Value returns to politics

Lee Krasner, Gothic Landscape, 1961


Author introduction to newly published book

The future will be better

“Politics will have a future again” is a title that I need to justify. Today we experience the discredit of politicians and politics itself. It's a worldwide phenomenon. If we leave aside Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, what democratic leaders do we have in the world at the beginning of 2021? And note that the first two are from the spiritual field: in terms of politics itself, which by definition is lay, only the leader of Germany remains, who in fact, by the time this book comes out, will have already left power, as announced. There remain average, average or mediocre rulers at best; most of it is really bad. It is true that Russia and China, two ex-communist countries that are not democracies, have above-average rulers; but this only proves that democracies today lack leaders.

Discontent with politics can be due to many causes – even the fact that the world has become democratized. Could discontent be – paradoxically – the result of relative success? As perhaps half of humanity today has personal and political freedom, it would no longer excite it to fight for more, neither for itself nor for other human beings who lack these freedoms.

Democracy, if realized – but in a banal, far from utopian way – would have confronted us with our own banality: we would have mediocre leaders, because the electorate recognizes themselves in them. Umberto Eco's famous phrase, according to which the internet gave voice to imbeciles, would imply that these imbeciles no longer want to elect people they admire, from whom they can be inspired - but rather their clones, imbeciles. Mediocrity today is seen as a sign of authenticity. Compare, in France, Sarkozy and Hollande, in our century, to de Gaulle and Mitterrand, a few decades earlier: an abyss separates the two heads of state who were aware of the greatness of their country and the most recent presidents (and who were not the worst heads of state of our century, mind you).

Or discontent with politics could arise, trivially, from the 2008 economic crisis, which took a long time to have repercussions in Brazil but, destroying wealth around the world, generated a widespread drop in living standards. In this hypothesis, political life becomes an effect of economic life. Trust in a leader would derive from the credit with which he irrigates the economy, facilitating the purchase of consumer goods (which I develop in an article in this book). For some time now, there has been a decline in contemporary man, who is going from citizen to consumer. It seems that, finally, in our days, citizenship has been replaced by consumption – or, at least, has found itself strongly subordinated to it. If our standard of living does not rise all the time, we will be disappointed. This seems to be the main criterion for people deciding to vote.

These are not people who are indignant at the loss of their standard of living: they are revolted because their desire to always have more has been frustrated. They live in comparison: although in Brazil the Lula years improved the lives of the miserable and poor without harming the wealthier, they often felt diminished when comparing themselves to them. They experienced a loss of status, but only by comparison. (Rousseau considered this the worst trait of life in society: the human being stops being a “man of nature”, which I simply translate as “himself”, the way he was born, and becomes a “man of man”, that is that is, someone incapable of knowing who they are and who can only see themselves by borrowing someone else's gaze).

Thus, these years turned out to be bad for politics. Even more so if I am right in the hypothesis I raised in my book Good politics, that today politics becomes synonymous with democracy, that is: instead of politics referring to power, and the noun “power” being divided into democratic, dictatorial, despotic authoritarian, totalitarian, in short, in several species, only there will be politics (the regime in which force is replaced by words, by persuasion) in our days when there is democracy. In other words: these last few years have also been negative for democracy.


There are two possible answers.


The first, I suggested above, is that a certain satisfaction would have been achieved with what was achieved. With half of the world's population protected from hunger, poverty and blatant oppression, what does this majority still want? Liberal thought and capitalism – which knows it cannot provide the best of all imaginable worlds – have promoted a general disqualification of utopia. It came to be understood as something impossible, or worse, negative: because, fighting for a better man, one would enter the world of dictatorship, totalitarianism, lies.

Now, if it is useless to improve society, what can we expect – besides consumption? We would live in a “resigned democracy”. With each attempt to go further, we hear the same answer: it is impossible. Many arguments were constructed to justify such mediocrity of politics. It is alleged that human beings are selfish and that communism, wanting to create a “new man”, ended up producing counterfeits, lies. Better, then, to have an egocentric man, but who respects the laws and maximizes his gains, than a man who claims to be better, but, in practice, is worse. We would stop at a healthy, if boring, middle ground. (And let’s insist on the boring…).

