The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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FEB 2019 Issue
Field Notes

Bolsonarism and “Frontier Capitalism”

Clearing indigenous land, Amazonia. Photo: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama.

The path [meaning] of Brazil’s evolution… can be found in the initial character of colonization.

Caio Prado Junior

The rise of Jair Bolsonaro and his political agenda—mixing economic ultraliberalism with racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and militaristic leanings (including the apology of dictatorship and torture)—provoked as much political unrest as theoretical helplessness. On the one hand, the necessary denunciations were made, with attempts at antifascist mobilization and the much needed campaign #elenão (#nothim) conducted by women; on the other, there were comparisons with historical fascism and other contemporary political figures like Trump, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and, maybe the best, Rodrigo Duterte. These approximations, though, remain vague. The “democratic consciousness” is clear that “he” was unacceptable, but this awareness still lacks in-depth conceptual elaboration. To go beyond superficialities, it is necessary to put a phenomenon like Bolsonarism in perspective, locating it in the world-historical trajectory of capitalist modernity, and within its peripheral Brazilian place.

Here I will use a socio-historical concept that I call “frontier capitalism,” inspired by Jason W. Moore’s concept of “commodity frontier.”1 Commodity frontiers are the result of the incorporation of areas and sectors previously “external” to the capitalist world economy. This incorporation is usually motivated by the presence of resources (minerals, naturally fertile soils, etc.) that, because they are at the frontier, are usually deprived of a labor force, which has to be brought from elsewhere. Hence the structural relationship of such frontiers with slave and slave-like labor. The Brazilian case belongs here; in fact, this configuration is constitutive of Brazil as a modern society, the “meaning and trajectory of colonization,” as is well argued by Brazilian historian and geographer Caio Prado Júnior: thus we have the sugar cane plantations as a chapter of the expansion of European mercantile capital, with production based on the appropriation of the natural fertility of the soil (massapé) for the world market; production based on racialized slave-labor, with as a prerequisite the expulsion (or extermination) of the previous inhabitants of the frontier zone (indigenous people, flora, fauna).2 Brazil was born as an enslaving/exterminating commercial enterprise. The pattern was repeated in the cycles of gold and coffee. It can already be seen that racism and genocide are structural and foundational in the Brazilian configuration of “frontier capitalism.” An Independence that passed power to the heir of the colonizer, the last Abolition on the continent, oligarchic republics and the amnesty of dictators and torturers did not help to radically change these foundations.

As industrialization spread from Europe, once the capitalist world-system started to function on its own base (industrial production based on relative surplus-value), the systemic role of the frontier was reinforced. The tendency of the organic composition of capital to rise (basically, the substitution of machines for workers) leads to a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, as Marx showed. Capital employs several strategies to counteract the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the most immediate one being an increased rate of labor exploitation. The expansion of the system itself promotes the absorption of new workers. Another mechanism—one not generally mentioned—is the cheapening of circulating capital (raw materials).3 The frontier has a crucial role in this: cheap raw materials are produced with the appropriation of “virgin” nature, preferably using slave or slave-like labor: naturally-fertile soil that does not require artificial fertilization, new mines with high-grade ore that minimize the necessity of processing, and so on. The frontier is mobile, a zone of appropriation in constant expansion, playing the role of a “damper” of the tendency of the profit rate to fall.

Today, in the 21st century, we live under what Moishe Postone called “the anachronism of value.”4 As anticipated by Marx in the “fragment on machines” in the Grundrisse, the organic composition of capital—the ratio of the value of machines and raw materials to labor employed in production—has become so high that value, the labor time necessary for production, has become a “miserable foundation” as measure of material wealth.5 The capitalist mode of production is approaching its limit, experienced as a crisis process including structural unemployment, a planet of slums, financialization, the feralization of patriarchy, the reinforcement of structural racism, and intensification of the ecological crisis.6 Robert Kurz located the “tipping point” into crisis at the “microelectronic revolution” beginning in the 1970s, when rationalization of the productive system (computerized automation, etc.) started to eliminate more living labor than was generated by the system’s expansion.7 This “tipping point” was marked by a constellation of events—the collapse of Bretton Woods, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the regimes of the East, the debt crisis of Third World countries.

