Two years of misrule – thrice destruction

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By LEDA MARIA PAULANI*

Neoliberalism, cultural fascism and an uncontrolled pandemic, in tragic synthesis, devastate the country

The election of Jair Bolsonaro, in 2018, to occupy the highest position in the Republic for the next four years will still be the subject of debate, discussion and research for a long time. Theses and more theses will emerge, perhaps for decades, in the quest to find the most consistent explanation for the national tragedy. The complexity of the phenomenon is undeniable.

There are numerous and varied elements that must be considered to understand it: from the legal-media-parliamentary coup of 2016 to the indiscriminate propagation of fake news; the discomfort of the upper strata with the circulation of blacks and the poor in spaces previously forbidden to them by the legal-institutional framework preventing Lula from running for election; from the widespread anti-system sentiment that spread from 2013 to the uninterrupted rise of neo-Pentecostal churches, with their strongly conservative values; from the carefully cultivated hatred of the PT, starting with the Lava Jato operation, by the mainstream press and social networks, to the indifference of the masses towards the impeachment, Lula's arrest and even the systematic withdrawal of workers' rights since the coup.

Neoliberalism: the first destruction

However, the enormous set of factors might not have been enough to produce the disastrous result if the forces that have long been in charge of the country's material progress had not seen, in the person appointed to head the economy, the greatest expression of their dreams of ultraliberalism. Since the preferred candidate, toucan, was barred by the polls, the economic elite (meaning the big capital, the financial markets and the financial wealth that operate) closed with the “anti-system” captain.

He acted like this, even knowing that it was a fraud embodying the anti-corruption flag in the hands of a wealthy and documented corrupt family for 30 years, and that there was a risk, given the clear military support for the candidacy and the character's coarse authoritarian profile, of raffle once and for all the already fragile Brazilian democracy. The presence of Paulo Guedes in Bolsonaro's team, even moreover announced as superminister, made a candidate perfectly palatable, in any other respect, even for a narrow elite like ours, below any criticism.

It is true that the neoliberal attack on the possibility of building something minimally similar to a Nation around here – which was glimpsed with the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution – did not start with the current misgovernment. From the first days of its existence, the effectiveness of the new Magna Carta was questioned: it did not fit the State, it would make the country ungovernable, etc. Boosted by the permanent economic terrorism that was forged in the wake of the inflationary trauma, the conventional economic discourse, of an orthodox and liberal matrix, dominated all spaces, from business to politics, from the media to academia.

The concrete results of this uprising did not take long to appear. Monetarily stabilized since the Real Plan, the Brazilian economy has been adjusting passi passu to the new suit required by the global financialized environment, increasing the guarantees of creditors and rentiers, exempting them from taxes, giving them all possible freedom of movement, opening up new markets, adapting the macroeconomic policy to their interests, assuring them , almost always, the biggest earnings in the world, including in hard currency, etc.

With the exception of one measure or another, the adequacy movement did not cease even with the rise of the Workers' Party to the federal government. A good measure of the consequences of this institutional rearrangement of the Brazilian economy is the macroeconomic rate of financialization, understood as the ratio between the total supply of non-monetary financial assets and the total supply of fixed capital.[1] This rate goes from 0,16 in 1994 to 0,24 in 2002 and 0,55 in 2014, being today (2019 data) at 0,65.

As a by-product of the process, we had the reprimarization of the export basket, the deindustrialization of the country (the participation of the manufacturing industry in the GDP, which had exceeded 35% in the mid-1980s, fell to 11% in 2018) and its total decoupling of the process of technological evolution in full growth of the demands imposed by the progressive environmental imbalance and in the midst of the rising tide of industry 4.0.

Ultraliberalism, however, goes well beyond that. It is, without mincing words, a project of destruction. The dream world of ultraliberals (and our nightmare) is a world where the market dominates the entire social space and the State is nothing more than guarantor of the rules of the economic and financial game. The essence of Hayek's neoliberal project is no different: giving back to the market what rightfully belongs to it and is being unduly stolen.