But the error in this perspective is that it only makes sense if it is contrasted with a mirage, a scarecrow. It desperately needs communism as a counterpoint. Hence today, when nothing remains of communism in power or even as an alternative to power, there are those who denounce as “communism” what is simple social democracy or even liberalism. This is what the extreme right does in Brazil, in the United States, in countries where it came to government or became an alternative to power, such as in France itself, where there is a fear that, through insistence, some Le Pen will end up coming to power. presidency... Hence ecology itself, or movements for a healthier mental and physical life, are disqualified as totalitarian, which is pure absurdity.

This error of conception is, however, very effective, in aborting greater flights, in keeping humanity in a petty life, from a spiritual and moral point of view. In short, capitalism triumphed at the cost of reducing, as much as possible, the scope of democracy.


The second answer is that we are experiencing a reaction. Many scholars of society have already used the metaphor of the heart, which alternates systole and diastole. A closing period is followed by an opening period, and so on. It turns out that the range of freedoms has opened up a lot. There were those who were shocked by this. In effect, women became equal in rights to men, blacks became equal to whites, different sexual orientations were accepted, immigrants stood out in the societies they went to – all of this happened quickly.

Let's think about the couple: a few decades ago, the man was the head of the family. All he had to do was get married to be invested with a series of powers, including that of defining the family home (therefore, if he wanted to change house or even city, he could impose the change on his wife), not to mention a number of petty privileges – such as , for example, a woman can only open a bank account or obtain a passport with his permission. The end of this arrogance is recent, and happened practically from one generation to another. So, a man whose father was in charge of his mother today marries a woman with whom he needs to share all the decisions, without there being a final instance that resolves all the pending issues.

For thousands of years, in all power structures, in the event of an impasse, it was known who decided. Today, in the couple, there is no longer that – or there is less and less of it. And in other power relationships, such as with children, the same tendency is observed. Before, the bond was maintained at all costs, because one person commanded it. Today, there is no longer this One who is in charge – not in love relationships, at least. The social impact of this change is enormous. How many husbands have their parents told, over the last few decades, that they have to order their wives, possibly even using brute force? But this, in addition to no longer working, has become a crime.

The reaction then is exactly that: a reactionary response. Faced with the advancement of women's freedom, an increasingly less muted resentment accumulated from those who felt diminished. We have diminished males, diminished whites, diminished rich people (these, not so much...), natives “da gema” (as we said of people whose families had lived in the same city or state for a long time) or “four hundred people” (as we said of São Paulo people whose families immigrated to Brazil longer) decreased. Confusingly, these belittlings, these humiliations often more imagined than real, added up. And, with an economic crisis that weakened the PT government, which was directly associated with these changes, and also the party that previously governed Brazil, the PSDB, which also defended human rights, both were assimilated as “immoral” and even even “communists”, and hatred involved everyone in the same mud.

If this second answer is valid, we will be facing a transitional period of reaction, like the one that was called the Restoration and dominated Europe after Napoleon's defeat in 1814-15, but later collapsed. In 1830, in France, the conservative regime was replaced by a bourgeois, constitutional monarchy.[I] In 1848, the revolutions that spread across Europe were mostly crushed, but they decisively changed the way we saw politics. At the end of the XNUMXth century, restrictions on the power of kings were already valid in many countries. I obviously hope it doesn't take us that long!


We will not delay, for the simple reason that time has sped up. What took decades now takes years. Years pass in months or weeks.

What to do? It depends on the weight of each of the two answers I suggested above, but the desirable actions converge in both cases. If the second possibility prevails, that is, if we are experiencing a reaction from those who in this new world feel like fish out of water, the resumption of the democratic wave will be a matter of time. I remember the British plebiscite on the Brexit: the exit from the United Kingdom triumphed, but thanks to the older, more rural, less studied people.

