Democracy and authoritarian society

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By MARILENA CHAUI*

In Brazil there is a powerful myth, that of non-violence, which hides social authoritarianism

We are used to accepting the liberal definition of democracy as “a regime of law and order for the guarantee of individual freedoms”. Since liberal thought and practice equate freedom and competition, this definition of democracy means first that freedom boils down to economic competition of so-called “free enterprise” and political competition between parties contesting elections; second, that the notion of law and order regime indicates that there is a reduction of the law to the judiciary power to limit political power, defending society against tyranny, since the law guarantees governments chosen by the will of the majority; thirdly, it means that there is an identification between the order and the power of the executive and judiciary powers to contain social conflicts, preventing, through repression and censorship, their explanation and development; and, fourthly, that, although democracy appears justified as a “value” or as a “good”, it is, in fact, seen by the criterion of efficacy, measured, at the legislative level, by the action of the representatives, understood as professional politicians, and, at the level of the executive power, by the activity of an elite of competent technicians who are in charge of the direction of the State, or the affirmation that democracy is the government of many by few.

Democracy is thus reduced to an effective political regime, based on the idea of ​​organized citizenship in political parties, and manifests itself in the electoral process of choosing representatives, in the rotation of rulers and in technical solutions to economic and social problems.

Now, there is, in democratic practice and democratic ideas, a much greater depth and truth than liberalism perceives and allows to be perceived.

What do elections mean? Much more than the mere rotation of governments or the alternation in power, they symbolize the essence of democracy, that is, that power is not identified with the occupants of government, does not belong to them, but is always an empty place that, periodically , citizens fill with representatives, being able to revoke their mandates if they do not fulfill what they were delegated to represent. In other words, sovereignty is popular, as the word itself means, for in Greek, demos is the politically organized people and Kratos, the power; therefore power of the people.

For this very reason, it is also characteristic of democracy that only in it does the republican principle of separation between public and private become clear. In fact, with the idea and practice of popular sovereignty, power and government are distinguished – the first belongs to citizens, who exercise it by instituting laws and political institutions or the State; the second is a delegation of power, through elections, so that some (legislative, executive, judiciary) assume the direction of public affairs. It means as the Latin expression indicates res publica that no ruler can identify with power and privately appropriate it.

What do the ideas of situation and opposition, majority and minority, whose wishes must be respected and guaranteed by law, mean? They go far beyond that appearance. They mean that society is not a single and undivided community dedicated to the common good achieved by consensus, but, on the contrary, that it is internally divided, that divisions are legitimate and must be publicly expressed.

In the same way, the ideas of equality and freedom as citizens' civil rights go far beyond their formal legal regulation. They mean that citizens are subjects of rights and that, where such rights do not exist or are guaranteed, one has the right to fight for and demand them. This is the core of democracy: the creation of rights. And for that very reason, as a creation of rights, it is necessarily open to conflicts and disputes. In other words, democracy is the only political form in which conflict is considered legitimate.

What is a right? A right differs from a need or want and from an interest. In fact, a need or want is something particular and specific. Someone may need water, another needs food. One social group may lack transport, another may lack hospitals. There are as many needs as there are individuals, as many needs as there are social groups. An interest is also something particular and specific, depending on the group or social class. Needs or shortages, as well as interests, tend to be conflicting because they express the specificities of different groups and social classes. A right, however, unlike needs, needs and interests, is not particular and specific, but general and universal, either because it is valid for all individuals, groups and social classes, or because it is universally recognized as valid for a social group. (as is the case of so-called “minorities”). Now, this means that under needs, needs and interests there is something that explains and determines them, that is, the law. Thus, for example, the lack of water and food manifests something deeper: the right to life. The lack of housing or transportation also manifests something deeper: the right to decent living conditions. In the same way, the interest, for example, of students expresses something deeper: the right to education and information. In other words, if we consider the different needs and different interests, we will see that underlying them are presupposed rights for which people are fighting.

