A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy

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Commentary on the recently released book by Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa

The importance of intellectuals and Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa's self-awareness are already indicated in the title of A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy. The wording, of course, refers to A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism, by Roberto Schwarz. The feature, however, does not imply similarity. If Schwarz's title advances the book's thesis and exposes his assessment of the critical potential of the mature writing of Machado de Assis, a peripheral writer at the height of the best central writers, Barbosa's brings three pieces of information: his political position ("reformist nationalist" ), the place where and about which he thinks and talks (“periphery of the system”) and what it is about, after all (“reflections on political economy”). We can go further and point out that the “nationalist” gives shivers to the author's orthodox peers, generally on the right of the political spectrum; the “reformist” generates discomfort among friends of the left, many of whom are sympathetic to the revolutionary cause.

As can be seen, the combination of this multiple information requires self-awareness. Typical of Machado's style, it is explained: “I write, therefore, from the periphery of this system, trying to capture its changing totality and its particular manifestation in a specific territory, where a capitalist and unequal society moves and history is always remade in different ways. peculiar way. Playing their tricks on us or, who knows, lurking for new utopian and dialectical potentialities” (p. 15). However, we are not facing the poisoned conscience of Brás Cubas or Bento Santiago, who sought to hide its class position under the universalist nihilism typical of the end of the 15th century. Here, self-awareness has precisely the opposite function: “In the additions of the second half, I made an inversion, with the aim of reinforcing the subject who speaks, from his place and worldview, which appear in the foreground, playing the theme addressed for the subtitle. Not that the subject is more important than what he says, but to emphasize that what is said always presupposes a position in society” (p. XNUMX). That is, nothing to hide, but to to reveal.

We undoubtedly find echoes of the contemporary discussion about the “place of speech”. The author's spirit open to social demands and cognitive influences contrasts with a science dominated by the universalism of neoclassical theory and a scientific environment in which its participants yearn for academic integration via the incorporation of the standards and requirements of the anglophone core countries. The courage to take a strong stand, even using Machado-like irony, draws attention and has consequences – well explained, for example, in a small and tasty trilogy of controversial texts inside the book. I am referring to “Economic debate in Brazil and its ghosts”, “The economic aristocracy” and “The smokescreen of 'deindustrialization'”, in which the author argues with the positions of Brazilian economists of the right and left.

As in your previous book, Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia (Alameda), the nexus that binds the “short stories”, “chronicles” and “novels” of A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system it is the pair “nationalism” and “reforms” – which discreetly takes the place of the concept of “development” used in the previous book. Author inconsistency? Not likely. Implicit in the subtle displacement is the thesis that articulates the essays gathered in this book: we fall short of the category of “development” (or rather, developmental Brazil) because we lack a project, interpretation and utopia. From this angle, the books complement and oppose each other. In one, there is an in-depth examination of an earlier historical period in which development was ongoing; in the other, which encompasses the immediate roots of our present, a regression of our horizons of expectations is marked, followed by their (momentary?) annulment from the coup of the impeachment by Dilma Rousseff in 2016. It remains to ask: how did the past turn into the present? We will return to the point below.

On a thematic level, the connection between the two books occurs through the “novela” entitled “Rômulo Almeida and Jesus Soares Pereira: the long and difficult birth of Petrobras”, originally written to compose the author's thesis, but which, due to editorial reasons, it ended up not being published in book format. It is not the case of going into the intricacies of the author's closed argument about the genesis of the Brazilian oil company, but of pointing out how the argument developed there summarizes the main points of the author's style of thought. In the first place, from the problematic of development, the link between issues of the past and the present, objectively suggested by the very historical context in which the research was developed and subjectively by the orientation of its author.

Additionally, and taking us back to the place of intellectuals, the distance that Barbosa establishes in relation to Oil and nationalism (1968), by Gabriel Cohn – by the way, author of a brilliant Preface to The developmentalist Brazil. “If Cohn is right in explaining the specific rationality that characterizes technicians, he seems to lose sight of his fidelity to the political cause at stake” (BARBOSA, 2021b, p. 331). If Cohn's position incorporates the teachings of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim, fundamental in USP's sociology under the baton of Florestan Fernandes, Barbosa's perspective on intellectuals goes in another direction, perhaps better understood in the light of his inventive perspective - and , as already mentioned, instrumental – on Antonio Gramsci's reflections on the subject. The difference, however, between Cohn's and Barbosa's perspectives does not come from a priori choices, but is the result of research. As the author points out, “the only one among these groups that mediated technically, politically and ideologically with all the others was precisely the one formed by the Presidency's Economic Advisory”, of which Almeida was a member (BARBOSA, 2021b, p. 332).

