The reactionary division of labor

Image: Cyrus Saurius


A convinced adhesion to the neoliberal project implies the protection of a few big interests and the lack of protection of the majorities

After the 2018 presidential election, there was frequent talk of the possible contradiction, within the federal government, between, on the one hand, the ultraliberal program of finance capital, led by an economist trained at the Chicago School, and, on the other hand, the other, an alleged authoritarian nationalism supported by the military who gained a numerical presence in the government machine. With the marketing spectacle of the election for the presidency of the Chamber and the Senate, at the beginning of 2021, the absence of contradiction and even the convergence of forces in promoting a reactionary work became clear: on the one hand, forces that intend to deepen the conditions of exploitation of workers and, on the other hand, those who press for the expropriation of indigenous and traditional territories to favor the expansion of the agromineral project. In other words, a project that seeks to increase the profitability of businesses, at the same time, by increasing earnings per unit of work employed and expanding the areas exploited, notably by occupying public lands. Both blocs of forces converge in the dismantling of rights, configuring a liberal-authoritarianism that favors big private business and exposes, without inhibition, the non-democratic structures underlying the formal institutions of democracy; a project in which the state is strong against the dispossessed and servile to the powerful[I].

The configuration of this articulation between liberalism and authoritarianism was already foreseen by analysts who believed that there was a logical continuity between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Political philosopher Wendy Brown, for example, maintained, in the first decade of the 2000s, that neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics should be understood as two sides of the same coin, both processes converging in capturing the population for the interests of large corporations[ii].

The marriage between neoliberalism and neoconservatism would thus be founding modes of action through which the formal apparatuses of popular sovereignty could appear intact, while authoritarian governments and corporate power, under the cover of an alleged mercantile rationality, would combine to empty of any content the idea of ​​democratization of politics. The pretense of abandoning political life to the laws of the market penetrated the State, justifying measures indifferent to poverty, social uprooting, racial discrimination and the destruction of the environment and public health. The rejection of anything that could evoke solidarity between people, between peoples and generations has become explicit. Those subjects who, in neoliberal rhetoric, are presented as incapable of competing, for not having shown themselves sufficiently entrepreneurial, are, for neoconservatism, inferior. In the logic of this authoritarian liberalism, the adoption of policies to combat inequality or protect health would not be justified for the supposed “losers” in the competitive order. It would be up to them to accept working under the conditions offered to them, devoid of rights and social protection – or even anti-pandemic masks – supposed conditions in which the “market” would be inclined to welcome them. Thus, compassionate towards those who say they suffer from the “horrible condition of being a boss”, the president-elect warned workers that, if they did not give up their rights to the extent required “by the market”, they would not get jobs[iii]

The ordinance of the Ministry of Labor that, in 2017, unsuccessfully tried to legalize slave labor, should not, for example, be understood separately from the broader business project of applying, within the formal labor market, a labor reform that sought to tighten the disciplinary norms imposed not only on those enslaved by debt, but on workers in general. It is not by chance that agribusiness representatives claimed, on the occasion of that initiative, that “the new political conditions” – read, those generated by the 2016 destitution parliamentary trap – authorized the legalization of work in degrading conditions[iv]. Under the prevailing conditions from then on, it would not be so much a question of a return to traditional forms of immobilization of work – devices for fixing the workforce in isolated spaces with little public visibility – but of issuing a pedagogical signal of the possibilities of imposing greater hardship and precariousness of work on all workers. Government speeches, which, in mid-2019, began to evoke the need for a new labor reform confirmed this.

The recent Hungarian case – which in many respects inspires Brazilian liberal-authoritarianism – is typical of the double regulatory repertoire available today: the authoritarian and racist government combats immigration and, at the same time, proposes labor laws that – from the perspective of the local movement of protest against the (de)regulation of overtime – they legalize work in conditions analogous to slavery[v]. Under “normal” neoliberal conditions of an ideally open market, the entry of immigrants would allow the exercise of pressure by market forces to reduce the income and rights of Hungarian workers. But the authoritarian and xenophobic government of Orbán chose to impose, through confrontation, the destruction of rights, disregarding the competition of immigrant workers, authorized by the European Union. Both “the market” and the directly authoritarian measures that remove rights from the most unprotected are mechanisms that power can use – combined or not – to adjust labor relations to the requirements of corporations.

In the case of Brazil, with its neo-extractivist development model heavily dependent on corporate control over land and its resources, liberal reforms favored, for example, the exercise of investment location blackmail – through the promise of jobs and public revenues – aimed at obtain the consent of workers and residents of areas affected by large predatory investment projects. If they did not accept the socially and environmentally harmful conditions imposed by the agromining projects, the investments would be directed to another, more unregulated and disorganized place. It was claimed, on the other hand, that quilombolas, indigenous peoples and small rural producers – whose lands are often located in locations coveted by the agrochemical and mineral complexes – would not survive the competition of business businesses considered more rational and competitive. With authoritarian liberalism, the racist discourse embedded in the State itself intends to assert the intrinsic inferiority of these subjects and their productive forms: “they have nothing to offer the State and the market”, and should not be the object of any “assistancy” or “poverty behavior”. and other expressions collected in the repertoire of slave and colonial ideologies[vi].

The liberal reforms initiated in the 1980s aimed, in all countries, at eroding international solidarity among workers. The freedom of movement acquired by capital across the planet was operated in such a way as to encourage workers from all over the world to disunite, competing with each other through the fall of wages, the reduction of labor rights, the precariousness of the environmental conditions of work and housing. The relocation of production in less regulated areas where fewer rights are in force would explain both the destruction of jobs in countries where capital is more regulated, as well as, for example, the absence, in the midst of a pandemic, of the production of surgical masks in certain European countries. This could certainly explain the adherence of a portion of European workers to xenophobic policies, in the name of the supposed protection of jobs that were extinguished due to capital flight to less regulated areas.

