Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos – IV

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The book that Wanderley did not dedicate to his grandchildren

In the little more than fifty years that separate the military coup of 1964 and the parliamentary coup of 2016, Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos built a solid academic career and became one of the most important Brazilian political scientists. In fact, it was already before 1964, more precisely in 1962, that he attracted attention with his Who will carry out the coup in Brazil?, published in the collection Notebooks of the Brazilian People from Editora Civilização Brasileira. Exactly fifty-five years after that book, in 2017, Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos published Impeded democracy: Brazil in the XNUMXst century.In it, the author analyzes a new form of taking power, the parliamentary coup, which differs from the classic Latin American format of the military or civil-military coup. Questioning the nature of the parliamentary coup, the 2017 book points out at least one common denominator in the events of 1964 and 2016, while its main intention is to expose their differences. Following Wanderley's death, aged 84, in 2019, three texts were published on the website the earth is round about his life and work: that of Candido Mendes deals with his academic career, while those of Ricardo Musse e Christian Lynch approach, respectively, their collections Decades of amazement and a democratic apology (1998) and The Brazilian political imagination: five essays in intellectual history (2017). My intention here is to discuss, from The hindered democracy, Wanderley's conception of a parliamentary coup and the author's interpretation of its outcome in Brazil.

Wanderley defines a parliamentary coup as “a fraudulent replacement of rulers orchestrated and executed by parliamentary leaders” (p. 31). If the process “formally obeys the letter of the laws in force in the country”, what gives it the characteristic of a coup is the “use of the mechanisms of normal operation of the institutions in favor of illegitimate objectives” (p. 32). According to the political scientist, the parliamentary coup is a form of taking power in tune with contemporary mass democratic societies. Wanderley's theorization about the parliamentary coup takes Brazil as an example and model – the analysis of “impeded democracy”, in the title, is based on “Brazil in the 187st century”, in the subtitle. However, although anchored in the Brazilian reality, the author presents the parliamentary coup as a procedure that should become a trend from now on in contemporary democracies. Our author writes: “Brazil will not remain alone in the series of parliamentary coups with constitutional blessing. It is only announcing the democratic vicissitudes of the XNUMXst century” (p. XNUMX).

According to Wanderley, the 2016 Brazilian parliamentary coup “differs essentially from the illegal government occupation attempted in 1954, as much as from the vulgar, albeit victorious, 1964 barracks” (p. 46). His analysis emphasizes the major changes Brazil has undergone over the past five or six decades, transforming infrastructure and political competition in the country. The path that led Brazil to become a complex mass democracy included three phenomena that the author considers to be far-reaching: a leap in the degree of urbanization, a significant increase in the size of the electorate (accompanied by high participation in elections) and expansion of the social mobilization that went hand in hand with a pluralization of interests and groups constituted to defend these interests. In view of these processes, Wanderley concludes that, “[i]n theory, societies as mature as the one in Brazil today make it difficult to re-enact coup adventures such as that of 1964”, so that “it is worth describing the political operations responsible for the assault on power in 2016 in tune with other capitalist societies and governed according to the principles of representative democracies, without resorting to military interventions and transgressions typical of the Latin American past” (p. 65).

This emphasis placed on the changes that have taken place in Brazilian society, especially since the second half of the twentieth century, is opposed to what the author classifies as “diagnoses of centuries-old immobility”, which do not distinguish transformations “since the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral, except for worse, in descriptions of dubious humor” (p. 139). The theoretical-methodological stance that animates the book and underpins Brazil's comparison with other democratic countries is summarized in this passage: "Despite the prestige of some [interpretations that bet on immobility], I regard such analyzes as futile and regard them as It is accepted that Brazilian society is contemporary with the 139st century, sharing the current disorders with most representative democracies, including the presence of traces of the representative oligarchy, which preceded them all” (p. XNUMX).

But what troubles are these? This is what Wanderley calls the reverse effect of democratic practice. The thesis is that, in democratic societies, the success of groups organized for the defense of interests stimulates the formation of other groups, so that, by “passively stimulating organizational proliferation, the reverse effect of democracy increases the number of potential dissatisfied with decisions taken in the future, regardless of the present collective well-being produced by the adopted policies” (p. 151-152). Or, as Wanderley summarizes in another passage: “in representative democracies, the number of interests thwarted is potentially greater than the number of interests served” (p. 156). The proliferation of interest groups and their competition mean that, if for one or more groups this or that measure is received as a victory or an achievement, it is at the same time seen by many others as a setback. The reverse effect of democratic practice is not manifested because the latter does not work, but because “it cannot, in periods of cumulative production of wealth, and as much as austerity policies, equally serve everyone” (p. 128).

Our author draws attention to the fact that this trap mounted at the heart of modern democracies had already been identified by Tocqueville. However, in the historical course of the 20th century, competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and the advent of the Welfare State were able to lessen the production of reverse effects in democracies. For Wanderley, it is firstly with the end of the Soviet system at the end of the last century, and then with the international crisis of capitalism in 2007-2008 that the “historic victory of interest systems” (p. 129) and the “replacement of the well-being society by the society obsessed with permanent accumulation” (p. 131). The parliamentary coup is a phenomenon that emerged following the crisis of the late 2000s as a device used by the “world conservative reaction”, which has managed to “prevail over attempts to reformulate schemes for the accumulation of wealth and power” ( p. 44). With the 2016 parliamentary coup, Brazil aligns itself, through this “recent political innovation of capitalism”, with the “reactionary pattern of the modern world” (p. 132). The meaning of the 2016 coup was none other than to unblock the game of competing interests – a competition in which, as Wanderley well notes, the firepower of capital is much greater than that of workers and subalterns in general – of that that appeared as ties or obstacles: social policies and economic inclusion of the poorest.

