The São Paulo Fraction: The Lineaments
of a Cultural Formation
The title to this piece is proposed as an homage to Raymond Williams’s justly acclaimed 1980 essay, “The Bloomsbury Fraction.” Although he recognizes the many problems of method and reliability involved in the study of small groups, he does acknowledge that no history of contemporary culture could be written without attention to them. In his characteristic manner of following the dialectical imperative of making connections, he boldly states that “the level that matters, finally, is not that of the abstracted ideas, but of the real relations of the group to the social system as a whole.”1 If Williams is right, the only manner of starting this presentation of a contemporary Brazilian cultural formation I named “the São Paulo Fraction” — a fraction, that is, of the Brazilian intelligentsia — is by trying precisely to establish what those relations to the social whole are.
I expect that their history, not only in itself but also as a typical formation of the post-1960s Left, will make a small contribution to a much-needed mapping of the different paths taken by specific Left formations at the onset of globalization. What are the possibilities open to such a group? What kind of social role do they play? How do they describe and interpret social reality and the political options it offers? What difference does their existence make for gathering forces for social transformation?
First an attempt at description. The group is composed of middle-class intellectuals who would be proud to be described as traitors to their own class. Though most of them lead a very bourgeois life — supported, in most cases, by university salaries — they all oppose the prevailing middle-class ethos and position themselves as an intelligentsia in the classical sense of an independent group of thinkers who possess intellectual and political influence. Some of them are political party members: one of the current members of the group was the Press Secretary for the first Workers’ Party government, and another became the mayor of São Paulo. Others have informally advised presidents and ministers. In a peripheral country like Brazil, this transit between intellectual and political life is not rare, but it is unusual that the ideas of such an informal and apparently fortuitous group should have any influence in high-level politics. And I use the word “informal” advisedly. In one of the key members’ recollection, the origin of the group could not be more trivial or prosaic. In the late 1970s, reunited in São Paulo after studies in Paris and Vienna, a couple of friends decided to meet on Sunday evenings to chat. As Paulo and Otília Arantes had a young child who loved pizza, they decided to meet at a pizza parlor. With losses and additions, sometimes there are as many as thirty people and sometimes only five or six, but always under the sign of friendship and common interests, the group has been meeting every single Sunday till the moment I write. As in the very beginning, there are no official obligations or rewards, people simply go there and some stay on because they are interested in meeting and talking about whatever question is posed by the social conjuncture. Those questions are likely to set up an intellectual agenda and references to arguments discussed in the noisy and combative discussions can be traced in an essay published months later or, more often, in a piece published in the press in São Paulo by any one of the members.
When we examine more closely what I have called here an apparently fortuitous group of friends we begin to make the first connections. Paulo and Otília Arantes were former militants of Juventude Universitária Católican (JUC), that is, Catholic Youth at Universities, a left-wing branch of the Catholic Action that aimed at spreading Catholicism and social consciousness to university students. Roberto Schwarz came from a leftist Jewish family who had fled Nazi Vienna to get established in São Paulo. He had been engaged in one of the many militant groups that were to make the fateful decision of mounting armed struggle against the military dictatorship after 1964. They had all gone to Paris precisely to escape police persecution. In Paris, Roberto met Grecia de la Sobera, a Paraguayan studying the humanities. Back in Brazil, the two couples were joined by Modesto Carone and his wife, Marilene, a psychoanalyst who was to start an ambitious project, sadly interrupted by her early death, of translating Freud into Portuguese from the original German and not from the Spanish or English versions. Carone, a journalist and lawyer before his training as a Germanist, had had strong connections with theater groups then closely aligned with the popular struggles that were growing all over and were part of the forces of change that were to determine the violent reaction of the status quo in 1964. Carone took part in the collective creation of plays with Gianfrancesco Guarniere, a promoter of epic theater in Brazil, and with Augusto Boal, the creator of the later, better-known Theater of the Oppressed. They all had close links with the Centers of Popular Culture (CPCs), who put up plays at factories, universities, and to the peasant movements who were radicalizing in important ways before the coup. So one could see, represented around the table at the pizza parlor, three fractions of the militant Left: the Catholic branch — it is useful to remember that the 1970s saw the expansion of Liberation Theology and of the Christian Base Communities who were to serve as one of the rallying points for the organization of the Landless People Movement in the 1980s; the militant Left who opted for armed struggle and had been crushed in the violent repression that marked the darkest years of dictatorship from 1968 to 1974; and the cultural Left, who had been responsible for an extraordinary flourishing which included not only the new theater, but also, cinema novo, Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, and popular music, as bossa nova met the samba at the favelas. Architecture of course had been through its high modernist moment in the construction of Brasilia in the late 1950s. As Roberto Schwarz puts it in an appraisal of the years immediately before the coup, with consequences that lasted until repression set in, “[t]he country was unrecognizably intelligent. Political journalism improved dramatically and so did humor. Even deputies in parliament made some interesting speeches.”2 It seemed then that, as in many other countries where the 1960s brought strong winds of change, Brazil was finally going to become a socially integrated country where historical injustices would be redressed. Of course all those high hopes were deflated by the U.S.-supported coup. It was clear then that the only path open was to oppose the regime. The key question was what form this opposition should take. The eventual political differences in the group were all subsumed, as they were for the majority of the Brazilian Left, by the necessity to fight the common enemy, the military dictatorship. It was then, as Paulo Arantes was to recollect later, that the fateful turn to focus the debate on anti-authoritarianism, rather than, as in the more radical 1960s, on anti-capitalism, was made.3 It was perhaps the beginning of the end of higher hopes for a distinctively leftist model of society and the beginning of yet another crisis for the Left: all of its many forms had been defeated by the coup.
It is good to bear in mind, before we get immersed in the particularities of the group, that, as Nicholas Brown succinctly and accurately puts it,
what happened in the coup of 1964 was not unique to Brazil; the Brazilian case is a particularly dramatic instance of a global phenomenon of the end of political modernism grounded in great utopian projects: from the disappointment that followed the apparent seizing of historical initiative by the African independence movements to the dissipation of First World 1960s countercultures into the “commodified dissent” of alternative lifestyles. The ultimate horizon of the moment we are discussing, in other words, is the turning of the Cold War toward the consolidation of a U.S.-led market hegemony, globalization as it is currently understood.4
But before we go on to describe how the group reacted to this situation and to the downturns in the years of struggle for re-democratization, I would like to tell you about their intellectual formation. This is fundamental as a decisive feature of this generation in that they do not separate, in their thinking about society, culture from politics. The core members, Modesto Carone, Paulo Arantes, and Roberto Schwarz, and most of the members who joined later on, had all been students at the School of Humanities at the University of São Paulo. This university is a peculiar project of the Brazilian bourgeoisie and exemplifies a number of the contradictions of this class: the university was founded in 1934 by a rising bourgeoisie, which had accumulated money through coffee plantations and was on the high tide of a rapidly industrializing economy. It was, however, founded as a public university in the French model, one open to all that could pass the entrance examination, thus testifying to the enlightened side of the founders. However, in an unequal society, there was no danger that the poor would ever get there in any significant number, thus demonstrating the conditions of possibility of such enlightenment: the bourgeoisie can profess modern democratic ideas, provided they can never be put into real practice. And thus the public university was there to cultivate the children of the bourgeoisie.
However, it turned out better than this. As in many other circumstances in ex-colonies, the university took recourse to foreign aid. The first courses in the humanities were largely conducted by foreign missions. It was thus that intellectuals like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Fernand Braudel, Roger Bastide, and later Michel Foucault taught there. But in his recollection of those formative years for the humanities in Brazil, Antonio Candido, who studied and taught there and, born in 1918, is still the central figure in Brazilian cultural criticism, singles out somebody less famous, Jean Maugüe. A friend of Jean-Paul Sartre’s, he brought to the group of students, who were to become the first generation of Brazilian academic intellectuals, his unconventional Marxism. With Maugüe, they learned that more than disciplines in a university curriculum, philosophy and criticism were powerful means of understanding social reality. This intellectual attitude thrived among young critics in a country where the basic inequalities of social life end up by determining a “peculiar engagement” that is the hallmark of the work of its most relevant thinkers. Soon, the university founded for the children of the bourgeoisie was able to start a tradition of modest — because still within the framework of the existing social relations — radicalism. The first important work to come out of this generation was marked by the effort to understand the peculiarities of Brazilian society, very much including the ways it dealt with poverty or with racism, and the problems of interpreting local cultural production according to standards and models that were produced elsewhere. They tried to respond to the many challenges of formulating relevant thought in the peculiar conditions of a new country, still in the process of cultural formation, and in great need of interpretations of social reality that contributed to effective social change.
