The metamorphoses of Brazilian ideology

Image: ColeraAlegria


The abstract and totalizing ideal of the nation suppresses the internal social differences of a people, both sociocultural and socioeconomic in nature.

The ideas of the past would make little sense if they did not shed some light on the present. Critical learning about the historical past has always been and continues to be one of the main ways for us not to stumble in the uncertainties of the present and not be afraid of the future. The strange present of Brazil and the world almost makes us obtuse in thinking. Therefore, an escape to the past is urgent, as an escape route for the difficulties of current thinking, so as not to give up on envisioning a better horizon in the future.

The use that has been made of the notion of ideology by the government of Jair Bolsonaro is very curious. Since Marx, the father of all critical sociology, the concept of ideology has received a fine and rigorous analytical treatment, being undoubtedly one of the central concepts of the entire history of critical thought. The trivialization of this concept, and not exactly this one by chance, is a strange symptom of difficulties in perceiving the reality of our time.

Brazil elected Bolsonaro having as one of the main mottoes of his speech a critique of gender ideology. Despite the disregard of several decades of serious and rigorous academic debates about inequalities in this field, we need to understand what is at stake in this type of argument. The alternative of this discourse to a supposed domination of gender ideology would be a government and, consequently, a nation conducted by principles of neutrality, that is, without the influence of any ideology.

We need to think about the contradiction in terms and the political content of this position. One of the central aspects of Bolsonaro's candidacy argument was the defense of a meritocratic ideal, from which it would supposedly be possible to create a national context free of corrupt distortions that would have prevailed in the previous conjuncture. It is enough to read the inaugural speech of the elected candidate to confirm this statement with all letters. A curious clue between the lines for understanding the fact is that the discourse of meritocracy appears articulated to a somewhat abstract ideal of nation. Not by chance, the slogan of the campaign and his presidency is “Brazil above all, God above all”.

What does that mean? Beyond the obvious fact that governments like the current Brazilian one have very little legitimacy and remain in power purely and simply for arbitrary reasons, we need to understand the essence of their discourse. The rhetoric of the nation as an abstract entity “above all” has a known history and known consequences in the context of modernity. In our case, a brief return to some pages of Brazilian history can shed light on the reasons and objectives of the nation's abstract discourse.

When I started my studies on Brazilian national identity, one of the things that shocked me the most was the discovery of the work of José Bonifácio, our “patriarch of independence”. It is he who created for the first time, in Brazil, as I analyzed in chapter 1 of the book, the discourse on the abstract being of the nation above all else. His main objective was to lead a peaceful transition from a colonial Brazil to an empire Brazil independent of Portugal, thus representing an elite of Portuguese descent installed here. With that, the nation's abstract discourse played a decisive role in the task of an elite of European descent that needed to deal with the evident fact of the ethnic and cultural diversity present in Brazil.

          In this sense, Bonifácio's performance, as a public and intellectual man, was decisive. His opinions about the Indians and the blacks in Brazil, at that moment, attest well to the reasons for being of his Brazil-abstract nation, above all. Both Indians and blacks were perceived by him as beings of inferior natural and cultural condition, who needed to be integrated as “Brazilians”, Christians and citizens. Any analogy with current Brazilian reality is not mere coincidence. This is the specific content of the myth of the three races of Brazilianness, founded by José Bonifácio practically a century before its great systematizer, Gilberto Freyre.

José Bonifácio's real challenge, which is reflected in the specific content of the Brazilian myth, was to amalgamate the Brazilian ethnic and cultural diversity, under the sign of the nation, with the white elite supposedly being the most qualified actor for this task. However, as classical thinkers such as Max Weber and Wright Mills teach us, all human action requires legitimation. In this case, the great symbolic act founding Brazilianness seems to have been the “Dia do Fico”, in which D. Pedro I would have received from the people a kind of social power of attorney to conduct all his affairs, sedimenting in our imagination a kind of of natural amalgamation between God, politics, people and nature.

In the context of the moral decline of the Empire and the flourishing of the air of the Republic, Joaquim Nabuco presents us, as I showed in chapter 2, an incisive criticism of the economic and moral pillars of José Bonifácio's ideal nation. Having as a motto the centrality of slavery in our social life, Nabuco masterfully and sensitively showed the fragility of the pillars of the ideal of a totalizing nation, above all, built by Bonifácio. The glaring fact of slavery was the great proof that any sense of progress, whether economic or moral, depended on overcoming that institution and automatically negating the ideal of nation prevailing in the empire.

