Chico de Oliveira, master of dialectics

Image: Leo Zhao


The way of thinking, which allows us to contemplate social, economic and political processes through different perspectives, is one of the great legacies that our honoree left us

Few things are more pleasurable than reviving an old master. Someone who influenced who we are today and why we fight. The seminar “Chico de Oliveira, interpreter from Brazil”, promoted by the Mari Antonia Center, was a celebration and a commitment to continue his line of research, on the day he would turn 90 years old, November 07, 2023.

We were reminded that there are things, such as social, economic and political relations, which, at first glance, appear to be two, being (mis)understood as independent or even as different stages of a process. “Backward” and “modern”, for example, seem like two autonomous, separate states.

And such dualities are thought of in this way, limitedly, until someone realizes that the two things interact, constitute each other, their existence depends on each other, they form a contradictory whole, a dialectical unity. There are widespread, in economic studies, but not only, erroneous conclusions that have their origin in the undue partition of organic totalities.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples is the unity, which made us see Chico de Oliveira, in Criticism of dualistic reason, between the “backward” and the “modern” in Brazilian society. “The opposition [of a 'backward' sector and a 'modern' sector] in most cases is only formal: in fact, the real process shows a symbiosis, a unity of opposites in which the so-called 'modern' grows and it feeds on the existence of the 'backward', if you want to maintain the terminology.” (p. 32)

Roberto Schwarz, in homage to Chico de Oliveira, states that “the boys selling garlic and flannel at intersections with traffic lights are not proof of the country's backwardness, but of its atrocious form of modernization.” And he adds that the explanation for regional sclerosis is not in the conservative tradition of the Northeastern elites, “but in the inability of São Paulo to forge an acceptable modernizing hegemony at a national level”. This way of thinking, which allows us to contemplate social, economic and political processes through different perspectives, is one of the great legacies that our honoree left us. “Chico is a master of dialectics”, concluded Roberto Schwarz in his tribute article written when Chico de Oliveira took the exam, in 1992, to become a full professor at USP.

The method of “turning inside out”, or “looking inside out”, an expression borrowed from Ana Amélia da Silva, reveals itself completely when Chico de Oliveira addresses the issue of joint efforts. Research carried out on the outskirts of Cubatão and Santos in which the majority of dwellings were classified as “own homes” comes into his hands. A marvel would be the hasty conclusion. A good solution to the chronic housing problem would be the result of fragmented thinking. A false solution, Chico de Oliveira would say: a negative dialectic, in the sense he gives to this expression, when thinking about the contradictory whole.

He says, in 2006 in The vice of virtue: “resuming a popular tradition, the collective effort became official policy”. The lowering of the cost of reproducing the workforce is achieved by transforming the city into a camp that makes people's lives unviable.

“The collective effort is a kind of negative dialectic in operation. Negative dialectics acts like this: instead of raising the level of contradiction, it lowers it. Raising the level of contradiction would mean attacking the housing problem through the means of capital. Lowering the level of contradiction means attacking the housing problem through the working poor.” And in his best style, he concludes: “The collective effort is a kind of appeal to the shipwrecked: 'save yourselves by hanging on by your own hair'. As an image, it's great. As a solution, it’s terrible.” (p. 72)

Still on the topic of housing, Wolfgang Leo Maar (p. 108) points out that “the central point in this approach to 'negative dialectics' is the absence of 'positive' determination of the development of the class struggle, that is, of the conflict between the development of productive forces and production relations, which would imply a transformation of production relations”. He reminds us of the “positive” effect, according to Engels, of the period of strong accumulation in France, with Louis Napoleon, who, by allowing the growth of the number of wage earners and their organizations, was reflected “in the class struggle with its contradictions and, therefore, in the potential historical transformation of society”.

Chico de Oliveira agreed with Alexandre Barbosa when he asked him if his perspective was a kind of “Furtadian Marxism”. Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa explained his qualification as follows: “learning with Celso Furtado had sharpened his sense of seeing the world. Marxist categories and dialectics made his vision even sharper, giving him wings to fly and achieve his autonomy. Chico de Oliveira's books in which he quotes Marx are rare. But the bearded old man ran through his veins. Chico de Oliveira’s greatness was in adding value to reality – felt, suffered and heard – through his analytical lucidity”.

The reading of the last three decades, the interactions with the components of the Center for Studies on Citizenship Rights (Cenedic), combined with previous crosses with Celso Furtado, Rosa Luxemburgo and Karl Marx, gave shape to Chico de Oliveira's thinking that Cibele Rizek he formulates it as follows: “all this made Chico de Oliveira a master who found, indicated and explained yet another link between the destitution of politics, the depoliticization of poverty, the truncation of class action and the shadows that were drawn on the horizon of those years and which ended up giving way to yet another moment of destitution, destruction of rights, of conquests, giving continuity and depth to the shadows that were present in Brazilian social and political formation”.

* Cesar Locatelli, independent journalist, is a doctoral candidate in the World Political Economy program at the Federal University of ABC.

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