Around the dilemmas of national development orbit Barbosa's other interests. Therefore, his interest in the theoretical perspective developed by Fernand Braudel may seem surprising. For a historian concerned with the contingencies of the political struggle, would it not be strange to be interested in the “world-economy” and in the “long-term”? The matter deserves debate. But the fact is that, in connection with Latin American structuralism, Barbosa uses the teachings of the Braudel school to establish local connections with the global historical dynamics of capitalism. Even more: the very definition of capitalism with which the author works is Braudelian (cf. “Global crisis of capitalism or reorganization of the capitalist world-economy?”), which allowed him to polemicize with the “mercadista” perspective of Gustavo Franco ( cf. “Yes, we need to talk about capitalism”). The author's attention to the rise of China, long before the current interest, also dialogues with this tradition, as revealed in the enthusiastic review of Giovanni Arrighi's book Adam Smith in Beijing (Cf. “What did Adam Smith go to China for?”). What is at stake here is essential: what is the relationship between capitalism and the market?

However, the core of the book's strength lies in the writings dedicated to the national dilemmas that arose during and after the period marked by governments led by the Workers' Party (PT). To them, Barbosa shows a particular mixture of sympathy and criticism. The first appears in the articles dedicated to the critique of liberal macroeconomic interpretations (cf. “The Lula government and the middle class” and “O Brazil, in the view of the English magazine The Economist,”). The second arises when the economic policies of Lula and Dilma are examined (cf. “Levy or not Levy: That is not the question!”) or even the demobilizing dimension of PT mandates (cf. “And if we manage to stop the coup? What do we do?”).

What about the situation? In a world dominated by catchphrases, simplistic reasoning, memes and thumbs, Barbosa's position could easily be interpreted as incoherent. However, this is not the case. And the defense of a complex and multidisciplinary thought appears in critical dialogues with the right and also with leftist intellectuals (Cf. “'The foolishness of intelligence' or the debt of vice to virtue”). This difficult position perhaps explains the author's emphasis on making his self-consciousness explicit.

“Difficult” because, while realizing the popular dimension of PT governments, it does not close its eyes to its limits. To point them out - that's another difficulty! – Barbosa sees himself in the (Romulian?) attempt to articulate realism and utopia. Example: “And to ensure a minimum of rationality at the end of President Dilma's term, an essential condition for recovering economic growth and confidence in the country. The non-regression today is the great goal [...]. It is a pragmatic position as the moment demands. […] Should we, then, give up utopia? No, utopia must begin to be built right now” (BARBOSA, 2021b, p. 94).

The various arguments presented by Barbosa about the period merit detailed discussion. Faced with the impossibility of taking it forward, he chooses an argument to examine: that we would be, from 2016 onwards, in a historical process from which a new political regime, the “lumpencracy”, will emerge. It does not seem by chance that the text is the last of the first part, as a kind of synthesis of the history of the present in Brazil (cf. “A lumpencracia”)

Inspired by Hannah Arendt's famous question about totalitarianism – how to understand what could never have happened? –, the author discards notions such as “populism”, “fascism” and “nationalism” as theoretical tools to interpret our present. It is in their place that he coined the provocative concept of “lumpencracy” – “as an invitation to reflection through a stylized synthesis, literally making use of the reduction to the absurd” (BARBOSA, 2021b, p. 191). In other words, we would be facing a new regime, headed by provisionally by various “lumpen” sectors that, united, would have managed to implode the Brazilian political system.

Why "temporarily"? Because, resorting to a Marxist reasoning, Barbosa notes that: “the association [is] more symbolic than real between the various lumpens does not generate awareness. Nor is it a question of false consciousness, as it does not even contain ideology. The stupidity displayed by its representatives comes from the subconscious that makes them burp the viscera of our national malformation. Common sense, made up of the idiosyncrasies of these class or caste outcasts about an idealized past, is what binds. Its language is a quilt made of traumas and prejudices, sewn to the image and likeness of our deformed social fabric erected on the altar of inequality” (p. 192-3).

The hypothesis gives food for thought. Several authors diagnosed the end of the New Republic, although in different ways. There is evidence strong enough to support the thesis – the conspiracy against Rousseff, the anti-republican role of forces in the Judiciary, the inflection of the Brazilian bourgeoisie, the rise of the extreme right as an electoral force, the organization of the Centrão, etc. In one way or another, the “lumpens” that Barbosa refers to are dispersed, but associated, among such political forces.