With that, Nabuco presented to the public a perception of a concrete, realistic nation, which faced head on the great inequality of classes sedimented under the moral imperatives of slavery. For him, such an institution was degrading, robbing the black race of dignity and causing embarrassment to Brazil on the international stage. Once again, any resemblance to Brazil today is not mere coincidence. The current realignment of Brazil in the global scenario, after its leading role in the previous conjuncture, leads us to a situation of submission and degradation of internal social forces, similar to the pre-republican situation, exactly as Nabuco found.

The great learning that we can draw from Joaquim Nabuco's profound criticism is that the abstract and totalizing ideal of a nation suppresses the internal social differences of a people, both those sociocultural and those of a socioeconomic nature. In this last dimension, Nabuco is incisive in showing that Brazil's productive forces were blocked, to the extent that people who were not free and not autonomous, humiliated, degraded in their existential condition, could not be motivated for useful, dignified and creative work. As a result, their physical exploitation and psychic oppression only served to fuel the unjustified privilege and unproductive idleness of a tiny ruling class. In a sociocultural sense, the condition of moral degradation of the slaves only denounced the lowered moral condition of the entire nation, driven by the connivance and cynicism of its elite. Not by chance, Nabuco summarized his argument in this direction, stating that Brazil was “levelled from below” by the institution of slavery.

It's hard not to think about Brazil's current situation in the face of this. The past is warning us loudly: there is no progress in any sense with lowering the dignity of most members of society. The labor reform in Brazil is nothing else, to take a recent central fact here, insofar as it leaves the worker totally at the mercy of the employer's decisions, denying the former the true social recognition of his value. The false ideal of freedom of contracts and autonomy, carried out by the reform, only systematizes a condition of radicalization of the condition of non-dignity of the worker and the common worker. It is exactly in this context that the myth of Brazilianness will be mobilized and updated in its most totalizing sense and suppressor of differences.

According to Marilena Chaui, as I highlighted in Chapter 4, the national myth functions as a multifaceted polyhedron, maintaining a “hard core” of its essence over time, but also updating some of its aspects according to the situation. In the case of Brazilianness, the hard core refers to our self-perception as a harmonious, humble, hospitable, loving, conflict-averse, affective people, in short, the extreme opposite of the supposedly cold and individualistic peoples of Europe. From this hard core of our ideology, we witness in concrete conjuncture experiences of our history the updating and adaptation of some of its aspects. In times of radicalization of the class struggle and the resulting social tensions, as in the current Brazilian situation, the observable tendency is for the myth of Brazilianness to be mobilized in its most totalitarian dimension. With this, the average Brazilian can, at the same time, perceive himself as a good citizen and be in agreement with the militarization of society.

Here, it is necessary to thematize the question of a supposed Brazilian authoritarianism. Marilena Chaui herself, to whom I dedicated a chapter of the book, discussing with her instigating book Brazil: founding myth and authoritarian society, published in the context of the year 2000, in view of the commemorations of the 500th anniversary of Brazil, ends up reproducing some difficulties in thematizing our myth. At the end of her beautiful essay, the author reproduces the thesis that, deep down, the reason for all our ills lies in the authoritarianism of Brazilian culture. Her opinion remains coherent, according to the recent essay entitled “By the grace of God”, published on the website the earth is round. In it, the author defines “social authoritarianism” as the root not only of our violence, but of a series of other evils in the current Brazilian reality. My restriction with this thesis resides in the fact that, by placing the entire source of our authoritarianism directly “in society”, we run the risk of naturalizing an idea of ​​innate Brazilian culture, authoritarian like no other. Similar to Roberto Damatta's perception, which I also analyze in the book, we thus run the risk of losing focus on where authoritarianism really is at the moment, that is: in the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro. With this, the problem does not seem to me to reside in our culture, a perspective that is predominant in Brazilian social and political thought, as can also be seen, for example, in the recent book by Lilia Schwarcz (2019) entitled On Brazilian authoritarianism. Nor do I believe that it lies simply in the mistakes of the left, as it has become fashionable to say, or in the people, who unfortunately voted based on systematic manipulations by the fake news machine. If we want to break with our “methodological nationalism”, borrowing the expression of Ulrich Beck, we need to realize that, in addition to having an authoritarianism specifically brazilian, which often resides more in theory than in reality, there is today a global movement of the extreme right, supported by the roots of global capitalism since the 1970s, which resulted in the seizure of power in several nations of the world.