Of course, as intellectual work alone can never do, they did not succeed in producing a more just society, but they planted a seed that to this day invigorates the best intellectual work produced in the country. The young students of the late 1930s at the University of São Paulo soon became the leading figures in Brazilian cultural life, with the most influential work in sociology, film criticism, drama studies, visual arts, and literature. We all learned from them to value the social import of work in the humanities. Adapting a formulation by Candido, we can say that in this influential tradition the task of the humanities is “to discover and interpret social reality.” To discover reality because in unfair societies where opacity is of the essence, we must work to find out the true lineaments of our social life; and to interpret reality because the objects of study of the humanities, be they works of art, institutions, or social projects, are materializations of the meanings and values that constitute such societies. The work of interpretation entails, as of necessity, a position with respect to existing social and economic relations. Those are strongly tinged by international relations which determine them. Thus, the interpretation of cultural products ends up by demanding a point of view on the current stage of world capitalism. As we can see, there is little space in this stance for the generalities that constitute hegemonic cultural criticism in central countries.
This may be one of the reasons why Candido’s work parallels the liveliest traditions of the Left. In a former colony, which had embarked late and on the peripheral side in the uneven process of capitalist modernization, and where few of the apparatuses of so called “civilization” took hold and none ever got fully formed, his work illustrates how the relative autonomy of the cultural can sometimes perform miracles. On a theoretical level, his work represents a clear departure from both the detailed attention to the words on the page that characterized the internal approaches to literature, and from the reductionism of looking at literature as a direct reflection of society that characterized sociological approaches and also most contributions of leftist literary criticism. He deftly superseded those hegemonic tendencies in his work, whose main impulse, in his jargon-free language, was to “show how the external becomes internal,” that is, how social forms shape aesthetic forms. This dialectical approach opened up a series of possibilities and constitutes Candido’s own contribution to the ongoing process of literary hermeneutics. His work attests that the logic of literary form develops at its own level the logic of History. Once this is established, one can begin to optimize the cognitive potential of cultural criticism. In doing so, his intellectual project finds an affinity with the most fertile endeavors of cultural criticism elsewhere, in its effort to construct a theory of society using aesthetic elaboration as indexes of social forms. He saw the shaping force of society in artistic forms, and, reversibly, the ways in which art granted a unique knowledge of society. In an unassuming way — after all, his work aimed at forming other critics — he developed a notion of literary form that has parallels in the works of thinkers in the dialectical tradition, most notably the Adornian notion of form as sedimented social content and Raymond Williams’s assertion of the interconstitutive character of aesthetic form and social formation. In this sense, his trajectory is part of the main developments in Western cultural criticism.
Let me give an example to try to demonstrate this. His central book is Formação da Literatura Brasileira: Momentos Decisivos (1959) — Formation of Brazilian Literature: Key Moments. In this seminal study, he writes the history of the formation of a national literature on the periphery. He identifies the double fidelity that defines cultural experience in new nations where local specificities and foreign modes of describing reality clash and constitute a specific dialectics which is the defining trait of Brazilian intellectual experience. The key moments the title refers to are the Neoclassical and the Romantic. The first is linked to the last moments of the colonial period in late eighteenth century and the other to the first fifty years of the independent country in the nineteenth century. Aesthetically they are contrasting and successive schools, but in Brazil they gravitate in the same force field generated by Independence, proclaimed in 1822. The process of Independence takes a long time and this confers an unforeseen common trait to literary schools which are opposed elsewhere. Thus, for instance, in spite of their universalism and conventionality, the shepherds of Neoclassical poetry are sensitive to the colonial situation and to the autonomist appeal. An analogous redefinition obtains in the case of the Romantic poets who, regardless of the subjectivism and individualism peculiar to the school, bear in mind the unromantic obligations of intellectuals with the tasks demanded by the construction of the new country, very much including bureaucratic ones. The force of attraction of national independence modifies, to a certain extent, the canonical, that is European, direction of the two great currents of sensibility. From another angle, those are alterations that point to the extra-European course of Western History, illuminating it in a peculiar way.5
This aspect of Candido’s work — that is, the ways in which the study of a national question can clarify and interrogate the functioning of the international system — and his commitment to the necessity of understanding a social reality that claims for transformation, opens up a space that is going to be filled up by the work of members of the group I am trying to describe here. Their contribution was diverse — Roberto Schwarz became, of course, one of the key cultural critics of the contemporary Left; Otília Arantes became a professor of aesthetics at the University of São Paulo with books on visual arts, architecture, and urbanism; Paulo Arantes, a professor of philosophy and a polemical observer of Brazilian political life with works on Hegel side by side with essays on the latest attack of organized crime in São Paulo; Modesto Carone, a professor of German literature and translator of Kafka into Portuguese, became a novelist and the author of Resumo de Ana, among other works of fiction. This very powerful novel covers the generations of a family in twentieth-century Sorocaba, a city ninety kilometers from São Paulo that used to be known, for its industrial development, as the Brazilian Manchester. Their historical experience gives the lie to the myths of progress and modernization that rule our ideological life as it examines the process from the point of view of the majority, the ones who pay its many prices.
One main feature unites their diversity. As many other Latin American intellectuals, they work under the pressure of what Candido calls a peculiar type of engagement which is different from the one in European countries: they always see their work as a necessary contribution to the still-incomplete formation of their national culture. Their work is a permanent effort at understanding, using categories which were made elsewhere, what Schwarz calls the matter of Brazil, the constellation formed by a peculiar complex of relations and positions that constitute our local social life viewed in a world-historical perspective. The São Paulo Fraction set out to specify the dialectics of our social experience by understanding the links between what happens, or fails to happen, in Brazil and the international movement of capital. In the process, they completed the formation of a Brazilian tradition of critical thought, one that fulfills the intellectual tasks determined by their location. As such, their collective output represents an intellectual alternative to the continuation of a Left tradition in post-revolutionary times.
Their way of approaching this imperative of configuring the peculiarities of the Brazilian was strongly influenced by another powerful intellectual formation to come out of the University of São Paulo, known as either the Seminar on Marx or the Capital Group. This was constituted by a number of young professors who, in the late 1950s, got informally together to study Capital. Many members of the group were to become prominent in their respective disciplines. Schwarz, then a student of social sciences, was part of the group. Another was then a young professor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, an exponent of dependency theory before he became president of Brazil in 1994. Michael Löwy, who is now established in Paris, is well known for the combination of militant engagement to thorough analytic research; the historian Fernando Novais, and the economist of socio-solidarity and a member of Lula’s government, Paul Singer, are the better-known names. The Capital Group’s contribution to the theme of the matter of Brazil is better captured in Schwarz’s recollection of the seminar, published in 1995. He tells us that contrary to the ideas that had been hegemonic both on the Right and on the Communist Left that thought of the country as being one stage behind the international (in fact Western European and later North American) norm of development, they followed Trotsky’s lead and conceived the country as functioning, or rather malfunctioning, under the laws of uneven and combined development. This allowed them to achieve what Schwarz calls a powerful “new intuition of the country.”
This new intuition consisted in a point of confluence and of inflection of the local tradition and a thorough and heterodox study of Marx. The central figure of Brazilian Marxism had been Caio Prado Júnior. He is part of a triad of intellectuals that is usually credited as being the “inventors of Brazil,” referring to three key works, published in the 1930s, that offered powerful and influential interpretations of the country from different political and ideological perspectives. According to historian Emilia Viotti da Costa — an emeritus professor at Yale and an occasional member of the Sunday gatherings — Gilberto Freyre, whose widely acclaimed The Masters and the Slaves, came out in 1933, gives a right-wing interpretation of the country whereas Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, whose Roots of Brazil was published in 1936, gives the view from the center. They both aim at explaining the national character and they both make use of an interdisciplinary approach that combines sociology, anthropology, and psychology to present the sociological matrix of the country. They present, though from different angles, a culturalist explanation anchored in our Iberian and agrarian roots. They stress an idea of Brazil as the place of cordiality and plasticity, where there would be no rigid barriers between the classes or the races. They both recognize the strong influence of the patriarchal family. Freyre mourns the disappearance of our colonial past, in his reading, a time capable of producing an admirable way of life. For Buarque, the emphasis is on the surpassing of its inequities and the advancement of a democratic society. Prado gives the view from the Left as he looks at the political evolution of the country from the point of view of economic and social contradictions determined by our historical evolution.6
Of the three classics of the interpretations of Brazil, the Capital group developed, as it was to be expected, the point of view made available by Prado and particularly his “national” reading of Marxism. For him, Marxism was not an orthodoxy, as defended by the Communist Party, but a way of approaching reality that enabled the explanations of the specificities of historical development. Thus, studying the historical formation of Brazil, “he did not look for Feudalism where there had been none, as did the majority of the Brazilian Left, but concentrated on trying to understand the singularity of the Brazilian experience.”7 This enabled him to give a much more convincing explanation of the specificities of our colonization, which was based on the production, in big properties under a regime of slavery, of the goods demanded by the international capitalist market which was developing by then. In this sense, our colonization was an integral part of capitalist modernity. The collective output of the Capital group would reinforce and expand this line of interpretation of Brazil.
