September 30, 2022

Brazil has grown increasingly distant from its foreign clichés, those of samba and bossa nova, sensuous coastal cities, Catholicism, cordiality, and collectivism. The Brazil that has incubated Bolsonarism is a more individualistic one, in which evangelical Christianity, popular entrepreneurialism and a flight from society are some of the determining features.

In elections this Sunday, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is likely to triumph over current President Jair Bolsonaro. But the best way to understand the new Brazil, as well as to shed light on the workings of Brazilian politics, may actually be to leave Bolsonaro and Lula to one side and examine another candidate, a life coach and self-described theologian who, thanks to party wrangling, has been left without a legal candidacy.

Pablo Marçal, 35, has four million social media followers, sells a controversial life-coaching course called “The Worst Year of Your Life”, and is best known for nearly leading a group to their death in an ill-prepared trekking expedition in the service of “mental unblocking”. This year, the marketing-cum-political entrepreneur proposes to “unblock the nation”, and to do so from “neither Right nor Left, but from above”.

Marçal fulminates against the two leading candidates. The election, he argues, is like choosing a product: “there’s a car dealership called politics, and they tell you the most popular models are the little red Fiat or the yellow VW [Lula or Bolsonaro], but behind those you find Mercedes, BMWs… and way at the back there’s one no one talks about, a three-million real McLaren.” Encouraging his audience to choose the McLaren, he argues that “some can’t stand people who take risks; if you don’t, you won’t be able to govern, to reach the top”. It is this mix of opportunism, individualism, braggadocio, and indeed faith, that make Marçal emblematic not only of a style of politics, but of deep changes in Brazilian society.

Marçal is a fiery orator and canny operator, worth a declared R$ 96m (US$ 18.5m). With corporate donations banned in Brazilian politics since 2015, the small centre-Right Republican Party of Social Order (PROS, in its Portuguese acronym) signed up Marçal on the promise that he would contribute R$200m to the party. But following a dispute, a legal ruling has now seen control of the party handed back to its previous president. The PROS is back in Lula’s electoral coalition and Marçal’s candidacy is stillborn.

Marçal became famous in January this year after leading a large group up the Pico dos Marins, a 2,420m-high mountain in the state of São Paulo. Facing 100km/h monsoon winds and near-freezing night-time temperatures at the peak, the group had to be rescued by the fire brigade. In a chest-thumping video posted on social media after the rescue, Marçal gave no indication of having needed help to get down the mountain. Instead, he provoked viewers to “stay home and watch [social media] stories” if they did not feel up to taking risks. “There’ll be a bunch of people in your life, like mountain rescuers, telling you what you can and can’t do in your life. But only you can decide.”

Marçal is also an entrepreneur whose marriage of New Age woo and business acumen recalls the “California ideology” of figures like Steve Jobs. His “IP method” of life coaching, for instance, includes courses on emotional intelligence based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, with a focus on “brain unlocking, identity activation and purpose clarification”.

To this he adds a dash of evangelical Christianity. His mental unlocking sessions have moments that resemble an exorcism — but in the service of professional advancement. “People are going to criticise you… in the name of Jesus, tell them to go fuck themselves,” he boomed when invited to speak at the Community of Faith church. It was met with a mixture of shock, mirth, and applause.

Marçal’s proposition is not so much religious as earthly. His programmes concern professional success and wealth; his presidential candidacy is an attempt to sell change, good management, and economic growth. His worldly pragmatism, however, is infused with the emotional registers of neo-charismatic Christianity.

In a way, this represents the closing of a circle. Neo-Pentecostalism grew out of post-Sixties New Age milieus. So did life coaching. According to Silas Guerriero, a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, life coaching emerged from a New Age vision in which personal autonomy can be achieved through the development of individual spirituality. Now, evangelicals — in Brazil, but also around the world — are appropriating the techniques and styles of life coaching into their ministry. They blend “counselling, personal consultancy, and psychotherapy” with charismatic Christianity to help followers deal with both religious demands and the challenges of contemporary life.

With his brand of self-help religiosity, Marçal is representative of the changing face of Brazil. Thanks to budget cuts, Brazil has delayed its decennial census, which should have been due in 2020, until this year, and so we do not know the total number of evangelicals in the country. One recent estimate, however, put it at 31% of the country’s population, up from less than 7% in 1980. As a whole, evangelicals, more than half of whom are Pentecostal, are set to overtake Catholics by 2030.

These numbers are only likely to rise as the country experiences what is, in effect, an economic lost decade. Brazilian researchers have found that for every 1% fall in the country’s GDP, evangelical numbers increase 0.8%. As Christopher Lord has noted, Bolsonaro, though a Catholic himself, “may well prove to be the first president of post-Catholic Brazil”. After all, if evangelicals were to decide the upcoming election, Bolsonaro would win a first-round landslide; they are one of the few demographic groups in which the incumbent holds an incontestable lead.

The evangelical churches “promise people what they want, now: health and wealth. And this is why it’s the faith of the world’s working poor,” explains Elle Hardy, author of an exposé on the religion’s global spread. We are a long way from sociologist Max Weber’s understanding of the way Protestantism sustained capitalism: hard work, duty, sacrifice and delayed gratification, in the name of rewards in the afterlife. Today, it’s the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Grifting. As Hardy tells me, “these people aren’t reading Luther, they’re reading Elon Musk biographies”.

