By Edgard Leite, PhD
Rio de Janeiro State University
Paulo Prado, in his Retrato do Brasil (Brazil’s Portrait) (1928), made a pessimistic analysis of the country:
“If we consider human groupings of average importance, Brazil ranks among the most backward. Brazil, in fact, does not move forward; the country lives and moves along as an ailing child that is fettered by an ill-developed and badly structured body”.
Such perception stems from a comparative analysis that can only be made by the foreignized, i.e., those who view Brazil from an external perspective.
The notion that Brazil “grows like an ailing child” comes from a frequently made comparison between Brazil and other countries and societies, particularly the US, and also the USSR in some other moments of history. Such comparisons are often based only on impressions, and are meant to explain Brazil’s growth difficulties.
It is known that such growth, particularly the US’, is not free from “pain” and moments of illness. It is clear now that the USSR could be considered to be seriously sick.
However, Paulo Prado guarantees that in Brazil’s case it was not about illnesses and pain, which are commonplace in the history of societies, but it rather involved a kind of organic evil, a congenital dysfunction.
When one looks at the US and its history full of ingenious moments, it becomes evident that Brazil has to face a series of hurdles yet to be overcome along its path to development.
From Oliveira Viana’s perspective, many farfetched and wild attempts have been made to keep Brazil away from the so-called “ailing bed”. However, as Paulo Prado puts it, because Brazil suffers of an incurable disease, it often returns to its continuous convalescence.
But is that really a disease? In reality, in order to follow into the US’ steps – the goal of so many nations – Brazil would have to be a different nation from what it really is.
In this sense, it is worth considering Vianna Moog’s book Bandeirantes e Pioneiros (Flag Bearers and Pioneers, 1954), whose comparative analysis between Brazil and the US, far from prescribing the way in which to become North American, shows relevant aspects of the essence of being Brazilian.
Moog avoids making generalizations but points to the fact that Portuguese colonization has different characteristics from the English colonization of North America.
As pointed by Moog:
“There are fundamental differences of motives in the settlement of the two countries: an initially spiritual, practical and constructive spirit underlying North-American colonization, as opposed to a predatory, extractivist and almost secondarily religious spirit in the development of Brazil”
This affirmation somewhat echoes the observations made by Caio Prado Junior in Formação do Brasil Contemporâneo (Formation of Contemporary Brazil) (1942) in which he defends that Brazil’s historical development takes on a sense given by the nature of its initial movement. And this sense does not aim at the development of society per se, but rather the development of other societies, the ones who exploit Brazil.
Moog, however, rather than taking into account such external determinism, which is so dear to Prado Junior, and to Marxism as well, defends the need to understand the role played by the settlers themselves.
Unlike Caio Prado, Moog is of the opinion that Brazilian profile is not determined by external movements. Rather, it is the inhabitants’ engagement with a particular project that determines the profile of the society which they build.
Thus, the bandeirantes, (“flag bearers”, pathfinders, prospectors and slave hunters) who are a real and symbolic representation of the character of the first settlers, are basically predators. Rather than being “explorers” in Caio Prado’s sense, that is, instruments of an abstract external European economic dynamics, they are squanderers, individualistic, builders of a society deprived of strong social or moral bonds.
Such character gives an egocentric profile to the society they built, a thesis that evokes an aspect of the reality envisaged by Sergio Buarque in his “cordial man”.
Therefore, the comparison with the North-American “pioneer” reveals all our peculiarities. In North America, the building of social relations, mediated either by laws or by networks of commitment, formulated the foundations of a solidary society.
In Brazilian society, all the predator wanted was to survive. Social commitments were vague and sometimes denied.
If that is Paulo Prado’s “ailing child”, this can only be true if we compare it with other models and choose the USA as a standard. However, such “ailing child” does not seem to have a fatal disease. It keeps on growing. Is that a disease? Or is that a rare peculiarity which the foreignized considers to be a pathology?
Such society, in which every instance higher than the individual, or social links, is often subverted, has been suffering, as Oliveira Viana puts it, of a deep delusion, at least ever since independence.
There is a great disparity between what one wants to become and what one really is. For instance, we have always found it extremely hard to understand what it means to have guaranteed rights.
Many think that because Constitutional States guarantee individuals’ autonomy the citizens are authorized to prey. The reason goes that as the State protects the right to property, it also protects people's rights to satisfying their individual desires, including their desire to be predators.
As Montesquieu once put it, there seems to be a general problem with Democracy. As equality is extended to everyone, virtue, that is, the willingness to rank social interests above individual ones, can be weakened because of the increasing value ascribed to individuals. Thus, corruption is established and becomes generalized.
In Brazil’s case, besides this general peculiarity, the predatory nature seems to have acquired a violent and intense nature in the democratic periods of our history precisely because of the growing strength of individualism.
The reason why Oliveira Viana admired the period leading up to independence was probably that the society of predators was run by people who relied on their predatory instinct and struggled for preserving rather than destroying it.
Democracy acts to limit the power of predatory individualism by granting emancipation to individuals, which has to be balanced with some moral autonomy. However, isn't it true that freedom paradoxically feeds predators in an extraordinary dimension, especially in countries deprived of moral guidance, like Brazil?
As a matter of fact, Montesquieu stated that the breakdown of democracies often leads to despotism. Brazil has, in its own way, always been like this, since colonial times.
The issue is that a society of predators, where individual rights are misunderstood, can only be run through an authoritarian policy.
There is always a paradoxical longing for a State that, rather than creating an empire of the law, can impose, through fear and coercion, a control on society’s individualistic dynamics, as well as on its destructive instinct.
Predators are maybe best governed by predators. It wasn’t by chance that the Vargas dictatorship and the military regime were periods of transformation and growth. All were subjected to and accepted the general operational guidelines and global projects.
It does not seem to be a problem if authorities are also predatory and become destructive to society through time. Montesquieu wrote about the limits to despotism.
In Brazil’s case, a predatory State cannot live long by running a society of predators. This predators resists a permanent intrusion of their freedom to predate. Democracy imposes itself, however, and soon predators threaten to dissolve society, which demands a new discretionary power cycle.
The authoritarian solution has become a recurrent topic in the hearts and minds of society. And it hovers about like a specter, as the expression of broader aspirations and of the deeply rooted conservative dynamics.
Is this feeling of drifting between the freedom that liberates predation and authoritarianism that unpleasantly controls our disease? Or just the way we are?