At the global epicenter of the pandemic

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By VALERIO ARCARY*

History teaches that there are limits to the social sacrifices imposed on the popular masses in any nation..

“An ancient wisdom teaches that Zeus sent Pandora to punish Prometheus, who had stolen fire to offer life to human beings. Having thus contradicted the designs of the Gods and defied the webs of destiny, he was condemned to suffer all the most atrocious curses, until Zeus, taken with pity, decided to close Pandora's box, when only the last one remained inside, but the most terrible of curses. Humanity was thus spared the worst of evils, the most invisible and the most disturbing, the loss of hope. There are things that cannot be lost”.

In March 2021, Brazil became the global epicenter of the pandemic, when we consider indicators such as the average variation in daily infections and deaths per million, the occupancy rates of beds and ICUs, or the occurrence of new strains of the virus. We are heading towards 400.000 dead by the end of April: an unprecedented cataclysm in the country's social history. Does the health catastrophe and the social tragedy of vertiginous impoverishment since January constitute a historical trauma?

A historical trauma is a fracture in political time that establishes a before and an after. In Russia in 1917, in Germany and Hungary in 1918, the trauma was the defeat of the Empires in the First World War. In Spain, France and Central Europe it was the impact of the depression after the 1929 crisis. In France and Italy in 1944/45 it was the aftermath of the Nazi occupation. There would not have been a May 1968 without the defeat in the war in Algeria, nor the carnation revolution in Portugal in 1974 without the military defeat in the African colonies.

History teaches that there are limits to the social sacrifices imposed on the popular masses in any nation. Just as people have limits to the experience of pain, there are moments in the history of contemporary societies when the muscles and nerves of the working class and youth reach a peak of frustration, exhaustion, exasperation with the political order.

The terrible material and psychic sufferings are silently endured for a period that may be longer or shorter, in a terrible process of stultification. These limits are variable in different societies. But, although the dynamics of the evolution of the popular masses' consciousness in Brazil has been dramatically slow, there are limits. When they are hit by the collision of a tragedy that operates in the minds of millions like thunder and lightning, they awaken a wave, at first molecular, almost invisible, and then torrential of fury and rage.

We must ask ourselves how long it is possible for Brazilian society to endure a hecatomb of this proportion without an overwhelming political commotion. So it was in 1983/84: without the experience of superinflation, unemployment, and Figueiredo's arrogance and stupidity, it would not have been possible for the Diretas Já to erupt with millions in the streets wanting to overthrow the dictatorship. So it was in 1991/92: without the experience of hyperinflation, unemployment and Collor's arrogance and obtuseness, the spark of youth in the streets would not have infected the popular masses and conquered impeachment.

It is possible that these limits are close, or have even been reached. Have we reached the moment of historical trauma? If what happened between 2015/21 was not a historic defeat of the working class and its allies, if we did not suffer the demoralization of a generation, the impact of this hecatomb will awaken, at some point, a colossal, gigantic, immense response, greater than than everything we've seen in the last twenty years against the far-right government and the neo-fascist Bolsonaro. There are limits.

It will not be easy to defeat Bolsonaro and the danger posed by an extreme right-wing government led by a neo-fascist who has mass support among the petty bourgeoisie. Brazilian capitalists are the richest, most powerful, most experienced and cunning bourgeois class on the continent. Our working class is a social giant, but it is far from being the one with the greatest tradition of union struggle and facing, for the first time since the end of the military dictatorship, the challenges of a reactionary situation.

But the international context is not simple for Bolsonaro after Trump's defeat, following an explosion of popular fury with the Black Lives Matter. It signals the possibility of a collapse. One of the key characteristics of Brazil is its contrasts. It is part of the world as a hybrid of a privileged semi-colony and a regional sub-metropolis. In the light of the law of uneven development, it is possible to elucidate the amalgam, the fusion, the mixture that associates greatness and smallness, wealth and poverty, a union of the obsolete and the modern, of archaic forms, or even retrograde with the most contemporary ones, into a complex totality. But although backward Brazilian society was not bestialized. It is not true that the working masses and youth are indifferent to the health calamity. Before acting, the shock of misfortunes must accelerate practical experience and transform consciousness.

