The 2022 elections pitted the authoritarian nationalism of Jair Bolsonaro against the institutional leftism of Workers Party candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Each of these rival strategies for governance presented itself as the only possible salvation for democracy. The entire campaign was marked by acts of violence, and not just from voters: at various points, parliamentarians allied with Bolsonaro exchanged gunfire with police officers and chased opponents in the streets with guns in hand.
On October 30, the second round of the election took place to determine the president and governors, and Bolsonaro lost to former president Lula. But Lula won by only 1.8%, setting the stage for strife that will continue to divide Brazil, just as the 2020 elections in the United States did not mark the end of political polarization.
After the result was released on Sunday night, Bolsonaro supporters began blocking roads. The institutional left and its grassroots movements did not respond; it was left to autonomous anti-fascists, football fans, and residents of the periphery to unblock the roads. This offers a glimpse of the conflicts we will see in the coming years of Workers Party government as the extreme right reorganizes itself while the institutional left continues to bet on a social order that is slowly collapsing.
You Don’t Defeat Fascism at the Polls
On Sunday, October 30, immediately upon the announcement of the election results, a Bolsonaro supporter in Belo Horizonte killed two people who were celebrating Lula’s victory and shot several more people from the same family. In the early hours of Monday, there were already roadblocks at 221 points on roads in half of the states in the country; within two days, Bolsonaristas were blocking roads in all but one of the states in Brazil, reaching a peak of almost 900 blockades or demonstrations.
The blockades in Brazil did not come out of nowhere. Over the past few years, truck blockades have played a significant role in far-right agitation throughout the Americas. In Chile, the CIA financed trucker strikes in 1972 and 1973 in order to disrupt the administration of Salvador Allende; more recently, in Chile, right-wing truckers have organized highway blockades, framing them as a response to Indigenous Mapuche activism. In Mexico, transport workers are often used as shock troops to exert pressure on behalf of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Institutional Revolutionary Party). Last winter, in Canada, far-right truckers set up blockades in protest against vaccine mandates. We’ll probably see more such truck blockades in the future.
Bolsonaro took almost 48 hours to comment on the election results. In his two-minute speech, he did not openly acknowledge the result. He criticized the movement blocking roads and recommended that they make other forms of “peaceful protest,” but used ambiguous phrasing to keep his base motivated while avoiding legal implications.
Bolsonaro’s allies won the most positions in the Senate and half of the elections for governor—thirteen out of twenty-seven. Bolsonaro himself, who worked to aggravate the pandemic that killed more than 700,000 people in Brazil, still retains the support of half the electorate—nearly 60 million people. A considerable part of this base is prepared to continue to take action in pursuit of this agenda.
The millions who voted for Bolsonaro will not change their minds overnight. As the blockades show, they will continue to act—with or without Bolsonaro. The president’s silence following the election set the stage for a wave of reactionary action that unfolded without a central call from the leader, his children, or his well-known supporters. The calls appeared in the same Whatsapp and Telegram groups via which fake news and conspiracy theories have spread for years now.
Unlike the truck drivers’ strikes during the Temer government and those of 2018, this strike did not involve drivers as a whole, but some employers and a relatively few radicalized militants. It doesn’t take much to close the roads—just a vehicle or two and a few people, provided the police do not wish to intervene.
Demonstrators petitioning the military for a coup.
The police, for their part, were supportive of the blockades. On October 30, during the election, the PRF (Policia Rodoviária Federal, Federal Highway Police) carried out an illegal mega-operation setting up checkpoints and seizing vehicles; this prevented thousands of voters from reaching the polling stations, especially in regions where Lula is popular. By contrast, for the first two days, the PRF did nothing whatsoever to respond to Bolsonaristas blockades. On November 1, PRF agents were filmed breaking through the fences to enable Bolsonaro’s supporters to blockade Guarulhos International Airport, the main airport in the city of São Paulo.
Bolsonaro himself repeated several times that he feared he would have the same “fate as Jeanine Añez”, who took over the government of Bolivia after a coup d’état promoted by police. (Añez ended up sentenced to prison.) The fact that the PRF apparently sought to delay voters on Sunday and actively supported the Bolsonarista blockades suggests that the Bolivian case served as an inspiration for their plans.
In some cities, such as the state of Santa Catarina, protesters adopted an openly fascist discourse, with Nazi salutes and racist phrases. The gains that fascists have made will not disappear with the blockades themselves.