If Kurz is right about the timing, this happened when Brazilian “modernization” (and that of Third-World countries in general) was still “incomplete.” As Kurz put it, the crisis involved the “collapse of modernization,” the end of “catch-up modernization” projects conducted by dictatorships guiding the development of productive forces with a strong hand. Since then, we have had a “post-catastrophic” society within a malfunctioning world-economy.8 A country like Brazil, now “post-catastrophic,” remains only partially “modernized,” with incomplete class formation, governmental institutions, and mass democracy compared to core countries; neither the “proletariat” nor the “citizen” were fully developed. Racism, genocidal violence, authoritarianism, and anti-republican caprice (especially in structures like the judiciary) remain not as mere idiosyncratic “prejudices” or “privileges” but as structuring elements of a slave-based frontier society only partially superseded.

In this context, the need for cheap raw materials to offset the increasing composition of capital at the level of the world-economy becomes more intense than ever. The expansion of commodity frontiers is now vital for the continuation of accumulation. The “collapse of modernization,” combined with this systemic necessity, produces a specific role for Brazil in the international division of labor: that of an immense commodity frontier, progressively de-industrialized. This is a peripheral and subaltern, but crucial role. The soya frontier is key to the cheapness of food production for the Chinese labor force; export-oriented Chinese production, in turn, is intermingled with American debt, in a “debt circuit” (Robert Kurz’s phrase) in which China buys American bonds to finance the export of her own commodities. Iron ore is crucial for the Chinese urban expansion, even if it ends up in the concrete of ghost cities (and causes a catastrophe in an iron waste dam in Brazil following cost cuts related to price fluctuations). This China-USA-Brazil circuit, articulating Brazilian commodity frontiers, cheap Chinese labor, and American debt, central to the maintenance of capitalist “normality” during the last twenty years, ultimately rests on the hot air of fictitious capital (mountains of debts and paper).9 It was thanks to this commodity boom that the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT) governments could apply redistributionist social policies without making structural changes in Brazilian society, propelled by Chinese capital and in alliance with agribusiness, the financial sector, and even the evangelical political bloc. As soon became clear, this system of “crisis management” could only be precarious and provisional.10

The bursting of the real-estate bubble in 2008 ended the party. Chinese indebtedness could still extend the commodity boom for a while, but the decline inevitably came. This resulted in political instability in Brazil, where the middle class, excluded from the arrangements of the PT government, took to the streets in 2013, demanding impeachment, boosted by an oligopolized media and a partisan judiciary not subject to popular control.11 Not long before, São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad (PT), later an unsuccessful presidential candidate, reacted technocratically to these protests, which were initially progressive (demanding free public transportation), throwing them into the arms of the conservatives.12 The legitimacy of the PT Rousseff government, even in the eyes of those who might have defended it, was severely damaged by her catastrophic decision to apply the neoliberal adjustment program promoted by the “Chicago boy” Joaquim Levy after the 2014 elections. The beginning of the unsubstantiated impeachment process against her (the “soft coup”) coincided with the minimum of the commodity price index (December 2015). The ousting of Rousseff from power in August 2016 meant an intensification and acceleration of the plundering process, now freed of any conciliatory arrangement. The new president Michel Temer managed to cheapen the labor force, privatize Brazilian oil, and cut public services.