In the immediate post-war period, when neoliberal ideas were stitched together, the need for this rescue stemmed from the measures implemented throughout the 1930s to face the economic crisis and the military situation itself (New Deal as a paradigm). Three decades later, from the point of view of this ideology, carrying out the task will prove even more imperative, due to the hegemony of Keynesian economic management practices, the construction of the welfare state (welfare state) in advanced countries and the strengthening of the entrepreneurial state in Third World national-developmentalism.

The need to demolish all of this to re-establish the market's protagonism was evident. The strong cyclical decline that resulted from the “golden years” (from the post-war period to the mid-1970s), the emerging overaccumulation of capital and the growth of financial wealth, beginning to accelerate in the 1970s, would provide the material substratum structure so that the preaching, chanted alone by the members of the ultraliberal sect for almost 30 years, gained proscenium and started, since the beginning of the 1980s, to conquer hearts and minds and governments all over the planet.

What is conventionally called neoliberalism is such a project to destroy the social state. For this reason, when the economic policy measures associated with neoliberalism are criticized for their meager results, recurrent are the complaints that the recipes were not applied correctly, or in their entirety, or with the necessary intensity. Praise at least the coherence of the complaint: while the destruction is not complete and the market has not subsumed society, the task will not be finished.

In addition to party-political quarrels, the 2016 coup had a clear objective: to complete the work that had begun in Brazil in the early 1990s and would have remained halfway there. A bridge to the future, by the conspirator and traitor Michel Temer, is a pure-blood neoliberal program (in both senses, notes my husband, with and without a hyphen), that is, without the social mitigating factors of PT governments. The restlessness that simmered since the 2013 demonstrations opened wide the political space, in early 2016, to put an end to this sort of “State progressive neoliberalism” (pardon the heterodoxy),[2] who had been in power since 2003.[3]

The accelerated march of destruction was part of Temer's program: the spending ceiling, the end of constitutional obligations to education and health, free labor negotiation, total outsourcing, toughening of rules and capitalization of social security, privatization without restrictions, full commercial freedom (making a clean slate of Mercosur, BRICS, etc.).

Cultural fascism: the second destruction

At a dinner with conservative leaders in Washington (USA) in March 2019, Bolsonaro assumed: “Brazil is not an open terrain where we intend to build things for the people. We have to deconstruct a lot.” The wording of the sentence could lead one to think that Paulo Guedes, with his crazy ultraliberalism, had served as a glove to the captain, since the two spoke the same language. The interpretation, however, does not hold.

Of military origin, Bolsonaro, on the contrary, had always been a defender of the statist nationalism of the time of the generals. A federal deputy in the 1990s, he voted, for example, against the privatization of telecommunications and the giant Vale do Rio Doce. The “deconstruction” that motivates him comes from another sphere of social life, it is moral and ideological. A sick, racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic and tyrant anti-communist, that is, a worthy representative of “cultural fascism”, he saw the last decades in the country as the consummation of his worst nightmares, with the liberation of customs, the devaluation of heteronormativity and the advancing the rights and opportunities of non-whites. It was this society that he had to destroy, since all this would be a product of the dominance of cultural Marxism. At the same meeting, he stated that he had always dreamed “of freeing Brazil from the nefarious ideology of the left”, that our country “was moving towards communism” and that he would be happy to “be a turning point” in the process.

Bolsonaro boasted loud and clear that he understood nothing about economics. As he had no project in the area, he got on the tram that was passing by, the one for the demolition (paradox aside) of The Bridge to the Future, which had been running at breakneck speed since the coup. Paulo Guedes was the one who showed up to drive the tram and Bolsonaro's advisors certainly whispered in his ear that the name had the support of the country's financial elite, that is, "the market". They were right: our rentier, globalist and vulgarly refined elite, although turning up their noses a little at the captain's rude manners, were delighted with the Guedes possibility. This is how the Bolsonaro candidacy won an “economic program” and the two projects of destruction met.

It is from this angle, therefore, that it would be legitimate to take stock of the first half of his mandate and it is precisely the type of analysis that the corporate media has been making. It is evident that they do not ask whether the destruction is being successful or unsuccessful, but the bodies of the large conglomerates are currently choked with articles reproaching Guedes for not having delivered what he promised: administrative reform is stalled, privatizations do not get off the ground, the procedures for the implementation of the green and yellow portfolio are not progressing and the capitalization of the social security system also did not come out, despite the approval of the reform.

