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Between Virtue and Fortune

How to analyze political ethics without getting lost in moralism

In A serenissima república (a super serene Republic), a tale by Machado de Assis, the benevolent canon Vargas tells how he managed to bring together 490’s talking spiders and decided to give to the arachnoids, good uncivilized politicians, “an honest government.”  Making use of the pupils’ talent in weaving webs, he gave them a system that “excluded the hallucination of passion, the clumsiness of ineptitude, the congress of corruption and avarice”: a large sack into which balls with candidate names were placed, who, when chosen, were suited for a political career. Everything began well, but the “fraud immune system” quickly saw itself deceived by the smartness of various spiders. In the end, they stopped chasing ethical perfection and one of them announced to the sack spinners: “You yourselves are the Penelope of our Republic. You’ve got the same patience and chastity. Redo the sack until Ulysses, tired of standing straight, comes to sit with us in the place reserved for him. He is the wisdom.”

The arachnoids of Machado de Assis had quickly discovered that which still makes us beat our heads against the wall: politics and ethics form a complex mixture, unfathomable, and it remains for society to have the patience of Penelope and to hope that the electors, politicians and institutions mature. Ethics in politics, or currently the lack of them, is a national obsession, although a recent research poll carried out by Ibope revealed the celebrated “Brazilian dilemma” as described by the anthropologist Roberto Da Matta: “Corruption in politics: is the voter a victim or an accomplice?” The results show that the elector is highly critical in relation to his political leadership in terms of ethics and corruption, but 75% of those interviewed confessed that they would commit the same sins if they ha the same opportunities the politicians have. ‘she more illegal acts the voter commits or accepts in his day to day life, the more tolerant he tends to be with the acts of corruption of governors and parliamentarians. People don’t see ethics as an absolute value, but with gradations, in which it’s possible to be more or less ethical” explains Silvia Cervellini, who carried out the research.

“It’s curious that the media, which takes on the role of intermediary between the ruling class and society, demonstrates so much indignation with the corruption cases when, as research shows, the two extremes of the relationship don’t give it much importance. But public opinion accepts and even expects this discourse from the media” she observes. Thus, say the numbers (which, obviously, can be contested) the elector is not the victim, but an accomplice and identifies with a substantial part of the transgressions committed by politicians. There are a lot more than 490’s spiders roaming about Brazil and over the globe, since, although the lack of political ethics is proclaimed as a national phenomenon, it is detected in many other countries. “Major politics is always perceived as amoral by the large majority of people because in modern and complex societies political bargaining is always carried out in a non-transparent manner for the majority. What would appear to be peculiarly Brazilian is the populist manipulation of corruption as a central theme of the political debate, in a country so short on in-depth public discussions about fundamental collective choices” argues Jessé Souza, a sociologist from the Federal University of Juiz de Fora.

“Every politician is a thief” is the phrase most widely heard in our not so serene Republic and the “disgust – towards the politician appears to have transformed itself into a virtue, without speaking about those who, as the psychoanalyst Jurandir Freire Costa noted, proclaim that “in a country in which the law was put into discredit, any promise of law, no matter how Draconian it may seem, can infer  a power of irresistible seduction, bringing the illusion of ‘I was happy and didn’t know it.'” It is the famous “nostalgia” for the military regimes, which, for many, were incorruptible, when in truth, ‘she Brazilian authoritarian cycles provided fuel for corruption, because the more closed a system is, the more it tends to breath its own toxic fumes” in the words of Marco Aurélio Nogueira, a political scientist at Unesp and author of Em defesa da política [In defense of politics]. In the end, democracy does not permit secrets, forcing transparency upon the practice of corruption in politics. But one has to take care so as not to transform into truth the hypothesis raised by Theodore Lowi, from Cornell University, according to whom ‘she transformation of corruption into a political question has less to do with the levels of corruption than with the levels of conflict between elites and with the existence of elites willing to make use of this instrument in their fight against others.” The web of ethics is dense.

For Freire Costa, the capital sin in the ethics question is the fruit of modernism itself, with its “ideology of well being, which sets itself against, almost point by point, to a humanistic, democratic and pluralistic culture.” Above all, it is anti-political. The mode of the bourgeois life, he noted, always defined the cult of the private as superior to public commitment. The politician was despised for not producing wealth: politicians were those who wanted to have money without working and lived in the land of the lies, at odds with ethical values. These were locked up in the private world, the birthplace of honorable sentiments, of honesty.

