Verso, 2019, 256 pp., $26.95
English Marxism is, or was, a happy marriage of temperaments. Marxists can sometimes lack a sense of humor, and the English, the courage of their convictions. The one supplies the deficiency of the other.
The historical accomplishments of the English Marxist historians are well known. Earlier this year the publication of a biography of Eric Hobsbawm, their greatest champion, was closely attended by American intellectuals. Even our journalists, not invariably candidates for reading history books (especially about countries other than the United States), can be relied upon to own a copy of The Age of Revolution.
Perry Anderson is the last of this type. Since the closing days of the Cold War, his contemporaries have either died or abandoned Marxism, the field of academic history has moved in other directions, and Anderson’s own zeal has waned with the eclipse of revolutionary socialism as a real possibility. Yet he remains a towering figure on the Left, as we have been lately reminded, in the form of his bombardment of the work of economic historian Adam Tooze. English readers are by now accustomed to the periodic pleasure of reading a hefty Anderson essay on Brazil in the pages of the London Review, on subjects ranging from macroeconomics to political intrigue to Brazilian letters and back again with consummate erudition and a famously extensive back-catalogue of allusions and ten-dollar words.
His latest book, Brazil Apart, collects five essays on Brazil spanning the last 25 years, and appends a new segment that brings the narrative forward another few months, from January to July 2019. The intention was to collect and translate the essays for publication in Brazil, where Anderson’s work has not yet garnered much attention from intellectuals.
The results will be interesting to watch. His wary conviction in the potential of the Brazilian Left, paired with his almost unblinking enumeration of its failures, may earn him enemies among both the diehard Workers’ Party (PT) Left and the party’s critics on the center and Right. With the book coming out in Portuguese, it seemed a waste not to have it come out in English, too.
The essays have largely been left as they were published. Anderson says his decision to leave in predictions and characterizations that held up badly was made in an effort to preserve the record. It does seem that little of value could have been lost in removing the periodic reintroductions of facts, characters, and institutions, which, if convenient in the original venue, are of no use to the reader of this book.
That is not to say that leaving each installment intact was not the right determination. In the traditional history book, both the author and the reader know the ending in advance; while in this book, the reader knows the ending, but the author does not—thus generating a more visceral sense of the abrupt changes of fortune that characterize the last 30 years in Brazil. A unitary work on the period, if composed now, would almost inevitably straighten the tortuous path of recent history for the sake of argument and present a false sense of continuity or prolepsis.
It is generally believed the Greek historian Thucydides composed his famous history in stages as the Peloponnesian War wore on. The figure of the contemporary historian—men who wrote on their own times but with historical acumen, dedicating their work to posterity rather than the applause of the moment—was a constant presence in antiquity: Xenophon, Polybius, Sallust, Ammianus Marcellinus. Today their work has been divided up between journalists and academics. Neither profession requires the combination of ambition and rigor that contemporary history once did.
Anderson’s broad scope, high stature, and wide reading habits have allowed him to write essays on Brazil that are neither journalistic nor academic. They touch on contemporary subjects, but they do not break news; they react to an extensive academic literature, but they do not proffer contributions to it per se. They remain above the ruck, but below the ivory tower, and they never fall into the gimmick and windbaggery that often characterizes writing that splits this difference.
The contemporary historians always promised neutrality between the sides of the conflict they described. Anderson may not be said to be precisely neutral—the animating force behind his interest in Brazil being, he says as much, the promise of the Brazilian Left—but neither could Thucydides be said to be precisely neutral, say, between Pericles and his successors. Like that solemn Athenian, Anderson records even the most brutal reverses dispassionately, and gives us plenty of material to disagree with. Thucydides is often thought of as a conservative, and he is, but then again who was his Pericles but a more eloquent Lula, and Bolsonaro but a kind of Cleon?
Brazil Apart represents a chance to evaluate the powers of prediction of the Anglophone world’s premier chronicler of Brazilian politics. By leaving each call as he made it, he seems to invite this kind of scrutiny. Under it he fares well, offering early warnings on, inter alia, how thoroughly Lula’s program depended on high commodity prices and how the Lava Jato corruption investigation might leave as mixed a legacy as its inspiration, Italy’s Mani Pulite. As early as 2002 he suggested an economic crisis in the developed world might give middle-income countries a bit of room to maneuver. There are some notable exceptions, of course, and the most dramatic comes chronologically first: Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
The Brazilian FDR Who Wasn’t
Anderson’s first essay marks Cardoso’s 1994 ascent to the presidency, after a number of false starts to Brazilian democracy at the end of a period of military rule that had begun in 1964. Tancredo Neves, the consensus choice to lead the transition, died in 1985 before he could take office; Fernando Collor de Mello, the first directly elected president, was impeached in 1992 for spectacular corruption in his home state. The Cold War was over, the so-called third wave of democratization had swept Latin America, but Brazil could not seem to finish the job—until Cardoso, having vanquished hyperinflation, stormed to power.