In the course of four years of popular resistance including the George Floyd uprising, Donald Trump retained the unwavering support of the police and the Department of Homeland Security, but he lost the support of much of the US military hierarchy. By contrast, Bolsonaro can still count on the allegiance of a considerable part of the Brazilian military. After Bolsonaro’s announcement on November 2, many of pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators addressed their demands to the military, demanding “federal intervention”—in other words, a military coup. In Trump’s United States and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, elections do not end with the announcement of the results at the polls; they are ultimately determined by the balance of power within the state.
Without Bolsonaro, his base, may now be adrift and looking for a new leader. This leader may well come from the military. Bolsnaro gave positions in the government to 6000 people from the military—three times more than the military dictatorship of 1964–1985.
This was the reward Bolsonaro offered for being placed as a representative of this informal “military party” that predates Bolsonarism and will outlast it. Another representative of this class is the recently elected governor of the state of São Paulo, Tarcísio de Freitas. The most populous state in the country—the one with the largest public budget—will now be under the management of a former military officer who participated in the operations that the Lula-Dilma governments carried out in Haiti. Members of the security forces won elections for many positions in Congress, advancing a “politicization of the police,” even using collective candidacies imitating those created by activists from street movements who hoped to “renew democracy.”
Autonomous and Anti-Fascist Resistance
During the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-fascists and anarchists and favela residents organized networks of mutual support and demonstrated to demand access to housing, health, supplies, and vaccines. Many of them called for counter-demonstrations to stop motorcades and actions by Bolsonaro supporters in São Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Belo Horizonte.
By contrast, the institutional left made “stay at home” a commandment for its political practice, opposing street actions on the grounds that they would give Bolsonaro a “pretext” for repression. Before the elections, they claimed that their strategy was to let Bolsonaro’s government melt down on its own. Now it has become clear that this policy of passivity is a permanent strategy, because even with the election over, the institutional left and the movements under Workers Party influence have refused to call for demonstrations. For example, when the MSTS (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto, Homeless Workers Movement) called on its militants to open up the roads, the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Workers Movement) objected, maintaining that clearing the highways was the role of the state.
It’s worth pointing out here that even the New York Times, among the most vehement advocates of passivity in the United States ahead of the 2020 elections, reported that the George Floyd uprising actually contributed to mobilizing a significant proportion of the voters who enabled Joseph Biden to win the 2020 election. The real reason that the New York Times editorial board, the leadership of the Workers Party, and other left and liberal authorities discourage street mobilizations is not that they believe that these will cost them elections, but rather because they desire to retain complete control of events at every level in society and they are prepared to risk losing power for that sake.
If the left argued for staying out of the streets as an electoral strategy, with Lula in office it seems that they will stay home forever, waiting for the state and the police to solve all their problems, including fascist mobilizations in the streets. The problem is that the same fascists are mobilizing within the police and the state itself.
Fortunately, not everyone was committed to passivity.
On November 1, fans of Galoucura, from Atlético Mineiro, took the BR-318 highway that connects Belo Horizonte to São Paulo to watch a football match. In the process, they broke through the Bolsonarista blockades, dispersing the far-right protesters. The next day, fans of Gaviões from Corinthians did the same on Marginal Tietê, an important road in São Paulo, throwing fireworks and chasing cars belonging to the coup plotters. In São Paulo, anti-fascists dealt harshly with Bolsonarista militants leaving the street mobilizations.
Elsewhere, on November 2, anti-fascist activists in Rio de Janeiro called for a counter-demonstration. Without any support from the largest movements or parties, only 50 people responded to face more than 50,000 protesters calling for a military coup in the center of the city. Nonetheless, concerned chiefly about the security of the extreme right, the Military Police harassed and searched the anti-fascists.
Direct action should never have been Plan B. The authorities have no interest in stopping the resurgence of fascism—and by the time this becomes clear to Lula’s supporters, it will be too late to build a grassroots street movement from scratch. When anarchists and anti-fascists lose the struggle for the narrative and accept the strategy of the hegemonic left, we cede the streets to the far right as a stage for action and recruiting. Any resistance to the extreme right and the continuity of capitalist exploitation under the new Workers Party government must grant a central role to street mobilization and grassroots organization.
Anti-fascists in Rio de Janeiro squaring off against Bolsonaro’s supporters: 50 against 50,000.
Shine the Light of a Dead Star
[A takeoff on Lula’s jingle from 1989, which was resurrected this year “Lula there (at the office), shine a star.”]
