The discourse and practice of corruption

Sardoine Mia, Corruption


Corruption in Brazil needs to be analyzed structurally, renouncing the easy moralistic and opportunistic discourse

With the beginning of the electoral campaign approaching, an old agenda begins to reappear on the pages of newspapers, in conversations between friends and in the speeches of some candidates, who use the subject, added to others such as public safety, education and health in the construction of balloons test to measure the extent to which civil society is engaged in these issues.

We can say that it is not new that the practice of corruption appears as a central theme in the Brazilian public debate; from the udenist discourse led by Carlos Lacerda transmitted over the radio waves, passing through the false moralizing discourse brought by the military and civil coup plotters of 1964, to the infamous lava jet operation which, through the emphatic defense of this flag, promoted the most scabrous persecutions and abuses; without forgetting the very left that had the Workers' Party as the spokesperson for the issue during the FHC administrations, passing through sectors of the PSOL that still insist on maintaining such a discourse.

In the recent history of the country, it would not be an exaggeration to classify the operation led by then judge Sérgio Moro as one of the episodes that caused the greatest damage to society as a whole. In addition to the illegal arrest that withdrew the leader in the polls from the 2018 elections, paving the way for the election of a neo-fascist president, who clearly brought the most varied forms of necropolitics to the center of power, he has constantly sought to dismantle the public services, in addition to triggering a virulent process of corrosion of already fragile institutions. Combating corruption includes dismantling Brazilian heavy industry, consolidating the delivery of oil reserves, and attacking the political system, especially political parties, reaching extreme cases such as the suicide of the rector of UFSC, Luiz Carlos Cancellier, after being the victim of an operation called “deaf ears”, forged along the same lines as the task force based in Curitiba, in addition to several other widely denounced abuses.

Based on the terms presented by the English historian EP Thompson, for whom a good history can be made based on varied concepts, many events separated in time and space are revealing when a relationship is established between them, observing process regularities, Thompson also states that , although understanding the concept of history as a process raises questions about intelligibility and intention, each historical event is unique (THOMPSON, 1981, p.97).

Based on these assumptions, I have sought to discuss the practice and meaning of corruption in the colonial period, because despite being very different from the notion presented in the present, this fact was something constant in society at that time.1. In addition, bringing the topic up for discussion can contribute to reflection on the media discourse (still observed in some columnists) that continues to try to impose on the PT governments the stamp of “founders of corruption”, of “the most corrupt in history”, charging an eternal self-criticism about their actions, however, closing their eyes to the various scandals that occurred in the government on duty, in addition to the understanding of society as a whole on the subject.

The historian's craft forces us to choose and prevents us from being neutral (CARR, 2001, p.61), thus, in a period in which “moralizing discourses try to impose on citizens the belief that only certain groups and times would be marked by appropriation of the state apparatus for dubious purposes” (ROMEIRO, 2017, p.11-17), I have sought to investigate how other groups have also appropriated these gears, with the intention of showing that such a process is something recurrent in our society. It is important to highlight that the meaning of the word corruption and, consequently, of the act of corrupting itself, was not immune to the transformations that occurred in society over time, even generating heated debates about the pertinence of using the concept for cases that occurred in the XNUMXth century. .

Even so, as Maria Fernanda Bicalho attests, “little addressed by a new generation of historians, illegality, venality and corruption were not totally absent from our academic production” (BICALHO, 2017, p.131). Therefore, it is important to characterize what was understood as corruption in the period in question. Eduardo Torres Arancivia, in turn, states that to think about corruption at that time, in addition to turning to the meaning of the word in the context of the analyzed society, it is also necessary to distinguish its understanding within the system of the modern liberal State and the Old Regime, because not making such a distinction puts the historian at risk of falling into the “trap of anachronism” (TORRES ARANCIVIA, 2007, p.4).


