distrust policies

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


Vladimir Lenin, Erik Olin Wright and Luís Felipe Miguel

In recent weekends we have witnessed two electoral processes in two of the largest and main democracies in the West. The elections in the United States for president (vice, chamber and senate) and in Brazil for mayors and councilors throughout the national territory mark a context, each in its own circumstances, of profound uncertainties about politics in the respective countries. We don't know, for example, whether the intransigent American right and Trump will still be an effective political force, and even if the going of Biden and Harris to the White House will mean a time of real progressivism. In the Brazilian case, on the one hand, the question that intrigues is whether the left after the municipal elections will be able to place itself again as a relevant political actor after its dismemberment by the national right-wing forces and its project of refounding the country (in fact, a capitalist project of devastation of what remains of the Brazilian State of 1988), this at least in terms of some signaling, trends that are still fragile, etc.; on the other hand, the new organizational perspective with collective mandates, as well as a series of black candidates (especially black women) provides positive expectations in the conservative framework of our political institutions. If we have many uncertainties and uncertainties about the post-election scenarios of these two countries-continents with a slave social matrix, one certainty is possible. It is that in the next period for a critical, leftist and emancipatory perspective, within the scope of electoral politics and its concrete and immediate explanation in the Executives and, above all in the conformation of political representation, it is suggestive that we are under the sign of distrust. Policies of mistrust, of suspicion (Foucault will say), are what are suggested as the only certainty that, eventually, we have to cultivate.

The mistrust concerns the aspect of politics that has become the only feasible one since Francis Fukuyama's thesis of the end of history. This thesis was re-elaborated in the social sciences (political science and political theory), philosophy and history in the most varied, multifaceted ways; some more clearly like Samuel Huntington (The Third of Democratization), others with a more critical horizon, but subscribing to the immanent implication of the thesis. At this specific point, without much precision obviously, are such fundamental names in the academic and public debate on democracy as Bernard Manin, Nádia Urbinatti, Jürgen Habermas and Pierre Rosanvallon. Here it is necessary to observe “that there is a coefficient of friction inherent to every hegemonic order”[1], so that it is established, in transversal terms, asymmetrically force-ideas[2]. In terms of making history and the spirit of the time, the thesis was faithfully followed; in the western political landscape, a good part of the governments followed the arrangement of democracy organized by the mechanisms of electoral dispute, by the representation procedure and by the internal formalities of the parliament[3]. Borrowing Urbinatti's notion: the advocacy democratic has loci and own plot to be followed.

We are interested in the current historical and political circumstance, attenuated by the strength of the iron glove through which the public and sometimes academic debate apprehends its problems, suspecting this narrative and practice. It is not a question of proposing a destructive theoretical and political critique, a pointless and sometimes dangerously naive rejection of both organized democracy based on electoral disputes, representation and parliament, as well as the parties, groups and figures that act, or tend to to act, with a certain predominance, within this political-institutional and political-state arrangement. It happens that if we do not reflect (and “act” for those who do – militancy in the broadest sense, let's say) with a view to a strategy of the policy of mistrust, we are wasting, once again, our impulses, energy and opportunities. If, we learned something from Machiavelli: it is that it is not always possible to remake the fortune. Three theorists from different moments in the social, political and intellectual history of the left can be read as exercising the politics of distrust. In their respective times, Lenin, Erik Olin Wright and Luís Felipe Miguel were architects of political suspicion.

Discussing intensely with Kautsky about the conditions to go to socialism, or even to achieve the concrete realization of conquests for the workers, Lenin will argue that even assuming the possibility of democracy in the realization of these, one cannot launch into the field of oblivion the “narrowness and relativity of parliamentarism [...]”[4], which comes into “blatant contradiction [with] formal equality” making it difficult to carry out the simplest proposals concerning the improvement of workers' lives. It is as if Lenin were warning that the arrangements of “democracy” block the very realization of democracy. Thus, it was (and is) necessary to insistently suspect the “old apparatus […] [state], [of] officialdom, [of] the privileges of fortune [that roam the corridors of parliament] [and of] relations [intrinsic between] ”[5] the political elite and interest groups. (That Schumpeter in one of his aphorisms[6] said that those who owned them could dispense with the political party.) It is evident that no one is politically and intellectually obligated to secure Lenin (Iná Camargo Costa, who this year released a book about the Russian and Brecht, is right to ironize that intellectual – today we say the technicians of practical knowledge – is terrified of revolution); it is only suggested that we realize the distrust he expressed when debating questions of democracy as a carelessly naive political and theoretical discourse. May the diverse collective mandates, feminists and blacks, leftist politicians starting in the profession of politician and interpreters leave a compartment of their minds (and convictions) empty so that critical suspicion can enter and make us reflect on Lenin's considerations.

