Brazil’s Perfect Storm

Authoritarianism, Work, and the Pandemic

June 30, 2020

Translated by Sean Purdy



In the context of the new Coronavirus pandemic, the Brazilian work world has experienced its perfect storm: high rates of unemployment, underemployment and informality, added to an unprecedented economic crisis that, in the best scenario, will eliminate 4.7 million occupations and, at worst, about 14.7 million jobs. However, this truly bleak scenario gets even worse when we consider the Bolsonaro government’s markedly anti-labour orientation. It is a politics hostile to the interests of organized labour born of the somewhat unusual combination of the ultra-liberal orientation of the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, and the authoritarian project led by the Bolsonaro family of the destruction of Brazil’s main democratic institutions constructed from the Constitution of 1988 onwards.

In light of the health and economic effects of the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil, this presentation aims to discuss the relationship between neo-Pentecostalism and popular entrepreneurship associated with informal workers. If until very recently this relationship seemed to favour the government of Jair Bolsonaro, the greater dependence of these workers on emergency public services coupled with the increase in unemployment and under-occupation will promote a change in their relationship with the current fascist philosophical political project in the country. My argument is that the association between neo-Pentecostal religious conservatism and the traditional forms of “getting by” of poor and marginalized workers has not produced a new “synthesis” stable enough to ensure the support of the neo-Pentecostal popular base for the government. In the new context brought about by the pandemic, the political attitude of this sector of the subaltern classes should change in a critical direction.

In this sense, it is worth starting with a general characterization of Bolsonarism, highlighting the violence with which this project has been implemented in the country. That said, it is not surprising that, due to its organized bases, especially the real and digital militias, some analysts are already using the notion of “fascism” in order to characterize the current government. Interpreting fascism as a political movement capable of mobilizing violent passions of destruction of the other supposes analyzing the process of the dehumanization of the “enemy”, revealing its social and ideological roots. Recently, the role of this other dehumanized subject and, therefore, subject to elimination, was occupied primarily by “vagabonds”, usually identified in authoritarian discourse with union activists, and “bandits”, namely leftist militants. In general terms, these subjects were confused until very recently with the project of building and expanding social and labour rights in the country.

Thus, in order to interpret the current threat to democracy, it is necessary to understand this historical mutation: from a force discursively supported by the will of the “people” represented by the figure of the “national worker”, contemporary authoritarian discourse is guided by the purification of the nation from evil supposedly represented by leftists. Without being something alien to the fascist repertoire – in order to consolidate its project, Nazism also targeted the unions controlled by social democrats and communists – , we are facing a relative novelty. After all, while attacking the unions, Hitler extolled the virility of the German worker. Thus, in the ideal composition of the nation, the political representation of organized labour was not discarded, but, rather, reinvented for the needs of mobilizing the national body.


Necropolitics and Authoritarianism

On the contrary, in the current authoritarian project underway, there is no space for traditional forms of worker representation. Let us not forget that the first measure taken by the transition team formed by the then-elected candidate Jair Bolsonaro was the abolition of the Ministry of Labour. Not even the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship from 1965 to 1985 dared to do this, and even admittedly neo-liberal governments, such as those of Fernando Collor de Melo and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, cultivated intimate relations with union leaders, such as Antônio Rogério Magri and Luiz Antônio de Medeiros, in addition to union federations, such as the Union Force federation, for example. In this respect, the election of Jair Bolsonaro meant a complete turnaround in terms of the relationship between the federal government and the union movement.

Apparently, the political violence against Brazilian unions sustained by the current government resulted from the deconstruction of the forms of labour protection promoted by neoliberal policies, such as the labour reform of 2017. However, the roots of hostility to unions are deeper, feeding on the last three decades of the exponential increase in precarious employment in the country and, with the 2016-2017 economic crisis, the increase in unemployment, under-occupation and informal work. Schematically, the escalation of the government’s political violence reflects a certain social unease regarding the current deep fraying of social labour relations. In a world marked by the perpetual reproduction of informality, labour rights are interpreted as privileges instead of objectives to be achieved, preserved and expanded, as during the decades marked by the country’s vibrant industrialization process. On the contrary, in a era of widespread job insecurity, the resentment of subordinates against the so-called “privileged” extends to institutions in the world of organized labour.

