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Long-haired freedom

The unusual political nature of Brazilian counterculture

Eurico Dantas/O GLOBO Once there was a summer. It was the summer of peace and love, when thousands of hippies from all over Brazil walked, hitch-hiked or drove – in the manner of a pilgrimage – to the tiny beach of Arembepe, on the coast of the State of Bahia. Arembepe was like Mecca to them, and it seemed that all the hippies had to be there as a form of baptism before joining this new lifestyle and preaching a new view of the world. These hippies spread throughout the country, to the discontent of the military dictatorship and the morals of those times. Hippies were jailed in cities like Salvador, where repression of these long-haired youngsters was a priority for the local police force, to whom they were nothing but bums, as printed in the local papers of those times. In the opinion of the leftists and others who opposed the military regime, these young men and women – who did not worry about taking showers, preached free love and smoked pot – were “alienated.” But were they really?

Is it possible that this view motivated the academic community to maintain this culturally rich movement – which became known as underground culture – “udigrudi” in Portuguese jargon – in limbo, while it dedicated itself exhaustively to studying the student movement and the armed rebellion? The answer is most likely yes. With a doctorate degree in social history from USP, Marcos Alexandre Capellari states that initially one can mention some reasons for the academic community’s lack of interest in the topic. The first reason, he explains, is related to the fact that the referred phenomenon happened very recently and many of the wounds (disappointments, misunderstandings, etc.) have not healed yet. “It is not comfortable dealing with a movement whose main characters are still alive and active – or at least, most of them are, and whose ideas still echo culturally, dividing opinions,” says the historian, who recently presented his thesis O discurso da contracultura no Brasil: o underground através de Luiz Carlos Maciel, prepared under the supervision of professor Raquel Glezer. Another reason is related to research traditions at universities, which determine the topics considered legitimate objects, or not, of research studies.

Capellari concentrated his research on the repression imposed by the military regime, especially as of the AI-5 decree of December 1968, to investigate the freedom-related ideas of the counterculture propagated by journalist Luiz Carlos Maciel in his column Underground, printed in the weekly satirical tabloid O Pasquim, launched in June 1969. Maciel would be nicknamed the “counterculture guru” because of his work in spreading the movement’s ideals around the country. Capellari’s research project seeks to identify the motivations of the international counterculture movement and its introduction to Brazil during a period highlighted by powerful political and ideological rivalries. Based on the journalist’s discourse, Maciel questions whether the concept of freedom as proposed by the movement was, as the critics put it, a mere expression of hedonistic escapism or if it was a truly revolutionary movement. The thesis also emphasizes the movement’s historical origins.

Arquivo/AE The Pasquim group: Jaguar, in glasses, and Tarso de Castro, in the middleArquivo/AE

To prepare his doctorate thesis, Capellari systematically read books ranging from the covering the topic to theorists evoked by the movement, such as Theodore Roszak, Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, David Cooper, among others. “With the help of my advisor, I evaluated the possible directions of the research study and decided to focus on the column written by Luiz Carlos Maciel.” When dealing with the documents, the historian noticed that, by analyzing the elements of the journalist’s discourse, it was possible to interpret not only the spreading of the counterculture idea in that period (1969 to 1972) but also to analyze the content, comprised of elements originating from different sources of knowledge. In this context, the dictatorship, by repressing sexual freedom and other manifestations such as the hippy movement, sought to prevent the arrival of counterculture in Brazil. In this sense, the author points out, the term “dictatorship” – beyond the political and economic aspects involved in the concept – can be considered  the synthesis of the period’s conservative attitude in terms of customs. “There’s no doubt that the military regime sharply opposed the entry of counterculture into the national scenario, and considered counterculture as a subversive element that had to be eliminated.”

To this end, censorship on one side and repression on the other, as attested to by witnesses of those times, were used as a way of preventing an unrestricted life style. “I believe that it was not only the regime, but above all, it was also the conservative culture that it represented that was the winner, and not only in Brazil.” Capellari goes on to state that, from the point of view of many who got involved in the counterculture movement, their lingering feeling was that the freedom-related ideas that went together with a freer life style waned as the cultural industry transformed the ideas of the movement into merchandise, thus deflating it of its political and philosophical connotations.

The researcher states that, from this point of view, there is another aspect to be considered, which is related to the disputes going on in Brazil in the realms of politics and culture. On one hand, unlike the United States, Brazil was living under an oppressive regime, against which many students and other segments of society had rebelled prior to December 1968, when repression was instituted by means of the AI-5 decree. On the other hand, in the cultural arena, there was a powerful dispute going on between those who defended a national, politically engaged culture, symbolized by the proposals of the CPC (Popular Culture Center) and the ” tropicalistas,” musicians and artists open to the aesthetic national and international avant-garde. “In my opinion, it did not interest the military regime for foreign cultural elements to be introduced into the country if they had some kind of subversive connotation, and they were truly repressed; however, I believe that the counterculture also came across obstacles in its effort to spread throughout the Brazilian scenario of that period.”

