Brazilian militarism and the crisis of imperial white patriarchal federalism in the coronavirus pandemic

Brazilian police in riot gear
Brazilian riot police at the world cup in 2014
Guilherme Falleiros

Brazil could have followed the path of several Latin countries in combating the covid-19 pandemic: the use of force. Our government rushed to put the army on the streets to prevent the outbreak of popular protests during the last men's World Cup in 2014, yet the armed forces continued to be the nation's most trusted institution, according to opinion polls in 2019. The current government, democratically elected in 2018, has a cabinet almost entirely made up of military personnel, including even the Ministry of Health and its bureaucrats.

But there are no troops to enforce the quarantine on the national territory during the covid-19 pandemic. What is happening in the country is a worsened version of United States policy, with some peculiarities.

With 100,000 coronavirus deaths (underreported), approximately 0.05% of the Brazilian population, the president continues to treat covid-19 as a "little flu", demanding that economic activities continue with "normality" but granting more than a trillion reais (US$186bn) to the banks and guaranteeing the bourgeoisie the right to quickly dismiss workers. This government vetoes investments in health, especially in indigenous health, while investing heavily in chloroquine production via the Army itself. Its position on such a drug is similar to that of a few governments in the world, such as Venezuela and the USA, both of which are militarist. Though the USA has recently moved to accept recommendations about the dangers of chloroquine, they have made a large donation of the drug to Brazil, treating our country almost like a hospital garbage dump. To complete this debacle, the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, said that he had contracted the coronavirus and was being treated with chloroquine. Since Brazil is a federal republic, the president is trying to force the governments of the states of the federation to accept the stock of this drug.

Bolsonaro offered a small amount of R$ 600 (US$ 100) per month to the lower classes for one or two members of the same family, who have struggled trying to get the payment, often without success. His rejection of the World Health Organization's recommendations was supported by the military junta, although the general who commands the Army declared that fighting today's pandemic "is perhaps the most important mission of our generation”.

Faced with the escalation of deaths - the second largest in the world in absolute numbers by June 2020 - the vast majority of state governments rebelled against the central government in the first months of the pandemic and proposed stricter forms of quarantine. However, half the population continued to agree with the central government position, and boycotted local quarantines. In addition, employers forced a large part of their workforce to go to work, and without being able to increase labour rights, in the face of the apathy of the official unions, the people came to demand a greater presence of the repressive state apparatus. Within the mindsets of people there is both authoritarianism and irresponsibility.

There was a timid mobilization against this authoritarianism. While a part of the US population took to the streets against racist genocide and fascism (a struggle that spread to Europe), in Brazil peaceful demonstrations against racism and in defense of democracy were promoted. Unlike in the USA, in Brazil, no temporary autonomous zones were created, police stations were not burned down, and no attempt was made to destroy the symbols of whiteness. The naïve defense of democracy forgets that the current president was elected after a campaign that preached authoritarian values. The national congress, also democratically elected, now makes political manoeuvres with the president in exchange for favours. Apart from that, one of the most exploited professions during the pandemic, the delivery workers, strike and come together nationally and internationally, uniting new Brazilian and Latin American organizations, but we are still far from a general strike against the pandemic genocide.

Covid-19 emerged here as a political dispute: a conflict of "narratives" and "ideologies". It follows the paternalistic scheme that divided Brazil between two majorities: Lula's puppies, who were for tougher state measures, and Bolsonaro's puppies, who supported non-interventionist neoliberal policies. This follows a similar approach by the military dictatorship (1964-1985), that aims to eradicate "communism," "cultural Marxism," and "gender ideology”. The president's supporters attack the funding of science and education, and consider the public university a "communist" haven. They also attack the relationship with China, one of the most important capitalist partners of a de-industrialized Brazil, which has been long reduced to a soybean exporter. Thus the government lost the support of Chinese capitalism as a provider of technology (including medical technology) and damaged the exports of one of the main sectors of its base: agribusiness, paradoxically losing allies to the right. It won the opposition of state governors and former members of the government itself, with the departure of the Minister of Justice in April 2020, the main person responsible for Lula's arrest. To try to contain this division on the right, the federal government expanded its dealings with groups in the Brazilian parliament.

