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Brazil’s conservative revolution

Now it is Bolsonaro’s turn to shut down courses in philosophy and sociology, ostensibly to privilege "areas that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer” Español

Vladimir Safatle
1 June 2019
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro inflated dolls at his inauguration ceremony, Brasilia, January 1, 2019.
Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro inflated dolls at his inauguration ceremony, Brasilia, January 1, 2019.
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Fotoarena/PA. All rights reserved.

We will hardly understand anything about what is currently happening in Brazil if we fail to take seriously what members of the current government and their ideological allies call "revolution."

Mr. Bolsonaro finds himself leading a kind of conservative revolution which commands the faith of his most loyal constituency. Bolsonaro knows that he will eventually rule for this power centre. There is no prospect of re-electing this government by a large majority. But, as war manuals remind us, a smaller, well-mobilized group is better than a large group which lacks a unified approach to action.

A smaller, well-mobilized group is better than a large group which lacks a unified approach to action.

Those who support this government believe they are in a struggle against the powers that have always ruled the country (political caste, the press, and the intellectual elite). They believe they have placed "one of our own" at the heart of power. Someone who has our same characteristics and who shares in our difficulties. Someone who is not afraid to show his unfitness to occupy the position, thus creating some empathic identification with those who could never imagine being president. They think that in this revolution one should not "respect the institutions" that were largely responsible "for all that is there,” the former status quo. They see themselves fighting for “freedom of expression”, especially if this “freedom” allows the circulation of discursive violence against vulnerable sectors of society, such as women, blacks, LGBTQs. A discursive violence that legitimises violent practices.

Fighting “indoctrination”

Within this horizon, an ideological polarization has intensified, focusing on the government’s fight against "indoctrination" in schools and universities. After cutting the budget of three of the major Brazilian universities by 30% because they are allegedly promoting "chatter" (read as opening a space for political debates and discussions about the national situation), the Ministry of Education saw public opinion turn against him for politically pursuing institutions with high levels of research and academic commitment and accomplishment. In response, the government simply extended the cuts to all 69 federal universities, affecting their more than 1.2 million students. This decision endangers the day-to-day functioning of several institutions and the integrity of higher education in Brazil.

That decision to make those cuts came just days after the President of the Republic announced his intention to shut down courses in philosophy and sociology in order to privilege "areas that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer, such as the veterinary sciences, engineering and medicine."

To the Brazilian public, none of this is strange. Already on the second day after his election, Bolsonaro himself posted videos of public school teachers who were allegedly "indoctrinating" students, vowing that it is now time for "less policy in schools." One can imagine the pressure under which today’s teachers in the Brazilian public system are working.

It is from universities that the desires for social transformation and progressive changes in our ways of life are enunciated.

We could say that the Brazilian state is another instance of the fight of far-right governments against academic institutions. We have seen similar cases, on different scales, in Turkey and Hungary, with their persecution of professors and closure of departments. Such governments know that they will never have the support of the academic world, since it is from the universities that emerge many of the social and educational guidelines that they oppose, and it is from universities that the desires for social transformation and progressive changes in our ways of life are enunciated, which includes intellectual focus on questions of identity, the national border, origins, indigeneity, and modes of belongings, all of which are currently at the forefront of the political debate.

The other revolution

However, in the Brazilian case, there is one more element that should not be overlooked. Consider that in the last decade Brazilian universities have seen a significant change in their demographic composition. Currently, 51.2% of students in federal public universities are black, 54.6% are women, and 70.2% have per capita income of beneath the minimum wage. In addition, 60.4% of undergraduates went through public schools. These numbers effectively defeat the hegemonic neoliberal claim that, through public universities, the Brazilian state is financing the formation of its economic élite.

The Bolsonaro operatives have waged a true counterrevolution… through a regressive policy of militarism.

On the contrary, universities have, in recent years, become one of the few spaces in national life where there is an effective return on investment to impoverished and vulnerable sectors of society. Against social transformations that would improve the lives of students from these sectors of Brazilian society, the Bolsonaro operatives have waged a true counterrevolution aimed at preventing social change and educational opportunities for the less enfranchised through a regressive policy of militarism.

This government is reacting to a latent possibility of a more radical transformation of Brazilian society emerging, in part, through the educational institutions they now seek to dismantle….

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