Capellari believes that until 1968, the young activists were motivated by the desire to topple the military regime; other concerns, related to subjectivity, were generally left on the sidelines. “However, when the ‘red light’ went on, with the AI-5 decree, the young people split up into three groups (as Alfredo Syrkis said); some of them joined the armed underground opposition to the regime, others embraced the consumer society and others, already open to international cultural influences and suspicious of traditional political battles, ‘dropped out’.”

Capellari believes that Maciel helped spread the counterculture around Brazil. “O Pasquim was widely read by the young people of those times; more than 200 thousand issues a week were sold and the Underground column, which was written by Maciel, not only reported what was going on in the counterculture world but also synthetically discussed the ideas that permeated the imagination of those involved in the counterculture to a greater or lesser degree. The counterculture, however, arrived in a broader sense by means of rock and roll and the cultural industry as a whole.” It also arrived by means of similar yet less popular publications, such as A pausa, Rolling Stone, O Bondinho, a tabloid from São Paulo and Grilo magazine, both published by a group of journalists who had come from Realidade magazine. The Brazilian “dropping out” had international motivations, such as the refusal to accept the Western culture model, which was viewed as being oppressive. Capellari points out that refusing to be part of a bourgeois family, and saying “no” to sexual chastity, military service, work, accumulating wealth, institutionalized religion and its dogmas, to the “legitimate” knowledge taught in schools, among others, clearly alluded to another “no.” “More specifically, it alluded to a civilization-making process that characterizes Western modernity, especially since the onset of the 17th century’s scientific Illumination and industrial capitalism.”

In the researcher’s opinion, this is a complex issue, which he addresses in his thesis. “In the case of Brazil, as I’ve already said, the counterculture movement was introduced in a context marked by  repression by the extreme rightists on one hand, and, on the other hand, by an opposition that split into two not only in the realm of politics (the case of several leftist parties) but also in the realm of culture. In this case, there was a feeling of suspicion, from one of the sides, the national-popular one, towards the counterculture movement.” This is why the counterculture movement suffered opposition in Brazil not only from the right-wing but also from the traditional left-wing, who considered the movement a way of escapism.

Patrícia Santos/Folha ImagemThe rebel today: Luiz Carlos MacielPatrícia Santos/Folha Imagem

The concept of counterculture freedom was the object of an analysis conducted by Capellari. He points out that, in this respect, there are authors who view this as a form of escapism, as this is a kind of freedom that only points at its own subjectivity. “As Luciano Martins said, there was a kind of denial of the condition of the historical subject by those involved. Although his analysis is pertinent from the sociological point of view, I believe that the idea of freedom in counterculture is slightly more refined than this, because it points to a breach in the social context, through a different path, based on subjectivity.”

Instead of positive action, in the conventional manner of politics, says the author, the counterculture movement defends the breach from the inside, the inner core from which the cultural network closes in on the subject, its subjectivity, because counterculture preserves the network as a whole. “If a link breaks, the network tends to fray, and this is the breach in the social realm. Therefore, this is an idea of freedom that claims, first of all, the release of the subject, so that this release leads to social freedom as a whole. Hence the appeal exerted by psychedelic drugs, by some theories of psychoanalysis and by the oriental philosophies and religions”

Brazil, in this period, says Capellari, was going through a process of authoritarian modernization. Society was becoming increasingly urban and, because of the expansion of mass communication means, it was becoming permeable to the transformations that were happening abroad in terms of customs, behavior, etc. “It was inevitable for the counterculture movement to be introduced into the country. And, as it was being introduced, it underwent the repression of the regime, due to its subversive nature. But that was not the only issue. It was opposed by leftist political and cultural sectors, in whose opinion counterculture was considered a form of escapism introduced together with other alienating elements produced by cultural imperialism.”

The researcher dedicated most of the first chapter of his thesis to discussions on this and other issues. He compares testimonials and for and against opinions related to the introduction of counterculture to Brazil. “Going beyond the national realm, I present an in-depth discussion on the idea of countercultural freedom in the second chapter of the thesis, which is focused on an analysis of the Underground column.” In this chapter, he analyzes specific elements of psychoanalysis (Reich, Marcuse, Brown etc.) and concepts stemming from the world of oriental philosophies and religions. He weaves a scenario that can help clarify certain counterculture behavior.