Stupid people

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By Valerio Arcary*

We are facing the paradox of the “mad firefighter”, that is, the one who, desperate with the fire, and harassed by the scarcity of water, decides to put it out with gasoline

The irrational blindness of the bourgeois fraction that supports Bolsonaro in the face of the approaching health catastrophe is disturbing. How is it possible to lessen the destructive impact of at least tens of thousands of deaths in a few weeks? How is it possible to disregard the social crisis that the imminent collapse of the hospital system will provoke? How is it possible to underestimate the political danger posed by a neo-fascist leadership that threatens democratic freedoms with a Bonapartist project of self-coup?

We are facing the paradox of the “mad firefighter”, that is, the one who, desperate with the fire, and harassed by the scarcity of water, decides to put it out with gasoline. By defending their most immediate interests, they frivolously sacrifice their historical interests. And they threaten to drag the whole of society into an abyss of decay.

Some might argue that it would not be very different from the short-sightedness of the bourgeois fractions that in the US, or even in Europe, have, for decades, ignored the apocalyptic danger posed by global warming. The difference is that a threat in decades is different from a real and immediate danger in a few months. The scale makes the difference. How to explain this obtuse reactionary political inertia? It turns out that these dangerous strategic gambles, in historical perspective, are not all that uncommon.

No one can, of course, predict what will happen in the post-pandemic world. We are facing an unprecedented health calamity in the last hundred years. It has already boiled over into an economic catastrophe comparable only to the depression of the thirties. All this in the context of the geopolitical dispute between the US and China, the most serious since the end of World War II. If that wasn't enough, after thirty years of constant worsening of social inequality on a world scale. The destruction is being, and will continue to be, very great, without us having any idea of ​​the scale of the regression that will come.

It is not possible to build a useful theoretical model to calculate the probabilities of what will come, minimally realistic, with so many uncertain variables. Any serious intellectual exercise is not possible. It would be ccc to risk the construction of scenarios. We only know that the consequences will be very serious. But we can anticipate that in Brazil it will be worse. It will be the most serious depression in our history and, perhaps, a historical regression.

Let us see an interesting example of how Marx was attentive to the theme of historical regressions: “The example of the Phoenicians shows us to what extent, the productive forces developed even with a relatively small trade, are susceptible to a total destruction, since their inventions disappeared for the most part, owing to the fact that the nation was eliminated from commerce and conquered by Alexander, which caused its decline... and when all nations are drawn into the struggle of competition” (MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. The German Ideology)

The subject deserves attention, in a situation like the one we are experiencing, in which it is admitted that Brazil is facing yet another “lost” decade. The widespread use of this concept of lost decades has now extended to the danger of a “lost century” considering the long-term stagnation tendency of contemporary capitalism. Which invites us to think about other processes of historical regression.

The example of the Roman Empire is suggestive, which, although it had an immense volume of knowledge available, neglected a good part of the technological applications that would represent an important increase in productivity, due to the abundance of slave labor available. There is an interesting theoretical discussion about the tendency for the productive forces to grow, which would be one of the historical laws revealed by Marx.

Let us see how it is presented, by Hobsbawm, in the essay “Marx and History”: “There is an inevitable evolutionary tendency of the material productive forces of society which, in this way, come into contradiction with the existing productive relations and their relatively inflexible superstructural expressions, which, so they need to back off.”

Hobsbawn here develops the idea of ​​the “law of intrinsic tendency” as one of the most general movements of the driving forces that drive history. The operation of this tendency is one of Marx's most important conclusions, but it lends itself to dangerous interpretations. The process of boosting the productive forces is very uneven: periods of rapid acceleration are followed by phases of prolonged stagnation. Different modes of production have very unevenly stimulated or blocked the evolutionary impulse of the productive forces.

The theoretical discussion about progress is inseparable from the polemic about the “intrinsic” tendency. The main impetus for the development of productive forces is the struggle of mankind for the satisfaction of its needs. The expansion of needs is the very content of progress, and the substance of history.

The growth momentum of the productive forces has, however, not only been uneven throughout history, but has manifested itself in very different proportions. In some civilizations it was more intensely sought after, and in others blocked. Because just as the tendency to expand and complexify material and cultural needs operates, there are also countertrends of political and social inertia, the most varied cultural, religious and ideological factors that can impede the expansion of progress.

It would even be necessary to identify the problem of the “exception” of eastern civilizations, such as India and, more complex, China, where it seems almost not to manifest itself, due to the permanence of long secular periods of stagnation and inertia.

