By Max Abdulgani – Regular Contributor
‘To know the nature of peoples one needs to be Prince, and to know well the nature of the prince one needs to be of the people.’
Political theory is a subject that seeks to confront fantasy, an in-depth study into the hypotheses of individuals such as Plato, Aristotle and Machiavelli; all regarded as some of the most significant thinkers in history. Theory also, however, stifles the mind. Most people can’t help but link abstract conjecture to the realities of livelihoods. It is a difficult enough demand to imagine what is unmade or unproven within the context of reality. That is fundamentally why an attachment to familiarity is one of the only ways in which people can better understand the nature of theorists’ views, and thereby place them in a modern-day context. By this, I mean comparison. Below I make the case for why Bolsonaro resembles a modern-day version of Machiavelli’s Prince, and why his populist authoritarian style represents a dangerously cynical attitude towards the Brazilian population. One that has ultimately damaged trust in political leadership, suppressed civil liberties and reignited tensions between the people and the elite.
Jair Bolsonaro was born into a modest and definitively working-class background. The descendants of Italians and Germans, he himself is a fourth-generation immigrant. After attending Escola Preparatória de Cadetes do Exército, a military prep school, Bolsonaro went on to have a successful career in the Brazilian forces. He first rose to publicity in an interview in 1986 when he complained about low salaries for the military and budgetary cuts from the likes of senior commanders. From the start, it was incredibly clear what Bolsonaro wanted to achieve in his life. He was once caught mining gold in Bahia, one of the Brazilian states, by his military colleagues. Many saw this as a sign of his egotism and self-interest, but he insisted it was simply a hobby.
Fast-forward to 2016 when Bolsonaro put his bid forward to be President of Brazil, much had changed. The country had just gone through a disastrous period with Michel Temer at the helm of it, and the Brazilian government was at 7%, the lowest approval rating in history. Part of this was the increase in extreme poverty which rose by 11% in 2017 alone but the most contributing factor for the downfall of Temer was the revelations that he was engaging in corruption and had accepted bribes of up to $5 million. Bolsonaro came into the picture at a point of acute political and economic crisis and put cleaning up politics as his first priority. His campaign was centred around healing the division that was caused by the previous government and reigniting trust in national and local politics. His campaign received over $1 million in total from the public alone, showing that his popularity amongst the population was cementing day by day. Many saw him as the perfect candidate to restore hope in Brazil’s democracy and clean out the corruption that had come before that. So what happened when Bolsonaro entered office and how far did all his pledges really go?
We’re four years into the Bolsonaro presidency, and only a few weeks ago he was being considered for mass homicide charges by the Brazilian commission. His shameful neglect towards making the right decisions on the COVID-19 Pandemic has been instrumental in the failure of his government to maintain its popularity. Brazil has the second-highest death rate in the world, closely trailing behind the US. If we look at the countries with the highest death rates, there is a clear and emerging pattern. Countries with populist or authoritarian leaders have consistently had the worst records of the pandemic across the globe. The constant spread of disinformation on COVID has been crucial in causing some of the largest public health crises in the world, and Bolsonaro not only commended this spread but championed it. Just last month alone, he made the astonishing claim that UK people who had received two COVID jabs were developing AIDS. His completely irresponsible and dangerous approach to the pandemic has also overshadowed more damage he has done in his time as President.
Since starting out, political institutions have been strengthened en masse by Bolsonaro and his clique. But not for the good of the people. The army and police forces are now effectively subservient to the Brazilian government. The judiciary has been politicised to the extent that only one man now holds the balance of power on holding the government and Bolsonaro to account, and guess what. That’s right, this man is closely associated with Bolsonaro himself. The idea that Bolsonaro has somehow detoxified Brazilian politics and brought change to the system is utterly misguided. In fact, he has made the political climate much worse than before. When it comes to cleaning up politics, he has committed to the very opposite. The way Bolsonaro has shaken up the establishment and filled institutional positions with his favourite fans has instilled a new and very dangerous sort of cronyism that is almost pre-conditional to the maintenance of a populist leader in any country. But it’s also a very familiar tactic, and an idea we’ve seen before in the works of a certain philosopher.
