Vijay Prashad, editor of the new book “Strongmen,” talks about what is behind the rise of right-wing authoritarianism around the world and how Brazil could stop this trend in their upcoming presidential election
SHARMINI PERIES: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
We’re going to try something new this week on The Real News, and that is to have a regular segment with Vijay Prashad that we’re going to call: The World This Week with Vijay.
Now this week, we’re going to talk about Brazil. Because on October 28, Brazilians could very well elect a right-wing extremist, Jair Bolsonaro, as their president. Some would even call him a neo-fascist. If the Brazilian people end up making this decision, Bolsonaro in Brazil will not be alone, of course. Of late, we have seen the likes of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Receb Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India, and Donald Trump right here in the U.S. What do these leaders have in common, and why are more and more right-wing extremists ascending to the highest office in their land?
Joining me now to discuss all of this is, of course, Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the editor of a new book, Strong Men: Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Trump, Modi. And it’s all published by OR Books. Also, Vijay is the Executive Director of Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, and he’s the author of over a dozen books. I thank you so much for joining us today, Vijay.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay. So before we actually head south and take up a specific look at Brazil and Bolsonaro, let’s talk about why this trend is taking place, and why you felt so compelled to do this book at this time.
VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a very good question, Sharmini, and it’s great to be with you. The issue that I think people need to come to terms with is that the capitalist system, the global capitalist system, has been in a very serious crisis, not only when it had a credit disruption in 2007-2008, but subsequent to that. And one of the important features of this crisis has been an employment problem. There’s been a real difficulty in employing people. There’s been an impossibility in getting banks and people who hold capital, who hold great wealth, to invest in their societies. And one of the great promises of the sort of moderate centrist leaders, the Clintons, the Blairs and so on, was that they were going to somehow turn wealth in their societies into entrepreneurship. But that simply hasn’t happened.
And I think the failure of this moderate center, or the extreme center, to deliver on entrepreneurial society opened the door for very right-wing politicians and currents that went to the people with vicious claims about society. I mean, in in the United States Trump didn’t go to people and say, “I’m going to find a way to employ you.” He said, “I’m going to employ you by attacking Mexican migrants, I’m going to employ you by attacking China.” And this is the kind of, let’s say, political grammar that one sees not only in the United States, but of course in India, of course in the Philippines, certainly in large sections of Europe. And now, very disturbingly, very, very disturbingly in Brazil.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now, Vijay, let’s talk about what’s going on in Brazil with the PT government in complete disarray in terms of trying to run a candidate that is viable. This is a very popular party. Now, Lula was leading in the polls until a few weeks ago. And Bolsonaro suddenly took off in this last election. What happened?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the Workers’ Party, the PT, had been in power for almost 15 years, from 2002 onwards, and had pushed, I think, a very important social welfare agenda. You know, it’s worth saying, Sharmini, that the United Nations used Brazil as an example of one of the few countries of the Global South that had managed to largely eradicate hunger. This was the Fome Zero, or Zero Hunger policy pushed by Lula and then Dilma in their Workers’ Party government. It was a very popular government.
But I think the oligarchy in Brazil understood that the government of the Workers’ Party had begun to radicalize its program in the last period. And they were not sure, that is, the oligarchy was not sure that they would be able to defeat the PT directly in an election, which is why a legislative coup was organized against Dilma Rousseff. She was removed from office and replaced by Mr. Temer, a rather milk toast politician who tried to push the agenda of the oligarchy as best as possible. But as the election appeared, it looked like Mr. Lula, very, very popular, fiercely popular, was going to make a comeback and run as the candidate of the Worker’s Party.
At this point, what the people in Brazil call a judicial coup took place, where a legal case was brought against Mr. Lula, using a law that he himself had championed, which was an anti-corruption law. They used this law, in a way, to basically sandwich Mr. Lula, make it impossible for him to run in the election. He was arrested even though the Workers’ Party put him up as their candidate, the authorities said he couldn’t be on the ballot. If he had been on the ballot, by all polling measures, he would have won the first round of the election outright on the 7th of October. He was removed from the ballot, and just in a few weeks the Workers’ Party had to scramble to make the head of the electoral list, Fernando Haddad, a household name.
