Bolsonaro and the self-coup d’état

9 September, 2021

Bolsonaro yesterday among his supporters. The threat of self-coup was hailed by them.
Bolsonaro yesterday among his supporters. The threat of self-coup was hailed by them.

The news are warning about the alleged imminence of a self-coup d’état in Brazil. The reality is even more complex and dangerous. The rift within the Brazilian ruling class is reaching a critical point where even a breakup of the army into rival factions cannot be ruled out.

Table of Contents

Bolsonaro threatens a self-coup

Distribution of decorations at the Santa Maria Military Hospital this week
Distribution of decorations at the Santa Maria Military Hospital this week

In his battle against institutions, Bolsonaro is increasingly entrenched. In an even more delirious version of the Trump script he announces that electronic voting -instituted 25 years ago- will lead to fraud in the next elections and threatens not to call them… which has led the Supreme Court to open a new case against him. A case in addition to the already old family corruption investigation and the scandal that, at the very least, he turned a blind eye on an attempt of corruption of several senators from his camp in the purchase of vaccines.

Meanwhile, Bolsonarist political violence is growing in all areas, encouraged by the President himself, who has gone so far as to prohibit by law social networks from expelling their trolls.

And in this rarefied atmosphere, Bolsonaro had called for marches in support of his presidency yesterday, on Independence Day, which by the same token were also against the Supreme Court and Congress raising coupist alarms inside and outside the country.

He was prudent. At the last minute he gave up on a total mobilization of his followers and only 125,000 joined in São Paulo out of the two million expected in case of open coup mobilization. Likewise there was no lack of spectacle: he proclaimed that he would “only come out dead” of the presidency, encouraged disobedience to judges and threatened the Supreme Court with a self-coup.

In fact, he has convened the Council of the Republic, a body that can decide on a state of siege, federal intervention of any jurisdiction or declare a state of national commotion. It has only been implemented once so far, in 2018, when President Temer militarily intervened Rio de Janeiro and placed it under the orders of the current Minister of Defense and political head of the military leadership – Walter Braga Neto. The federal judges take it seriously and do not bite their tongues before anyone who wants to listen to them. “Either we kick Bolsonaro out or he implements a dictatorship,” one of them sentenced earlier today.

A self-coup is one scenario, armed conflict between power factions is another

March in Rio de Janeiro yesterday denouncing the imminence of a Bolsonaro self-coup
March in Rio de Janeiro yesterday denouncing the imminence of a Bolsonaro self-coup

Simultaneously, the opposition organized marches in 160 cities. One significant absentee: Lula. The former labor leader has twice the voting expectations of Bolsonaro and is the direct beneficiary of the discomfort produced in broad social sectors by the president’s coup fantasies. But he kept his profile low, according to several sources, after consulting the military, the true power behind the government. He fears a breakup of the armed forces and a “hard coup”, he even fears an armed confrontation between military factions.

Because the fact is that the military is divided too. They do not want Lula in government, but they realize that the financial and industrial bourgeoisie has long been determined to remove Bolsonaro from power at any price and for that has placed former socialist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso alongside the former unionist and mobilized the many local chieftains in the embryo of an “anti-coup” candidacy.

This faction of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, historically dominant and deeply embedded in the judicial heart of the state and the upper bureaucracy, has the open support of the US, which has sent a clear message to the military. The historical influence of the US in the Brazilian military is well known, especially in some weapons, however, there are underlying strategic reasons behind why a part – which seems to be a majority – of the military leadership remains attached to Bolsonaro.

The class struggle within the ruling class and the future of the Amazon

Brazilian army now prosecutes "ecological crimes" in the Amazon
Brazilian army now prosecutes “ecological crimes” in the Amazon

In reality beneath political conflicts agitating the state and the military lie class contradictions within the ruling classes. The continuous swings in the Brazilian imperialist positioning of these years and the sustained decline in the expectations of the industrial sector that bother so much the great centers of economic power in São Paulo are the result of the power exercised by the landowning bourgeoisie and the agro-export industry, main support of the president and inspiration of his primal McCarthyist anti-communism.

The Brazilian agro-export bourgeoisie, main supporter of the self-coup tendencies, is the one that has contained Bolsonaro in his anti-Chinese tendencies. Beijing is the agro-export sector’s main client.

It is also the one encouraging the economic team, led by Minister Guedes, to unilaterally dismantle the common tariff that is the basis of Mercosur. It wants to be able to negotiate trade agreements with new countries even at the cost of the everlasting tariff protection of local industry, revealing the semi-colonial character of the Brazilian economy. That is why every toning down of the anti-protectionist discourse must be seen in terms of the correlation of forces between finance capital and the agro-exporting bourgeoisie rather than in terms of the equilibrium within Mercosur.

