Two years of misrule – a parenthesis in Brazilian history?

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By BERNARDO RICUPERO*

Slavery stimulated in Brazil a contempt for human life that is evident today in the way the pandemic is dealt with

Benedetto Croce asked, shortly before the end of fascism's rule in Italy: "what is a twenty-year parenthesis in our history?". More recently, Joe Biden defended – in his victorious presidential campaign – bringing the USA “back to decency”, after the deviation that would represent the Trump years. Similarly, there has been no lack of those who consider Bolsonaro as another case of “incidental government”, a modality that would proliferate lately.

There is no doubt that these assessments are reassuring. Its formulators suggest that governments like those of Mussolini, Trump and Bolsonaro are exceptional periods, after which the history of Italy, the US and Brazil would return to its ordinary course. However, these approaches fail to capture that these supposedly anomalous situations reflect the societies in which they appeared and, in a deeper way, capitalism.

I limit myself here to the Brazilian case. According to a vision with many supporters in academia and the media, Bolsonaro would also express a deviation from the path that the country took in the transition, especially in the presidencies of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luís Inácio Lula da Silva. According to this narrative, which was close to becoming diffuse, there would not be, in the 16 years that these governments lasted or, at least, until the second Lula administration, both rupture and continuity.

In summary, both the toucan and the PT would have carried out policies seeking to safeguard economic stability and fight poverty, which would be politically guaranteed by the formula that was baptized as “coalition presidentialism”. In a way, it suggests the existence of a basic consensus in society, after the experience of authoritarianism, in terms of valuing political democracy, social justice and economic stability. In this reference, Bolsonaro would go against the course that, with the transition, the country decided to take.

However, I am especially interested in an equally positive assessment of the Brazilian experience, but more daring. At least since modernism, it has been suggested that if Brazil is not a secular civilization, like Croce's Italy, the country would have the potential to create a civilization capable of making an original contribution to the world.

A relatively recent example of such a perspective is Caetano Veloso's formulation in Tropical Truth. In the few inspired years of the 1990s, when new references were still being sought for the post-Cold War world, the book dialogues with The clash of civilizations, Samuel Huntington's work is largely forgotten today, but it had a great impact then. The Bahian composer's interpretation of the American political scientist – who divides the world into different cultural zones in dispute with each other – attracts the suggestion that Brazil could be the nucleus of a new civilization.

For Caetano, the great example of this possibility would be what João Gilberto and Tropicalismo would have accomplished in popular music which, in the articulation of the local with the global, of the particular with the universal, would be repeated, more recently, by the most interesting of Mexican rock and Argentine. The composition of the Bahian composer is openly inspired by the anthropophagic metaphor of Oswald de Andrade, according to which, the first inhabitant of Brazil would have known how to devour and transform foreign influences.

However, it is not difficult to see how the myth of Caetano, “Brazil's giant Lusophone American mestizo of the southern hemisphere”, who could play “a subtle but crucial role”, has affinity with the elaboration of another modernist, Gilberto Freyre. The sociologist from Pernambuco highlights, in turn, how the Portuguese would have been able to create the first modern society in the tropics, which would not cease to be, as the Bahian composer imagines, a true civilization.

Such a realization would be possible, according to Freyre, due to what he calls the balance of antagonisms – the coexistence of antagonistic orientations, which do not come to clash. Especially important, according to the sociologist from Pernambuco, would be the relationship between the master, white, and the slave, black.

Due to the balance of antagonisms, in Brazilians, in contrast to Anglo-Americans, the two ways of being, “the white and the black; the ex-master and the ex-slave”, would not be enemies. On the contrary, we would be “two fraternizing halves that have been mutually enriching each other with different values ​​and experiences”. That would fundamentally be the strength, or rather, the potentiality of Brazilian culture.

A different interpretation of the Brazilian experience is elaborated by Caio Prado Jr. What the São Paulo historian highlights in colonization, more than the alleged creation by the Portuguese of an original civilization in the tropics, is how it would function as “a vast commercial enterprise”. In other words, the “meaning of colonization” would be to produce, in large units worked by slave labor, goods demanded by the foreign market. At the limit, therefore, not even society would then exist.

