The Mandarins of Economics

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By MARIA RITA LOUREIRO*

Considerations on the recently released book, organized by Adriano Codato and Mateus de Albuquerque

The Mandarins of Economics analyzes who the directors of the Central Bank of Brazil are and how they act, helping us to understand a topic that is very current in the political agenda of the country and crucial for our democracy. Today, more than ever, we experience the terrible situation of an economy blocked and prevented from growing, generating jobs and income, due to the exclusive decisions of this small group of political actors that maintain an exorbitant basic interest rate, the highest in the world. Arguing for “technical” reasons that seek to hide very concrete material interests, they have been responsible for leaving “millions of people and machines at a standstill”, similar to what historians of the great depression that swept the world in the 20s of the last century described.

Using a lot of statistical analysis and covering a long historical period, the works that make up the various chapters of the book explore a wealth of data related to the career paths of the presidents and directors of the Central Bank, the transit they make from the private sector to the public sector and their return later (through the so-called “revolving door”) to the world of financial advisory firms or investment banks, bringing them relevant information. Educational training, forms of recruitment, professional trajectories and networks of social relationships built throughout the careers of those who will be the future mandarins of the Brazilian economy are also unraveled.

There is also a last chapter in which the object of study is the BNDES, when the themes explored for the Central Bank's directors are replicated to the directors of this bank. If these two important economic agencies of the Brazilian State have already been the subject of several studies by economists, sociologists and political scientists, here the aim is different: the agencies are not examined for the functions they perform in the management of economic policies and in the promotion of development, but from the perspective of its ruling elites. That is, it is important to understand who these actors are and how they act in their institutions and in the broader political and social system.

Several themes explored are unprecedented in this area of ​​study, such as the questioning of the candidates for the direction of the Central Bank carried out by the Senate; the influence of the political party of the president of the republic on the profile of these cadres and also the link between the think tanks diffusers of neoliberal ideology and members of the Monetary Policy Committee (COPOM), a collegiate body that decides the economy's interest rate.

The problem of the instability of economic teams is also the subject of a broad statistical study, with data from more than five decades, both from the military dictatorship and from the democratic period until 2016. The longitudinal dimension is one of the differentiating aspects of the set of studies presented in this book. If such an approach was only possible with the availability of data guaranteed by the Access to Information Law (LAI), enacted in 2011 during the Dilma Roussef government, this does not diminish the efforts of researchers to gather them all and, with that, contribute to the advancement of knowledge, from the comparison between empiricism and theory.

Special mention should be made of the focus given to the discussion of the autonomy of the Central Bank, a crucial issue that involves the democratic order itself, insofar as its institutionalization can undermine popular sovereignty and that of the national State. The authors innovate because they examine whether Central Bank directors are autonomous not vis-à-vis the government or elected politicians, as is more frequent, but vis-à-vis the financial market. As is known, a wide literature discusses this problem guided by the technocratic bias.

In other words, it considers it necessary to “protect” the decisions of the Bank's directors – always seen as exclusively technical, neutral in relation to interests or values ​​and, therefore, better or more desirable – against the influence of politics. This, on the contrary, is always seen in a negative way, as a space of spurious interests, and treated with contempt. In addition to rejecting this stereotype, the studies here also seek to overcome the merely dichotomous assessment and scrutinize it from a quantitative point of view: thus, they measure the levels or degrees of autonomy of leaders in relation to the financial market between governments that express different ideological orientations related to the role of the State in the market, liberal or developmentalists.

The topic of Central Bank autonomy is also approached in an innovative way in another aspect. It is not seen only by the formal legal criterion of the existence or not of legislation in this regard. On the contrary, the analysis here is more complex. It examines the directors' network of relationships and recruitment for Central Bank management, also taking into account the position of these elites in the power system and their connections with other institutions, such as universities, in which they are preferentially recruited.

It is worth quoting an excerpt from the book: “The academic training of those who arrive there, starting from a university field largely dominated by mainstream economic, may induce the Central Bank of Brazil to act in a certain direction depending on the intellectual and cognitive orientation of its directors, even though, as an institution, it is not directly instrumentalized by any specific interest group, such as private institutions in the financial sector, for example." (chapter 4).

Despite the innovative approach, it is possible to question the last part of this statement, concerning the institutional “neutrality” of the Central Bank vis-à-vis specific interests, which reveals, at this moment, a certain naivety. First, because one cannot ignore the historical-structural processes that led to the creation of central banks, related to the development of the capitalist economy under financial dominance.

Moreover, in the more concrete plan of the Brazilian reality, it is enough to examine the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank. They are a clear example of instrumentalization, explaining the umbilical connection of this body to the financial market: they are prepared and published systematically, after each collegiate meeting, to signal and guide investors. In fact, they express the orientation of the organic elites of the Brazilian State when making decisions to better serve the valorization of the dominant fraction of capital.

