Trump, Bolsonaro, and the Bresilianization of the World
Translated by Cross Lawrence
Donald Trump seems to be surfing on his troubles with the American courts and Jair Bolsonaro has just returned to Brazil after three months in Florida. The two figures of the new global far-right continue on with levels of popularity that are allowing them to assert their political and electoral hegemony over the right and center-right wings of these two continental countries. On one hand, most of the interpretations of this phenomenon indicate the role of an ideological current of neo-traditionalism, of which the impetus was elaborated by Benjamin Teitelbaum; on the other hand, one underlines the harmful role of social media algorithms which produce fake news and encourage political polarization at the same time.
But there are two ways to understand and define this phenomenon: to find it in the anticipation for more profound explanations. We can surely cite the Umberto Eco conference on enteral Fascism (ur-Facism), which took place at Columbia University (NYC) on 25 April 1995, which is a reflection that was recently and justly utilized again to ascertain the historic dimensions of “populism.”
However, among the anticipations, there is one which was slightly forgotten and one that seems fairly real to us. It concerns the final consideration of Richard Rorty on the culture change within the American left in his 1998 quasi-autobiographical book on the thought of the North American left. In the book, Rorty displays his social-democratic political vision, his goal being to piece together his philosophical roots and pragmatic politics as well as the themes of The Progressive Era, its anti-Stalinist and downright anti-Marxist militance. The Russian aggression against Ukraine poses a new problem to his critiques, especially when he claims to have had access to critics of Stalinism and the Bolshevik Revolution when, still an adolescent, he participated in a meeting at the home of his parents where a Communist militant who had just left the Party (Whitaker Chambers) expressed his fears of being killed by the long arm of Stalin. Rorty attributes these confirmations of the reality in Bolshevik Russia to a neighbor of his parents, J.B.S. Hardman. A Lithuanian revolutionary militant, Hardman was the “Revolutionary Governor of Odessa in 1905 and fled the country over fears of the Soviet secret police.” From Hardman, Rorty first heard word of the Katyn Massacre, where several thousands of Polish officers were killed by the Soviet NKVD during the occupation of the country by Stalin’s troops in accordance with Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviet Union had made with Hitler. This inspires us to look at what is happening today in those same regions in the name of revanchist expansionism of a Russian regime that invokes the red-brown ideology of Alexander Dungeon. This takes us directly back to the national-socialist mixture of life and destiny described by Vassili Grossman.
In a way, in Rorty’s book, we find again an anticipation of the conflict launched by the Putinist regime and the paradoxes of the implementation of this imperialism on the left as well as the right. But it is rather Rorty’s critique of the culture change on the liberal American left and the anticipation of the Trump phenomenon that interests us here: the crisis of the reformist American left would be the consequence of the hegemony of the (French) idea of difference. The idea which the left would lose, since the days of 1968, to a “cultural” agenda which is no longer able to respond to the social demands of blue-collar workers, and one that is rooted in Marxist—or more generally, Progressive—sociology. That is what Ève Chiapello and Luc Boltanski discuss in their research, namely the idea of “liberation.” “If capitalism, from its origins, indeed incorporates a demand for liberation…the manner which it discourages it to accompany or stimulate the processes of accumulation is found in the confusion between the two meanings given to ‘liberation,’ which can mean ‘deliverance’ in the case of an oppression brought to an end by a people, or as ‘emancipation’ in the case of a determination susceptible to limiting its own definition and the auto-realization of individuals.” In addition, “capitalism can seem to make concessions and lead towards a larger liberation (in the first sense), while still regaining an ability to control and limit access to liberation (in the second sense).” What arises here is a gap between “social critique” and “artistic critique.” For Rorty, it’s the “cultural” side of the left that creates the crisis. For the other two authors, it’s the “artistic” side. In either case, “the critique must begin to root itself in social mechanisms which it has been chasing little by little.”
But what we want to underline here is that Rorty, after clearly situating himself in the cadre of Rooseveltian reformism, perceives its decline—which he attributes to the culture change in the left—and sees a darker future dawning on the horizon. As the fights against racism and sexism (forms of power he describes as “Sadism”) are gaining more and more ground, inequality and insecurity continue to augment. The inability of the left to bring together the struggles for difference and those for equality open the doors to “demagogues such as Patrick Buchanan would like to promote.” Rorty further accuses globalization, in those terms that make think about real discourses on “globalism:” we find ourselves in “a global economy controlled by a superior, cosmopolitan class that no longer has a sense of community.”
It is interesting to note that, among the different actors in social and economic transformation after the end of the Cold War, Rorty cites the work of Michael Lind and his prediction that “America is dividing into hereditary social castes.” If today, still, one of the most intriguing books on the critique of the different sides of the American left tells of the nightmare of political Lebanonization, in the 1990s the perspective of translating political and violent social fragmentation was defined as Balkanization, slightly in apocalyptic terms of general civil war foreseen by Hand Magnus Enzensberger. But Lind organized his critique around another notion, that of “Brazilianization:” “the real threat is not in Balkanization but in the Brazilianization of America, not in fragmentation along racial lines but in atomization along class lines.” In these terms, Lind makes a distinction between “separation of cultures by race” and “separation of races by class.” He postulates that “a common culture in America, as in Brazil, could be indefinitely compatible with an informal and blurred system of castes where the majority of those who make up the top are white and the majority of blacks and minorities are always found at the bottom.”
The Future Became Brazil
However, three decades later, we can say that Rorty and Lind indeed foresaw the dangers that threaten North American democracy: Donald Trump and Buchanan at worst, especially since Trump managed to be elected and maintains his grip on the GOP. At the same time, the election of Bolsonaro—two years later—has shown, in a way, an Americanization of Brazil more than a Brazilianization of America. But we can see all of this in a certain way: the future became Brazil and so the Brazilianization of America is Brazilianization of Brazil. The infinite modulation of racial mixing and the informality of work is no longer, in Brazil, the fruit of the same racism and underdevelopment, but of the radical, coinciding changes in social composition and work. This modulation no longer has in front of itself the rising of an industrial disciplinarization for two reasons: one, all that is disciplinarian went to China, and two, the post-industrial mobilization of work today does not need to transform the poor into workers: it mobilizes everyone by putting a smartphone into their pockets. Thus, the excluded are included without needing to change their socioeconomic status.
Social and Cultural Left
To conclude, we can say that Rorty and Lind’s theories were very apt (they foresaw Trump), but also very erroneous (they did not put forward new forms of resistance). The gap between the cultural and social left is a decided problem, but a return to prioritizing social struggles over cultural ones will not resolve the problem. On the contrary, the enigma of democratic revitalization is found in the ability to see cultural struggles in social dimensions at the same time as seeing social struggles in cultural dimensions. In this sense, there is another side of Brazilianization, something that we can call a “becoming Brazil” of the world that we saw in the global enthusiasm at the victory of Lula in the 2022 elections: a “becoming Brazil” of the world that only needs a “becoming Amazon” of Brazil and a “becoming Poor” of social politics.
The problem is that Lula is not of a “become Brazil” of the world but is a representative of the Brazilinization that has already begun to circulate in its attaché case in the palaces of dictators like Maduro and Putin.
The “become Brazil” needs to be invented.