Precisely because it operates with conflict and the creation of rights, democracy is not confined to a specific sector of society in which politics would take place – the State –, but it determines the form of social relations and of all institutions, that is, , is the only political regime that is also the social form of collective existence. It establishes the democratic society. We say, then, that a society – and not a simple regime of government – ​​is democratic when, in addition to elections, political parties, division of the three powers of the republic, distinction between public and private, respect for the will of the majority and minorities. , institutes something deeper, which is a condition of the political regime itself, that is, when it institutes rights and that institution is a social creation, in such a way that social democratic activity is carried out as a social power that determines, directs, controls and modifies state action and the power of rulers.

This creative dimension becomes visible when we consider the three great rights that defined democracy from its origins, that is, equality, freedom and participation in decisions.

Equality declares that, under the laws and customs of political society, all citizens have the same rights and must be treated in the same way. Now, historical evidence teaches us that the mere declaration of the right to equality does not make equals exist. Its meaning and importance are found in the fact that it opens the field for the creation of equality through the demands, claims and demands of social subjects. In turn, freedom declares that every citizen has the right to expose his interests and opinions in public, to see them debated by others and approved or rejected by the majority, and must accept the decision made publicly. Now, here too, the simple declaration of the right to freedom does not concretely establish it, but opens up the historical field for the creation of this right through political practice. So much so that modernity acted in such a way as to broaden the idea of ​​freedom: in addition to meaning freedom of thought and expression, it also came to mean the right to independence to choose one's trade, place of residence, type of education, spouse etc. Political struggles meant that, in the French Revolution of 1789, a new sense of freedom came to be added to the previous ones when it was determined that every individual is innocent until proven otherwise, that the proof must be established before a court and that the liberation or punishment must be given according to the law. Then, with the socialist movements, the right to fight against all forms of tyranny, censorship and torture and against all forms of social, economic, cultural and political exploitation and domination was added to the idea of ​​freedom. The same creative movement took place with the right to participate in power, which declares that all citizens have the right to participate in public discussions and deliberations, voting or revoking decisions. The meaning of this right only became explicit with the modern democratic struggles, which highlighted the assertion that, from a political point of view, all citizens have the competence to opine and decide, since politics is not a technical matter (administrative and military effectiveness) nor scientific (specialized knowledge about administration and war), but collective action, that is, collective decision regarding the interests and rights of society itself.

In short, it is possible to observe that the opening of the field of rights, which defines democracy, explains why popular struggles for equality and freedom were able to expand political (or civil) rights and, from these, create social rights - work, housing, health, transportation, education, leisure, culture –, the rights of the so-called “minorities” – women, the elderly, blacks, homosexuals, children, Indians –; the right to planetary security – the ecological struggles and against nuclear weapons; and, today, the right against genetic engineering manipulations. In turn, popular struggles for political participation expanded civil rights: the right to oppose tyranny, censorship, torture, the right to supervise the State through social organizations (associations, unions, social movements, political parties ) and the right to information through the publicity of state decisions.

The democratic society establishes rights by opening the social field to the creation of real rights, the expansion of existing rights and the creation of new rights. This is why we can say, in the first place, that democracy is the only society and the only political regime that considers conflict legitimate. Conflict is not an obstacle; it is the very constitution of the democratic process. This is perhaps one of the greatest originalities of democracy. Not only does it work politically on conflicts of needs, needs and interests (disputes between political parties and elections of governors belonging to opposing parties), but it seeks to establish them as rights and, as such, demands that they be recognized and respected. More than that. In democratic society, individuals and groups organize themselves into associations, social and popular movements, classes organize themselves into unions and parties, creating a social power that, directly or indirectly, limits the power of the State.