But what brings “colonels” and cattle ranchers closer to the dominant sector in the army is neither merely ideological, nor an articulated harmony on the tariff regime or the imperialist orientation of Brazilian capital. The key lies in the Amazon.

The Brazilian military has become a real environmental police in the Amazon because, above all, it attempts to nip in the bud the discourse that the Amazon must become an international climate protectorate, predicated on the idea that “fires exhaust the usefulness of the concept of citizenship”.

This discourse is neither an occurrence of more or less extremist environmentalists nor a phantasmal delusion of Brazilian nationalism. Former trabalhista president Dilma Rouseff has unambiguously confronted it, aware that a good part of the Biden administration embraces it and Macron and even Merkel have openly “considered” it more than once. Even Beijing takes it seriously. Rejecting it to assert Brazilian sovereignty has repeatedly been China’s way of posturing itself as an international strategic ally of Brazilian interests.

Encouraged and alerted by international pressure, the Brazilian military sees itself as the guardian of the Amazon. In fact, right now, on account of fire prevention, the gigantic jungle region is under military control. But that does not mean that their control of the territory is real, even though the Brazilian army is the largest army on the South American continent. And the budgetary effort needed to make it so would involve an escalation of expenditure hardly sustainable for the federal state… a budget hike being fought for by the military in Brasilia, piece by piece.

The occupation of the Amazon is one of the Army’s so-called strategic theses. […] But the militarized agency would only be the flagship of the Army. Behind it would come the real project: not only the monitoring, but the absolute control of the Amazon by the Army. A large military territory, dreamed as an effective way to neutralize the alleged greed of one power or another over the possession of the Amazon.

Mourão defende agência para centralizar imagens de satélite na Amazônia, Folha de São Paulo, 27/9/2020

This is what unites them in the first place to Bolsonaro, but also to the landowners, cattle ranchers and loggers. In practice, the only affordable way today to control the region is to increase the population and develop communications… which is unthinkable without increasing economic exploitation even at the cost of reducing the forest area and, paradoxically, fueling the tendency of imperialist powers outside the continent to question Brazilian sovereignty over the region.

The political outlook and the situation of the workers

During the years of PT government (2003-2016) capital's share of national income grew at the expense of wages.
During the years of PT government (2003-2016) capital’s share of national income grew at the expense of wages.

A turbulent journey awaits the state and relations within the Brazilian ruling class until the 2022 elections. A self-coup before, during or after the elections certainly cannot be ruled out. And even if the financial bourgeoisie and the political opposition linked to it -Lula and Cardoso- are restrained, a rupture of the army and with it the danger of an armed conflict cannot be completely ruled out either.

But while the ruling classes fight tooth and nail among themselves and a worsening of imperialist tensions is hinted at throughout South America – which we will discuss in a future article – precarization strides forward despite the fact that, supposedly, the bulk of the bolsonarista program – pension reform, wage reductions, repeal of labor laws – is already completed.

In fact we are facing a second wave of precarizing reforms that has been moving slowly only because the Senate fears that by approving the new “mini-labor reform” presented by Guedes, workers could break the control of the unions, aligned with the Lula operation, and open an alternative outside the false Bolsonaro-Lula dichotomy. They would rather put on hold the most aggressive reforms by burdening the government with a political defeat that can be dressed up as a “democratic triumph of the workers” and temporarily gain a little “social peace.”

Because the fact is that strikes in Brazil have been on the rise since August, driven by transport and industry. The problem for workers is that the longer they take to break union control the greater the danger that their strikes will be emptied of their class goals and re-channeled to reinforce the Lula-Cardoso front… in which they have nothing to gain.

The experience of the PT government years, even during a favorable context for semi-colonial countries with rising international prices as was the famous “commodity boom“, is significant.

Despite all the PT propaganda, the share of wages in the national income fell, dropping below 30%. Only in the last years of the military dictatorship had the capital-labor ratio in the distribution of wealth been so disastrous for the workers.

If this was the result of PT policy in a time of bonanza, what is to be expected in a time of general crisis of capitalism and in particular of the conditions of Brazilian national capital, is a direct and brutal loss in absolute and not only relative terms. The PT is not about to “reverse” the Bolsonarist attacks but to culminate them.

And if this is all that a PT government can offer, the path is even more dangerous because at this point the possibilities of war in the continent and even armed conflict between factions of power are open.

To relinquish the very goals of the strikes, the immediate program they demand and with which they confront precarization, forced poverty and the Covid slaughter, is not choosing “the lesser evil” between two evils (Bolsonaro and Lula). It is the first step towards being hooked on a train leading irremediably to a battlefront in which workers can only be cannon fodder to be sacrificed for the sake of national capital either as ultra-precarized or as soldiers.