The Unbearable Lightness of “Green” Capitalism

Image: Anna Shvets


We cannot overlook the possibility of conscious social and ecological transformation

Something is not right. Ecological problems and disasters pile up. Exploitation of the planet and natural resources is carried out on an unprecedented scale and intensity. We are constantly confronted with news about pollution, deforestation, the extinction of animal and plant species, climate change. Contemporary times are marked by an ecological crisis. There is a growing collective awareness of ongoing ecological degradation. Several specialists have defended that humanity is producing and consuming far beyond the capacities of regeneration and sustainability of ecosystems, and that the living conditions and prosperity of future generations are at risk. Within this framework, attempts have been made to calculate the degree of disruption of ecological balances.

For example, Johan Rockström et al. (2009) attempted to quantify a set of planetary boundaries and define the safe operating space for humanity in its relationship with the Earth system. They associated these boundaries with (interrelated) planetary biophysical subsystems or processes: climate change, ocean acidification, ozone layer degradation, biochemical fluxes (the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle), global freshwater use , changes in land use, loss of biodiversity, atmospheric concentration of aerosols and chemical pollution. According to their calculations, the sustainability frontiers of three of these subsystems have already been crossed (climate change, biodiversity, and human interference with the nitrogen cycle), while others are close to being (ocean acidification, global freshwater use , changes in land use and the phosphorus cycle).

The ecological crisis has also contributed in recent years to reinvigorate the academic (and political) debate around the concept of capitalism and its relationship with ecology. A growing number of scientists, intellectuals and activists consider that making humanity responsible in the abstract is wrong and a way of hiding what is fundamental: the organization of production, distribution and consumption, the political, economic and financial rules in force. And who benefits most from them.

“Green” capitalism has been talked about and ideas are presented for reforming the system so that it does not destroy or continue to dangerously destabilize the biosphere. They tell us that there is a lot of money to be made, a lot of profitable business to be done and jobs to be created in this new capitalism that is “friendly” to ecosystems and life. There are those who doubt it but at the same time consider that there is no alternative to capitalism, defending a more significant reformism. And there are those who defend an urgent and revolutionary social and political mobilization to change the system or paradigm. This essay focuses on capitalism as a political economy and a “really existing” global system, presenting different perspectives on the possibility, or not, of a “green” capitalism and addressing the issue of economic growth that is central to this debate.

What is capitalism?

Capitalism is a system based on private ownership of the means of production and the pursuit of profit. Employers (or capitalists), using private capital, hire wage labor to produce goods and services that will be placed on the market for the purpose of making a profit. They own the capital goods that are used by employees (or workers) and they own the goods and services (the commodities) that are produced and traded. Markets are more or less free and competitive, and goods are typically sold at market-determined prices. Markets also include the labor market where wages are determined (Bowles, et al., 2005). The characteristic exchange of capitalism is that which begins and ends with money passing through goods (DMD), with the exchange agent having more money at the end of the process than he had at the beginning.

Under capitalism, part of the product generated is needed to reproduce existing conditions and is used for this purpose. Surplus product – that part of the economic product that exceeds what is needed to pay for the labor and materials used in production – takes the form of profits. Profit provides the basis of capitalist income. When profits are spent with the intention of increasing productivity: on training, supporting the invention of new technologies or more and better capital goods, the expenditures are called investment (ibid).

In a capitalist economy, there is strong pressure to accumulate (invest) a large part of the surplus product in order to maintain or improve market position. The laws of competition pressure capitalists to reinvest surplus product: “Accumulate, accumulate! It's Moses and the prophets! “Industry supplies the material that savings accumulate.” So save, save, i. that is, transform as much of the surplus value or surplus product as possible into capital! Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production, in this formula classical economics expressed the historical vocation of the bourgeois period” (Marx, 1997: 677).

Capitalism is therefore oriented towards accumulation and has an expansive dynamic. According to Immanuel Wallerstein (1999: 11-12): “What distinguishes the historical social system that we call capitalism is the fact that, in this system, capital starts to be used (invested) in a very special way. It came to be used with the primary objective of self-expansion. In this system, previous accumulations are only 'capital' insofar as they are used with a view to obtaining even greater accumulations”.

