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Pandemic and Democracy in Brazil - Ernani Chaves

Around a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, an intervention by Giorgio Agamben provoked a series of criticisms. In a few words, the Italian philosopher stressed the fact that the measures of exception put into place to fight the pandemic could represent a risk to democracy. I will not recap the criticism directed at Agamben here, even though the latter was not alone in his diagnosis. The difference between these positions concerned the variant readings they proposed as to why the democratic space would be undermined by measures that necessarily had to be taken. One claimed, for example, that the acceptance of more extreme measures – such as the use of face masks and social distancing – in countries like China could be understood through the fact that its population would be in a way more used to obeying the state. The success of preventative measures would then be linked to the degree of existing authoritarianism in the countries where they were enacted. This shows that, from the beginning, there was a more or less explicit fear that the situation of exception engendered by the swift dissemination of coronavirus around the world could deeply shake our democratic experience.

Another factor contributed to this, namely that what was at stake was the economic stability of the planet – ruled, as we know, by the principles of neoliberalism. After all, how could one reconcile the urgency to fight the virus, which demanded a lockdown that could last several months, depending on each country’s situation, with the profitable functioning of the economy? The conflict between social and economic concerns thus came to occupy the centre of the debate and became the Gordian knot to be untied.

In this context, the Brazilian situation has acquired singular contours. The first of these is that our democratic experience, reconstructed with great effort and difficulty following the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, had already been shaken by the process that culminated with the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in August 2016. Such a process, which could be called ‘normal’ in cases of necessity in democracy, made explicit the roots of our authoritarianism and the almost complete absence of what in psychoanalysis is called the ‘elaboration of grief’, in this case, of the experience of our Years of Lead.[1] During the congressional session that voted to impeach the then President Rousseff, we saw – with surprise and indignation – the proclamation of a congressman, who when declaring his vote for the impeachment paid tribute to one of the military dictatorship’s most violent colonels, denounced as a torturer by several political prisoners, including Rousseff herself. This congressman was Jair Bolsonaro.

Looking back, we could say that such an attitude emblematically shows that in the Brazilian context, even two years before the pandemic, threats to democracy were already out there to be seen. This particular situation brought to light the endless debate about “freedom of speech” as one of the most important characteristics of democratic regimes, and the legacy of the Greeks, who are considered its inventors. “Freedom of speech” would then be the dividing line separating democratic and totalitarian regimes. The fact that congressman Bolsonaro could shamelessly articulate, without any subtlety, his esteem for torturers from the military regime seemed only a legitimate demonstration of this right to the expression and free circulation of ideas, a defining trait of democracies.

However, Bolsonaro’s act was not an isolated event. Several congressmen and congresswomen claimed that their vote for the impeachment was taken in defence of religion and the traditional family. They associated the years of the PT (Workers’ Party) government with a period where the Brazilian family and, by extension, religious feeling itself, was being disrespected. In this way, they directly attacked all progress made in the last few decades by means of legislation against child sexual exploitation and domestic violence, and for the protection of the LGBTQI+ community. In this way, the impeachment ended up defining a new battleground: for these deputies, what was necessary was a reform in education, which they considered to be impregnated with “left-wing” – and ultimately “communist” – doctrines. This reform, which has been in full swing since Bolsonaro won the presidential elections in October 2018, meant, first and foremost, a devastating attack on the public and free federal universities, which has gone from increasing cuts to funding and scholarships for students to the unprecedented appointment of deans who share the ‘Bolsonarist’ ideology.

