The solidarity economist

Paul Singer dedicated his life to understanding Brazil and expanding the development of opportunities for workers

Raquel Cunha / Folhapress Singer photographed in 2016 at his home in São Paulo Raquel Cunha / Folhapress

It could be said that Paul Singer gave life to Montesquieu’s motto: “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” Thus Rui Namorado writes in his preface to Ensaios sobre economia solidária (Essays on the solidarity economy; Almedina Publishing). Namorado, coordinator of the Center for Cooperative Studies and Social Economy at the School of Economics of the University of Coimbra (CECES-FEUC), edited the book, which was launched in March, the month Singer turned 86, in Portugal. As the title indicates, it brings together texts on the theme that inspired the economist’s theoretical thinking and daily work over the last decades, and which, in Singer’s words, “…is intended to be an alternative to capitalism.” A retired professor at the School of Economics, Business, and Accounting of the University of São Paulo (FEA-USP), Paul Singer died on April 16 as a result of sepsis.

In a farewell tribute published in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, political scientist André Singer says that the solidarity economy was a discovery his father made in his later years. “When the cycle of prosperity that the country had enjoyed between 1930 and 1980 ended, unemployment became structural. My father had the idea that socialism needed to be built from the bottom up, within capitalism, and not as something coming from outside, as a result of the workers’ penury. “He began to propose self-organization into cooperatives as a way out, which would meet both needs at the same time.” Paul Singer directed the National Secretariat of Solidarity Economy, created in 2003, during the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2011) and Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016). “He felt completely satisfied with the advances of what he called ‘the movement’. He ended the circle of his life where he had begun: establishing the kibbutzim principle of collective production on Brazilian soil,” wrote André, one of the economist’s three children, with his sisters Suzana and Helena.

Paul Israel Singer was born in Vienna, Austria. An only child whose father died when he was two, he was raised by his mother, with whom he arrived in Brazil in 1940, fleeing from Nazism. He began working at the age of 14, studied electrical engineering, joined the Metalworkers’ Union of São Paulo and was one of the leaders of the “strike of the 300,000” that paralyzed São Paulo in 1953. An autodidact, he’d already read authors such as Marx and Engels before entering the USP economic and administrative sciences program. Soon after graduation, in 1959, he was invited to remain and teach at the university. Under the guidance of sociologist Florestan Fernandes, he defended his doctoral thesis, “Economic development and urban growth,” in 1966.

At the School of Hygiene and Public Health at USP, where he also taught, he participated in the creation of the interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Population Dynamics (CEDIP), with the group led by demographer Elza Berquó. Seeking to advance his knowledge in the subject of demography, which was still unavailable in Brazil, he attended courses on population studies taught by Ansley Johnson Coale at the Office of Population Research at Princeton. “When he returned, he was an economist-demographer,” recalls Berquó. “His Marxist ideas had an impact on Brazilian demography. In the first national survey on reproductive behavior, for example, he helped build a typology concerning urban and rural areas,” she adds. In 1968, with research he developed in the United States and later published under the title Dinâmica populacional e desenvolvimento (Population dynamics and development; Brasiliense Publishing), Singer provided his qualifying thesis for promotion to associate professor in demography at USP.

He was forcibly retired a year later by a decree signed by General Costa e Silva. Together with Elza Berquó, José Arthur Giannotti, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, among others, he established the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP). Among the “charges” against Singer was that he had disseminated data on the family status, standard of living, occupation, and incomes of workers in the state of São Paulo. “He was in constant dialogue with the dilemmas of economics and politics,” says Adalberto Cardoso, professor of sociology at the Institute of Social and Political Studies of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (IESP-UERJ). “During the 1970s, in the midst of the dictatorship, he showed that growth had produced a lot of misery, and denounced the ‘Brazilian miracle’ as an instrument of income concentration. In the following decade, he played a decisive role in understanding the country’s inflation, and wrote extensively about the distribution conflict.”

A complete intellectual
In the early 1980s, Singer, a former Brazilian Socialist Party militant, participated in the founding of the Workers’ Party, and published Dominação e desigualdade: Estrutura de classes e repartição de renda no Brasil (Domination and inequality: Class structure and income breakdown in Brazil; Paz e Terra Publishing). “Paul developed, elaborated, and interpreted statistical information with ease. His analytical rigor stood out due to his careful use of data, which is evident when reading this work,” says Frederico Mazzucchelli, a retired professor from the Institute of Economics at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and Singer’s research assistant in the early 1970s. “Another of his great virtues was to have brought the arguments on the economic works of authors such as Marx, Lenin, Galbraith, and Keynes into the classroom,” he adds. Adalberto Cardoso, one of Singer’s students, highlights his appreciation for debate: “He had a very special gift for appreciating the interjections, and the thinking of his students. And it was very instructive.” Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, “Perhaps his best contribution on the academic level was the junction between economics, demography, and sociology.”

The author of dozens of books, he has been published in German, Spanish, French, and English. “As a good Marxist, he was able to make economic, sociological, and political analyses. In a 1973 essay, he predicted the great economic crisis and the slowdown of the Brazilian economy,” says Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, emeritus professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV-SP). “And his socialism was strictly democratic.” Ugo Giorgetti, a filmmaker who is making a documentary on the economist, whom he got to know “only belatedly,” agrees: “For him, to be a leftist is to be totally democratic.”