democracy and freedom

Clara Figueiredo, series_ Brasília_ fungi and simulacra, national congress, 2018.


Every society needs some kind of government or state that holds it together and protects its members.

People with liberal ideas see themselves as true champions of freedom. Their hatred of the State would be a way of preventing authoritarianism and oppression that would be inexorably associated with the exercise of power over society. Its motto is the less State, the more freedom.

To his annoyance, nothing is more false than this statement. Every society needs some kind of government or state to hold it together and protect its members. The difference exists between those who decide their own government and those directed by the discretion of a discretionary power. Only the first one is free. This claim, however, is not accepted by liberals.

Common sense understands freedom to “do what one wants”, as long as it does not cause harm to others. Ensuring the freedom and preserving the rights of these others would be the sole and exclusive reason for the existence of the State and the laws. Contrary to this common sense, however, the structures and political institutions of our society are organized to ensure the validity of freedom as the power of the people to govern themselves, as established by our Constitution. This implies obedience to a majority will capable of imposing limits to the wishes of the minority, but preserving its right to have them and seek to achieve them within the law. And this also assumes that freedom is a collective and not an individual good. Either the whole community is free or nobody is.

The understanding of freedom as a collective good was an invention of Classical Antiquity. In Freedom: an unruly history, (Freedom, a poorly behaved story, no translation into Portuguese) Annelien de Dijn recovers the different meanings of freedom in our cultural tradition. At the beginning of her path are the Greeks, founders of the western civilization of which our Brazil became a part when the Portuguese took these lands from the original Brazilians. To them we owe most of our ideas about the world and ourselves, what we call philosophy. There are other “philosophies” in the diversity of cultures and civilizations that homo sapiens has built since we emerged in what is now Africa some 200 years ago, but this is the one that history bequeathed us.

In Ancient Greece, as well as in the Roman Republic, its cultural sister, freedom had a very different meaning than the mere possibility for an individual to make choices. Free men were those who did not subordinate themselves to any tyrant and established a form of government in which citizens directly exercised power and elected some of their equals as incumbent on the administration of what was common, the public thing, res publica in Latin. Organized into a self-governing sovereign state, Greeks and Romans saw themselves above their “barbarian” neighbors, oppressed by the whims of their kings and emperors. Furthermore, sovereignty itself could only be exercised by such free peoples. The name of this is democracy, government by the people.

An important theme that was present among classical thinkers was that of equality as a necessary condition of democracy, the circumstance that all voices were heard in the same way and all ideas and propositions were equally considered. This notion of equality ended up inevitably merging into a discussion about property and heredity and ended up leading to the consideration that its disproportionate distribution would imply an unequal participation in political life, a curtailment of freedom.

By transforming into an empire in the succession of the twelve Caesars, Rome reduced freedom to elections to the senate, which had lost much of its power. The exercise of state government was dependent on the emperor's whims. Without democracy, the rights of the Romans were restricted to what we now call civil rights – the right to come and go, property or opinion – whose limits, in the end, depended on the imperial will. The essence of freedom, self-government, has been lost.

The advent of the Middle Ages and the hegemony of Christianity brought a new perception of freedom, then understood as communion with God in the pious life and obedience to his word as interpreted by the Church. With the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, the discussion on freedom is revived in the wake of the rereading of ancient thought. In the French and American revolutions, the notion of freedom as self-government of equals reappears, defended by federalists and Jacobins. In a world bordering on one billion human beings and in countries with complex societies where the population numbered in the millions, the exercise of government necessarily took place through elected representatives. There is then a whole discussion about representative democracy and how to ensure that those elected remain faithful to the popular mandate. Then came the ideas of revocable investitures, short intervals between elections, checks and balances between the powers divided into legislative, executive and judiciary, the army constituted by the people in arms and referendums, assemblies and popular courts.

