‘The King is Naked’: Bolsonaro & the Pandemic (Critique in times of Coronavirus)

by | 10 Apr 2020

The current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been relentlessly downplaying the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic comparing it with a simple flue. He has claimed that the lowest social categories of the Brazilian population would be immune to diseases (“the Brazilian jumps into the sewer and doesn’t get anything”) [1]. Bolsonaro’s main point is that the Brazilian economy cannot stop because of the pandemic. He has a two-fold argument. First, at least 40 million Brazilians need to continue to work in order to make a living. If complete lockdown is imposed, they will not be able to survive. Second, the confinement measures (similar to those introduced in Spain, France or Italy) will eventually bring about a major economic crisis in Brazil. In this sense, according to Bolsonaro, Brazil  – as one of the developed countries  – (it is the 9th biggest economy in terms of GDP) cannot afford the confinement/mitigations/quarantine policies undertaken by Western economies.

Bolsonaro’s attempts to downplay the pandemic can only be understood taking into account the economic crisis that will inevitably land on the country. Bolsonaro is already thinking about the day after the pandemic, and wants to embody the one who has tried everything to save the Brazilian economy. He also wants to galvanize his electorate basis, against Brazilian State Governors who are implementing serious measures to tackle COVID-19.

It is possible to notice other elements in Bolsonaro’s propaganda. On Friday 27 of March, the Brazilian government launched a TV spot called “Brazil cannot stop” (“O Brasil não pode parar”) that urged Brazilians to keep on working while adopting basic public health measures (ie. wearing masks, washing hands) and implementing selective confinement measures for the most vulnerable (i.e. elderly population). A few days later, the Brazilian Supreme Court prohibited this official campaign since it was “downplaying the magnitude of the pandemic”. The Court considered public resources are “scarce” and they should not be spent on public campaigns that “deceive” Brazilian public opinion. Those resources must be spent today in order to “save lives”[2]. The decision appears to manifest a biopolitics (the power to make live, and let die) as the ultimate legal framework (and not only by processes of ‘normalization’)[3].

On March 31st, Jair Bolsonaro made another TV address where he precisely and constantly repeated his goal during the current situation: “saving lives” (“salvar vidas”)[4].  He urged the adoption of a “Great Deal for the Preservation of Life and Employment in Brazil” (um Gran Pacto para a Preservação da Vida e dos Empregos). Indeed, according to Bolsonaro, “saving lives” is twofold: saving them from the pandemic and saving them from economic turmoil that is, “unemployment, violence and hunger”. Therefore, Bolsonaro has drawn on the Brazilian Supreme Court ‘biopolitical’ observations on the imperative to “saving lives” and used it for his own political agenda. Biopolitics is absorbed within a neoliberal agenda where the lowest social categories of the Brazilian population are urged to keep on working. Foucault (and Foucauldians) have already noticed how death (and not life) is at the core of neoliberalism. Indeed, ‘competition’ has now prevailed over the classical form of ‘exchange’[5], resources are now understood through ‘scarcity’[6], the ‘psychic life’ of the neoliberal subjectivities evolves around ‘blaming others’[7], and ‘death economies’ are now everywhere, with death holding a ‘positive’ economic value[8].

When Bolsonaro deploys biopolitics to keep the Brazilian economy ‘operative’, he sacrifices the most vulnerable of the Brazilian population. The risk of becoming infected by the virus is understood through strict economic/neoliberal terms: it is less relevant than the ongoing machine of the Brazilian economy. While Foucault famously noticed that (neo)liberalism is the basic framework where biopolitics can be deployed, with Bolsonaro, life is allegedly protected through its exposure to death. Bolsonaro’s propaganda draws on instilling among the Brazilian public opinion, a constant awareness of the dangers that will come (i.e economic crisis) so that everyone must strive to survive and work. It is a novel form of management of the population that oscillates between the Western form of biopolitics and the genocidal expressions of necropolitics.