In fact, the eastern question is more complex. Braudel sustains in Material civilization, economy and capitalism, that a comparison between China and Europe in the XNUMXth or XNUMXth centuries would hardly have made it possible to predict the superiority and greater dynamics of the West over the East, if not the opposite: the invariably unfavorable flows of precious metals from West to East, a truly hemorrhagic bloodletting, for centuries, would be one of the evidences of the greater development of eastern civilizations, as well as the astonishing difference in demographic expansion.

Apparently, the conquest of the oceans, and due to this dominance, the hegemonic role of the European powers in the world market, would have, from then on, decided the growing inequality, and, finally, the subsequent colonization of the East. Why would China have abandoned the trade routes it explored from Malacca, India to Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, guaranteeing intense commercial traffic for its junks? Why would he have renounced the promising commercial prospects with Islam and India? According to Braudel, China's closing in on itself in the following centuries is explained by the priority need to defend its borders in the north against waves of invasion, an ancient scourge that chronically oppressed the Middle Kingdom and led to the construction of , of the greatest defense work in pre-capitalist history, the Great Wall.

The Empire's defensive priority, the preservation of territorial unity, would have inhibited the commercial tendencies that were expanded with the prosperity of the commercial routes with Islam and India, and blocked a distinct evolutionary possibility. The bet on security would have internalized the Empire, and the state unit, unlike Europe, scattered in countless States, with different impulses and processes, would have been a blocking factor to the development of commercial expansion and the dispute for control of the oceans.

Controversial, but very suggestive, this hypothesis allows us to analyze, from a whole different angle, the inequality of development between West and East in the last five hundred years. Braudel's main conclusion, of a political nature, is that the permanence of the state's political unity in China, destroyed in Europe with the collapse of the Roman Empire, would have been the obstacle to a dynamic of commercial expansion across the Indian Ocean, which would have allowed a dispute over hegemony by the world market in formation.

But the central issue could be explained, perhaps, in another way: before the constitution of a world market, uneven development would have such primacy that humanity, in its different civilizational poles, would have coexisted, for millennia, with recurrent periods of prolonged stagnation, or even regressions.

This tortuous, multifaceted, irregular, and, above all, uneven process of historical development, does not nullify the conclusion, that in the long run, the development of the productive forces, has in science and technology, the most important factor of historical impetus.

But this impulse was never external to the class struggle process: usury, greed and covetousness, that is, everything that makes the vulgarity and pettiness of capitalism, define the “spirit” of an era, and are part of it. inseparable from its internal convulsions and its limits.

In other words, there are social and political counter-factors in history that can nullify the tendency for the productive forces to grow. The momentum of progress is not constant. The degrees of freedom exercised by the human will have been increasing with the growing importance of politics.

Only this new centrality of politics allows us to explain that, for certain periods, even if historically ephemeral, classes, not only individuals, but classes, can act against what would be their most immediate interests. Between their immediate interests and their more strategic interests, the struggling social classes face dramatically difficult dilemmas, and they hesitate, and do not always find a simple solution and an easy choice.

That is why subjective mediations are so important and so complex. It is not uncommon, however, for historical analyzes to forget the ABC of Marxism which explains that, in the final analysis, it is because they act, in most circumstances, despite their interests, or even against their interests, that the subordinate classes endure , or they tolerate the brutal conditions of exploitation to which they are subjected, without rebelling, or postponing the rebellion. They do not, of course, because they do not know what their interests are, but because they doubt their own strength.

More complex, but just as fascinating, is the inverse phenomenon. Countless examples could be remembered, of dominant classes that, for the most different reasons, acted against their historical interests, as a class, because they defended themselves. This occurs when, out of conservatism, they refuse to accept the most elementary changes that reality imposes, and insist on preserving privileges that have become obsolete and intolerable: the French nobility and the absolutist regime at the end of the XNUMXth century, the Russian aristocracy and tsarism. at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, are the two most famous examples.

There are also many hybrid situations due to the terrible uncertainty of the options, such as the example of the revolt of the small nobility in Portugal in the face of the 1383 revolution, when the majority of the aristocracy defended adherence to Castile's claim to the throne, the most favorable medieval solution, and the The rebellion of the Mestre de Avis, with Constable Nuno Alvarez Pereira at his side, and the support of the merchant bourgeoisie of Lisbon, allowed the defense of independence.

Finally, the sign can also be the opposite: the mismatch and non-correspondence between action and class interest, not due to reactionary blindness in the face of transformation, but due to the lucidity of anticipation. This would be the example of the bourgeois classes in Europe who accepted, under the pressure of a powerful labor movement in the post-war years, public funds, and the respective extremely severe fiscal policies, especially in Scandinavia, which explain the “Fordist” social pact ”.

*Valerio Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of The Dangerous Corners of History (Shaman).

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