From this perspective, I risk saying that the coronavirus pandemic has found in Brazil a fertile ground for the dissemination of antidemocratic ideas, profoundly linked to far-right positions. Aligned with the politics of the former President Donald Trump, the Brazilian government has ignored the magnitude of the dissemination of the virus since the beginning, promoted doubt about the position of scientists and international organisations like the WHO, and, as far as it could, resisted promoting immediate emergency measures, such as the use of masks and social isolation. On the contrary, the rhetoric of official government propaganda minimized the pandemic and its severe effects. In the name of supporting the economy, the government took a long time to set up protective measures, especially those directed at the poorer sectors of the population. In this context of federal neglect, it was necessary for state governors to occupy the front line in the fight against the pandemic, which created a political situation of constant tension between the President and governors. In face of the federal government’s refusal to provide up-to-date data about the unfolding of the pandemic in the country, the largest media and communication vehicles created a consortium that received information regarding the pandemic directly from states’ Healthcare Secretaries [Secretarias de Saúde]. Thus, the information boycott, and the manipulation of data by the federal government, was a constant from the outbreak of the pandemic, and especially after the resignation of the first Health Minister of the Bolsonaro government in 2021 (Henrique Mandetta). The outcome of this ‘policy’ is shown, for example, in the high number of deaths – by yesterday’s data (12 June 2021) – and the current low level of vaccination, which amounts to 23 million vaccinated people (not all have received their second jab). This corresponds to only 11.17% of the population.

In the initial pages of Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe’s great short essay, published in Brazil in 2018 by n-1 edições, the author reminds us of Michel Foucault’s teaching: “biopower” is “that domain of life upon which power has established its control”. Mbembe then asks what can more precisely define the practical conditions under which “the power to kill, let live or expose to death is exercised”. For him, it is a matter of trying to understand, under singular and practical conditions, who constitutes the subject of this law – which deliberates about the law defining the right to death or life – and who is, on the other hand, the person that must “legally” die, that is to say, the person suffering the action of this law. What is more, Mbembe seeks to understand whether the Foucauldian lesson must be broadened and reformulated in such a way as to make possible a more accurate understanding of what takes place in our contemporary world.

If I turn to Mbembe in this short testimony moved by indignation and revolt – “is it useless to revolt?”, Foucault once asked – it is because I think that the Brazilian situation during the pandemic made possible the manifestation of a ‘necropolitics’. I evidently do not think that a “necropolitics” is absent from what Foucault called “biopolitics” and “biopower”. On the contrary, his analyses of this new arrangement of forms of domination, that of the power over life under the rubric of the biological, always pointed to the dimension of what he called ‘Thanatopolitics’. What Mbembe rightly questions is whether the model of the “concentration camp” or of “Nazi politics”, around which the analyses of Agamben, Arendt, and even Foucault, gravitate, is sufficient for the task of understanding, for example, the genocide generated by the process of colonization in Africa and, I would add, in America. This is not the place for us to discuss Mbembe’s position or the pertinence of his arguments. Let us only highlight how legitimate his question is.

One could say that the response of the Brazilian government to the pandemic not only flourished in terrain prepared by an authoritarian tradition (so clearly revealed by the impeachment of President Rousseff), but that it also became a form of ‘necropolitics’. By placing the economy above life, the federal government came to neglect the fight against the pandemic and cultivated an irreducible ‘negationism’, implementing a militarist policy to combat violence, co-opting the states’ military police [polícias militares] so that they mercilessly killed the ‘enemy’ in the name of the ‘defence of society’. An ‘enemy’ who was usually black, poor and favelado,[2] but also included women and transgender people.

Finally, if I refer to Society must be defended, Foucault’s 1975-6 course at the Collège de France – not by chance one of the texts of the French philosopher that most inspired Mbembe – it is because I believe it reveals the full extent of the connection between necropolitics and state racism, or racism as a state policy: “Once the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State”. In this way, the clearcut line of separation between democracy and totalitarian regimes becomes blurry, and risks disappearing altogether. The 2022 presidential election will show which course Brazilian democracy will follow after and in face of the devastating effects of the pandemic.

 Translated by Federico Testa


[1] The Brazilian Years of Lead, or “anos de chumbo” (1964-1985), correspond to the period following the U.S. backed coup d’état that deposed President João Goulart, and instituted a military dictatorship. The term more particularly designates the period following the 1968 Institutional Act Number Five (known as AI-5), which represented the suspension of constitutional guarantees and was marked by censorship, torture and killing of political dissidents.

[2] A term that designates those who dwell in the favelas, the Brazilian slums.

Ernani Chaves is Professor of Philosophy at Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA), Brazil.