Their first procedure was to correct the view of the country as being one or two stages behind in a process that produced “progress” in the outside world whose standard of development the country could one day achieve. This was the ideological basis of the continuous and relatively fruitless efforts to catch up that fed the adage of Brazil as the country of the future. Well-trained in Marxism, but in opposition to the tenets of the Communist Party, this group of intellectuals was able to realize that conditions in the country are not an exception but a result of the unequal development of world capital. This generation was further able to see that it was fruitless to try to conceive of the peculiarities of the country outside a contemporary system of relations. Contrary to received wisdom, Brazil is not to be seen as an anomaly or as a result of simple backwardness. It is an integral part of the world system whose notion of progress is qualified by the very existence of places like it. This stance underwrites the most significant contributions of the group and informs the outlook of the works of the members of the São Paulo Fraction. Their long-term collective effort was to detail the forms of interdependence between their diverse objects of study, their location as Marxist intellectuals on the periphery, and what this location does to the international categories of thought they cannot avoid. In the process, they gave continuity to the task of interpreting Brazilian social reality and constituted a resonant voice of the impasses and insights of our intellectual Left.
Let me try to specify the characteristics of this resonance. As years went by, more and more intellectuals — in the vast majority academics linked either by formation or by professional ties with the University of São Paulo — became members of the informal gathering. Throughout the 1980s, local politics dominated the informal chats — the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the founding of the Workers’ Party in 1981 — the Trotskyist intellectual and art critic Mario Pedrosa, one of Otília Arantes’ objects of study, signed membership file number 1 of the new working class party. Candido was a member of the first National Directory of the party between 1981 and 1984. The many drawbacks of those years of democratization of the country fueled the conversations and their echoes appeared in the main books published by the members in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps the central focus of the matter of Brazil as constructed by their different works is the theme of so-called modernization. Under different guises, this theme is a constant in many peripheral countries as modernity is the term that defines what it takes to be no longer in a subaltern position in world affairs. The nations at the edge of capitalism are condemned to “inventing” their own strategies of development, at the risk of repeating and reproducing the conditions that generate backwardness. The theme has been, of course, recurrent in Brazilian intellectual history, and, among other places, it got translated into a series of books on the formation of Brazil in which different intellectuals tried to come to terms with our lacks and discrepancies vis-à-vis the international norm. We saw that Candido’s main work is precisely called The Formation of Brazilian Literature and Prado’s The Formation of Contemporary Brazil (1942). To this we could certainly add economist Celso Furtado’s The Economic Formation of Brazil (1959), and Raymundo Faoro’s “The Owners of Power, Formation of the Brazilian Political Patrons” (1958). The members of the Capital group continued this legacy and worked very much within the frame of development theories. Famously, Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s 1964 book, Industrial Entrepreneurs and Economic Development, ended with the two alternatives then visible: “sub-capitalism or socialism?” The contribution of the São Paulo Fraction was to develop in another frame of reference. The country was not in a process of formations that would lead to integration in modern capitalism. In their view, modernization had happened and it was our lot in the contemporary world, with economic progress for the very few and the same old inequality for the majority. The forms that capitalist modernization took in the periphery was to become their central theme.
In 1985 indirect elections marked the end of the dictatorship and the beginning of civilian rule. In 1987, Schwarz published his fourth book of essays, significantly entitled Que Horas São? What time is it? Though ironic, the title reminds us of the necessity to interpret the Brazil that was coming out of twenty years of military rule, coupled with fifteen years of economic growth that had accelerated industrialization and fostered the expansion of our dependent capitalism. In 1989, we had the most polarized of our elections: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, from the Workers’ Party, ran under a leftist program and was defeated by an upstart politician, Fernando Collor de Mello, who was to be impeached for corruption two years later after having launched a process of opening up the country to foreign exports and of privatizing state companies under the ever-present banner of modernization.
Besides assessing the current moment, it was necessary to try to define what kind of country we had become and sort out the elements of permanence among the elements of change. The fifteen essays that compose the book, written between 1979 and 1986, offer complementary views on the themes of the matter of Brazil as seen historically and in its present manifestations in a country more fully integrated in international capitalism. They include theoretical interventions on the perceived feeling of continuous discrepancy between our local experience and the peculiarities of the contemporary world, analysis of the diverse manifestations of this feeling in contemporary literature and film, as well as a study of achievement of the dialectical method in Candido, and a platform for discussion of the cultural politics of the Workers’ Party. The title of one of the essays sums up, in a string of adjectives, the main questions historically involved in the study of Brazil: “Complex, National, Modern, and Negative.” The substance to all those qualities is given by the specific dynamics of Brazilian society as materialized in the later novels of Machado de Assis, our great realist novelist born in 1839. The study of his works is Schwarz’s lifelong project. In the process he was to interpret a central theme of the general culture of the country, intervening in a debate that reaches far beyond the academy as Machado is widely read, taught at secondary schools and widely acknowledged as our true classic.
The essay in “Que Horas São?” presents a reading of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1880) that demonstrates that the greatness of Machado stems precisely from this dialectics between aesthetic form and social processes that art powerfully reveals. “Complex” refers at first to the fact that the loose form of Machado’s novel, in which the dead narrator seems never to be able to concentrate his attention on what he is telling us from beyond the grave, changing subjects, dictions, and opinions as he pleases, is in fact the result of careful composition as each turn of his whimsical narrative reveals the authoritarian and malignant aspects of his capriciousness. This capriciousness, which forms the principle of composition of the novel, is more than a personal trait. It ends up by revealing a movement that is descriptive of the latitude that personal freedom can reach in a social situation in which the rules of modern civilization at the same time apply (Bras had been a well-formed “modern” bourgeois on a par with the Western mores and knowledge of his time) and do not apply, as he can subvert and disregard them as he pleases. And he can do all this without stepping out of character and ceasing to be recognized as a representative of Brazilian social reality, whose “national” character is formed by the conviviality of the bourgeois norm — capitalist mode of production with its accompanying ideology of liberalism — and its contrary, slavery and appalling social differences. As Schwarz puts it, “Machado has worked out a technique that allows for the ever-renewed and never-completed subordination of current bourgeois reality to personal arbitrariness.”8
Bras Cubas is an example of the possibility of norm and capriciousness living together in the same person, and this very possibility functions as a strong questioning of the validity of those so-called “universal” norms. The many implications those characteristics have had for thinking about Brazil and how the local situation illuminates and criticizes the global one are summarized in his claim that
the law of Machado’s prose would be something like the miniaturization or the diagram of the ideological to and fro of the Brazilian ruling elite, articulated with the international market and with Western progress, as well as with slavery and the local forms of social dependence among free men that go with it. This to and fro epitomizes the vexations of the nation, but it does something else as well, as it also points to the global history in which Brazil is a partner, although a morally condemned one: the bourgeois order in its totality is not ruled by the bourgeois norm.9
A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism, Schwarz’s full-length book on Machado, whom he considers one of the best interpreters of the specific movement of Brazilian society, came out in 1990. This book marks one point of completion of his intellectual project as he takes the full consequences of some of the traditions that made his work possible and takes them one decisive step further. Marx has shown that social reality is itself formed. From Candido, he develops the notion that literary composition is not, as hegemonic cultural criticism would have it, a stroke of genius but a socio-historical result of “forms working on other forms.”10 He demonstrates that the work of art concentrates a complex of social and historical relations that is the task of criticism to unravel. He makes us see that literary form is a configuration of actually existing social relations, an abstraction that uniquely allows us to intuitively grasp the social whole and thus makes possible its critique. From the Seminar on Marx he takes the ways in which we can only think of Brazil in terms of the world system of which it is an inescapable and revealing part. Thus the explanation of the matter of Brazil as configured in our greatest novelist has consequences that reach beyond the national sphere. If Adorno is right and art is the unconscious historiography of our times, Schwarz’s studies of Machado constitute a relevant contribution to Western Marxism and a definite step in defining the unstated project of the São Paulo Fraction, one that was, so to speak, imposed on them by their situation, that is, to constitute what Nicholas Brown, following Fredric Jameson, calls a spatial dialectics, a way of thinking predicated on place and on the explanatory potential of thinking the world system through the periphery and testing the international categories of thought against our social reality.11
That is also the focus of Paulo Arantes’ intellectual project. After a book on Hegel and time and a critique of Habermas’ notions of modernity, he turned his full attention to Brazil and engaged in the reconstruction of the formation of what he calls the São Paulo Intellectual Party, the ground from which his own thought sprang. In 1992, he published O Sentimento da Dialética na Experiência Intelectual Brasileira (The Feeling for Dialectics in Brazilian Intellectual Experience) in which he demonstrates how the interpretations of Brazilian literature in the works of Candido and Schwarz succeeded in forming — the theme of formation being, as we saw, a constant in Brazilian intellectual endeavors — a dialectical tradition of explaining Brazil. In 1994, he published Um Departamento Francês de Ultramar (A French Department Overseas), a study of the formation of a branch of Brazilian philosophy under the influence of the French mission that started the department of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo. This study clarifies the turns of European philosophy as seen in the works of Brazilian philosophers who make explicit the consequences of new philosophical fashions. A good example of this is how the emptying out of political significance as deconstruction developed mostly notably in France and the U.S. was already clear in local imitation. For a number of local thinkers, the dismantling of the opposition center and periphery in discursive practice was a way of no longer questioning the stark realities of real life in a divided society and imagining that our social life was conducted in an “in-between place” of indeterminacy and undecidability. In this sense, the ways philosophy was conducted in the country helped interrogate its practice elsewhere.
