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Brazzil - Politics - March 2004

Cardoso's Legacy in Brazil: Radical Democracy

Now that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has taken
office and continued the same fundamental economic policies
as the Cardoso administration, the emptiness of the rhetorical
use of neoliberalism has become painfully apparent. Both
Cardoso and Lula are best described as social democrats.

Ted Goertzel

Science and Politics from a Utopian Realist Perspective
- A Habermasian Analysis of the Argumentative Discourse of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (
Ciência e política sob a perspectiva do realismo utópico: Análise habermasiana do discurso argumentativo de Fernando Henrique Cardoso) by Carlos Michiles
Editora Universidade de Brasília and Instituto Teotônio Vilela, 2003

Despite his prolific writing and speaking, and a great deal of scholarly commentary on his work, Fernando Henrique Cardoso continues to be much misunderstood. He is sometimes type-cast as a turncoat who abandoned his belief in Marxism and dependency theory to become a neoliberal. But a serious reading of his scholarly work reveals no sharp turning point in his thinking.

His best known book, Dependency and Development in Latin America, (written with Enzo Faletto) did not argue that development was inconsistent with dependency, as many people assume without reading it. Instead, it showed how a number of peripheral countries had found strategies to develop within a context of dependency.

As a social scientist, Cardoso has always worked within a "historical-structural focus" that owes much to Marxism, but also much to Max Weber and other classical social theorists. The policies he followed as President of Brazil were quite consistent with his academic work.

Politically, his leftist opposition denounced him a "neoliberal." He vehemently denied being a "neoliberal" and insisted that he is a social democrat who believes in strengthening government as well as the market economy. In Latin American political rhetoric, "neoliberal" is a pejorative with no policy content, as is shown by the fact that Lula da Silva's Workers' Party, after years of denouncing "neoliberalism" had no qualms about forming an electoral alliance with a Liberal Party.

It seems not to have concerned his followers that "liberalism" and "neoliberalism" might in any way be related. Now that Lula da Silva has taken office and continued the same fundamental economic policies as the Cardoso administration, the emptiness of this rhetorical use of "neoliberalism" has become painfully apparent. Both Cardoso and Lula are best described as social democrats.

All the empty debate about "neoliberalism" has obscured one of Cardoso's most important most important intellectual and political contributions: his focus on civic society and democratization. Cardoso devoted most of his life energy, as a social scientist, a journalist and as a political leader, to working with others to restore and strengthen Brazilian democracy.

He never took time, however, to place this work in a systematic theoretical framework. Carlos Michiles' valuable new book helps to fill this gap by treating democratic discourse as the defining feature of Cardoso's thought and his political leadership.

In the first half of the twentieth century, most Marxists were scornful of "bourgeois democracy," viewing it as merely a fig leaf for capitalist oppression. They believed that socialist revolution would bring about true democracy. But the realities of "actually existing socialism" in Eastern Europe disabused most of them of that illusion.

Cardoso came of age in circles that admired the Soviet Union, but was disillusioned by Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech denouncing Stalin's excesses. Since then, he has been a consistent believer in democracy, even at the time when much of the Brazilian Left thought there was little hope of democratic reform of the military regime.

Many other leftist intellectuals reached similar conclusions in response to the same history. Perhaps the Marxian thinker who theorized the central importance of democracy most thoroughly was the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Michiles' project in this book is to examine Fernando Henrique Cardoso's thinking and political practice from the perspective of Habermasian social theory.

No one seems to have thought of doing this before because Habermas and Cardoso come from very different academic backgrounds and use quite different intellectual styles. Habermas is a Germanic philosopher who emphasizes abstract ideas, while Cardoso is a Latin American social scientist who focuses on historical processes.

Cardoso was familiar with Habermas' work, and cites him occasionally in speeches, but no one—including Michiles—would claim that Habermas was a major influence on Cardoso's intellectual development. Nor, so far as I know, was Habermas significantly influenced by Cardoso's writings. Nevertheless, the fact that two thinkers from such different backgrounds and with such different intellectual styles came to similar conclusions is interesting. Viewing Cardoso as a Habermasian draws attention to important features of his thinking and his practice that are sometimes overlooked.

This book has been published only in Portuguese, although it is based on Michiles' doctoral dissertation at the University of Manchester and could be obtained in English through interlibrary loan. As a convenience, however, I am going to provide a chapter-by-chapter summary for the English language reader.

Chapter One
Cardoso's Family Background and Political Trajectory

A summary of Cardoso's upbringing in an elite family with a long history of political leadership. His father was a leftist army officer who opposed the 1965 coup d'état. Fernando began an academic career, but was forced into exile by the repression under the military regime. He returned to the University of São Paulo when the repression lightened, but his academic career was once again interrupted by a military decree prohibiting him and many other prominent academics from working in universities.

