Interest, neoliberalism and political cynicism


By Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira*

The tragedy of our time is the ideological hegemony of neoliberalism, a liberalism no longer tempered by the logic of democracy. It exacerbated individualism, became cynical and placed itself at the service of a tight coalition of rentier capitalists and financiers..

The tragedy of our time – the time that began around the 1980s – lies in the fact that, for the first time, neoliberalism became hegemonic and the idea of ​​public interest lost strength while the assertion of individual interest came to reign supreme. Neoliberalism is radical or pure liberalism; it is liberalism not properly tempered by republicanism, nationalism, socialism, democracy and environmentalism.

Between approximately the 1830s and the 1920s, as the bourgeoisie became dominant in businessmen's capitalism, economic liberalism was dominant in the countries that first carried out their industrial and capitalist revolution (England, Belgium and France), but it was a conservative liberalism in the which there was a republican, nationalist and democratic element that moderated it. In neoliberalism these brakes disappeared or lost strength.

Republicanism is the ancient ideology of Aristotle, Cicero and Machiavelli. It is the ideology that defends civic virtue, the solidarity of citizens, and the concept of liberty of the ancients – a different concept from the liberal concept of liberty. For liberalism, the individual is free when he can do whatever he wants as long as it is not against the law. This is a negative concept of freedom that makes building a good society impossible, since it lacks the necessary political actors.

On the contrary, for republicanism freedom is a positive social value; it does not exist for individual enjoyment, but for the good of the republic. For republicanism, the individual is only free when he is able to defend the public interest, even when this interest is in conflict with his own interest. If in each society there is a reasonable number of citizens with a public spirit, it will be possible to build a republic, a good state.

Economic nationalism is a form of republicanism because the public interest is also central to it, but there are two differences. First, while republicanism is an ideology endowed with universality, nationalism is an ideology for each nation-state, which starts from the recognition that in capitalist societies the world is politically organized into nation-states that compete with each other, so that the interest public is understood as national interest.

Second, despite the internal class struggle, the nationalist elites seek to associate with the workers around a strategy of economic development – ​​which implies mutual recognition. While for poor countries economic nationalism is a necessity for economic development, for rich and powerful countries it is less necessary, and can easily turn into imperialism. And when it is not only economic but also ethnic, nationalism is very dangerous, leading, at the limit, to genocide.

Unlike republicanism and nationalism, democracy in the 1977th century, in rich countries, had not yet been achieved. It was a demand from the popular classes that liberals rejected throughout this century, on the grounds that it would lead to the dictatorship of the majority and the expropriation of the capitalist class. After all, however, as Göran Therborn (1985) and Adam Przeworski (XNUMX) have shown, the pressure from popular forces was so great – at the same time that it became clear to the bourgeoisie that eventually elected socialist parties would not expropriate it – that, in Turning to the XNUMXth century, universal suffrage was implemented in rich countries.

As I adopt the minimal concept of democracy, which comes into being when universal suffrage is added to the guarantee of civil rights or the rule of law, from then on the countries that completed their industrial and capitalist revolution tended to become consolidated democracies [1 ]. But underdeveloped, liberal democracies.

During the XNUMXth century, mainstream liberalism was tempered by republicanism and economic nationalism. Liberalism expressed class struggle within civil society, democracy, political equality, nationalism, class cooperation within the nation, and republicanism, the republic or ideal society.

In the second half of the century, with the emergence and organization of a large working class, a new ideology emerged: socialism, while democracy gained strength. Socialism was also a republican ideology insofar as it placed the public interest above private interests, but its concept of public interest was identified with the workers' interest which would be imposed on the capitalists by class struggle and its expropriation. While socialism was politically strong, it partly replaced republicanism and economic nationalism in the moderating role of liberalism.

But there was a problem. Its full realization implied the abolition of private ownership of the means of production – it implied a profound economic transformation – which caused violent opposition from the capitalist class. Its defeat was due less to this opposition and more to the fact that centralized economies are only efficient in the first phase of industrialization – that of basic industry and infrastructure; once this phase is over, the market is irreplaceable in the coordination of complex and technologically sophisticated economic systems.

The democracy that emerged with universal suffrage was called “liberal democracy”. It was a limited democracy, as its title indicated. Liberal democracy is a oxymoron, because liberalism is the authoritarian ideology that was forced to coexist with democracy. The great liberal-conservative, Winston Churchill, said that "democracy is the worst of all regimes, except all the others". In other words, for the ruling classes, democracy is a necessary evil. But, after the two great and irrational world wars, capitalism in Europe becomes a developmental and social democratic capitalism – a capitalism in which liberalism was moderated by democracy, socialism, economic nationalism and republicanism. That's why the Golden Years of Capitalism were the great moment of capitalism.