Paulo and Otília Arantes have programmatically made a very productive effort at passing on their way of thinking to other generations. Otília Arantes directed the Center for the Studies of Contemporary Art from 1979 to 1992 and edited an influential academic journal, Arte em Revista, together with her students. Paulo Arantes taught courses which gathered most of the students interested in leftist thought. Their formative influence is clear in the works of the younger members who began to publish in those years: Iná Camargo Costa published a history of epic theater in pre-1964 Brazil, Isabel Loureiro, today president of the Brazilian section of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, published in 1995 a book on Rosa Luxemburg, continuing a tradition of making the key figures of the Left better known in Brazil — in the 1980s, Schwarz and Carone had translated essays by Adorno and Benjamin into Portuguese. I myself would eventually write on Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson in the years to come.
The numbers in the Sunday gatherings increased as a group of younger professors from the São Paulo state universities joined in. We had started a Marxist periodical called praga — which in Portuguese means both Prague, denoting the heterodox affiliation of the group, and an unexterminable weed, thus suggesting the group’s opinion on the always-announced death of Marxism. The group included André Singer, a sociologist and a very active member of the Workers’ Party who was to become Lula’s spokesperson in his first term as president in 2003 and Fernando Haddad, who was to become the minister of Education in the same government and the mayor of São Paulo in 2013.
The 1990s marked a moment of greater polarization in the group. Characteristically this can be more clearly seen in reactions to the connections between a political and an intellectual question. Politically, the 1990s were marked by an election for president that opposed two tendencies on the Left: the Social Democratic Party, founded in 1988 and inspired by the tenets of the third way, and the Workers’ Party, with Lula running for the second time. Cardoso got fifty-four percent of the votes, Lula, twenty-seven percent. Although the members of the pizza gathering supported the more radical program of Lula, we had to recognize that finally, and in a very restricted sense, we had a person from our own ranks in power: a president who had been a key member of the São Paulo Intellectual Party, a man who had been a Marxist and a competent analyst of the Brazilian peculiarities and should know how to ameliorate them. But soon the very few illusions some people in the Sunday gatherings may have harbored were dispelled: the third way means, as we all know, giving up the essential first step to any kind of fundamental change, the critique of capitalism. Soon the government was following the policies defined by the Washington Consensus that prepared the crisis-ridden peripheral countries to join in globalization in the terms dictated by the United States and its free-market orthodoxies. It was an irony of history that our first ex-Marxist president was to preside, for eight years, over the spread of neoliberalism and its ideologies of no alternatives.
In such an intellectual climate, the one the French so aptly named la pensée unique, Schwarz recommended the translation of the works of a little-known German thinker, Robert Kurz, into Portuguese, for which he wrote an enlightening preface. He was also a member of a group that edited a magazine called Krisis.12 Schwarz had come across his 1991 book The Collapse of Modernization and saw the potential of his critique and its suitability to current political debates in Brazil. Contrary to the received wisdom that the collapse of the Second World meant the victory of the First which held the standards and — as we were painfully aware in Brazil — the recipes for their kind of progress, Kurz maintained that when viewed from a strictly Marxist perspective, that is, in terms of the history of the world system of production of commodities, what we were facing was in fact a crisis of capitalism. He argued that after the Second World War the development of the productive forces, an imperative as we all learned of the logic of commodity production, reached an original level of expansion largely due to the coupling of advanced scientific investigation and the productive process. This link was made even more dynamic by the globalized market sustained by U.S. military might. This has created qualitatively new conditions for the age-old competition among capitals which always presupposes the obsolescence and consequent discarding of the older ways of production. This model cannot but create crisis after crisis. The 1980s had witnessed the debacle of Latin America, structurally incapable of paying the heavy infrastructural prices to reach the new level of productivity. The fact that the technological character of this new level meant the closing down of jobs made the new crisis even more poignant as, for instance, in the case of Brazil, it created a perverse amalgam of the old poverty of a backward nation with the new poverty of the unemployable. Capitalism was no longer able to exploit labor power, and this is an index of the development of crisis everywhere. The gigantic effort of belated industrialization — and Kurz reminds us that this was the main aim of socialism in the former Soviet Union — was cut short by the new competitiveness, leaving large areas of the globe excluded and immersed in the immiseration of permanent unproductivity. This is the sense in which the crisis of the Soviet Union is a crisis of capitalism, which is structurally unable to integrate all but the very few. The crisis started from Third to Second World and then spread to areas of the First World. Our moment in history is characterized, according to Kurz, by the collapse of capitalist modernization.
Kurz’s ideas took up a number of Sunday evenings as economists and historians in the group debated its many implications. His ideas on the necessary underdevelopment of development, to use a suggestive title of former dependency theorist Andre Gunder Frank, resonated with the ways of interpreting Brazil that were made current by the works of the members of the Capital group. The fact that one those members was then the president of the country led an extra grain of political passion to the debates. If Kurz was right, Fernando Henrique’s policies were totally wrong and would lead to social catastrophe. Paulo Arantes soon became a vociferous opponent of the government, writing in the papers and giving interviews criticizing the neoliberal turn. He started a new and important book series, characteristically called Zero à Esquerda (Zero to the Left). The series, which had in its editorial board a number of members of the Sunday gatherings, ran from 1997 to 2001. It made available pointed critiques of the present moment, most notably Francisco de Oliveira’s Os Direitos do Anti-valor (The Rights of Anti-Value) and José Luiz Fiori’s Os Moedeiros Falsos and O Brasil no Espaço (The Counterfeiters and Brazil in Space). The series also published translations of the oppositional works of the likes of Fredric Jameson, Ignacio Ramonet, Giovanni Arrighi, and others. Paulo Arantes himself published a hilarious compilation of quotes by well-known members of the government he patiently collected from the press. It was an acerbic comment on what had happened when members of the São Paulo Intellectual Party got to power. In an article published in the leading newspaper of the country in 2001, called “Black Out,” he states that in the era of Cardoso we had witnessed the “historical transformation of intelligence into stupidity.”13 We had then come full circle from Schwarz’s assessment of the expansion of intelligence in the pre-coup 1960s.
Schwarz himself took other consequences of the political impasses of the times which were not, of course, merely national but did call for national specification. In an essay called “End of Century” he spells out the national consequences of the change in the international conjuncture as presented by Kurz:
the failure of developmentalism, which had revolved the whole society, opens up a new specific period which is essentially modern and whose dynamics is disintegration. If this is so, the order of the day is not the abandonment of national illusions but their specified critique, the following up of their disintegration which is one of the real and timely contents of our historical moment.14
While the Capital group had tried to write and think in order to “save Brazil,” Schwarz at the turn of the century was going to write, in the essays composed in the 1990s and published in 1999, the chronicle of the disintegration of our society as viewed from its cultural manifestations. A good example of this is his review of Paulo Lins’s City of God. In this novel, the peculiarities of the new social disintegration are portrayed in the life of a big favela in Rio, the very site of the former disintegration as the favelas grew over the outbreaks of Brazilian belated industrialization. Another good example of how disintegration is portrayed is to be found in his comments on Otilia Arantes’s book Urbanismo em Fim de Linha: E Outros Estudos Sobre o Colapso da Modernização Arquitetônica (Urbanism at the End of the Rope: Essays on the Collapse of Architectural Modernization) in which she studies how architecture, both modern and postmodern, performs the functions called for by the necessities of the development of capital. He published in 1997 what is perhaps the most radical of his books on cultural criticism, Two Girls, where he compares Machado de Assis’s classic Dom Casmurro with a diary written by an adolescent girl in the interior of Brazil at about the same time.15 One of the many themes of the book is to present two different critiques of Brazilian style progress, one by our most sophisticated writer and another from a young girl whose main talent was to observe and reflect accurately the matter of Brazil, in her case, an observation untouched, due to her age and location, by the prevailing ideology.