Brazilian capitalism entered a historic decadence. But, considering, for example, purchasing power parity, an indicator that corrects exchange rate fluctuations and, partially, the distortions that result from unfavorable exchange conditions, Brazil was still, in 2020, the eighth largest economy on the planet ( with an estimated GDP of US$ 3,15 trillion). During the last forty years it has been one of the ten largest economies in the world market, according to projections by the IMF (International Monetary Fund).[1]

Paradoxically, if we consider GDP per capita, the value of GDP divided by population, we find a continuous decline. In 2020, average income regressed to the level of 2009. Last year, GDP per capita decreased by 4,8%. Worse casualties than this had occurred only in 1983 (final recession of the military dictatorship) and 1990 (recession of the Collor Plan). Household consumption had a record drop of 5,5% in 2020. Brazilian peripheral capitalism had for half a century, between 1930/80, a strong dynamic of growth, but plunged into a historical trend of stagnation with a regressive bias. This inflection coincides with the longer period of democratic freedoms and stability of the electoral-democratic regime.

The key to understanding the specificity of capitalism in Brazil is the extreme social inequality. It is the largest industrial park in the southern hemisphere of the planet, and one of the ten largest economies in the world, with twenty cities with a million or more inhabitants, and 85% of the economically active population in urban centers. But it lags, dramatically, in educational terms: those who are fully literate in language and mathematics are only 8%, less than one in ten people, and the functionally illiterate correspond to 27% of the population aged 15 and over, or that is, almost one in three.[2]

Brazil was and remains, above all, a very unfair society. The key to a Marxist interpretation of Brazil is the response to the theme of the main national peculiarity: extreme social inequality. All capitalist nations, at the center or at the periphery of the system, are unequal, and inequality has been increasing since the 1980s.[3] But Brazilian capitalism has a kind of anachronistic inequality.

If the key to interpreting Brazil must be social inequality, the key to understanding inequality is slavery. Without understanding the historical meaning of slavery, it is impossible to decipher the specificity of Brazil.[4]

The country will be different, when the current extreme conditions imposed by the pandemic are overcome. The overall failure of the ruling class to reduce the consequences imposed on the popular classes will have socio-political consequences. More hurt and embittered, but also more mature and hardened, the popular classes are drawing conclusions. As long as they are not defeated they will fight.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of Revolution meets history (Shaman).

Notes


[1] https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/mercado/2021/04/brasil-recua-no-ranking-global-dos-paises-com-maior-pib-per-capita-em-2020.shtml

[2] In Brazil, completing secondary education corresponds to 12 years of schooling. This schooling should correspond to the “proficient” level, the most advanced level of functional literacy, which corresponds to full literacy in language and mathematics. But only 8% of working-age people in 2015 were considered fully capable of understanding and expressing themselves through letters and numbers. There are five levels of functional literacy, according to the report “Literacy and the World of Work”: illiterate (4%), rudimentary (23%), elementary (42%), intermediate (23%) and proficient (8%). The illiterate group plus the rudimentary group, or 27%, are considered functional illiterates. This study was conducted by the NGO Ação Educativa.

https://educacao.uol.com.br/noticias/2016/02/29/no-brasil-apenas-8-escapam-do-analfabetismo-funcional.htm.

[3] PICKETY, Thomas. Capital in the XNUMXst Century. intrinsic. Rio de Janeiro. 2014. Piketty's book, inspired by neo-Keynesian economics and social democratic politics, presents an extraordinary volume of data on the role of inheritance in perpetuating wealth over the last hundred years on a global scale. The ten-year series irrefutably confirm that, from the XNUMXs onwards, the trend towards an increase in social inequality is approaching the pre-World War I pattern.

[4] The first national census was carried out between 1870/72. The questionnaire was difficult to transcribe and verify. Although it was made in especially precarious conditions, its importance as a source does not deserve to be diminished. Out of a population close to ten million or, more exactly, 9.930.478, the slave population was still a little bigger than one and a half million, or, more precisely, 1.510.806, being 805.170 men and 705.636 women. Historical demographic studies are only approximations of magnitude. CRITICAL PUBLICATION OF THE GENERAL CENSUS OF THE EMPIRE OF BRAZIL IN 1872 by the Center for Research in Economic and Demographic History – NPHED at UFMG. Available at: www.nphed.cedeplar.ufmg.br/…/Relatorio_preliminar_1872_site_nphed

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