We can say that we are in a capitalist system only when the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital. It is a historical system that was generated in Europe at the end of the XNUMXth century and has progressively expanded across the entire planet. This distinguishes it from other previous systems in which the “capital accumulation process was long and complex, almost always being blocked at one point or another” because “many of the links in the chain were considered irrational and/or immoral by the holders of political authority and morals” (ibid12).

According to Robert Heilbroner (1986), the need to extract wealth from productive activities in the form of capital is an essential element of the capitalist system. The flow of production surpluses systematically channeled to a restricted group or class is not unique to capitalism. The differentiating purpose of the capitalist system in relation to others that existed is the use of wealth, in its concrete forms, not as an end in itself, but as a means of generating more wealth. The common point is the use of surpluses to increase the power of the ruling class. At the core of the social and labor relationship instituted by capital is domination. A relationship with two poles: one of them is the social dependence of men and women without property, without whom capital cannot exercise its organizing influence; the other is the insatiable and restless drive to accumulate capital. The accumulation of wealth is therefore continually linked to the accumulation of power.

The sublimation of the drive for power into the drive for capital demarcates the nature of the system, but also affects its logic. Hence the insatiability that characterizes the process of capital, endlessly converting money into commodities and commodities into money. Capital reduces all forms of wealth to monetary terms and this common base of measurement brings about significant changes in the behavioral dispositions of individuals seeking wealth. The result is that calculations that were impossible in pre-capitalist societies (wealth existed in use values) became not only possible but imperative. Due to its cash equivalence, an unlimited calculation of wealth, prestige and power is allowed (Heilbroner, 1986).

Furthermore, capital exists in a state of constant vulnerability, introducing a form of social warfare for self-preservation. A process of competition unfolds with each capitalist being exposed to the efforts of others to gain as much as possible, which encourages an antagonistic stance towards other market participants and the use of all available means to gain a competitive advantage (ibid).

In this way, in this system, daily life is investigated to find possibilities that can be brought to the circuit of capital. The transformation of activities that have use value into profit-generating activities for their organizers is important for the expansion of capital. Much of what is called growth in capitalist societies consists of the commodification of life. Everything can serve to increase profitability (new products, processes and markets) and accumulate. The market economy is transformed into a market society and nature.

Capitalism, growth and ecology

Let us then pose the questions: given what we know, can we believe that a “green” capitalism is possible or achievable? Can some reforms, however significant, prevent capitalism from destroying the ecological conditions on which it sustains itself? These issues are often associated with the question of the sustainability of economic growth, which is measured by calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[I] For this reason, they raise other questions: Is economic growth compatible with the ecological sustainability of the planet? Can capitalism function without economic growth?

In this text, we will classify the answers to these questions according to four theoretical groups: 1) sustainable growth; 2) stationary economy; 3) Marxist ecology; 4) degrowth. Next, we will make a brief description and analysis of the ideas defended in each of these groups.

1 – Sustainable growth

In this group are authors who consider it possible to reconcile constant economic growth and ecological sustainability. The underlying idea is that the economy can and should continue to grow, but it is important that it be adjusted and reoriented.

The solutions presented for this adjustment and reorientation involve the internalization of ecological costs in the process of capital circulation and a greater expansion of the market. Carbon markets are currently the clearest example of this type of solution. In this line of argument, Lester Brown (2011) argues that the solution is to get the market to tell the “ecological truth” by assessing the total cost of a particular good or service. Paul Hawken et al. (1999) propose the concept of “natural capitalism” and defend the extension of market principles to all sources of material value, as a way of guaranteeing that all forms of capital are prudently cared for by managers.

Despite the goodwill underlying these responses, we must question their viability. Is it possible or desirable to put a price on everything? Is it possible to calculate the total costs of a good or service? Is its political implementation possible within the framework of capitalism? And if so, wouldn't it make the economic activity or business of many companies unfeasible? What history demonstrates is that capitalism has been a “machine” that externalizes ecological and social costs. Capitalists do not pay, or do not pay in full, a set of production and distribution costs that are borne by families, communities, states and future generations. This has been one of the levers of capitalist accumulation.

