This yellow duck became the symbol of a movement against federal taxes. Photo: José Cruz/ABr
liberalism brazil fiesp

This duck became the symbol of liberalism and the fight against federal taxes. Photo: José Cruz/ABr

Liberalism has become a part of mainstream politics in Brazil. The term is evoked not only by its most fervent defenders – and detractors – but also by a large group of politicians who proclaim themselves “liberal” without actually championing liberalism. Of course, it is fair to say that defending a doctrine without actually practicing it is business as usual in Brazil.

Back in 1936, Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda (Brazil’s most celebrated historian and father of the great singer Chico Buarque) penned the now famous quote, “Democracy in Brazil has always been a regrettable misunderstanding.” He elaborates on this idea in his book Roots of Brazil[1], a must-read for those who want to gain deeper insight into the formation of Brazilian society.

But why would democracy be a “misunderstanding” in Brazil? It’s because democracy is founded on the notion of having societies built on fairly impersonal and objective relations. However, Brazilian society was founded on personal and emotional relations – which molded what Hollanda calls the “Brazilian cordial man.” By “cordial,” he meant a people operating in an affectious and emotional way, driven not by their minds but by their hearts. The word cordial comes from the Latin cor – heart.

This emotional and affective way of dealing with reality makes Brazilian society more susceptible to patronage, clientelism, name-dropping, and populism. In all these cases, the personal aspects of relations are placed at the forefront. This is true even when the relations are negative, like grudges or rivalries. It’s complicated for democracy to thrive in such an environment.

Hollanda believed democracy to be inseparable from liberalism. Individual liberties – and individualism – are not a match for the authoritarian and personalist dynamics of a patriarchal society. We could add to Hollanda’s assertion that it is not just democracy that goes misunderstood in Brazil – liberalism is, too.

Real liberalism?

Economically speaking, liberalism is lauded by mainstream economists (that is, those with orthodox views), financial market operators, and certain business owners and industrials. These are the advocates of free-market policies, who want few – if any – currency controls or economic regulations (whether this belief is rooted in conviction or convenience is another story).

Other sectors of big business, including agricultural producers and most industrials, are not so fond of that doctrine. Some depend on protectionist policies; others need cheap credit from public banks. And some need both.

Not surprisingly, we have people who are liberal for some things – say, the labor legislation – but want state subsidies for their sectors. Those are interventionist liberals, and their beliefs tend to change according to what’s most convenient for them at the moment. A textbook example of this kind is the leadership of São Paulo’s Industry Federation (Fiesp). While asking for lower taxes and regulations, they simultaneously want protection from the state and a rigid currency policy. So, what do they actually support: a smaller or a bigger state?

In politics, we find that same problem

While some defenders of the liberalist doctrine might want the state to back off in economic issues, they certainly ask the state to be strong on moral issues or in the controlling of social movements. As oxymoronic as it may sound, these are the people that I refer to as “intolerant liberals.”

Want an example? A few years ago, a right-wing blogger, a self-identified “liberal,” created a “black list” of intellectuals and artists that he felt should be boycotted for their left-leaning views. For him, and for movements like the recent Movimento Brasil Livre (Movement Free Brazil, MBL), liberalism should be applied only to the market. However, this doesn’t mean ideological and political pluralism.

On the other side of the aisle, the term “liberal” has become a slur in many leftist circles, and used to describe anything that is not aligned with these groups’ views. What is curious is that left-wing movements advocate for aspects of the liberal agenda – individual liberties, respect for minorities, diversity and pluralism. But don’t you dare go calling these groups “liberal”…

But the left-wing is not free of incoherencies. While they are pro-liberty when it comes to social issues, they also defend liberticidal regimes, like Venezuela’s or Nicaragua’s. By defending authoritarianism, they attack pluralism, the right to oppose a government, freedom of speech, and so on.

Communists everywhere

Last century, fascists would attack liberalism for what they saw as its leniency and emphasis on socialist advances. Today, part of the Brazilian right-wing – the so-called “liberals” – attack liberal policies, because they are “too communist.” An example would be the constant attack against the press from right-wing movements. These groups accuse media outlets of being “leftist” when they publish articles related to gender and racial issues, affirmative action, and others. For these groups, the press is an instrument of the socialist establishment (yes, I know).

Recently, a wealthy business owner published an op-ed in an influential newspaper that accused sexually-charged artworks – as well as any discussion around sexuality – as a way to promote the “communist project.” To this businessman, who claims to be a defender of the free market, communists are launching an attack on Brazilian society using the doctrine of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

Not even Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda could have imagined how deep these misunderstandings of liberalism would run in Brazil. And nothing indicates that things will get any better during the upcoming 2018 election.


[1] Roots of Brazil, University of Notre Dame Press; 1st Edition, 2012; 232 pages

OpinionDec 07, 2017

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BY Claudio Couto

Political scientist, head of Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Master’s program in Public Policy and Administration.