A reformist nationalist on the periphery of the system



Author introduction to newly released book

Like chronicles, short stories and novels

The first thing we think of when we start writing a book is the title. As we struggle and things take shape, the title adapts. But the title also sets the tone that we want to convey to the work. In this case, as the book is a collection of texts of various types written at different times, barely knowing that one day they would keep each other company, the title plays a special role. It serves as a solder to give them meaning and unity.

So every word in the title has a reason to be there. Let's go then. Let's start with the subtitle. Why “reflections”? Because most of the articles were written in the heat of the moment, to participate in the debate or to launch hypotheses to be deepened later, in order to acquire greater scope. The reflections refer, therefore, to something provisional. But what in life stays and what is provisional? Who decides? Or rather, what would happen next if reflections did not prepare the ground for it? In certain cases, it may happen that the reflections are valid by themselves. They allow us to organize our ideas and keep us from sinking into everyday chaos.

But what reflections are these? Most of the text in the book discusses economics and politics. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are about “political economy”, which means more than two nouns put together. It is one of those cases where the sum of two plus two equals five. Because it is not a question of addition, but of interaction, thus subverting the laws of arithmetic.

Political economy belongs to a tradition that comes from Smith, passes through Marx, and in the XNUMXth century opens up several paths with the contributions of Keynes and Schumpeter, Celso Furtado and Albert Hirschman, and many others. It is a question of thinking society from the perspective of the economy, and vice versa, emphasizing the tensions that manifest themselves in terms of politics and ideology. The destiny of my intellectual practice wanted me to be affiliated with this tradition from the beginning.

The title, on the other hand, brings to the scene the subject who produces the reflections, revealing his place and his convictions. For there is no neutral thought. In the specific case, the university professor who wrote the present book is an extemporaneous specimen. This is evident in the “nationalist” and the “reformist”.

Nationalism seems to be a thing of the past and reveals the author's dialogue with Brazilian and Latin American thinkers who wrote between the 1940s and 1970s, with the aim of updating his perspective. What does being a nationalist mean in Brazil in the XNUMXst century? That question is worth more than any possible answer. It reveals a resistance to giving up a noun whose meaning can and should be re-signified in our contemporaneity.

The “reformist” seems very current. But here the tradition to which I am linked is that of the left, seduced by the debate between reform or revolution, whose origin dates back to the 1950th century. Or, closer to us, it refers to the debate about the need for basic or structural reforms, as requirements for anchoring economic development in society, politics and the national territory. The objective was to ensure, in Brazil in the 1960s and XNUMXs, an economy equipped with minimally autonomous decision-making centers and a fairer and less unequal society. In Brazil of any period, this is almost a revolution.

Therefore, nothing to do with the backwards basic reforms advocated by liberal and orthodox economists, alien to any interpretation of how capitalism works in Brazil. They resort to an uninterrupted parade of reforms – labor, social security, administrative, tax, the State – that magically inaugurate the chimera of a “modern” and “competitive” economy. They do not start from reality, but fill the mouth with ready-made phrases taken from foreign manuals, not applied even where they were written. There is no notion of process, which requires understanding the past to forge alternatives for the future. They live in an eternal present, flaunting their fantasies of colonized automatons.

“System periphery”? Yes, because the system is called capitalism, not as an abstract and demonic monolith to be sacrificed on the altar of the generalized revolution of all against a few, but as a concrete totality that needs to be unraveled in its various manifestations in space.

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 a peculiar way. Playing their tricks on us or, who knows, lurking for new utopian and dialectical potentialities.

I make a confession here. In the additions of the second half, I performed an inversion, with the aim of reinforcing the subject who speaks, from his place and worldview, which appear in the foreground, bringing the theme addressed to 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.

But what about this somewhat unusual introduction: “in the manner of chronicles, short stories and novels”? Does the claim hold up? It will be up to the reader to say so.

I provide my justification essay below. First, it's a joke. But like all jokes, it has something serious about it. I'll just inform you that before embarking on this play on words, I consulted Fernando Paixão, professor of Brazilian literature at the IEB. One of the disciplines that the dear friend, in addition to being a poet, teaches is precisely “The art of short stories and chronicles in Brazil”. I started watching his lectures to see if it made any sense. I even reveal that, after informing him of my intention, my dear friend was reticent about my undertaking. Therefore, he is not to blame for anything.