For all these elements that constitute it, democracy is a truly historical society, that is, open to time, to the possible, to transformations and to the new. In effect, due to the creation of new rights and the existence of social counter-powers, democratic society is not fixed in a forever determined form, that is, it does not cease to work its divisions, its internal differences, its conflicts and, therefore, the each step requires the expansion of representation through participation, which leads to the emergence of new practices that guarantee participation as an effective political act, which increases with each creation of a new right. In other words, there is only democracy with the continuous expansion of citizenship. For this reason, citizenship, which in the so-called liberal democracies is defined only by civil rights, in a real social democracy, on the contrary, expands the meaning of rights, opening a field of popular struggles for economic, social and cultural rights, opposing to the interests and privileges of the ruling class. Democracy fosters a culture of citizenship.

Difficulties imposed by capitalism

However, in capitalism, the obstacles to democracy are immense, since the conflict of interests is, in fact, an expression of the very foundation of social division, that is, the contradiction between capital and work and, therefore, the exploitation and domination of one social class to another. Thus, for example, if it is true that the popular struggles in the countries of central or metropolitan capitalism have expanded the rights of citizens and that the exploitation of workers has greatly decreased, especially with the welfare state, it is also true, however, that there was a price to pay: the most violent exploitation of labor by capital fell on workers in countries on the periphery of the system. In addition, everywhere, the fragility of political and social rights is undeniable under the action of neoliberalism, which operates by shrinking the public space and expanding the private space or the market, in the form of privatization and the so-called “deregulation”. economical”. Privatization does not only refer to state-owned companies and the removal of the State from economic decisions, but mainly refers to the abandonment of investments of public funds in services and social rights, which come to depend on the laws of the market (privatization of education, health , transport, housing, culture, etc). By allocating public funds to increasing capital liquidity for the development of new technologies, the neoliberal State put at risk all the economic and social rights conquered by popular and socialist struggles. Furthermore, the form taken by the economy has destroyed the pillars of productive work and made unemployment structural. Thus, both the action of the State and the economic form caused the right to equality to be replaced by an inequality never seen before, all societies being divided between pockets of misery and pockets of opulence.

Law and freedom encounter obstacles imposed by economic, social, cultural and political inequality and the privatization of information by the oligopolies that dominate the media. Electronic surveillance and control technologies operate on a planetary scale and every citizen of any country has his personal and professional data concentrated in two supranational organizations (one of them in the United States and the other in Japan) that operate as a planetary police.

The right to political participation also encounters obstacles, under the effects of the social division between directors and executors or the ideology of technical-scientific competence, that is, the assertion that whoever possesses scientific and technical knowledge is naturally endowed with power of command and direction . Initiated in the sphere of economic production, this ideology spread to the whole of society, which thus sees the social division of classes being overdetermined by the division between “competent people” who supposedly know and “incompetent people” who know nothing and only carry out orders. . Strengthened by the mass media, which encourage it on a daily basis, this ideology invaded politics, which came to be considered an activity reserved for technicians or supposedly competent political administrators and not a collective action by all citizens. In this way, not only does the right to political representation (being a representative) decrease because it is restricted to the “competent”, who, evidently, belong to the economically dominant class, which, thus, directs politics according to its interests and not according to the universality of rights. Finally, we cannot minimize the obstacle to the right to political participation posed by the mass media – it is enough to watch television programs, listen to radio programs and read newspaper columns to prove the presence of this ideology, since all subjects, from the most important to the most trivial are “explained” by supposedly competent specialists to the supposedly incompetent rest of society. The means of communication make communication impossible because they make the right to information impossible – not only the right to receive it, but also the right to produce and circulate it. As the media are capitalist companies, they produce (not transmit) information according to the private interests of their owners and their economic and political alliances with groups that hold economic and political power, creating obstacles to the right to true political participation.

To these difficulties posed by capitalism, we now need to add the specific difficulties that Brazilian society poses for the institution of a democratic society.

The myth of non-violence

There is a powerful myth in Brazil, that of Brazilian non-violence, that is, the image of a generous, happy, sensual, solidary people who ignore racism, sexism and homophobia, who respect ethnic, religious and political differences, not discriminates against people based on their social class, ethnicity, religion or sexual choice, etc. Our self-image is that of an orderly and peaceful people, cheerful and cordial, mestizo and incapable of ethnic, religious or social discrimination, welcoming to foreigners, generous to the needy, proud of regional differences and, evidently, destined for a great future. .

