Rise of the new right on social media

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By RONALDO TAMBERLNI PAGOTTO*

In a historically depoliticized society, effects of polarization pave the way for warfare in communication. And the right plays tough, not following the rules

Talking about the actions of the right in social networks is, in a way, talking about a new element in the situation. If we think that, up to ten years ago, the most powerful social network that existed was Orkut and that virtual communication took place via email, we realize how much more complex and involved this phenomenon is today. There are several sectors of the population that do not have access to a number of things, but have a cell phone in their hands, receive and transmit information, communicate a lot using it.

To talk about the topic – the rise of the new right in social networks – this article will be divided into three blocks. The first of them will deal with general questions, of context. But let's just announce, not delve into these issues. Then the theme itself, the right on social networks, the historical construction up to here. And finally, as a third element, we will talk about some challenges, proposals for actions, based on elements collected in different spaces of collective action.

General context or the time of capitalism without promises

We are living in a historical period, not only in Brazil, which is perhaps the most hegemonic from the point of view of dominant ideas that humanity has ever seen. And conservative ideas, values ​​and worldviews. In the case of Brazil, there is an immense and historic concentration of the media. This concentration, which is also repeated in the case of social networks, is a fundamental axis of ideological domination. In addition to being concentrated, these large means of communication are able, in seconds, to make a single message reach every corner of the world, which was much more difficult in the previous period.

The radio era was a novelty that also allowed greater access to information and greater exercise of this ideological dispute. The one on TV too. Today we are in a new phase, in which this concentration is expressed in an unprecedented way. It is the greatest ideological hegemony in history. This is a chapter that weighs heavily on us.

Another fact is that we are living in a very special period from the point of view of those who believe in political and social changes. It was with the French Revolution that humanity came to understand that anything was possible. The French Revolution brought this novelty, saying that the future does not result from the will of a God. Even if people are believers, have their religious predilections or not, it says: the future is not the work of divine will, it is not the work of the will of a king, it is not the work of chance, of luck. The future is the work of human action. And it was an intense period, of believing that human beings could transform absolutely everything.

Now we are in a period of absolute disbelief and skepticism. This period is not from today, nor does it come from 2014 or 2016, it is longer, it comes mainly since the fall of the Berlin wall, since the end of the construction experiences towards socialism, in Eastern Europe. In that period, whether you liked the Soviet Union or not, there was a source of utopia, of hope. Regardless of one's opinion of what these experiences were, they represented an idea that there is an alternative to capitalism.

In short, the theme here is to highlight that we live in a new period, after the fall of the wall. Margareth Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990, said: there is no more alternative, it is the end of alternatives. So, we lived in a period of capitalist hegemony in ideas and of profound arrogance, because when capitalism had to compete with the socialist bloc, it was obliged to make more concessions than today. Now we have an absolutely arrogant and brutal capitalism, much more so than in the previous period. It is capitalism without promises.

Other important issues that concern the period we are living in: it is a time of fragmentation of social relations, in every sense. There is a rise of individualism almost as a pillar of support in today's society. Everything is individual. Each one with their own telephone, their own transport vehicle, their own television at home. Everything is partitioned. If we think about 30, 40 years ago, there were sharing spaces. From a church, to spaces around work, to squares, to clubs, from the most elite to the most popular, there were such spaces. Everything was more collective. Today we live in a time when everything is more individual, and this is even part of an ideology. Treating collective problems as individual is a way of masking the true problems and their causes. In this sense, lack of employment is the problem of the person, who does not make an effort. Lack of skilled employment is because she has not studied properly. She can't get into university because she didn't prepare, “the dispute is equal”. In quotes, with all quotes and italics in them. It is formal equality and meritocracy as justifications for everything.