Throughout the XNUMXth century, however, a new conception of what freedom is came to materialize from the ideas of liberal philosophers, especially influential in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is when the notion mentioned at the beginning of this text of freedom as exclusively the exercise of individual rights appears, among which the right to property and the guarantee of contracts between individuals gains centrality. In this view, the form of government is absolutely irrelevant as long as such rights are preserved. The moral justification for this position is that the individual happiness made possible by these freedoms would necessarily produce general happiness.

At the same time, an expansion of the concept of freedom in the voice of the socialists reappears. For them, freedom would be more than self-government, it would necessarily imply effective equality among all citizens, a necessary condition for full participation in political life. In addition to overcoming distinctions between men and women, and between beliefs, cultures and ethnicities, equality in the distribution of social wealth should be achieved. Therefore, this wealth produced according to each one's capabilities would need to be distributed according to each one's needs. Two legacies of this movement remain on the political agenda of contemporary society: the struggle to reduce inequality and its most perverse result, poverty and hunger, and the struggle to expand popular participation in the decision-making centers of states.

In a world even more complex than that of the late XNUMXth century, the controversy over freedom remains today the same one that divided liberals and socialists. On the liberal side, the most widespread version of this controversy ended up separating freedom and democracy, which were synonymous for the ancients. That is, from the perspective of contemporary liberals and libertarians, the form of government is irrelevant. A democratic republic, monarchy or even a bloodthirsty dictatorship like the Chilean one under Pinochet, organized to despotically oppress its people, can be considered a bulwark of individual “freedom”, as Milton Friedman thought. The mode of government inspired by these movements, neoliberalism, constitutes a strong and authoritarian State, impervious to the demands of the working classes, and which acts solely in the direction of promoting the interests of capital and its rich owners. The increase in inequality and the blocking of the political participation of the majority in government decisions are its results.

For their part, among those who remain faithful to the ancients, the conquest of freedom is still a long way off, as citizen participation in political decisions is very low, almost restricted to consultation in periodic elections and with little influence on the mandate of those elected. . In addition, inequality is growing across the planet. If there is a predominance in the world today of Nations that organize themselves into States where there are periodic elections and the possibility of alternation in power, in which almost the entire population has the possibility to participate in elections, among other individual rights, especially property, ability to influence government decisions and the distribution of social wealth are enormously unequal.

More than at any other period in human history, the relationship between power and money is enormous in modern times. This circumstance accounts for the paradox of our constitutional democracies recognizing political, economic and social rights as inalienable and belonging to all, but restricting influence in State decisions to a small minority of the very wealthy. As a result, we see political choices contemplating almost exclusively the interests of that small portion that monopolizes wealth.

In the Brazilian case, and to stay in the current period, the sequence of the Temer and Bolsonaro governments is a very characteristic example. Its initiatives were all taken to favor rural and urban businessmen and, especially, those in the financial system, reducing taxes and social contributions, shortening the scope of protection for the environment and indigenous and quilombola peoples, creating new forms of employment. temporary work with intermittent working hours to lower the cost of labor, reducing social security benefits, cutting expenses with health, education and assistance, making workers' access to labor justice unfeasible and ending the participation of popular representatives in the councils that decide public policy. On the other hand, the financial gains with the public debt were increased, new business opportunities with privatizations and mineral and oil exploration concessions were created. In addition, other advantages for capital are being implemented, such as the autonomy of the Central Bank, new possibilities for financial profits through speculation with the exchange rate, insurance, health and private pension.

Despite having a universal and obligatory voting system, the electoral dispute suffers immense pressure from money, whether in private financing, or in the use of communication monopolies, or in the use of spaces on the internet and in social networks purchased, in addition to the always present corruption. As a result, the influence of the rich is great in elections and even greater in lobbying and economic pressure on Parliament, the Executive and also the Judiciary. Far from what the Greeks and Romans defined as freedom, the self-management of the entire people, the real name for this type of government is plutocracy.

*Luiz Augusto Estrella Faria He is a professor of Economics and International Relations at UFRGS. Author, among other books, of The Key to Size: Economic Development and Mercosur Perspectives (UFRGS Publisher).


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