another north

Image: G. Cortez


Thinking beyond “political capitalism”

Roberto Schwarz’s pessimistic hypothesis to explain Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is as follows: “In a context of frustrated growth, [people] seek to guarantee the gains already achieved at any price, and pass, in terms of the future, to save yourself. -who-can”. The interruption of the national integration effort present in the PT-PSDB governments would have led the people to opt for the side that would guarantee the maintenance of order and not to bet on a progressive initiative, which seemed out of breath in the new world situation.

It is something similar to what Bruno Latour proposed, since he placed the environmental apocalypse as a horizon that would reorient people's worldview. Aware that we are heading towards a global catastrophe, some individuals take refuge in identity groups and others seek the return of the strong nation-state. Both initiatives create excluding communities that, supposedly, would form a stronger bond than the diffuse progressive and universal values ​​that serve as an anchor for the foundations of liberal democracy. In this way, the new modes of organization would be a safer and more powerful way of protecting themselves when the conflicts generated by the environmental crisis broke out.

Roberto Schwarz seems to say that in Brazil the apocalypse is now: the violence that works as a general nexus of society would already clearly segregate winners and losers and, therefore, it would make sense to opt for the immoderate and truculent side.[I]

Perhaps it would be enriching to reread Roberto Schwarz's analysis bearing in mind a recent article that has generated intense debate in the United States. Two American researchers published, in issue 138 of the New Left Review, an article that tries to explain the American “cultural war” in another way, and its discussion can serve to inspire a new reflection on the phenomenon of Bolsonarism and the economic, social and political changes that, supposedly, would have generated it.

Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner wrote “Seven Theses on American Politics” which deal, for the most part, with specificities of the contemporary political context of their country. But what interests us here is to bring out the assumptions that support the analysis, and propose that they can guide a similar investigation, having Brazilian politics as an object. Next, I try to summarize the authors' point of view, with indirect citations to the article and the interview they gave to Jacobin Radio.

In the first place, the authors state that the regime of accumulation that we live in has changed, transfigured into what they call “political capitalism”, that is, a system in which it is from political power that economic participation is achieved. This is due to the fact that low/no growth makes capitalists depend more on the government to develop, generating some changes in the way the system is organized.

Dylan Riley summarizes: “in the era of political capitalism there is a fundamental contradiction between the conditions of legitimacy on which the political class depends and the economic needs of the social system, that is, basically, what happens is that all politicians, both Joe Biden and their republican opponents, need to strike a balance between a capitalism that increasingly depends on state distribution with its need to attract voters through material (but not class) terms”. But how is it possible to see this in current American politics and in the manifestations of what we call identityism and culture war?

The authors criticize the moralistic views that exist on both the American right and left. On the one hand, certain groups on the right accuse a supposed fraction of cosmopolitan progressives, far from the reality of the common man. On the other, sectors of the left classify workers without higher education as prejudiced and ignorant, the “deplorables” that Hillary Clinton attacked in her campaign. These visions would be mistaken for being entirely idealistic, ignoring the material interests of these groups. Fundamentally, the authors claim that what is often understood as a moral defect or a worldview distorted by ideology is actually a form of expression of a rational material interest, which they seek to explain.

When we think of workers trying to claim their material interests, it is common to think of class organization, in which workers are articulated as a group exploited by the capitalist regime, but there is another way for workers to get more income for their work, which is the “commodity”. ” that he sells.[ii] Just make the value of that commodity grow. Therefore, it is necessary to restrict the social circle that can participate in this market.

At this point, the criteria that define this closure (the authors use the concept of “social closure”, by Max Weber), can be of race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, qualification, in short, all kinds of social markers. It is important to emphasize that what motivates this restriction is a purely rational and material interest: with fewer people offering a commodity, its value rises. As the worker depends on the sale of this commodity (his work) to survive, it is interesting for him that fewer people have access to this competition. The political disputes that we see taking the form of “culture wars” would then be different forms of political articulations that are based on ways of organizing society according to the material interests of the groups that sustain these alliances.

On the one hand, we can observe white workers without higher education who mobilize around a racial, ethnic or nationalist demand, defending that the true right to work belongs to them, and not to minorities. It's what Arlie Hochschild called the feeling of being "a foreigner in your own land". On the other hand, workers with higher education, for example, are interested in valuing work that requires a certain type of qualification, as this would mean more income for them.

