The Birth of Belíndia
Brazil was born modern. It came into existence as a colony, a site for resource extraction, already linked into an emerging world market.
Brazil may have been the last country to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere, but its chattel slavery was a product of early modernity.
Brazil was never premodern or feudal. By the same measure, Brazilianization does not mean a simple return to semifeudal relations.
What then explains the persistence of unfree labor, the latifundia system, and its cultural and political effects, well into the twentieth century—in sum, all the “backward” elements of Brazil?
Precisely that, in Brazil, the modern fed off the old and in turn reinforced and recreated it.
In rural areas, an elastic supply of labor and land reproduced “primitive accumulation” in agriculture, holding back improvements in agricultural techniques.
With industrialization from the 1930s onwards, this pool of rural poor came to serve as a reserve army of cheap urban labor.
What made Brazil’s process distinct is that the country’s industrialization and modernization during the populist period, from the mid‑1930s to the mid-’60s, did not require a rupture of the system, as bourgeois revolutions in Europe had a century earlier.
Instead, the rural propertied classes remained in power and continued to gain through capitalist expansion.
As the sociologist Francisco de Oliveira put it in his 1972 Critique of Dualist Reason, the “expansion of capitalism in Brazil happens through the introduction of new relations into archaic ones and the reproduction of archaic relations in the new.”
This was reinforced politically through President Getúlio Vargas’s corporatist labor legislation, modeled on Mussolini’s as a means of formalizing and disciplining an urban proletariat.
Crucially, it exempted labor relations in the countryside, preserving rural poverty and unfreedom.
For de Oliveira, the new world thus preserved earlier class relations. Consider, for example, that the new urban poor would build their own homes, thus reducing the cost of reproduction of this class: employers would not have to pay wages high enough to pay for rent.
Favelas, then, are not an index of backwardness but something produced by the new.
Or consider how personal services rendered in the domestic sphere reinforce this model of accumulation.
Upper-middle-class households in Brazil have maids or drivers that service them—an economic relationship that could only be replaced by costly investment in public services and infrastructure (for example, industrial cleaning services or public transport).
As a consequence, the Brazilian middle class has a higher standard of living in this respect than its equivalents in the United States or Europe.
The exploitation of cheap labor in the domestic sphere also impedes any political drive for improvement in public services.
Are we not faced with precisely such a Brazilianization of the world today—with a growing array of “concierge services,” whereby the professional class and elite alike hire private yoga teachers, private chefs, and private security?
An upper-middle-class household in San Francisco comes to replicate an aristocratic manor with a whole economy of services rendered in the domestic sphere, but now everything is outsourced: digital platforms intermediate between private “contractors” (formerly employees) and the new elite.
Brazil’s social structure showed us our future.
Reflecting on Brazil’s social formation once again in 2003, de Oliveira classed Brazil as a duck-billed platypus: a misshapen monster, neither any longer underdeveloped (“primitive accumulation” in the countryside having been displaced by a powerful agribusiness sector), nor yet having the conditions to complete its modernization—that is, to truly incorporate the masses into the nation.
Crucially, this was not a foregone conclusion. Growing workers’ power in the lead-up to the 1964 coup could have led to a new settlement and an end to the high exploitation rate, while agrarian reform could have liquidated the source of the “reserve army of labor” that flooded into the cities in the 1970s, as well as finally destroying patrimonial power in the countryside.
Such a modernization project, however, would have required the participation of the national bourgeoisie in alliance with workers.
The bourgeoisie backed the right-wing coup instead. In a great historical irony, noted by Roberto Schwarz in his introduction to de Oliveira’s platypus essay, it was Fernando Henrique Cardoso—the neoliberal president in the 1990s—who had observed, as a left-wing sociologist back in the 1960s, that the national bourgeoisie did not want development.
Cardoso argued, in opposition to prevailing Left opinion of the time, that the bourgeoisie would prefer being a junior partner to Western capitalism than to risk seeing their domestic hegemony over the subaltern classes challenged in the future.
Brazil’s elite chose not to develop.
According to de Oliveira, Brazil’s promised but endlessly frustrated future is visible in the fact that it is “one of the most unequal societies in the world . . . despite having had one of the strongest rates of growth over a long period. . . . The most evident determinations of this condition reside in the combination of the low standing of the workforce and external dependency.”
Brazil thus could be a sort of utopia, given its natural blessings, fast growth, and enviable culture.
The reality, in Caux and Catalani’s words, is that it is a country “whose essence consists in not being able to realize its essence.”
It is not backwardness that prevents Brazil from claiming its destiny; its destiny is endless frustration.
Moreover, the social exclusion that seems so essential to Brazil’s social formation is not an accident, but a produced duality.
In Brazil, this has been known as Belíndia, a term coined in 1974 by the economist Edmar Lisboa Bacha: Brazil is a rich, urban Belgium perched atop a poor, rural India, all in one country.
Those in the Brazilian “Belgium” inhabit a country that is ostensibly modern and well-functioning, but is held back by those “outside,” in the backwards, semifeudal India.
Yet as de Oliveira showed, the “inside” is dependent on the exploitation of the “outside” for its progress.
Not only that, but the dualism shapes the inside of the “Belgium” itself; it creates a corrupt, patrimonial, and selfish elite, only too happy to wash its hands of the conditions found in its own “India.”
Unfortunately, rather than the Belíndia metaphor becoming less relevant in recent decades, it has only become more so.
Consider what each component country represents in our times: Belgium may still be wealthy, but it is bureaucratized, fragmented, and immobile; India may still be poor, but it is now also high-tech and governed by reactionary populism.