And it is precisely this point that constitutes the common denominator of the coups and attempted coups of the 1950s and 1960s and of the 2016 coup: “a clear reaction by conservatives to popular participation in public life and active rejection of policies with a strong social content” ( p. 33), or, as the author also writes, “rejection of the economic and social progress of the vulnerable classes” (p. 42). According to Wanderley, in the heyday of national-developmentalism in the 1950s and 1960s, the Brazilian bourgeoisie embraced the nationalist rhetoric to some extent, which was no longer the case in the PT cycle from the 2000s onwards. maximize its own benefits to the detriment of improving the standard of living of the population as a whole, the Brazilian history of the last six decades shows that “in critical moments the preferential path of the business community has been to ally with conservatism” (p. 147). This was the case both in 1964 and in 2016. As the political scientist states, even though in 13 years of government, the Workers’ Party has not broken promises, other than those made precisely with the workers themselves, the “business community preferred a radical solution to face the consequences of the world crisis, considering it impossible to continue postponing them” (p. 180).

This radical solution, the parliamentary coup, “was not created by any conspiracy worthy of the word”, having resulted from the “convergence of vetoes by relevant political agents, in operations decided autonomously, but with a coincidence of objectives” (p. 182). The parliamentary coup is based on a tripod composed of the legislative power, by operators of the judiciary and by the press. The legislature has the role of conducting the process of dismissing the representative elected by the ballot box, while the judiciary is responsible for ensuring the “enthronement of the [new] government’s arbitrariness as a fair right” (p. 184) and the press to take care of “the agitation and propaganda of the legal and legitimate character of the coup-like exercise of usurped power” (p. 183-184). As a “seizure of the constituent power of the people in the declaration of principles of the government pact”, the parliamentary coup in mass representative democracy societies does not get rid of the Constitution in force, but proceeds with a reinterpretation and “innovative applications” of its chapters (p. 183). Even if “assumed violence against opponents” does not take place, to the distortion of constitutional norms is added the replacement of state officials who do not support the coup, not to “recover a supposedly neutral Weberian bureaucracy, expelling supposed sympathizers of the overthrown government”, but with a view to precisely “partisanizing the main operators of the machine, minimizing the risks of internal opposition to the commands of the Chief Executive and his General Staff” (p. 184).

The new holders of power are not interested in “sponsoring lengthy public debates on the changes they wish to introduce in the country's legal structure” (p. 186). In fact, in addition, Wanderley's thesis is that “the parliamentary coup is obliged to suspend the public criteria of objectivity” (p. 187). In view of the connection established by the author between the parliamentary coup and the suspension of public criteria of objectivity, we can interpret the context of the 2016 coup, as well as that of the period immediately preceding it, as conducive to the increase in importance and dissemination post-truth and fake news, which have since been presented as alternatives to arguments based on factual evidence and the results of scientific research. Material objectivity is replaced by “private versions, with those brushstrokes of realism that good ideologies boast of” (p. 187). According to our author, the parliamentary coup, which began as an “institutional kidnapping crime” and ended with the “privatization of objectivity”, constitutes a new chapter in the historical tensions between capitalism and mass democracy (p. 187).

Wanderley Guilherme do Santos' intention to elaborate a theory whose explanatory scope refers to the set of contemporary mass democracies, and not just to Brazil, shows that the author does not assume the subordinate peripheral condition according to which Brazilian authors produce thought social and political, not theory social and political[I]. It seeks to carry out a theorization of a universal nature from the periphery and the Brazilian case. However, this effort does not dialogue with Brazil's position in the capitalist world system, its dependent character that follows its status as a colony, and the forms of domination and social and racial hierarchies reproduced, albeit reformulated, after Abolition and throughout industrialization and urbanization of the twentieth century. For, if, as Wanderley very well points out, Brazil has not been frozen in time since the arrival of Cabral, it remains to explain the virulence of the reaction of its elites and middle classes to the social, political and economic integration of the masses, which led to the 1964 coup , the 2016 coup and the 1954 quasi-coup. The hindered democracy certainly has a relevant place in the list of interpretations about the 2016 coup in Brazil – after his death last year, the family found files that indicate that Wanderley had prepared a book on the current Brazilian political moment, already taking into account the result of the elections in 2018. Perhaps it was the bitter need, fifty-five years after Who will carry out the coup in Brazil?, having to write another book about another coup in the country that led Wanderley not to dedicate The hindered democracy to her grandchildren: “I wanted to dedicate a study of mine to Luiza, Elisa and André Guilherme, but the somewhat melancholic air of this topic hindered democracy it is incompatible with their and his beauty and liveliness” (p. 10).

*Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Author, among other books, of Negativity and rupture: configurations of Robert Kurz's critique (Annablume).

The author thanks Fabiano Guilherme Mendes Santos for kindly clarifying some doubts, at the same time that he exempts him from any responsibility for the final result of this text.


[I]On this topic, see: LYNCH, Christian Edward Cyril. “Why thought and not theory? The Brazilian political-social imagination and the ghost of the peripheral condition (1880-1970)”. Data – Journal of Social Sciences, v. 56, no. 4, p. 727-767, 2013.

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