On the other hand, the citation of the sentence is also interesting because it helps to explain the theoretical-methodological orientation that underlies the set of political analyzes in the book. It is guided by the combination of Marxism and elitism, as formulated by some Marxist authors. Adhering to such a proposal, Codato and Perissinotto, promoters of this approach among us, are also willing to build the methodological procedures to operationalize such a junction.

Thus, in the wake of theorists such as Ralf Miliband and Goran Therborn, Brazilian authors explicitly recognize the limitations of the theory of elites (in particular those pointed out by Nicos Poulantzas), but consider that they do not constitute a reason to suspend the bridge between both theoretical perspectives . They reiterate that the concept of class can only be analytically profitable if the idea that the class acts directly in politics is abandoned and claim that the concept of elite (“politically active minorities”) can be complementary to Marxism and even important to operationalize the analysis. of class, making it effective in social science.

Based on these premises, the research program on elites is placed in these terms: “If political elites do not hold political power … they have, to some extent to be empirically determined, authority, strength, prestige, in short 'political influence' capable of produce effects that are worth examining... If this is correct, then we have to dedicate ourselves to thinking and forging concepts that allow us to analyze, from a classist perspective, the 'superficial' political interactions, that is, the political phenomena that are not directly linked to the problem of 'long-term' social reproduction" (Codato and Perissinotto, "Marxism or elitism?" In Marxism as a social science, Editora UFPR, 2013:242-243).

This program is also explicitly reaffirmed in the analysis of the Senate hearings of candidates for the Central Bank. In this chapter, the authors make the following clarification: “By choosing these sabbaticals as a microcosm, we were able to observe interesting elements of the relationship between the State and the market in Brazilian democracy. A relationship that is constantly tense and full of nuances sometimes ignored in two scientific fractions that we intend to avoid here: that of neutralizing political agents and institutions of socioeconomic relations, to the point of creating a utilitarian theory of political action; and that of constituting structurally predetermined relations to the point that the details of the political dispute become irrelevant for the analysis” (chapter 5).

In short, the proposal of the group of researchers implies a double position: on the one hand, the rejection of both the deterministic conception of politics, and the elitism and institutionalism that suppose actors always acting autonomously in a social vacuum and neutralized institutions. or disconnected from socioeconomic relationships; on the other hand, and more importantly, the critical resumption of Marxism's contributions to political analysis, together with the construction of methodological procedures to operationalize the junction between Marxism and elitism. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most challenging proposals in the contemporary scenario of social sciences in Brazil. And its confrontation constitutes the great virtue of the texts gathered in The Mandarins of Economics.

This finding allows us to hope that the studies resulting from this theoretical-methodological proposition advance and go beyond the broad immersion in the world of statistics and bring us a synthesis. A synthesis that allows overcoming the emptying that quantitative analyzes can sometimes produce, if they are not adequately confronted with the macrostructural foundations. Or even, a synthesis that, highlighting the essential traits in progress in Brazilian society, allows reaching the most complete explanation of the action of the “mandarins of the economy”.

And establish your connection with the foundations that sustain it, even seeking to understand the role they play in the direction of the State, whether reproducing or even transforming the social order. In other words, analyzes “of 'superficial' political interactions, that is, (d)political phenomena that are not directly linked to the problem of 'long-term' social reproduction, will always be insufficient if they are not related to the totality of the process of social reproduction that gives it meaning. At least from the perspective of Gramsci's tributary Marxism and the theoreticians of the Frankfurt school.

I believe I'm asking for something that authors can certainly offer. After all, if structures are to be explained from social practices, as the book's analyzes well suppose, it is always necessary to return to them for a more complete understanding of these practices.

Finally, and even outside the objectives posed by the texts (considering the very temporality in which they were elaborated), it is pertinent to assume – including as recognition of the value of the work already carried out – that if such an interpretative synthesis is carried out, it will contribute a lot to understanding the current Brazilian political scene and the ongoing collapse of democratic institutions so painstakingly built with the 1988 Constitution.

As Norberto Bobbio well recalled, reflecting on the role of intellectuals in post-war Italian political life, “the intellectual has the duty of synthesis (…) and in this synthetic duty he prepares the future”.

*Maria Rita Loureiro, a sociologist, is a retired full professor at FGV-SP and FEA-USP.

Modified version of the Preface to the book The Mandarins of Economics.

Reference


Adriano Codato and Mateus de Albuquerque (eds.). The mandarins of economics. Presidents and directors of the Central Bank of Brazil. São Paulo, Editora Almedina, 2023, 348 pages (https://amzn.to/3OxWprh).


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