In place of the unions, the affections of informal workers are welcomed by evangelical churches and instrumentalized by the fundamentalist right which, through a theology of prosperity, offers them both spiritual support and the will to work. After all, in order to integrate into an increasingly uncertain and violent economic environment, the entrepreneurship commonly found in the informal economy requires massive doses of self-discipline that, in practical terms, only popular religiosity is capable of providing. And the discursive reference to the elimination of “vagabonds” and “bandits” resonates as a necessary complement to the fulfillment of this divine promise. Undeniably, the threat of authoritarianism takes on popular tones. And Jesus can then appear behind a gun aimed at all those who might be classified as “communists.” By the daily toil associated with the paranoia against an imaginary enemy, the nation, subsistence, grace and tithes – donations to the churches – are saved.

In a world marked by the perpetual reproduction of informality, labour rights are interpreted as privileges instead of objectives to be achieved, preserved and expanded.

I suggest in this article that the arrival of the pandemic has changed the future horizons of this phenomenon. Although opaque, a new economic and political agenda is being outlined at this very moment. And if we are not facing just a temporary change in the political situation, what are its most profound sociological determinations? How should classes, especially precarious workers, who are most exposed to health risks and the economically harmful effects of the pandemic, act? After all, what is the foreseeable impact of the current crisis on the authoritarian and philo-fascist political project of Bolsonarism?

First of all, it is necessary to underline that the Bolsonaro government represents a “necropolitical” project of power whose purpose is to permanently mobilize part of society against an internal dehumanized enemy which is, therefore, subject to elimination. Until the advent of Covid-19, the role of this other “dehumanized” enemy was played, in addition to the “bandits” who threaten public security, by militants of the diverse shades of the left, especially union members. The conclusion? In order to “save the Nation” from its internal enemies, the “bandits”, the “vagabonds”, the “corrupt”, etc., it is necessary to put an end to the human, social and labour rights that support them.

It is always necessary to remember that the current project of subversion of Brazilian democracy is not an isolated fact. In reality, it is a national alignment with a set of other international experiences, in particular, the American and the Hungarian, which emerged after the 2008 crisis. However, with a notable difference: unlike the regimes led by Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán, the Brazilian model of |Bolsonarism adopted a radically neoliberal economic strategy, whose constant cuts in public spending prevented concessions to subalterns. This contrasts, for example, with the full employment program in the United States and the market reserves for national workers in Hungary. In such a situation, what can be done to ensure that the necropolitical project represented by Bolsonarism has some popular integration?


Neopentecostalism and “Getting By”

Until quite recently, the solution to square the circle was to sponsor an ultraconservative agenda of social and moral customs aligned with the aspirations of Christian fundamentalism, in particular, of the ascending evangelical right. However, this transition from reactionary values ​​to material concessions to subordinates, especially in an economic context marked by the informalization of labour relations, the increase in unemployment and underemployment, and the subsequent compression of labour earnings, derived from the ultra-liberal agenda led by the Ministry of Economy is quite uncertain and tortuous.

My hypothesis is that, until the advent of the pandemic, the popular alignment with the Bolsonarist project born during the 2018 presidential campaign was largely due to an “elective affinity” between a certain neo-Pentecostal theology and the typical “getting by” characterized by informal employment as seen in the country’s poor peripheral areas. Here, perhaps a quick sociological digression is convenient. Since the expression “elective affinities” was raised by Max Weber to the position of a classic concept of sociology, the relationship between religious doctrines and different economic ethos has ceased to occupy a central place in the investigative activity of sociologists.

At least when we think of the links between class interests, especially those of the subordinate classes, and social views of the world framed by transcendent dogmas, reflections on such affinities have moved to a subsidiary plane, taking refuge, at most, in very specialized areas of the scientific field. In a broad view, the concern with the subject shifted to historiography, as demonstrated, for example, by The Making of the English Working Class, the most famous work of E. P. Thompson. In the Brazilian case, if the rooting of popular religiosity in the world of work is no longer among the central concerns of our research, we may lack a perspective on the plebeian drives that search for some illumination of the somber colors that dye the current crisis.

