade against “gender ideology” invented in the 1990s, but just unleashed in the last few years in this region, is another key piece of the same check-board (Patternote and Kuhar, 2017; Corrêa, Patternote and Kuhar, 2018). However the correlation between these two trends is far from linear, the Vatican accusatory parlance on gender is not merely functional to or necessarily imbricated with ultra-neoliberal interest and rationalities. As a Vatican fabrication, the anti-gender crusade has its own rationale and long-term goals that may or not coincide with ultra-neoliberal interests. Not less important, though predominantly allied with right-wing forces, the anti-gender crusade has not rarely partnered at the left side of the political spectrum,[2] including Latin America, where at the same time it portrays “gender” as the new face of Communism, Castro- Chavismo or, in Brazil, Petismo.

Having said that, the highly ecumenical religious and secular formations and adaptable strategies through which the anti-gender crusade is being deployed has, in my view, enhanced favorable conditions for the neo-liberal and moral conservative rationalities to get imbricated, cross-fertilize each other and, more effectively, capture hearts and minds. Albeit tentatively, I dare say this is exactly what happened in Brazil.

“Gender as communism”: a politics of glue and assemblages

As grasped by Isabela Oliveira Kali and her team in their analysis of ideal types of Bolsonaro’s voters, a substantive part of this electorate shares ultra-liberal views on privatization and, at the same time, fiercely repudiates abortion and “gender ideology”. The adherence to this double bind agenda is fed by a series of convictions: the free market is synonym of democracy; the state is corrupted and corrupting, but the private sector is not; legal and policy moral restrictions are not undemocratic but rather a due restrain of state intervention in private and family life. Within this formula corruption is a floating signifier simultaneously associated with politics, morality and the critique of state protection – in particular affirmative action – as an obstacle for individual achievements through merit. The “citizen of good”, a core figure in the politics of the Bolsonaro campaign is someone who fights, interchangeably, at all these fronts.

The economic pieces of this assemblage were put into circulation by the social conservative ultra-liberals of Movimento Brasil Livre (MBL) and other “liberal” groupings that gained much leverage in the course of the last few years. Its wider absorption has certainly been favored by gradual penetration of the neoliberal logic in the social fabric itself since the 1980s, and yet more pronouncedly by the pervasive influence of the neo-Pentecostal theology of prosperity whose main spoke persons and faithful constitute the main champions and proportionally largest groups of religious voters of Bolsonaro (check figures). Based on Fernando Serrano article, (in Spanish) that analyzes the eruption of “gender ideology” in the Colombia Peace Agreement Referendum, I dare say that last stage of maturation of this assemblage into a lingua franca, now shared by a large number of his 50 million voters, has taken place at the encounter of the highly heterogeneous publics that gradually adhered to Bolsonaro´s candidacy in the few months that preceded the elections.

Though further review of empirical data and elaboration is still required, using Andrea Peto’s lenses, my own hypothesis is that in this process of maturation, “gender ideology” functioned as a symbolic glue collating disparate contents of the assemblage as well as its potential adherents. This glue did not collate exclusively contents and actors in the realm of sexuality, gender and abortion matters but also and, perhaps more noticeably, the disperse elements related to the other face of the device: the specter of communism. In Colombia, as analyzed by Franklin Gil, the 2016 attack on “gender ideology” in the Peace Referendum paved the way for the demonization of the left in the 2018 elections. In Brazil, “gender as communism” and vice-versa floated freely in the dense electoral cyber space itself, each of these elements feeding the political imagination and adherence of different groups of potential voters. While “gender” provided a glue to articulate all forms of moral corruption, “communism” operated as an open signifier of all “bad things” (corruption, Petismo, state protection that impairs merit, etc.) that would “vanish” when the individualist, privatizing and free market policy portfolio of the government began ruling Brazil on January 1st 2019.

Postscript

Much water has flown under the bridge since this essay was published in November 2018. While it is not possible to offer detailed update of the Brazilian situation after the new government has already taken office, it is not trivial that in his inaugural speech, the newly elected president declared that his administration will “combat gender ideology”, nor that he appointed three ministers to key posts who glaringly share this same vision and goal.

A new structure has been created that combines the previous Secretaries of Human Rights and Women’s Policies – and now incorporates a priority focus on “the family” – is headed by a female evangelical pastor. The new minister who immediately announced her plan to make Brazil a country with no abortion would rapidly become internationally known after declaring that girls must dress pink and boys blue. The new Minister of Education, a Colombian who acquired Brazilian citizenship and has strong connections with the Catholic hyper-conservativism, has also stated that his priority is to “de-ideologize” the educational system of both Marxism and gender. Yet more poignantly the new Minister of Foreign Affairs  has made clear he will pursue an “anti-globalization and Judeo-Christian” perspective in Brazilian foreign policy and combating “gender ideology” is also a priority in his agenda, as made clear in the speech he made when assuming the post.

In a sharp contrast with what has been said by a number of mainstream observers, the visceral repudiation of “gender” was not merely a campaign rhetoric. Rather it is a core component of the governance agenda today, even when the dogmatism of the president and of the three ministers above mentioned may not be shared by all members of the new administration. This also implies that gender is now a central matter in the national stage of political debates. Through a tortuous and disastrous path, gender, sexuality and abortion have ceased to be the side line topics they have been in the course of the last three decades. Today, understanding the political meaning of gender is key to grasp how the democratic cycle that began in the 1980s has been eroded. Most principally, perhaps, resisting the fierce attack on gender that now enshrined in state policy frames is vital to protect democracy.

Image of Sonia Corrêa

Sonia Corrêa is the co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch. She is now coordinating a Latin American research Project on anti-gender politics in Latin America.

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] Re-exist is a re-signification of the word resist. It was aired in social networks in the last two weeks and his invention is attributed to the theater director José Celso Martinez Corrêa, who has bravely resisted the military dictatorship.

[2] Members of the Socialist Party in France, grass- root left-wing groups in Italy and the ex-President Rafael Correa who was the first high level politician to publicly attack “gender ideology” in 2013 in the weekly TV program where he had direct interactions with the audience.