On this track, Erik Olin Wright in Class, Crisis and State proposes an interpretation that combines, on the one hand, the criticisms of sociological theory and the revolution about the relationship between democracy, parliament, representation and bureaucracy, and on the other hand, how from this condition the left can act politically. One sees in Olin Wright the suspicion of political action within the framework of the capitalist state. The institutional entanglements and the organizational labyrinth are analyzed by the American sociologist, having the bureaucratic agent as their main effective expression. Hence, theoretical constructions that help us to remove the dust of naive trust from our eyes – obviously not everyone and in the circumstances we are debating is fundamental for the progressive political debate. Thus, understanding “the problem of bureaucracy”[7] has to be on the horizon of those who propose to carry out the “[political] struggle […]” in the context of the “internal structure of the State”[8]. And in the first half of the twentieth century, various social theorists, intellectuals, sociologists and politicians were faced in the practical world with the problem of the bureaucracy's relationship with parliament (and representation).

It was through two of them that Erik Olin Wright stimulated his creative mind – and that provokes us to distrust the constitutive instances of the modern State. Wright will say that in the theoretical and political interventions of Max Weber and Vladimir Lenin, who studied bureaucracy with concern, and the way it interacts in politics when standing in front of other institutions, we can find suggestive reflections that incite our critical suspicions. Now, Olin Wright apprehended precisely what was at stake in Weber's suspicion of the organizational relationship between bureaucracy and parliament: the German sociologist understood, from the beginning Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, the inexorable advance of rational public administration and its “purely technical aspects”[9]. To this extent; the practical result was or will be “the impotence of parliament”[10]. Why? The non-transferable specific knowledge, the boring routine in dealing with piles of documents, the indifference to the facticity of the policy and the exacerbated corporate ethos, esprit de corps, make the bureaucratic agent more “well prepared” in the governance of the modern State. And increasingly, says Olin Wright (via Weber), the bureaucracy tends to concentrate political-state decisions in its hands. This monopolized exercise of government is a “growing danger”[11]; whereby “the fundamental issue [of] the problem”[12] resided in how to control the bureaucracy within the state.

If conservative and liberal politicians, of the right, so to speak, who are always inclined to keep things in social and political life as they are and in a certain way are more able, have more competence and training, to deal with these circumstances surrounding the bureaucracy – what about new subjects and political subjectivities, and their transformative perspective? Political distrust is welcome in the current Brazilian scenario of a certain reorganization of leftist forces, at least at the institutional level. A speech and action that surrenders without questioning the conditions of representative-parliamentary politics could be deleterious in the near future. Weberian sociology tempered by the real utopianism of Erik Olin Wright inspires us about political suspicion. I have already addressed Lenin's concerns in the previous point. Here it is only worth mentioning the path opened by Olin Wright that the Russian theoretician and politician did not understand 1) the bureaucracy as if it only hindered the business of the ruling elite: the technical, routinized and specialized administration of the State “is functional for capitalism”[13] (as it strengthens the state machine). And that 2) the struggle, emphasizes Lenin, must be not against representative institutions and the elective principle[14] (these are irreplaceable), what is needed is to “reject” the regimental casa matas and the “innocuous” collusion of parliament – ​​it is necessary to make them, effectively, organs of the entire people. (In the final part, Erik Olin Wright presents some elaborations on leftist, socialist strategies for acting in the capitalist state; I only indicate his concern about not abandoning the streets, if not for another reason, for political support and organization of the left in the government and avoid its isolation[15].)

Our last theoretician of suspicion, artificer of the policy of mistrust, is the political scientist Luís Felipe Miguel. the teacher of University of Brasilia-UNB has been contributing for some time to opening cracks in the dense fog of the political and academic establishment. Some of his articles, published in scientific journals of the discipline of political science, try to question the working mechanisms of liberal-representative democracy and its contemporary theorists. Here I will just gloss over one of his works; Mechanisms of Political Exclusion and the Limits of Liberal Democracy. Felipe Miguel, a rare bird among his peers for not easily praising liberal democracy and political representation – as he does not accept the “naturalness of the mainstream of political science” when dealing with that – proposes an approach that departs from the relationship between democracy and domination[16]. In his terms: political and theoretical reflection cannot fail to give a detailed treatment of the “problem of domination”[17] Of what interests us specifically, he eloquently suspects both the formal equality and the effectiveness of representative institutions. To demonstrate to those who do not question the limits that domination imposes on liberal democracy and its instances of political representation, Felipe Miguel mobilizes three notions of critical social theory, namely: institutional selectivity (Claus Offe), the political field ( Pierre Bourdieu) and the material structure (violence) of the State (Nicos Poulantzas).