The result of his decision is probably irreversible – at least for a long time – but the truth is that, if the plebiscite were to take place ten years later, the electorate would decide differently. As equality has grown in recent times, within a few years the reactionary reaction (a purposeful pleonasm, to make it clear what it is about) will have exhausted itself. Those who chose rewind will miss the stop. They will have caused suffering, sometimes acute, but they have no future.

What if the first answer is worth more, that is, the democratic appeal has been exhausted? This hypothesis is more serious. But I maintain that, if it became exhausted, it was because it found itself reduced to a mediocre, limited, weakened appeal. For democracy to win, it gave up many of its potential. To get straight to the point: democracy stopped at the company's door. There was democratization in politics, yes; in the couple; even in love and family. But, where capital really rules, there was no democracy. That's what we have to achieve now. On the one hand, maintaining the defense and expansion of democracy in love (which awakened the demons of reaction), on the other, ensuring that where most people spend most of their time – the workplace – also increases the freedom.

It will not be easy.

But it must be very clear that it is essential for democracy to expand. Democracy is not a regime that can be said to stop here. We proclaimed independence (in Brazil) or it and the Republic (in the United States) and now we maintain slavery. We create democracy, but only for the rich, only for white people. No, no: it is contagious. Stendhal understood this very well, in a passage that I have already cited in another article – and the fantastic convergence with us is that he spoke of a Brazilian phenomenon, the revolution of 1817 in Pernambuco: “Freedom is like the plague. Until the last pestilence was thrown into the sea, nothing was done.” [ii]


The articles gathered here were inspired by a strong optimism: Brazil had consolidated democracy and would only strengthen it from now on. Today, we are experiencing a setback that not only consists of the victory of anti-PTism, but of anti-politics, which took the PT and PSDB by storm. Politics has been replaced by hate, and not just in Brazil.

But politics will return. She has a future, in other words: the future depends on her. By politics, I have already stated that I understand democratic politics. Politics is no longer a generic word that covers all types of power, including despotic ones. Politics no longer refers to any power, but to the polis, the base organization in which citizens decide, in which the demos makes itself heard. The chronicles I gather here were optimistic. Moderate optimism continues to make sense. That depends a lot on us.

I compare the current period to that after the 1929 crisis: also an economic devastation, followed by high social costs and the strengthening of the extreme right. However, today we have (i) numerous movements and organizations committed to improving the world, (ii) unprecedented knowledge of problems and their solutions. Thus, the big issue now is to unite the forces favorable to democratization, not only of politics but of macro and microsocial relations, as well as the survival of our species on a planet whose nature must be respected. Here is our task.   


This book is part of a kind of tetralogy: four works that have in common, although in very different formats, the commitment to applying political philosophy and other knowledge from the human sciences, especially history, to politics as it is done; apply theory to practice, especially Brazilian practice, which time and again is treated, in our academy, even in the areas of Humanities and Human Sciences, as little worthy of high theory; and, no less important, changing theory through confrontation with the political and social world. This is because political philosophy generally deals with high concepts, such as sovereignty, representation, democracy, but pays little attention to the fragile and tense daily life of politics, which is where – in a contemporary democratic society – things play out.

There was a change in the temporality of politics, which (political) philosophy did not always take due account of. In non-democratic regimes, time flowed slowly. A pharaoh, a king could rule for decades. Power did not change much in nature over the centuries. Today, every few years there are elections – and I'm not saying that they are the cause of the acceleration of politics, they could be its consequence: life has increased its speed a lot.

The ancient institutions, when power descended instead of ascending, when it came from the Heavens instead of ascending from the people, were more solid. Ours, on the other hand, owes the lack of solidity they have to the popular will, but they face the upheavals of the economy and the inconstancy of its elements, which could undo what seemed consecrated in a few years. (This is how Brazil, where democracy seemed consolidated, ended up doing what it did).