It was a very difficult task for them. Vote transference didn’t happen at the rate at which they hoped, and it was the case that the far-right candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, almost won the first round in by itself. He got over 49 percent of the vote. If he had received one more percent of the vote, he would have been the president of Brazil.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Now Vijay, let’s talk about why this rightward shift is actually taking place, not only in Brazil. You would think, given the support that Lula has had in the past, that the people would follow suit and vote for the candidate he has put forward, Haddad here. Why is that not taking place in Brazil? It seems to me, common sense.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well the oligarchy and its media have used the term corruption deftly. I mean, they have really won a game of ideas here around the issue of corruption. This is the same in India. Mr. Narendra Modi, for instance, won the election for the Bharatiya Janata Party with the slogan of anti-corruption. Now, it’s interesting what they mean by corruption. What they mean by corruption are the small bribes that one or two politicians are caught taking. It’s a normal situation in all of societies for politicians to get involved in some form of corruption, petty bribery, giving services for some money exchanged or for children getting jobs, and so on. This has become a fact of modern life.
But what the oligarchy doesn’t want to talk about is the real big corruption, when very big companies, for instance, cut deals with governments outside any democratic scrutiny. In India, for instance, there is a current scandal over the purchase of French fighter planes, Rafale fighter planes. The deal was cut where the Indian government told the French company, “You have to do a joint venture with our friendly corporation led by one of our closest allies and so on.” So that big level corruption is not what they want to focus on. They want to focus on this petty corruption. And what the oligarchy has succeeded in doing in our societies is you’re able to say the previous party was corrupt, now we’ll clean the slate and bring the new party into power. And when they’ve had their five years, I mean sure there’s some corruption here, and we’ll say let’s bring another party in to clean the slate.
But of course, the slate is never clean, because the real systematic corruption is not dealt with. And in a sense, in Brazil, small petty examples of corruption are blown up to show that the PT, or the Workers’ Party is a corrupt party, and that you need a nationalist cleanser to come in. And Bolsonaro played that role of the person who used to be in the military, who has a very strong sense of values, who in fact has such strong values that he’s willing to tell the police to go out there and shoot drug dealers, a policy very similar to that used by Duterte in the Philippines. You know, these are men who want to basically take their society by the throat and shake it and promise that it will create a new world. But of course, in taking your society by the throat and shaking it, you’re also suffocating people. And that’s what eventually happens when they come to power.
SHARMINI PERIES: And Vijay, why do you think the left is so poor at hitting this issue of corruption on the head? Now, I experienced this in Venezuela, there is various kinds of corruption taking place. But President Chavez in Venezuela didn’t tackle it when he was in power, could take it on, set up the kind of institutions that needed to be set up in order to deal with this problem. Lula and Dilma had the same opportunity, and Correa in Ecuador also had this opportunity. And now it’s coming back to bite them all. Why have they not been very successful at tackling this issue that seems to be fundamentally important to the people in these countries?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s a very simple problem. I mean, the problem is that the wealthy have too much wealth and they are willing to bribe their way into getting more wealth. At the same time, public finances in these countries have deteriorated, because you haven’t been able to recover taxation from the wealthy. As your public finances deteriorate, salaries for public sector workers have stagnated or dropped, and the temptation then rises when the public sector worker is faced with somebody from the wealthy with an envelope on the table. It’s very hard to tackle this unless you’re able to tax the rich effectively or recover enough money to raise public finances and then increase salaries for people who work in the state.
It’s very hard to use sort of a moral motivation in a country saying, “You work for the nation, you should not take bribes because this is against the national interest, you must stand above that, et cetera.” This is very difficult with the scale of money that’s dangled in front of people’s eyes. Particularly, we see this, Sharmini, when it comes to arms contracts. When foreign arm dealers come in to sell guns or to sell tanks or whatever they sell, the level of bribery so vast that it eclipses the salary of even the most senior bureaucrat. And one sees, unless there is the ability to raise sufficient public finances to improve salaries, to improve the motivation of state employees, it’s not enough to crack down on it from the criminal standpoint.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, that leads me to the role of the media. In all of these countries, the mega media outfits, those who are owned by huge corporations, play a critical role in who gets elected. So, they are the people who are propping up these right-wing candidates that has ascended to power that we are talking about. Now in the case of Brazil, and in the case of the U.S., we are seeing a lot of hype around the extremism of the candidate, but that is working in their favor in terms of getting elected. So, tell us about the climate of the media and the role of fake news and the role of these mega corporations and television that are propping up these candidates.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, the media plays a substantial role, because at least where it comes to presidential elections, where this is not retail politics, you can’t go and shake hands with everybody in the country. A hundred million people are going to vote, how are you going to meet everybody? In the case of India, many hundreds of millions. There’s no way you can do that. So, the media plays a very significant role and when we’re talking about the media what we’re really talking about is television. And it’s from television that you get the clips that people share on WhatsApp and Facebook and so on. It’s really TV news.