If we think about communication, which is the topic here, how was it done during the military dictatorship? There was prior censorship, information control. Now there is no control over information, we even have too much information. A person with too much information ends up apprehending what interests him. So, the logic was reversed. Today, with the excess of information, excess of news, how are people? Stunned. And they form a chaotic and disconnected view of reality. They can't put things together. A lot of facts are enumerated, not producing associations between them. The overview is chaos. And the chaotic view is absolutely functional. It is useful because the subject is unable to reflect on the future, on the set of events. He does not associate; don't have time to do that.

Thus, today there is no need for official censorship in the media. They just avoid dealing with topics that are of interest to the Brazilian popular classes. So much so that the viewer will not see the popular movements appear to make some kind of denunciation, except on the criminal pages. There is a level of restriction, which we can even call censorship, but it is not the same as before. Today the mechanism is information overload and chaotic vision. This does not form the basis of a critical sense, the basis of a deeper view of reality.

Added to this construction of chaotic vision with the idea of ​​the absence of alternatives, we have a society that forms people who are encouraged to think that it is not possible to change things. For the dominant system it is great to have people, who are subjects of the historical process, as passive, as spectators of history. This is very useful for exercising political domination. The chaotic vision is strategic. It's good to have individuals who can't make associations, who can't understand the cause and effect of things. So, we are in a time where believing in something is completely out of fashion.

And this disbelief is also useful. Because those who don't believe in anything can end up falling for some savior, a false prophet, a fascist, for example.

All this individualism, added to the lack of capacity for association, will generate what? The naturalization of social problems. People are encouraged to treat things as natural. You walk around São Paulo, for example, in this time of pandemic, especially, and having that many people living on the streets should be a reason for indignation and revolt. But people assimilate, naturalize that. They divert from those who sleep on the streets and that's it. Naturalizing the serious social problems in Brazil is a way of creating indifference, creating skepticism, creating a view that things are like this and will remain like this. It's great for exercising social dominance, creating bystanders. At most, people are – without diminishing – committed and concerned about saving themselves and their peers, their families, their very close circle. Politically, this is very useful for those who want to dominate society and keep the majority subject to a domination in which it watches everything, apparently, silently. This is a movement, a process, which is taking root more and more in Brazil, the naturalization of very serious problems. And all this adds up to Brazilian characteristics, very specific to Brazil.

In Brazil there is a reactionary, a deeply preventive conservatism. The Brazilian right instills in the population a deep fear of change. Preventive fear always has communism as its broad justification.[I]. It manages to instil this fear of communism even in those who need and would benefit from changes. The right feeds fear, dread, creates conspiracy stories. There used to be the Soviet Union and its secret plans, but as the Soviet Union no longer exists, every hour they find a figure to put in that place of external threat, as well as that of internal threats as well.

Added to this construction of a fear without ballast of communism, Brazilian democracy is of very low intensity. The people are invited to participate every two years in a very passive way, often choosing the least worst. And here is not a generic criticism. We are a country that has just gone through a coup, in 2016. This fragile democracy needs to be preserved and defended, but it is also necessary to look at it with a more distanced and critical view. It is of very low intensity. People are invited to participate every two years by going there to choose from a range of options with a lot of demagogy, a lot of proselytism, which is what the right does.

There has been a growth in conservative currents in Brazil over the last 15 years. Are such conservative currents new? Did they exist before? Of course there were. Brazil has always coexisted with conservative currents – especially in the interior – very strong currents. Anti-communist, anti-revolutionary, against trade unions, against women's movement, against LGBT movement, against every kind of movement that involves the people, except movement to keep things as they are. For example, philanthropy movements the right approves, but movements to transform the problems that cause hunger, which cause the sensitive problems that affect the country, then it does not agree. And this is only possible because we have a very present, very strong attitude.

Florestan Fernandes, a master who would be 100 years old in 2020[ii], said that the Brazilian ruling class is deeply anti-popular. She doesn't like the Brazilian people. She makes use of cultural manifestations, traditions, but her mind is in the United States and Europe. She used to be in France, in Paris. The reference changes. So that it is a deeply petty ruling class, anti-people, and that did not even care to develop a national project, responding to national interests. It is a ruling class that is not elite at all. She is only rich and lives by defending her petty and class interests.