In the same year, Paulo and Otília Arantes published O Sentido da Formação (The Directions of the Formation), a study of the specificities and revealing potential of the process of formation of different spheres — literature, criticism, painting, and architecture — in our rarefied social experience. This book sums up a line of thought that is central to the treatment the São Paulo Fraction gives to the matter of Brazil. The idea is to examine “the objective social knot” that inflects the inescapable efforts to achieve the ideal of a cultural formation that would give density and continuity to the interpretation of our singularities. The first essay is significantly entitled “Procedures of a Critic on the Periphery of Capitalism.” The title deliberately echoes Schwarz’s work as it proposes to examine how Candido’s Formation of Brazilian Literature has surpassed our usual dichotomies — the most constant one being an oscillation between aping the foreign ways of saying or creating anew a putative originality — that compose the ideological comedy of Brazilian intellectual life. The most accurate descriptions of this comedy come precisely from Schwarz in his studies of the cultural conditions of possibility for the appearance of a master like Machado in our modest milieu. This modesty is composed, among other things, by what he calls nationalism by subtraction, one whose practical matrix is our never-achieved independent insertion into the contemporary world. One of the cultural results of this situation is that
In Brazil intellectual life seems to start from scratch with each generation. The craving for the latest products from the advanced countries nearly always has as its reverse side a lack of interest in the work of the previous generations of Brazilian thinkers, and results in a lack of intellectual continuity. […] You do not have to be a traditionalist or believe in an impossible intellectual autarky to recognize the difficulties. There is a lack of conviction both in the adopted and soon discarded theories and in their relationship to the movement of society as a whole. […] Outstanding analysis and thesis on the national culture are periodically cut short and problems that have been identified and tackled with great difficulty are abandoned and thus left undeveloped. […] It is not a question of continuity for the sake of it but of the constitution of a set of real and specific problems which have their own historical duration and insertion and draw together the forces in presence that demand intellectual confrontation.16
Following Schwarz, Paulo Arantes argues that Candido’s work has a twofold significance in this process. He has achieved an original and pertinent account of the decisive moments of the formation of a national literature. In the process, he has also demonstrated the formation of a tradition of cultural criticism. He gives a historical account of the intellectual accumulation that made possible Candido’s work. He notes how the author tries to avoid the endless discussions on methodology — a constant feature of Brazilian criticism and a telling symptom of the difficulty of achieving substantial thinking in our rarefied intellectual atmosphere — by letting theory in through the back door. Candido’s main categorical invention is thinking the fledging of a national literature in terms of the formation of a literary system that is an organic interconnection of works, authors, and public. This process is made more complex in the adverse conditions of a colonial cultural life which lacks an internal pole and is inescapably geared towards the metropolis. In Candido’s account this formation is seen as the result of a more or less deliberate accumulation of internal literary connections which end up constituting a formal and differentiated intellectual milieu which can be regarded as representative of the nation. From a certain point onwards, a threshold is reached and mutual reference starts to work as an efficient and productive mechanism both to assimilate foreign influences and to produce a particular point of view on the world: a national literature is formed. The difference the existence of this mechanism makes to a younger country is decisive, even though it does not guarantee the benefits which get attached to ideological conceptions of an emancipated country. The historical discernment for the differences that separate the literature of an ex-colony from its European models is one of the achievements of the work. He singles out and analyzes the discrepancies between the two of them. Those discrepancies may configure aesthetic inferiorities but also superiorities. The original is not always superior to the imitation and the latter can be, even if involuntarily, innovative. The discovery of the aesthetic and spiritual peculiarities of decolonization opens up a sui generis world. Even though they keep the denominations of the European models, the literary modes function in a different way on the periphery demanding an original type of comparative studies and questioning the pretensions of universal validity of those models. In the process of studying the formation of a national literature in contraposition to a colonial order and specifying its particularities, Candido has taken the first decisive steps in the formation of a cultural critic on the periphery. So, in a sense, this first essay depicts the achievement of two kinds of formation.
The second essay in their book examines how Gilda de Mello e Sousa, a former professor of aesthetics at the University of São Paulo, studies the formation of Brazilian painting. In the book Paulo and Otília Arantes reread two key essays she wrote in the mid-1970s, one commenting on the precursors of Brazilian painting in the nineteenth century and the other on Brazilian modernism, a fusion, as they put it, of “cubism and rain forest,” referring to the high moment of the local tradition proclaiming its maturity in the programmatically nationalist works of the modernists Di Cavalcanti, Anita Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral, and Cândido Portinari.17
Gilda de Mello e Souza inflects the triumphalism of the modernists and takes an historical view. Following Candido, she points out the double fidelity characteristic of the arts in the periphery in the works of Almeida Junior (1850-99), whom she considers as the founder of a Brazilian tradition in painting. On one hand, there is a feeling for the landscape that needs to be discovered by national painting, intent on finding the “real country hidden behind the forests” and animals that had dazzled the European painters visiting the country. In this movement, Almeida Junior, who had studied in Paris with Alexandre Cabanel, reenacts in different circumstances the characteristic movement of the impressionists, leaving the studio and painting “en pleine air” to use the expression they put into circulation. On the necessary other hand, Almeida Junior does depict the Brazilian — as for instance in his famous O Caipira Picando Fumo (1893), a portrait of a rural worker in the interior of São Paulo state, cutting up tobacco to make a straw cigarette, but with an eye and techniques trained in “less uncivil places.”18 What singles him out as the founder of a national tradition is his capacity to depict what Gilda de Mello e Souza calls the peculiar rhythm of the corporeal movements of the “caipira,” thus starting the line of development of plastic figuration of the Brazilian experience.
This is precisely the program of the modernists who in 1922 gathered in São Paulo to announce an aesthetic rupture with all previous styles — Anita Malfatti and Di Cavalcanti in painting, Heitor Villa-Lobos in music, and Mario and Oswald de Andrade in literature, to quote the better-known names. They proposed a new discovery of Brazil whose objective was the aesthetic destruction of the European traits of the well-educated Brazilians — though mediated, in the case of painting, by the familiarity with abstract European art. The idea was to highlight the discrepancies that make up the country where bourgeois and pre-bourgeois features coexist. In the hands of the moderns, this coexistence was not to be seen as a disgrace or a sign of insurmountable backwardness, but as a sign of the possibilities of assimilating the traits of progress without paying its price, and thus achieve a happy pre-figuration of a post-bourgeois era. As Schwarz wryly puts it in an essay published in Que Horas São? on the work of Oswald de Andrade, modernism in Brazil was, in spite of its important works, both a myth and a product of an euphoric nationalism. But in the view of their contemporaries this was not so. Commenting on the modernist painters, Mario de Andrade saw in their normative nationalism the inaugural moment of a peculiarly Brazilian form of art. In the process, he disregards precursors like Almeida Junior. Everything begins anew with their paintings. Mario de Andrade fails to recognize that what he calls the immanent Brazilian character of, say, Tarsila do Amaral, is also the expression of a certain kind of repatriation of an upper class which used to be very uncomfortable amidst the embarrassments and shortcomings of a backward nation: with modernism, this upper class was able to proclaim, not least in the colors and motifs — always programmatically Brazilian — of their painters, that it was finally at ease in their own country. To be modern was to be able to see the “advantages” of our peculiar situation. Gilda de Mello e Souza shows in her essays that what is really typically Brazilian is this social blindness and the intermittence in our processes of formation, in which each generation has to start as if it were from scratch, thus preventing formative crystallizations that would give impulse to the internal influx. This is one more of the many manifestations of the lack of social continuity — and of class consciousness — in the life of the country.