In a country like Brazil, the right has basically absorbed television news. There’s no real television news coverage of the left. The big conglomerates, media conglomerates, they all lean to the right. And they have been a constant challenge for the Workers’ Party government and of course for Lula himself, right through his career, and for Dilma. It’s a similar thing in Venezuela, where the media was really far to the right of any government, which is why there was an urgency in South America to create an alternative, teleSUR. But it hasn’t really been able to become the alternative to the right-wing media.
So, what this means is that here you have a man like Bolsonaro, who openly has said that he is against homosexuality, he said that if his son walked into the house with a gay partner, he’d shoot the gay partner. I mean, he talks openly, violently about aspects of contemporary Brazilian society. He talks violently about women. Nonetheless, the media just sort of varnishes this and presents him as an anti-corruption person, presents him as a disciplinarian. This is a key element. There is, of course, crime in all our societies. But the antidote to crime isn’t to give the police the right∂ to go and shoot people.
But I know that among middle class populations, this is a kind of political view that people are not against, the idea that the police or the state should be tough against criminals. It’s a very seductive kind of politics, however wrongheaded it is. So the media has played this up. They’ve position Bolsonaro not as a bilious man who has come out of the sewers of the Brazilian far-right, but as this disciplinarian, this nationalist and so on. And I think this media construction is effective and extraordinarily dangerous for democracy. Talk about fake news. This is not fake news in the margins of social media. This is fake news at the center of television.
SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, if you could speak directly to the Brazilian people today, pending this election on the 28th of October, and given that the real issues in Brazil is not being talked about, not being addressed, people are suffering economically. This is a country that was experiencing so much labor unrest and resistance to the Temer government. Again, pensions being cut back, terrible austerity measures being introduced, and all of this campaign about the extreme right and the rise Bolsonaro and so on, is the focus of the media ignoring these real issues that the people are facing? So, on election day on the 28th, what should people be really thinking about when they’re heading to the polls?
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I very much hope that the 30 odd million people that voted for Haddad are going to continue to vote for him, and that he is going to be able to get tens of millions of more people on his side. Because basically, Sharmini, we know that the solution to many of the crises before us are not easy to come and produce. In a five year term, you can’t solve some of these issues of unemployment. I think it’s wrong for political life to make enormous promises like that. What you can promise is to try and lead a decent government to produce a decent society. And I think that’s the kind of horizon that we should be campaigning for now, for just the basic level of decency.
I mean, whether it’s the United States, it’s India or Turkey or wherever, we have an indecent political class. And I think there is a need for us to talk to sensitive people who are in the hundreds of millions around the world who would like to see decency return to political life. And I think this is something that I very much hope will be in the near future in Brazil in the next week to 10 days. The Brazilian people will look in the mirror and say, “I want to live with a government that’s decent, even if it cannot solve my problems immediately, at least it’s not a bilious, nasty government.”
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Vijay, I cannot let you go without talking about the opposite trend that has taken place just south of the border here in Mexico, where Manual Lopez Obrador was elected a few months ago. And he’s going to be inaugurated in December and taking office, which is very interesting, given the opposite trend taking place in Latin America. So, tell us about that historical moment and why the Mexican people were able to elect somebody much more reasonable and who is going to hopefully act in their interest.
VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it’s been a long time coming. I mean, we believe that AMLO, as he’s known, won two previous elections in Mexico and was denied his victory by the oligarchy. And this is the third time that he’s actually won the election. But some of this has to do with the fact that prior to AMLO’s victory this year, the Mexican right and far right had exhausted itself. It was not capable of recovering any ground, saying that we are the anti-corruption people, we will stand for the country and so on. And I think the lowest point in Mexican politics was the current president of Mexico basically being obedient to Donald Trump, despite the fact that Trump has taken such a strong anti-Mexico position on everything.
And the current president of Mexico essentially went to Trump and fell to his knees before him, as if Trump was Cesar, and laid his wreath at Trump’s feet. And I think this deeply embarrassed the Mexican people, it delegitimized the Mexican right and the far right, and opened the door really, for AMLO to win a very considerable victory, sufficient victory that this time, the oligarchy couldn’t deny him illegally by fraud the presidency, and which is why he is going to be the president. It’s going to be interesting, Sharmini, to see what kind of agenda international finance and international pressure is going to allow inside Mexico to chart a different direction for the country.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right Vijay, we’ll leave it there for now. I’m looking forward to having you from Barcelona next week. Thank you so much.