It makes no sense to evaluate Bolsonaro's "economic program" in terms of growth, employment, poverty reduction, because these are not his objectives. In this particular case, just for the record, the GDP result had been negligible in 2019 (growth of 1,1%) and was already negative (-0,3%) in the first quarter of 2020, even before the pandemic could be identified as a determinant variable of failure. Another data in the same sense is that the number of unemployed people, estimated by the Continuous PNAD from the IBGE, it was already 12,3 million in February 2020, before any effect of the health crisis on the variable (today, the number is 14,1 million – data from October/2020).

Pandemic out of control: the third destruction

It is a case of asking what effects the advent of the new coronavirus had on the disastrous encounter of the two projects of destruction that the 2018 elections gave rise to. The first point to highlight is that the pandemic, the third destruction, was superimposed on an economy already weakened by six years of recession and low growth (the real value of GDP accumulated in the 12 months of the first quarter of 2020 was still 3,7 % lower than that of the second quarter of 2014, the point from which the fall in product effectively began).

The essential measures to lessen the effects of the spread of the virus necessarily affect the pace of economic performance (especially in the service sector, which today accounts for around 60% of the product), as they make a series of activities unfeasible, drastically reduce consumption and discourage the investment completely.

In a responsible government, without ultraliberalism and, therefore, without fiscal terrorism with its criminal spending ceiling, it was evident that the only way to face the health catastrophe would be to increase government spending, mainly through direct transfers of monetary income to those directly affected (as is done, by the way, in practically the whole world). In Brazil, this seemed impossible, because Guedes had still not delivered the promised zeroing of the primary deficit and the effectiveness of the spending ceiling implied a reduction in public spending, not an increase. Furthermore, the measures demanded by the authorities and international health bodies hit the wall of presidential denialism, not a surprising posture for a flat-Earther who seeks to destroy a world where science has a central value.

Despite all the obstacles, the year 2020 ended up being, from an economic point of view, much less drastic than imagined. Responding to the enormous social pressure, Congress voted, at the end of March, the state of calamity and the PEC of the war budget, miraculously making the money that did not exist appear (whoever theoretically naturalizes the social form of money has to explain this miracle ). Thus, the pressure from civil society resonating in the Legislative Power led the Bolsonaro government, before absolutely aloof to any measure of that order, to implement one of the most robust emergency aid programs on the planet.

To give you an idea, since it was created in 2004, the Bolsa Família Program (BF) has disbursed, in today's values, around R$450 billion, while the Emergency Aid (AE) will total R$300 billion.[4] Thus, on account of the AE, in just nine months of a single year, two thirds of everything spent in over 15 years of Bolsa Família was spent on compensatory income programs. IPEA study released in August[5] it also shows that, for the lowest-income households, the AE increased by 24% the income they would have had from usual sources.

The effects of such money mass on a population with multiple needs and enormous repressed demand did not take long to be felt. For some regions of the country in particular, it was possible with this income, as shown by some qualitative research, to even think about “buying a shack”. Thanks to the Emergency Aid, the expected drop in GDP in 2020 was not as sharp as initially predicted. Having reached close to negative 8%, and, for some, to 10%, expectations today hover around a drop of less than 5%.

Much research will still be needed to confirm that this was the determining factor in Bolsonaro's rise in popularity in opinion polls in the middle of the year. It is difficult, however, not to take it into account. From then on, the president began to seek, in any way possible, a way to continue to benefit from the popularity gained through aid. But so far, early 2021, the imbroglio has not been resolved (the alternatives suggested so far, not by chance, plunder remaining rights and guarantees: tampering with FUNDEB resources, freezing the minimum wage, not readjusting pensions, etc.).

Everything indicates, therefore, that the advent of the third destruction caused a disorder in the smooth progress of the combination of the two other destructions. However, Bolsonaro's desire to increase government spending to continue the robust program of transferring monetary income to those at the bottom, even if this implies revoking, for example, the spending ceiling, is just one aspect of the issue. In reality, the emergence of the pandemic has the potential to wreak havoc on this hitherto more or less “happy” partnership.