The last essay in the book is written by Otília Arantes and is an examination of the question of formation in architecture. As yet another manifestation of the central movement in the process of aesthetic figuration of our determined historical reality which cuts short continuity and density, she studies the memoirs written by one of our two main names in architecture, Lúcio Costa, published when he was ninety-three. Of course, she does not argue that the seeds of modernism, planted in Brazil by none other than Le Corbusier himself, did not flourish and Brazilian modernist architecture was never formed. But she does point out how the peculiar situation of Brazil illuminates the ideology of modernist architecture in the country and elsewhere. This is particularly clear in the local acclimatization of conjunction of project and technological developments that is the hallmark of the movement. In Brazil, there is a discrepancy between modern architecture and technical development. In a train of thought akin to Oswald de Andrade’s illusions, a number of local architects celebrate this discrepancy as one of the “advantages of backwardness” as it gives them the chance to exercise their plastic creativity, free from the utilitarian constraints of core societies which would, in this account, lack imagination. Equally misplaced were the critiques of international architects, such as Pevsner, Max Bill, Alvaar Aalto and others, of the “programmatic lack of discipline, formal excess, and irrationality in the adequacy of means to ends” in the globally renowned local production. Otília Arantes points out that this artificial polemic reveals the falsity of the project of modernist architecture in general:
in a country where everything has still to be formed, how to implant an architecture directly linked to technological progress? The incongruity between doctrine and social premises is the rule in cases of grafting…but in this case, despite the real distance between advanced center and belated periphery, it gave occasion to an inversion of roles, turning the discrepancy into an achievement as the distortions in the copy revealed the deep truth of the original. The aesthetic trait, celebrated as the national attribute, exposed the integral formalism of modernism, whose play of forms is a sign of the abstract space organized by capital, which was the underside of the Modern Movement. […] Once it was functional and beautiful in the colonial outskirts of the system, where in principle it could never have worked, the New Brazilian Building and its enormous symbolic charge, which was much more institutional and monumental than properly social, triumphed on the periphery and by this very success revealed the true reasons of the New Architecture.19
At the end of the essay, Otília Arantes asks what is to be done with our great collection of modernist architecture in the present. The answer outlines the frame of reference that made possible this assessment of the contradictory movements of formation of Brazilian intellectual and artistic forms, namely the exhaustion of the project of formation as we go through the process of a Brazilian style collapse of modernization in a moment in which
capitalist globalization has divided up world space between a small number of victors and an immense mass of the vanquished. This new situation of dependency — at least the old kind of dependency left open a space in which the national State has some room to maneuver — has deprived architecture from its main façade, that is, the idealized discourse of being part of a process of national construction of a more integrated nation.20
But what capital “takes away with one hand, it gives back, in a more degraded form, with the other one.” Our collection of modernist architecture monuments has a secure place in the new demands of the market as
at the height of the new worldwide homogeneity provoked by the new wave of implacable adjustments to global markets, we have witnessed an apparently opposed movement…that of the repositioning of difference, from the individual to the national ones: something like a cultural sublimation of the social economic regression whose function is to forge merely symbolic identities, in the absence of the destroyed objective social references.21
In this new climate, the formalism of modernist architecture is very functional indeed as it allows our monumental modernist architecture to be sold in the global cultural market as both international and regional, as witness the success of our second great architect, Oscar Niemeyer, to this day a Brazilian master of international architecture. The possible coexistence of two antagonistic conceptions in the perception of Niemeyer’s work is yet another sign that the current internationalism is as abstract and formal as the forms of capital that are its determinants.
This book sums up the intellectual results of the examination of the dialectics of formation on the periphery and its relations with the new version of the old world order which keeps on demanding, and challenging, rational explanations. In Brazil, the new century started with the demise of the social-democratic/neoliberal government as Lula was elected president. The people at the pizza parlor all unanimously supported his candidacy, even though some were alarmed by the contents of a document he made public six months before the election. In “Letter to the Brazilian People,” which looked more like a letter to the Brazilian elite, its bankers, and the international funding agencies, he stated that he was going to pay the international debt — which he did in his second term — and that the way to economic growth was stability and social responsibility. He stated that there was no leeway for economic changes. It was possible to recognize in those intentions the structural continuities we were to expect in a so-called oppositional government. This has been a constant in Brazilian history. Schwarz himself, in his seminal essay “Misplaced Ideas,” first published in 1977, had characterized a movement that gets repeated in every cycle of change. This movement can be summed up in the following motto, “Instead of supersession, permanence,” and it describes how in every moment of apparent change we also have its opposite, the reposition of the old order. Schwarz gives a number of examples — the most well-known being our Independence from Portugal in 1822 and the enthronement of the heir to the Portuguese crown as our fist emperor. One example in particular stands out in comparison to Lula’s “Letter.” Schwarz refers to a document issued by the revolutionary government of a short-lived revolt in Northeast Brazil in 1817. It says “Patriots, your properties, even the ones most contrary to the ideal of justice, will be considered sacred.” The message sent by Lula to the Brazilian elites sounded the same note, thus demonstrating the structural permanencies that were going to coexist with the “supersession” his candidacy symbolized.
The group soon split again over Lula’s government. Paulo Arantes joined a new party, the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL), composed by those on the Left disillusioned by Lula’s accommodations and eager to create a political space for change. In the last election in 2010, their candidate, who ran on a strictly leftist platform, got one percent of the vote. Little by little, throughout Lula’s two terms as president, a sort of disillusioned consensus was formed. We all knew the government was not on the Left and was making the most spurious arrangements — both political and economic, very much including cases of corruption. And yet, it was the best government we had ever had. It began to really alter the life of the very poor and to reduce the scandalous social inequality of Brazil, though it did not alter significantly the concentration of wealth. It launched a series of polemical measures such as the “Bolsa Família” that distributes money to over thirteen million families who lived below the poverty line. This, as well as other measures and the modest but steady economic growth, have reduced the population living in extreme poverty to 4.8 percent. It was twelve percent in 2003. The minimum wage increased and so did the credit to people with small incomes. Programs like “Luz para Todos” (Electricity to Everybody) and “Pro-UNi” — a scholarship program to open up access to tertiary education — made a big difference in the lives of many. The collapse of modernization could then be reconsidered, as the system was still able to deliver some of its promised goods.
How did the group, which is small but influential and representative of a certain kind of heterodox Marxism, react to this version of old times? The Sunday discussions were as lively as ever, but, perhaps as an index of perplexity, the group decided to have a seminar a month, in which either somebody from the group or an invited guest would present a text dealing with the contemporary crisis. This new move was viewed by some as an index that the great originality of the Sunday gatherings — its informality and independence from the university coupled with a strong intellectual and public presence — was being exchanged for yet another run of seminars, the same experience we have at universities. A number of the essays discussed had been written by members of the group themselves and I want to update this sketch by commenting on two of them, both published in 2009, as they reveal two types of intellectual reaction to and appraisal of the new situation.
The first one is by Schwarz, and it traces the theme of the collapse of modernization in Brazil as aesthetically materialized in Chico Buarque’s fourth novel. Chico Buarque is the son of Sérgio Buarque, author of one of the classic interpretations of the country, Roots of Brazil (1936). He is also, according to many, the greatest composer and, according to almost everyone, the best writer of lyrics of Brazilian Popular Music. The novel, significantly called Spilt Milk, is narrated by a very old man, Eulalio Assumpção, who is lying on a hospital bed and recounts the story of his traditional Brazilian family to the nurses and attendants, or just to himself, as we cannot be sure anyone else is listening in the busy public hospital. His great grandfather came with the Royal Family fleeing from Napoleon in 1808 and went on following the trajectory of the Brazilian elites, getting involved in production, rackets, and exploitation. The narrator’s father had been a senator and an intermediary in the sales of outdated French weapons to the Brazilian army. In the 100 years of the narrator’s life the family goes through decline and he ends up penniless on a public hospital bed. Like the hero of Machado de Assis’s classic Dom Casmurro, our narrator fell in love with a woman of a lower social rank — in this case, a woman who is suspiciously too dark-skinned for comfort in a racist, though mixed, family. Like Machado’s narrator, Eulalio is extremely jealous of his wife: both his love and his jealousy get mixed up with class and race differences. The wife leaves him with no explanation. Like Machado, Chico Buarque lets his narrator expose himself and his class. From the point of view of traditional families, Eulalio’s life gets worse and worse — his daughter marries beneath her, to an immigrant, her son is a Communist in the Chinese line, and Eulalio’s great-grandson is black and has a son who is a drug dealer. Schwarz shows that, from the point of view of the narrative itself, nothing has changed much as the antecessor of the drug dealer was a slave trader, to point out just one of the many structural similarities between what the unreliable narrator considers the apogee and the decline of his family. If Machado’s Dom Casmurro marked the first successful attempt at artistic elaboration of the matter of Brazil, Chico Buarque gives continuation to this literary tradition as his book depicts the contemporary effects of the same historical process that engendered it. As Schwarz puts it:
It is as if the present continued the informality of the patriarchal past multiplying it by one thousand, reaching the scale of the masses, for better or worse. Maybe this is the spilt milk it is no use crying over: inequality has persisted, the decorum and the dressed-up authority of the prosperous have disappeared but law and rights have not prospered. It is what in the interval between long ago and nowadays used to be called modernization without a bourgeois revolution. Without either longing for an iniquitous past or adhering in a subaltern way to what is, [the novel] is a wonderful breath of fresh air.22
So, in a sense, he reads the novel as the current chapter in the long process of registering the specificities of a Brazilian-style collapse of modernization.