Another solution presented is the increasing efficiency in the use of energy and materials in order to continuously reduce their negative impact on the environment. Here, too, the history of capitalist development tells us that the increase in efficiency has been outweighed by the effect of scale: with more efficiency, unit costs decrease, prices fall and consumption increases. This effect is known as the “Jevons Paradox”: efficiency gains do not reduce consumption to the same extent. An economic system devoted to profit and accumulation will tend to use efficiency gains or cost reductions to expand the global scale of production. Improved efficiency thus leads to economic expansion. In addition, there are also limits to efficiency. As Richard Heinberg (2011: 171) points out, “[…] it is important to have a realistic understanding of the limits of efficiency. Boosting energy efficiency requires investment, and investments in energy efficiency reach a point of diminishing returns. Just as there are limits to resources, there are also limits to efficiency. Efficiency can save money and lead to the development of new businesses and industries. But the potential for both savings and economic development is finite”.[ii]

Historical experience supports the thesis that ecological problems cannot be solved by technological innovation alone. Furthermore, the carbon capture geoengineering solutions that have been presented – some highly speculative – should be viewed with great caution due to the possible negative consequences they may have.

2 – Stationary economy

There are authors for whom ecological sustainability can be achieved within the framework of the capitalist system or who somehow consider this question secondary or unanswered. For this, they defend the implementation of significant reforms in order to stabilize an economy that works without economic growth.

The ecological economist Herman Daly (1996), one of the most relevant figures in this field since the 1970s, proposes the concept of a “steady state” economy and significant transformations in the social and economic system, in order to stabilize an economy where there may be qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.

Another important author in this field is Tim Jackson (2009), defender of “prosperity without growth”. According to him this question is a dilemma, which can be put in terms of two propositions:

(1) The growth is unsustainable, at least in its current form. Growing resource consumption and rising environmental costs are exacerbating deep disparities in social well-being;

(2) Degrowth is unstable, at least under current conditions. The decrease in demand leads to rising unemployment, bankruptcies and a spiral of recession, with increased social and political conflict. At the international level, it can lead to commercial and even military conflicts.

For Jackson (ibid), a possible solution to the growth dilemma would be the aforementioned efficiency: carrying out more economic activity with less environmental damage. But warn: for it to be a solution, this dissociation between economic growth and impacts cannot be just relative, it has to be absolute, that is: energy consumption and negative ecological impacts have to decrease in absolute terms, while the economy grows . Efficiency in the use of resources has to increase at least as fast as economic output. The author recognizes that there is strong evidence that dissociation is not taking place at the necessary speed.

The evidence we have points to the idea that the project of a “steady state” “green” capitalism rests on the mistaken assumption that capitalist economic fundamentals are changeable and that growth is optional. According to David Harvey (2014: 231-232): “Would it be possible for capital accumulation to go beyond the exponentials it has exhibited over the last two centuries to an S-shaped trajectory similar to that which occurred in the demography of many countries, culminating in a capitalist economy in a steady state of zero growth? The answer to this view is a resounding no and it is vital to understand why. The simplest reason is because capital is about seeking profits. For all capitalists to realize positive profit, more value at the end of the day is required than there was at the beginning of the day. This means the expansion of the total production of social labor. Without this expansion there can be no capital. A zero-growth capitalist economy is a logical and exclusionary contradiction. It simply cannot exist. This is why zero growth defines a crisis condition for capital”.

The capitalist economy needs economic growth for financial, economic, social and political reasons. The desire for capital to cease to be what it is, through an awareness and action by its agents, is inevitably doomed to frustration.

3 - marxist ecology

Another group defends positions within the framework of Marxist ecology, considering that economic growth cannot stop because it is inherent to capitalism and that capitalist growth leads us to ecological, economic and social disaster. A revolutionary perspective is needed and the establishment of an alternative system, where wealth and power are socialized. An economy operating on a logic other than private capital accumulation. Workers would control the state and would collectively own the means of production, managing them democratically. An ecological socialism, or ecosocialism, would be the systemic alternative to capitalism, a transition phase or the first phase of the new communist society, which would be a society without social classes and without the State.

For these authors, the work of Karl Marx provides the bases for an ecological critique of capitalism and for the construction of an alternative. According to John Bellamy Foster (2009), Marx saw the economic formation of society as part of the process of natural history and used the concept of metabolism to describe the human relationship with nature through work. Human metabolism with nature is regulated from the side of society through work and its development within historical social formations. In analyzing modern agriculture, Marx concluded that capitalism undermines the vitality of the enduring sources of wealth, the soil and the worker, creating an irreparable rupture in the metabolic interaction between human beings and the land. The growth of large-scale agriculture and industry and long-distance trade has intensified this disruption and made it unsustainable. Thus, a rational regulation of the metabolic relationship between human beings and the earth is necessary, beyond capitalist society.