In this sense, something that has always caught my attention in the way Weber constructed his concept is that the relationship of elective affinity mediated social structures, notably, Protestant asceticism and the inclination towards the accumulation of capital, without this creating a new social substance, a new synthesis. That is, even if the interaction produced significant consequences, there was no noticeable change in the composition of the initial components. Protestantism, like capitalism, has retained its own legality, historically evolving more or less autonomously from each other. Hence Weber himself reminds us that the affinity between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism had been lost in the days of the original accumulation of capital, with almost nothing left in his time of the “sober capitalism” synthesized in Benjamin Franklin’s sermons.

Even so, exactly one century after the definitive edition of his most famous work, another relationship of elective affinity related to that studied by the sociologist from Heidelberg seems to have taken root in Brazilian society with the force of a popular prejudice: the neo-Pentecostal doctrine of prosperity and the spirit of popular entrepreneurship. Here, the problem arises in seeking to understand to what extent the attraction between a religious belief and a professional ethic influenced the development of this material culture which, in the absence of better expression, we will call neoliberalism.

Ultimately, Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project depends on an important skill: the fabrication of an internal enemy chosen according to the conveniences of the moment to mobilize his reactionary base.

The growth of the neo-Pentecostal movement in the country is widely studied in the specialized literature. Ricardo Mariano and Ronaldo de Almeida, for example, are two unavoidable experts on the subject. It is also no secret that the expressive increase in the number of evangelical Christians has occurred in those regions and groups abandoned by decades of elite Catholicism. It is also understandable that the hypertrophy of favelas and peripheral communities in notoriously precarious conditions has strengthened among the subordinate classes the search for promises of material security and spiritual consolation. What remains somewhat opaque is why a theology that advocates the believer’s right to physical well-being has so intimately approached the more or less traditional forms of “getting by”, that is, the popular entrepreneurship very commonly verified in the informal economy, moving away, on the other hand, from the grammar of social rights.

A plausible hypothesis would risk combining two orders of reasons: one of a more, let’s say, “structural” nature, that is, the precarious conditions for the reproduction of poor workers, with the consequent mitigation of the promise of social rights, and another a little more “cultural”, that is, the popular pragmatism capable of recognizing in neo-Pentecostal doctrine a powerful ally in the understanding of how to adjust personal conduct under neoliberalism. Thus, financial responsibility and individual strengthening emphasized by the theology of prosperity would be able to take root in a general context marked by the advancement of job insecurity, the regression of social rights and the commodification of cities and communities. It is a variation of what, following Michel Foucault’s tracks, the philosopher Pierre Dardot and the sociologist Christian Laval have called the “neoliberal disciplinary regime.”

When the prospect of collective progress via the strengthening of universal rights disappeared from the horizon, especially for young workers, as I had the opportunity to observe in 2019 when coordinating research on work and mental suffering, and competition for informal business opportunities increased due to the increase in unemployment, faith in a God who rewards individual efforts becomes a powerful ally in everyday toil. If you imagine a more welcoming future taking into account, for example, that access to retirement has become a virtually unrealizable wish for forty million informal workers, the message brought by the neo-Pentecostal churches seems to be the only hope: “God wants to see his people safe and prosperous”.

For that, tithing and positive confession are necessary. For someone hopeless about the more traditional collective solutions, such as political parties and / or unions, for example, this is a credible path to material progress as well as a powerful reason for subjectivizing the discipline of work. In order to demonstrate God’s blessings on the believer, the emphasis on tithing becomes a privileged driving force for economic prosperity and consequently for disciplining the worker’s body. When we research informal work, we know that such practices usually involve long working hours, coexistence with social violence, irregular income, countless trips around the city and critical conditions of chronic fatigue.

Moreover, it is necessary to remember that informal work, because it takes place mainly in the circulation spaces of cities, is much more exposed to urban violence. Taking into account the small daily income obtained in informal occupations, any robbery or physical aggression suffered by such workers implies an imminent risk to their subsistence. In this scenario, it is not difficult to imagine that police repression, even when unjustified or excessive, applied to the bodies of the “bandits” who threaten the survival of poor families, is largely legitimized by informal workers. In other words, there is an aspect inherent in the transition from private, safer work spaces to public “getting by” places, which are often ultra-competitive and threatening, which reinforces the appeal to social violence, legitimizing the state’s repressive action as well as the dehumanization of certain individuals.