The fight against the virus is only effective, as we know, if it is collective, which ends up putting into play ways of acting, principles and needs that oppose the values ​​ingrained both in the fascist cultural conservatism professed by the president and in the ultraliberalism of his Minister of Economy. Such a battle cannot be won without solidarity, collective conscience, present and active science, public health system, big and strong State.

Aid aside, due to the greater work of civil society, whose claims were heard by Congress, the Bolsonaro government, with the exception of voter interest in extending the emergency measure, mobilized the devil to transform the pandemic into a much more lethal machine of destruction than it normally would be, as everything else that should have worked to lessen the terrible human impacts did not. The president's stubborn and criminal debauchery, his persistent mockery in relation to vaccines—prepared in record time, it should be said—, the official campaigns in favor of early, ineffective treatment, the negligence and incompetence of the Minister of Health in the viability and logistics of the vaccination (wasn't the general a specialist in logistics?), the permanent disregard for fatal victims, the obscene mortality in the Amazon, due to asphyxiation and suffocation, in these early days of 2021, all of this speaks for itself, needing no comment.

Three Destructions and the Demolished State

However, there is still something to be said about the meeting of the three destructions, their presumed contradictions and their elective affinities. Analysis can show us more clearly what is behind the disastrous results that we observe in Brazil. Let's first look at the relationship between the first two destructions.

The founding violence of the capitalist system, consisting in the expropriation of unpaid labor, needs to be enacted as law in order to operate. The State as bearer of legal guarantees is, therefore, fundamental. It puts the contractors' equality on the surface, so that the essential inequality works. The ideal world of ultraliberalism would put the end of state action there. The impossibility for this ideal to materialize lies in the fact that the State, by acting in this way, incarnates the illusory community presupposed to the agents that exchange. Thus, in order for the State to play its role well, it needs to be able to give this imaginary collectivity its moment of truth, or the illusion will be stripped bare.

This “truth”, fundamental to the illusion of community, implies that the State can, on the one hand, minimally correct social differences, and, on the other hand, act as a balancing force in the system.[6] Ultraliberals may even agree with the first of these tasks (the idea of ​​a minimum income for the poorest, just to remind you, comes from Milton Friedman, the famous American economist and one of the best-known spokespersons for radical liberal thought), but since that serves to exempt it from any other actions and institutions, leaving to the provision of the market all the fundamental elements of human life: health, education, housing, culture, leisure, transport, food, etc. It should also be added that, in times of overaccumulation of capital such as the ones we live in, “drying” the State (as it is candidly stated) is absolutely functional, as it helps to find new assets from which capital can be valued.

But, to fulfill the second task, that is, to act as a balancing force for the system, the State cannot restrict itself to transferring pennies to the perpetually produced miserable masses. He has to have a much better equipped instrument box. It needs public health and social security systems, education and culture, research and technology, that is, it needs many breaths of non-commodity (or “anti-value”, in the words of master Chico de Oliveira).

It also needs to make public investments, control effective demand and plan the country's participation in the international division of labor. This world of rights and guarantees, including the certainty that there will be no devastating waves of unemployment, implies a robust and healthy tax system (read: progressive) and an enormous power of State intervention, which is absolutely incompatible with the ideal world of ultraliberalism. It is from here that we will be able to perceive that the first two projects of destruction can be different in their scope, but not strangers to each other.

Over the past four decades, it has spread across the entire planet, almost at a rate of fake news, a devastating ideology: that the full freedom of markets and their growing dominance of human activities would constitute a sort of precondition sine qua non of the democratic system. And the collapse of the Soviet world at the end of the 1980s, passing through the triumph of the capitalist world, made the deception even more credible, favoring the ideological environment for its diffusion. Thus, given the authoritarian background of conservative thought, we could be led to think that there would be a certain incompatibility between Guedes' ultraliberalism and Bolsonaro's (far from enlightened) despotism. But the affinities between the two sets of beliefs are greater than the inconsistencies propagated by the cited global and neoliberal hoax.