Not by chance, the most striking feature of the colony would be slavery. It would be omnipresent, affecting all aspects of Brazilian life. However, servile work would be felt especially in what would be the main vehicle for realizing the “meaning of colonization”: large-scale exploitation, agricultural or mining. In a language still marked by biology, according to Caio Prado Jr., the activities linked to the great exploration would constitute what he calls the organic sector of the colony.

Complementarily, he calls the inorganic sector that which does not belong to large-scale exploration. Or rather, since in the colony the great exploitation would be a reality impossible to be ignored, inorganic would be what has a subordinate role in it. Both economic activities aimed at the internal market and a whole multitude of activities difficult to classify or unclassifiable would be in this condition. In broader terms, it would be disorganization that would mark the inorganic sector.

In a broad sense, it is possible to say that Bolsonaro, since he was elected, seeks to reinforce the “sense of colonization” that, in fact, never went away. Due to this persistence, Caio Prado Jr. he even showed difficulty in perceiving signs of overcoming this orientation, as occurred when he dealt with industrialization, a process that effectively transformed the country.

However, industry has regressed in recent decades to the point where it currently represents only 11% of GDP, a figure comparable to that of the 1940s. .

On the other hand, the current government, as well as the last Brazilian governments, including those of the PT, rely largely on the so-called agribusiness, not-so-distant relative of big exploration. It is necessary to remember that, in its time, the great exploration was a huge innovation, introduced by the Portuguese in their islands in the Atlantic and, later replicated in Brazil, in order to supply the demands of the European market.

More importantly, the agribusiness The current situation is based, to a large extent, as well as the great exploitation, on extractive and predatory practices that are equivalent to real aggressions to the environment. Bolsonaro and his ministers – as had not happened since the dictatorship – openly advocate the destruction of what was left of Brazilian nature. Concentrator of property and income, the agribusiness it doesn't even have the merit of absorbing manpower, as it makes extensive use of worker-replacement technologies.

With regard to workers, both rural and urban, it is not difficult to see how, since the Temer government, efforts have been made to carry out a true campaign against their rights. This was the meaning behind the Labor Reform and the Social Security Reform, justified as measures capable of generating large investments, but which produced meager economic results.

The affinity of these initiatives with an attitude, present since the colony, which sees the worker as nothing more than a work tool is evident. In addition, the numbers of those without a work permit increase, the so-called informal market, which, in turn, can be considered as a not-so-distant relative of Caio Prado Jr. called the “inorganic sector”.

In a broader reference, slavery in Brazil stimulated a contempt for human life that is evident today in the way the coronavirus pandemic is dealt with. The last chapter of this true horror show is the shameless defense that private groups can import vaccines to combat the virus, which would leave the vast majority of the population starving.

In this sense, more than a deviation from Brazilian history, Bolsonaro helps to push it back to a course established since the colony. In a way, this desire was already expressed in the infamous slogan that appeared during the demonstrations that led to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff: “I want my country back”.

Even so, much of Caio Prado Jr. it is not incompatible with that of Gilberto Freyre, the historian from São Paulo who was influenced by the sociologist from Pernambuco. Indication of this is the observation, in Formation of contemporary Brazil, that the Spanish and Portuguese exploitative colonies would have ended up creating an original society, different from the Anglo-Saxon settlement colonies, a simple extension of Europe.

However, Brazilian civilization is more a possibility than a reality, an aspect, it is true, indicated by Freyre and Caetano. However, they failed to draw attention to the fact that for this civilization to exist one day, it is necessary, first of all, to put an end to the conditions that came from the colony and led to Bolsonarist barbarism.

*Bernardo Ricupero He is a professor in the Department of Political Science at USP. Author, among other books, of Romanticism and the idea of ​​nation in Brazil (WMF Martins Fontes).

 

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