state and democracy

Guignard, Serra de Itatiaia, 1940. Photographic reproduction Pedro Oswaldo Cruz.


Introduction of the authors to the recently published book “Introduction to the Study of Politics”.

Between hope and fear

This book is born under the sign of an apparent paradox. At a time when democracy is in danger and, therefore, more than ever it is necessary to act, he proposes to study. But the dilemma is false. To take action, it is necessary to know how to act and, above all, in which direction to do it. Constructing a vision of the problems and sharpening the theoretical instruments allow a good intervention in reality. Politics, by the way, has always been praxis: practice that reflects on itself.

After the 2008 financial crash came Brexit, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, who were joined by authoritarian heads of government — such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Andrzej Duda in Poland — and equally active authoritarian party leaders. several years ago. The rise of the extreme right terrifies the world. There is talk again of fascism and totalitarianism,[I] ghosts of the past compressing the “brains of the living” once more.[ii] The moment is new, but it carries old impasses, among them the nature of politics. This is what this book is about, aimed at those who wish to start understanding the subject.

Because they are introductory, the following chapters are not intended to prescribe solutions. They propose to review the trajectory of the subject, pointing out decisive questions, in order to allow the reader to start a solid study guide here. We understand that asking the relevant questions is halfway to getting the answers that matter.

Recounting two and a half millennia of history forced us, however, to take two starting steps. The first was to choose, among the vast thematic universe involved, items that would provide a better understanding of the object. We chose to focus attention on two key elements, State and democracy, believing that, through them, the reader will have access to fundamental issues, and can then follow the path towards specific topics.

Second measure: finding the balance between exposing the facts and the interpretative synthesis they require. At the risk of ending up in the worst of all worlds — poorly told stories and hasty concepts —, we decided on the path we call historical-conceptual. The reader will find, at the same time, an evolutionary sequence of the State and democracy, as well as the path of intelligence on the reported events. As if it were a trip, the concepts function as explanatory syntheses regarding the traveled sections.

The back-and-forth between facts and concepts also occurs for an additional reason. Often, what comes to us from times gone by can only be accessed through archeological and documentary investigations. As what they say is never more than fragments of the truth, researchers put together as many pieces as possible and fill in the gaps with hypotheses in order to build a continuous and intelligible narrative. It is worth mentioning that much of what is written about the past is anchored in assumptions that can be opposed to different conjectures[iii].

It should also be noted that, as the objective was to whet the appetite of those interested in the subject, the chapters do not exhaust the enormous fields covered. Several theories dispute the understanding of the phenomena discussed, and it is always necessary to adopt some and leave others aside. In order not to tire the beginner, there is no exhaustive mention of appropriate authors and analyses. A selection was made, that is, cuts and choices, as valid as those that could be made by other professional colleagues. However, as the aim is not to transmit doctrine, but to make one think, the selective options adopted are based on logical arguments, presented below in a transparent manner.

The first approach adopted was to adhere to the western tradition. “West” is a fluid word, but it serves to delimit the space and time of a specific cultural tradition. Although several world experiences are equally respectable, it would be outside our professional scope (and the size of the undertaking) to produce a compendium that encompasses the set of political manifestations of humanity. The starting point, therefore, will be the city-states of classical Greek and Roman antiquity, where Western politics emerged. The finish line coincides with the current crisis of democracy, particularly in developed countries, whose reflections are visible on the periphery of capitalism.

The second framing concerns the references that we favor in each stretch of the route. Avoiding accepting a single vision, we practice what an esteemed professor called, years ago, jokingly, “well-tempered eclecticism”.[iv] Karl Marx, Max Weber, Hannah Arendt, Moses Finley, Perry Anderson, John Dunn and Bernard Manin, among others, formulated, from different theoretical orientations, central works on items that we decided to address. They will guide the exhibitions, without implying that we fully agree with the point of view of each one of them or reproduce the complete scheme of the work used.