In a context of wide and deep mistrust in institutions, Neo-Pentecostal churches also reject traditional authorities, be they priests or politicians. Its adherents, feeling besieged by the world around them, are told by pastors that only you, the believer, can dig yourself out of this hole. But the church also provides a community amid this individualism. In a precarious economy, the little microenterprise you set up to make ends meet will find willing customers among the faithful — once given endorsement by your pastor. The appeal here to the poor and struggling is obvious.

These social transformations have clear political consequences. There is a large, multi-party evangelical bench in Congress: 195 federal deputies (38% of the lower house) and 8 senators. Neo-Pentecostals are a fair proportion of them. According to news outlet Metrópoles, 52 deputies elected in 2018 are Neo-Pentecostals.

These churches have their base in the poorest section of the population, but over the past two decades, the ranks of the faithful have steadily ascended into what is referred to in Brazil as the “new middle class”. The “Lulista” years, from 2003 to 2016, saw strong growth, cash transfers to the poor, an expansion of credit, and new private universities sustained by access to student loans. But this was not equalled by improved public services, while at the same time the rate of unionisation fell precipitously. Stagnating formal job creation has resulted in an informality rate exceeding 40%. For poor and lower-middle-class Brazilians, opportunity coexists with extreme precarity.

The result has been a much more individualistic country in which Marçal’s style of self-help has flourished. “Imagine yourself a baby who is taken from a royal family in the castle and given to a poor family. But as you grow, you look up to the castle and think, ‘I belong there,’” Marçal preaches.

One former Marçal follower has sued the life coach for encouraging her to make this vision a reality — by quitting her steady job and starting her own business. In court, the plaintiff alleged that Marçal told her, “we should not be celetista” (a reference to the CLT, Brazil’s labour code that guaranteed employment rights, and thus shorthand for formal employment), given that we are “born to prosper”. “He believes that everyone should choose to become an entrepreneur, that we should listen to our ‘heart’… and not be enslaved,” she explained, arguing that Marçal preys on the vulnerable.

Marçal leverages this attitude into politics. “I feel like going to every person and yelling, ‘you’re asleep, you’re zombies, don’t you want Brazil to improve? Don’t you want change!?’ What do I want? I want you to prosper,” he exclaims in one recent livestream.

On his official campaign website, there are five keystones. The first is “every Brazilian a governor”. But this is no democratic slogan, it is an individualist one, dovetailing with his broader gospel discourse about prosperity. This becomes evident in another keystone, “every family a nation” — a slogan that could resonate just as well with Bolsonaro’s conservative, evangelical voters. The family is under threat and needs defence against the hostile outside world. Society is nowhere to be found. There is only “my fatherland, my family”, as yet another keystone has it.

The political echoes of Bolsonarismo should be obvious here. Indeed, the sharp-tongued Marçal calls the president merely an “expired antibiotic”: he did his job but now the moment has passed. “I’ll say it until my last days, until Bolsonaro hands me the [presidential] sash. I’ll get down on my knees and wash his feet and thank him for getting rid of the PT [the Workers’ Party],” Marçal explained.

At the same time, Marçal has sought to distance himself from the chaotic Bolsonaro. “I’m the resistance!”, he says. “None of the other ‘third way’ held on, I’m the third way we all dream of!”

Indeed, a huge range of other, more established politicians have auditioned for the “third way” — between Lula and Bolsonaro — and failed. Previously, at the 2018 election, these politicians, mostly from the establishment Right, backed Bolsonaro in the second round. This year, they believed they had a chance to be president. After all, Bolsonaro can no longer claim to be an outsider, and his “disgovernment” has repelled many.

But the return of Lula — the most popular president in Brazilian history — has swallowed up the anti-Bolsonaro vote. And Brazilians have no love for the uncharismatic politicians of the mainstream Right. These are “cuckservatives”, in American internet parlance, who have seen the bulk of their voters abandon them in favour of the far-Right. Most of them have grudgingly fallen behind Lula in the search of some temporary stability.

Yet if Lula defeats Bolsonaro as expected, the anti-system new Right, with its base in Right-wing YouTube channels, will need a champion. This is undoubtedly terrain Marçal or someone like him can exploit. For instance, Marçal has already warned that Lula’s promise to reverse a grievous rollback of workers’ rights “will enable huge corruption”. The message here? Embrace precarity, throw yourself into the market, trust only yourself, your family, and God.

And so, across the country, the growing uncertainty of Brazilian life means the country will continue to be fertile ground for the pastor-coach type. Violent crime forces a recoil into a defensive posture inside the family unit. Economic informality means the lure of entrepreneurship pulls harder than that of a steady job, itself a growing rarity. The discrediting of mainstream institutions creates a demand for new sources of authority. The waning of tradition and Catholicism — with its more collective bent — should be providing an opening for progressive, secular politics. But for many, absent some big new idea to fill the void of meaning, it also represents a seemingly existential threat. If the public realm promises little, why not see if a little “mental unblocking” can make you rich?