Brazil – country of the future?



Brazil is not and never seems to have been the country of the future. It is necessary to understand the contradictions of the present in order to refound the nation

“No past experience, however rich, and no historical research, however thorough, can save the living generation the creative task of finding their own answers and shaping their own future”. (Alexander Gerschenkron, Economic Backwardness).

Brazilians have been promised for a long time that this is the country of the future and there, at an uncertain date, it will be glorious and young people will be happy. The impression for adult Brazilians who have already heard this school litany is that the future has already come, it has arrived, but... It didn't happen. In fact, Brazil is not and perhaps never has been the country of the future. Immense poverty, inequality among the greatest in the world, obscenely exploited workers, wide-open racism, fear of female empowerment, widespread violence and many other injustices contrast with record profits, queues to buy private jets, tax evasion and rich people overprotected by the State.

Quickly, however, voices will scream: but the industry has changed the country. The population today lives in large, cosmopolitan and modern cities. Schools are everywhere and public services have never reached so many. Moreover, access to the technology available in the world, in one way or another, already reaches the majority of the population. That, however, is part of the story and hides a lot from those who only tell half of it.

What is said about Brazilian progress, for example, hides urban chaos, notably in public transport, in the cost of housing, in forced slums, unemployment, poverty, street violence, police truculence and others. It does not comment on the quality of public schools, particularly on the periphery, the salaries of teachers, the laughable access to culture and leisure for the poor. Is technology accessible to low-income workers? It boils down to prepaid cell phones and open television. Therefore, wealth for the few and widespread poverty continue the image of Brazil, an underdeveloped country. Something not very different from that portrayed decades ago by Celso Furtado, Florestan Fernandes, Milton Santos and Lélia Gonzales. More recently, Djamila Ribeiro, Racionais MCs, Ana Fonseca and Conceição Evaristo point out that, in Brazil, capitalism founded on inequalities remains indefensible.

And it's not hard to understand why the future was arrived with only more ornaments. In the formation of Brazil, slavery, in more than three hundred years of unspeakable cruelty, shaped the institutions and also the consciences of “Brazilians”. Historical crime produced social types and ended up negatively labeling a huge contingent of the population, rigidly hierarchizing everyone. Not even the Golden Law ‒ a hope ‒ managed to include blacks, now “freed”, in society. On the contrary. They were ignored and pushed aside when their physical strength was of no interest to farmers or dockworkers. Thus, poverty and rare access to public benefits created a mass without a chance to dream about the future.

Accelerated industrialization from 1930 onwards was still insufficient to mitigate the drama of this population contingent. The immigration of poor whites, mainly Europeans, provided the manpower that São Paulo and cities in the Southeast needed to multiply the factories. The new working class, however, also did not receive a fair share in the distribution of the fruits of progress. If the emergence of a middle class (predominantly white) in the big cities gave the impression that prosperity would gradually reach everyone, it was enough to observe the accelerated expansion of the periphery, the slums, the volume of informal jobs and the low remuneration of the countless underemployed to discover that economic growth did not imply social development. In fact, inequality grew for decades in a country that modernized its productive structure, but did nothing to attenuate social differences of all kinds between rich and poor.

There is no inconsistency in all this. Brazil is the result of the way in which its social contradictions were processed, resulting in high levels of accumulation and inequality that were amplified after the 1964 coup. of the reproduction of underdevelopment, supported by dependency relationships. But the scenario today is even worse.

After two lost decades at the end of the 2015th century and some hope at the beginning of the 2022st century, a legal-parliamentary coup overthrew an elected president and gave rise to liberal constitutional reforms and allowed the deepening of pro-cyclical economic policies initiated in 2015. Exactly when a serious crisis set in. Because of this, in XNUMX, it will be eight years since the beginning of the recession, in XNUMX, and Brazil still has not recovered the level of income per capita de 2014. Never, in republican history, has the country taken so long to resume economic growth. Unemployment numbers, real average wages and the waste of newly qualified labor that does not find occupation compatible with their training reveal the waste of human capital and causes alarming hysteresis.

The problem is little due to the pandemic. The tragedy initiated by SARS-CoV-2 only exacerbated known trends. For example, the newspaper O Globo, on January 26, 2020, before the pandemic, already highlighted that Brazil had not created liquid jobs with remuneration higher than two minimum wages since 2006. That is, for more than 14 years. At the same time and without any coincidence, data from the Central Bank on the trade balance show that the share of industrial goods in Brazilian exports has decreased since 1994, while foreign sales of primary goods have grown without stopping.

This means that, starting before the pandemic, Brazil was already wearing down its industry, undoing what was built after Getúlio Vargas, losing competitiveness precisely in the sector with the longest production chains, a generator of greater added value, more capable of create qualified jobs and induce innovation and productivity throughout the economic structure. He did and continues to do this to return to being a producer of simple agricultural or mineral goods. The opposite of what all rich countries did and do.

The numbers, however, are conservative for the size of the ongoing social tragedy. Apparently overcoming the most serious phase of the pandemic in Brazil, the sum of unemployment, underemployment, mass closure of small businesses and liberal labor reforms produced a drop in the average salary of the economy! In the same direction, the need for survival and the excess supply of labor allowed the precariousness of labor relations, highlighted in reports from observatories and international organizations. More: among young people, school dropouts and learning delays increased.

Simultaneously, social funds and investments in infrastructure and technology are being cut under the conniving gaze of the most powerful part of the population: the rich, the most important fraction of the power elite. This group does not show any opposition and, more seriously, seems to support the economic and social dismantling policy of the last eight years, precisely the time since the country entered a recession and still has not recovered. It was no wonder that, even during the pandemic, the profits of large companies suffered little and those achieved by financial institutions, such as banks, grew (a lot).

What happened recently and is still happening is a continuation of what the last 40 years have been like: small intervals of hope and prolonged economic and social failure, precisely when the State lost its ability to drive industrial development. In those years, the richest abandoned the banner of development and obstinately chose to defend their fortunes in the financial market. In other words, the Brazilian power elite has shown and continues to show that, since the 1980s, it has renounced any national pretensions and has increasingly behaved like a rentier and detached from the nation and the future of its people. If this is true, then the problem is not really economic. It is located in the political sphere and overcoming it requires, inexorably, democracy and its strengthening.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts, the poorest feel and know the injustice, but little understand the “game”. The opposition and the intellectuals know the main lines that perpetuate the system, but they are incapable of uniting and want to catechize the periphery that they do not understand. The power elite, on the other hand, prefer exactly this inability to clarify and confusion to more easily legitimize their privileges. Little has changed in that regard either. Brazil, in short, is not and never seems to have been the country of the future. The occasional green-yellow pride hides, on the other hand, that the nation does not develop because it is unjust and it is unjust because a small but powerful portion of Brazilians wants it that way. “Strangely” the same portion that would choose to identify as American or English.

Being the country of the future naturally implies something very different. Far from the environmental crisis, poverty, inequality, violence, misogyny and racism, the old promise made to schoolgirls implies the need to develop Brazil. But, for that, it is necessary to understand the contradictions of the present in order to refound the nation and, therefore, it becomes inexcusable to know that to build a nation, the future is made. And now. It is never expected. Fortunately, Celso Furtado has already pointed the way: “(...) the most important thing is not that we can direct ourselves, but that we have no choice but to do so” (The Brazilian pre-revolution, 1962, p. eleven).[I]

*Ricardo LC Amorim, doctor in economics from Unicamp, is a visiting professor at UFABC.



[I] The author thanks Professor Alexandre Barbosa (IEB-USP) for his comments.


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