Sociopath: a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behaviour.
– The Oxford English Dictionary
Sometimes the micro can shed highly revealing light on the macro. The person of Jair Messias Bolsonaro, who neatly fits the definition of a sociopath, tells us a lot about the sociopathic political system that has thrown him up, and which he embodies. The latest manifestation of capitalism, neoliberalism, has led the whole planet to the brink of extinction with the extermination of species, peoples, languages, ecosystems, and cultures. It has managed to do so mainly because it is so ubiquitous as to be almost anonymous. Its symptoms are clear enough—corrupt political systems, financial meltdowns, offshoring of wealth, collapsed public health and education systems, children with guns killing their classmates, global warming with catastrophes everywhere, pandemics, and many more—but they are usually dealt with in isolation as if they weren’t part of a system.
Although it’s a monstrous form of conscious social engineering aimed at concentrating wealth and power, neoliberalism tends to be presented as a kind of evenly spread biological law governed by a “market” that panders to individuals turned into consumers whose democratic choices are mainly limited to competitive buying and selling. Those who can’t enter the competition drop or are dropped by the wayside. When this sociopathic system appears, full-blown, in a person who commits or encourages these crimes, its malignity for all living things is unmasked.
Take one of Bolsonaro’s more recent demonstrations of this. After weeks of heavy rain in Brazil’s north-eastern state of Bahia, the Igua dam on the Verruga River near the city of Vitoria da Conquista collapsed on 25 December, and a second dam, the main source of potable water in Jussiape, 100 kilometres to the north, burst on 26th. Twenty people have died as a result of the heavy rains and flooding, more than 430,000 people have been affected, 36,000 are homeless and thousands have been evacuated from at least 72 towns facing emergency situations, many of them without electricity. In the state capital, Salvador, the December rainfall has been six times higher than the average.
While some experts are saying that what Governor Rui Costa describes as the “biggest disaster in Bahia’s history” is not caused by climate change but, rather, the combined effects of temperature changes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and an elongated axis of clouds, precipitation, and convergent winds known as the South Atlantic Convergence Zone, which is typical of this time of year, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that the present extremity of these “usual” effects might be related with the literally murderous policies of the Bolsonaro government, which is being sued by the Association of Indigenous peoples of Brazil at the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide and ecocide. The fact that rainforests create their own weather systems, including rainfall, isn’t scientifically disputed so massive destruction of this ecosystem would drastically alter weather patterns throughout the southern hemisphere and accelerate climate havoc in ways that are still difficult to foresee as this is a chain reaction with global consequences. In short, the Bolsonaro government is a national and international hazard.
Since becoming president in 2019, Bolsonaro has overseen the destruction of at least 10,000 square miles of Brazilian rainforest, one of the planet’s most crucial ecosystems. For the government, this devastation means “economic growth”. In fact, as Beto Verissomo of Imazon, a Brazilian research institute for sustainable development, says, “Deforestation has no relation to economic growth. It’s just organized crime.” It’s no coincidence that Ricardo Salles, Bolsonaro’s minister for the environment, had to resign after being accused in a criminal investigation of obstructing a police inquiry into illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest and facilitating the export of illegally cut timber. But this happened only after he’d spent two years allowing deforestation, raging fires, and invasions of Indigenous areas, as well as blocking the collection of fines, persecuting inspectors, and deliberately pursuing a path of environmental devastation.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro literally poo-poohed environmental concerns with yet another of his inane, insane prescriptions: “It’s enough to eat a little less. You talk about environmental pollution. It’s enough to poop every other day.” As for the COVID-19 pandemic (“just a little flu”, he says), vaccination, and some 619,000 deaths so far (including a disproportionate number of Indigenous people), the whole thing “bores” Bolsonaro who can’t stand all the “whining” about it. He’s not even unduly bothered that his non-policy has led a congressional inquiry to conclude that he should be charged with crimes against humanity. So this isn’t just a bungling dork of a president but an “incurable sociopath”, as composer Zeca Baleiro puts it. And the sociopath goes on holiday when an unnatural disaster for which he is arguably largely responsible happens, especially in a zone where his votes are fewest and the rejection rate is highest. So, as Bahia was drowning, he went fishing in Santa Caterina and posted pics on the social media, while also attacking the vaccination of children against COVID-19, even using his eleven-year-old daughter, who will not be vaccinated, in his diatribes.