However, these conservative currents gained prominence in the last period, with the same flags as always. I will mention some of them, without wanting to eliminate the others. First, she uses the terms patriotism, homeland, national defense to attack Brazil. The Brazilian ruling class is one of the most surrendering ones that exist. It wants to privatize everything for international companies, it is not worried about whether it will deliver to international capital, much less control it. It wants to sell to the US, to big corporations, it wants big corporations to take over the territory. She uses the national flag against Brazil. It uses anti-communism to create terror, rooted even in the popular strata. He speaks of PT governments as if they were communist governments. Since it was a government composed of classes, a government that defended a neo-developmentalist national project – but even that it did not tolerate, she called it an experience towards communism. Thus, what we have is something crazy and without ballast. Another topic dear to the Brazilian elite is corruption, which it has always used as an instrument to promote its anti-popular offensive. And also taboo topics, which are issues related to sex, abortion, religion, for example.

All this would not be like this, as we are following, if we also had, by the movements, by the Brazilian left, a better treatment from the point of view of the ideological struggle and battle of ideas. The left should make a profound self-criticism about the place that the ideological struggle has occupied in politics in the last 40, 50 years. The efforts that the left has undertaken to date and is currently undertaking are miniscule in view of the size and importance of the issue. Lowercase. There were periods when the left had daily newspapers and were more effective. It is not idolatry, idealization of the past, it is the history of Brazil.

The new right in social networks – communication without rules and as war

The right has a differential in this theme of ideological dispute and battle of ideas. She has no problem being prejudiced, lying, discriminating, spreading fake news, on the contrary. No rule applies to the right. Whether this rule is of ethical origin or of legal origin. She respects absolutely nothing. The right exploits sexism to exert more domination; explores lesbophobia, LGBTphobia. It takes advantage of the contradictions within the people. These issues that are a problem for us – the presence of racism, homophobia, within society – are potentialities for her. While we want to deal with it to transform, to increase respect, to have equal conditions and respect for all differences, it explores, and a lot, all these struggles, agendas and flags.

The right today holds the flags that minorities want to become dominant. It's a crazy thing. For example, in the minds of the right, or in the speech it makes, Brazil would shortly become a gay dictatorship. This has no foot or head, but a lot of people believe. Innocents, people who cannot understand how evil this is, how unrealistic this is. Reality, to the right, is just one more component. If it were based only on real problems, the picture would be different. No. She amplifies, she uses communication as war. Right-wing communication is one where no rules apply.

The Rise of the Right

Now let's talk about the ascension story itself. First of all, it is important to highlight the importance of knowing and studying this topic. We can't underestimate what the right does in social media channels, but we can't overestimate either. We cannot think that everything is resolved, that everything happens on this plane. It's big, it's important, but if it doesn't happen with a series of issues that are deeper, and are beyond social networks, it wouldn't happen. So, the warnings to approach this theme are: we cannot treat it as something normal, as more of the same; nor treat as this theme the centrality of everything in politics, the way of acting and disputing. Neither underestimate nor overestimate.

A second starting element is money. The right has practically unlimited economic power for this action; she has funds, ways to raise funds. It is a terrain that she has a tendency to benefit from, to have an advantage. Let's think about another time, for example the period of the written press. This economic difference could make the right have a newspaper with a more beautiful presentation. But she was going to have to make this newspaper reach every citizen. She was going to need to mobilize worlds and funds for this. And the left could do that, because it was at the factory gates, it was in the popular neighborhood, carrying its message, carrying its newspaper. The right could not compete with that same agility. The right-wing newspapers of the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, had more difficulty reaching the masses, the great mass, it was a difficult dispute. Today, the right tends to find it easier to make this dispute on the networks, just as it happened in the radio and TV period.