The second essay looks at what has actually changed in the country. “Ideological and Social Roots of Lulism” is written by the sociologist André Singer and analyzes the political possibilities opened up by the relocation of votes in Lula’s reelection in 2006. His research shows that a class fraction changed its traditional support to right-wing candidates to vote for Lula. Borrowing a term coined by his father, the economist Paul Singer, a member, as we saw, of the Capital Group, he calls them the subproletariat — that is the underpaid workers who do not achieve the minimum conditions that would allow them to take part in class struggle. They represent almost half of the Brazilian work force. In 1989 they all voted for Collor against Lula. Their lot did not improve in the next governments and worsened during the neoliberal period. Taking his inspiration from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, André Singer sees this subproletariat as isolated and unable to organize. Like the peasant smallholders studied by Marx, this class fraction projects its aspirations in a leader in power, hence their support for Lula. They are both progressive and conservative: they do not support social conflict — they are mostly, for instance, against strikes — and are in favor of state intervention to ameliorate social conditions. One of the many results of this change in the political basis of the government has been to dislocate the positions in the political debate:
in the older alignment the Left would organize the low and middle segments of the middle classes — mainly industrial workers and public servants around a Left ideology, that is, a class discourse. The center would aggregate the middle classes around the discourse of the modernization of capitalism and they would be the ones to mobilize the subproletariat against the Left in crucial moments. Thus the political conflict was filtered among the middle sectors.23
This is no longer true. The subproletariat is difficult to organize — they favor a strong state and change within the prevailing social order. This new state of affairs presents a number of difficulties for the Left. For one thing, it does not constitute subjects of history:
the difference between the Right and the Left is not perceived by those electors as positions for or against the reduction of inequality but in how to obtain it. The Left is identified as the option that puts order in risk and they preferred a constituted authority that could protect the poorest without challenging stability.24
This of course forces the Left to redefine a class discourse in the shadows of a truly popular leadership with all the dangers it may entail.
This change has a detectable material base: the program of family allowance, the increase in the minimum wage, and the expansion of credit, all of which indicate a different politics, less dependent on international ties as it focuses on the expansion of the internal market as one of the means of attaining economic stability. André Singer does not affirm this in his article but it is possible to suggest that this material integration of the very poor may have promising political effects. It is true that nowadays they do not fully perceive the structural limitations of capitalism as their lot did improve but they are sure to reassert themselves as they have conditions that allow them to perceive that the system requires inequality and that they are the ones who pay, and have paid for generations, its human costs.
I don’t think many intellectuals of the São Paulo Fraction would agree to this position. If we judge from the intellectual output, Paulo Arantes, for instance, would consider this expectation a pious act. He has started a new book series called State of Siege — his own contribution is a book called Extinction (2007) in which he traces the end of politics and its substitution for a permanent state of siege that has structurally similar effects in the lack of rights of people in Baghdad and in the favelas in Rio. Asked by a well-meaning journalist what can be done in times of extinction, he quips:
You are in fact asking me to tell you what is to be done after the end of the world. Nothing short of the Leninist question in an Adornian scenary, something like Brecht waiting for Godot. This is made even more unusual when we look at the situations as filtered by Slavoj ŽiŽek’s Utopian angle of a Lenin reborn from the ashes in 1914.25
This catastrophic outlook has not prevented him from fully and generously engaging with the Landless People Movement. At the moment, he coordinates and teaches a number of courses at the Movement’s school for the formation of cadres. He has also launched a call in an Internet portal for contributions on the difficulties and tasks of thinking from outside the dominant system. He maintains a study group at the University of São Paulo in which different authors present their work on the most candent themes of present-day Brazil. He is one of the intellectual mentors of a number of activists, including members of the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), that is Movement for Free Fares, the movement that was behind the June 2013 demonstrations. These started as a protest against an increase in bus fares in São Paulo and ended up spreading all over the country, with as many as a million demonstrators in different cities in Brazil over a period of three weeks. The protesters soon enlarged their demands: free transportation, as the Movimento Passe Livre demanded, better public health and education, end of corruption, cancellation of the big stadium constructions in preparation for the World Cup in 2014 — a frequent banner in the streets was “Let us apply FIFA construction standards for stadiums to public hospitals.” It was clear that demands were once again on the agenda, and the lore of Brazil as a success story, as an emergent world power, was virtually forgotten. For the first time in the history of Brazil we had huge mass protests in a scenario of full employment, economic and political stability. The real growth achieved under Lula and, more modestly, under his successor Dilma Rouseff — there was a fifty-five percent increase in the minimum wage between 2003 and 2011 — seemed to have opened a space for the return of the repressed demands, the same ones, in a sense, that had granted the Workers’ Party its hegemony: support for universal health care, free public education, opposition to the recessive demands of capital; in sum, a Leftist agenda.
The demonstrations seemed to prefigure new times in Brazil. The members of the Sunday gatherings had useful insights about this new turn the Left had to react to. Arantes aptly pointed out that, after June, the future is over and politicians have to deal with dissatisfaction right now. In the blurb of what I think was the first book on the subject, published as early as August 2013, Arantes thus summarized the effects of the June Days, as the demonstrations were called, perhaps too hopefully, on the Left:
Until the next round, when other actors finally enter the stage, we will know whether the June Days did indeed begin to dismantle the consensus between the Right and the Left over the modus operandi of capitalism in Brazil. In the last 20 years, the country has become a great manufacturer of consent, everybody enthusiastically begging to be exploited. Have we reached the limit to all this? This is what the historical faux pas that detonated all the process suggests. For the first time, the violence inherited from the dictatorship and enhanced by the “democracy” that had kept politics within the juridical and repressive apparatuses did not work. A threshold was crossed and we still need to know which one. And we need to do this very soon. Whatever will come of it? “It is already coming,” as a taxi driver told me the other day.26
Whatever is coming, it is likely to put an end to what I want to call the conformist Left. In an essay called “A Trajectory of Our Times” published in his collection of essays that came out in 2012, Schwarz offers what I think is the specification of a typical course taken by many on the Left. As such it represents an aggiornamento of the study of the Brazilian matter as constituted by the works of the São Paulo Fraction. Schwarz analyses Caetano Veloso’s autobiography, published in 1997. Born in 1942, Veloso witnessed the great movements that define twentieth-century Brazilian history: he joined in a number of Leftist movements, most notably in the groups that volunteered to spread Paulo Freire’s method in the early 1960s, renovated Brazilian music as a leader of the scandalous Tropicalism, was in a military prison for two months, exiled in London for a year, and came back to become the central figure in Brazilian culture he still is.
Schwarz reads the autobiography as a great realistic novel, one that reveals the contradictions that make up social life. He treats Veloso as a typical character in the Lukacsian sense: as an embodiment of the historical forces in movement in a particular social situation. Veloso then personifies and reveals the specificities of the moves that took the Brazilian Left from a revolutionary position in the 1960s — when superseding historical inequality in the country equated superseding capitalism — to a so-called more realistic position in which the Left no longer questions the system but tries to ameliorate it. The fact that the turn is narrated as lived experience adds to our understanding of the formation of what I am tempted to call, following Raymond Williams, a new structure of feeling, one that dominates much of the Left today, very much including the Left in power. Just to give an example, the current president, Dilma Roussef, had been in a military prison after the coup.
Appropriately for an artist, Veloso relates this key movement that marked a whole generation and created the conditions for the establishment of this accommodated Left in relation to an aesthetic experience. He tells us how he reacted to a scene in the remarkable film Entranced Earth, directed by Glauber Rocha. This 1967 film, part of Rocha’s courageous interrogations of the ways of the world from a Third World perspective, reflects on the consequences of the coup scarcely three years after it had happened. The scene is the one in which at a political demonstration, the protagonist, the poet and intellectual Paulo Martins, who had joined the forces of revolution, gets very angry at a working man who respectfully calls him doctor, a treatment the poor reserved for every middle-class man. Paulo Martins turns to the camera and addresses the audience saying: “Do you see what the people is? An illiterate, an ignorant, a depoliticized man.” The scene dramatizes the many consequences of the shock of reality the coup represented for the Left. In the film, the discrediting of the workers is a sort of emotional historical unburdening. The scene also shakes the ideological certainties of the Left: the workers were not revolutionaries, they still related to the ruling class in paternalistic terms, and the populist politicians — the film shows the process of elections in Eldorado, a thinly disguised Brazil — allied with the adversaries, joining forces with the enemies of yesterday in the name of remaining in power. The distance between certain Marxist certainties and social reality were disheartening. All this did not alter the grotesque figure of the political leaders and of class domination — in fact the coup was precisely a class realignment that meant business, that is, exploitation, as usual. The revolution, the guiding impulse of the social ebullition that the coup was meant to put out, was more necessary than ever, but it had met a big historical opponent — nothing less than an alliance of the national ruling class and the interests of the country that was on its way to win the Cold War and become the hegemonic power in a thoroughly capitalist world. The main tone of Entranced Earth is of a historical despair in the face of defeat.
