Two hundred years of torments



Peripheral capitalism made Brazil a nation adrift

“Even with misfortune we get used to it” (Portuguese popular wisdom).

Two hundred years after independence, Brazil is still a sad nation. The benign external image of the country, built in the post-war period and associated with the joy of samba and the apotheosis of carnival, with the ginga and imagination of football, with the beauty of the beaches and forests, plunged into decline.

Brazil is perceived today, internationally, as a dangerous country. Peripheral capitalism made Brazil a nation adrift. The election of Jair M. Bolsonaro in 2018, a caricatured neo-fascist, compounded this decadent image. The future looks so bleak that five million young people, among the most intrepid and dynamic, have left the country desperately to try their luck at a better life in recent decades.

The scourge of social inequality among the highest in the world, outside sub-Saharan Africa, confirms that the nation still remains dramatically backward, even in comparison with its neighbors in the Southern Cone. Extreme poverty has declined compared to past decades, but social inequity remains at scandalous levels. Delay and social inequality remain at absurd levels. Argentina ranks 40th out of 188 nations, with an HDI of 0,836. Brazil is in the 75th position with 0,755.[I]

Different from other countries, in Brazil, the dominant class has historically had a persistent difficulty in winning the majority of the people and even the middle class to an optimistic vision of the future. Even in the ephemeral times of 200 years of independence, they encounter almost insurmountable obstacles to mimicking their emergency plans into a lasting national project.

Chronic social tension is at the root of this failure. After all, good reasons have never been lacking for Brazil to be confrontational. The torture of a miserable life, the affliction of permanent insecurity, the disgust of permanent humiliation, the anguish of an absence of prospects have been the experience of generations.

A molecular class struggle has always transpired through every pore, and has translated into lasting political instability: after almost four centuries of slavery and the State with monarchical forms, 41 of an autocratic-oligarchic regime, 36 of a semi-fascist dictatorship, less than 40 years of liberal-democracy, and yet without full civil liberties for the black majority, it's not easy to fantasize about the meaning of our history.

Incomplete independence in 1822, late abolition and without agrarian reform in 1888, Republic without democracy in 1889, 1930 revolution that degenerated into Estado Novo, democracy with illegalization of the left after 1945, military dictatorship for two decades and, finally, almost thirty years of a liberal-democratic regime that culminated in an institutional coup in 2016 to prevent Lula's re-election, is not an encouraging trajectory.

But all this did not inhibit attempts to “invent a tradition”: sometimes, ambitiously, “civilizing”; always, pompously, “original” (cordial identity, brown culture). Persistent efforts to romanticize the history of Brazil, inspired on the one hand by Lusophilia, on the other by Lusophobia, but without deep roots, even in the ruling class.

Brazil is backward economically, socially, politically and culturally. It is dramatically lagging behind in educational terms when compared with nations at a similar stage of economic development. Those who are fully literate in language and mathematics are only 8%, and the functionally illiterate correspond to 27% of the population aged 15 and over, that is, almost one in three.[ii]

But Brazil is, at the same time, the largest industrial park in the southern hemisphere of the planet, and one of the ten largest economies in the world, with twenty metropolitan regions with a million or more inhabitants, and 85% of the economically active population in urban centers . A historical laboratory of uneven and combined development. A union of the obsolete and the modern, an amalgamation of archaic and contemporary forms. It is part of the world as a hybrid of a privileged semi-colony and a regional sub-metropolis.

Brazil was and remains, above all, a very unfair society. The key to a Marxist interpretation of Brazil is the response to the theme of the main national peculiarity: extreme social inequality. All capitalist nations, at the center or at the periphery of the system, are unequal, and inequality has been increasing since the 1980s.[iii]

But Brazilian capitalism has a kind of anachronistic inequality. Why have the degrees of social inequality always been so disproportionately high when compared to neighboring nations like Argentina or Uruguay? Various reactionary hypotheses were elaborated over decades. The most influential were based on racist premises, inspired by eugenics,[iv] in a debate that is not only historical, because it informs us about an especially aberrant trait of a type of mentality of fractions of the ruling class that, even in the minority, still subsists.

Lusophobic and racist works such as Evolution of the Brazilian people, from 1923, by Oliveira Viana, who defended the need for the “whitening” of the people, intended to explain inequality by backwardness, and backwardness by miscegenation of races.[v] Others, like Big house and slave quarters by Gilberto Freire, a supporter of Lusophilia, present miscegenation as a key to progressively distinguish Brazil from countries, such as the United States, where racial segregation, apartheid, was imposed.[vi] It founded the ideology of racial “democracy”.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie sought interpreters of its history who could legitimize an ideological demand for its nationalism. The idea of ​​a “nation of blood” as the basis for interpreting the character of a people would reveal a historical destiny for society. The investigation of what would be the character of the Brazilian people then became the center of an ideological project.

The vision of Brazil as a country of docile and intensely emotional people corresponded to the needs of the ruling class. The work of Sergio Buarque de Hollanda, Roots of Brazil, in which the theme of the “cordial Brazilian” responded to this demand. But Sergio Buarque was essentially concerned with understanding the ruling class's aversion to the liberal meritocratic criterion.

Social mobility was very low. Agrarian Brazil was a very unequal and rigid society, almost estates. It was estates because the criteria of class and race intersected, forging a hybrid system of class and caste that froze mobility. Social ascension was only individual and narrow. It essentially depended on relationships of influence, therefore, on clientele and dependency through personal ties: the pistolão. The selection criterion was of a pre-capitalist type: kinship and personal trust.[vii]

If the key to interpreting Brazil must be social inequality, the key to understanding inequality is slavery.[viii] Brazilian capitalism perpetuated slavery until almost the end of the XNUMXth century. Such a long period of slavery, and on such a large scale, left a historic social legacy. The indigenous population, estimated at three million, two million along the coast and one million inland, was decimated during the invasion.[ix]

Brazil knew indigenous slavery until the Pombaline reforms, in the second half of the 1530th century. Black slavery emerged with the first monoculture sugar plantations, starting in 1850, and persisted for approximately three and a half centuries. It is estimated that the slave population must not have been less than a third of the total until 40, and may have been close to half, or at least XNUMX% in the XNUMXth century, at the height of gold exploration in Minas Gerais.