The definition of corruption in the eighteenth century

When consulting the Portuguese & Latin Vocabulary, by the lexicographer Raphael Bluteau, we find the term corruption as something linked to the moral issue, the destruction and corrosion of the soul. Bluteau also associates corruption with the introduction of altering and destructive qualities in the wicked: until the consolidation of the act of corruption, the corrupted entity would be someone free of stains who starts to suffer destructive influences. An interesting distinction is that between the corrupt and the corruptor, a greater moral judgment is clearly perceived in the case of the corrupt, who is presented as addicted, depraved, corrupted in the moral sense. In turn, the corruptor is identified only as those who corrupt.

The corrupt and the corruptible are still presented as those subject to corruption, individuals subject to corruption, while the corruptor is presented as someone who corrupts honor. So there is a distinction here between the corrupter and the corrupted. Although the strong association between corruption and moral deviation or corrosion of the individual's character is noticeable, the word soon gained new contours. If today the word corruption defines the set of “illegal practices at the intersection between the public and the private, until the 2017th century it was synonymous with the putrefaction of the social and political body, in clear association with the human body” (ROMEIRO, XNUMX).

Adriana Romeiro, today one of the references on the subject in the country, states that, being the object of intense debate, the application of the concept of corruption to societies in the Modern Era requires dealing with complex theoretical and methodological problems, forcing the scholar to a process of conceptualization, to avoid the risk of anachronism. Risks such as, for example, “that of applying notions typical of the liberal State bureaucracy in contexts characterized by the indistinction between the public and private spheres, in which practices condemned today enjoyed legitimacy, being socially accepted” (ROMEIRO, 2015, p. 2), or even the “tendency to confuse the patterns of recruitment and performance of agents of an administration based on the logic of royal service, with the rationalization patterns of modern functionalism” (ROMEIRO, 2015, p.2).

For Romeiro, one of the main means used in the period to try to appease deviations by royal agents in the colony was to widely disseminate the right of petition among the colonists. According to the author, this right functioned as a means for expressing dissatisfaction with the abuses and arbitrariness committed by local authorities. In a scenario where distance emerged as a huge obstacle to accessing central power and provided greater autonomy for these agents, including orders and orders, “the right of petition proved to be a powerful device of governance from different perspectives” ( ROMEIRO, 2015, p.109).


Some notes on the subject in our historiography

Raymundo Faoro, when dealing with the formation of what he called Brazilian employers, states that it is functionalism, the holder of the position, the one that congregates, gathers and dominates the economy. Thus, when they are away from the central power, these officials “deliver themselves to the pursuit of personal goods, transgressing norms that they should obey and implement” (FAORO, 2008, p.202). Sérgio Buarque de Holanda will argue that, by bringing a complex and finished system of precepts to the colony, the metropolis was unaware of the particularities existing on the other side of the Atlantic. Thus, in the internal dynamics of the colony, “abstract principles multiplied with which they could clothe their own interests” (HOLANDA, 2002, p.160).

In turn, addressing the issue of colonial bureaucracy and the applicability of metropolitan legislation in the colony, Caio Prado Júnior defends the idea that, by extending to Brazil an organization and administrative system similar to that found in Portugal, nothing original was forged. . According to the São Paulo historian, “the innovations are insignificant and do not change the system and character of the administration, which in the colony will be a perfect simile of the Kingdom” (PRADO JÚNIOR, 1961, p.300). Still according to Caio Prado, these insignificant innovations, when they occurred, were due to the adverse conditions of the colony when compared to the Kingdom. That is, the local reality cannot be left aside when administrative issues were considered.

By characterizing the administrative process of the colony and, consequently, the transformations undergone as insignificant, the author inserts this set of measures within what he classified as a cipoal of secondary incidents that would make it difficult, according to Prado Júnior, to understand the “meaning of colonization” . Disregarding the factors involved in this vine makes the understanding of the constitution of these networks of relationships and the adaptation of metropolitan rules in the colony even more complex. Within this process of adjustments to colonial reality, the role played by local authorities must also be highlighted, which, when adapting such legislation, use arbitrary powers much more than legal norms, as attested by Prado Junior.