A third initial observation, social networks, despite not being exactly new, now allow the possibility of collecting how the user public thinks. It is possible to map how people think, if they have a predilection for more radical ideas or not, if they believe in organizations, if they are part of a collective or party. All this is possible to extract with the so-called big data. The big data these are mechanisms that today manage to map the population and organize people into groups. And what does the right do with it? Segment the message. So she's not going to send messages to people who are very religious appealing to causes that are very far from that. She will take advantage of that characteristic, that information provided by people in virtual walks.

So when we are using the networks, using the cell phone to send a message, to send an email, to access news, all this is information that is being sent about how we think. And the right has been working on this, via segmentation. Okay, the market has been doing this for a long time. The market already makes use of information that we provide or that are psychological studies and now social networks, this data mapping allows an organization of this, for sending and stimulating messages in a very segmented way. So those who like more radical ideas will receive one type of message, those who don't will receive another. Who is very conservative, who is not, in short, humanity is divided into blocks and the dispute is made from this segmentation.

The right on social media is based on information. For example, what does stimulus-response mean? I play on social networks 30 messages. The one with the most transfers, the most shares I value, is a signal. This is done in seconds. It is not the same as in the previous period. Now, in a moment, it is possible to know which of those 30 messages, on the same topic, had the most acceptance. And so it qualifies, the message is improved from the response.

Another issue is about political polarization, and this is not new. In the 2014 election, polarization practically divided Brazil. This polarization, these two poles attracting and pulling society to take a stand, constrains the most depoliticized people to have an opinion. And social networks respond to this demand. Because the guy who doesn't understand anything about a certain subject will have on social networks a source of quick, agile information. Networks came to occupy a space that polarization helped to create.

Polarization politicizes society quickly, but what kind of politicization is this? It is necessary to consider the context of extreme depoliticization of Brazilian society. And why is this so? There are many paths to this problem, let's go through some. A person who leaves home at 6 am and returns home at 7 pm, and the best part of it is at work, most of the time when this guy gets home, he doesn't want to know politics, he doesn't want to know anything. But polarization requires him to have an opinion. The political debate gained a lot of projection, it reached everyone. And then social networks will fill this space. The person doesn't have time to understand that problem, to read about that problem, so they go there and get the meme, the card and the simple explanations produced by conservative networks. Take the image. And it doesn't check if it has ballast, if it doesn't.

People are being called to take a stand, they are charged for it, they are being encouraged to do so. But this process is the result of a crisis, of an accelerated politicization of a depoliticized society, in quotes. This is important to note. The pace at which all this took place did not allow for real, profound politicization. So, the fake news, the little memes, the little edited videos, which the right uses in a very unscrupulous way, became a way to face this lack of information and the lack of time for it.

To add one more component: let's think about how people consumed news 10 years ago. If you compared a newspaper, a magazine, you turned on a television program, or a radio program. How was your relationship with that news instrument? You couldn't say: “Oh, I'm going to turn on Jornal Nacional, and I just want to know about Brazilian news. I don't care about international news, or nonsense”. You couldn't edit, you couldn't segment your newspaper. The means of information was a big package, the subject who compared, who consumed, was a spectator and that was it. Okay, you could throw away the part you didn't want to read, but there was the whole newspaper, there were the sections you didn't like.

Already on social media you can segment. There are social networks of all kinds. So I can join a certain social network, a WhatsApp group, or Telegram, or I can participate in open groups on Facebook, closed groups on a certain topic of my choice. I can subscribe to receive news from a certain segment, or a certain subject. Or a certain political cleavage. This further segments what people receive.

Open networks and the very dangerous closed networks

There is an important distinction to be made about the presence of the right in networks: there are open and closed channels. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and their counterparts are the so-called open networks. In these accounts it is possible to have a level of supervision. And we know that these networks have a lot of fake news, unfounded accusations, slander and absurdities. But even then it allows for some kind of public follow-up.

Those who promote fake news, violent attacks, incitement to violence, discrimination, etc. In these networks, the complaint can map the origins, the virtual “footprints” of those who made and reproduced them for a judicial process. There are even several recent convictions. Not enough, of course, but they exist.

