Liberal individualist fiction

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By Joao Feres Junior*

Much more cynical than Hayek, neoliberals like Paulo Guedes advocate abandoning the poor to their fate as a way to benefit them!

It's hard to think of anything good that can come out of the current crisis. In fact, we are just beginning a journey that could last a good part of the already fateful year of 2020. Amidst the depression, anxiety and helplessness caused by the confinement to which almost all of us have been subjected, we are forced to face aspects of our personal and collective existence about which we rarely reflect on in ordinary times.

The first obvious statement we are forced to make is the dependence that our individual existence has on the collective; of society, as they say out there. The breakdown and disorganization of collective life caused by the pandemic put our physical and mental health at risk. This is already quite a lesson for radical individualists, those who see the individual as the alpha and omega of human existence. Aristotle had already well understood the eminently collective character of our humanity almost 25 centuries ago. However, the individualist normativity proposed by liberalism, probably germinated in the Protestant Reformation, produced a fiction that takes the “ought” of individual moral autonomy for being.

Liberal individualist fiction has become hegemonic in modern law, through the Constitutions of all contemporary democracies. This was a fundamental movement in the dismantling of monarchical regimes in the West. On the other hand, fiction has not transformed the collective character of social reality. In fact, the historical movement was quite the opposite. The larger, more populous, and more complex societies became, the more interdependent people became. The virus – that infinitesimal being that travels between the biological and the mineral – came to throw the fundamentally collective character of our individual existence in our faces.

The collective life of the ancient Greeks was under constant threat of disintegration, particularly through warfare, whether civil or against an external enemy. Political philosophy was born as an intellectual effort to devise ways to avoid such social death. This threat was very present in that context for a very simple reason: the Greek polis did not have a State, as we know this set of institutions today.

In other words, there was no stable group of professionals to take care of the numerous services that promote social integration. Therein lies yet another reason for the perverse cognitive effect that plagues today's radical individualists. Many people simply take for cheap the existence of these basic services, such as water, electricity, paving, security, etc., which guarantee the functioning of collective life. Not to mention the obvious fact, but also ignored by many, that human life is almost totally artificial, that is, practically everything that surrounds us, at home or on the street, is the product of other people's work and comes to us through through our social interactions.

And it is precisely when this collective life is seriously threatened that we find ourselves in the hands of one of the most simple-minded individualists our country has ever produced: Economy Minister Paulo Guedes. Your columns in the newspaper The globe, published for years on end, when he was still unknown, exude a doctrinaire neoliberalism for which the solution to any political or social problem results in the diminution of the State and the increase of individual freedom. If before your inability to recognize the different contexts and details of the problems that affect our collective life resulted only in the production of crude pamphlets, today it puts us at mortal risk.

Guedes is the only minister in the Bolsonaro government who achieved some political success in 2019. Pension reform has been strongly supported by the forces that have commanded Brazilian politics since Dilma's impeachment. Broad sectors of the business community – finance, industry and commerce –, parties from the center-right to the extreme right, movements of the new right, many evangelicals and a large slice of the southeastern middle class united in the effort to bathe Brazil in neoliberalism. Of course, we cannot forget the mainstream media, which provides all these people with the narrative of total hegemony of the fiscalist and reactionary neoliberal conception. For adherents of this narrative, Guedes' reforms, like the PEC da Morte before them, are obvious choices; natural consequences of good management of public affairs.

But neoliberalism, like all idealism, does not coexist well with reality. The promises of unlocking the economy did not materialize. In the same way, the promises of raising the level and formalization of employment trumpeted by the defenders of the victorious labor reform of the Temer period also proved to be fallacious. The informality rate in the labor market surpassed the 41% mark at the end of last year, the highest since 2016, when the IBGE began investigating this index.

If we take liberalism in its historical reality, as one of the ideological products of the Enlightenment, we easily see that neoliberalism is actually a type of anti-liberalism. Now, the fulcrum of the Enlightenment movement and the liberal regimes born from the Age of Revolutions was the idea of ​​moral equality among men (sic). It is clear that such an ideal, which animates all democratic constitutions in the world, has always encountered immense obstacles to its realization, but neoliberalism simply discards it in the name of maximizing a supposed individual freedom, also of a fictional nature. Without worrying about sounding racist or elitist, Friedrich Hayek, one of its most influential ideologues, exposes the thing quite clearly: if we apply equal laws to a population marked by inequalities, the result is the preservation of these inequalities, if not their potentialization. He obviously had no problem with that.

The practical consequences of such a neoliberal theoretical movement are clear: preservation or aggravation of all kinds of inequality – moral and material – between people, and preservation and naturalization of all social and economic privileges. Much more cynical than Hayek, neoliberals like Paulo Guedes advocate abandoning the poor to their fate as a way to benefit them! He is just a sad and rather didactic example, because he is simple, of the aberration that is his doctrine.

Consistent with his dogmatic mentality, Guedes reacted to the threat of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) in a frightening way. He declared last week that the crisis was a window of opportunity to deepen the reforms, that is, in practice, to change the norms that regulate public employment and change the tax system.

The meaning of the first reform, the administrative one, will certainly be the weakening of public employment. As for our tax system, it is actually quite iniquitous. However, there is no guarantee that it will become more progressive, as the minister, in addition to not having a plan, has already demonstrated on several occasions a total lack of sensitivity in relation to the tribulations suffered by the poorest sections of the Brazilian population. Why would it be any different now?

The worsening of the crisis, however, gave him checkmate. The only solution to try to alleviate the devastating effects of social disintegration and consequent economic failure is public spending. They will not even be typical expenditures of the developmentalist State, such as investments in infrastructure and promotion of economic activity – something that Guedes abhors. The mass of Brazilians unemployed and helpless due to the prolonged economic crisis and the deterioration of social programs, which has been under way since the impeachment, will now be joined by a huge contingent of those hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis.

All demanding a lot of social assistance from the government, which will also need to create protection schemes to avoid the general bankruptcy of companies. In short, Guedes is being called to lead the burial of everything he has always preached with fanatical enthusiasm. If he refuses to do so, which is quite possible, he will be quickly defenestrated. In short, either lose or lose, deservedly so.

*João Feres Junior is a professor of political science at the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP), at UERJ. He is the coordinator of GEMAA – Affirmative Action Multidisciplinary Study Group (http://gemaa.iesp.uerj.br/) and of LEMEP – Laboratory of Media and Public Space Studies.

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