Karsten Schubert has brilliantly referred to “populist biopolitics” in order to describe how in some European countries, “members of the community shame on each other for supposedly irrational and unsolidaristic behaviour such as, for example, leaving the house or meeting with friends (…)”. In Brazil, with Bolsonaro and its accomplices, the exact opposite is going on. Bolsonaro’s political base, that is extremely active online, has launched messages through different digital platforms. For example:

You want quarantine and to stay home? But you need money and you want the banker to be at the bank to solve your problem! You want to buy bread? The bakery has to be open, right?! You want to stay home? But the garbage must be collected everyday.

Just like “populist biopolitics”, ‘unsolidaristic’ conduct is targeted here. However this biopolitics operates in a radically different way. Those who implement quarantine are accused of unsolidaristic conduct. Staying home equates to the exploitation of others, who are forced to provide the ‘basic’ needs of the Brazilian economy. One’s life is guaranteed through the risk and efforts that others are obliged to cope with. One’s own ‘self-biopolitics’ (self quarantine, confinement, health monitoring) and the different techniques of the self that middle upper categories are used to display in time of stress (yoga, mindfulness) are brought about through the nano-necropolitics (low wages, danger to be infected by the Covid-19) of the most exploited of the Brazilian work forces. The strategy of Bolsonaro draws on shaming Brazilian society. It avoids addressing the role of the State (and public authorities) in generating a better and fairer distribution of resources (i.e income, access to public health) for the most vulnerable.

It is a sort of ‘fake’ populist biopolitics. However, this ‘fake biopolitics’ that Bolsonaro deploys might produce a counter-effect. As mentioned above, State governors in Brazil do not follow the guidelines of the Brazilian federal government, and do intend to implement effective measures against COVID-19. During each Bolsonaro’s address on national TV the Brazilian population protest, “banging pots” from balconies. The fake biopolitics of Jair Bolsonaro is undermining his power. The current President of Brazil is loosing his traditional allies, from the business spheres to the Brazilian military sector.

In Society Must be Defended Foucault wrote:

(…) let’s take, if you will, the death of Franco, which is after all a very, very interesting event. It is interesting because of the symbolic values it brings into play, because the man who died has, as you know, exercised the sovereign right of life and death with great savagery, was the bloodiest of all the dictators (…) and at the moment when he himself was dying, he entered this sort of new field of power over life which consists not only in managing life, but in keeping individuals alive after they are dead (…). And so the man who had exercised the absolute power of life and death over hundreds of thousands of people fell under the influence of a power that managed life so well, that took so little heed of death, and he didn’t even realize that he was dead and was being kept alive after his death (Foucault, Society must be defended, 248-49)

Foucault notices with irony how former Spanish dictator, Franco was kept ‘alive’ through biopolitical device, while he was not even aware of it. In relation to Bolsonaro, our biopolitical era, and the need to implement effective and genuine measures to protect the existences of the Brazilian population is quickly and surely stripping away Bolsonaro’s legitimacy and power. Bolsonaro’s is kept alive politically only through the display of a populist rhetoric that is designed to stimulate its deep core electorate. Simultaneously, and in a broader perspective, the need of biopolitics for the current situation has already put an end to his political life, and Bolsonaro might not be even aware of it.

The king is naked

Antonio Pele (Associate Professor, Law School, PUC-Rio University; Twitter: @duendeaude)

[1] https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-52067247

[2] https://www.conjur.com.br/dl/liminar-barroso-proibe-campanha-brasil.pdf

[3] See Michel Foucault, Security, Territory and Population, Palgrave MacMillan, Lecture: 25 January 1978.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy_HP3_gOoI

[5] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitcs, Palgrave MacMillan, p. 119.

[6] Michel Foucault, The Order of Thing, Routledge, p. 279.

[7] Christina Scharff, The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Self, Theory, Culture & Society, 2016, 33(6): 107-122.

[8] Fatmir Haskaj, From Biopower to necroeconomies: Neoliberalism, biopower, and death economies, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 2018, 44 (10): 1148-1168


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