Why do I use the word “myth” and not the concept of ideology to refer to the way non-violence is imagined in Brazil? Employ “myth” giving it the following traits:

1 – as the Greek word indicates myth, the myth is an origin narrative reiterated in countless derived narratives that repeat the matrix of the first narrative which, however, is already a variant of another narrative whose origin has been lost. In short, the myth is a narrative of origin without there being an originary narrative;

2 – the myth operates with antinomies, tensions and contradictions that cannot be resolved without a profound transformation of society as a whole and that are therefore transferred to a symbolic and imaginary solution that makes reality bearable and justifiable. In short, myth denies and justifies the reality it denies;

3- the myth crystallizes in beliefs that are internalized to such a degree that they are not perceived as beliefs, but taken not only as an explanation of reality, but as reality itself. In short, the myth substitutes reality for the belief in the reality narrated by it and makes the existing reality invisible; d) the myth results from social actions and produces as a result other social actions that confirm it, that is, a myth produces values, ideas, behaviors and practices that reiterate it in and through the action of the members of society. In short, the myth is not a simple thought, but forms of action;

4 – and the myth has a pacifying and repeating function, assuring society of its self-preservation under historical transformations. This means that a myth is the support of ideologies: it manufactures them so that it can simultaneously face historical changes and deny them, since each ideological form is in charge of maintaining the initial mythical matrix. In short, ideology is the temporal expression of a founding myth that society narrates to itself.

In summary, I am taking the notion of myth in the anthropological sense of an imaginary solution to tensions, conflicts and contradictions that do not find ways to be resolved on the symbolic level, much less on the real level. I also speak of myth in the psychoanalytical sense, that is, as an impulse to repetition due to the impossibility of symbolization and, above all, as a block to the passage to reality. a myth is founder when he never ceases to find new means to express himself, new languages, new values ​​and ideas, in such a way that the more he seems to be something else, the more he is the repetition of himself. In our case, the founding myth is exactly that of essential non-violence in Brazilian society, whose elaboration dates back to the period of discovery and conquest of America and Brazil.

Many will ask how the myth of Brazilian non-violence can persist under the impact of real, everyday violence, known to all and which, in recent times, has also been amplified by its dissemination and diffusion by the mass media. Now, it is precisely in the way of interpreting violence that the myth finds means to preserve itself. The myth of non-violence remains because thanks to it, the fact of violence is admitted and, at the same time, explanations can be fabricated to deny it the very moment it is admitted. For that, we need to examine the ideological mechanisms of mythology conservation.

The first mechanism is that of exclusion: it is said that the Brazilian nation is non-violent and that, if there is violence, it is practiced by people who are not part of the nation (even if they were born and live in Brazil). The mechanism of exclusion produces the difference between a non-violent-Brazilian-us and a violent-non-Brazilian-them. “They” are not part of “us”.

The second mechanism is that of distinction: distinguishes between the essential and the accidental, that is, by essence, Brazilians are not violent and, therefore, violence is accidental, an ephemeral, passing event, an “epidemic” or an “outbreak” located on the surface of a defined time and space, which can be overcome and which leaves our non-violent essence intact.

The third mechanism is legal: violence is limited to the field of delinquency and criminality, crime being defined as an attack on private property (theft, robbery and robbery, that is, theft followed by murder) and as organized crime (trafficking in drugs, weapons and people) . This mechanism makes it possible, on the one hand, to determine who the “violent agents” are (in general, the poor – just look at the arrests and deaths of members of organized crime, that is, you never see someone truly powerful and opulent imprisoned) and to legitimize the action (this one yes, violent) of the police against the poor population, the blacks, the indians, the children without childhood, the street dwellers and the slum dwellers. Police action can sometimes be considered violent, receiving the name of “massacre” or “massacre” when, all at once and without reason, the number of murdered is very high. The rest of the time, however, killing by police is considered normal and natural, since it is about protecting the “us” against the “them”.