The logic of liberalism is the logic of self-interest for individuals, profit for corporations, and competition for nation-states; it is a tough if not implacable form of competition, a supposed meritocracy in which the contenders are far from having equal conditions in the competition. This logic defines capitalist societies because, until today, it has proved to be the most capable of promoting economic development and improving living standards.

But there are other logics that are also present in capitalism: there is the logic of the republic or of virtue and public interest; the logic of democracy or political equality; the logic of socialism or equality and solidarity; the logic of nationalism or patriotism and the nation; and a more recent logic, but on which the survival of humanity depends: the logic of environmentalism or the protection of nature. They are five more human logics than liberalism, perhaps because they have an important utopian component.

They correspond to values ​​that are somehow present in modern societies, but are not dominant. Its great role is to temper capitalism, it is to give meaning to a collective project of the nation and even to a collective project of humanity. It is to make capitalism less individualistic, less corrupt, less authoritarian, less unfair, and less predatory of nature.

The “Golden Years” of capitalism were far from being heaven on earth, but they were the culminating moment of a political construction that advanced with the Renaissance, the English constitutionalist revolution, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, socialism and democracy. A political construction in which the five logics were in charge of dialectizing the capitalist state – making it a permanent process of overcoming contradictions.

Nicos Poulantzas (1968), supported by Gramsci, said that the State of his time was a “condensation of the class struggle”. Nothing more true. Developmental capitalism and social democracy were the dialectical result of a complex system of political struggles and mutual concessions. The sources of social-democratic political culture were the first four logics of modern societies (democracy, democratic socialism, economic nationalism and civic republicanism) and were translated in the economic sphere into Keynesian macroeconomics and classical developmentalism or structuralism.

Suddenly, in the 1980s, after a mild economic crisis in the United States in the 1970s, and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this order was violently altered. Instead of the great Fordist coalition of the Golden Years, associating businessmen, executives and workers, instead of a social and republican democracy, the rich world submitted to a narrow coalition of classes formed by rentier capitalists and financiers, the 1% Richer.

The transformation had a structural character. In the first half of the XNUMXth century, executives or high technobureaucrats had replaced businessmen in the management of large companies, and we had technobureaucratic or knowledge capitalism; in the second half of that century it was the turn of rentier capitalists, usually idle heirs, to replace the same entrepreneurs in the ownership of companies, while financiers (brilliant young people graduated with MBAs or PhDs in economics from major universities) used the neoclassical economic theory learned there to to act not only as administrators of the rentiers' wealth, but mainly as organic intellectuals of financial-rentier and neoliberal capitalism.

Capitalism was born developmental with mercantilism, became liberal in the 1980th century, returned to being developmental, but now social and democratic in the post-war period. Can we interpret the neoliberalism that becomes dominant from the XNUMXs onwards as a cyclical movement? I don't think so, because neoliberalism lacks the minimum moral qualities to be a legitimate alternative. The alternation between conservatism and progressivism could be thought of as legitimate, because both have the common good as their ultimate criterion. Neoliberalism, on the other hand, is a cynical regression, it is a manifest moral regression, which will only survive if we abandon all hope for a world in which civic virtues and solidarity have a place in history.

There are many ways to define cynicism. The Houaiss Dictionary defines it as “disregard for social conventions and prevailing morality”, and offers a synonym for “dishonestness”. O Oxford Dictionary defines a cynic as “a person who believes that people are motivated solely by self-interest”. A belief that transforms everyone, including the cynic, into antisocial actors incapable of building civitas – the body of citizens united by law, by their own rights and by obligations towards other citizens.

Cynicism is a radical individualism. It is disbelief in universal values ​​transformed into a safe conduct to defend one's own interests. Peter Sloterdijk, in The critique of cynical reason (Estação Liberdade), associated it with the crisis of Enlightenment reason and the loss of confidence in the “new values”: in democracy, in the quality of life, in the protection of the environment. I'm less pessimistic. Capitalism favors political cynicism when it identifies with a perverse ideology that maximizes self-interest, as is the case with neoliberalism.