This could just as easily be a picture of Italy, the United States, or the United Kingdom, with their deep regional inequalities, sclerotic politics, and spectacular populism.
Coping with Modernity
If we return to Arantes’s Brazilianization thesis, we find that the cultural features of Brazilian development are also being echoed in our new, post-growth world.
Certain patterns of behavior that appeared as Brazilians coped with their instant modernity—social relations structured around flexibility, rather than binding contract; a need to find semi-licit workarounds, through hustling; a not-truly-bourgeois bourgeoisie—now mark the world around us.
Brazil, the “born-modern” former colony, is not a society that emerged out of feudal relations, nor one that announced its own birth through a revolutionary break with the past.
Instead, it was a site of production and distribution, first and foremost.
Writing in the early 1940s, the great Brazilian historian Caio Prado Jr. analyzed the colonial form of contemporary Brazil, remarking upon the efficiency of the colonial order as an organization of production combined with a sterility with respect to higher-level social relations—all economy, no culture.
What defined a modern periphery molded by colonialism was therefore a “lack of a moral nexus,” that complex of human institutions that maintain individuals linked and united in a society and that weld them into a cohesive and compact whole.
If we already hear echoes of the contemporary neoliberal disaggregation of society here, it is not by chance.
Historically, the Brazilian “quasi-society of the mercantile vanguard” was conditioned by the place of freemen in a society of landed elites and slaves.
Thus in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Brazil, we find the generalized practice of the favor, or “quasi-universal mediation,” as identified by Schwarz in the novels of Machado de Assis.
In a world of slaveholders and slaves, poor freemen depended on favors from the owner class to survive.
Rather than citizens endowed with rights, freemen had to hustle to be granted the patronage of the propertied class. Already we can see the seeds of Brazilian patronage and clientelism.
While the world of ideas and institutions held to modern liberal conceptions, what obtained in reality was not a rationally ordered society but one governed by the arbitrary decisions of the wealthy—a situation in which the elite naturally benefited, but so did the freemen, confirmed in their status as beneficiaries of favor, as not-slaves.
This nexus of the favor, overlaid with liberal ideology, has all the conditions for systematic hypocrisy: highfalutin liberal ideas justifying caprice and venality.
Or to apply this relationship to the Brazilianized United States of today, and to put it in the parlance of our age: “information wants to be free,” but not if it violates “community standards” or doesn’t suit the oligarchy’s interests.
In a similar vein, Schwarz discusses another central element in Brazilian subjectivity, the “dialectic of the malandro” (trickster), a concept advanced by Antonio Candido in his reading of eighteenth-century novels.
In Schwarz’s reading, the dialectic of malandragem entails the suspension of concrete historical conflicts through cleverness or practical know-how—in effect, a sort of evasion.
This was linked to a “very Brazilian attitude, of ‘corrosive tolerance,’ which originates in the Colony and lasts through the 20th century, and which becomes a main thread in our culture.”
Here we find the often-lauded Brazilian disposition towards accommodation, rather than all-or-nothing conflict.
This attitude may seem inferior to the more puritanical values of North Atlantic capitalist society, of clear yeses and noes, of decisive condemnation
(Schwarz references the Salem Witch Trials and the world of The Scarlet Letter).
But, for Schwarz, it might be precisely this attitude that could facilitate Brazil’s insertion into a more “open” world. What emerges is an image of a “world without guilt.”
This softening of conflicts is a pattern throughout Brazilian history, in which it is rare for matters to be definitively resolved.
No great bourgeois revolution, no clean breaks with the past; the new eventually vanquishes the old at the cost of incorporating the old into the new.
Brazil’s re-democratization in the 1980s, for example, birthed a new constitution replete with social rights that promised excluded classes a greater degree of integration than comparable documents elsewhere.
At the same time, however, it guaranteed old patrimonial elites their place in the new order, and failed to neuter the military brass.
The consequences are all too evident today. Indeterminacy and irresolution rule. Or, in the Brazilian idiom, tudo acaba em pizza: it all ends in pizza.
This “world without guilt”—a world without moral dramas, without convictions or remorse—is our postmodern world writ large.
The new global elite is entirely désembourgeoisée; there are no fixed and hard rules, everything is up for negotiation.
Morality is at most an individual, subjective matter, if not a cause for embarrassment; the elite prefer the empty avowals of corporate ethics nowadays, not moral pronouncements.
Morality is no longer the keystone of paternal, social authority. The postmodern elite feels no responsibility. It has not internalized the law, and thus feels no guilt.
In the world of work, adaptation and accommodation are key in the new economy.
As a contractor (not an employee), you must constantly seek to please your client.
For Arantes, the “professionalism” required today is nothing more than a cynical stylization of the qualities needed for survival in a precarious world.
As for the Brazilian malandro, or trickster, there is no higher commandment today than to “respect the hustle.”
What might otherwise be seen as generalized opportunism—or, in nineteenth-century Brazil, poor freemen out in search of a “favor”—is recast as the new way of the world.
Notably, the anthropologist Loïc Wacquant finds a similar attitude in the ghettoes of North America.
There, the hustler is a generic type, “unobtrusively inserting himself into social situations or in spinning about him a web of deceitful relations, just so that he may derive some more or less extorted profit from them.”
(The opposite to the hustler is formal wage labor, taken to be “legal, recognized, regular and regulated.”)
This attitude is no longer restricted to the ghetto, but becomes the ideal subjectivity of the neoliberal “entrepreneur of the self.”