democraciaAbierta: Opinion

How Brazil’s far-Right ‘active knowledge’ industry supports Jair Bolsonaro

Like many right-wing populist leaders, Bolsonaro has encouraged people to question experts – inciting a wave of 'Cultural Marxism' conspiracies

Beatriz Buarque
10 March 2021, 11.48am
Bolsonaro's supporters took to the streets in June 2020 in support of the federal government
Szucinski/Alamy Stock Photo

Recent polls suggest that the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the favourite to win the country’s 2022 election. This is the president who, rather than urging his citizens to avoid gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19, went for a swim on a crowded beach on New Year’s Day. The president who, in the middle of a pandemic, announced a series of decrees to make owning guns easier. His repeated downplaying of the severity of the pandemic, as well as the changes to gun laws, may have damaged Bolsonaro’s image among some of his voters, but not to the extent that many expected. Why?

One explanation may come from the ‘active knowledge’ industry, which has emerged in support of Bolsonaro's crusade against the Left. Like other politicians committed to a populist radical Right agenda, President Bolsonaro has encouraged people to question the educational materials available at universities and public schools. According to him, Marxist ideas have become dominant in the Brazilian educational system, forming citizens who believe in equal rights, regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation. As a right-wing Christian politician, he feels these ideas threaten the notion of a ‘traditional family’ and signify the degeneration of society.

In this context, whatever Bolsonaro says or does is justified as an act of patriotism. It is telling that many of his supporters have dubbed him “the Myth”. By doing so, they place him in the position of a saviour, a nearly divine figure who is capable of cleansing Brazil from its most pressing problems, which, in their views, are directly associated with progressive leftist ideas.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many Brazilians have embarked on a patriotic mission to show the public that the Left is responsible for corruption, high crime rates, and the destruction of the traditional Brazilian family. In this construction of the Left as ‘the enemy’, a conspiracy theory known as Cultural Marxism has become instrumental not only in Brazil but also internationally.

The threat posed by the Left: Cultural Marxism

Researchers of far-Right movements in the US and Europe are familiar with Cultural Marxism, which is often used as a tool to blame the Left for progressive thinking and the defence of minorities’ rights, which, in some countries, is equated with the perceived decline of their white population. This hate often acquires anti-Semitic tones as many of the Left-leaning intellectuals who fled Nazi Germany and started teaching progressive ideas in American universities were Jewish. Cultural Marxism, though, varies between regions, and in some Latin American countries, it does not necessarily display anti-Semitic traits. The conspiracy theory is gaining ground in Brazil, where Bolsonaro has accelerated its spread, and championed the fight against it.

In Brazil, rather than starting from the grassroots and slowly spreading to the centre of power, this conspiracy theory came from above

Cultural Marxism made its debut in Brazilian politics in early 2019, when Bolsonaro’s then-minister of education, Abraham Weintraub, announced his commitment to removing such thinking from Brazil’s universities. If in the US, Jewish intellectuals are frequently blamed for introducing progressive ideas about race, gender and equality, in Brazil the blame has been primarily directed towards the Left-leaning movements, which have allegedly infiltrated universities. The personification of the enemy may be slightly different, but, in the end, it remains the same: the Left.

Conspiracy theories such as Cultural Marxism have become key components of contemporary radical right-wing populist phenomena. In this context, Cultural Marxism is used by the alt-Right to encourage ‘active knowledge’, urging the public to question the education offered by universities. It is in turn used to justify the need for a new educational agenda – one free from the illusion that individuals have equal rights. In Brazil, rather than starting from the grassroots and slowly spreading to the centre of power, the efforts to use conspiracy theories to delegitimise years of studies about race, equality, and gender came from above. This was illustrated by the recent move by the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, to establish the Instituto Liberal-Conservador (Liberal-Conservative Institute), which promotes values such as the preservation of the traditional family, faith, right to self-defence and sovereignty.