These three points - scientific denial, opposition to China, and conflict between state and federal governments - align current Brazilian policy with its great imperial model, the U.S. This is not by chance. As pacifist geographer Élisée Reclus demonstrated, in contrast to the decentralized federalism advocated by Pierre Joseph-Proudhon of whom Reclus was a follower, centralized federalism in the U.S. and Brazil was conceived by the alliance between the provincial white patriarchal elites, who joined forces to maintain the central government and wage war against the repressed populations, the Amerindians, blacks, and the poor in general. This situation is similar to the "war of races" studied by the philosopher Michel Foucault, whose reflections influenced the concept of "necropolitics" of the political scientist Achille Mbembe: if biopolitics, according to Foucault, is the government of life then necropolitics, according to Mbembe, is the choice between those who live and, mainly, those who die. I suggest that the current global pandemic has shaken this state of affairs that made the U.S. a global empire and Brazil a regional empire based on centralized federalism, as well as exposing the rupture between politics and life.

The elections of Trump and Bolsonaro were a reaction to the limits of the more "leftist" and slightly less white-patriarchal governments, such as those of Obama and Dilma Rousseff. The latter, however, were unable to break with the elites and promote the full inclusion of subordinate strata. However, Trump and Bolsonaro are at a point where the epistemological bases that brought them to power are no longer compatible: racism, male supremacy, and sexual determinism no longer have a scientific basis. But their consequent denial of science ends up putting at risk the lives of sections of white patriarchy they should be defending, such as doctors. Necropoliticians cannot easily control the coronavirus; the European poles of whiteness have been shaken by a pandemic that has spread from there to the Americas. Some white patriarchs, such as the governor of New York State or the governor of São Paulo State, do not consider themselves represented by the central government of their countries. The most peripheral, black and immigrant strata are the ones most affected by the pandemic, but the middle, upper and whiter classes are also contaminated. If the governor of São Paulo could say, in order to be elected, that the state police should shoot to kill (understanding black and peripheral people as their preferred target), the virus is not as obedient as a voter or a gendarme.

This may explain the large increase in the number of people killed by the police during the pandemic, especially in São Paulo: proving that it has more power than the virus. The government of São Paulo was dissuaded from using its police as a force to combat the pandemic by controlling social isolation on the streets, given its officers' support for the position of the president of the republic. In other places, such as Rio de Janeiro, mafia-like paramilitary militias aligned with presidential opinion are forcibly contributing to the end of the quarantine. Even so, in regions far from urban centres, such as the Amazon, the presence of the Army led, through contaminated soldiers, to viral infection of riverine, quilombola, and indigenous peoples. The federal government hasn’t assisted the indigenous population, and they have become the main victims of covid-19. After much social pressure, the government began a show of "sanitary" military operations in the indigenous territories, generating suspicion and denial from the Amerindian population. Thus, faced with the crisis of its power, the white patriarchy reinforces its genocidal war, exposing itself to risk. However, it is in the international arena where its defeat becomes apparent.

The pandemic has demonstrated the "physical" bases of international capitalism: the production of solid goods. This production was marginalized by the virtual economy and the "liquid" services, developed in the original Euro-American capitalist centres. Modernity was culturally appropriated by China as a hybrid imperial warfare weapon. The global clash of the coronavirus only crowned a power that “The Central Kingdom" already had. The fact that China was the centre of diffusion of the covid-19 says less about a supposed biological weapon than about this country's role in capitalism today: the commodity-producing pole on which the globe depends. In the face of this change, countries like the U.S. and Brazil are losing the imperial power they used to have. If empire is in the details, as the anthropologist Catherine Lutz would say, China's title in the global power games may not mean the final defeat of the white patriarchy. Nor is it the end of the patriarchy itself, as China does not usually stand out for fighting against male chauvinism. However, it is an indication that politics, as a continuation of the art of war, is increasingly being fought by indirect but no less authoritarian means, using the technologies of information control and surveillance of the population (such as 5G) exported by China to the world. In this type of indirect martial art, China has ancient mastery. Brazil seems to be further and further from possession of the ball that maintained its football art, or even from the old prestige of its international diplomacy, living through the biggest shame in its republican history.

Author information

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Enter the characters shown in the image.

About the authors