Brazil's 2018 elections: a vote in the ordinary

Ana Paula de Castro Mansur

When last November the extreme-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil, multiple theories surfaced to try to elucidate his rise to power: economic crisis, corruption scandals from other parties and general dissatisfaction with politics, to name just a few. Despite the relevance of all these factors, the most accurate explanation for his election might not be in the economic and political contexts, but in the candidate himself. More specifically, in what he represents. As the Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum (2019) accurately described, Bolsonaro became president because he created an image of himself as embodying the ordinary man. Instead of following the tradition of choosing a leader with an out- standing characteristic, Brazilians who voted for him elected as president their next-door neighbour, someone they could know or identify with. This explanation, how- ever, raises an alarming question: if Bolsonaro represents the common citizen and has a sexist, homophobic and racist discourse, what is ordinary in the Brazilian society? To put it differently: what do Bolsonaro voters want to maintain as ordinary? The election of Bolsonaro indicates a desire to perpetuate the normalisation of conservative values in a backlash against recent progressive political and social movements in the country. I will draw on theories of power to demonstrate how such values are embedded in society. I will then use Stuart Hall’s study on the importance of difference in making meaning to explain why attacks to the old face such strong resistance.

One of Bolsonaro’s main campaign slogans was to restore what is 'normal. However, in many complex societies nothing is normal or ordinary. Something can only become ordinary. The values, traditions and 'common sense' thoughts that are often taken as given facts, are in reality constructions established by the complex interactions of structures of power. Michel Foucault (1978) has described how various social institutions shape discourses in the direction that is most suitable to the dominating groups. Schools, religious institutions, and the government not only repress certain conducts considered inadequate for the ruling classes’ interests, but also produce concepts with political motivations and work to normalise them in society. Edward Said (1995) evidences this process in the phenomenon he calls Orientalism. He describes how the West has used these ontological and epistemological tools to build an imagined conceptualisation of itself and of the Orient, putting the West in the centre and relegating the East to the position of the 'other'. Thus, such represent- ations went beyond defining both regions, they established a superiority from one in relation to the other. This same logic of determining a positional superiority between the East and the West can help to explain how sexist, racist and homophobic values became ordinary in the Brazilian society. For more than 300 years, the country was colo- nised by Portugal, who imposed an ideological hierarchy between the colonial elite and the local subalterns in order to secure its domination, a process similar to the one imposed to the Orient by the Occident. Power institutions were instrumental in this practice, such as the work of the church imposing its religious and educational beliefs and of academia, disseminating racist scientific theories. More- over, the Portuguese transferred the model of their own slave and patriarchal society to Brazil that maintained it after obtaining its independence, a structure with a strong echo in contemporary times.

The difficulty in identifying these values as construct- ions stems in great part from the disguised processes through which structures of power work. Pierre Bordieu (1990) deepened Foucault’s (1978) theory stating that not only dominating institutions produce power, the institutions themselves are also subjected to influences of power. In that sense, even language, for instance, is not neutral. If the combination of words produces influence, the words themselves also suffer influence by the way the phonemes were structured. This strong system works silently to generate the most dangerous form of power: the symbolic one (Bordieu, 1990). Despite the challenge to oppose to such complex and well-established systems of power, diverse facts in recent Brazilian history indicate significant strikes against that order. The establishment of a stricter law for crimes against women, affirmative actions that brought people of colour to occupy spaces previously dominated by the white minority, the growth of LGBTQIA+ movements and, of course, the rise to presidency of a for- mer factory worker. Each one of these facts implied an attack to the normalised classist, sexist, racist, homophobic concepts in society. From these attacks, comes the urge of Bolsonaro to return to the past. What he calls the re- establishment of 'normality' corresponds in reality to the attempt to recover the old order threatened by this wave of progressive movements. Some of the measures he stands for prove that he and his team are in some level aware of the insertion of these new concepts in society and of the need to use institutions of power to combat them. An example of that is the project called 'School Without Party' that aims to forbid educational institutions to approach any fact or have any discussion that could bear an ideology. This alleged impartial discourse, however, is most likely an attempt to control education towards his own beliefs, and to censor critical or contrary voices.