This context of economic crisis and low legitimacy of the PT government (identified with the left in general), amplified by “corruption scandals” fueled by “rewarded collaboration,” disregard for the presumption of innocence, political sabotage of the opposition, coordinated media bombardment, agitation from juvenile think tanks and paranoid ideologues (like Olavo de Carvalho, a former astrologer and anti-communist who recommended at least two of Bolsonaro’s ministers) formed the ideal culture medium in which Bolsonarism could grow.13 Bolsonaro mobilized the typical slogans of far-right politicians in times of crisis: racism, militarism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-communism, anti-intellectualism (including an intended ban of Marxism and the ideas of Paulo Freire from schools and universities), that are staples of fascist leaders.14 If anti-Semitism seems residual, conspiracy theories conjure up whimsical plans of “communist domination” under the command of the soft liberals of the Worker’s Party; chancellor Ernesto Araújo (put forward by Olavo de Carvalho) includes climate change denial in his conspiracy theories.15 More atypical is the combination of the ultra-liberalism of the economy minister, Paulo Guedes, with the militarist authoritarianism of Vice President General Hamilton Mourão. But there is no inconsistency here: this is the ideal arrangement for crisis capitalism in a peripheral country that is relegated to a condition of commodity frontier of the world market, while immense and explosive masses of “superfluous” people accumulate in the favelas, where they must be contained—the not-so-hidden meaning of the increased militarization of security forces of the last years is a “war on vagabonds.”16 In turn, the apotheosis of systemic lawfare represented by Sérgio Moro, now justice minister, who incarcerated PT leader and then presidential candidate Lula during the 2018 electoral campaign, will deal with the organized political opposition. It is not by chance that fractions of the bourgeoisie supported candidate Bolsonaro, with no regard for civilized appearance; they are the historical heirs of the modern slave-holders who engendered the modern liberal ideology of slave-owners (as shown by Roberto Schwarz and others).17 But here appears an important difference in relation to historical fascism: while the latter had a modernization role as a “system of total mobilization for industrial labor,” phenomena like Bolsonarism represent instead the total mobilization for the plundering of commodity frontiers and the militarized containment of the “superfluous.” There is no more pretension of mass labor regimentation.18

In this context of “decreasing expectations,” as the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Arantes puts it, traditional mechanisms arise to dehumanize the “other,” the “superfluous,” the favelado, the excluded from welfare systems: racism, elitism, and reactionary affects.19 A specific ideological component enters into all this, as emphasized by some researchers: the emergence of a supremacist anti-indigenous and anti-quilombolas (anti-maroons) ideology. “Quilombolas, indigenous people, gays, lesbians, all this scum,” Luis Carlos Heinze, a congressman, said in a public meeting with agrarian land-owners, and Bolsonaro asserted that “quilombolas are of no use, not even to procreate.”20 He promised (and started implementing it in his first day in office) that indigenous people’s lands will no longer be demarcated, while then vice-presidential candidate Mourão lamented the “indolence” and “naughtiness [malandragem]” of black and indigenous people.21 It happens that many of the indigenous’ and quilombola’s lands are in the way of the soya and mining frontiers.22 More than a stumbling block for particular agro- and mining businesses, they are a stumbling block for an important means of dampening of the growing composition of capital, and therefore of the continuation of the global accumulation of capital. Far from being a mere subjective “prejudice” against indigenous people, these attitudes represent an ideological coagulation of the immediate interests of those involved with the current configuration of crisis capitalism and an entrenched historical inheritance of violence and extermination. Here Bolsonaro’s infamous support for firearms reminds us not only of the military dictatorship, but also of the bandeirantes, those who expanded Brazilian frontiers westward in the 17th and 18th centuries by enslaving and killing indigenous people. In 2017, 207 people were killed in the countryside in land- and environment-related struggles.23 Together with the favelas, where thousands are killed each year, this is the place of the militias in “frontier capitalism.” Also in this regard, Bolsonarism differs from the Brazilian version of historical fascism (integralism), which in its project of nation building intended to include black and indigenous people (dutifully “evangelized”) and used an indigenous language expression (“anauê”) as an official salute.24

Bolsonarism has elements in common with historical fascism, but is something different. The transition from the Nazi slogan “Labor sets you free” to “A dead bandit is a good bandit” and “All this scum” is the ideological mirror of the transition from the rise to the decline of the capitalist world economy. Its strength as ideology seems to rely on the fact that it combines the needs of contemporary crisis capitalism, both in what refers to accumulation itself as well as to ideological processes, with deep-seated, constitutive elements of the social character and the constitution of the subject in Brazilian “frontier capitalism,” elements that were never completely superseded in the course of a truncated modernization. Bolsonarism breaks with the “crisis management” of the Worker’s Party, thereby assuming a certain air of defiance, but substantially proposes no more than plunder and repression. In this historical configuration—absent an unexpected rapid fall—Bolsonarism as political ideology (transcending the eponymous individual) seems to open a new historical period in Brazil, putting an end to the brief interval of the Nova República (New Republic) that started in 1985.