Struggles for redistribution of income and obtaining rights thus had to deal with blows of this type, delivered through the "relocations" of enterprises - which trigger the so-called "locational blackmail of investments" - as well as "productive readjustments", that advocate technologies that generate relatively fewer jobs. But at the same time, on the outskirts of capitalism, identity struggles and struggles for recognition of territorial rights have been intensifying and increasingly legitimizing their justifications. Here, for example, is what representatives of traditional peoples and communities said at the V Geraizeira Conference, held in Minas Gerais in 2018: “Many today discuss the world of good living. We traditional communities have this in our hands. What counts is not the love of money; what counts is us, who prevent the rivers from drying up and can sleep with the window open, discussing our social organization”.[vii]

Authoritarian liberalism has not hidden its willingness to constrain these struggles, which call into question the whole meaning of the dominant modes of production and consumption. And this he does through the exercise of explicit racism, in the ideological field, or, in the legal field, by interrupting the demarcation of indigenous lands, by subtracting land and resources from non-dominant ethnic groups, by liberalizing the processes of environmental licensing of to incorporate quilombola and indigenous territories into agribusiness and mining.

The political effort applied to destroy rights and assert inequalities has thus been crossed by a new type of reactionary division of labor: on the one hand, the exercise of forms of discriminatory violence and, on the other, the mechanisms of a supposed politically built. It would be up to the ultraliberal project to reorganize internal competition in the field of capital, which includes the very “mercantile” management of the wage relationship (see speech by the Minister of Economy announcing the end of what he understands by “trade union privileges”[viii]), while authoritarian conservatism would prepare the ground for the expansion of the market in areas occupied by ethnic and traditional groups. For this purpose, so-called “non-market” strategies are used[ix], namely, those that seek to manipulate the agenda of government policies, inside or outside Congress, “making policy choices influenced by the private sector” [X], from the perspective, in this case, of expanding the direct control of large corporations over territories and resources.

After the 2008 financial crisis, Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the US Federal Reserve, admitted to having erred "in believing that bankers' judgment in defending their own interests was the best possible protection for all".[xi] A convinced adhesion to the neoliberal project implies the protection of a few big interests and the lack of protection of the majorities. In its authoritarian version, this project embodies what the psychoanalyst Dany Dufour called “drive disinhibition” through which the powerful self-display, without embarrassment, their perverse banner – which does not consider the existence of others and does not want to consider it – which has in the greed private the principle of general interest[xii].

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).


[I] The notion of authoritarian liberalism was formulated in the legal-political debate in pre-Hitlerian Germany, by the jurist Hermann Heller, as the regime in which “the State does not practice abstinence in subsidy policies for large banks, large industrial companies and large holdings”. agriculture, but promotes an authoritarian dismantling of social policy”; H. Heller “Autoritarer Liberalismus”, Die Neue Bundschau, vol. 44, 1933, pp. 289-298 apud G. Chamayou, La Société ingouvernable – une généalogie du libéralisme authoritaire, La Fabrique, Paris, 2018, p. 230.

[ii] Wendy Brown, Les Habits neufs de la politique mondiale – neo-liberalisme et neo-conservatisme, Les Prairies Ordinaires, Paris, 2007.

[iii] It's hard to be a boss, Folha of SP, 4/12/2018.

[iv] 'We can only celebrate', says Blairo about rules to inspect slave labor, The Globe, 17/10/2017.

[v] Thousands protest against Prime Minister Orbán and overtime law in Hungary, Folha of SP, 5/1/2019.

[vi] In the 1920s, an American explorer of the Brazilian hinterland said of the caboclo populations of Mato Grosso: “... it is easy to live in these fertile lands because the mestizo races so common here inherited the inert and careless habits of their Indian and African ancestors: only a few have ambition to rise above animal life (…); for the State they are a real zero, they bring almost nothing to the market and even less take it home; they live to god will give, satisfied because they have provisions for a day and a hut to shelter them. They will die as more industrious people take over the land. For let them die – it is the only service they can render to the country”. Herbert H. Smith, From Rio de Janeiro to Cuyaba: notes of a naturalist, Co. Improvements of São Paulo, 1922, p. 43. Available at

[vii] Dayrrell, CA, Of natives and caboclos: reconfiguration of the power of representation of communities that fight for the place, Doctoral Thesis, PPGDS, UNIMONTES, Montes Claros, 2019. p. 392

[viii] Union life will not be 'like it used to be', says Guedes, The Globe, 07/02/2019.

[ix] According to the speech managementl, “non-market” strategies are those through which “companies seek to affect the political and social means”, managing “their institutional, social and political interactions in order to systematically and rationally increase their capacities to create and capture value ”; Rufin, C. Parada, P. Serra, E. The Paradox of Multidomestic Strategies in a Global World: Testimony of “Non-Market” Strategies in Developing Countries, Brazilian Magazine of Business Management Vol. 10, no. 26, p. 63-85, Jan./Mar. 2008, p. 63-85.

[X] Sethi, S. Prakash, “Corporate political activism”, California Management Review, spring 1982, vol. 24, n.3, p. 32

[xi] Pierre-Antoine Delhommais, Alan Greenspan fait parte de son “grand désarroi”, Le Monde, 25/10/2008.

[xii] Dany-Robert Dufour, La cité perverse – Libéralisme et pornographie, Denoel, Paris, 2009.

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