Another issue, however, concerns the rise of such groups. If it is not the case of “requiring” the author to make a strong thesis about it in a conjuncture article, it can be suggested that it would be the case of explaining why and how these groups were formed and united. After all, for 14 years, the PT ruled the country – including with the help of some of the sectors that would later stab it. There is, then, a rich investigation agenda to be done.

All in all, how did we get? From what we saw, we are facing an intellectual engaged in recovering the way of thinking and acting of a group of economists from “developmental Brazil” left aside by many of their peers, including those on the left. “Recovery” that does not only imply a meticulous reexamination of the founding classics, but takes them as inspiring contemporary attempts to reinterpret the past and the present, in search of a future (Cf. “From the expansionary cycle to fiscal adjustment: a structuralist interpretation) . Drawing on them, the author connects theory, history and politics, making economic history a living discipline, questioning the enigmas that are reconfigured in each historical cycle.

Like Rômulo Almeida and the other developmentalists of the period 1945-1964, Barbosa is aware of the collective dimension of the analytical and political task that was and was placed for the left (cf. “Being leftist in Brazil today”). Yes, “task” in the singular, as we have seen that the author maintains, at all times, the connection between project, interpretation and utopia. One of the results of this awareness is the organization of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory “Rethinking development” at IEB-USP, a lively group in which researchers and activists from the most diverse areas and specialties gather, all dedicated precisely to thematizing, with freedom and openness of spirit, this concept-problem that synthesizes the national aspiration for a more egalitarian country.

Navigating against the current of departmentalization of the spirit and the narrowing of our intellectual and political horizon, the welcome breadth of the intellectual project embodies questions that should be better examined. One refers to “nationalism”. At a time when the universalism implied in globalization enters a crisis and the discontented “old” and “young” react with xenophobic and exclusionary nationalist flags, what is the place Historical of a nationalism on the left?

Barbosa recognizes the problem. While he asserts that “nationalism seems thing of the past”, he asks himself “what does being a nationalist in Brazil in the 2021st century mean?”, and then concludes that “this question is worth more than any possible answer” (15b, p. XNUMX). Exercising his self-awareness, the author himself admits that the question “reveals a resistance to giving up a noun whose meaning can and should be re-signified in our contemporaneity” (ibidem). It would be appropriate to broaden the inquiry, at the risk of prematurely cutting off the movement of reflection. How can we know that it “can and should be re-signified in our contemporaneity” if we don't know what it is? As explained, wouldn't the thesis have become a premise, reversing the flow of reasoning?

Among the concrete resonances of the problem, the fundamental question would be the following: what does “nation” mean today? As mobilized, would “nationalism” not imply an acceptance of the stability of a specific political form – state and national – that may be in crisis? What are the prospects of non-central states in the face of the growth of global technology companies, perhaps capable of manipulating elections? Ultimately, would capitalism not erode the state arrangement, on which, contradictorily, it feeds financially and politically?

These questions lead us to others, more directly linked to the Brazilian situation. For example, in “The lack of a national project”, Barbosa affirms and asks himself: “the expansionary cycle of the Lula Government had everything to launch a national project of strength. Why didn't you?” (BARBOSA, 2021b, p. 85). Further on: “It was time, if […] we had structured a national project, with a social base, regional roots, State reform and concrete actions in terms of internal and external policy, with the objective of development with the expansion of citizenship.” (idem, p. 86).

It remains to be understood: why was there no jump? The question is complex and deserved the attention of one of Barbosa's inspirations (cf. the essay “O Momento Lênin”, by Francisco de Oliveira). The answer does not matter for the eventual moral problem of the leaders of the Lula government, as pointed out by most of his critics on the right and left, but for the political problem that it articulates: given the structural conditions and the “right actors at the right time”, what missed? Would the intellectuals eventually responsible for formulating this project have missed their encounter with History?

At the end, these – quite incomplete – notes return to where they started: peripheral countries are demanding with their intellectuals. These are not allowed to give up points, as Barbosa's books show.

*Leonardo Belinelli holds a doctorate in political science from USP, associate researcher at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Culture (CEDEC) and editor of the Brazilian Journal of Bibliographic Information in Social Sciences (BIB/ANPOCS).

Originally published on New Moon Newsletter.



Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system: reflections on political economy. Belo Horizonte, Fino Traço /IEB-USP, 2021, 408 pages.


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