Again, history teaches us. It is not by chance that Gilberto Freyre will praise authoritarian action, both during the Estado Novo period and after the 1964 military coup. As I analyzed in Chapter 3, in these periods the Brazilian State, according to Freyre, found “genuinely Brazilian” solutions the supposed danger of national disintegration. More than providing elements for the construction of an ideology of Brazilian culture, according to the classic analyzes by Renato Ortiz (1998) and Carlos Guilherme Mota (1985), in situations in which authoritarianism prevailed in Brazil, the myth of Brazilianness needed to provide some legitimation also and especially for state action.

Nothing essentially different from what happens today. What does the slogan “Brazil above all, God above all” mean? Who or what would this “Brazil” be and who or what would “everything” be? Also, what does “God above all” really mean? Currently, we are witnessing a true ideological war both in the mainstream media and on social networks. The slogan above bears a good part of the responsibility for the polarization created. However, if we do not want to be trapped by the illusions of the situation, we need to understand which aspects of the myth of Brazilianness are mobilized by this slogan and which refer us to more structural dimensions of Brazilian history.

In this way, I would like to propose here the exercise of looking at the predominant discourse in the current situation, in order to ask what it tells us about the myth of Brazilianness, as well as about the effective consequences of this in our social and political life today. . “Brazil above all” takes us immediately to José Bonifácio's speech. Yesterday and today, the nation in the abstract is placed above the economic and cultural specificities of society. Yesterday, the infantilization of Indians and blacks, today, the attack on the identities and cultural diversity of contemporary Brazil, as well as on their corresponding social movements.

A central historical lesson we learn from reading all the authors discussed in my book Brazil-nation as an ideology, is that the national myth always acts in two directions, which are articulated to its hard core. In other words, our ideology always tells us “how is society going”, in each historical moment, based on the cultural ideal of Brazilianness, at the same time that it provides legitimacy for State action. The ideological marriage between society and the State, thus having culture as a witness, is the main invention of José Bonifácio, our first ideologue.

Both Gilberto Freyre and Roberto DaMatta, as I showed in chapters 3 and 4, placed the emphasis on myth in culture, in the sense of everyday social practices of ordinary Brazilians and their self-perception. Not by chance, both gain evidence in periods of authoritarian governments. Whether the authors wanted it or not, their works contributed directly or indirectly to the legitimization of the role of a “strong State”, insofar as they dissociated society from the State. In simple terms, the average Brazilian in the myth of Brazilianness is depoliticized. The marriage between State and society, therefore, will only occur on the level of ideology that, since Bonifácio, will articulate a fragile, naive and indifferent society to the world of politics with the performance of a strong, protective and centralizing State.

Not by chance, “God above all”, in addition to simply representing the support of religious fractions for the elected candidacy, means an instrumental update of the magical compound of the Brazilianness narrative. In the days of D. Pedro I, God appeared in our myth articulated to politics, people and nature, legitimizing the need for national unification suppressing the specific differences of the time. Today, it appears amid the discourse of a strong, non-corrupt State, defender of a meritocratic nation, free of ideologies. We need to make it clear what is being talked about and what is almost never said in the midst of all this.

Changing in kids, the narrative of “Brazil for all” was replaced by that of “Brazil above all”. The essence of the speeches is not random. In recent years, the only political language that was constructed in Brazil was a kind of “Elite Squad” narrative. We exchanged the discourse and practice of combating inequality, with all its difficulties, for the discourse and dangerous practice of combating “crime”. Life imitates art in the worst possible way, when Captain Nascimento leaves the small screen and becomes president of the republic. As a result, the only political narrative that has been constructed in Brazil since the “mensalão scandal” has been a feeling averse to any change in the deepest structures of our social inequality. The consequences of this movement, which was even reproduced by many intellectuals, are now seen with the naked eye. This narrative is the only winner of the last presidential election in Brazil. At its core is the vague and abstract discourse of the nation, the fight against crime, the defense of meritocratic ideals and the aversion to any “leftist” ideal. Behind the scenes, the market, the supreme institution of the modern world, thanks and rewards its “neutral” agents with intoxicating doses of prestige and generous bonuses.