The 1994 essay reads at points as a paean to Cardoso. Anderson reminds his readers of Cardoso’s pedigree as a consummate intellectual and a thoroughgoing man of the Left. In describing the intellectual fecundity of Marxist circles at the University of São Paulo in the mid-sixties—a formative influence, he says, on Cardoso—we even get a rare autobiographical touch: a reference to the novelty of meeting, as a visiting student there during this period, with women “emancipated by maids.” It was another time!
But just how closely Cardoso was to hew to his early Marxist influences would prove a bitter disappointment to Anderson. An early deal with northeastern oligarchs causes him to raise an eyebrow and mention, not for the last time, the Italian concept of trasformismo, whereby radical forces are seduced and finally domesticated by the regnant conservative forces. Anderson nonetheless concludes his first essay on Cardoso by comparing him to Franklin Roosevelt and asserting he will be “the best president Brazil has ever had.”
This claim, from the present perspective, is not absurd, but by the end of Cardoso’s second term Anderson’s tone is different. Cardoso’s administration is designated “neoliberalism ‘lite,’” and Cardoso himself a sort of Third Way Lepidus to Clinton’s Caesar and Blair’s Antony. The comparisons to FDR are transferred to Lula. Still later, with Cardoso’s reemergence as a minor plotter during the downfall of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, publicly blessing her ouster, the narration displays a certain bitterness towards the apostate.
The Rise and Fall of the Worker’s Party
During Lula’s presidency there was plenty to distract from this disappointment. Anderson chronicles the Workers’ Party-era combination of the fortuna of the commodity boom and the virtù of Lula’s social programs, without hesitating to spell out the iniquities of his lieutenants Palocci and Dirceu and his frustration with the PT’s indifference towards the intellectuals that had fueled its rise.
Things began to unravel under Lula’s successor Dilma, impeached in 2016 for a fiscal peccadillo as millions demonstrated against her. The essay on Bolsonaro contains a wonderful exposition of the half-baked plots of her political opponents, in a byzantine political game in which they finally triumphed, only to be swept away in a Bolsonarian tide. In the new frontmatter, however, Anderson has a different tone, dubbing the matter a “parliamentary coup”—a common phrase, of course, though one of somewhat uncertain meaning.
The biggest influence on Anderson’s treatment of the fall of the Workers’ Party is the work of André Singer, a professor at the University of São Paulo who served under Lula during his first term before rebranding himself a theorist of “lulismo,” the political and economic thought associated with the administration. Long sections of the Bolsonaro essay especially are written as a summary of Singer’s work. Anderson often inhabits the arguments of the authors whose work he is discussing, offering only a paucity of markers to designate whether the views he sets out are his own or his subject’s.
While Anderson offers fulsome praise to Singer, comparing his latest work to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, he seems to dispute a key premise of Singer’s notion of the economic logic of lulismo: a Manichean distinction between “productive” and “rentier” elements of the Brazilian economy. If only things were so simple! Later, Anderson seems to look askance at Singer’s claim about the fall of Dilma: that her unbending republicanism prevented her from temporizing, like Lula did, when matters demanded it. With a cabinet stocked with figures tarnished by corruption under Lula, could she really be said to be so pure? Republican or not, the scene surrounding her impeachment—a heady mix of indictment, swirling intrigue, mass demonstration, and rhetorical excess—was exactly as the Machiavelli of the Discourses would have liked it.
Brazil’s Overweight Constitution
Many of Anderson’s grudges, which come increasingly to the fore as the narrative approaches the present, concern the Brazilian constitution. Framed in 1988 at the end of a frustrating transition period to democracy, the document is elephantine and represents what one expert has called an “overlapping consensus,” where every group except for conservatives and the military got its way.
One unusual feature of the document is the degree to which it mandates spending on social services—an attempt to hinder future attempts to implement austerity measures. The idea that some 90 percent of government spending could be not only mandated by law but enshrined in the constitution would make American fiscal hawks’ heads explode. From the center-Right leftwards, most in Brazil are now reluctant to relitigate the charter, which Anderson calls “unwieldy and incoherent.”