Closed social networks – such as WhatsApp and Telegram – are much more difficult to monitor, they are the terrain of the most concrete, latent, explicit illegalities, with many difficulties for investigation and accountability. In these spaces there is everything, everything that is a crime, even without monitoring. We can call these networks secret, obscure. It is not even possible to know how many groups there are. There is the cemetery of democracy and any kind of social and public control.

How Secret Ducts Work: Planning, Authoritarianism, Fear

What we see in the studies done collectively is that there is a lot of confusion about how these closed networks work (Whatsapp, Telegram, Signal and the like). They appear to be spontaneous, but they are definitely not. The experiences that one person here and another there set up successful groups are a minority.

The main thing is not spontaneous, it is not democratized. The main ones of these networks are cores that produce the contents; they are spaces, structures, producers of content on a daily basis, 365 days a year, operating 24 hours a day, 30 days a month, pouring segmented material to supply the pipelines of illegality. It is repeated that these professional spaces produce content for the segments. There is nothing spontaneous about this fight. We are talking about something very professional, very well done.

And there is no listening, dialogue, exchange. The right does not have dialogue groups, it does not debate issues. Right-wing groups are deeply authoritarian. Nobody questions anything. Nobody issues anything. The right does not know how to deal with political debate, so much so that it is contrary to debates. These groups have no life, they are just for sharing information, they are really war groups, for orientation, to form a vision.

The right uses fear, permanently. Every day is a new threat. It's the gay dictatorship. It is the feminist dictatorship. It's the Chinese dictatorship. It's communism knocking on the door. Anyway, it's so much nonsense, that it's possible for people to even disbelieve, think that it's not possible for someone to believe that. Yes, believe. A lot of people believe. It's a bottle of dick a day. Always a new fear. “Look what they are going to teach in schools, sexuality will be stimulated, children…”.

A person with fear tends to behave more conservatively and tends to justify terrible atrocities. And this fear mechanism has been used by the dominant classes since colonial times, when they said that Haiti was going to become here, just to give you an example. They are always encouraging this vigilant state in people that there is always someone wanting to strike a blow in Brazil. And being that the blow is being made by them. It was always done by them. Always, not now.

And it also has a type of content, taboo content, involving sexuality, women's rights over their own bodies, over their own desires, which are also manipulated in order to stimulate more backward views, from past centuries.

Content diffusion and swarm attacks

How do they diversify? If in production they concentrate on professional groups, in broadcasting this is done with many groups, with the most varied profiles. Be it the bold/funny profiles, of a certain public figure, profiles of humor, religious and popular characters. This right encourages an infinity of profiles, it has channels to radiate it on public networks.

In addition to being averse to debate, it also acts in concerted ways on certain days, with so-called “swarm attacks”. Everyone talking about a certain topic. I'll give you a recent example: the attacks against Felipe Neto, who out of nowhere was accused of pedophilia. It was a real swarm attack, in one day there were more than 350 tweets against him.

The robot will come in later. It's in the replication, in the segmentation, it's a later diffusion. The first broadcast is done on WhatsApp, on Telegram, in groups that everyone can view and share. It is from the open networks (facebook, twitter, instagram etc) that the robots enter the scene, and project and multiply that to give a sense of volume and reach in the networks. Because each profile like this, like a little robot, has half a dozen friends who are normal people who fell into the corner of that conversation and became followers, and will replicate that. So the segmentation is like a web, in which the strategic role is coordinated by right-wing professional groups, people who understand big data and operate in a very centralized way.

And in this web, one content references the other, “sites” cite profiles that cite others, and so on, creating an impression that there are many people talking and believing in a story, which may not have any basis in reality.

The message of this right is extremely simple, it is not interested in helping to form an opinion. The message must have, in language, structure, and complexity, accessibility for all people, especially those not versed in the subject. When the message reaches the person who does not understand the topic, it reaches the general.