Jair Bolsonaro during his election campaign in 2018 (ANDRE COELHO / BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES)

Jair Bolsonaro during his election campaign in 2018 (ANDRE COELHO / BLOOMBERG / GETTY IMAGES)

The eagerness of Bolsonaro and the nearly 58 million Brazilians that voted for him to re-establish these conservative values is in great part a result of their fear of a loss of references and privileges. Stuart Hall (1997) refers to linguistic, anthropological and psychoanalytical theories to explain how people’s understanding of society is intensively based in the determination of difference. Although using various perspectives and subject analysis, all these approaches state that oppositions are effective ways to conceptualise the world or an individual’s subjectivity. Mean- ing is constructed in the contact or in the dialogue with the other (Hall, 1997). Therefore, when those meaning relationships used for self-orientation in society change, the result is a feeling of being lost, which leads to fear. It is that fear of navigating in unfamiliar territory that con- ducts so many people to want to return to the previous order. In Brazil, after experiencing a centuries-long sexist, classist and racist landscape, it causes estrangement to witness women fighting for equality, people of colour reaching positions of power and members of underprivileged classes occupying spaces previously reserved to very limited sectors of society.

Representing himself as the materialisation of the old order, Bolsonaro promised to give back people’s known reference points. This is what the majority of Brazilians voted for, a removal of their fear of change. Such strong resistance to transformation can also be understood in light of psychoanalytic processes. In approaching the relationship between racism and psychoanalysis, Pajaczkowska and Young (1992) explain how the continuous repetition of hierarchic differences between white individuals and people of colour constructs a subjective reality that constitutes the unconscious described by Freud. Thus, accepting changes imply questioning one’s own subjectivity, which increases the aforementioned sentiment of fear. Despite Pajaczkowska and Young’s (1992) focus on racism, their reasoning can be transferred to other normalized concepts in society, such as classism and sexism. The fear of change is not a phenomenon limited to Brazil. It has been manifesting itself in various countries through di- verse forms, such as in the rejection of migrants in Europe or in the election of Donald Trump after two mandates of the first Black president in United States’ history. New social paradigms are scary. Particularly when these changes also imply the loss of privilege, as it is the case with dominating groups in the realms of gender, sexuality, race, politics and class. It is important to mention that difference by itself is not harmful. The problem stems from hierarchising difference, the central strategy in the process of the 'othering' process, responsible for so many damaging consequences in society.

The most alarming aspect of this fear of change is that it does not express itself only in votes, but also in physical violence. During Bolsonaro’s campaign and after his election, there was a significant increase in attacks against social minorities, perpetrated by groups empowered by the candidate’s hate speech, a phenomenon which Banaji (2018) discusses in the case of India as the creation of a ‘vigilante public’. She analyses how the growth of the far right in that country has stimulated a feeling of superiority among certain groups, which has led to the increase of verbal and physical aggressions. A process that can be transposed to the Brazilian context. However, the most symbolic proof of the eagerness to reestablish the old order in Brazil even preceded Bolsonaro’ s official campaign: the assassination of congresswoman Marielle Franco. Marielle not only defended progressive movements in her discourse, she embodied them. Being a black, lesbian woman, raised in an underprivileged community that democratically entered the political system, she summarised all the threats to what was considered 'ordinary' in the Brazilian society. Materialising and defending a new order was her crime. A crime that she paid with her own life.

The proliferation of progressive social and economic movements provoked eagerness on parts of the Brazilian society to reestablish the old order. This desire found its greatest expression in the election of the man that defends and embodies this lost ordinariness: Jair Bolsonaro. Michel Foucault (1978) and Edward Said’s (1995) theories describe this process of normalising certain concepts in detriment of others, while Pierre Bordieu (1990) elucidates the difficulty in recognising these structures of power due to the disguised ways through which they work. Stuart Hall’s (1997) description of the instrumentality of difference in making meaning in society clarifies one of the main reasons for the strong impetus to perpetuate the old order: the loss of references. The attachment to the past stimulates the growth of the extreme right, which can increase violence through the actions of what Banaji (2018) calls the ‘vigilante public’. In this apparent vicious cycle, a ferocious opposition, as it happened during the Brazilian elections, does not seem to constitute the path for change. As naïve as it may sound, dialogue and exposing the truth appear to be the most effective solutions. Evidencing the harms of having an extremist as president, demonstrating change in society as a positive movement, highlighting that difference is constructive rather than threatening seem to be the conduits to reverse the attachment to the old “normal”. If, as Foucault states, power lies in the control of discourse, let it be used to reverse its damaging effects. The same structures of power responsible for oppression can be transformed in the main tools of change.

A 'ele não' ('not him') poster protesting against then- presidential candidate Bolsonaro in 2018. (NICOLAS CHIDEM / EDITORIAL J)

A 'ele não' ('not him') poster protesting against then- presidential candidate Bolsonaro in 2018. (NICOLAS CHIDEM / EDITORIAL J)

This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”

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