Going through the paths opened by the historian, Fernando Novais will demonstrate that, in the colonial system, the practice of smuggling offered risks to those who engaged in it, but, in the end, it became profitable precisely because of the possibilities of ascension of the individuals involved in it: “it seems certain that smuggling involved a slowdown in the system, but not its suppression” (NOVAIS, 1989, p.91). Adriana Romeiro, in turn, states that colonial exploitation did not only take place through official paths and relationships.

At that time, smuggling “appeared as something structural, with the active participation of authorities, producers and traders from all parts of the Atlantic, internally or externally” (ROMEIRO, 2017, p.82). Thus, despite the various attempts to regulate the activities of officials linked to the Crown, such measures were not completely successful, since at that moment the “crystallization of a bureaucratic stratum” (SOUZA, 2009, p.153) formed by these public agents, merchants and agents of the capital, whose main objective was to be part of the cadres of this local elite.

Here, it is important to distinguish between the interests pursued by public agents sent by the metropolis and local public agents. The officials sent by the Crown, in addition to greater prestige and power, had the possibility of intermittent mobility, that is, they held positions in that location for a specified period of time, leaving afterwards to exercise administrative functions in other colonial domains. The mobility of these agents, according to the Crown, made it difficult for these agents to strengthen their relations with the local population, thus inhibiting the practice of smuggling and corruption by these agents. However, in many cases, the opposite situation occurred: using the power they held, these officials recruited members of the local elite to exercise authority and serve as a proxy in carrying out illegal activities in the corners.

The officials sent by the Portuguese Crown, even with the mobility set, had chances to increase their fortunes by negotiating positions and appointments to then return to the kingdom with fortune. Meanwhile, the appointed local officials began to exert influence and acquire greater power in their regions, as Laura de Mello e Souza showed in her acclaimed work, the sun and the shadow. According to Júnia Ferreira Furtado, “metropolitan power manifested itself in colonial society in different ways, in the public and private spheres, and the reproduction of this power did not occur without antagonisms” (FURTADO, 1999, p. 20). The Crown sought to subjugate and organize the colony: it “represented itself”, seeking to forge society overseas. Although this did not result in its direct expression, the search was for an identity between the colonizer and the colonized.

It is also important to clarify for the reader the distinction between embezzlement and corruption. Embezzlement appears in colonial society as a set of clandestine relationships that run parallel to the official routine, embezzlement will still be seen in the period as a practice linked to the evasion of tax rights. While corruption will result from the misconduct of public agents in their official practices, explaining the dynamics of the involvement of these agents with the practice of corruption and smuggling, I will try to verify the impact of their participation for the “failure” of legal measures and until that point these characters used their positions to obtain personal advantages and reinforce their powers at the local level.

It must be considered that some of these agents stayed for a short time in each region, making it difficult to strengthen social relations. However, when entrusted with the task of enforcing the law, they soon began to wield influence in the region. According to José Murilo de Carvalho, by absorbing the functions of an overseas State, the same functions became simple “instruments of personal power” (CARVALHO, 2003, p.21). Within this game of forces, the Crown began to act more incisively in regulating the economy. However, as Kenneth Maxwell demonstrates, it was easier to visualize such possibilities than to produce effective actions (MAXWELL, 1999, p.103).

Finally, I emphasize that through this small contribution to the debate, I sought to address the relations between the Crown agents sent to the colony and the local society, as well as the issue of corruption in a specific period, making it clear that, despite the occurrence of relations between agents public and private in that period, seeking similarity with the existing processes today would result in anachronism. The intention was to show the reader that, for a timely reflection on the subject, an analysis must be carried out in a structural way, giving up the easy moralistic and/or opportunistic discourse covering the intricacies of our social and political history.

* Daniel Costa He has a degree in history from UNIFESP.



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1 – This text brings notes that were further developed in the monograph entitled: Between shortcuts and paths: an analysis of the Portuguese Crown’s policy regarding smuggling and corruption in the Pombaline period (Pernambuco, 1758-1778), presented as a course completion monograph presented to obtain a degree in History at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (EFLCH) of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).

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