As I deduced from his teachings, the short story is a brief literary form in which everything converges to a central idea, which is resolved when it ends. It is about establishing a plot, which can only be sustained if the careful narrator acts as a central operator of its internal dynamics. The principle of textual economy is a characteristic element of the short story, guided by tension and suspense.

The chronicle, on the other hand, is a more unpretentious form, where the subjective and everyday element of the chronicler looms large, guided by a singular event – ​​however fortuitous it may be – in his eagerness to communicate with readers of the written press, at least in the context of the XNUMXth century . The chronicler's gaze predominates in the plot, which does not need suspense nor does it require a story. The script takes the form of a conversation, hence its informal tone, of someone establishing a relationship of complicity with the world around them. This is what gives this brief form its sociocultural function.

In general terms, this is what I extracted from the chronicle and the short story as literary genres from classes with Fernando Paixão. Someone might say that the only similarity with the chronicles and short stories organized here is the fact that their author – a professor of economic history and political economy, as well as a reformist nationalist writing from the periphery of the system – was a frustrated literati.

It's quite possible. But I still think it's appropriate to use these short forms to classify the articles that follow. I also teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses, conduct research and participate in seminars in Caruaru, Shanghai, La Paz and New York. However, I am tired of living with so many academic heroes who flaunt their Lattes and Google scholars and participate in international research networks where Brazil appears as another CASE​. I am an intellectual, I aim to change the world and the nation, whatever it may be, because this is my space of action.

I know my limitations, but I don't give up. Writing articles for intervention in the public debate is part of my job, and I don't care if I get paid for it or not, as I've heard people say around. I try to understand the dilemmas of contemporary Brazil and I do so with enthusiasm and a sense of militancy.

I would like to take this opportunity to say that all the articles grouped into these two large groups – chronicles and short stories – were published in newspapers, magazines, sites, academic journals or books.

The chronicles were written over a period of nearly twenty years and are organized in chronological order. They all try to situate a singular episode, through which I provide a more or less free interpretation, aimed at a wider audience of non-economists. I tried to reveal hidden layers of certain phenomena in order to shake up social and political agents beyond the university. They have a more argumentative logic and fulfill the role of carrying out a political critique on themes of national and international life that sometimes seem distant from the daily lives of readers. If the chronicles have any value, it resides in the tension with the historical context in which they were written.

What moves me is the desire to share ideas about Brazil and the world in the most direct way possible, capturing the public's attention. In this sense, the use of rhetoric and colloquial language are resources to build a relationship of complicity with those who read the articles, no matter if there are many or few. One reader is enough, however much we hypothetically work with an imaginary community of readers.

Not all short articles written for the press in the chronicle category during the period covered, from 2004 to 2021, are published here. I have made a careful selection. In these articles, I believe I managed to articulate my vision of the moment with history in flux, regardless of the subsequent outcome of events.

The topics addressed cover a large arc in which Brazil is at the center of the scene, whether through social dynamics, the complex relations between the State and the economy, its position in the changing international system, the conjunctural political tensions analyzed from its class content, concepts handled by intellectuals and the media with a strong ideological bias. Here it is worth a reminder: ideology is never the problem, at least when made explicit and confronted with the reality that one intends to transform.

There is also a concern to recover certain coordinates of the historical process to investigate the economic and social structures that are resistant to change, or that adapt to it in an adaptive way. Without leaving aside a perspective of structural transformation based on the action of certain sectors of society, positioned on the left of the political spectrum or potentially mobilized towards a national development project in the long term.

Such rescue does not exempt me from making a self-criticism of the left precisely because I position myself as a “chronicler” of the left. Who writes from it and beyond it, and who wonders what it is to be on the left these days.

When compiling these chronicles, some changes in the scribe became noticeable, not just in terms of style and age, as it was necessary to deepen some themes and interpretations to capture the movement of Brazilian society in the post-coup period of 2016. The historical framework suffered a rupture, demanding a more accurate look from the analyst, even seeking a certain distance from the scene, so as not to be contaminated by the feeling of horror in the face of the political context. In times of crisis, it's no use throwing insults, because to overcome reality, we need to understand it: anyway, why did we get to this point?