President Bolsonaro has been overlooked on the subject of politics, but he is an important communicator. His message is very simple. He doesn't have big complexifications, sophisticated ideas. Everything is very binary. And that's not a slight, it's seeing a form of communication that works. If we take a person like Silvio Santos as an example, who is known throughout Brazil, we find that his communication is very simple. And on the left side we have Lula, who is a figure who has a way of communicating that anyone understands.

The right understands this and deals with complex, difficult things, always in a simple way. Because she doesn't need people to understand that, to formulate their own opinion. She wants people to believe in that and buy into that idea. The right has no scruples, does not want anyone forming their own judgment, a critical view of reality. She wants people who believe in these ideas, who can't even sustain them. And look how curious, she treats the left as arrogant, accuses that the left wants to debate, as if that were bad. The right values ​​ignorance. Someone who can articulate ideas more is criticized. She doesn't want anyone thinking with their own head.

Challenges: networks, streets and a lot of ideological dispute

The left cannot fall into a false dichotomy of acting on the networks or on the streets. Both are important. We need to have a role in social networks, yes. We need to occupy this space, with other rules, with our rules. We will not base our action on fake news, we will not despise any type of oppression, and we will not enhance any type of oppression. So these are rules that are our own, it is with them that we have to enter and compete for networks.

We have to talk to uncles and aunts who are just getting news of Bolsonarism, a spillway of misinformation, prejudice. We need to have initiative, concrete action and we need to value the need for ideological dispute.

And in this regard, the Brazilian left needs to make a profound self-criticism about the place of the ideological struggle in the dispute. In 30 years, will we get a daily newspaper from the left? Or a high-impact website? I have been part of the Brasil de Fato project since its inception in 2002, but our reach is limited, just to give a more concrete example.

We need to find ways to dialogue with people, starting from the simple. First the everyday, then the complex things. We need to deal with common sense. People tend to have a conservative thought, because we didn't occupy space to change that. In this theme we are always putting out fires and at a disadvantage.

And it's not doing what the right does: giving people a mirror of what they think. The intention of the right is to conserve, ours is for the person to change and transform the world, life. So we have to understand how she thinks to also understand how we dialogue. We will not be able to dialogue with people only with our flags, our causes and our way of seeing Brazil. We need to find a way to dialogue, to listen to people in order to better understand these issues.

We're going to need to reach millions. We will need to arrive through the door that people open for us. Then Paulo Freire is a guide: we need to enter through the door that the people open. For the problems that the people pose.

The truth is a problem for the right. There's no point in deceiving people all the time with fake news, or running away from the causes of problems. To make mass communication, the right needs to break the relationship between the problem and its cause. We don't, on the contrary. So, if they have issues that are advantages, trends of advantages, so do we. We are the majority of society. And we don't have the problem of speaking the truth about any topic. So this needs to be turned into an initiative. It needs to be turned into actions.

We need to occupy the networks, because there are people there wanting to know about life, seeking to build a vision of reality, the problems of Brazil, of the world, and we need to compete.

The work of ideological dispute cannot be reduced to exposing. People are tired of hearing about how they should think, live, dress, consume, taste in music, etc. The left needs to recover methods that are capable of listening, with active listening and not just presenting a litany of visions.

*Ronaldo Tamberlini Pagotto, lawyer, member of Consulta Popular in São Paulo and Projeto Brasil Popular.

Article written from the class “History of the rise of the new right in social networks” from the Popular Communication and Social Networks course, promoted by the portal Brazil in fact Pernambuco, on September 12, 2020. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PfSfKQqfd0

Notes


[I] I wrote an article about it: https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2020/05/16/artigo-notas-sobre-o-comunismo-do-brasil.

[ii] About 100 years of Florestan: https://www.brasildefato.com.br/2020/07/22/o-centenario-de-florestan-fernandes-um-teorico-a-servico-da-classe-trabalhadora.

 

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