For us, politics and society are not separate. It is the articulations between them that expand the scenarios on which we will move and that make the diversity of authors and topics treated productive. We start from the premise that class conflict is, throughout history, a touchstone for understanding the events and forms of politics, without, however, subsuming it. By class conflict we mean a varied set of oppositions that polarize social groups between rich and poor, nobles and commoners, capitalists and workers, and so on. Given the reference to classes, it is worth explaining the crucial role played by capitalism in determining the modern dynamics. As practitioners of a political theory informed by social theory, we understand that the thread of classes and capitalism allows us to sew ideas coming from different lineages.

As words are in permanent dispute in politics, the ambiguity and the evaluatively charged character of the terms need to be made explicit at every moment, creating a certain aridity in the writing. To overcome the obstacle, we propose an agreement. For our part, we have taken care to maintain the clarity and rigor of the language, making it as tiresome as possible. In return, the reader commits to carefully following the argumentative chain, rereading the difficult passages until they (we hope!) become clearer. In particular, when referring to the main triad — politics, State and democracy —, there will be an accumulation of meanings, forming a connotative field that demands some patience to understand.

See what happens to the fundamental question: what is politics? For the thinker of German origin living in the United States Hannah Arendt, an obligatory reference in the field of political science, “it is difficult to say what politics is”. If we ask philosophers, we find “no philosophically valid answer to the question: what is politics?” she says.[v] Despite not assuming herself as a philosopher, Arendt, who accepted a commission to write a work entitled Introduction to Politics and worked on the proposal between 1956 and 1959, never published the result, which ended up appearing post mortem from the meeting, by researchers, of the preparatory fragments.

There are numerous meanings of what politics is, which highlight different angles of the object. We decided, therefore, to construct an artifice and offer the reader a polarity that, in our view, sheds light on fundamental aspects for those who begin their journey. The first element of the pair originates in our zero point, classical Antiquity, in which politics was invented, and was inspired by Arendt's reflections, in whose view, from the perspective of polis “Politics is the collective practice of freedom”.

It means to state that politics only occurs when “a public space is created in which free and equal human beings engage in a deliberative process”. We understand the deliberative process as one in which the initial preferences of the participants can be changed depending on the arguments presented.[vi] Thus, the word would be the only valid means of persuasion, and “for there to be full freedom, there must be equality”, that is, the word must be open to everyone.

The second element of the pair gains prominence at the moment when the collective conscience takes note of the extraordinary power acquired by the State in modern conditions. We refer to the end of the First World War (1914-8), when the richest countries on Earth, wielding hitherto unknown weapons, had just been engulfed in a conflict of apocalyptic contours. Thinkers from different schools sought to draw the theoretical consequences of the catastrophe (two decades later, another dispute, even more destructive and irrational, would ensue, but they did not know it). It was in the dark context of January 1919, at a lecture given at the University of Munich, that the sociologist Max Weber offered an influential definition of politics.[vii]

According to Weber's conception, politics is the struggle for the direction of the State - he was referring to the modern State, an institution that, within the limits of a certain territory, claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. This implies that politics occurs when, directly or indirectly, organized violence is at stake. From the Weberian angle, the daily life of politics is the recruitment of allies and voluntary followers to win the dispute for the leadership of the State.

So, instead of one, we present two policy definitions. This book shows that both make sense, and that the freedom/violence duality reveals fundamental traits of the subject to which we want to introduce the reader. One of the definitions emphasizes the collective power built in conditions of freedom and equality, representing the human expectation of overcoming domination. The opposite definition stresses that disregarding domination — that is, the imposition of arbitrary power by the threat of coercion, a possibility that has always existed in state conditions — poses the risk of having an uncontrolled and unguided government. In one lies hope. In the other, fear. The contradictory sum sheds light on material impasses.

From the perspective of the pair freedom/violence, the six chapters that make up this volume seek to trace the Western course of the State and democracy. Chapter 1 expands to account for extensive ancient experience; chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to the modern state; 4 and 5, to modern democracy; and Chapter 6, by including neoliberalism, totalitarianism and the contemporary crisis, is, in its way, as comprehensive as the first.