The government did, however, permit him to found a research institute which was successful. Later, he entered politics as part of a coalition of forces seeking a democratic reform. This biographical material is covered in readily available English language sources, so I will not summarize it in detail here.

Chapter Two
Cardoso's Method: Slavery, Dependency and Globalization

This chapter reviews Cardoso's intellectual history, including his participation in the Marx Seminar at the University of São Paulo, his early research on slavery in Brazil, on the Brazilian business entrepreneurs, and on dependency and development.

This was at a time when words such as "globalization" and "multinationals" were not available, and Cardoso was working to understand the phenomena with the theories and concepts then available. He used the phrase "associated-dependent development" to describe the trends he saw emerging. Michiles summarizes Cardoso's methods of work in five points:

The use of the dialectic as a heuristic in which the notion of totality (unity of contradiction and negation) is used to interpret reality.

Research focused on the singularity of historical-structural processes, relying whenever possible on descriptive empirical data.

A triple approach that incorporates historical process, social structure and social change.

A continuing effort to estimate the correlation of political forces among the forces that contest social change.

An insistence on the relationship between critical analysis and socio-political praxis.

This chapter emphasizes the ways Cardoso's thinking was rooted in Latin American social science. Cardoso differed from many other social scientists whose thinking was rooted in the same Marxian framework in his emphasis on descriptive empirical data and on viewing each historical conjuncture as unique instead of fitting things into theoretical categories.

Chapter Three

Cardoso, along with many other Brazilian intellectuals, placed more and more emphasis on democracy as an end in itself, instead of expecting it to emerge as a by-product of socialist revolution. He disagreed with those who argued that the only choices were "socialism" or "fascism" and insisted on the possibility of democratic reform within a capitalist framework.

In particular, he felt that democratic reform was possible in Brazil. His knowledge of the Brazilian elite contributed to this. He differed with the influential theorist Guillermo O'Donnell who developed the conception of the Bureaucratic Authoritarian state, but could not see how this model could be transformed. Cardoso thought it had to be transformed thorough a long, patient process of mobilization of civil society outside the state structure.

Chapter Four

This summary of Habermas's thinking emphasizes his concept of "argumentative discourse" as a method of non-violent social change. Michiles does not claim that Cardoso was a follower of Habermas, but rather that they reached similar conclusions independently. Habermas stressed civil society and the idea that social change could come through public debate mediated by a free press.

The most important thing in Habermas' thinking is the process by which decisions are reached, not the precise balancing of interests emphasized by other democratic thinkers. This fit into Cardoso's strategy for Brazil, as Michiles summarizes:

"In applying these ideas in the public political sphere, Cardoso, with his identity as an intellectual in power, with his strong commitment to liberal democracy and social justice, placed emphasis not only on formal institutions of liberal democracy, but also on the profound necessity to guarantee the infrastructure and organizational processes that would allow these institutions to operate in practice.

"In the Brazilian context this meant the rejection of revolutionary violence and an awareness of the necessity of building the vitality of civil society and the public means of communication, in which all participants would be committed to argumentative dialogue as a means of eventually reaching agreement and understanding." (p. 154).

For the English language reader, there are many sources on Habermas, including his own works in translation. Michiles recommends Simone Chambers' book Reasonable Democracy as consistent with his approach.

Chapter Five
Cardoso's "Habermasian" Project

Cardoso sought not merely the re-establishment of formal democratic institutions in Brazil, but the radicalization of democracy through the creation of a public sphere. The most important part of his leadership was reforming the relationship between state and society, not adopting a particular economic policy. In the early days of the democracy movement, many influential leftist intellectuals, such as the French writer Regis Debray, had what Cardoso criticized as a "poorly hidden Cartesianism" that viewed the world in polar opposites.

They believed that the only alternative to military authoritarianism was revolutionary socialism, and portrayed the guerrilla in the mountains as a kind of romantic, Rousseauian ideal. Cardoso denied this necessary struggle of opposites, believing that alternatives in the middle were possible, specifically, democratic reform within capitalist relations of production.

Mobilizing the civil society was perhaps the only option available to leftist intellectuals in a country ruled by a military dictatorship which had quashed the attempts at armed revolution. When Cardoso became President, however, he continued to insist on democratic dialogue and involving all kinds of groups in compromise and conciliation. He refused to simply impose his own beliefs, even when he had considerable power to do so. In one of the interviews he gave to Carlos Michiles, Fernando Henrique Cardoso said:

"The role of the President is to contribute to the development of the public sphere, to begin discussion and build public opinion, so that we can have public opinion. I believe this is fundamental. To have a real possibility to create spheres of debate, so that, we can say, bring things to a convergence, but not be hiding differences or arguing. Here I am totally a Habermasian. Neither Habermas nor I are liberals. We do not have a conservative vision, or liberal-conservative. We are for more than this, we are for the radicalization of democracy, which is a different point of view (p. 155, interview with Carlos Michiles, 27 July 1988).

