in the estate society

Hamilton Grimaldi's photo


In a deeply status-oriented society like ours, status-based hierarchies prevail.

“Maid was going to Disney, a hell of a party”. It's the Brazil of “do you know who you're talking to?”, “an engineer is better than you”, the service elevator, the aid of R$ 250 reais, the political use of the Federal Police to persecute political opponents.

In a society deeply estate like ours, hierarchies based on status. Possession of money adds to political power and social markers of difference related to skin color, family surname, neighborhood where one lives and the consumption of special goods are combined. More than a main beam for the reproduction of our inequalities, this order of status it also gave the basis for our authoritarianism, after all, inequalities disable our democratic potential when they cover the moneyed with prestige and humiliate the poor, now subjugated by the specter of hunger.

Even in such a country, moderate critics of Bolsonarism multiply by the dozens. In general, they endorse Paulo Guedes' decisions, but criticize the president's authoritarianism almost as "lack of education", as if the whole tragedy was just a problem of etiquette. All that remains is to say: “what a pity he is a fascist, it interferes with the agenda so much….”[I] (What agenda?!). They deny the relationship evidently established between liberalism and authoritarianism with a fascist bias[ii]. Others distinguish “two liberalisms”[iii], forcing an unrepresentative hue in the Brazilian ideological spectrum.

Even this so-called “democratic liberalism”, endowed with more subtle and refined ways, is not able to respond to the Brazilian challenge that is to overcome its status dimensions. This must be shouted to the four winds. Despite good intentions, its agents do not give up old dogmas, inappropriate on the periphery of capitalism, nor are they able to incorporate the popular demands of the subordinate classes. The Bolsonaro government is the most complete expression of elitism and the rancidity of slavery in this country.


The original liberalism of the English contractarians was forged in the critique of absolutism. However, as primary freedoms were sedimented in modern democracies, political liberalism approached conservatism and restricted itself, most of the time, to defending the free market. Even the promotion and guarantee of the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities was up to the old left, depriving the liberal hosts of any change impetus and sealing once and for all their conformist historical role.

In republican contexts, both conservatism and liberalism became old clothes of color, as distributive conflict, not tyranny, came to occupy the center of collective concerns. Of course, in Brazil today, the fight against tyranny is side by side with the fight against inequality, but that doesn't make liberalism more up-to-date and modern; only attests to the delay we have got ourselves into. In fact, many people here practice the liberalism that the tyrant likes.

Bolsonarism is a plexus of cultural reactionaryism, dictatorial pretensions and ultraneoliberalism. Combating it in just one of its dimensions is ignoring the interrelationship between them – an ineffective and naive attitude. Basically it happens that Brazilian liberals want to enlighten the despot instead of deposing him. Unfortunate? But not so surprising. Conniving liberalism has a record.

Roberto Schwarz gave us the critical framework in the classic “To the Winner as Potatoes: Literary Form and Social Process in the Beginnings of Brazilian Romance” (1977), especially in the essay “The ideas out of place”, written years before, in 1972. Schwarz looks at Empire Brazil and the dawn of republican life to question our emancipatory dilemmas – a look that also seeks to interpret Brazil in the heat of the failure of its civilization, since the essay dates from a few years after the 1964 military coup .

The author discusses the relationship between ideas, modern European liberalism, and its place, a Brazil whose social life was structured by monoculture latifundia driven by slave labor. Although the rupture of the colonial statute dates from 1822, the productive structure worked with the same gears of the previous three centuries. A triangulated world between the landlord, the enslaved blacks and the whites, mestizos and free blacks and the poor. To the first corresponded the power; to the second, the opprobrium of exploitation; third parties, please. It is in this arrangement that liberalism was tried to be glued.

Schwarz takes into account the modern movement (liberal ideology) based on the archaic (social life structured by discretion and favor). He thus caught the mismatch between the liberal ideology generated in societies that were the offspring of bourgeois revolutions of central capitalism and the “impolitical and abominable” Brazil whose authoritarian-statal rancid was averse to any hint of equality. This is where a new “ideological comedy” begins, whose first bad joke was the copy-and-pasting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the Constitution of 1824. The letter kept slavery untouched. How can ideas of freedom and legal equality coexist with slave production relations? What kind of liberalism was this? What kind of slave-owning liberals is this?

Even abolition was the result of social movements that exerted political pressure, yes, but, the author ponders, it materialized fundamentally because slavery was opposed to the rationalization of the productive system, preventing the workforce from operating as variable capital. Decades earlier, the land law of 1850 had already marked the fate of freedmen on the margins of society.

