Imprimir Republish


Hey, gimme a dime

The short crossing from the Welfare State to the distribution of crumbs

HÉLIO DE ALMEIDABetter late than never: that may be valid for many situations, but it was fatal for Brazilian citizenship. “It was with a 40-year delay that the arrival in Brazil took place of the social welfare State, the incorporation of the paradigm of the ‘golden years’ of the welfare state, adopted by the core capitalist countries soon after the Second World War. The application of this agenda, by means of the 1988 Constitution, arose at the wrong time and came in the opposite direction to the new, neoliberal agenda, which denied this project”, explains Eduardo Fagnani, from Unicamp, the author of the doctoral thesis Brazil’s Social Politics (1964-2002): between citizenship and charity.

“The Social Welfare State project, which was announced in the so-called Citizen Constitution, as Ulysses Guimarães defined it, was progressively and calmly destroyed from 1990 onwards, in small doses, and the common point in the 40 years analyzed in the thesis is that, for the wretched, were reserved the leftovers of a process of growth that lifted the country up into the list as one of the largest economies of the world”, the researcher observes.

In this case, late means never. “Two opposite movements are to be seen in the course of Brazilian social politics between 1964 and 2002. One of them points to the structuring of the institutional and financial bases typical of the welfare state in our country, in a process outlined from the 1930s, with a notable impulse in the 1970s, with redemocratization, and which flowed out in the 1988 Constitution”, he says. “The other points in the opposite direction: to the destructuring of these bases. After the first countermarches, in the last few years of the democratic transition, the destructuring of the fragile citizenship won in 1988 was reinvigorated as from 1990.” In the crossing, which Fagnani divides into four historical stages, the Welfare State is transformed into the distribution of crumbs to the poor.

The Brazilian social system begins to emerge in the 1930s, but it gains its first “face”, ugly at that, in the period of the military dictatorship, marked by the implementation of a strategy for conservative modernization, which potentialized the State’s capacity for intervention. “This modernization made possible the increase in the supply of goods and services for the middle and high income classes, but its conservative nature prevented its fruits from being directed to the poorer population, and had a small impact on the redistribution of income”, Fagnani analyzes.

But it left deep marks on social politics: a financing of social spending of a regressive nature; centralization of the decision-taking process on the Executive; and institutional fragmentation. From the 1970s and more intensely at the end of the regime, in the 1980s, the opposition forces began to draw up an agenda the nucleus of which was the construction of an effective Welfare State, in which the MDB ( the then opposition party) had a prominent role as a catalyzing agent. In 1984, this set of ideas started to be assimilated by the so-called Liberal Front, the bloc of dissidents from the base of the dictatorship and, between 1985 and 1986, by the governmental rhetoric of the New Republic.

Now the struggle was to occur inside the State, prompting, in 1985, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform and Development (Mirad) and, one year later, the institution of unemployment insurance. Shortly afterwards, there were initiatives for changes in social security, health and education, and they even went so far as to implant a program of emergency actions for fighting hunger, with the Supplementary Food Programs. It looked as if Brazil was on its way to the “best world amongst the possible worlds”. Pangloss in the tropics? The 1988 Constitution seemed to indicate this way.

“It was a fundamental, albeit inconclusive stage for making viable the project for socially progressive reforms. For the first time in the country’s history, there was an embryo of a social Welfare State, universal and egalitarian”, the researcher reckons. “Its essence lay in the principles of universality, social security (instead of social insurance, in which only those who contribute have rights), and comprehension of the social question as a right of citizenship, and not charity or hand-outs”, the economist reckons.

We were, finally, as Voltaire wanted, taking care of our garden. But the Frenchman soon gave place to the Hobbesian truculence, and the first countermarches occurred right away in 1989, with the fragmentation of the base of the Democratic Alliance. “The forces that had served as support for the military regime, in particular the PFL ( the Party of the Liberal Front) , returned to power, and, commanded by the then president José Sarney, started the process of destructuring the precarious Welfare State, having recently left the Congress’s printers”, the author observes.

