The End and the Beginning
“When I was young,” a grandmother says, “life was much easier.” How many times have we heard this proclamation? To paraphrase Charles Dickens: “It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times.”
These days, for those of us living in Brazil, it rings true. Social critics and economists, Brazilian and foreign, are declaring the country a disaster, caught in the middle of a “perfect storm” – political upheaval infused by economic instability.
In 2016, high unemployment entered the Brazilian daily diet along with a second-year running of negative GDP growth. Adding to the woes of the two-year recession is inflation, a full five points higher than the government’s goal. The next presidential election is in 2018, yet no one knows who will be president from now until then. The country is hosting the first-ever Olympics in South America being led by an Acting President.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors are buried in numerous corruption investigations. The two biggest – Lava Jato and Operation Zelotes – are ensnaring everyone from politicians to corporate CEOs, and the scandals show no signs of abating, thanks to the introduction of the plea bargain into the legal system. “They’re singing like canaries,” as they used to say in the American comics.
Additionally, an alteration in the criminal appeals process means that for the first time in Brazil’s history, wealthy white-collar criminals are going to jail, like billionaire Marcelo Odebrecht, CEO of Latin America’s largest construction company. Mr. Odebrecht has been in jail in Curitiba for over a year after being sentenced to 19 years by Judge Sérgio Moro. Meanwhile, the Odebrecht company is Brazil’s largest private sector employer.
Not a week goes by without new arrests in the corruption investigations. There have been so many arrests that critics have begun to ask if the judiciary has overstepped its bounds. In a country where 80 percent of murders go unsolved, hearing people say the judiciary is too strong is unsettling. It’s easy to believe the doomsaying grandmothers.
So what’s going on? Is the world spinning out of control? Is it the end of democracy? The end of oligarchy? Yes, what’s happening in Brazil is cataclysmic.
First, let’s understand that this perfect storm is not new to this century. It’s true life was less complicated in the past. There was less stress, and there were less decisions to make. On the other hand, grandmothers have been making the same pronouncements for generations. Viewed through the prism of nostalgia, life long ago always looks better. It’s easy to think we are living in the worst of times but impossible to prove that today is any crazier than in the past.
Certainly, the scandals being uncovered in Lava Jato and Operation Zelotes are horrendous and unprecedented in scale, which is saying a lot in Brazil. However, while Brazilians remind us that corruption is not exclusive to Brazil, they also privately confess that malfeasance has been endemic throughout the country’s history. Brazil’s battles with nepotism, kleptocracy, and impunity go back to colonial times. Monarchies, after all, are not known for their equitable systems of justice. A common expression still heard today to describe politicians is, Rouba, mas faz. (He steals, but he gets things done.)
Herein lies the crux of the issue – Brazil is a new democracy. As the 19th century British genius and political philosopher J.S. Mill pointed out, while democracy isn’t perfect, it’s far more egalitarian than monarchy. Democracy is the most complex system of government. Thanks to the power given to the federal judges, Brazil is taking its first steps toward ending its legacy of impunity for the wealthy.
During the 18th, 19th, and into the early 20th century, wealthy landowners in Brazil were called coronels. They were not military men, but were addressed by friends and foes as Coronel. They controlled huge tracts of land for their own economic benefit, establishing a tradition of capitalist domination of land use and exploitation of workers. The royal impunity of Brazil’s emperors was inherited by the coronels, such as Coronel Schmidt (1850-1924), a German immigrant who became known as the “King of Coffee.”
While it’s easy to disdain coronels and their macho arrogance, it’s historically naïve to do so. Coronels are a sign of democracy in its infancy, and they are hardly unique to Brazil or Latin America. A glance at US history reveals similar inequalities.
In the 1800s, America’s captains of industry, men like Ford, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt, operated much like coronels. Their political influence and exploitation of workers were comparable to Brazil. Professor Willard Thorp of Princeton University describes it: “Between the end of the Civil War and 1900, the US was transformed into an industrialized, urban society. Vast fortunes were being made in oil, meat packing, tobacco processing, steel, speculation in railroads and city transport lines. The owners of this new money spent their fortunes as they pleased. Many of them had made their way up by ruthlessly wiping out competitors and bribing public officials, from mayors to US senators. For the first time in America, extremes of wealth and poverty were visible. The rich had not yet isolated themselves in suburbia, and their castles in Chicago and New York were often only blocks away from teeming slums.”
It takes time to build a democracy, and the rich/powerful men who control an empire do not surrender their power willingly. That’s why today 50 percent of the land in Brazil is owned by 1 percent of the population. What happened in the US a hundred years ago is what is happening in Brazil – democratic principles are engaged in a desperate battle to triumph over oligarchy and defeat the culture of impunity. To put it another way, Brazil is not for beginners, as Tom Jobim said.
It’s worth remembering that while we all experience nostalgia now and then, the good old days included outhouses, barbers who pulled teeth without anesthesia, and the macho coronels. If you are still feeling nostalgic, we don’t need to look far today to find vestiges of the old coronels. American author Alex Cuadros published a book this month about Brazil entitled Brazillionaires: Wealth, Power, Decadence, and Hope in an American Country. Cuadros draws a clear parallel between Brazil’s billionaires today and the 19th century robber barons in the US, which is why he chose to put “American Country” in his title.
In an interview with journalist Glen Greenwald, Cuadros said: “Many Brazilians have this self-flagellating impulse to imagine their country as irredeemably corrupt. And it’s true that corruption is part of the culture here, going back to colonial days. But if you look at the 19th century US, our robber barons made and maintained their fortunes in ways that would be very familiar to a Brazilian today. Corruption was endemic; bribing officials was very normal, and legislators often took it upon themselves to blackmail businessmen.”