Nicolo Machiavelli very accurately pointed out the cycle that Bolsonaro happens to find himself in today. All political leaders seek to strike a viable balance between the political elite and the people. But the difference with Bolsonaro’s approach is that he has constructed a classically populist narrative within Brazil’s political discourse and has gained power using his man of the people image, only to empower the elites at the top and strengthen his own hand. Machiavelli sets this out in his book ‘The Prince’. He writes at one point: ‘To know the nature of peoples one needs to be Prince, and to know well the nature of the prince one needs to be of the people.’ Perhaps this is a perfect summary of Bolsonaro’s philosophy on life. He, a man who came from nothing, rose up the ranks to become ‘The Prince’ and lay out his vision to the people. He transitioned from being an ordinary member of society to one of the elites. Machiavelli states that this cyclical nature of governing involves the following processes;
Firstly, as a preemptive measure, the elite is in charge of the governing institutions of a country. The status quo therefore will be upheld and there is no likely chance of transformative change for the people. When he referred to the elites at the time, Machiavelli was considering the likes of noblemen and philosophers or economists and poets. At an intellectual level, these people were the cream of the crop and were therefore perceived to be the safest bet in running a democracy. In the modern-day context, the elite refers more to the control of institutions as opposed to just individuals. Brazil’s civil service, judiciary, police force and army.
Secondly, the elite inevitably becomes overpowered and makes irrational decisions. This leads to a deep disconnect between the people and the leadership. Machiavelli then calls for the temporary introduction of a dictator to help reinstall strong leadership and ‘clean out the swamp’ of corruption and cronyism. Although not a dictator, Bolsonaro has the tendencies to impose his own personal agenda, ignore the democratic will and restrict the powers and freedoms of the press.
Since he began his presidency, Bolsonaro has been in a battle to maintain power indefinitely. Like Trump, he is motivated purely by short-term tactics as opposed to long-term strategy. Bolsonaro knows his administration is incredibly unpopular with the public. With a measly 24% approval rating, he has failed to adequately defend his decisions on COVID and maintain confidence in the very institutions that are supposed to uphold standards within government. In a last-ditch, desperate attempt to hold his power, Bolsonaro has pledged a massive spending splurge on Brazil’s public services. No plans for structural reform, but throwing money at everything and hoping for the best. It would involve a welfare plan that puts the Brazilian equivalent of $5.3 billion towards the benefit payments of 17 million people, an increase of 20%. This announcement coincided with his lowest approval ratings in his entire presidential term, leading to speculation it was a deliberate populist attempt to secure blue-collar voters in mind for the next election. This is exactly how the mind of The Prince works according to Machiavelli.
The US academic, Leo Strauss, observes that Machiavelli is a ‘teacher of evil’. Indeed, Machiavelli makes clear in ‘The Prince’ that ‘good men will almost never get power, and bad men will almost never use power for a good end’. One of the most significant traits about Machiavelli is he is always brutally honest about the ways and means individuals gain power and maintain it. He does not seek to waste time basking in idealistic tendencies, but tells it like it is. Bolsonaro, assuming he is the prince, is a bad man who does not use power to a good end, but to his own end. We see this through his electoral tactics. Bolsonaro knows that he has to do whatever it takes to win elections and that it is fair to say he agrees with the statement: ‘The ends justify the means.’ wholeheartedly. Machiavelli’s ideas are noticeably different too from other writers at the time whom were keen to promote virtuous causes and attaining justice for a world which was inequitable. He instead favours ‘cunning, scheming and unscrupulous’ leaders that have the characteristics of beasts. Bolsonaro is all of these things, but despite this one thing is clear: He is not unstoppable.
As Machiavelli writes, the process of installing a Prince at the very top is always a temporary process. It ends when the people can see through the project. When all is revealed about The Prince and his real intentions. Bolsonaro’s intentions have been clear from the outset. Upon entering power, he seeked to strengthen the institutions in his favour, thereby dismantling the principle of an independent judiciary. He set about shifting the political landscape of Brazil, hoovering up votes for a type of populism which thrives on short-termism and exploitation. He instilled authoritarianism into the political system, manufacturing for himself a bubble of elites of which he himself is at the centre of. Here lies the final part of the Machiavellian process. Bolsonaro’s next trick will be to con the voters into thinking the elite at the top exploiting them is beyond his control, and that only he can dismantle it by maintaining power. The opposite of course is true. Be in no doubt about that. Only Bolsonaro was the architect of the new Brazilian elite. A cosy group of yes men and business leaders ready to be subservient to The Prince’s interests.
The future of Brazil is uncertain, but one thing is. Without a new type of optimism and dynamism from the mainstream, the far-right will continue to dominate the geopolitical landscape and Bolsonaro will continue to empower elites at the heavy expense of ordinary people. The Prince never rules forever, but the legacy he leaves behind may be irreversible if others cannot successfully depose Bolsonaro and his tyrannical regime from office. The sooner they do so, the better.