The mainstream media, this well-known target of intellectual criticism, seems to have specialized in a single skill: the novelization of politics. It is she who systematically hides the profound influence of the market on all dimensions of our social life. It is not new, since Marx, Wright Mills or Bourdieu, that the economic field dominates all other fields of life. The pressing issue is always to understand “how”. The novelization of politics today means a broad and planned process of banalization and delegitimization of the political field. It is no coincidence that, when we open any news application, the first six or seven are about the political soap opera. Each week is a different chapter. The strategy seems to be to gain our attention, time and feelings, that is, in short, to inhabit our hearts.

The superficial polarization between left and right, dictated by a low standard of analysis and discussion, systematically distorts and obscures the way in which true social, class and identity conflicts are avoided and controlled in Brazil today, reflecting a global scenario. I'll give you an example. While we are totally numb with soap opera politics and the “Elite Squad” vision of society, the real actions of global capitalism and their grave consequences are systematically hidden. Let's see what happened in the case of the “tragedy” in Brumadinho.

In addition to the well-known fact that it is a recurrence of what happened in Mariana, this sad episode makes it very clear what global capitalism is today and how its main representatives act. An article in a well-known Brazilian newspaper, which did not appear on the first cover in bold letters, let slip that the executives of the company involved in the fact even knew how many people would die if the barrier were breached. The level of insensitivity and naturalization of human risks, that is, the transformation of human beings into ciphers, should cause deep astonishment. But this is not the soap opera that we are closely following in the mainstream media, even if timidly one or two pieces of news are published in this direction.

As a result, an ultra-meritocratic global capitalism, whose calculated risks explode much more in the territories of the peripheral countries than in the still central territories, remains structurally intact, rigid, far from liquid, as a good part of the current sociological discourse suggests, hidden and legitimized by the appearances of the situation. In this, the abstract discourse of the nation embraces the revolt of a miserable population, a global “rabble”, victim of an increasingly chronic phenomenon of generalization of the indignity of working conditions and class relations.

Finally, the legal language that dominated the current public sphere is responsible for much of the distortion of this appearance of conjuncture. The “Elite Squad” aesthetic transforms the poor, both in Brazil and in the world, into real enemies that need to be contained or eliminated. The “crime” in question means attacking the two pillars of capitalism, yesterday and today: private property and its meritocratic morality.

In his youth classic, “Aslavada”, Joaquim Nabuco (1999) suggests that the “crime” of modern capitalism is another. For him, slavery in his time was the great crime, both in the strict sense, in the pure word of the law, and in the moral sense, that is, the one shared and understood by all of us, in which no person involved is naive or innocent. As long as enlightened people remained conniving with the crime, it would never be overcome. In today's world it is no different. The permanence of unprecedented economic and sociocultural inequality, both in Brazil and in the world, confirmed in unison by statistics, will only be questioned when we become aware of the true crime in progress and how it hides. The corporate crimes of Mariana and Brumadinho, as well as the return of a nationalist, aggressive and manipulated discourse around the world, are pointing the way to understanding the problem. It is necessary, however, to want to see its deepest foundations, beyond the illusions of the current political situation.

* Fabricio Maciel he is a professor of sociological theory at the Department of Social Sciences at UFF-Campos and at the PPG in Political Sociology at UENF.

This text is a modified version of the afterword of my book Brazil-nation as an ideology: the rhetorical and sociopolitical construction of national identity. 2nd edition. Rio de Janeiro: Autography, 2020.


CHAUI, Marilena. Brazil. Founding myth and authoritarian society. São Paulo: Perseu Abramo, 2000.

______. By the grace of God. Published on the website the earth is round in 27 / 05 / 2021.

MACIEL, Fabricio. Brazil-nation as ideology: the rhetorical and socio-political construction of national identity. 2nd edition. Rio de Janeiro: Autography, 2020.

MOTA, Carlos Guilherme. Ideology of Brazilian culture (1933-1974). Sao Paulo: Attica, 1985.

NABUCO, Joaquim. Slavery. Rio de Janeiro: New frontier, 1999.

ORTIZ, Renato. Brazilian culture and national identity. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1998.

SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz. On Brazilian authoritarianism. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.


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