Ugly, dirty and mean

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By VALERIO ARCARY*

The Brazilian bourgeoisie carries the weight of a terrible past. Formed for centuries on genocide and slavery

“The cordiality… the courtesy in the treatment, the hospitality, the generosity, virtues so praised by foreigners who visit us, represent in effect a definitive trait of the Brazilian character” (Sergio Buarque de Holanda, Brazil roots).

Ettore Scola, the brilliant Italian filmmaker who gifted us with the affectionate delicacy of A Special Day (A Very Special Day), the political irony of The night of Varennes (Casanova and the Revolution) and the transgressive humor of The family (The Family), among other masterpieces, made a cruel film in 1976 entitled Ugly dirty and bad (Ugly, dirty and mean in the Brazilian version and Ugly, pigs and bad, in Portuguese)

The protagonists were an immense family that lived, promiscuously, in a shack, and the center of the plot was the poisoning of the patriarch, a monster of pettiness and ignorance. Ettore Scola was a leftist artist. But there is no concession in the film to the idealization of the degradation that vegetates on the margins of the world of poverty.

Symmetrically, the idealization of the world of wealth should not exist in the Brazilian left. After the 2016 coup, if any strategic conclusion is unavoidably imposed, it is that the ruling class is not willing to tolerate a leftist government in power, even if it is a concerted government for gradual reforms.

The historical lesson already came from the 1964 coup, when terrified by the triumph of the Cuban revolution, they launched themselves in the handover of power to the Armed Forces. The bourgeoisie only accepts the negotiation of reforms in situations in extremis, when there is imminent danger of revolution. Without a revolutionary strategy, there is no horizon for transforming society.

Evidently, the bourgeoisie is not a homogeneous class. No social class is homogeneous in any country. When we consider the bourgeoisie as a class, we must remember that there are more than two million people. They are divided into several fractions and subgroups in conflicts and realignments, permanently, against each other: the agribusiness fraction, the industrial, financial, importers, exporters, the São Paulo, the gauchos, the northeasterns. And if we think, individually, then there is everything. But, individually, there are all kinds of people in all social classes. This is of no political importance.

Many differences in immediate economic interests, political location and even cultural distinctions fracture the bourgeoisie. But the ruling class in Brazil has a tiny hard core, very concentrated and strategically prevail the interests that unite them in defense of their social privileges: the preservation of capitalism.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie carries the weight of a terrible past that torments them like a nightmare. Historically, it formed for centuries about genocide and slavery. Meritocracy is today its most powerful ideological vocabulary. However, the influence of this liberal criterion is relatively recent and coincides with accelerated urbanization, especially from the 1930s onwards.

Meritocracy stands for equal opportunity. It argues that selection processes should be organized with effort or aptitude, effort or value, therefore, merit, as a central criterion. For any reasonable person, the meritocratic criterion seems fairer than the hereditary or favor. Because it is more equitable than kinship, more lawful than trust, and less random than lottery. Certainly, the criterion of ability is better than consanguinity, dexterity is better than godliness, dedication is better than favoritism. This is the limit of liberalism: equity, that is, equality of opportunity.

The Brazilian bourgeoisie was so reactionary until a few decades ago that being “liberal” was confused with being leftist. It is always good to emphasize that meritocracy corresponds to a liberal vision of the world, therefore, a bourgeois ideology. Socialism stands for social equality. Equality of opportunity is not social equality. It is progressive when compared to pre-capitalist criteria that favored kinship or patronage. But it is regressive when compared with socialism.

The meritocratic criterion is the one that defends that those who have been approved in the entrance exams, therefore, the most prepared, should study at the public university. The socialist criterion is that everyone should be able to access higher education. And while this is not possible, the socialist criterion is the defense of social and racial quotas to favor the most disadvantaged, compensating for inequality. In archaic Brazil, even until 1950, only those who belonged to the landlord class, who could pay, or who “won” the favor of a vacancy, could take a higher education course.

Meritocracy gained ideological hegemony in Brazil very slowly. The process was slow because there was resistance. And let us not be surprised if there is still reluctance. For many generations, an almost hereditary social insertion prevailed: the children of shoemakers, or tailors, or merchants, or doctors, engineers, lawyers, inherited their parents' business. The vast majority of the people did not inherit anything, because they were the Afro-descendants of slave labor, predominantly agrarian.

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.

Sergio Buarque de Holanda was the first to give importance to the theme of ideological resistance to liberalism in his book Brazil roots, published in 1936. Many interpreted the concept of “cordial man” as an image that referred to personal affection, human kindness, political sweetness, a swing in the deal. But the theme was the backwardness of the ruling class and its pre-capitalist mentality.

Others concluded that the concept of cordiality sought to capture the positive consequences of a type of colonization that tolerated racial miscegenation. Even if based on slavery, it would have avoided the violent forms of discrimination and separation as in the USA and South Africa, and would explain social collaboration through the individual search for favors and clientele.

In the 1930s, sociology was still a prisoner of the paradigm of seeking to understand the national character of each people and, therefore, was dispersed in ideological constructions. The vision of Brazil as a country of docile and intensely emotional people corresponded to the needs of the ruling class. A nation in which, despite abysmal economic inequalities, an unusual social cohesion would be maintained.

Sergio Buarque had another concern. He perceived that Brazilian cordiality was a cultural form of struggle for survival and adaptation to a system in which social ascension depended on favoritism. Cordiality concealed the immense brutality of social relations, camouflaged through a false intimacy, an expression of private control of public space.

Cordiality was a disguised expression of fear of misery and fear of reprisal. At the same time, a manifestation on the ground of the customs of the cultural resistance of a people. From cordiality came the “jeitinho”, that is, the ideology of improvisation: the consecration of circumventing universal rules, deceit and the coldness of the equal law for all. From cordiality came the praise of “taking advantage”, the ideology of connivance with convenience, therefore, the legitimation of profit, tolerance with corruption.

Cordiality was the mother of the “jeitinho”. This was the historical way found to guarantee individual social mobility in a rigid society: through personal relationships of cronyism and favor to preserve social peace and find negotiated and concerted solutions.

Brazilian capitalism has the face of its ruling class. They are disguised, because the defense of the world of wealth requires, publicly, the representation of a political role. But deep down, they are ugly, brutish and evil.

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

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