In such extreme conditions, only faith in the fulfillment of the divine promise of economic prosperity is able to sustain the volition of the poor worker. Until the advent of the biblical coronavirus plague, the squaring of the circle opted for by Bolsonarism seemed to work relatively well. After all, the support of those living on an income of between two and five minimum wages remained firm, even in the face of the meager economic growth reaped by the government in 2019. The main evangelical leaders remain firmly in the Bolsonarist boat, endorsing the most unruly attitudes of the authoritarian president. And the contrast stimulated by the virtual militias between the “vagabond” and the “father of the family” continued to feed resentments among informal workers and their friends and relatives.


Charisma Under Pressure

However, something strategic to the necropolitical narrative began to falter with the arrival of the pandemic. Ultimately, Bolsonaro’s authoritarian project depends on an important skill: the fabrication of an internal enemy (the corrupt PT, the unionist bum, the bandit from the slum, etc.) chosen according to the conveniences of the moment to mobilize his reactionary base. Hence, the real short circuit we are seeing in the government is that its approval rating even among popular conservative sectors has begun to decline. After all, what can one do when the enemy challenges humanity as a whole and not just a part of it, the most unaware and susceptible to fake news? How can one sustain a necropolitical project related to fascism when we are all in the same boat or when the enemy is no longer “dehumanizable” because he or she is no longer human?

While trying to reinvent its strategy around permanent mobilization against the internal enemy, the federal government is trying to free itself from the burden of the inevitable economic crisis, transferring it to the lap of mayors and governors who have adopted isolationist measures.

Up to the present moment, the Bolsonarist strategy has adamantly clung to the necropolitical model, that is, it has sought to reinvent the internal enemy. Covid-19 is nothing more than a “little flu”, the President said in the early days of the pandemic. In fact, the real danger is the alliance between the governors, the president of the Congress, the judges of the Supreme Federal Court and the Globo television network who conspire against the federal government through support for social distancing, quarantines and lockdowns. Hence the various public demonstrations called by the Bolsonarist virtual militias in order to attack democratic institutions. The denialist argument can fluctuate a little, sometimes admitting certain risks to the elderly brought on by the pandemic. But the real danger would be the cunning conspiracy led by the “system” against the “myth” as Bolsonaro is called by his supporters.

What is striking is that the Bolsonarist strategy has managed to reinvent necropolitical polarization to some extent, taking people to the streets in protests and caravans to protest against social distancing. On the one hand, we have those aligned with the presidential discourse according to which the traditional political system and the Globo television network have sown the economic death of the poor population by advocating isolation measures that make small businesses and the informal economy unfeasible. On the other hand, we have the profiles together with the World Health Organization, using epidemiological charts in defense of mass testing and social isolation as the most efficient way to prevent tens of thousands of fatalities. Bolsonarist denialism even elected its champion in the battle against the virus: the anti-malaria drug, chloroquine. In other words, the war between “bolsominions” (supporters of the president) and “petralhas” (members of the PT) was replaced by a furious battle between “chloroquiners” and “quarantines”. And necropolitics now feeds a tragic, cruel and impossible choice: what is preferable, economic death or biological death?

While trying to reinvent its strategy around permanent mobilization against the internal enemy, the federal government is trying to free itself from the burden of the inevitable economic crisis, transferring it to the lap of mayors and governors who have adopted isolationist measures. In other words, it seeks to get rid of the blame for the social crisis that lies ahead, trying to take on the cover of the defender of employment and the income of precarious workers. Thus, Bolsonaro imagines himself to be comfortably located in a hypothetical scenario of the containment of the virus added to a mild economic crisis. He could then emerge as the only leader of a relevant country in the world to claim that the remedy of isolation was more bitter than the cure of the pandemic.