If we look back, we can remember the exaltation that Ludwig von Mises made, in the late 1920s, to the virtues of Mussolini, for the rescue that the Italian fascist had provided for the principle of private property;[7] or Hayek's defense of an authoritarian regime that would suppress popular suffrage, if necessary to preserve “freedom”, or, still, his approval of the bloodthirsty government of Pinochet, the first experience of neoliberal destruction in Latin America.

Looking ahead, we will see that said conformity will not be restricted to episodic elements and will gain a systematic character.

Many authors have drawn attention to the success of neoliberalism's long-term strategy at the ideological level. I remember here Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, and Nancy Fraser,[8] among so many others. The common denominator is that the victory of the liberal principles and the creation of the liberal subject, above and below the classes, were expelling from the scene the values ​​of cooperation, of the common, of the collective, of solidarity, of the public.

Antipodean values ​​have always been in command of capitalist society, it is true, but after four decades of avalanche of liberal reason, hegemony without competition verges on totalitarianism. The State may no longer need to embody an illusory community. The liberal-individualist understanding of progress prevails, which, decade by decade, has come down to the lower layers, carried by the indefatigable work of the mainstream media and sustained by increasing precariousness and informality, and, lately, also by the so-called uberization of the workforce.

It does not hurt to remember that the spread of the divine gospel of neo-Pentecostalism also helped here, valuing the manifestation of grace through individual prosperity, perfectly congruent, therefore, with the secular and media fundamentalism of ultraliberalism. All in all, full control of the market has become, instead of a guarantor, as preached in the Gospel According to Saint Hayek, the gravedigger of democracy.

What are the consequences of this for a peripheral territory like ours?

In Brazil, the continued assault of liberal reason took with it the appreciation for building the Nation, the “imagined community” that we dreamed of (in the words of Benedict Anderson) and, even worse, also the objective conditions for doing so. The three consecutive decades of persistent application of neoliberal prescriptions, radicalized by the 2016 coup and perpetuated by Temer and Bolsonaro, resulted not only in the dismantling of the Brazilian State, now in an almost terminal situation, but also in the enormous reduction of the possibility of, even without having of a strong currency, being less dependent, having more autonomy, participating in technological progress.

This requires, on the one hand, continued public investment in education, basic science and research and, on the other hand, industry, two elements in an advanced process of decomposition. The conservatism and authoritarianism of the president and the troupe that runs the country, especially the military, only intensified and made the ultraliberal vocation of destroying the State more lethal. It is no coincidence that Bolsonarist nationalism, narrow-minded and ridiculous, bears the infamous motto: Brazil above all else! (And down with the Trumpist United States! In other words, down…).

But we will find here, in the Nation element, a second factor to consider in this analysis of the intersections of the three destructions, now involving the third of them, the pandemic. As said, the potential to wreak havoc in the partnership of the first two destructions took an objective form in the emergency aid, which the Bolsonaro government was forced to implement (generating a hitherto unresolved quid pro quo). Except for the exception, the management of the pandemic by the current mismanagement exposes the naturally destructive character of a health crisis of this size, barely distinguishing itself from the management of death. The captain's denialism, in addition to the contempt for the weak, characteristic of fascist positions, explains the catastrophe, but not the passivity of society, indicating that his genocidal attitude prospered in fertile ground.

On the one hand, the experience of violent death is a contingency that has always been present in the daily lives of popular segments in Brazil, full of police brutality and criminal violence by drug dealers and/or militiamen. When Bolsonaro reacts to the pandemic with the speech of “so what?”, of “everybody dies one day”, he is echoing the harsh experience present in the daily lives of a significant part of the population, as a rule poor and black.[9] On the other hand, such an aberration undergoes a permanent process of normalization, which, in addition to being currently stimulated by the success of neoliberal preaching, has deep roots in the peculiarities of our educational process.[10]

The constitutive foundations of the country as a nation, as we know, were never very firm here, starting with the long slavery that marks us historically and politically until today. The normalization of deaths is a consequence of the normalization of abysmal social inequality and the normalization of structural racism — all of which combine in favor of Bolsonaro’s genocidal policy, which he himself is racist, etc. etc.