In Chapter 1, we will see that by creating a space for collective action (the polis) for the free and equal, the Greeks, and then the Romans, but above all the Athenians, found, through ancient democracy, a non-violent way of mediating conflicts between the classes that formed the community of citizens. Observing the experience of classical antiquity, we realize that the polis is, in comparison with other formations, a peculiar. The State – as a supreme authority capable of using coercive instruments to obtain obedience from the population over which it claims dominion, and whose oldest traces, which exceed 5 years, archaeologists have located in the areas now occupied by Iraq and Egypt – has always involved violence . The Greeks, however, found a way to eliminate violence from relationships between citizens.

Freedom and equality in the Athenian agora depended, however, on the oppression of slaves, that is, they involved an element of external domination at the core of politics. Not only that: Greek and Roman political power compelled women and foreigners, by force if necessary, to observe laws and decisions, without free or equal participation in the deliberation. In the very foundation of politics, therefore, the duality between freedom and violence was posed. Even ancient democracy, defined as the government of the people, understood as a group of free men, oppressed those who were excluded from citizenship.

In Chapter 2, we analyze the decline of the State during the Middle Ages, when political practice was greatly reduced. Ancient experiences submerged in the collapse that hit Greco-Roman civilization around the XNUMXth century. The State lost visibility in the chaos of the Middle Ages, being replaced by lords who dominated rural areas.

The rebirth of “statality”, namely, the ability of a given structure of dominion to concentrate coercive instruments and issue accepted commandments, would have to wait for the constitution and development of a new social order, feudalism. Only when it reached its productive peak, around 1300, did the State fully come back into existence, now as a national power. Gradually, it becomes autonomous in relation to those nuclei over which it exercises authority, such as the Church, for a long time the only centralized institution that survived the collapse of antiquity. The absolutist State, whose construction concludes Chapter 2, is an original type of State, whose characteristics need to be well understood, as it opens the door to modernity.

The modern State, in its specificity in relation to previous structures, is analyzed in chapter 3, which is dedicated more to clarifying concepts than to historical exposition. The resumption of politics, at the end of the Middle Ages, takes place in a context of monopoly violence, growing bureaucratic specialization and the emergence of capitalism. The peculiar combination of articulations that characterize the modern State, first as an absolutist reality and then in its bureaucratic and constitutional version, makes the problem of leadership a priority.

The return of political practice, this time in convergence with the growth of “stateness”, imposed the problem of knowing where to orient the gigantic state and capitalist apparatuses of modernity. The incredible power of the bureaucratic apparatus (public and private), examined in Chapter 3, justifies the concern with how to control and direct the machines created by the “process of rationalization of life”, in Weber's terms, ongoing since the Renaissance. In other words, it justifies the conception of politics as a struggle for the direction of the State.

Chapter 4 returns to the narrative tone to discuss the democratic revolutions in England, the United States and France between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. They have placed the old ideas of freedom and equality, which belong to the first definition of politics, at the center of modernity. Ancient democracy, understood as government by the people, is rescued with the fall of absolutist States, at least as an aspiration and inspiration. It will undoubtedly be a different democracy from the original version, but one that maintains continuity with regard to the inclusion of all. Now, under the peculiarities of industrial capitalism, the social classes, from the highest to the popular (the latter, not without intense struggle), will end up having some access to decisions.

Each of the three revolutions brought its own contributions. The rule of law, the guarantee of religious plurality and the agenda of the limits of power were the main legacies of the English Revolution. Universal human equality as a goal, the protection of the rights of minorities and federalism as a guarantee of freedom were marks left by the American Revolution. The profound intervention of the popular classes in politics, which brought an unprecedented notion of social equality, composed the indelible legacy bequeathed by the French Revolution, which closes the chapter.

The development of modern democracy in the 5th and XNUMXth centuries occupies chapter XNUMX, seeking to understand the implications of the entry of the masses into the scene. From an institutional point of view, modern democracy differs from ancient democracy because it is representative, but representation paradoxically inserts an aristocratic principle into the system. Defined from the experience of Antiquity, democracy would be the “government of the people”, however, in modernity, the people do not govern, they only choose who governs. Antiquity would consider it a mixture of aristocracy and democracy.

