RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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158 ‘Authoritarian neoliberalism’ in Brazil? Geographical perspectives on the causes and consequences of the rightward turn
Convenor(s) Matthew Richmond (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK / Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)
Robert Coates (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
Chair(s) Matthew Richmond (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK / Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)
Timetable Thursday 29 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Skempton Building, Lecture Theatre 207
Session abstract An emerging body of work suggests ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ has arrived in Brazil. Unlike Brazil’s mainstream right, newly elected far-right president Jair Bolsonaro combines a deepening of market logics with strongman leadership and violent, radical conservative discourse. These dynamics have important socio-spatial dimensions, linked to processes of development and political action in diverse urban and rural settings.

Notwithstanding significant improvements in service provision and legal and regulatory frameworks associated with the City Statute, Brazil’s cities remain highly unequal, precarious and insecure. While the far right draws much of its electoral support from middle and upper classes concentrated in urban areas and resentful of redistributive reforms, Bolsonaro also tapped into popular discontent about issues like crime and corruption. From autonomist-inspired urban social movements, to anti-corruption protests, to urban occupations by groups like the MTST, cities also remain key sites for mobilisation by both left and right.

Brazil’s status as one of the world’s most urbanised countries is of course contrasted by radical rural change and internal migration. ‘Agro-neoliberalism’ and mineral extractivism expanded under all recent governments, with concessions granted to powerful ruralistas intent on removing environmental regulation and protections for vulnerable rural populations. However, such encroachments provoke resistance from peasant, indigenous and quilombola movements.