In this field, some authors have developed ecological thinking on a Marxian basis. According to James O'Connor (1998), capitalism suffers from a “second contradiction”. Capitalist accumulation can harm or destroy its own conditions of production. Capital will face rising costs of reproducing the conditions of production and will have to spend vast sums to prevent further environmental destruction, to repair the legacy of past ecological destruction, and to invent, develop and produce synthetic substitutes as objects of production and consumption. This “second contradiction” affects capital on the cost side. When individual capitals externalize costs into the conditions of production in order to defend and restore profits, the unintended effect is to raise costs in other capitals (and in capital as a whole) by lowering the production of profits. There is no problem in realizing surplus value (as in the “first contradiction”)[iii] but there is a problem with producing surplus value.

Despite the flaws and contradictions that capitalism presents, and the injustices and irrationalities it generates, many people cannot see beyond the established social, economic and political framework. Bourgeois ideology, which is overwhelmingly dominant, overshadows analysis and imagination, manipulates and mystifies in confrontation with rival ideologies, and nullifies the belief that another world is possible. That is why it is said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

As Joel Kovel (2007: 88) points out in his book “The enemy of nature: the end of capitalism or the end of the world?”, we are facing the “most powerful form of human organization that has ever been invented and also the most destructive” . Capital is a “spectral apparatus that integrates previous modes of domination” and “generates a gigantic profit-seeking force field” that sucks up all human activity. To overcome this two conditions must be fulfilled: (1) “basic changes in the ownership of productive resources” with the abolition of their private property and (2) the productive powers “have to be freed, so that people self-determine their transformation of nature” (ibid: 159-160).

For ecological Marxism, only with the emancipation of workers and the overcoming of the alienation of work and the fetish of merchandise existing in capitalist society will we be able to break the destructive determinations and the uncontrollability of capital that can literally lead to the end of humanity. In this field there is a fundamental understanding of the problematic of class and the nature of capital in the ecological crisis we are experiencing.

However, it is up to Marxists in general to reject economic growth, even with a socialist orientation, as an objective to pursue in any context and regardless of the consequences. It is also important that they reassess the idea of ​​progress (in Marx there is a dialectic of progress conscious of advances and destruction) and of the destructive and quantitative developments of the productive forces, pointing to their overcoming.

4 - decrease

Another approach that has gained supporters and contributions is that of degrowth. According to Serge Latouche (2011) degrowth brings together all those who carry out a radical critique of development and seek an alternative post-development project. A society where people live better, consuming and working less.

Latouche (2012) argues that it is essential to denounce both the imposture of growth, which generates inequalities, injustices and a sick society due to its wealth, as well as “sustainable development” as an attempt to save growth and humanity’s march towards the future. progress. For this author, both more or less liberal capitalism and productivist socialism are two variants of a growth society project based on the development of the productive forces. To question the growth society implies to question capitalism. But it is not enough to question capitalism. The infinite and artificial growth of needs and the means to satisfy part of them prevent us from facing the finitude of our planet and the challenge of a “good life” or a happy society.

One of the pioneers in this field, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (2012), warned that economics, by adopting the model of classical Newtonian mechanics, ignores entropy, that is, the non-reversibility of energy and matter transformations. He therefore considered it necessary to replace traditional economics with a bioeconomy, which thought of the economy within the biosphere. Economic science should be absorbed by ecology. On the contrary, as Latouche (2012: 238) points out, “the economy not only emancipated itself from politics and morality, but also literally phagocytized them”. There is a colonization of the imaginary by the economic. The difficulty of the necessary reassessment comes largely from the fact that the imaginary is systemic.

Current values ​​are raised by the system and, on the other hand, contribute to strengthening it. Therefore, profound changes are needed in the psychosocial organization of Western human beings and their imagination. The values ​​that should be privileged are altruism over selfishness, cooperation over unbridled competition, the pleasure of leisure and the ethos of luddism over work obsession, social life over unlimited consumption, the local over the global, autonomy over heteronomy, the taste for well-done work over productivist efficiency, the reasonable over the rational, the relational over the material .