  1. Jason W. Moore, “Sugar and the expansion of the early modern world-economy: commodity frontiers, ecological transformations, and industrialization,” Review 23 (2000) 409-433. The concept of “commodity frontier” is derived from the enlarged reproduction of capital elaborated by Marx and discussed by Rosa Luxemburg. See Karl Marx, Capital: a critique of political economy, volume two, trans. D. Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1992 [1885]), ch. 20-21; Rosa Luxemburg, The accumulation of capital, trans. A. Schwarzschild (London: Routledge, 1951 [1913]).
  2. Caio Prado Júnior, The colonial background of modern Brazil, trans. S. Macedo (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 [1942]). Note that “sentido da colonização,” the original Portuguese expression used by Prado Jr., can be translated as both “meaning of colonization” and “trajectory [or path, or direction] of colonization.” Prado Jr. probably played with this polysemy to point both to the constitutive as well as the core/periphery directional character of colonization. The ratialization of slavery was a consequence of the historical trajectory of the world-economy, which drafted labor from an area by then “external” to the capitalist world-economy (Africa) to the sugar plantations first in the Mediterranean, later in the Atlantic islands and America. See Immanuel Wallerstein, The modern world-system I: capitalist agriculture and the origins of the European world-economy in the sixteenth century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011 [1974]) 88-9.
  3. It should be remembered that the organic composition of capital is ratio between constant capital and variable capital (living labor). Constant capital is divided into fixed capital (machinery, buildings) and circulating capital (raw materials). In analysis of the rising organic composition of capital, Marxists too often fixate on fixed capital, ignoring circulating capital. See Jason W. Moore, “Nature in the limits to capital (and vice versa),” Radical Philosophy 193 (2015) 9-19.
  4. Moishe Postone, “The current crisis and the anachronism of value,” Continental Thought & Theory1 (2017) 38-54.
  5. In the famous “fragment on the machines.” See Karl Marx, Grundrisse: foundations of the critique of political economy (rough draft) (London: Penguin, 1993) 704-6.
  6. On the feralization of patriarchy, see Roswitha Scholz, “Patriarchy and commodity society: gender without the body,” in Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. N. Larsen, M. Nilges, J. Robinson and N. Brown(Chicago: MCM’, 2014) 123-142.
  7. Robert Kurz, “The Crisis of Exchange Value: Science as Productivity, Productive Labor, and Capitalist Reproduction,” in Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. N. Larsen, M. Nilges, J. Robinson and N. Brown(Chicago: MCM’, 2014) 17-76.
  8. Robert Kurz, O colapso da modernização: da derrocada do socialismo de caserna à crise da economia mundial, trans. K. E. Barbosa (Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra, 1992). For an analysis of Bandung and the NIEO in this context, see Bret Benjamin. “Developmental Aspiration at the End of Accumulation: The New International Economic Order and the Antinomies of the Bandung Era,” Mediations 32.1 (Fall 2018) 37-70. For a somewhat different analysis of the trajectory of Brazilian development as a producer of primary commodities for the world market, see Nicolás Grinberg, “From populist developmentalism to liberal neodevelopmentalism: the specificity and historical development of Brazilian capital accumulation,” Critical Historical Studies 3.1 (2016) 65-104.
  9. On the debt circuit between the US and China, see Robert Kurz, “World power and world money: the economic function of the U. S. military machine within global capitalism and the background of the new financial crisis,” in Marxism and the Critique of Value, ed. N. Larsen, M. Nilges, J. Robinson and N. Brown(Chicago: MCM’, 2014) 187-200.
  10. On the Worker’s Party as “crisis manager,” see Marildo Menegat and Sinal de Menos, “Entrevista,” Sinal de Menos 12.2 (2018): 8-19.
  11. On the crisis of the Brazilian “social pact,” see Marcos Barreira and Maurílio Botelho, A implosão do “Pacto Social” brasileiro (2016) Available at: em