In an interview during his presidency, Cardoso said that he acts "basically as an intellectual and a professor, although I may be in the Presidency, with all the powers of that office."

Chapter Six
The "Habermasian" Project in Power

Michiles argues that Cardoso used his role as President more to convince and persuade than to impose. He used the office as president to stimulate and organize public debate. He sought to implement reforms that would allow Brazil to go beyond the legacy of authoritarianism and elite control, and the dead weight of corruption and "clientelist" politics. This emphasis can be documented by an analysis of his speeches, many of which are quoted by Michiles.

According to Michiles, in his speeches "he speaks as a sociologist or intellectual who analyzes more than he expounds; who interprets more than he describes; who particularizes more than he generalizes; always using the best theoretical tool available to understand and explain a given factual reality" (p. 193). This approach is necessary to implement reforms that will actually succeed because they will be understood and appreciated by the population.

The first example of this was the Real Plan, which Cardoso patiently explained to the Congress and to the population as a whole, before implementing it in gradual stages. This differed sharply from other anti-inflation plans which were imposed by surprise as shock treatments by the government. These worked for a short time, but repeatedly failed.

The Real Plan has succeeded because it was transparent, everyone understood it and made it work. Cardoso used the same techniques in his attempts to reform government, not just restructuring the bureaucracy but involving community organizations directly in working with government on social programs. He also tried to use this approach in reforming social security, but ran up against strong interest group opposition from federal employees.

In Michiles words, "Cardoso understood that the power to decide is not so great if it is not linked to the legitimate power to persuade through rational argument, which I tried to illustrate through his speeches and the difference which this approach made in his carrying out his role as President. Even before he became involved in politics, he had concluded that the road to building a modern democracy had to go beyond the backward level of left and right-wing thinking tied to a political regime dominated by patrimonialism, corruption and clientelism." (p. 220).

The Possibilities and Limits of Discourse in Power

In Michiles' view, there are two strong themes in Cardoso's thinking: a) the permanent use of the dialectical and historical-structural model and b) a pragmatic sense together with the notion of the realistic utopia in his conception of reality. As an intellectual in power, Cardoso used language as an instrument of discursive communication in the public sphere.

Michiles found in Habermas the most developed analysis that proposed language as a central element in the theory of communicative action. This discursive style was not always well received. Cardoso found that some groups, such as the Landless Farmer's Movement were not interested in discourse but just in making denunciations.

Many people judge a government more by the success of its short-term economic policies, and by benefits given to particular groups to which they belong, than by its success in raising the level of democratic discourse. In public opinion polls, the public does not rank Cardoso high as a communicator, which raises questions about the effectiveness of his Habermasian model.

Michiles' book offers a very important perspective on Cardoso's style as a leader. It coincides with Cardoso's own view of his style, as described in his interview with Venezuelan sociologist Heinz Sontagg. In that interview, Cardoso gives several case studies to illustrate his leadership style: the Real Plan, the electricity crisis, the Community Solidarity movement, and medical programs to reduce infant mortality. All of these involved explaining things clearly to the people and getting their input into the process.

Cardoso's successor, Lula da Silva, has a different rhetorical style, although his policy directions are very similar. Lula da Silva is more effective at communicating his empathy for the people's problems. He tends to tell people what they want to hear, which makes them feel better, instead of explaining tedious and complex realities to them.

An example is his Zero Hunger program. He did a wonderful job of highlighting the issue and sharing his empathy for the hungry and his resolution that the problem be solved. He did not, however, communicate anything about the organizational and administrative difficulties of actually implementing an anti-hunger program.

After a confusing and very disappointing program, he recognized that excellent anti-hunger programs had already been begun by Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration, and that the best way to actually solve the problem was to build on them.

So far Lula's personal popularity has been high, despite disappointing economic performance and fumbling performances by several of his ministries. People like him as a person and admire him for his personal accomplishment, rising to the presidency despite having been born into extreme poverty.

It will take more historical perspective to evaluate the effectiveness of his approach vs. Fernando Henrique Cardoso's more didactic, professorial leadership style.

Ted Goertzel, Ph.D. is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, available in English and in Portuguese. He can be contacted at goertzel@camden.rutgers.edu and his WEB page can be found at http://goertzel.org/ted

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