This session interrogates the notion of authoritarian neoliberalism in Brazil from a geographical perspective. The papers examine the conditions that gave rise to Brazil’s current conjuncture, the likely socio-spatial impacts of Bolsonaro’s political agenda and emerging geographies of resistance to authoritarian neoliberalism.
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Agricultural Populism on the Pampa: Farmers, Globalization and Politics in Rio Grande do Sul
Michael Woods (Aberystwyth University, UK)
Francesca Fois (University of Salford, UK)
The election of authoritarian neoliberal Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018 mobilised a coalition of urban middle classes and rural agribusiness interests. Support for agribusiness and the removal of constraints on the expansion of Brazil’s agricultural frontier were among Bolsonaro’s signature policies, and he enjoyed the backing of the powerful ‘Beef, Bullets and Bibles’ caucus in the Brazilian parliament, associated with agribusiness interests. However, in this paper we argue that the populist sentiment that propelled Bolsonaro also drew on discontent among small- to medium-sized farmers struggling with the paradoxes of Brazil’s export-driven agricultural boom. The paper draws on empirical fieldwork in March 2018 in the municipality of Dom Pedrito in Rio Grande do Sul, where Bolsonaro later headed the poll with 40% of the vote in the first round. Focused as a case study of globalization and rural restructuring, the research, which included interviews with farmers, agrarian leaders and local stakeholders and observation at a farmers’ political meeting, revealed the dissatisfaction of farmers and their attraction to populist politics. We observed a dominant class of medium-sized farmers in Dom Pedrito, who had prospered with the local expansion of rice and soy farming, but who also expressed concerns about fluctuating prices, servicing increasing levels of debt, coping with extreme weather, and competing with cheaper imports. We argue that these pressures combined with perceived threats from left-wing campaigns for tighter environmental regulations and land reform created conditions favourable to Bolsonaro’s populism, and discuss prospects for opposition and questions for further research.
Crime control, bordering and the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism in Brazil
Roxana P. Cavalcanti (University of Brighton, UK)
In the last decade, Brazil has experienced a proliferation of mass incarceration and criminal organizations, which are delineated by imagined and real borders, spatial and discursive inequalities. Space-bound security concerns diversified and intensified in the media and in state policies. Through an analysis of ethnographic data collected in the northeast of Brazil, this paper discusses the assemblages of bordering that have the outcome of producing spatial, managerial and symbolic borders. In doing so, the paper reveals how neoliberal ideology and a contrived focus upon supposed crime control take precedence over citizens’ human rights and equality before the law, maintaining a legacy of authoritarianism. The paper argues that the political misuse of crime control discourses have created new social borders of acceptability and facilitated the endurance and the return of the authoritarian far-right to mainstream politics.
The crisis of labour in the neoliberal city: Struggles of street vendors in Belo Horizonte/Brazil
Mara Nogueira (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK)
The global decline in wage labour and the flexibilization of labor relations are both leading to growing job precariousness, narrowing the gap between work experiences in the North and South to the detriment of the former. Similarly, traditional forms of working-class political organisation are being dismantled, while new ones are emerging. In Brazil, the IBGE has estimated that 40.8 % (or 37.3 million people) of the total labour force was employed in the so-called “informal sector” in 2017. This trend is visible in the streets of the country, where many disadvantaged workers strive to make a living as street vendors. Although Brazil is recognised for having a progressive urban policy, the rights to the city of informal workers have been mostly ignored by the country’s legislation. This situation combined with the growing commodification of urban space has created increasing difficulties for marginalised urban populations, whose livelihoods are often depended upon their ability to access workspace. This paper focuses on the case of Belo Horizonte/Brazil, examining the role of the Workers’ Party in shaping local policies that restrict street vendors’ access to public space in the early 2000s. It traces connections between those earlier initiatives and current attempts to revitalise the city’s centre, which resulted in the forced eviction of workers from the area. Finally, the paper investigates the limits and potentials of urban space as an arena for political contestation by looking at a case of resistance against workspace displacement.
Exploring post-truth environmental governance under authoritarian neoliberalism
Robert Coates (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
At the start of a major new international project on ‘Convivial Conservation’ (Buscher and Fletcher, forthcoming; www.convivialconservation.com) this paper examines unfolding questions surrounding authoritarian governance, neoliberal expansion, and systematic denial of environmental degradation. Environmental governance in Brazil through and since the authoritarian developmentalism of the dictatorship (1964-85) has maintained a curious mix of laissez-faire and governmental protection. But present cuts to federal agency IBAMA and scientific research, alongside high unemployment, social austerity, and ruralista support for livestock, soya and mining have massively increased destruction of forest biodiversity in the Amazon, Atlantic Forest and beyond. Discourses of the environment as ‘there for the taking’ remain central to Bolsonaro’s nationalist-territorial appeal and are watered by imaginaries circulated in the media. However, the new ‘post-truth’ era of environmental governance (Neimark et al., 2019) goes beyond this, increasingly manifesting through techniques of bureaucratic obfuscation and confusion. The paper argues that this is a fast-paced process entangling opposition forces—in government administration, media, and environmental agencies—in bureaucratic process and debate as a means of downgrading the public as a whole, and which ultimately allows private (and often nominally illegal) forces to operate with few constraints.
Bolsonaro’s ‘authoritarian neoliberal’ electoral coalition: Shifting electoral geographies and the blurring of class divisions in four metro areas
Matthew Richmond (The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK / Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil)
Liz McKenna (University of California, Berkeley, USA)
According to Singer (2012), Brazil’s 2006 election was an landmark moment, signalling a durable realignment in the voting behaviour of different groups and regions along class lines. Whereas the Southern middle classes rejected the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) in favour of the right-wing Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB), lower-income groups –especially in the poor Northeast region but also in the peripheries and favelas of wealthier Southern cities– rallied en masse to the PT to defend its redistributive agenda. Presenting longitudinal electoral data from four metropolitan regions in the Southeast and South of the country (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre) we argue that the victory of the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 election represents a similarly dramatic realignment. We emphasize three shifts in particular: (1) Bolsonaro’s cannibalisation of the PSDB’s urban middle-class vote; (2) His dramatic expansion into urban peripheries previously dominated by the PT; and (3) The persistence of residual support for the PT in the peripheries of two of these cities (São Paulo and Porto Alegre). The findings suggest that social and institutional changes in urban peripheries, and the effective positioning of Bolsonaro’s campaign at a moment of perceived national crisis, succeeded in blurring the class distinctions that had dominated Brazilian elections since 2006. However, given the heterogeneity and conflicting interests contained within Bolsonaro’s new ‘authoritarian neoliberal’ electoral coalition, the sustainability of this realignment is highly doubtful.