The far-Right knowledge industry around Jair Bolsonaro

The Instituto Liberal-Conservador is one of many organisations that have emerged in Brazil to support President Bolsonaro’s mission to take back the country from the perverted Left. While these groups are not directly associated with the president, in that they do not receive funding from him, their agendas are clearly aligned with his, and are being spread through online courses and independently founded institutions. In other words, these institutions are spouting conspiracy theories, such as Cultural Marxism, as scientific knowledge.

A search for the term ‘Cultural Marxism’, written in Portuguese, on CrowdTangle (a tool designed by Facebook that allows analysis of content available on the platform) over the 12 months to 17 February 2021 resulted in 2,153 posts on public pages with more than 100,000 likes. Many of these pages belonged to public figures, politicians, political parties and alternative media sites not only from Brazil, but also from Portugal, Spain and other Latin American countries.

At least 61 posts were made by 24 institutions and two study groups with a clearly defined far-Right educational purpose. Of these, it was possible to identify 12 Brazil-based far-Right institutions and two study groups with the potential to reach more than one million people. The other 12 institutions were located in Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Spain, and the United States (one American organisation had a Spanish website and the other included a Facebook page in Spanish to target a Latin American audience).

The campaign against Cultural Marxism showed strong religious tones, associating Marxism with abortion rights and feminism

Interestingly, the campaign against Cultural Marxism among the Latin American institutions showed strong religious tones, associating Marxism with abortion rights and feminism. In the institutions’ posts, Cultural Marxism was often described as a “destructive sect”, which they claimed ultimately results in the 'murder of innocents' (abortion). Three of the Brazilian organisations also produced religious educational material about the threats posed by Cultural Marxism. They demonstrated an interest in engaging Christians in politics as a way to defend Catholic values, such as the role played by men and women in the family. Despite the religious tone of many posts, none expressed anti-Semitic views.

Among the 24 educational institutions, two (one in Brazil and one in Spain) expressed an aim of raising awareness on the importance of buying guns for sports or defence. Both described Cultural Marxism as a strategy used by the Left to manipulate people into believing that allowing citizens to carry weapons will increase homicide rates. In a post from the Spanish institution, an image of a child crying because his parents had not allowed him to buy a toy gun was used to illustrate how perverse are the ideas disseminated by the Left.

The Brazilian organisations offered a wide range of educational materials, from podcasts to articles, books, courses, and even events. Their efforts to reach as many people as possible were evident from the accessible nature of their content: books were available for purchase but also for free download on some websites, for example.

At least one of the Brazilian institutions was founded with the primary goal of translating far-Right international articles into Portuguese, similar to American organisations that translate texts from intellectuals associated with the French New Right (Nouvelle Droite).

One last point of convergence among many Brazilian institutions and study groups is their references to Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian author who is recognized as being the intellectual mind behind President Bolsonaro. The Olavo de Carvalho phenomenon in Brazil can be interpreted as a symptom of the contemporary populist radical Right. Despite lacking an academic degree that would give him the title of philosopher, he has become recognized as such within Brazil’s far-Right intellectual circles, and is particularly well known for teaching an online philosophy course., Through this, he disseminates the notion that the Left’s Marxist ideas are behind the country’s perceived degeneration. He is perhaps Brazil’s most successful example of how a person can use social media to spread political ideas and conspiracy theories under the guise of scientific knowledge. The ‘scientific knowledge’ produced by Olavo de Carvalho has been reproduced by dozens of institutions, causing a domino effect that could ultimately influence the 2022 elections.

Social media accounts and pages can be deleted to silence some individuals and/or groups, but ideas, once verbalised, live on. The biggest challenge presented by the populist far-Right today is that it has learned to disseminate ideas, particularly through social media. This phenomenon may help explain why President Bolsonaro, despite all the criticism, is still leading the polls. Without much effort, his ideology has attracted hordes of adepts. A potent ‘active knowledge’ industry has taken shape and its main goods are radical ideas that are presented as legitimate knowledge.

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