“But the political activity, belittled for reasons that the agents considered morally high, didn’t reach the core of the idea of the moral subject. Even hypocrisy had commitment with decency” writes Freire. The apoliticism of the current ethos comes from another authorship, since now no longer are public or private virtues cultivated. “Within the ideology of well-being, what counts is not virtue but success.  No longer is one asked to think about which is the best choice for one or for the other, but to calculate what is the best tactic in order to be highly successful.” The psychologist points  out that, in underdeveloped societies such as ours, political apathy, normally required in capitalist systems, is accentuated. “In stability, the apoliticism of society is compensated for by adhesion to the existing order and by belief in the dominant authority. In crisis situations, these pillars collapse and the common man, used to delegating to the directing class both power and the initiative of decision, loses confidence in the justice, in politics and in institutions.” Reduced to the “minimum me” in the words of Christopher Lasch, is the individual who thinks only of his own well being, generating the so called “cynical reason.”

Is it possible that political ethics can exist within this state of things? “Societies become less politicized, looking for refuge in the market place, and turn their backs on the state, deepening the divorce between this and the population, between parties and citizens, between the political class and the elector. Consequently, politicians become more and more distant from the highest end of politics (carrying out the common welfare) and more and more involved in their own means. The risk of being inoperative and of corruption grows whilst the ethical-political impact of the politician diminishes” analyzes  Nogueira. In order to demand and obtain ethics one needs to participate in the political life. ‘she threat that hovers over our democratic societies is the combination of two traits that, taken separately, don’t appear to offer a radical danger: the constitution of a society of passive consumers and the growing solitude of individuals” observes Newton Bignotto, a philosophy professor at UFMG, in A society without virtues” a lecture that makes up part of the cycle of debates entitled, “Forgotten politics” organized by professor Adauto Novaes. In his opinion, the citizen has become impotent towards understanding what is happening in his very own country. “In a radical manner we could ask ourselves if it still makes sense to speak of public virtues, ethical politics, in the world in which we live” evaluates Bignotto.

Thus, up until the 15th century the question about virtue and community life was invariably responded to by falling back on the idea that good governance and good citizenship depended upon virtuous practice, and the formula of a society without virtues did not make any sense for the ancient and medieval world. “With Machiavelli was born the suspicion that the virtues that were demanded of Christian governors were not necessarily qualities that could guarantee the success and unrestricted respect of traditional counsels, and could even be a source of ruin for those who governed” points out the philosopher. Without vulgarizing the concept of Machiavellianism, one can think that, starting from then, politics went on to define a different territory from that of ethics. “Not to proclaim the abandonment of moral virtues, but to manage to maintain power, to defeat enemies, also became an important point in a society that moved on to give value to the individual and to success in careers.” The door towards modernism opened up, then went on to separate moral virtue and political virtue. In the same instant, the modern suspicion about virtue and ethics in political associations was inaugurated.

Rousseau and the French Revolution, each one in its own way, attempted to change this state of things. For the Swiss philosopher, exalting ethics, virtue, placing the common good above personal interests was what was needed. Robespierre would take this concept to the extreme and the result of “such kindness” backfired into Terror, when, notes Bignotto, “virtue served to construct the figure of the enemy and to justify the exclusion of adversaries from the public scenario, more than for guiding the behavior of citizens.” Entered onto the scene the worst companion of ethics in politics, moralism (nicknamed) among us, since the decade of the 1940’s’s, as Udenism ( referring to the conservative party UDN) or Lacerdism ( referring to Governor Carlos Lacerda) , in “honor” to the party that cautioned that “nothing positive will come from the forms of government if the quality of the men who govern us is bad.” In a polemic article written in 20’s0’s1, the philosopher José Arthur Gianotti said that “more than just moral, to publicly accuse a public person of being immoral is a political act.” In his opinion, ‘shere is no politics among the saints” and there exists a “grey zone of immorality”: ‘she guardian laws of the laws that rule the polis, in order to be practiced, require a zone of immorality without which they can’t function.”  Giannotti makes use of an image of Wittgenstein: if the piston head were to be vigorously adjusted to the hole of the piston, no movement would be possible.