In a lecture in 1967, Adorno pondered that democracy, while continuing to betray its promises, would continue to generate resentment and arouse yearnings for extrasystemic solutions. Fascist authoritarianism would not be, therefore, an exogenous evil, but a latent evil of bourgeois modernity itself. For the philosopher, the main reason for this attribute was the unstoppable process of capital concentration, permanently increasing inequality, degrading social strata previously more or less well placed in the capitalist social hierarchy.[11] Thinking about post-war Germany, he declared in a lecture in 1959: “I consider the survival of National Socialism in of democracy (emphasis mine) potentially more threatening than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy”.[12]

Adorno could not have foreseen the neoliberal uprising that began in the 1980s, nor how blatantly true his words would become. The uprising of the elites, with the totalitarianism of reason and liberal principles that resulted, added an even more pernicious element to the demolishing potential of democratic aspirations, as emphasized by the German thinker, as it normalized social inequality, dethroning the values ​​that support the struggle for democracy. Result of the long-term destruction process of ultraliberalism, it is not surprising that, in a country like Brazil, with the Nation unfinished and adrift after the 2016 coup, it combined with the conservative misrule of a president with a fascist vocation , and with the normalization of the death of poor and black people, built a long time ago, to produce the devastating scenario that now surrounds us.

*Leda Maria Paulani is a senior professor at FEA-USP. Author, among other books, of Modernity and economic discourse (Boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3x7mw3t]

Notes


[1] I benefit here from an article written with Miguel AP Bruno, still unpublished, “Developmentalist policies in financialized economies: contradictions and impasses of the Brazilian case”. The methodology for calculating the rate is by Miguel Bruno and Ricardo Caffé and the data are from official sources: IBGE, IPEA.

[2] I freely appropriate here a term spread by Nancy Fraser and which alludes to the capture by financial and cognitive capitalism (information and communication technology conglomerates) of the progressive struggles of social movements such as feminism, anti-racism and LGBTQ rights.

[3]In a meeting at Council of the Americas in New York at the end of September 2016, a Temer already president admitted, in all letters, that Dilma suffered impeachment for not having agreed with the application of the said program: https://exame.com/brasil/dilma-caiu-por-nao-apoiar-ponte-para-o-futuro-diz-temer/

[4] The total amount with the AE, including the extension of BRL 300,00 paid from September to December, will reach BRL 322 billion, of which BRL 300 billion were paid in 2020, leaving the remainder to be paid of BRL 22 billion for 2021. Another amount similar to the AE was spent by the government on other aid programs, such as aid to states and municipalities and the benefit for maintaining employment.

[5] Available in: https://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/conjuntura/200826_cc48_resultados_pnda_julho.pdf (accessed 16 January 2021)

[6] In these reflections on the role of the State, I base myself, so far, on the considerations made by Ruy Fausto in the fourth essay of his Marx: Logic & Politics – volume II (São Paulo, Brasiliense, 1987).

[7]The information is in the article about Hayek in the book by Perry Anderson, Elective Affinities (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2002).

[8] See, for example, The New Reason of the World, by Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval (São Paulo, Boitempo, 2016), In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, by Wendy Brown (São Paulo, Editora Filosófica Politeia, 2019) and The old is dying and the new cannot be born, by Nancy Fraser (São Paulo, Literary Autonomy, 2019).

[9] So far, in this paragraph, I have reproduced considerations from an article collectively constructed, with André Singer, Christian Dunker, Cícero Araújo, Felipe Loureiro, Laura Carvalho, Ruy Braga, Silvio Almeida and Vladimir Safatle, and published in Illustrious (on line) Of the Folha de S. Paul on 28/10/2020. Available at: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrissima/2020/10/forca-da-narrativa-de-bolsonaro-sobre-covid-19-indica-que-tormento-nao-vai-passar -tao-cedo.shtml?utm_source=whatsapp&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=compwa

[10] As Airton Paschoa always reminds me, with loads of reason, I think, the pandemic came to join our infamous fatalism...

[11] The full transcript of Adorno's 1967 lecture was published in Brazilian Portuguese by Editora Unesp under the title Aspects of New Right-wing Radicalism.

[12] Adorno's 1959 lecture is mentioned in an article by Peter E. Gordon published on the website the earth is round, https://aterraeredonda.com.br/adorno-e-o-neofascismo/

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