In the approach to degrowth, greater attention to the problem of social class, capital accumulation and imperialism in the ecological crisis would be important. This crisis has different implications and different responsibilities for different social classes and countries. The issue of the adoption of degrowth by the countries of the global South and the Marxist proposals for overcoming the capital – salaried work relationship and the abolition of private ownership of the means of production – should be reconsidered in this theoretical field.

Final considerations

The framing of the different perspectives on the possibility, or not, of a “green” capitalism in four main groups does not, of course, include those who defend the business as usual, irrespective of the social or ecological consequences. There are those who manifest indifference to ecological problems, without regard for the world that future generations will inherit. Others, like the famous neoliberals, rely on the “invisible hand” of the market to solve this and other problems. There will be those who believe in an eventually post-ecological world, fully artificial and technological. And there are also those who do not believe that the economic system is jeopardizing the ecological sustainability of the planet.

As already mentioned, the capitalist economy without economic growth becomes problematic on several levels. The vitality of capitalism requires the continual expansion of the value and consumption of commodities, with increased consumption of energy and materials. And economic growth, even if it may be temporarily compatible with ecological objectives, collides with ecological sustainability, as we have observed in recent decades.

It should be noted that the capitalist economy, even in slow growth, is currently oriented towards the production of waste as a way of stimulating capital accumulation. We are witnessing a gigantic sales effort that enters the production structure itself, with planned obsolescence, production of luxury goods and tremendous military spending. All this consumes enormous amounts of energy and resources. It also maximizes production toxicity, as waste in the form of synthetic products (such as plastics) is toxic and harmful to humanity and the environment.

Efficiency and cost internalization are proposals that can be found in the sustainable growth and stationary economy approaches. But, as mentioned, we have to face the clear limits of both proposals.

As Richard Smith (2015) points out, the project of “sustainable”, “green” or “natural” capitalism is doomed because:

(1) Maximizing profit and protecting ecosystems are two ideas and practices that are inherently in conflict. Profit maximization is an overriding rule that defines the possibilities and limits of ecological reform;

(2) No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would drive important and powerful industries out of business;

(3) There is an underestimation of the severity, extent and speed of the global ecological collapse we face;

(4) There is an overestimation of the potential of “clean” production and “dematerialization” of the economy;

(5) Consumerism is not just cultural or a matter of habit. It is indispensable for capitalist reproduction in a system where capitalists, workers and governments are locked in a cycle of perpetually increasing consumption to maintain profits, jobs and tax revenues.

Based on the above, we believe that a “green” capitalism is an illusion and therefore a new system is needed, which promotes the transformation of the relationship between human beings and between these and nature. We can, in this context, establish bridges between the stationary economy group and that of ecological Marxism, asking whether the changes advocated by those in favor of a “steady state” economy do not imply the end of capitalism.

Or asking Marxists whether a socialism without the capitalist madness of endless economic growth, focused on the “good life” and happiness for all, might not be desirable. Are not socialism and communism the overcoming of the irrationality of capitalism and the destructive tendencies it promotes? We also believe that ecological Marxism and the perspective of degrowth can establish a fruitful dialogue: addressing, for example, themes such as growth, development, progress, imperialism, property, social classes and work. Furthermore, the establishment of an alliance of the political representation of these two theoretical movements around a common program would be important in the historical task of overcoming capitalism.

Finally, it is stressed that we cannot underestimate the ability of capitalism to continue to profit from ecological destruction. Capitalism is a crisis-based system that can prosper from it, regardless of the social and ecological consequences. However, ecological degradation and social and economic crises may, in the long run, lead to the emergence of ever stronger movements to challenge the system. We cannot overlook the possibility of conscious social and ecological transformation. Regardless of what happens, all historical systems have a beginning and an end.

* Pedro Miguel Cardoso é researcher in political and ecological economy.

Proofreading: Alina Timoteo.

Originally published on e-cadernos CES [Online], 34 | 2020.


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[I] There are several ways to measure the GDP of a country or region in a unit of time (generally, a year) with accounting equivalent results. For example, GDP calculated from the perspective of income: it is the sum of the income of all people in the economy in question, whether workers (salaries and pensions), entrepreneurs (profits), or holders of other income (interest and others).

[ii] All translations presented are the responsibility of the author.

[iii] The “first contradiction” affects capital on the demand side. It is a crisis of overproduction. When individual capitals lower costs in order to defend and restore profits, the unintended effect is to reduce demand (workers lose purchasing power) and thus reduce profit taking.

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