As stated by Vladimir Safatle in Cynicism and the bankruptcy of criticism (Boitempo), in order to understand the general legitimation crisis of capitalist societies, it is necessary to “understand how they were able to legitimize themselves through a cynical rationality”. This cynical rationality is capitalism without brakes, it is capitalism legitimized by neoliberalism. It is a cynicism that is everywhere, which is revealed in the practice of those who defend ideas and policies that serve their own interests or those of their social class, and, to justify them, present arguments that they know are not true or appropriate.

Cynicism is defending liberalism on the grounds that free markets reduce inequality. It is saying that the United States defended democracy when it invaded Iraq in 2003. In Brazil, it is denying that police violence towards the poor and blacks has a strong racist component. It is to justify the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff with an argument (the “pedaladas”) that they knew was not the true one. It is to say that more neoliberal reforms and the necessary fiscal adjustment are enough for Brazil to develop again. In making these claims, in assuming that Dr. Pangloss is just around the corner, the cynicism and injustice-legitimating optimism complete and fulfill

In the second half of the twentieth century, liberalism turned into neoliberalism and fell into the vice of political cynicism. Why? There are many answers to this question, but I suggest that this happened because the ideological hegemony that neoliberalism achieved was extraordinary. Because neoliberals have constructed a narrative as false as it is persuasive about the value of hard work and competition. Because the logic of democracy was transformed into an imperialist flag. Because the logic of nationalism or patriotism was declassified, identified with populism, with the argument that we would live today “in a world without borders”. Because the logic of socialism or solidarity entered into a deep crisis with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, although this was not a socialist society, but a statist one. And because the republican logic – the logic of the primacy of the public interest and civic virtue – has been cynically forgotten or repressed.

I end this essay with two words on this last point. At the founding of the United States republicanism was a central ideology. You founding fathers they were more republicans than liberals. Everyone had a very clear notion that the Republic can only be built on the basis of civic virtues, with the participation of citizens who define themselves less by their rights and more by their duties towards society, and by the fight against all forms of corruption. As JGA Pocock pointed out in his classic book on the republicanism of the ancients and the modern republicanism of the English and Americans, The Machiavellian Moment, “the political culture that took shape in the colonies of the eighteenth century [the future United States] possessed all the characteristics of neo-Harringtonian civic humanism…a civic and patriotic ideal in which personality was founded on property, perfected by citizenship, and always threatened by corruption” [2].

Republicanism is perhaps incompatible with capitalism because capitalism is inherently corrupt, but it was still alive in the United States in the 1960s when I studied there. The cohesion of American society at that time was impressive. American democracy served as an example to the world. The construction of a welfare state began. Then I read the book that John F. Kennedy wrote as a senator, shortly before he was elected president of the United States. In this little book, Kennedy tells the story of past senators he admired. The criterion he adopted to choose senators was, at a crucial moment in their public life, that they had the courage to risk not being re-elected because they adopted positions that they thought served the public interest, but did not have the support of their constituents. Kennedy adopted a strictly republican criteria.

But from the 1980s onwards, a limitless individualist liberalism, which emerges naturally from liberalism when it is not moderate, took over the country; self-interest was transformed into the highest value of society; it ceased to be solidary, it became divided, and today, when we compare the indicators of the United States with European countries, they are still the richest country, but in deep moral and political decay. Its democracy has turned into a plutocracy, its state has not turned into a welfare state, inequality has increased enormously, while an exacerbated individualism has given way to political cynicism.

* Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira He is Professor Emeritus at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV-SP).

Article originally published in the magazine In Debate.


[1] On the relationship between capitalist revolution and democratic consolidation, see Bresser-Pereira (2012).

[2] James Harrington (1611-1677) was the great English political philosopher who brought the republican ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, the Italian humanists and Niccolò Machiavelli to England.


Bresser-Pereira, Luiz Carlos (2011) “Transition, democratic consolidation and capitalist revolution”, Data – Journal of Social Sciences 54(2): 223-258.

Kennedy, John F. (1956) Profiles in Courage, New York: Harper & Row.

Pocock, JGA (1975). The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Przeworski, Adam (1985 [1989]) Capitalism and Social Democracy, São Paulo: Companhia das Letras. Original edition in English, 1985.

Safatle, Vladimir (2008) Cynicism and Critical Failure, São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial.

Sloterdijk, Peter (1983 [1987]) Critique de la Raison Cynique, Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur. Original in German, 1983.

Therborn, Göran (1977) “The rule of capital and the rise of democracy”, New Left Review, 103, May-June: 3-41.

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