Politics moves at a fast pace and, for this reason, if political philosophy wants to continue discussing only the big concepts, it will have difficulty in understanding what actually happens, the immediate experience. In other words: we have to review our great concepts, add others to them, accept the unexpected.

Articles written over four years, every week, for a serious newspaper allowed me to use the concepts I learned, added to my historical knowledge, to try to understand what was happening. My perspective was neither that of a political scientist nor that of an economist, who are generally the ones who comment on current affairs in power in the front section of newspapers; it wasn't the economist's, for obvious reasons; the difference with the political scientist may be more difficult to establish. But it has to do with the relationship with concepts and temporality, as I stated above. And of course testing the concepts actually led me to challenge them, even modify them.


This work should perhaps have been the first to come out of the aforementioned tetralogy, but that is not the case. Over the course of four years, between May 2011 and March 2015, I published a column with absolute freedom in Valor Econômico, in which I discussed Brazilian politics. These were times of hope, which coincided with the first term of President Dilma Rousseff (in the book I sometimes use the form president, sometimes presidenta; both exist in Portuguese; the second is endorsed by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which is enough for me in terms of quality ).

Writing every week was a kind of test, an experiment to see how the concepts I had worked with all my life, in political philosophy and ethics, as well as in the knowledge of history that they forced me (with enormous pleasure) to acquire, worked in practice. There is no common sense phrase that I detest as much as theory in practice is another. It just means that the theory in question is bad. It has to be changed. Practice is the great source for theories, it is also the ground on which to test them.

Those were also, for me, formative years. Trying to understand what was happening in Brazilian politics from a perspective that is not that of a journalist, nor that of a political scientist, I hope to have learned something. One quality of an intellectual, which seems essential to me, is to always be in training: never stop learning, never stop being surprised.

Good Politics, of the four books, the first to appear (in 2017), includes articles prior to my experience as a columnist, but also takes it into account. The main objective of this work was to see what, in our culture, Brazilian and/or Latin American, clashes with the mainstream of the North Atlantic. I have long defended the thesis that today's dominant political theories were generated and applied in the territory that coincides with the former NATO, that is, the two Anglo-Saxon countries of North America (I find it strange that Mexico is included in this subcontinent) and the nations of Western Europe.

Modern or contemporary democracy was born there, grew there, thrives there. Outside this space may be the “largest democracy in the world”, as it is customary to designate India, or Japan, an economic powerhouse, as well as several countries in Latin America, but we all have specific differences that are not properly considered in high democratic theory. .

Thinking mainly about Brazil and by extension Latin America, I have insisted on the affective element, which is an essential part of how we see politics, whether in the form of an authoritarian affect (the name of another book of mine, in which I tested this question using, above all, the corpus of television) or of a democratic affection, the construction of which can be the main contribution of our part of the world to the reflection and practice of democracy. Let me explain: democracy and republic, two essential components of what I call “good politics”, are treated in a very rational way in North Atlantic thought. Achieving a democratic and republican policy would result from a great effort to overcome egocentric and particularistic tendencies, which, many think, would be more “natural” to human beings.

Good policy would be a laborious and rational construction. Now, when politics is based on affections, it would tend to be factious, partial. What I maintain is that democracy will only be strong if it is capable of democratizing affections: if it is inscribed in feelings, in emotions. Which, in turn, gives meaning to education (and its sister, culture): they are the ones that can engrave values ​​such as equality, solidarity and decency in the emotional world. Having been Minister of Education in Brazil in 2015 obviously helped me think about this point.

This idea comes together with the idea that democracy is not only a political regime, but one of human coexistence. If in modernity it essentially concerned the State, it gradually became increasingly pertinent to society, that is, to both micro and macrosocial relations. There must be democracy in the couple, in the family, in friendship, as well as in business, in leisure – everywhere. And evidently this need collides with the reality of capitalism, which needs, at least, to be compensated by social and legal requirements that introduce democracy into work relations.