This “necessary zone of non-definition” the philosopher evaluated, if abolished, would result in dictatorship or Jacobinism. In addition: ‘so be democratic is to live with this risk. And one needs to differentiate moral judgment in the public sphere from moral judgment in private, since both are different zones of non-definition.” For the jurist Fábio Konder Comparato, author of the recently published Ética [Ethics], “in Brazil, the notion of ethics continues in general to be linked to private life. We condemn the governor or parliamentarian who is a thief, because his conduct does not substantially differ from the act of the person who puts his hand in someone else’s pocket. But we have enormous difficulty in perceiving that a policy of privatization of the State, or of causing public debt, is infinitely more damaging to the current society and the country’s future than the practice of embezzlement” he analyzes. “For the vast majority of the population, the reign of the politician has nothing to do with that of ethics: within the first it prevails the principle of power, in the latter, respect for the others. This mentality is, to a large degree, the fruit of slavery, which had separated the human genre into superior and inferior.” Gilberto Freyre had anticipated the issue.

The State
According to the anthropologist, for Brazilians the guilty party for everything was always in the State, which needed to be modified, imagining, with ingenuity, that the politicians responsible for this transformation would not make up part of the society that these reforms would object to modify. “In a society where those who follow the law are classified as the losers, the ‘oversight’ and the assault on public wealth are trends. The crime against the State is not embezzlement, but opportunity” observes Da Matta in  Encontros entre meios e fins [Meetings between the means and the ends]. ‘soday we lament the absence of ethics, when in fact all of our ill-feeling towards modernism that we’ve built in Brazil has everything to do not with its absence, but with the unstable and contradictory presence of many ethics. We adopted modern values (legal isonomy, universal suffrage, market logic etc.) without the transformation or discussion of traditional values. We adopt new currency, without annulling the old one, and worse even, without saying to society that such currency is not worth anything.” The anthropologist cites as an example the tendency of politicians to take over their positions or, for using their definition of “double standards” sometimes when taking decisions following modern and impersonal values, sometimes acting in the name of their family, personal sympathizers and relations that consider the case of “John” or “Joe” differently, because they are friends and are above the law. “Ethics as an instrument of management throws light on the complex and difficult dialect between the principal of compassion (for ‘ours’) and of justice (for the ‘others’)” he noted. In the promiscuity between the old and the new, how can one reconcile political equality and “family” and social hierarchy” questions Da Matta.

‘she raw and bare response is that of corruption, of the imperfection of origin and of historical backwardness. The more subtle is that of the lie, of the roguery and of various populisms that promise improved lifestyles for all, without removing anything from anyone” he says. Or, in the words of  Oliveira Vianna: “I’m capable of all types of courage, except the courage of resisting my friends.” The Ibope poll echoes these words that demonstrate, continue Vianna, our moral incapacity to resist the suggestions of friendship, to superimpose the contingencies of personalism upon major social interests. One will need to weave a lot more in order to reunite ethics and politics. In spite of this science, we prefer to abdicate from politics without procrastinations, as if it had been effectively transformed in the web space of disenchantment. The attempt to galvanize this enchantment is not always healthy. ‘shis species of ethical rejection of politics configures the profound contradiction in which we’re tangled. Since, if we define the individual as social, then the separation between ethics and politics configures the rupture between the individual and society, which at the limit signifies the rupture of the individual with himself” says the philosopher Franklin Leopoldo e Silva during his lecture entitled, ‘she banality of ethics” also within the cycle “Forgotten politics.” “Under these conditions, ethics gains an autonomy of ideological character, as far as it appears as an illusion of the preservation of a subjectivity that no longer finds in the social plan the possibilities of realization, since the social instance, precisely for having turned itself into only the place of private interest manifestation, shows itself stripped of any political-community character.”

The web re-spins around itself. ‘she central question lies not in the inadequacy that would consist in judging public actions with private criteria; the fundamental thing is that the actions occur in a characteristically private manner in their causes and consequences, although masqueraded by the form of public action, and are judged in the private manner in the context of a public spectacle” observes  Franklin. For him, if public life were to be authentic (in the Arendtian sense of Antiquity, in which diverse public opinions were crisscrossed), its moralization is unnecessary, since the true sense of public life lies in the reciprocity between ethics and politics. When this life is not authentic, its moralization is useless, because the breaking of reciprocity right from the start jeopardizes the sense of two elements and of its inherent linkage. “When we speak of something public (its deterioration as real experience), the simultaneous failure of politics and ethics turns the discussion moralizing, or the attempt of the substitution of politics by ethics, a banal procedure and a strategy of cynicism.” This is reflected in the vote decision. For Marco Aurélio Nogueira, the Brazilian has voted and politically participated in order to defend himself, not to take the initiative and attack. “A culture of disenchantment, added to a minimalistic vision of democracy (reduced to the electoral ritual, seen as the path to the cross, strange to substantive participation) helps to expropriate people from the capacity to decide. Uncertainty begins to prevail about the hypothesis even of regulation, or that is to say, of equilibrium and of good sense.”