The other two vices of the system, for Anderson, are presidentialism and the country’s distorted Supreme Court. The presidency, more so “than Coca-Cola or the Marines,” is the most vitiating American export to Latin America, especially combined, as it generally is, with a fractured, European-style proportionally elected legislature neither able properly to resist nor to obey whatever petty Caesar occupies the presidential chair at a given moment. The option to alter the system in Brazil to a parliamentary one in 1993 was not taken. It is tempting to regret this and imagine that the hapless Dilma, having totally alienated Congress, might have been removed from the executive in a less constitutionally acrimonious way under a parliamentary system.
Because the Brazilian constitution is so extensive, the Supreme Court has final say on an almost universal range of issues. It is thus arguably more powerful than its American counterpart, but—Anderson says—without similar discipline. He describes how lawyers “wine and dine” judges, one of whom, Eros Grau, once penned a “fifth-rate pornographic novel” (really more of a novella). The Court’s president Dias Toffoli attracts particular ire: as a turncoat PT “errand boy,” he is dubbed “arguably the most despicable single figure in today’s political landscape.” Partisanship would be a vast improvement on the Court’s far less organized backstabbing, sliminess, and all-around grandstanding for news cameras: “Daumier,” says Anderson in sum, “would have been hard pressed to describe it.”
Oscar Vilhena, a scholar of the Brazilian constitution, has a more optimistic view of the document. A “battle of the powers” between the Supreme Court, the legislature, and the executive inflicted superficial damage to constitutional stability but did not result in a bona fide crisis. Episodes of political violence, outside the stabbing of Bolsonaro on the campaign trail and episodic murders of human rights activists, are rare. Instead the inefficient, awkward solidity of the 1988 document was affirmed. Even with the election of a government staffed by military men and conservatives—the only two groups with no stake in preserving it—there was little question of its suspension or even serious modification outside a long-anticipated pension reform.
The drama of 2016 and Dilma’s impeachment thus heralded the arrival of a sort of parliamentarism by proxy in Brazil. A president who lost the support of Congress would be impeached regardless of any actual criminality, after the fashion of a vote of confidence. In this view it is not the presidency but the vice presidency which becomes the source of instability, as the subordinate of each president (often of a different party) contemplates the possibility of betrayal and succession to the throne—a possibility Dilma’s running mate, Michel Temer, successfully pursued, and one that Bolsonaro’s Vice President Hamilton Mourão is clearly considering. Anderson ends his closing reflection by predicting Mourão’s accession to the presidency. This is a possibility which will likely wax and wane between now and the (scheduled) end of Bolsonaro’s first term in 2023, but which currently seems on the wane after the recent passage of a significant pension reform occasioned expressions of cautious optimism in the international financial press.
Left and Right in the Age of Bolsonaro
The rise of Bolsonaro remains a challenge for a divided Brazilian Left. Endless second-guessing about the viability of Lula’s “limited reformism” and an all-consuming fixation on the fate of Lula himself preclude much serious discussion about the nature of the current administration, the extent of its popular appeal, and how it is best opposed. Epithets like “fascist” and “neoliberal” take the place of this sort of inquiry. Though clear-eyed about Bolsonaro’s long rhetorical record of casual cruelty, Anderson notes that calling him a fascist, just like the habit of doing so to Trump, is nothing more than “lazy invective,” considering there is no mass movement associated with either.
Neoliberalism, only slightly less than fascism, is a woefully insufficient framework for understanding the current administration in Brazil. This tendency coexists uneasily in Bolsonaro’s government with other, often hostile forces associated with the Armed Forces, evangelical Protestantism, and conservatives who are not so persuaded of the supremacy of the market. Anderson begins to explore the first two of these factors, noting Bolsonaro’s connections to networks of evangelicals in Rio, and, in his new epilogue, delivering a savage send-up of the much-eulogized UN mission to Haiti that was a formative influence on many of the generals in Bolsonaro’s government.
Even when the neoliberal shoe fits, matters are not always clear-cut. Bolsonaro’s marquee legislative effort, for example, a pension reform toward which he himself was lukewarm, has been a frequent target for such accusations, but the grossly unequal nature of Brazil’s social security ancien régime put its defenders on the Left in an awkward position. Tellingly, the two figures who could best be said to be incarnations of neoliberalism—Kim Kataguiri on the Right and Tabata Amaral on the Left—have found themselves marooned in the current atmosphere.
The one stone left mostly unturned here is a fourth force in the Bolsonaro government: the otherwise much-discussed “ideological wing” of self-styled conservative intellectuals attached to Bolsonaro from early in his campaign. These characters, tinfoil-hat types as they may be, are hard to ignore in the recent annals of Brazil’s political life. Though they constantly feature in national headlines, they appear with almost vanishing rarity in Anderson’s tale. Olavo de Carvalho, an ex-Trotskyist astrologer turned polemicist who helped Bolsonaro’s campaign gain traction and appointed several ministers, is mentioned only long enough for Anderson to call him “the Brazilian version of a seer of the Black Hundreds.”