Now, those who will act in the next terms, be it the collective council, the feminists and black women (who gained greater projection and practical life), or the individual, and here we are talking about those effectively on the left, must have the political distrust that the The State and the representative institutions are not solely and exclusively managers and guarantors of welfare plans, today public policy, the magic password for the kingdom of heaven. Among the “functions of the State”[18], says Luís Felipe Miguel, is the “guarantee of the continuity of capitalist accumulation and [the mechanisms] of legitimizing the system”[19] through laws, speeches, government projects, etc. This implies the very limitation of the State: its actions become selective. Following the political scientist of UNB, the partial meticulous character of state institutions is forged precisely to reduce measures that favor the popular cause, so that demands and actions (even institutional ones) for “social transformation are the most compromised by the demand for bargaining and the production of consensus"[20]: two practical aspects of selectivity. In addition, representative democracy as a field of “struggle” requires certain behaviors – in the vocabulary of Pierre Bourdieu, mobilized by Luís Felipe Miguel, the political field wants to “adapt the forms of […] expression”[21] and performance “under penalty of being segregated”[22] by the rites and habitus (routinized) of the field. Indeed, Felipe Miguel distrusts certain institutional procedures that are considered natural and fundamentally necessary, say the establishment and the mainstream of the discipline, for the functioning of democracy. What is imposed, in fact, on groups, parties and individuals who want effective policies to solve the problems of the people (subalterns), is an “adaptation to the dominant discursive pattern”[23] on the one hand, and “the necessary effects of the [political] structure itself, functional for the […] reproduction and defining of the socially dominant meanings of politics and political action”[24] for another.

Finally, our political scientist's suspicions are directed towards the state organization itself specifically, seen uncritically by liberal, social democratic and Eurocommunist theorists. With a poulantzian approach, Miguel warns of “the codes of organized public violence”[25] with a significant “class bias”[26]. Thus – those who will act in the coming years in councils and municipal executives throughout Brazil must always be suspicious of the State as an organized force and power that uses violence. Now; “the poor sections of the population, for residents of the peripheries, for members of ethnic minorities [especially in a slave-owning society like Brazil] and, to a certain extent, also for youth, the materiality [and effectiveness] of the State continues to appear , above all, in the form of its repressive apparatus”[27].

The left is going through an incipient process of reorganization. It was crushed by the forces of the right and their blueprint for plunder capitalism (Robert Brenner[28]) highly violent, which has the bolsonarista block as a spearhead. But even the most solid groups and projects are liable to “fall apart”. In the 2020 municipal elections, we have a decisive event, in which the left perhaps started a new subjectivity (with women, blacks, black feminists, truly popular politicians, LGBTQ+'s and parties wanting to be the subject of social and political transformation). To sediment what Gramsci called split spirit with the current order; it is suggestive to look at the distrust policies of Lenin, Erik Olin Wright and Luís Felipe Miguel.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at USP.



[1] Config. Perry Anderson – Strength and Consensus. In: Counterstrikes: Selection of New Left Review Articles. Boitempo, 2006, p. 76.

[2] In Anderson's formulation of this construction he says that: “a discrepancy is embedded in the [hegemonic] harmony that it is its function to install” (Ibidem).

[3] There is a difference between political theorists cited in this excerpt.

[4] Config. Vladimir I. Lenin – The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Editora Ciências Humanas, 1979, p. 109.

[5] Ibidem, p. 110.

[6] See Joseph Alois Schumpeter – Aphorisms 24. In: Richard Swedberg – Schumpeter: a Biography. Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 201.

[7] Config. Erik Olin Wright – Class, Crisis and State. Zahar Editors, 1981, p. 16.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibidem, p. 163.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibidem, p. 165.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibidem, p. 175.

[14] Ibidem, p. 177.

[15] VIEW Oops. cit. pp. 199-224.

[16] Config. Luís Felipe Miguel – Mechanisms of Political Exclusion and the Limits of Liberal Democracy. New Cebrap Studies, nº 98, 2014, p. 146.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibidem, p. 149.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibidem, p. 154.

[21] Ibidem, p. 152.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibidem, p. 153.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 156. The passage is actually from Nicos Poulantzas.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] On the notion of plunder capitalism see Robert Brenner – Escalanting Plunder. New Left Review, nº 123, May/June, 2020. devastation capitalism of social rights and public organizations, to the detriment of those marginalized by the system, with a view to supporting, via public-state engineering and specific laws (in the American case, voted by Republicans and Democrats) the liquidity of the financial, banking and large conglomerates shaken since 2008 and now impacted by Covid-19, also works in the context of Brenner's approach. In the American case with the coronavirus dealt with in the text, the value of absorptions by the FED de Bonds of private corporations and the order of the unimaginable and scandalous to any mind that can still reason.

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