The horizon of “political capitalism” is very important here, because for both groups it is relevant that their political group is in power, since that way they can conduct politics and society in such a way that their base makes better use of the economy. Although the elite of each of the groups earns more, there is a favoring of the base that is crucial to guarantee this process of valorization of work. The economy has become increasingly politicized, having political power is today the most important factor to gain an advantage in the market, and the scenario of little or no growth intensifies class conflicts between workers. The working class then finds itself fragmented into these different groups that seek, each in their own way, to achieve the social closure that will best serve their economic interests.

In this perspective, the MAGA proposal (Make America Great Again) and Trumpism could be summarized thus: providing gains for white American workers and for a capitalist elite that would finance and politically organize this process at its highest level. Thus, the contradiction between the working class and the elite dissolves, since both mobilized politically around a common movement, consistent with their material interests. The same happens with the Democratic Party, but based on other groups and, therefore, other values.

Redirecting the debate to our context, we can see the recent increase in grants and budgets of institutes that promote research based on these parameters.[iii] Professors, researchers and intellectuals do not have a purely moral or ideological interest in supporting Lula over Jair Bolsonaro. Defending that Bolsonarism would bring the “end of Brazil” is, above all, saying that it would end the Brazil in which these groups can survive. The cuts made by the Bolsonaro government in the area of ​​education and research destroy the livelihoods of a huge group of workers who, not by chance, are part of an opposing political group that, when elected, met the material demands of this group, with significant readjustments in the values ​​of scholarships and vacancies available for new researchers.

Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner's text has, as they themselves noted, an experimental and provisional content, and some problems can be pointed out. His chronology of political capitalism, its emergence, and when it begins to fundamentally impact American politics lacks precision, going from the Bush administration to Biden without much detail or rigor. Furthermore, as Matthew Karp noted in a quick response to the article, the authors fail to take into account the fact that skilled workers are the foundation of three of the most dynamic and powerful industries in the US: communications, finance, and healthcare (including pharmaceuticals).

The workers' revolt against these elites is more easily explained if we think about the impact that these groups have on their lives, as Karp justifies in “Party and class in american politics”, a reply that came out in the last edition of New Left Review: “In Riley and Brenner's analysis, Hibbing workers were driven by a 'rational' resistance to the (largely hypothetical) possibility of competition with immigrants from El Salvador or Somalia. But it seems more plausible that they mobilized in 'rational' resistance to the specialized elites of north oaks, whose power in the industries and institutions that affect [workers'] lives – from Facebook pages to hospital centers – is anything but abstract”.

In other words, it is a revolt against the elites and their discourse, something similar to what Wolfgang Streeck pointed out in his text on the “return of the repressed”, that is, it is the revolt of the losers of globalization against the winning elite and its cosmopolitan culture. Thinkers on the more speculative spectrum, such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, have pointed out how the left in recent times has reduced itself to a defense of the status quo versus barbarism, fundamentally a non-position versus a position of change, regardless of the merits of that position, which both criticize. It is also an alternative to the vision of Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner.

In any case, in the aftermath of complex and profound analyzes of Bolsonarism and Lula's election,[iv] one wonders whether there is anything in the findings of American researchers that can enrich our view of contemporary Brazilian politics and whether, reviewing these analyzes in their light, we can elaborate them in another way. Finally, there is the suggestion of an effort in this direction.

* Julio Tude Davila He is majoring in Social Sciences at USP and in Psychology at Mackenzie University.


[I] If I am not mistaken, something similar is said by Gabriel Feltran in his article “The value of the poor”. He argues that the dynamics between the three groups that dispute the order in the periphery, that is, the Church, the State and Crime, depend on the circulation and distribution of money in a satisfactory way for all. When this ceases, conflicts will be resolved on the basis of violence.

[ii] The working class, according to the authors' definition, is that which sells its work to receive an income. They then estimate how many households in the US depend on income and, through the census, arrive at the figure of 80%. That would be the American working class. They take issue with class analyzes that rely on income and education to assert what class is. These criteria would serve to distinguish different groups and sectors within the working class, but would not define a group as such. As an example of why their explanation makes more sense, they call attention to the large number of individuals with complete higher education who today work in jobs that do not require such training, or even those who have some type of postgraduate degree that are in this category. situation. Certain analyzes would place them as a distinct group from the working class, but the fact is that they also depend on the sale of their labor in exchange for income to survive.


[iv] We can cite Feltran's texts for the blog of New Studies, André Singer's analysis in the latest edition of New Left Review, the book by Rodrigo Nunes or the syntheses by Paulo Arantes, exhibited both in lives on YouTube and in the book edited by João Cézar Castro Rocha.

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