The overcoming of slavery, therefore, does not extinguish the aporia: our immense social, racial and gender inequalities, about which liberals do not speak out, resist. These, at best, choke on the gnawed bone of “meritocracy” and a vague notion of “equal opportunities” that simplifies the debate. “Nothing is more like a conservative than a liberal” – said the catchphrase that summarized the ideological framework of the Second Empire. A genuine liberal like Joaquim Nabuco, for example, found himself out of luck; although an abolitionist, he sided with royalists against anti-abolitionist republicans. Everything inside out or everything in its place?

Slavery was the fundamental institution of Brazil. From it derived: 1) what Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro called “socially implanted authoritarianism”, the primacy of discretion and violence as mediation of ordinary conflicts outside public institutions; 2) the “overexploitation of work”, the formula with which Ruy Mauro Marini characterizes our capitalism. The structuring of a competitive order between economic classes in Brazil, as well as a public space inhabited by equal citizens, collided with the status liabilities of a society with four centuries of slavery.

Equally pernicious is the relationship between liberalism and favor. Maria Sylvia de Carvalho Franco in her masterful, Free Men in the Slave Order (1969) draws attention to the crowd of poor men who floated between the main house and the slave quarters. They are the tropeiros, vendors and aggregates in general, a non-class. Their impossible autonomous social placement and their productive disposability kept them locked up in dependence and grateful subjection to the “nhô”, the “colonel”. The poor and free individual tied himself to the master in a scheme of provision and consideration of services and favors, an exchange of bread and protection. Manual labor and jagunçagem in exchange for land to live on, for example. Not infrequently, he was even happy to give his son to be baptized by the patrician, thus establishing a so-called “compadrio”. This is what gives rise to a type of “personal domination” based on “moral associations and links of interests”, says Franco. Therefore, endorsing the sociologist's analysis, Roberto Schwarz conceived the favor as a kind of “universal mediator” in Brazil, a role fulfilled by the money in Europe.

In its own way, the coexistence between liberalism and favor is also authoritarian because it operates in a pre-contractual register of social relations, enclosing what is public in the private; opposing law to custom, the universal to the particular, morally indebting the favored and establishing paternalism-clientelism. The favor tends to ideological accommodation because it conceals the hierarchy, but that does not stop it from being averse to the ratio particular of a contractual-democratic society: “Here is the novelty: once European ideas and reasons [liberalism] were adopted, they could and often did serve as a justification, nominally “objective”, for the moment of arbitration that is of the nature of of favor” (Schwarz, To the winner the potatoes, 1977, p.18).

It is not by chance that Roberto Schwarz invokes Machado's irony. The ruling classes and their clique of well-meaning liberals are all Brás Cubas, “arrogant dead”. No, it's not because of his clumsy and corny nobility, but, warns Schwarz, because of his attitude fickle. They vacillate between the creed they adhere to and the gods they worship: they defend liberalism, but practice slavery; they defend liberalism, but favor the right; defend social equality, but are against affirmative action; they defend “modernity”, but consider an antisocial spending ceiling to be normal; they defend citizenship, but instead of registering the maid, they exercise their Christianity by donating old clothes.

But if this warmed-up liberalism does not serve us, how can we suppress it as a discourse and program that enjoys relative support in broad national sectors? The task of criticism in Brazil remains the same: to disarm the “ideological comedy” of liberalism.

There is a lot to be done for this, but two things immediately fit: 1) demand changes now. 2022 is a long way off and may not be enough for many people. It's time to put moderate critics to the wall; 2) offer a program of restoration of rights, defense of the prerogatives of the State and cultural reinforcement of all possible anti-elitism. It will be of no use defeating Bolsonaro and not reversing the spending ceiling, the labor reform, the social vulnerability that turns rights into privileges.

On the margins of the bicentennial of Independence, the place-Brazil asks us, more than originality, the resolute affirmation of ideas intransigent with any volatile balance that until today has characterized the attitude of the dominant and the very anachrony of imported liberalism in the face of the national social abyss. 2022 cannot be our capitulation to the idea of ​​managing barbarism or an impotent “reconciliation”. All those who have a voice in civil society, including presidential candidates from the (centre)left, must clearly demarcate the debate and point to a dignified future, without fear of the “market”.

Breaking with hesitation is the first step towards undoing this statist Brazil. For this task, liberty has to be equality's ally, not its rival.

*Vitor Queiroz de Medeiros is a master's student in sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP).


Robert Schwarz. Potatoes to the winner: literary form and social process in the beginnings of the Brazilian novel. São Paulo, Two Cities / Publisher 34.





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