The Gramsci of the Brazilian Right
The Gramsci of the Brazilian Right
Once a major influence on Jair Bolsonaro, Olavo de Carvalho’s ambition is to establish a new right-wing, nationalist cultural hegemony in Brazil.
Watching online lectures by the Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho one might take him for just another angry YouTube ranter. His videos have poor production values: the camera looms too close to his face, and the lighting is often too bright or too dark. He records himself at his home office in Petersburg, Virginia (he abandoned his native Brazil during Lula da Silva’s first term), with crammed bookshelves visible behind him. If he’s not smoking as he talks, he’s ready to, with cigarettes and a lighter placed before him on his desk.
Carvalho speaks without notes on a wide variety of subjects, some with intellectual pretensions, others on the fringe of politics, if not reality. He has held forth on theories of perception in modern philosophy, and also claimed that PepsiCo uses the cells of aborted fetuses to manufacture its sodas and that the Inquisition has been unjustifiably traduced.
Remarkably, the seventy-three-year-old autodidact who, though the son of a provincial lawyer, did not complete his secondary education, exerts enormous influence in his native Brazil. A champion of the extreme right, his ideas appeal to Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s admiration for Olavo (as he is known, in Brazilian fashion, even to his enemies) was so great when he was elected that when the president visited Washington, D.C., not long after his election in 2019, Carvalho was seated next to him at an official dinner. On that occasion, Bolsonaro, whose policies and worldview are both echoed and reaffirmed by Carvalho, proclaimed, “The revolution we are living, we owe in large part to him.” In 2020, as the coronavirus continued its rapid, worldwide spread, Bolsonaro insisted that the virus presented no real danger. It was, he charged, “fake news” and just “a little flu.” Carvalho was quick to parrot his admirer. “This epidemic,” he said in late March of this year, “simply does not exist.”
Unlike Steve Bannon, to whom he is often compared, Carvalho has expressed no interest in serving in his country’s government. He aims for something bigger and longer lasting. As João Moreira Salles, the filmmaker and publisher of the magazine piauí, told me, “Carvalho wants to be the Brazilian Gramsci.” His ambition is to establish a right-wing, nationalist, hegemonic doctrine by force of will, and by means of videoconferences, articles, tweets, and Facebook posts. He has been facilitated in his mission, allowed to name ministers in Bolsonaro’s government—among them Ernesto Araújo, who Carvalho described as “the Brazilian most qualified to be minister of foreign relations.” Araújo has written that only “Donald Trump can save the West,” and that climate change is a “Marxist conspiracy.”
The reasons Carvalho has become so visible are likely related to the reasons that gave rise to Bolsonaro. Brazil’s horrific murder and crime rates might have played a part in shaking Brazilians’ faith in the existing system, while the money-laundering scandal known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) laid bare the corruption at nearly every level of Brazilian society and politics, working in Bolsonaro’s favor. The scandal’s complicated nature and cascading ramifications make conspiracy theories like Carvalho’s sound almost plausible.
Much of what can be found in Carvalho’s productions is fairly straightforward right-wing conspiracy fare, though couched in his pseudo-philosophical language. He opposes vaccination and believes Barack Obama was not born in the United States. More novel are his doubts that the earth revolves around the sun, and his skepticism about whether it truly is round, not flat. Most Brazilians are devout Catholics, but Carvalho nevertheless alleges that Christianity is in such a precarious state that “[i]n Brazil . . . pedophilia is more respected and protected” than the Church.
Despite Carvalho’s fervent support of Benjamin Netanyahu (a strongman after his own heart), he has trafficked over the years in many of the classic anti-Semitic notions of the far right, as well as more novel fabrications. Adding to the conspiracy theory about the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission, Carvalho updates the canard of the Elders of Zion, claiming there is a Consórcio—a consortium—that rules the world. This consortium, he writes, is a dynastic “organization of large-scale capitalists and international bankers committed to establishing a worldwide socialist dictatorship.” He describes George Soros as “a Jew who helped the Nazis seize the property of other Jews,” who is guilty of “financing every anti-American and anti-Israeli movement in the world.”
Elsewhere, Carvalho attacks the alleged nexus of big money, the left, and the Jews with more subtlety. The Frankfurt School, he claims, “was not only founded by a capitalist billionaire Felix Weyl” [sic] but was “always led by people from stylish families, like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Leo Löwenthal, and their kind.” This description of the birth of the Frankfurt School did not keep Carvalho from alleging, in an interview with a right-wing American website, that it was founded by the Communist International as a means of weakening Western society.
This conflation of billionaires, Jews, and left-wing thinkers is hardly a secondary feature of Carvalho’s worldview. He holds the “cultural Marxism” it represents chiefly responsible for the moral rot of Brazilian and Western society. In this respect Carvalho is not an innovator. The far right has inveighed against “cultural Marxism” for decades, leveling complaints that are now resonating in the lower depths of the global movement Carvalho represents in Brazil. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, included “cultural Marxists” among his enemies in his 1,500-page manifesto, discovered after his killing spree in 2011.
