Sailing upwind

Image: Maximilian Ruther
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By DANIEL AFONSO DA SILVA*

The debate on supporting or denying the strike at federal universities

Read with appreciation, attention and affection “Why are we on strike at federal universities” by the renowned professors at the Federal University of Bahia Graça Druck and Luiz Filgueiras. Published on the website the earth is round, this article certainly promotes the best, most complete and most accurate synthesis of the motivations for the federal teachers’ strike. It contains an abundance of numbers, images and pieces of conviction.

No other demonstrations – for or against the strike; spoken or written – seems to have explained the roots of the problems with such careful lucidity condensed into such a broad intellectual, moral and political complexion. Honestly, it is not possible to support the budget gap in federal universities and it is also not morally possible to validate the zero salary adjustment for the teaching category this year. Even with the linear additions of last year, the present (and always) almost neglect suggests something strongly immoral and even, constitutionally, perhaps, illegal.

“The public higher education network”, state the authors, “is a national heritage and it is in public universities that 95% of scientific research in the country takes place”. Furthermore, they continue, “the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as President of the Republic in 2022 represented a victory for the popular movement and the fight for democracy in the country, imposing an electoral defeat on the neoliberal and neo-fascist project”. Consequently – they make it clear – it would be at least reasonable for the third Lula da Silva and fifth progressive-leftist-PT presidency to be more willing to listen, recognize and respond to the clamor of the battlers on the platforms, broadcasters, education professionals, teachers of federal.

But not.

The salary adjustment for teachers remains zero. The “fiscal dungeon” remains firm, strong and active. And the budget increase of R$2,5 billion requested by the rectors simply went through the roof.

“These resources”, state Druck and Filgueiras, “are essential to cover, among other expenses, water, electricity, cleaning and surveillance, and to guarantee scholarships and aid to students, that is, to guarantee the basic functioning of universities”. Without them, they emphasize, the general picture of universities will continue to be one of “collapsing buildings, unfinished and ruined works, lack of air conditioning in classrooms and laboratories, university restaurants in precarious conditions and without serving all students in need, lack of student housing and lack of maintenance of existing ones, just to name some of the most obvious problems”.

In other words, it doesn't work.

And because this is the case, the authors assert, “we are on strike at federal universities”.

“The strike”, they conclude, “is a legitimate instrument and it is with the suspension of the regular activities of the University, that meetings, debates, assemblies, public demonstrations can be held, seeking alternatives to this situation and building a national movement in defense of the university public in the country”.

You can't help but applaud. Angry! That's it. Better and clearer, impossible. Forward.

But not.

Meditating more slowly, it becomes clear that perhaps it is not quite like that, even though everything is set up like this. The article's pile of evidence and convictions is – repeat – very consistent and convincing. But it raises contradictions, divergences and differences. Not necessarily favorable or contrary to the strike movement. But regarding the framing of the discussion.

The arguments mobilized by the worthy teachers of Bahia, at the end of the day, encourage converts. Notably those sympathetic to the imperative of the strike without further questioning the depth of the crisis that led to the strike. It's not about the cents. Everybody knows. But, every now and then, it seems relevant to say.

Druck and Filgueiras know this. Seasoned, experienced, politicized, intelligent, cultured and intellectually consistent as they are, they have no predilection for being Panglossians. And, precisely for this reason, despite their statements on the occasion, they know very well – more than anyone else – that the federal problems lie much deeper and demand demands and interventions far beyond the penny. Even if, without the penny – as they clearly demonstrate and as we all know –, it is truly impossible to follow.

An unequivocal carbonarian, commenting on my simple “The strike of professors at federal universities”, also published in the earth is round, on April 15th, peremptorily stated that “Miguel’s mistake does not save Daniel”.

The “Daniel” in question is me and the “Miguel” of the situation, our worthy professor Luis Felipe Miguel, from the University of Brasília.

Luis Felipe Miguel produced the first great piece-intellectual-synthesis-matrix of understanding and justifying the motivations for the federal teachers' strike in his article “Why Federal teachers will go on strike”, published on the eve of the strike insurgency. All the demonstrations – written or not, in favor of or against the strike – that followed took their insights as a ploy of information, opinion and conviction.