As Schwarz makes clear, however, our protagonist goes in the opposite direction, thus demonstrating what cultural products can reveal of one’s true political position. This is how Veloso describes his reaction to the scene:
I experienced this scene, and the scenes of indignant reactions it caused in discussions among friends in bars — as the center of a great event whose short name, “the death of populism,” would not then have occurred to me so easily (and thus I would search for a thousand ways of describing it to myself and to others).…it was the very faith in popular forces — and of the very respect that the best felt for the men of the people that had been discarded as a political weapon or as an ethical value in itself. I was prepared to face this hecatomb, and I was also excited to examine its intimate phenomena and to foresee its consequences. Nothing of what was to be called Tropicalism would have taken place without this traumatic moment. Thus when the poet in Entranced Earth decreed the failure of the faith in the liberating energy of the “people” I, in the audience, did not see the end of possibilities, but the announcement of new tasks for me.
Schwarz reads this passage as the climax of the change that marks Veloso’s trajectory and makes it a trajectory of our times:
It is important to notice that Caetano Veloso is not using populism in the usual sociological implication it has in Latin America, that is, of personal leadership over not fully integrated urban masses. In his sense, the term indicates something of a different order. He means the special role reserved for the working people in the conceptions and hopes of the Left, who recognized them as the victims of social injustice, and for this very reason, as the subjects and natural allies of a liberating politics. The respect that the “best” felt — and do not feel anymore? — for the men of the people, the semi-excluded and the excluded in whom they contemplated the hard truths of our class society, is linked to this conviction. “But perhaps it is I myself I despise in their eyes,” wrote the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade in 1940, thinking of the factory worker. Thus when Caetano Veloso incorporates as his the words of Paulo Martins, acknowledging and saluting through them the death of populism, of the very respect the better people had for the men of the people, he is also marking the beginning of a new time, a time in which the socio-historical debt to the downtrodden — perhaps the main propeller of Brazilian critical thinking at least since Abolitionism — does not exist anymore. In this movement he dissociated himself from the ones that had recently been defeated by the coup, who were, in this sense, all populists. This marks a considerable change, one that puts him in opposition to what had been, until then, his own camp: the socialists, the nationalist and the Christian Left, the progressive tradition of Brazilian literature at least since the last decades of the nineteenth century, and also the people who were merely enlightened enough to see that the internal, not to say dialectical, link between wealth and poverty is a given of modern consciousness. Paulo Martins’ disillusion is turned into a disavowal of obligation. This rupture, unless I am mistaken, is at the origin of the new freedom brought in by Tropicalism. If the people, as the antipode of privilege, is not the virtual bearer of a new order, this order disappears from the horizon, which is decisively lowered.27
I want to argue that this turn is just a very explicit example of a movement that is characteristic of large portions of the Left, and not only of the Brazilian Left. Veloso’s turn represents the defeat of a way of thinking, which is, as we saw here, one of the contents of the scene in Entranced Earth: the oppressed will have to make a revolution so all of us can be free. As in the case of Brazil in 1964 they did not; the conclusion that some arrived at, among them of course our protagonist, is that class struggle, to revert to classical language, is no longer possible. Of course this is one of the key ideologemes among the victors of the Cold War, one that has dominated the political scene up until now. What makes Veloso typical of what I am trying to characterize as the conformist Left is that for him the presumptive end of class struggle is perceived as a liberation and an opening to new kinds of politics, notably identity politics and the politics of hedonist liberation. Identity politics is, as we all know, very well-intentioned but, as the politics of ecologists nowadays, cannot achieve its equalitarian goals within the terms of the current system. In this sense his trajectory depicts the moment in which the revolutionary impulse becomes mere rebellion that aims at liberating ways of living, the body and sexual desire, but has no regard either to collective action and liberation and does not interrogate the system that tolerates rebellion only up to a certain well-defined point. Is it not an accurate description of 2010s Left in Brazil and elsewhere? Once again, the periphery makes explicit the movements of international ideologies.
And thus we have come all the way from the 1970s to the present. What can one conclude about this formation? Of course its first characteristic is what Paulo Arantes would call its municipal size. It is also not institutionalized, has no manifesto or mandate. It congregates important and less-important Marxist intellectuals. Their joint contribution has been, as I tried to show in this piece, the elaboration of the matter of Brazil. They completed the project of the formation of heterodox Marxist criticism in the country. In their work, the path opened up by Antonio Candido to turn criticism into a project of discovering and interpreting social reality reached a higher point as they added to the initial project a decidedly Marxist point of view. This has enlarged the interest of the study of the Brazilian matter as the specificities of the country were studied in relation to the movements of world capital. As such, their local angle has helped clarify the total picture. They have taught a generation to think about the country in ways that take into consideration the necessity and also the structural limitations to change. Most of all, they have kept the Leftist intellectual conversation going. They have thus kept open a space that may be occupied by more effective forces in a less-alienated future. And all this while also having a great time over pizza and wine.
- Raymond Williams, “The Bloomsbury Fraction,” Problems in Materialism and Culture (London: Verso, 1980) 158.
- Roberto Schwarz, “Cultura e Política — 1964-1969,” O Pai de Família e outros Ensaios (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1978) 69.
- Paulo Arantes, Intervention at the Debate “Reverse Hegemony,” University of São Paulo, 23 September, 2010.
- Nicholas Brown, Utopian Generations: The Political Horizon of Twentieth-Century Literature (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005) 188.
- I owe those formulations to oral communication with Roberto Schwarz. But, see also Roberto Schwarz, Two Girls and Other Essays (London: Verso, 2012).
- Emilia Viotti da Costa, Conversas com Historiadores Brasileiros, ed. José Geraldo Vinci de Moraes and José Marcio Rego(São Paulo: Editora 34, 2002) 78.
- Bernardo Ricupero, Caio Prado e a Nacionalização do Marxismo (São Paulo: Editora 34, 2000).
- Roberto Schwarz, “Complexo, Moderno, Nacional e Negativo,” Que Horas São? (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1987) 121. Reprinted in Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture (London: Verso, 1992).
- Schwarz, “Complexo” 124.
- See Roberto Schwarz, ”Adequação Nacional e Originalidade Crítica,” Sequencias Brasileiras (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999) 24-46.
- Nicholas Brown, “It’s Dialectical! A Review of Fredric Jameson’s Valences of the Dialectic,” Mediations(Spring 2009).
- Selections from Krisis and related publications Exit! and Streifzüge are available in Mediations, "Marxism and the Critique of Value" 27.1-2 (Fall/Spring 2013-14).
- Reprinted in Paulo Arantes,Zero à Esquerda (São Paulo: Conrad, 2004) 17.
- Roberto Schwarz, “Fim de Século,” Sequencias Brasileiras (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999) 160.
- The book is now translated into English in the collection Two Girls and Other Essays.
- Roberto Schwarz, Nacional por Subtração, Ó Que Horas São?” (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1987) 30. Reprinted in Misplaced Ideas as “Nationalism by Elimination” (1-18).
- Paulo and Otilia Arantes, O Sentido da Formação (São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1997) 80.
- Arantes, Sentido 78.
- Sentido 128-29.
- Sentido 131-32.
- Roberto Schwarz, “Brincalhão mas não Ingênuo,” Folha de São Paulo (28 March 2009) E9.
- André Singer, “Raizes Sociais e Ideológicas do Lulismo,” Novos Estudos Cebrap (November 2009) 101.
- Singer, “Raizes Sociais” 88.
- “Entrevista com Paulo Arantes,” Revista Cult (October 2007).
- Authors’ Collective, Cidades Rebeldes: Passe Livre e as Manifestações que Tomaram as Ruas do Brasil (São Paulo: Boitempo) 2013.
- Roberto Schwarz, “Um percurso de nosso tempo,” Martinha versus Lucrecia (São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 2012) 78-79. Translated as “Political Iridescence” in New Left Review 74 (May/June 2012).