I also realized that the 36 chronicles make up a reasonably coherent thought. After all, there comes a time in life when we see ourselves as leaders of cadres, and perhaps a source of inspiration for those who come later to build daring reflections beyond the disciplinary boxes.

Other changes can also be observed over the last twenty years, which affected both the political columnist and the Brazilian press in general. It is worth noting that the last article published in the mainstream press dates from 2014, when the big newspapers took the risky gamble of destabilizing the Dilma government and then more or less explicitly supporting the coup. From then on, there are two alternatives for a left-wing economist who aims to publish an article in the mainstream press: either he must be a columnist selected to provide the “credential” of false plurality; or his article, at best, is published on an ungrateful date after a wait of more than a month.

As none of these alternatives satisfied me, from 2015 onwards, all articles without exception were published in alternative press vehicles, the vast majority in the modality online, something I ended up getting used to after some reluctance. This is because writing for the press has always exerted a kind of fascination for young people “socialized” by reading journalists and writers from the pre-1964 period, when literary chronicles and politics reached their peak in Brazil.

If I didn't have the experience of newsrooms, with the ticking of typewriters and the smoky air, I soon came across the experience of having to write, by trade, short and direct texts, most of the time as ghost writer, for entities of the trade union movement, NGOs, consultancies and public power as a technical advisor. I was driven by the illusion that what I wrote could interfere with the nation's destinies. Illusion? Perhaps. Most likely the belief in the figure of the public intellectual and the engaged journalist, figures who withdrew from the historical scene.

As for the short stories, I present here four articles of greater scope in which hypotheses are raised and then verified from a globalizing perspective, in an attempt to capture the historical drama from the contrasting scenarios. I try to investigate dilemmas and contradictions and point out a certain direction of action on an aspect of reality, but without losing sight of other constraints.

Two of these texts were written in partnership with colleagues. Some contain easy-to-read graphics and bibliographic citations that help in the effort to situate and transcend the object of analysis. They refer to the Lula and Dilma governments, tracing macrostructural trends and placing Brazil in a global and comparative perspective.

Here, if the academic format predominates, sometimes making reading more monotonous, there is a thematic focus and a commitment to greater analytical depth. As in the short story, although the form is not literary, there is the enunciation of a conflict, without the pretense of its resolution. In addition to the multiple tensions and perspectives that the dissected issue raises, the collective character may perhaps find a light at the end of the tunnel.

The two soap operas stand out for their affiliation with historical time at an accelerated pace. The objective is to compose a plot with its various nuances, since the narrative is more important than the outcome. It must allow the apprehension of an experience. I gathered here the two texts that I most like to have written and never published in their entirety.

The first telenovela tells the story of how Rômulo Almeida and Jesus Soares Pereira conceived and created Petrobras during the second Vargas government. The narrative focuses on the company's conception moment and the long negotiation of the bill in Congress. It recalls a story that needs to be known at a time when the company runs the risk of being completely mischaracterized, losing its raison d'être.

The second novel provides a broad and detailed overview of the various conceptions of the “informal sector”. It reports how an innovative theoretical contribution, made from the concrete reality of the world of work in peripheral countries, is transformed into a generic and anodyne concept that serves the taste of any customer, usually wearing an imported costume.

With the exception of novels, unpublished and rewritten to integrate this book, all other texts are published in their entirety, with small editions that do not change the essentials. Even when I had changed my way of thinking – which left me tempted to rewrite certain passages – I preferred to let the ideas keep the patina of time without which they would not have seen the light of the world. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the proofreader Cláudia Rajão, who diligently and professionally corrected the text, adapting it to the current spelling system.

Of the 42 articles collected here, six were written in partnership with colleagues, who authorized their publication in book form. If these texts are quoted, I kindly ask that the texts be mentioned with all their authors, as well as the book of which they are part.

I confess that it was a pleasure and fun to write this introduction. If the reader does not like the analogy with literary forms, I ask you to consider this collection of short texts, not so short and longer, as my humble contribution to thinking about Brazil with boldness, militancy and a pinch of humor. After all, it doesn't hurt anyone.

*Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa is professor of economics at the Institute of Brazilian Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP). Author, among other books, of Developmental Brazil and the trajectory of Rômulo Almeida: project, interpretation and utopia (Alameda).



Alexandre de Freitas Barbosa. UA 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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