In this turmoil, the majority of interventions after that of Luis Felipe Miguel tended to repeat the thesis – very true – of the strange variability of weights and measures adopted by the Lula da Silva presidency in the composition of federal public service budgets. As Maria Cristina Fernandes noted, in her article in Valor Econômico on April 26th, also anchored on the path of Luis Felipe Miguel, the striking insurgents tend to notice “The greener grass on the other side”. Where the members of the Federal Policy receive net salaries four times higher than those of federal teachers, the staff of the Federal Public Defender's Office, three times more, and the employees of the Federal Revenue Service, double or almost double; and, even so, they received, in 2024, substantial salary adjustments compared to the zero adjustment for federal teachers.

Directly or indirectly, this is also the leitmotiv from the article by Druck and Filgueiras. Just reread. But Druck and Filgueiras go further. They make the argument much more politically strong, robust and convincing.

If, on the one hand, Luis Felipe Miguel observes that “we are – I am sure – mature enough to fight for our rights without neglecting the fight for democracy” and Maria Cristina Fernandes goes on to show that, at the end of the day, what matters in budgetary deliberations and salary is the ability to constrain and pressure federal civil service corporations, on the other hand, Graça Druck and Luiz Filgueiras recall that “The strike is a legitimate instrument”. And it is. This is a social and, moreover, constitutional achievement. That it would be unnecessary to remember – as Druck and Filgueiras do – if we had not experienced the inclemency of the storms from the nights of June 2013 to the ephemeris of January 8, 2023.

In any case, whoever returns calmly, with interest and without bias To my very modest “The strike of professors at federal universities” you will understand, therefore, that, at no time, do I threaten or imply to discredit the arguments of the noble professor Luis Felipe Miguel. Otherwise, I recognize your strength and your value.

At that moment and in that article, he, better than anyone, said it all. So the purpose of my demonstration was not to make a counterpoint. Far from it. It was simply, on my part, an attempt to position the cursor elsewhere. Enlivening other edges of the same debate and bringing to light other radars to monitor the same storm. As a reaction, for doing so, I received the reprimand “Miguel’s mistake did not save Daniel”.

And, if that wasn't enough, this reprimand came with the following statement: “The University is not a center of knowledge production, focused on the progressivism of capitalist socio-reproductions, with a view to studying how to overcome this economic model. And so (…) please, let's not fall into reduction and imagine that the revolution will come out of the university, in fact, not even imagining a revolution today seems possible to us. Precisely because of the cowardly prior censorship that every social science academic (from which the theory of 'revolution' or at least capitalist discomfort is expected) imposes himself, after all, it is necessary to have a legitimized career among his peers and the establishment. Thus, the university is a space of conformity, of conformism that finds itself restless. (…) The Brazilian university, except for rare cases, is harmless, innocuous. Even so, some are debating what the strike could do to the Lula government (misgovernment). Each government has the academy it deserves, and vice versa.”

Yes, that was it.

There is no point in revolting here. Simply stop, sit and meditate. If applicable, re-read the comment more calmly.[I] When you do this, you will realize that this unequivocal carbonarian may be right. Otherwise at all. In a lot of things.

Stripped of its rhetorical implacability and blunt moralism, his commentary informs a sincere state of lieux the reality of Brazilian universities and notably federal ones. He effectively shatters the Manichaeism of the strike versus anti-strike and enters intramural shifting swamps where no one – among active teachers and with some position to maintain – seems to have, today, the courage to move.

What he does in this regard seems very important. But this does not mean that one should reiterate or praise his almost sarcastic tone in appreciating the numbing incontinence of the Brazilian academic environment. No professor at the federal universities seems to be regimentally authorized to formally adopt functional sadomasochism as a mission. Much less, in this sense, to promote a public immolation of his own priesthood.

We all know – or should know – our vices, weaknesses and impurities. We are all aware – or need to be – of our inner secrets about our intermittent, daily and venial sins.

So much so that no one who is even remotely prudent and informed devalues ​​the various and heavy levels of “prior censorship” – which have nothing to do with decorum or urbanity nor with subjection to hierarchies – as a survival mechanism in this regrettably savage jungle that the university has become. – and Brazilian society – in recent years.

As a consequence, conformity and complacency Yes, they became a mission. Lifestyle. Escape strategy. Means of survival. Sociability style. Not that the university continues to be a “state”. Even though the “legitimized career among peers” indicates this. The core of the issue involves recognizing that no sector of Brazilian life has been more violated and brutalized from the outside in and from the inside out than the academic space in its university dimension. Consequently, fear, servility, immobility and apathy took over everything.

