Merquior 80 Years

Photo Christiana Carvalho


A note on the documentary film “José Guilherme Merquior – Passion for Reason”

The diplomat, sociologist and literary critic, if he were alive, would be 80 years old now in 2021. Merquior was born on April 22, 1941 – and died, victim of a nefarious cancer, on January 07, 1991: he was only 49 years old. (“Life is not merry,” said Dostoyevsky in The Karamazov Brothers.) Born in Rio de Janeiro and trained in law at the former University of Brazil (today UFRJ) with a doctorate at Sorbonne and London School of Economics he was a debater worthy of left-wing ideals.

On the one hand, the cynical praise of the massive erudition and magnitude of Merquior's work is not necessary; and on the other hand, the reckless refusal to recognize the greatness of his thought. Now, it is necessary in the current context of culture and the public debate of ideals to read José Guilherme Merquior as he probably wanted to be read – and discussed.

Merquior had “well” delineated intellectual and political positions. And in a compartment of his highly cultivated mind there was a place reserved for critical left-wing culture. Here – José Guilherme was an intransigent right-wing intellectual like the three, among many others, guiding stars that led him to the intellectual and political universe of liberalism: Raymond Aron, Friedrich von Hayek and Roberto Campos. (The best way to evaluate an intellectual's thought and its theoretical and political meaning is the immanent criticism of the internal variations of his interpretative and theoretical-political considerations and formulations. of the formulations and arguments present in the ideas of the authors. Furthermore, ideals are not timeless discourses – especially in the modern era.)

It would be insane and this is not even my modest pretension – which would be silly, so to speak – to critically comment (from a leftist perspective) on certain ideas by José Guilherme Merquior based on the beautiful documentary produced by the publishing house It's Achievements. By the way, he does a meticulous job in republishing Merquior's works, as well as in translating important right-wing political theorists (Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Michael Oakeshott and Russell Kirk).

The documentary presents the testimony of great intellectuals of Brazilian culture such as Celso Lafer, Nélida Pinõn, João Cezar de Castro Rocha, Alberto Costa e Silva and José Mario Pereira. The question remains as to why the political scientist Bolívar Lamounier (of services rendered to the professionalization of the discipline) with a coup-like verve (we have not forgotten what this gentleman wrote and said from 2014 to 2018: he is gone, including…), is present in such an important tribute?

In addition to almost unpublished interviews by Merquior. I highlight three moments in the documentary that may, eventually, set the tone or even just a fragment of Merquior's ideals. Two of the moments occur in the interview with Leandro Konder (Brazilian Marxist philosopher) and one in the conference (a brief excerpt in fact) given at the Interactional Meeting of Intellectuals in Mexico.

Questioned by Konder about why he was critical (relentless) of left-wing ideals and not having the same disposition regarding positions of right-wing thought, Merquior replied that: “for a very simple reason Leandro [Konder]. In all sincerity, I recognize that most of my criticisms are about the old left and not the old right, but the reason for this is quite simply the following: the object of my critical considerations in the newspaper is not Brazilian society in the present and in the future. past, except for one exception it is true that at the end of the year I wrote an article trying to break a little with the excess of pessimism, the frankly apocalyptic and catastrophic vision that in a certain way many were allowing to settle in a kind of national mentality or national opinion at that time. height. Now that's an occasional article. Now the systematic line of articles is not about Brazil, the present society just emerging from authoritarianism, but about ideas; what I'm discussing are certain bundles of ideas, the true object of the articles, the column is called 'Life of Ideas' and the true object of the articles are ideas that obviously have repercussions in Brazil, but it's not from the angle Brazilian that I necessarily take care of them, it's not true, when very Western let's say worldwide. And since I am dealing with ideas, the following inevitably occurs, it is the left and not the right in Brazil that has hegemony in the field of ideas, and if this left has hegemony in the field of ideas, it is more ancient than modern, it is natural that I focus my critical fire upon her. The choice is dictated to me by the reality of power relations in the intellectual field in Brazil, in the intellectual field in Brazil it is not simply true that the right predominates (alias it has not predominated for a long time) what predominates is the left, so I critically analyze the leftist ideas.

At another point in the interview, asked about what he distinguishes between the old-fashioned left and the lucid left, Merquior says that: “Well, basically, for example, the big question of economic freedom, the big question, that I resurrecting an old word that Croce, the philosopher Benedetto Croce put into circulation in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, I call liberism, the great question of liberism, which designates economic freedom as opposed to liberalism, which is “a broader and more complete thing; this big question is a watershed, perhaps even the main one, that is, that the modern left, the lucid left, the critical left is the left that made this mental reconversion – it knows first that the excessive lack of economic freedom is conducive to authoritarianism besides being naturally conducive [economic freedom] to efficiency.”

In the conference given in Mexico, he made the following consideration: “I would say that in most cases, both the right and the left, in our societies they make the mistake of identifying the wrong targets. The right blames the state for everything that is not right And logically the left continues to blame capitalism. And from this point of view, which I have just explained, it is not a question of the State or capitalism's fault, but of overcoming the old patrimonial and clientelistic State and overcoming the old capitalism that is also clientelistic and protectionist, that is, it is about reform both the state and capitalism”.

Despite the folly, which in a way is explained by the historical and political circumstances of the time, of distinguishing the ancient left and the modern left based on the way in which the latter position themselves with regard to economic freedom, the market – but a left that does not fight capital, and its necessary and determined social relations such as economic freedom and the market, has to question itself about its real intellectual, theoretical and political status –, Merquior was a character in Brazilian culture who valued intellectual debate, unlike the right-wing writers of today (conservatives and certain liberals).

Who sees every type of intellectual discussion (and the intellectuals themselves, especially those on the left; it is true that here there is an echo of right-wing political thought, from the times of Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton passing through Strauss, Voegelin, Aron, Oakeshott , Kirk) as an impetus for the practical transformation of society and political institutions.

It remains for us to inquire, with some astuteness, from the three excerpts extracted from the documentary (which presents the following core of Merquior's argument: the hegemony of leftist ideas and the discredit of the right; the importance of market freedom - in itself opposed to authoritarianism and efficient – ​​and the need to make the State and capitalism open, rational and efficient again), things understood well, his work is not restricted to the very small fragment commented here, in the arc from 2014 to 2021 which would be the positions of the restless mind of Merquior?

In effect, mobilized anniversaries are not naïve, on both sides or on different sides – on my part, and I suggest that it is also on the left, praising the thought and ideas of the essayist and diplomat from Rio de Janeiro does not mean the absence of radical criticism from the angle of transformation and social emancipation. Now; sometimes the “approval of controversial opponents only [occurs] […] when their opposition [to us] is very futile” (Perry Anderson). Quite the contrary, it was – and still is – the opposition of José Guilherme Merquior.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.


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