In 2018, the year of the presidential election that brought him to power, the volume of fake news quadrupled. The staff of the fact-checking Agência Lupa received as many as 56,000 death threats per month. Among other victims of the hate campaign leading to death threats that forced him into exile is Jean Wyllys, one of the authors of this article. Now, with elections in October 2022, people like Steve Bannon and Silicon Valley executives are observing with interest the role misinformation can play and how it can destroy the lives of bothersome critics. Bolsonaro has upped the ante by trying to limit social media content removal in order to protect, he claims, his supporters’ freedom of speech. On, September 6, the eve of Brazil’s national holiday, just ahead of his rallies in Brasilia and São Paulo, in a move to stir up his far-right base, he signed the relevant decree, even while the Congress and the Supreme Court are investigating him and his sons for running a fake news racket. Not that he gives an every-other-day shit about what the Congress or Supreme Court or Constitution say. Since he’s more concerned about being way behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the polls, he’s presently badmouthing and thumbing his nose at Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who is presiding over a major investigation into fake news, and putting his trust in the power of his fake news factory, the so-called Hate Office. Author of A máquina do ódio: notas de uma repórter sobre fake news e violência digital (The Hate Machine: Notes from a Reporter on Fake News and Digital Violence), Patrícia Campos Mello describes this as “a digital strategy team that operates from a room in the presidential palace” which “works together with Bolsonarista bloggers and Youtubers and profiles on social networks, including Bolsonaro, his sons and supporters … With that you can shape the narrative. That way they guide the discussion on social media.”
With his digital militias already at work flooding the social media with disinformation and fake news, Bolsonaro has pulled another populist trick by getting his parliamentary base—the notorious bible, beef, and bullet lobby—to approve measures to increase the salaries of the military and federal police. His move augurs a plan to encourage members of the armed state security forces—where fascism is deep-rooted—as well as private militias to repeat, in more violent form, Donald Trump’s stunt of 6 January, which is to say to pull off a far-right coup. He hopes, thereby, to force the Brazilian population to buckle under to his despotic misrule. With threats of purges and killings of dissenters—already practices of his militias—he seems to think that he can impose, not only on his compatriots but also the rest of the world (especially by showing other tyrants that such things are possible), his denialism about climate change, his devastation of the Amazon, his extermination of Indigenous peoples to benefit cattle ranchers, soya growers, and gold miners, his neoliberal policies of labour precarisation, his lying about everything, and his constant sabotage of public health policies, especially in the pandemic: in short, his many ways of sacrificing the poor on the Lucullan altars of the rich.
The alternative, in the 2022 elections, is a government headed by Lula who has already set about one of the most urgent pre-election tasks, namely pulling together a huge country divided by hatred and the lies wielded by the far right for electoral advantage. He’s showing once again that he’s a skilled negotiator with clearly stated sympathies. During a recent visit to Paris where he received Politique Internationale’s Prize for Political Courage, he spoke of his love for the “good, democratic, generous, hard-working” Brazilian people, who are “much better than the ignorant people currently in power”, and also defended his project of ensuring that Brazil becomes a regional power working for the good of the planet, in particular by protecting the Amazon, a tremendously different stance from that of Bolsonaro for whom deforestation of the Amazon is a “cultural” thing so “it will never end”. If Bolsonaro has become something of a pariah around the world, Lula’s campaign is counting on his international prestige to win votes in October.
Lula is again using the strategy that won him the 2002 election, talking to, and negotiating with a range of people, and rallying forces outside his party (PT), especially from the centre of the political spectrum, but this is rather more than election tactics. At present he is in the midst of talks with centre-right former governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, a move that has surprised some because, at present, it seems that Lula can win alone against Bolsonaro. However, “Lulism” is synonymous with conciliation and acceptance of the realities of Brazilian political life, which include some rapprochement, even with the Centrão, which is basically a bunch of conservative clientelist political parties. But his concern is much broader in scope than mere electioneering as he is striving to reassure the Brazilian people that they are more than disposable pawns in a cruel oligarchic game, and to reassert their dignity as citizens by restoring the fabric of democracy that is being ripped to shreds by fascist tactics, as well as trying to ensure that the ruling class will resist Bolsonaro’s coup threats and guarantee the will of the majority at the ballot box. The military, touchy after the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Dilma Rousseff in 2014, is another matter. In November Lula told French journalists, “The role of the Brazilian armed forces is well-defined by the Constitution: They defend the sovereignty of our country. (…) They are at the service of civil society (…) Today, there are 8,000 military personnel in positions of civil responsibility and trust. They will have to leave, and we will replace them with non-military personnel. There is no problem, but I don’t want to talk about elections with the military.”
Restoring democracy will be essential if Lula wins the elections and undertakes the task of bringing Brazil to the forefront of a new kind of globalisation based on international relations that respect the sovereignty of peoples, eradicate hunger and poverty around the planet, protect human rights, ensure gender equality, combat disinformation, shun war and violence, and work to restore the health of the planet. Bolsonaro, the sociopath, wants the exact opposite. And the system Bolsonaro incarnates means that the choice that faces Brazil next October is one that, more or less starkly, faces us all.