Anyone who has severe doubts about this need not go that far. Take as an example the reaction – or rather, the lack thereof – of all universities towards the construction of concrete solidarity in support of the climate victims of Rio Grande do Sul. Very few universities have mobilized institutionally to think something, say something, donate something. Not for lack of astonishment or sensitivity. But out of initiative. Not necessarily from citizens dressed as teachers and employees. These – yes – mobilized immediately as best they could. But the institution as a representation of everyone. This is because, as has long been established in the federal public service and in universities especially: “when in doubt, wait or do nothing”.

Returning to the topic after this highlights that the federal problem entails – known knowledge – multidimensional dimensions that are much more complicated, complex and existential. And, because this is so, with all due respect to the arguments to the contrary, the beginning of some consistent, lasting and permanent solution does not seem to reside in demands or in budgetary and salary deliberations. It's not the cents or the twenty.

The crisis is much deeper. The loss suggests an almost complete loss. Federal universities have become the sick man of the federal public service and, in this condition, in the last fifteen or twenty years, they have been moved to the terminally ill ICU. The medical reports are not good. No conscious person can say they are undeceived. Nothing, therefore, indicates that – only – new salaries and budgets will be able to revive the patient and give him vigor and promises of long years of life.

It is nice to read and hear that “The public higher education network is a national asset and it is in public universities that 95% of scientific research in the country is carried out”.[ii] But, mind you, no one upstairs cares. They simply ignore it. They don't want to read or listen. They don't care. As a result, zero readjustment. A zero, yes, of mockery, neglect, provocation.

Anyway, here are inconvenient questions.

Will maintaining or suspending the strike change this situation? Will any of these actions – strike or no strike – be able to clear the eyes and ears of our worthy representatives? Yes or no? Maybe or who knows? As?

Anyone who calmly returns to the article Graça Druck and Luiz Filgueiras will understand that the budget and salary gaps were unbearably extraordinary in the period 2014-2024. Trusting what they say and what they say is true, during this period, the budget shrank and costs increased. The always short blanket has now become shorter and also too thin. Even so, mind you, if the temporal starting point is expanded retroactively to involve twenty or thirty years – starting in 2004 or 1994, therefore – this truth that teachers in Bahia report tends to become even more bitterly true and even cruel.

Contrary to appearances, there is a permanent and ascending demolition of Brazilian federal universities that is not happening today. Neither from the last ten years nor twenty years.

Not to go too far back, since August 1985, when the late Darcy Ribeiro delivered his emblematic University, what for of repositioning public universities in national life after the military regime, as federal higher education as a whole seeks – without finding – a place in the sun. It wasn't and isn't being easy. There was the shock of redemocratization – and I dealt with this in my “Far beyond the neighbors’ green lawns”. Then came the shock of expansion, which initially involved the acceleration of the privatization of education and, then, the expansion of the public-federal network – about this, the article remains formidable “Lula and higher education”. And then the shock of the systematic contraction and suppression of resources.

And during this entire period – with all due respect to those who disagree – the teaching category only lost. And not simply “only” in salaries. It lost cohesion, identity, presence, legitimacy, ability to assert itself and vitality to fight.

To avoid going too far or getting absorbed in too many abstractions, let's return to the present and plant our feet.

In May 2024, the government of the state of São Paulo engaged in an arm wrestling match with São Paulo state universities over the sharing of ICMS. At the same time, Fapesp – Research Support Foundation in the State of São Paulo was the subject of a similar attempt to reduce its funding. Interspersed in all of this, the friendly professor Simon Schwartzman, certainly one of the greatest experts in higher education in the country, wrote the article “Linking resources and university autonomy in São Paulo”, in the edition of The State of S. Paul on Friday, May 10th. It goes without saying that the article is exquisite and formidable nor that it deserves deep meditation. Simon Schwartzman's impressions on the subject are always like this: illustrative and disconcerting.

In the case of the São Paulo imbroglio, he observes that “the [budgetary link in the case of São Paulo universities] has been defended as a guarantee of financial autonomy against instability and interference from politicians that affect, by contrast, federal universities”. This is a long and heavy discussion. More technical than political. More political than intellectual. But necessary and urgent. And it concerns how to provide predictability, reliability and harmoniousness to the budgetary health of federal universities.