Rather than the defeat of fascism from the left, the Brazilian election signifies the reconstitution of the center—a return to a 2013 without hope of positive change, in which all radical opposition will be treated as if it were aiding the far right. It remains to be seen whether anyone will be satisfied with this new management, the most radical aspects of which is a nostalgia for moderate advances that occurred over a decade ago.
The 2022 electoral campaign highlighted something that was already evident in the 2018 election that brought Bolsonaro into office: the Workers Party and its militants and electoral base can only promise an image of the past, from the years 2003 to 2012, when Lula and Dilma ruled a new extractive phase of Latin capitalism, offsetting the impact of the violent extraction of resources such as ore, cellulose, meat, grain, and oil with social benefits. This policy was necessary to maintain the support of the newly dispossessed classes, impoverished by forced urbanization and the increasing precaritization of work, who had been displaced from their homes and homelands to make way for agribusiness, dams, and mills. Now, this transition is complete and an emboldened far right is assisting a new left-center coalition in disciplining its electoral base into giving up their ambitions for a more egalitarian society, on the grounds that social movements like the 2013 uprising will only aid the far right.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro and his supporters promise a supposedly revolutionary future, a “break with the system,” against the “old politics” (despite the fact that Bolsonaro served as a representative in the government for three decades already). The future they propose is a repackaging of the same proposal other far-right projects around the world have popularized. Associated with Bolsonaro, the flag of the Brazilian empire is roughly equivalent to the Confederate flag in the United States, resurrecting a bandeirante narrative about the conquest of the West and a time when there were no laws to regulate colonial power. Fundamentally, Bolsonaro’s supporters want a monopoly on the use of force against Black and Indigenous people, women, and other adversaries in order to maximize their profits at the expense of workers, the Amazon, and all other living things.
Corinthians fans heading to Rio de Janeiro display banners they seized from Bolsonaristas.
In 2008, Latin America experienced a “Pink Tide” of progressive electoral victories, in which the momentum built up across decades of popular uprisings—starting with the 1989 Caracazo and the reintroduction of democracy in Brazil—enabled left parties to win at the polls with the discourse of “changing the world from top to bottom.” Ultimately, however, these politicians simply became the new managers of neoliberalism. Today, it has been a long time since the Workers Party strategy for class conciliation succeeded in including the poor or satisfying the rich. At the same time, the middle classes—especially white men—are starting to feel threatened by the gains poor people, Black and Indigenous people, and women have made in access to the job market, especially as the entire economy contracts. This already served to enable reactionaries to topple a Workers Party government years ago—and the situation has only become worse since then.
Unlike liberals and the old-fashioned right wing, Bolsonaro and his allies don’t really seek to govern or manage Brazil, just to rule it. Over the past half decade, the extreme right has governed Brazil for their own benefit and the benefit of their allies, with little concern for everyone else. Rather than buying vaccines, demanding vaccine passports, and controlling people’s movement in the name of public health, for example, he simply let people die in order to keep the economy running.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro failed to win reelection: the pendulum of democracy swung back to the progressive side. But this time, the Workers Party has neither the mandate nor the ambitious proposals that it came to power with in 2002. It is only a matter of time before it once again disappoints the exploited and excluded—and this time, fascists will be all the more ready to recruit.
A left opposition that counts on the institutions, on the legitimacy of a discourse of human rights, on judgments in the Hague Court, that is committed to peace and democratic rituals, is not prepared to face an enemy eager to murder in the name of God and country. Counting on the state to prevent blockades and fascist violence, especially with rhetoric that paves the way for criminalizing protest in general, will only give more weapons and legitimacy to the police who will ultimately take the side of the far right. If we empower the institutions of the state now, we will pay the price when we are on the streets protesting for housing, food, and the protection of the land we depend on.
Likewise, while media sensationalism may have helped to counter Bolsonarist propaganda in the final stretch of the campaign, in the long run, feeding the disinformation machine controlled by corporations like Meta and Google means setting up a fight that we are bound to lose. The far right has a fundamental advantage in media sensationalism in that they have no compunction whatsoever about lying and confusion generally serves their agenda.
As they did in the years that led up to the uprising of 2013, the institutional left has once again opted for a government allied with the center and the center right. This time, we can expect even worse results in a much less favorable context. Either we take back the streets and organize on a basis of neighborhoods, occupations, cooperatives, quilombos, villages, settlements, and social centers, or we will eventually find that we are forced to fight on enemy terrain, whether virtual or institutional, when it is too late.
No change will come from above. No one is coming to save us. It’s up to us.