The fourth mechanism is sociological: the “epidemic” of violence is attributed to a defined moment in time, the one in which the “transition to modernity” of populations that migrated from the countryside to the city and from the poorest regions (north and northeast) to the richest (south and southeast). Migration would cause the temporary phenomenon of anomie, in which the loss of old forms of sociability has not yet been replaced by new ones, causing poor migrants to tend to practice isolated acts of violence that will disappear when the “transition” is completed. Here, not only is violence attributed to the poor and unadapted, but it is also enshrined as something temporary or episodic.

Finally, the last mechanism is that of inversion of the real, thanks to the production of masks that make it possible to disguise violent behavior, ideas and values ​​as if they were non-violent. Thus, for example, machismo is placed as a natural protection to the natural female fragility protection includes the idea that women need to be protected from themselves, because, as everyone knows, rape is a feminine act of provocation and seduction; white paternalism is seen as a protection to help the natural inferiority of blacks; repression against homosexuals is considered a natural protection of the sacred values ​​of the family and, now, of the health and life of the entire human race threatened by AIDS, brought by degenerates; the destruction of the environment is proudly seen as a sign of progress and civilization, etc.

In summary, violence is not perceived right where it originates and where it is defined as violence itself, since violence is every practice and every idea that reduces a subject to the condition of a thing, that violates someone's being interiorly and exteriorly. , which perpetuates social relations of profound economic, social and cultural inequality.

More than that. Society does not realize that the explanations offered are violent because it is blind to the actual place where violence is produced, that is, the structure of Brazilian society. In this way, economic, social and cultural inequalities, economic, political and social exclusion, corruption as a way institutions function, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious and political intolerance are not considered forms of violence, that is, that is, Brazilian society is not perceived as structurally violent and violence appears as a sporadic fact on the surface. In other words, mythology and ideological procedures mean that the violence that structures and organizes Brazilian social relations cannot be perceived.

The social authoritarianism

Preserving the marks of colonial slave society, Brazilian society is marked by the predominance of the private space over the public and, having the family hierarchy at the center, it is strongly hierarchical in all its aspects: in it, social and intersubjective relations are always carried out as relationship between a superior, who commands, and an inferior, who obeys. Differences and asymmetries are always transformed into inequalities that reinforce the relationship of command and obedience. The other is never recognized as a subject or as a subject of rights, he is never recognized as subjectivity or alterity. Relations between those who consider themselves equal are those of “kinship”, that is, of complicity; and, among those who are seen as unequal, the relationship takes the form of favour, clientele, guardianship or co-option, and, when inequality is very marked, it takes the form of oppression. In short: micro-powers capillarize the whole society, so that the authoritarianism of and in the family spreads to the school, love relationships, work, the media, social behavior on the streets, the treatment given to citizens by the state bureaucracy , and is expressed, for example, in the market's contempt for consumer rights (the heart of capitalist ideology) and in the naturalness of police violence.

We can summarize, in a simplified way, the main traits of our social authoritarianism considering that Brazilian society is characterized by the following aspects:

Structured according to the model of the family nucleus (that is, of the power of the head, be it the father or the mother), it imposes a tacit (and sometimes explicit) refusal to put into operation the mere liberal principle of formal equality and the difficulty in fighting for the socialist principle of real equality: differences are posited as inequalities and, these, as natural inferiority (in the case of women, workers, blacks, Indians, migrants, the elderly) or as monstrosity (in the case of homosexuals);

structured on the basis of family relations of command and obedience, it imposes a tacit (and sometimes explicit) refusal to operate with the mere liberal principle of legal equality and the difficulty in fighting against forms of social and economic oppression: for the great, the law is privilege; for the popular strata, repression. The law does not figure as the public pole of power and conflict regulation, it never defines citizens' rights and duties because the task of the law is to preserve privileges and exercise repression. For this reason, laws appear as innocuous, useless or incomprehensible, made to be transgressed and not to be transformed. The judiciary is clearly perceived as distant, secret, representing the privileges of the oligarchies and not the rights of the social generality.