The expansion of political rights, however, as a result of the organization and struggle of the working class, whose demanding program included universal suffrage, secret ballot and periodic elections, democratized democracy, so to speak. In the mid-twentieth century, democracy meant the choice and peaceful removal of rulers in free and periodic elections; the inclusion of almost all adults in the right to vote and run for office; freedom of expression, including that of criticizing office holders, government conduct, the prevailing economic, social and political system; the right to join autonomous associations. When in full operation, these assumptions boosted the construction of the welfare state (welfare state), which elevated the post-Second World War, in countries of developed capitalism, to the status of the most democratic experience of the contemporary period.

Finally, Chapter 6 shows that from the 1970s onwards the welfare state was eroded by neoliberalism. In the name of mercantile freedom, what the French economist Jean Fourastié called the “Glorious Thirty”, the period between 1945 and 1975, was reversed.[viii] In a recent stage, awakened from the post-war sleep by the neoliberal wave, the extreme right, after expanding to various parts of the world, became epidemic in the second decade of the XNUMXst century.

As a result, fears that prevailed in the early half of the twentieth century have returned to circulate. To what extent can the crisis of democracy open the door to the horror of the interwar period? According to Hannah Arendt, the totalitarianism of the 1930s was a new regime in history, whose ultimate objective was the definitive extinction of politics as a collective practice of freedom, and whose specter, from then on, will always haunt humanity. While some analysts predict a “gradual closure” of democracies, brought about by elected leaders, others even speak of “neoliberal totalitarianism”. A third field identifies an “interregnum” in which the most varied phenomena can occur. From outbursts of resentment and nihilism to the reopening of social and democratic alternatives, there is a range of possibilities at the beginning of the XNUMXst century. Contributing to the choice of democratic options is the ultimate and valuable purpose that encouraged us to carry out the task that is now beginning.

Without the Department of Political Science (DCP) and the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH) of the University of São Paulo, this work would not have been carried out. We are particularly grateful to social science students whose desire to learn motivated us.

This book continues the concerns with the dissemination of knowledge of professors at the University of São Paulo, who organized works such as Classics of Politics, Classics of Political Thought and Classic Political Thought. They were important books in the context of the Brazilian democratic transition and are still good sources for consultation today.[ix]

Returning to basic themes of the discipline, such as freedom, equality, State leadership and violence, now that democracy is again at risk, was the way we found to thank the legacy left by masters who preceded us in the task of thinking and acting.

*André Singer is a professor of political science at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Lulism in crisis (Company of Letters).

*Cicero Araujo is professor of political theory at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of The form of the Republic: from the mixed constitution to the State (Martins Fontes).

*Leonardo Belinelli he holds a doctorate in political science from USP. author of The dilemmas of Brazilian patrimonialism (Alameda).


André Singer, Cicero Araujo & Leonardo Belinelli. State and democracy – an introduction to the study of politics. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 2021, 300 pages.


[I] See, for example, Leonardo Avritzer, “Bolsonarism in the light of Hannah Arendt”; and Wilson Tosta, “'There is no political program, Bolsonaro's struggle is for power', says Luiz Werneck Vianna”.

[ii] Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, P. 25.

[iii] Because it is not a history book, the privileged sources did not always contain the most recent research, although they were all, always, reliable.

[iv] Gabriel Cohn, “The Well-Tempered Eclecticism”.

[v] Hannah Arendt What is the policy?, pp. 145 and 43 respectively.

[vi] On the concept of deliberation, see Jürgen Habermas, “Three Normative Models of Democracy”.

[vii] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”.

[viii] Jean Fourastie, Les trente glorieuses, ou La révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975.

[ix] Francisco Weffort (Ed.), The classics of politics. Celia Galvão Quirino; Claudio Vouga; Gildo Marçal Brandão (Eds.), Classics of political thought. Celia Galvão Quirino; Maria Teresa Sadek (Eds.), Classic political thought.

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