Ernesto Araújo, the foreign minister, infamous for his intermittently researched polemics on cultural history, appears not once. Anderson absolves himself—we can hardly blame him—of the task of having to read these individuals’ writing by claiming, not without reason, that the military men in the cabinet represent the chief and overwhelming influence on the current government. Proclaiming ignorance of Carvalho’s writing and dismissing his influence on the government is common among observers of Brazil from the center-right to the Left, a habit that is as readily understandable as it is risky.
As a luminous 1992 essay on conservative thinkers of the 20th century demonstrates, Anderson is willing in principle to undertake such analyses. Of course, it hardly needs to be said there is no figure on the Brazilian Right who approximates the level of an Oakeshott or a Strauss. The absence of a conservative presence in Brazil’s best universities, where the bulk of the professoriate is not liberal as in America but rather genuinely left-wing and in many cases Marxist, has given the new wave of Brazilian conservative intellectuals a rebellious spiritedness, but to a greater extent than in America it has stunted their erudition and made them prone to amateurishness and philistinism—now reflected in brutal cuts to federal university spending by Bolsonaro’s education minister, not incidentally a disciple of Carvalho.
Even a Marxist analysis of these individuals could yield interesting results—Carvalho might be revealed to be dreaming not of the productive relations of neoliberal capitalism but rather feudal ones, his occasional recourse to Austrian economists notwithstanding. Even Araújo, who ought to be a more straightforward fusionist conservative, is required in this climate to filter his economic liberalism through a medievalizing rhetoric of “Western civilization.” References to the Crusades and early modern Portuguese kings offers a final suggestion that there may be something altogether more antediluvian at work here than the ghost of Milton Friedman.
If the generals are truly calling the shots, on the other hand, one wonders why they permitted Olavo de Carvalho to slander them in the vilest language for months, his scatological vituperations reprinted in every major newspaper, before they, or someone, finally succeeded in muzzling him. It cannot but have hurt their pride—and yet they knew they owed their power to him. Has there been a defeat of the so-called ideological faction in the government and a triumph of the military one, or has there been a synthesis? Considering the Brazilian tendency towards ideological flexibility and pragmatism—a constant theme in Anderson’s text—it is hard to imagine the ideologues have not had some effect on the trajectory of the administration, even if its nature is not yet discernible and its extent easy to exaggerate.
The Sorry End of Brazilian History?
In his introduction, Anderson leads with a melancholy and unusually schematic claim: Brazilian history since 1964 has the shape of a parabola. The curve rises from military rule, up toward the promise of social democracy, first under Cardoso, who quickly disappointed, and then under Lula, who did not. It falls, in proportion with the global commodity prices that had financed Lula’s social policies, down from Dilma through Temer to Bolsonaro, who brought with him the return of the military to the helm of the Brazilian polity, and seems to herald the end of the hope that motivated Anderson’s study in the first place. The implied prediction for Brazil’s future is bleak.
One could take issue with how this argument asks us not to discriminate between the different ways military men have come to power—in 1964, as leaders of a coup; in 2018, as ministers, serving at the whim of the civilian President, of a government that won by a ten-point margin at the polls and has left the constitution intact. The response would presumably be to say that Bolsonaro in fact cannot not fire his generals without risking his command of legitimacy and order.
There are other players on the scene, too: the Supreme Court’s current deliberations over the fate of Lula, and more generally whether the hard-charging Lava Jato anti-corruption investigation overstepped the bounds of law, will give it plenty more opportunities to defy the wishes of the military high command, should it feel so inclined.
The last few years have seen the sudden appearance, and almost simultaneous rise to power, of what appears to be a genuine Brazilian Right, distinct for the first time from the inclinations of the military, northeastern oligarchs, and liberal economists. While just several years ago “conservative” was an epithet individuals and parties contrived to avoid, now the PSL (Bolsonaro’s party) and the PSDB (Cardoso’s) assert rival claims to “true” conservatism.
This has not, as yet, meant the political independence of this new Right from these other, traditional “conservative” forces; nor does it mean, necessarily, that such an independence would be good for the country. But it is one way in which the history of Brazil since 1964 is not merely symmetrical. And to the extent that it is symmetrical, it may not simply be the defeat of the Left that is to blame, but also the vices and the prematurity of a nascent Right.