The indistinction between the public and the private is not a flaw or a delay, but is, rather, the very form of realization of society and politics: not only do rulers and parliamentarians practice corruption over public funds, but there is no social perception of a public sphere of opinions, of collective sociability, of the street as a common space, just as there is no perception of the rights to privacy and intimacy. From the point of view of social rights, there is a shrinking of the public; from the point of view of economic interests, an expansion of the private sector, and this is exactly why, among us, the figure of the “strong state” has always been taken for granted. Furthermore, the shrinking of the public and the enlargement of the private make neoliberalism fit like a glove.

peculiar way of avoiding the work of social, economic and political conflicts and contradictions as such, since conflicts and contradictions deny the mythical image of the good, undivided, peaceful and orderly society. They are not ignored, but given a precise meaning: conflicts and contradictions are considered synonymous with danger, crisis, disorder and a single response is offered to them: police and military repression, for the popular layers, and condescending contempt, for the opponents. in general. In short, the self-organizing society is seen as dangerous to the state and to the “rational” functioning of the market.

peculiar way of blocking the public sphere of opinion as an expression of the interests and rights of differentiated and/or antagonistic groups and social classes. This blockage is not a void or an absence, but a set of determined actions that translate into a determined way of dealing with the sphere of opinion: the media monopolizes information, and consensus is confused with unanimity, so that disagreement it is posited as ignorance, backwardness or ignorance.

naturalization of economic and social inequalities, just as there is naturalization of ethnic differences, seen as racial inequalities between superiors and inferiors, religious and gender differences, as well as naturalization of all visible and invisible forms of violence.

fascination with signs of prestige and power: use of honorary titles without any relation to the possible relevance of their attribution, the most common case being the use of “Doctor” when, in a social relationship, the other feels or is seen as superior ) “doctor” is the imaginary substitute for the old titles of nobility; maintenance of domestic servants whose number indicates an increase in prestige and status, etc.

Authoritarianism is so deeply embedded in hearts and minds that we naturally hear the question: “Do you know who you are talking to?” without being surprised that this is the fundamental way of establishing the social relationship as a hierarchical relationship. In the same way, someone can use the phrase “a negro with a white soul” and not be considered racist. He may refer to domestic servants with the phrase "a fine maid: he knows his place" and consider himself free from class prejudice. He can refer to an employee with the phrase “an employee of complete confidence because he never steals” and consider that there is no class struggle and that he does not participate in it. You can say “a perfect woman, because she didn't change her home for the indignity of working outside the home” and not be considered sexist.

Inequality in wages between men and women, between whites and blacks, exploitation of child labor and the elderly are considered normal. The existence of the landless, the homeless, the unemployed is attributed to the ignorance, laziness and incompetence of the “miserable”. The existence of street children is seen as “a natural tendency of the poor towards criminality”. Accidents at work are attributed to the incompetence and ignorance of workers. Working women (if they are not teachers or social workers) are considered potential prostitutes and prostitutes, degenerate, perverse and criminal, although, unfortunately, indispensable to preserve the sanctity of the family.

In other words, Brazilian society is oligarchic and is polarized between the absolute need of the popular layers and the absolute privilege of the dominant and ruling layers. Now, as we have seen, a need is always particular and although it presupposes a right, it does not reach the universality of the latter. On the other hand, a privilege is, by definition, always particular and would cease to be a privilege if it became a universal right. The polarization between need and privilege, a finished expression of the oligarchic, authoritarian and violent structure of our society, allows us to assess how difficult and complicated it has been to establish a democratic society in Brazil and give full meaning to citizenship.

*Marilena Chaui Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Author, among other books, of against voluntary servitude (Authentic).

Originally published in the magazine Communication & Information, v. 15, no. 2, Jul./Dec. 2012.

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