Is there any chance that the Bolsonarist political ruse will succeed? In reality, much of the equation set up by the presidential “hate office” – its digital centre of fake news operations run by one of his sons – depends on the resilience of the current popular government support bases. This calculation would be more or less as follows: if he reaches the end of the crisis with the support of about 20% of the electorate, Bolsonaro would end his term with real chances of appearing in the 2022 elections among the two candidates present at the polls in the second round. And the fear of the left’s return to power would assure him a new mandate. It is a highly risky bet, since it is subject to popular moods at a time of social crisis. Here, it is worth remembering that we refer basically to neo-Pentecostal believers who guaranteed the ultra-rightist candidate in 2018 a lead of more than ten million votes over the Workers’ Party candidate, Fernando Haddad.

However, as Max Weber rightly reminds us in his famous political sociology, when faith in the fulfillment of the divine promise capable of sustaining the believer’s adherence to the charismatic leader is shaken by the fragility of the tests of grace, a reflective break begins which usually progresses towards the abandonment of the boss. After all, the believer’s loyalty to the presumed choice of God is never unconditional and can move towards a litigious divorce. With the current increase in unemployment and informal under-occupation, the subaltern classes are experiencing an acute deterioration in their reproductive conditions.

Here it is worth mentioning the partial research report of Remir (Network of Studies and Interdisciplinary Monitoring of Labour Reform) regarding the behavior of the earnings of application delivery workers before and during the pandemic. The data collected by the researchers point to a significant drop in income, summarized in the graph below. It is also worth remembering that, in the case of Uber and other application drivers, despite the lack of more accurate data, the same tendency to lower income must certainly be occurring. It is never too much to remember that couriers and application drivers are two paradigmatic groups of workers when we think about the exponential increase in informal occupations in the country in recent years.

In this more general scenario of compression of income from informal work, the chance of witnessing a turnaround in the relationship of elective affinity between the neo-Pentecostal ethic of prosperity and plebeian economic entrepreneurship, which, until now, favoured the adhesion of popular sectors to the charisma of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, does not seem negligible.

So far, the ultra-rightist president has bet on a public health crisis more or less controlled by state and municipal governments followed by a rapid economic recovery in the coming years as a way to ensure the popularity of his authoritarian project. To this end, it has some important assets, such as, for example, the payment of emergency aid from R $ 600 to R $ 1,200 to informal workers. Although delays, retentions and technical problems in implementing the measure have weakened the popularity of this policy, there is no doubt that, at first, at least, the government will benefit from emergency payments. However, it is not clear what medium-term political effect the popular experience in relation to citizen income would have on the precarious mass of 40 million workers who enrolled in the program only in April 2020. After all, the Finance Minister Paulo Guedes’s ultra-liberalism advocated systematically dismantling protective social rights. And its success was perceived by many…

Final Considerations

As already mentioned, when I participated in a survey a year ago about work and psychological distress, I had the opportunity to see that many young people entering the informal job market did not even think about retiring someday. Most of them simply did not aim for a job with a formal labour registration card, grouping close to restaurants and bars in order to deliver via applications. They considered social protection too distant from their possibilities, even mentioning with some pride that they did not need to receive “favours” from any government. When asked about the future, these young workers usually professed their faith in divine providence: “God will provide (my support)”. It is not difficult to identify an ethics influenced by the theology of prosperity that backs up the social worldview of these young people.

However, how can this work ethos be reconciled with the need to access an emergency public policy designed to face the flattening of informal income caused by physical isolation measures? Or how can one mitigate the risks of the pandemic when precarious workers are among the groups most exposed to the spread of the virus? The future scenario outlined by the ultra-right government based on a controlled pandemic followed by a rapid economic recovery is hardly credible. It remains to be seen how the popular bases of the authoritarian project will react when they realize that, contrary to what the Minister of Economy and televangelist pastors say, state action will be increasingly important to ensure the livelihood of poor workers in the midst of the pandemic.

Apparently, the disproportional support of peripheral communities for measures of physical isolation outlines the contours of the change in the popular mood. Bolsonarism may be about to discover that, even in its neoliberal version, prosperity theology must be able to incorporate those who adhere to it. And that, after all, the necropolitical project carried out by the Bolsonaro “family”, with or without massive distribution of chloroquine, contradicts the spiritual support and material prosperity that the believer seeks in  religion. After all, Bolsonarism is not a new social substance created by the elective affinities that exist between prosperity theology and popular entrepreneurship. In reality, it is just another false idol with the golden head, the silver chest, the iron legs and the clay feet.

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