Yes, The Educating Homeland in Collapse (2018) is a narrative and analysis of the six-month period in which I was Minister of Education, in President Dilma Rousseff's second term. I had already had management experience as director of Evaluation at CAPES, between 2004 and 2008, but this does not compare to directing an important ministry: my board in the 2000s had a free budget of 1 million reais, in 2015 the MEC it moved 140 billion... The important thing, in this position, was to see politics from an angle that the independent thinker would hardly imagine. In fact, I have always maintained that one of Marx's strongest ideas – and this regardless of whether you are a socialist or not – consists of seeing political, social and economic phenomena from the point of view of power.

This is what makes Marxism different from a movement of demands, which asks (or even demands, it makes no difference) that the holder of power gives up or does something: the Marxist question is to take power and, from there, make the changes you want. It is not about remaining in a begging, subordinate or even rebellious position. It is radically inverting power relations. I'm not saying that being a minister means having power; As I explain in the aforementioned book, we had no money; This weakened Dilma's government too much and is the main reason she was removed from office. But I think that the experience of power, strong or weak, is needed by many people who want to think about politics or society.

Thus, Good politics is a theoretical work, a book of political philosophy, in which I committed myself to thinking about the best politics of our time and those to come, using partly the classics of philosophy, partly what I would call a philosophical style of dealing with politics. What this book has in common is optimism, the conviction that the democratization of the world, including the world of life and personal relationships, is a path of no return.

Yes, The Educating Homeland in Collapse It is an account of my experience as a minister, and it could well be the announcement of bad policy, or of how the promised land became Armageddon. Or, on the other hand: if Good Politics is a book of theory describing and perhaps prescribing practice, the present book is a daily effort, over four years, to understand lived, immediate politics in the light of philosophy. The Educating Homeland in Collapse It is the account of the fall of an angel, that angel being democracy.

At the same time as I finished this book, I completed a shorter work, about Machiavelli, democracy and Brazil; it converges with the other three: in it I discuss how Machiavelli, speaking of new princes, can serve to think about democracy, in which by definition every ruler is new, owing his position to election; and I also use his concepts of virtù and fortune, to think about political action, for example with Brazilian presidents from 1985 onwards.


These articles were written in an optimistic period, when problems, such as those highlighted in the 2013 protests, seemed to have a solution – perhaps difficult, demanding, but already emerging on the horizon. Then everything changed. But I think these columns are still valid: I selected here only those that in my opinion have a future. I removed all those that related to everyday politics and whose publication would comply more with a registration criterion than with current affairs. With this, I was able to keep this book current, which instead of being reduced to a memory, a historical document, can help inspire the future.

São Paulo, January 2021.

*Renato Janine Ribeiro is a retired full professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Machiavelli, democracy and Brazil (Freedom Station).


Renato Janine Ribeiro. Value returns to politics – discussing politics from philosophy and history. São Paulo, Editora Unifesp \ Edições SESC, 2023. 312 pages. []


[I] Although the Charter granted in 1814 by Louis XVIII provided for a Parliament, subsequent legislation and the practice of the governments of this king and his brother and successor, Charles X, were authoritarian. Only with Luís Felipe, from 1830 onwards, can we speak of a constitutional monarchy, comparable to the British.

[ii] As the text is remarkable, I translate it in full:

The admirable insurrection in Brazil, perhaps the greatest thing that could happen, gives me the following ideas:

Freedom is like the plague. Until the last pestilence was thrown into the sea, nothing was done.

The only remedy against freedom is concessions. But it is necessary to use the remedy in time: see Louis XVIII.

There are no lords, no mists, in Brazil.

Stendhal, “Débris du manuscrit”, referring to Rome, Naples and Florence in 1817, in Stendhal, Voyages in Italy, ed. Pléiade, Paris: Gallimard, 1973, p. 175.

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