Two hundred years after independence we are still a sad nation in search of a destiny.

*Valerio Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).



[I] Comparing the HDIs (Human Development Index) published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is a way, albeit partial, of measuring this disparity. The HDI combines three indicators: life expectancy at birth; average years of schooling and expected years of schooling; It is GDP (PPP) per capita, considered purchasing power parity. The top four are Norway, Australia, Switzerland and Denmark, in descending order, with ranges from 0,944 to 0,923. Brazil is behind, for example, 73rd Sri Lanka, 71st Venezuela, 69th Iran, 67th Lebanon tied with Cuba, 62nd Malaysia, 59th Bulgaria, 56th Kazakhstan, 52nd Uruguay tied with Romania. At the Brazil, in 2016, life expectancy at birth was 75,5 years. Data on average education released by the TSE (Superior Electoral Court) in 2016 indicate that 44,17% of the electorate had not completed elementary school, voters with higher education, complete or incomplete, account for 10,7% and those who have secondary education, complete or incomplete, are 38%.

[ii] In Brazil, completing secondary education corresponds to 12 years of schooling. This schooling should correspond to the “proficient” level which corresponds to full literacy in language and mathematics. But only 8% of people of working age in 2015 were considered fully capable of understanding and expressing themselves through letters and numbers. There are five levels of functional literacy, according to the report “Literacy and the World of Work”: illiterate (4%), rudimentary (23%), elementary (42%), intermediate (23%) and proficient (8%). The illiterate group plus the rudimentary group, or 27%, are considered functional illiterates. This study was conducted by the NGO Ação Educativa.

[iii] PIKKETY, Thomas. Capital in the XNUMXst Century. intrinsic. Rio de Janeiro. 2014. Piketty's book, inspired by neo-Keynesian economics and social democratic politics, presents an extraordinary volume of data on the role of inheritance in perpetuating wealth over the last hundred years on a global scale. The ten-year series irrefutably confirm that, from the XNUMXs onwards, the trend towards an increase in social inequality is approaching the pre-World War I pattern.

[iv] Eugenics was, in Brazil at the end of the XNUMXth and beginning of the XNUMXth century, the ideological premise of a racist vision that defended the need to improve the race through whitening.

[v] For decades, under the influence of positivism, between the end of the XNUMXth century and the middle of the XNUMXth century, an interpretation prevailed that Brazil's backwardness was due to the fact that colonization was carried out by Portugal, and the progress of the United States could be explained due to English colonization. This hypothesis has not withstood historical investigation. The persecuted Puritan religions who went to the temperate regions of North America built an economy which, for its first hundred years, revolved almost solely around the satisfaction of its own needs, and only marginally exported. While the occupation of the coast of Brazil, from the mid-XNUMXth century, was organized around the export of sugar, inserted in capitalist commercial relations. About Oliveira Viana:

[vi] In response to lusophobic elaborations, lusophilia emerged, whose most famous expression was the work of Gilberto Freire, especially, Casa Grande and Senzala. Darcy Ribeiro, among others, still in the nineties, incredibly claimed it: “His boldness offended and scratched academic sensibilities and hurt many well-formed souls. It couldn't be otherwise, if in a passage Gilberto Freire illustrates the bad Portuguese custom of swearing by the Virgin's pubes. In another, he talks about despique, an old Brazilian custom of exchanging wives between friends. In both cases, it's true, always based on the best documentation. What is certain is that Casa Grande & Senzala taught me and everyone many things that we need to start enumerating. It taught us, mainly, to reconcile ourselves with our Lusitanian and black ancestry, which we were all a little vexed with”. Darcy Ribeiro, An Introduction to the Big House and Slaves, Rio de Janeiro, Record.

[vii] Buarque de Holanda, Sergio. Brazil roots. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1997. Published in 1936 and rescued from oblivion by Antonio Candido in the XNUMXs, it exerted influence even on the left. The assessment of ideological resistance to liberalism was central to his thinking. The concept of “cordial man” referred to a natural affection, an authentic kindness, an intimacy in the treatment. For many generations, an almost hereditary social insertion prevailed: the children of shoemakers, or tailors, or merchants, or doctors, engineers, lawyers, inherited their parents' businesses. The vast majority of the people did not inherit anything, because they were the Afro-descendants of slave labor, predominantly agrarian.

[viii] The first national census was carried out between 1870/72. The questionnaire was difficult to transcribe and calculate. Although it was made in especially precarious conditions, its importance as a source does not deserve to be diminished. Out of a population close to ten million or, more exactly, 9.930.478, the slave population was still a little bigger than one and a half million, or, more precisely, 1.510.806, being 805.170 men and 705.636 women. Historical demographic studies are only approximations of magnitude. CRITICAL PUBLICATION OF THE GENERAL CENSUS OF THE EMPIRE OF BRAZIL IN 1872 by the Center for Research in Economic and Demographic History – NPHED at UFMG. Available at:…/Relatorio_preliminar_1872_site_nphed.

[ix] Many peoples became extinct. According to the 2010 Census, Brazil has almost 900 Indians of 305 ethnic groups and 274 languages. The largest contingent is in the North region (342,8 indigenous people), and the smallest, in the South (78,8).

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