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Peaceful citizen

Disbelief in institutions, generated by current political crisis, calls for discussion on our citizenship

MIGUEL BOYAYAN, HÉLIO DE ALMEIDA and JOSÉ ROBERTO MEDDANothing better than music for the ears. In particular, once in while, for giving them a tweak.  “O peaceful citizen, I called your attention, not for nothing, no. C’est fini la utopie, but the war every day, day by day, is not”, sings the band Skank. This is the ideal soundtrack for reading the recently-published survey Citizenship, participation and political institutions: what does the Brazilian think?, carried out by the Research and Documentation Center of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, which shows how Brazilians are still resigned to the thesis that Brazil is, and always will be, an eternal “sea of mud”, against which little can be done.

For 79% of the interviewees, corruption is the hallmark of the public service: the only democratic institution that works is the Catholic Church; 72% of those surveyed think that politicians exist only to do well in life. These results reinforce the “conformism” expressed in the last Latinobarómetro, a survey done by a Chilean NGO, which shows how Latin American satisfaction with democracy is faring.

About 43% of the Brazilians interviewed believe that a “heavy hand” from the government would do no harm; 48% would not mind if the country remains at the mercy of private companies, if their lives improve; and 26% think that having a democratic or non-democratic regimes comes to the same. Citizenship, understood as the participation of the individual in the creation of his society, seems little developed amongst us. A 1993 survey (CESOP/Unicamp) already showed the national indifference on the presence of representative bodies as necessary for the workings of democracy: 30% of the Brazilians then believed that Brazil could fare well without the National Congress. Today’s disbelief, resumed in the crisis under way, is therefore no novelty. Hence the question: what citizens are we, so agile in identifying institutional shortcomings and so slow to change this state of things? Are we actually peaceful citizens, or could they have made us believe this?

This is the questioning of the most recent research by political scientist Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos, Horizonte do desejo: instabilidade, fracasso coletivo e inércia social [Horizon of Desire: Instability, Collective Failure and Social Inertia] (FGV Editora, 200 pages, R$ 26.00), which tries to understand why, in a country with so many inequalities and dissatisfactions, there has never been a popular movement capable of bringing about a reform in the national life. “Brazil falls far short of the threshold of social sensitiveness, and has thus lived peacefully with the day-to-day poverty, material and civic, without generating any great threats. Here, the horizon of desire still is pure desire, without any horizon”, the author explains.

The paradox, pointed out by Santos, is that, since the 1930’s, the country has experienced a great economic leap forward and what he calls an electoral “mega-conversion” (“we set off from a reduced electorate in 1945-1950 to another that, in 2002, corresponded to 68% of the population”, he notes), without the citizenship of the votes being accompanied by a citizenship of the enjoyment of social rights. “With the end of the military dictatorship and the construction of democracy, as from 1985, the word citizenship became the talk of the people.

There was the belief that the democratization of the institutions would quickly bring national happiness. This worked with the vote, but not with everything. The great social and economic inequalities continue and, as a consequence, the mechanisms and agents of democracy, like elections, parties, Congress, politicians, are suffering wear and tear and losing the confidence of the public”, analyzes José Murilo de Carvalho, a professor from UFRJ and the author of Citizenship in Brazil: the Long Road.

“There is, at the same time, a historical refusal by the country to configure a public space for autonomous enunciation of rights, alongside the startling novelty of human and social rights and their public regulation having been transformed into obstacles to citizenship, which, dramatically transformed, now inhabits the spaces of the private world and of individual realization under governments that present themselves merely as managers of crisis and change”, is the assessment of the sociologist from USP, Maria Célia Paoli, the coordinator of the theme project Citizenship and Democracy: Thought in the Ruptures of Politics, financed by FAPESP, which intends to account for the “breakup, the broad process of deregulation and internationalization of the world, which is done by destroying mediations”, directly influencing the rights of citizenship and generating the “privatization of the public, the destitution of speech, and the annulment of politics”, to use the words of sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, from USP, a member of the project team.