Mirad was closed, and, says Fagnani, the chance was lost of carrying out the necessary agrarian reform in Brazil, as in the advanced capitalist countries. In the Ministry of Health, the defenders of the Centralized Health Service (SUS), seen by the researcher as one of the largest free health programs in the world, were replaced, and so on. “The government returned to the old path of the dictatorship, marked by clientelism, financial centralization, hand-outs and privatization of what is public. The thesis that emerges is that the country would be ‘ungovernable’ with the new Constitution, an argument used by the retrograde segments whose privileges had been scratched by it.” The garden was wilting.

The economic area of the successive post-dictatorship governments was to be the herbicide for killing it. “The economic teams always had technical arguments about the financial inviability of the parliamentary proposals, and Brazilian social spending, applied to policies that ensured universal rights won in the Constitution, progressively became the villain of the stability of the currency and of the public accounts. Besides being ‘high’, it was said to have been appropriated by a caste of ‘old people and bums’, to the detriment of children’s education”, says the researcher. The foreign environment was favorable to this kind of thinking. The Third Industrial Revolution was under way, calling for competitiveness and productivity and preaching neoliberal restraint in the direction of the State. In Brazil, Fagnani argues, this movement, which was unfavorable to social inclusion and to the reduction of inequalities, lands at a moment when the model of the nation developmentist State was becoming exhausted. The counter-reformation arrived, and its inquisitor was Fernando Collor.

“The principles that steer the neoliberal counter-reformation on social issues were antagonistic to those of the 1988 Charter: the Welfare State is replaced by the minimal State: social insurance returns, focalization, the regulatory State with its privatizations, and labor rights are destroyed by their flexibilization. The Citizen Constitution turns into a villain.” The fragility of the Charter was Collor’s strength. The constitutional text delimited only general principles, and regulation by complementary legislation was necessary.

“The clear intention of the government, alongside the elites, was to obstruct or to disfigure this legislation, using maneuvers that included noncompliance with constitutional rules, disregarding deadlines, and changing the character of the proposals by presidential veto”, Fagnani recalls. The intention was, the author believes, to take advantage of the constitutional review, planned for 1993, to throw everything into the trash can. But the impeachment, in 1992, prevented the direct move. “The ‘modernization’ of the Constitution was postponed, since there was no climate for changes after all that popular movement, and implemented in small doses, in successive counter-reformations, by topical, effective laws, between 1993 and 2002.” Homeopathically.

According to Fagnani, the dropper strategy worked well, but it brought about an increase in the social crisis, to be seen, in particular, in the destructuring of the labor market and its effects on employment and the living conditions of the population. Moreover, he recalls, there was also a limitation on the expansion of public social spending and on infrastructure, to make room for paying interest on the public debt, which, he says, was given the impertinent denomination of social responsibility. In Brazil, the mentality is created that “poverty is universalized” and little can be done, besides philanthropic actions, in accordance with the private sector, to help the very poor to survive as such.

“The interest in maintaining the social status quo was determinant for our having lost the chance to implant a social welfare State”, he laments. “What we pay in three days of interest on the domestic and foreign debts is the same as Brazil spends in one year with agrarian reform. Twenty days of interest is what we spend in ten years on popular housing, and the same goes for basic sanitation.”

Although his thesis does not reach the Lula government, Fagnani believes that “the dismantling of the system of social protection of a universal and equalitarian nature in favor of the minimal State, marked by the growing importance of programs for transferring income, continues to prowl in Brazil’s corridors of power”. “This perception is supported by the finding of the continuous narrowing of the possibilities of financing social spending and in the no less formidable power that the international development agencies still hold in defining the destiny of the nation. Not to mention the conservatism of our political and economic elites and in the temptation of the easy route of hand-outs and its clientelist and electoral use, with new vigor in the current environment of fragilization of the government. “Hey, gimme a dime?” is as strong as ever.