  12. On the ascension of conservatism in Brazil, already visible already in 2013, see Cláudio R. Duarte, “O gigante que acordou – ou o que resta da ditadura? Protofascismo, a doença senil do conservadorismo,” Sinal de Menos edição especial (2013) 34-54; Paulo Marques, “A revolta e seu duplo: entre a revolta e o espetáculo,” Sinal de Menos,edição especial (2013) 55-79; Roger Behrens and Sinal de Menos, “Os sentidos da revolta,” Sinal de Menos edição especial (2013) 7-14.
  13. The sabotage of the main opposition party (PSDB) was surprisingly admitted by Senator Tasso Jereissati in an interview to newspaper O Estado de São Paulo. Available at,nosso-grande-erro-foi-ter-entrado-no-governo-temer,70002500097
  14. See Carla Jiménez, “‘Anti-marxista’ indicado por Olavo de Carvalho será ministro da Educação.” El País Nov 23 2018. Available at:
  15. Ernesto H. F. Araújo, “Trump e o Ocidente,” Cadernos de Política Exterior 3 (2017) 323-357.For a Marxian critique, see Daniel Cunha, “Nacionalismo e comunidade na era da crise do va lor,” Blog da Consequência (2018). Available at:
  16. Maurilio Lima Botelho, “Guerra aos ‘vagabundos’: sobre os fundamentos sociais da militarização em curso,” Blog da Boitempo (2018). Available at:
  17. On slave-holding liberals, see Alfredo Bosi, “Slavery between two liberalisms”, in Brazil and the dialectic of colonization, Alfredo Bosi, trans. R. P. Newcomb (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2015 [1988]) 163-208; Roberto Schwarz, “Misplaced ideas: literature and society in late-nineteenth century Brazil,” in Misplaced ideas, Roberto Schwarz, trans. (New York: Verso, 1992 [1977]) 19-32.
  18. On the modernizing role of nazism, see Robert Kurz, Die Demokratie frisst ihre Kinder: Bemerkungen zum neuen rechts Rechtsradikalismus (1993). Available at:
  19. On the “era of decreasing expectations,” see Paulo Arantes, O novo tempo do mundo e outros estudos sobre a era da emergência (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2014). On “modes of life” and “circulation of affections” in today’s political crisis process, see Vladimir Safatle, “Há um golpe militar em curso no Brasil hoje,” TV Boitempo (2018). Available at:
  20. My translations. See the website “De olho nos ruralistas: observatório do agronegócio no Brasil”, which monitors the political acitivities of Brazilian agribusiness:
  21. A shown in a report in the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo. Available at,mourao-liga-indio-a-indolencia-e-negro-a-malandragem,70002434689
  22. See the map of intended mining areas superimposed on indigenous people’s lands at An important consequence of this quest for frontier expansion will be a pressure on the Amazon Forest, putting at risk the biodiversity and risking the collapse of the forest if a tipping point is crossed, resulting in a conversion into a savanna and consequent release of huge amounts of carbon. As such, it is an additional pressure on the already out-of-control planetary biogeochemical cycles. See Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, “Amazon tipping point,” Science Advances 5.2 (2018); and Daniel Cunha, “The Anthropocene as fetishism,” Mediations 28.2 (2015) 65-77.
  23. See the report by BBC:
  24. Rogério S. Silva, “A política como espetáculo: a reinvenção da história brasileira e a consolidação dos discursos e das imagens integralistas na revista Anauê!Revista Brasileira de História 25 (2005): 61-95.

This is a slightly modified version of an article published in October 2018 in Portuguese in Blog da Consequência: Translated by the author.


Daniel Cunha

Daniel Cunha is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology (Binghamton University), M. Sc. Environmental Science, B. Sc. Chemical Engineering. He is co-editor of the Brazilian magazine Sinal de Menos ( He is currently doing research on the Industrial Revolution as world-historical/ecological process for his Ph.D. project, called “The Rise of the Hungry Automatons: The Industrial Revolution and Commodity Frontiers,” under the supervision of Jason W. Moore. Email: [email protected].


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2019

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