Oliveira questions, in particular, how this whole process could occur with so little resistance from society, “an actively and passively consented class domination in which finally the dominated share the same values as the dominators”. Perhaps the perennial disillusion with national politics has reasons that common reason does not know. “Where will we go with all this ethical-moralizing frenzy that seems to want, with its regenerating zeal, to bombard all the practices of democratic parliamentary life?”, asks political scientist Marco Aurélio Nogueira, from Unesp.

“If it is appropriate to presume that we will hardly create a genuinely democratic, civic and averse to corruption society with the preservation of the legacy of inequality and elitism, will it be reasonable to expect that we can overcome this legacy without acting with determination to the effect of creating ‘artificially’ the legal mechanisms that may aspire to effectiveness in barring corruption and implanting a new and politically more propitious culture”, observes the professor from UFMG, Fábio Wanderley Reis. It is a vicious cycle: the lack of real citizenship prevents an effective action to change the State; this, coupled with a ‘turning one’s back’ on politics and a disbelief in politicians, generates a noxious mechanism that, in turn, prevents the formation of effective ways of controlling corruption and resolving the social inequalities.

“The widespread disparagement of the population for civil rights, to be sure, is not irrelevant from the point of view of corruption and its associates”, observes Reis. “The ‘Hobbesian’ insecurity (Hobbes preached the need for a State that restrained the quest for power, unlimited, that each citizen was said to have in a ‘natural state’) and the yearning for an authoritarian and strong power perhaps helps to explain the enormous proportions of support for hypothetical personal leaderships that could unify and guide a nation alien to the parties.” And, warns Professor Marcello Baquero (UFRGS), the greater the institutional delegitimation, the greater the appeal of charismatic leaders, who, in turn, contribute towards neutralizing and discrediting these same institutions.

The tortuous history of Brazilian citizenship is a fundamental component in the political and social state of the present. “In Brazil, we are experiencing an inversion. Here, first came the social rights, implanted in periods of suppression of political rights and reduction of civil rights by a dictator, Vargas, who became popular”, Murilo de Carvalho explains. “Afterwards, came the political rights, in a rather bizarre way, since the greatest expansion of the vote took place in another dictatorial period, by the military, in which the bodies of political representation were transformed into a piece of decoration of the regime.” On a seesaw, whenever the country stepped up the political rights, it left aside the social rights, and vice-versa.

This perverse logic has left damages: the excessive valuation of the Executive, since, if the social rights were implemented in dictatorial periods, the image was created, for the bulk of the population, of the centrality of the State. The social improvements always came packaged in cronyism. “Social benefits were not treated as a right of everybody, but as the fruit of the negotiation of each category with the government. Accordingly, society started to organize itself to guarantee the rights and privileges distributed by the State”, notes Murilo de Carvalho. Or, in the words of Baquero, “tertiary social relations” were established in Brazil, namely, a direct tie between State and individual, which feels himself a debtor to the Executive, to the detriment of the parties. Representation is made fragile.

When it arrived in Brazil, the neoliberal model, adopted on a global scale, affected this picture even more, inverting it, without, however, resolving its blemishes. “Liberal thinking insisted on the importance of the market and on the reduction of the role of the State. In this view, the citizen becomes more and more a consumer, distanced from concerns with politics and the collective problems”, Murilo de Carvalho says.

“Today, people do not want to be citizens, but consumers. Or rather, the citizenship that they demand is that of the right to consumption, the citizenship preached by the new liberals. The culture of consumption makes it difficult to untie the knot that makes the advance of citizenship so slow among us, that is to say, the capacity of the representative system for producing results that imply the reduction of inequalities of every kind.” Oliveira goes even further. “Every effort to democratize, to create a public sphere in Brazil, arose from the action of the dominated classes.”

Hence, he advocates, the various moments at which the State “silenced” these voices in the name of “social harmony”, of political annulment, of consensus, in the opposite direction to “social disagreement”, constructive to the extent that it allows society to participate actively in the construction of its sociopolitical-economic universe. “It is a movement that tries to make subaltern the political presence of the players and of their demands and means a disempowering of representation and of social participation in the spheres of political decision”, Célia Paoli analyzes.