The other striking passage from Simon Schwartzman's article perhaps deserves even more urgency, reflection and action. She says the following: “in 2022, 78% of enrollment in higher education was in private institutions”, which indicates that “the current system fails from the point of view of coverage and equity [and] also has problems at the other end, from maintenance and guarantee of excellence”.

This may not be the best place to start a deeper conversation about everything this excerpt evokes. For now, just record the percentage: “78%”.

“78% of enrollment in higher education was in private institutions.” Crucially reading what this represents, this percentage simply, simply and nakedly informs that public universities, and notably federal ones, have stopped populating the imagination of Brazilians. That. Just and only that. And if only portions of this information correspond to deep kernels of truth, it will be a brutal and unprecedented defeat. Moral defeat, yes. But essentially, intellectual defeat. I.e, "strange defeat".[iii]

If not, let's see.

A quick assessment of data from the Unified Selection System (SISU) indicates that close to 50% of aspiring university students qualified to enroll in federal universities give up their studies in favor of private universities or simply do not pursue further training, increasing the population of “Nem- Neither” – those who neither work nor study – in the country.

Furthermore, of those who enroll in federal courses, less than 50% go beyond the first three or four semesters. The evasion was, therefore, little by little, asserting itself not simply on the heel, but on the entire leg of the federal Achilles.

Yes: the 2020-2021 health crisis continues to influence everything, including this issue. But your inference shouldn't be that big and that structuring. What Graça Druck and Luiz Filgueiras call “financial capital” and “neoliberal and neo-fascist project” must also be responsible for this bad omen, of cloudy weather producing adverse weather conditions. But certainly not completely. It does not seem to be the case to resume here all the noisy discussion about the asymmetries between university education and the emergencies of the job market.

A discussion of which, in fact, Graça Druck and Luiz Filgueiras, in Brazil, are experts, decisive and leaders. But at some point the variants on this subject will have to take shape within the propositions. Otherwise, everything will be messed up. Taxpayers will tend to increase their terrible desire to support and (re)legitimize us.

Leaving the simmer of now and resorting to other findings, it is more than forty years since the eternal Darcy Ribeiro coined the maxim that states that “The crisis in Brazilian education is not a crisis: it is a project”. If he is right – and there is no reason to imagine that he is not – the massive evasion, the zero salary adjustment and the insufficient budget recomposition are societal projects.

I confess that I don't know whether it is possible to validate Bernard Charlot's refined argument that suggests that “barbarism is back”.[iv] It would be another very broad conversation mediated by many declensions. But, when it comes to our crucible, which is the federal universities, there is definitely a real university pandemonium. So much so that Paulo Martins from the University of São Paulo asked “What is the university for?” and no one yet seems to have been able to answer.

Tuning the debate to this tuning fork, supporting or denying the strike becomes a strange navigation. Upwind navigation. No compasses and no direction. Which, of course, does not remove the legitimacy of all federal strike actions or denial of strikes. However, unfortunately, it simply, sincerely, indirectly, but insistently, throws water in the mills of those, notably outside the walls, who consider that “The Brazilian university, except for rare cases, is harmless, innocuous. Even so, some are debating what the strike could do to the Lula government (misgovernment).

*Daniel Afonso da Silva Professor of History at the Federal University of Grande Dourados. author of Far beyond Blue Eyes and other writings on contemporary international relations (APGIQ). [https://amzn.to/3ZJcVdk]

Notes


[I] See the full comment at https://jornalggn.com.br/crise/a-greve-dos-professores-das-federais-por-daniel-afonso-da-silva/ .

[ii] It is not the case to problematize this “95%”. Especially in terms of quality. But it is, perhaps, worth recognizing that he is certainly from other places than just the federal ones.

[iii] Marc Bloch, reacting hot the fall of France in the face of Germany's offensive in 1940 realized that it was a “strange defeat” [strange defeat]. And, in this sense, he asserted that “No chefs don't think about this war. En d'autres termes, le triomphe des Allemands fut, essentiellement, une victoire intellectuelle et c'est peut-être ce qu'il ya là de plus grave” [Our leaders did not know how to think about war. In other words, the Germans' triumph was, essentially, an intellectual victory, which is probably the most serious thing].

[iv] CHARLOT, Bernard. The anthropological issue in Education when the time of barbarism is back. Educating in Magazine, Curitiba, Brazil, v. 35, no. 73, p. 161-180, Jan./Feb. 2019.


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