But, for Carvalho, no group was more influential, or evil, than the Frankfurt School. Although he describes the writings of Adorno and Benjamin as “indecipherable,” he still asserts that since the 1960s the Frankfurt School has exerted a greater influence “over the national left than classical Marxism-Leninism” thanks to its propagation in universities. According to Carvalho, members of the Frankfurt School sought to prove that “all the values, symbols, beliefs, and millenarian cultural property” were “a fraud and a dirty trick.” Under their influence, romantic scenes in films were “replaced by explicit sex.” Music was no longer melodic and harmonic. Even women’s makeup now “had to suggest that they were dead or at least had AIDS.”
The political scientist Miguel Lago told me that Carvalho has even alleged that the correlation of cigarettes and lung cancer is an invention of “cultural Marxists.” The campaign to spread awareness of this seemingly unimpeachable fact represents, for Carvalho, the left testing its power to impose its will: if the left could convince the world of the relationship between cigarettes and cancer, then everything else was possible. For Carvalho, then, smoking in public is an act of political defiance.
“Cultural Marxism” describes a perceived cultural hegemony, not a political force. The real enemy, for Carvalho, is communism. A member of the Brazilian Communist Party from 1966 to 1968, he claims to have left after he “witnessed acts [he] considered sadistic.” Carvalho’s hatred of communist ideology is beyond measure, rivaled only by his joy in attacking it. Writing recently of his experience as a young communist and his subsequent, lifelong career as an anticommunist warrior, he wrote: “For someone who has helped to build a lie in youth, you cannot fathom the pleasure derived from destroying it in maturity, brick by brick, with the sadistic meticulousness of the wrecker.”
Communism in Brazil has a long and tortured history, but it has no more influence in the country today than it does elsewhere in the world. Yet Carvalho writes about the communist menace as if the downfall of the Soviet Union and its allies had never occurred. In a radio interview in 2000 he claimed that “we are on the brink of a communist seizure of power in a revolutionary process.” Earlier this year, with Bolsonaro in power and the opposition momentarily cowed, Carvalho continued to issue warnings that “the greatest frustration of a communist is not to have risen sufficiently in life to be able to have all rightists killed.”
At its core, Carvalho’s entire project is an effort to apply the Gramscian notion of hegemony to Brazilian society in order to cleanse it of “cultural Marxism” and all its diabolic influence. Carvalho “is obsessed by Gramsci,” observes Salles. “He wants to create a reactionary hegemony in the cultural realm, which explains his success in putting his people in strategic positions related to education and the arts.”
Gramsci and the idea of hegemony recur constantly in Carvalho’s writings, but in doing so he turns the concept on its head, insisting it has been achieved not by the ruling class, but by the opposition to that class. He also attributes to Gramsci and the communists—assisted by “cultural Marxists”—a long-term plot to take over the government, one that was in place even while the military was in power between 1964 and 1985.
With Bolsonaro in power, Carvalho has been able to weaponize his reactionary vision. As Salles told me, “One can argue that there’s presently no ‘intellectual’ in the world who yields so much power and influence over a national government.” Abraham Weintraub, Brazil’s minister of education, is a Carvalho disciple, evidenced by his claim that crack was introduced into Brazil by the communists to weaken the country. So is Roberto Alvim, the special secretary for culture who was recently fired after recycling (without attribution) phrases from a speech originally made by Joseph Goebbels, using the propagandist’s words to describe the future of Brazilian culture, with excerpts from Wagner’s Lohengrin playing in the background.
Despite his influence on Bolsonaro, Carvalho has expressed disappointment that the president has not taken a firmer stand against his adversaries. In March he tweeted that though the president was elected “to bring down the system, Bolsonaro, advised by timid generals and politicians, preferred to adapt himself to them. Suicide.” Carvalho boasted that though he had “advised [the president] to disarm his enemies BEFORE attempting to resolve any ‘national problem’ . . . [h]e has done the opposite.” These statements are an echo of Carvalho’s belief that the military demonstrated undue softness during its murderous rule. His use of the word enemies is, of course, not accidental. Though Brazil is a democracy, where opponents or the opposition would be the acceptable words to describe political rivals, for Carvalho, left-wing politicians are enemies who must be destroyed.
It is hardly surprising that Carvalho despises democracy. Given his patchwork of fringe political ideas, it is fitting that he is a disciple of the French thinker René Guénon, who died in 1951. Guénon’s antidemocratic notions and calls for an immutable, strictly hierarchical social order reflect Carvalho’s ideal society. Guénon wrote that “the decisive argument against democracy can be summed up in a few words: the superior cannot proceed from the inferior.” In keeping with this medieval view of society, Carvalho believes that intellectuals of his kind have a special role: he identifies a “priestly or sacerdotal caste,” an “intelligentsia” whose job it is to guide the state in driving “the process of modernization, and thus, to determine the meaning of collective life, its values and moral criteria, to define what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false.”
Carvalho continues to press Bolsonaro from the right, urging him to be even more extreme. “What,” he asked in March, “has Bolsonaro done against ANY of his enemies? NOTHING. NOTHING EVER. He’s only dealt them pinpricks, irritating them instead of weakening them.” If his statements, tweets, Facebook posts, writings, and lectures are indeed the works of a philosopher, they are those of a philosopher as described by the thinker he considers the source of much of the world’s evil. Karl Marx, in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Mitchell Abidor is a writer and translator. His latest book is Down with the Law: Anarchist Individualist Writings from Early Twentieth-Century France.