If, before, it was the powerful State that made effective citizenship difficult, from the 1990’s, the propagation of the ideal of a “bankrupt” State was to be responsible for demobilization of the citizens. “If, for a long time, the State subsidized the formation of capital, with the arrival of the foreign debt crisis in the 1980’s, afterwards converted into domestic public debt, the role of the Executive as condottiere in capitalist expansion was exhausted”, Oliveira reckons. The image of the exhausted State was created.

“This domestic crisis of the government put the spotlights on public expenditure and converted the public social expenditure into the scapegoat for the bankruptcy of the State, when actually this was due to the domestic public debt and to the servicing of the foreign debt.” According to the sociologist, the illusion was established that the State would only survive as an extension of the private universe, which would “sustain” the government, when, he claims, the road is in the opposite direction. According to Oliveira, the false awareness of the unnecessity of the public sector was born, which ought to work with the same rationale as a private company. Hence, nothing more natural than for the citizen to exchange his citizenship for the consumption of goods.

This swap, though, brings implications: the individual is obliged to solve his problems on his own, while the masses demand more and more of the State. The first is to be seen in the crime pages. “In the constitutional hybrid that associates the regulatory confinement of citizenship to a social Hobbesianism, violence as a routine way of solving intersubjective conflicts and predatory behavior hold sway, and these days this has become generalized in Brazilian society”, analyzes Vera Telles, a sociologist from USP.

On the side of the masses, notes Santos, the dissatisfaction arises from the increase in the volume of demands from an overpopulated political arena, requests that are not easy to be attended to by the State at its current moment. “The dissatisfaction of the population is not so much with democracy in itself, but with the underdevelopment of the democratic institutions. In the last 10, 15 years, the country has gone into a process of institutional underdevelopment, to the extent that the expansion and maturing of political society and the growing heterogeneity of its interest groups are not to be seen adequately expressed in the institutions”, he believes.

After all, as Nogueira reminds us, the State has been appropriated by private interests, which it was obliged to intermediate. “It has been fragmented, imprisoned by various privatisms, and incapacitated for responding to the multiplied social demands, for giving the strategic sectors (education, health) conditions, and for continuing to coordinate development.” In the light of this, the system, obsolete, has skidded. The population, though, wanted more.

“The recent dictatorial past was credited with the largest portion of responsibility for the precarious status quo, ending up, with well-aimed logic, being up to the democracy that succeeded it the task of arranging for the disappearance of even the slightest vestige of the blemishes inherited”, notes Santos. It was, though, too late, and the future brought more frustration than content, with the revelation of the weight of the inertia of the state of things. Even so, the population remained apathetic. How was this managed?

One hypothesis, adopted by Santos, is the so-called “relative privation”, the hiatus between the condition of life perceived by the individual and the one that he considers he ought to have, by merit or social compensation. The more modest the real consumption, the larger the gap between what someone has and the horizon of his desire. In a country marked by instability, this component generates a high level of uncertainty, stimulating “risk aversion” in people, in particular in the poorest, fearful of unemployment, of police violence and of marginalization.

Add a chronic lack of organization (with weakened trade unions etc.) and you will have an inert society. “The parties are not turned to, nor the politicians. There is an evident mismatch between the magnitude of the social needs and the commitment of society to solving them. There is no time left over for this, in view of the priority allocation of individuals time and recourses to the solution of personal and family problems.” Better to let things be. This line of thought, in no way destitute of sense, means that lack of citizenship and inequalities have, according to Santos, “the backing of indifference”.

The calculation than one does is how much one can lose by acting or gain by keeping quiet. The result is obvious and reveals itself in the almost pacific familiarity with civic, moral and material poverty. “The ‘cost of failure’ of collective actions can be high, taking into account the deterioration of the status quo of the participants, a sufficiently threatening circumstance to depress the spirit of grievance of the most needy.”