For the political scientist Alberto Carlos de Almeida, the electorate can be divided into two types, characterized by (what is) their vision about what the relationship between ethics and politics should be: the delegating citizen and his opposite, the non-delegating one. The former is a person who either has no notion of his rights or if he does, he considers them unimportant since nobody complies with them or has them complied with. He hopes that the others act correctly (from the point of view of a unique ethical standard) and finds justification so that he himself does not act correctly. He does not see any problems in making use of the public as if it were private and his type of politician is someone who resolves his problems, even in an authoritative manner, and looks after that which is public, since he himself does not want to be bothered with this. In this case, he does not demand upright political behavior, assuming that, clearly, the delegating citizen has his problems resolved.

The non-delegating type knows and demands his rights and supports a unique ethical standard, considering the Brazilian “jeitinho” (a way around things) a form of corruption. There is one exception however. As the political scientist Yan de Souza Carreirão points out, the voter who does not grasp on to the ethical aspect and continues making a reasoning all of his own that tells him there are no innocents in politics, from the ethical point of view, especially when considering the most relevant parties on the national political scenario. One cannot place upon them, in a disorderly manner, the celebrated Brechtian criticism that “first comes the stomach and only afterwards comes morality.” ‘she moral crisis accompanies the political, economic and social crisis” says Freire Costa. The narcissistic culture that establishes itself, fed by social decadence and by discredit of the justice system and the law, leads to a desire of immediate fruition of the present, submission to the status quo and the systematic and methodical opposition to whatever project of change that implies social cooperation and non-violent negotiation of particular interests. Morality becomes banal.

When accompanying this movement up pops the slack in the relationship between ethics and politics, which very often brings the so-called “economic vote” in which the voter  values above all else results and a lot less the question of knowing who produces them or what they are and how the eventual obstacles will be removed. ‘shis is a pragmatic vote, which judges the candidate not by his ethics or through the identification of the elector with his ideology or personality, but by his potential for realizations” observes  Elizabeth Balbachevsky in Identidade, oposição e pragmatismo [Identity, opposition and pragmatism], an analysis of the strategic content of the electoral decision over 13 years of elections (1989, 1994, 1998 and 20’s0’s2). By these results, it is not just today that the elector lets himself be led by what he hopes to gain than by the integrity of the character of his governor or by an eventual ideological identification. Presidents Collor and FHC, before president Lula, benefited from this projection of the elector about them as “future realizers.” Only when president Lula managed to unite this question of identification between himself and the elector did he manage to win an election. The future, therefore, appears not to reserve better surprises for us.

“Hannah Arendt affirmed one time, when being questioned as to whether politics still makes sense, that we must not forget that originally the sense of politics was liberty, and that this has continued to be valid, if we want to maintain our belief in the values that we learned to defend as the highest ideal of common life” believes Bignotto. In the opinion of the philosopher, if we speak about virtues in today’s societies, we can not appeal for heroic behavior of their citizens, neither should we (for this do we need to) relegate the search for virtue to an impossible past to be recovered. “Possible Republican virtues in our time may well not be so spectacular as those that we had learned to admire in personalities of the past, but in their modesty they could point towards the maintenance of the political space as that in which our potentialities can go beyond the fact of us being consumers.” In the opposite case, he advised, we would be condemned to live in a society without virtues, an easy prey of processes and living “solitary in the middle of solitary men.” Or, in the words of  Da Matta: ‘so call everything a “sea of mud” is to reiterate self-interesting moralism and almost always auto-flagellating and to read politics with the implacable eyes of an engaged virgin.” A young democracy, recently coming from authoritarianism, needs, like the 490’s spiders of canon Vargas, the patience to await the return of the wisdom of Ulysses.