The suggestion of Brazil’s national inferiority complex was first presented by Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who called it the complexo de vira-lata, or stray-dog complex. Rodrigues coined the term after the 1950 World Cup, which was held in Brazil and ended in the country’s devastating loss to Uruguay in the finals. Rodrigues wrote that this complex is “the inferiority in which Brazilians voluntarily place themselves in front of the rest of the world.”
In my opinion, Brazilians need not be self-flagellating when it comes to corruption or impunity. It’s a vestige of colonial days, and hopefully, thanks to a strong federal judiciary and a more independent media and politically engaged populace, there is a viable path to taming corruption, although it’s not going to happen overnight. A case in point: Alex Cuadros still hasn’t found a Brazilian publisher for his book. There’s not one publisher in Brazil willing to print negative statements about Brazil’s billionaires.
It’s logical to assume that all eras of history have faced challenges. Thus, it’s normal and arguably healthy to dream of a better life. Every culture has a concept of paradise, perhaps as a stimulus against complacency and a motivation to pursue a better world for our children and grandchildren. It’s easy to understand the desperation of today’s headlines and the subsequent nostalgia. Just a few years ago, life was easier for most Brazilians.
Historians remind us there have been several periods of human history when the world convulsed, when mass change descended on a country or civilization without warning, forcing people to alter their lives. An example of such a convulsive age is the European Renaissance, when an explosion of ideas during a 100-year period changed the way humans viewed themselves and the world. New concepts disseminated by, among others, Leonardo Da Vinci, Martin Luther, Galileo, and the Spanish and Portuguese global explorers altered forever human behavior. Many historians credit the explosion to Gutenberg and his invention of the movable-type printing press, allowing for the dissemination of books. Before Gutenberg, the only reading materials were those reproduced by monks in the Catholic church, hand-copied religious tracts. Following Gutenberg, there were newspapers and pamphlets, and for the first time many people learned how to read.
Another example of massive and rapid transition in society is the Industrial Revolution. In the US and Brazil in the 1600s and 1700s, most people lived in rural areas and supported themselves through farming. During the Industrial Revolution, people left the farms and moved to urban areas to work in factories, manufacturing goods like steel and textiles.
Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock argued that while every era faces unique challenges, there have been a few periods in history when the world experienced extraordinary transitions that created cultural revolutions. The Renaissance and Industrial Revolution are examples, and today we are in the midst of another, the Technology or Information Age. Rapid changes are occurring in the way we communicate and the way we work.
The Technology Age, only a few decades old, has already initiated a shift away from manufacturing jobs to service-oriented economies. Urban populations are continuing to grow but instead of factories, more people work in offices. The manufacturing tasks are being automated by robots who don’t get tired or paid overtime. The Technology Age is supplanting the Industrial Revolution and opening up new vistas. There is an explosion of available information thanks to the internet, which is being democratically disseminated, and it is altering our world and ourselves as much as the Renaissance did.
While new technology and information may be exciting, it can also be frightening, especially for grandmothers who are less capable of adapting to rapid changes. When a new age dawns, the old ways disappear. New ideas and new inventions that force people to change their daily habits, like learning to use a different kind of phone, are not easy to accept. To enter a new era, something must be lost, and that’s cause for nostalgia, or worse.
So what lies ahead for Brazil? Like the rest of the world, Brazil is in the midst of a convulsion heralded by the information age. Added to this cultural transformation, there is political and economic turmoil. This combination has created a perfect storm, a witches brew stirring social unrest. While social unrest is frightening and can be dangerous if it turns violent, it is a logical response in times of massive transition.
With technology outpacing jobs, people who worked in manufacturing are unemployed. Men who built cars are not prepared to spend their work days sitting in front of a computer in an office. Where there is uncertainty about the future and unemployment, there will be social unrest, and we can see this all over the world. Youth unemployment is worst in the Arab countries, for example. Economic upheaval creates fear. In the US, the uncertainty and chaos of the Information Age has spawned the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who capitalizes on this fear.
We are in the midst of a new era, another social revolution, a cultural transmutation. The great question lies in which direction people choose to turn during this transitional era. When there are enormous changes in rapid succession, societies erupt, and in fear people look for simple answers to complex problems. People can adapt to change, but are less able and willing to do so when it’s forced upon them rapidly.
During these transformational times in history, filled with the uncertainty of social unrest, people overreact. Economic and political instability add fuel to the fire, and people and governments overcompensate. If people are convinced they are living in the worst possible age, their anger and frustration can lead to demands for firmer, militaristic control of society by the State. Transformations of entire cultures are by definition unstable, so the human response is to seek stability, however necessary. This is what happened during the Industrial Revolution in the US, when there was economic instability at the end of the 1800s. It also happened in Western Europe in the 1930s, in reaction to recession and hyperinflation, which lead to the rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and Spain. The political power of evangelicals in Brazil today is an example of this fear of instability, as is the Tea Party in the US. Some political observers fear that an election win in November by Donald Trump would signal the rise of fascism in the US. When unethical demagogues are given political power, there is the potential for fascism, such as with Brazilian congressman Jair Bolsonaro.
Brazil is poised on a precipice and has a choice. It can continue along the route of redefining and re-imagining itself as a living democracy, or it can overreact and fall prey to the easy answers and desperate motives of fascism, like 1930s Europe. The key is to stay calm and think clearly. If people recognize that we are indeed living through revolutionary times, far more challenging than usual, then we’ll realize that we can’t be in a hurry to solve our problems.
Unusual times call for unusual patience. Defeating impunity and corruption is a huge task. The fear and unrest and confusion we feel are natural responses to the growing pains associated with a young democracy, which is attempting to find its way in the midst of a new age, an information revolution as powerful as Gutenberg’s. We are living both at the end of an era and at the beginning.
B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Curitiba.