Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia



Preface to the recently released book by Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa

Rethinking the Brazilian development process in all its dimensions in a crucial period, which extends from the end of the Second World War over 25 years until 1970. Too heavy a task for a single researcher and for a single volume, some would say. The task is heavy, and Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa knows this better than anyone else. Even so, he lacked courage and the prize is in your hands, dear reader.

To organize his work, Alexandre had an idea that turned out to be excellent. He took as a reference piece, the true axis around which the exhibition revolves, the figure of one of the main agents of that process throughout the period, the economist Rômulo Almeida. Thus, from the beginning, he manages to support his analytical purpose of keeping actors and social processes firmly articulated. For this, another idea is used, that of actors being seen through the prism of the positions they occupy in the process in which they act and not as mere bearers of social roles.

They are, after all, actors and not extras. These terms do not appear without purpose at this point. It's just that Alexandre's analysis of capital points is done in a dramatic register, when institutions such as the State are presented as stages. Or else, with more emphasis, as arenas and disputes, either directly for power or for what matters most directly in this book, which is the ability to formulate projects for society, while the positions that actors occupy in the clashes in which they are involved are seen as citadels.

The reference to the clashes makes it possible to bring to light one of the central participants in successive scenes of the historical drama (the expression is his) that Alexandre proposes to reconstruct in all of its most expressive moments. This is Rômulo Almeida, the almost forgotten inspirer and executor of a wide range of interventions in economic as well as political processes in the period contemplated in this book. One of the merits of the author is the choice of that character who travels, like a kind of spinning top, the entire area covered by a specific process in society.

A highly complex process is on the scene, which poses heavy challenges to anyone who wants to know it in all its facets. This aggravates the difficulty of naming it within the semantic field in which the matrix term “development” is found. For it is, in the fullest sense of the term, development that is at issue. At this point, however, a new feature of the enterprise that Alexander courageously launched is presented. It's just that he doesn't admit in his analytical work terms with imprecise meaning. With that, he imposes himself the task of building his own concept to account for the complexity of the object. By doing this he fixes one of the points of support for the analysis. Another is given by scrupulous attention to context at every step. And not to any panorama, but to the historical configuration at each moment of the process, which thus sees its dynamic nature respected. This is not enough, however.

This set corresponds more properly to the structural face of the process, and only gains all its explanatory capacity when it is vigorously tied to the figure of a specific actor. It does little good to focus attention on characters who recite their script under the spotlight. It is necessary to go to the core of the thing to gain access to what would otherwise be lost in the penumbra behind the scenes. And here comes the fundamental character for the reconstruction of the whole process, precisely Rômulo Almeida.

Before dwelling on the figure of Rômulo (it is difficult to avoid, in a humorous tone, the formula “Rômulo Almeida and his time”), let us return to the question of the concept forged by Alexandre. This in particular to deal with the issue of how society, represented in this particular by the various segments of its technical staff, faces at all times the problems summarily identified as relating to development. The reference to the summary tone refers to the effort made to go beyond that, by paying due attention to the multifaceted nature of the object.

The solution adopted for this problem involves several steps. Initially, weak points are identified in the concept, or simple term, “development”, starting with its predominant inspiration of an economic nature. This restriction of the scope of the term is combined with the inability to broaden the scope to encompass, with analytical density, the social, cultural and, above all, political dimensions of the process in question. Because it is a process that is at stake, a set of relationships that intertwine through temporal links that lend it its own dynamics. It is the predominance of the temporal dimension that allows the author to sustain his eminently historical character. And the historicity of the process is manifested when going beyond the events towards something that characterizes the finesse of the analysis presented here. It is the emphasis on the temporality of each component of the process, something that can only be reached by paying attention to its multifaceted nature.

The time that Rômulo's performance distills is not the same in economics or politics. Perhaps the strength of Alexandre's analysis lies in his sensitivity to this crucial aspect of the problem he deals with. Because that is what, ultimately, presides over his bold decision to reserve a central role in his analytical reconstruction to a social and historical actor in the strictest sense of the term. It is in him that the dynamic and differentiated character of the process becomes present, because he does what only a specific actor can do, which is to incorporate into his action simultaneously the condition of agent and patient of the course of history. This is provided that the appropriate figure is found to represent this role. And it is at this point that Alexandre's meticulous research allows him to get to the point, when he finds, hidden at the back of the stage, the individual figure who qualifies to operate as the axis of the composition, in his condition of participant witness of the whole process.

The designation found for this process is “Developmental Brazil”. Taken in isolation, Brazil designates the context that cannot be ignored. But the analysis goes much further than this in the presence of the second term. Questions emerge when examining that second term, the one that qualifies contextual reference. The difficulty arises from the fact that the adopted term, developmentalist, is already part of the conventional language in the area, when it alludes to specific economic policies or, by extension, to characteristics of the State that promotes them. For Alexandre, however, the expression has more density.

In his analysis, developmentalism as a central concept in analysis has a much more complex meaning – or differentiated, as we might say, with reference to the fine discernment it demands from analysis. At stake is the close articulation that he proposes between three terms that form, combined, the integral concept of developmentalism or, with due contextualization, developmental Brazil. This, as long as we do not neglect that, according to an analysis centered on the idea of ​​process, we are facing a historical period, and not a static configuration. Are they project, interpretation e utopia. In formulations that are not the author's, the first term refers to what a certain social group (this point is examined in depth in the book) proposes as a response to problems and shortcomings of the society to which it belongs. The second concerns the translation, or reading, of society's conditions in order to guide forms of intervention. The third, finally, is the preview of the project carried out, which allows you to visualize the requirements for it.

The composition of this triad immediately indicates that we are very far from the economist's reduction to the conventional concept of development. It also indicates, as a result of its formulation, that the realization of the inseparable project-interpretation-utopia trio involves multiple policies, each with its specific temporality.

In this process, the figure of Rômulo Almeida, as a prominent member of the group of “organic state intellectuals”, runs like a red thread through the main political and economic transformations in the period known as the “Third Republic”. In doing so, it illustrates an important point, among numerous others, of the exhibition. This is because it highlights the character whose memory was being buried in the second half of the XNUMXth century, as a kind of relic of developmental Brazil, the convinced and severe public servant, all driven by specific professional competence. Finally, a character who, in his own way, replicates the developmental triad project-interpretation-utopia.

It is in this record that we can follow the exemplary trajectory of Rômulo Almeida, wholly dedicated to the construction of a developmental Brazil. From the happy and hopeful era of Vargas' "civic bohemians" to the victory of the "mercadista" wing over the "organic state intellectuals", with leaders like Roberto Campos, already in the foreshadowing of the emergence of the dictatorial period after 1964. Men ( because it was a masculine group from end to end) who, in success or failure, are capable of saying, as I personally heard from Jesus Soares Pereira, “I am proud to be a public servant”.

*Gabriel Cohn is professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt. Theory and social thought (Quicksilver).


Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia. Sao Paulo, Ed. Alameda, 2021, 580 pages.


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