Cardoso’s Legacy in Brazil: Radical Democracy

 Cardoso's Legacy in Brazil: Radical 

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.
by: Ted

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,

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.


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

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
and his WEB page can be found at

You May Also Like

Por aí

  Native song Ihu in the Kamayurá Indian language means everything you learn by ...

Brazilian Journalist Hit by Home-Made Bomb. Political Motive Suspected

France-based international NGO dedicated to defend freedom of the press Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ...

UN Says Brazil Doesn’t Offer Enough Security for World Cup and Olympics

Brazil must intensify a crackdown on violence as part of its preparations for the ...

Stones Hope to Make History Rocking Free in Brazil for 2 Million

Screams and cheers greeted the Rolling Stones as they pulled up to their beach-front ...

Brazil Supreme Rules that Civil Servant’s Salaries May Be Shown in Internet

Brazil's Supreme Court held on July 8 that the mayor of the municipality of ...

Ethanol Consumption Overtakes Gasoline in Brazil

The Brazilian Statistical Directory of Petroleum and Natural Gas, published on the website of ...

Cheaper Computers Bring Explosive Growth to Brazil’s Internet Commerce

Brazil's electronic commerce should generate 9.6 billion reais (US$ 5.6 billion) in revenues and ...

Brazilian Indians Call Lula Anti-Indian

Brazil’s Forum in Defense of Indigenous Rights (FDDI) issued, yesterday, its “April Manifesto,” criticizing ...


It’s a pity we can’t talk by phone on Sundays any more. It’s a ...

Bush: Guilty Number One in WTO Talks Collapse. Brazil Commended.

As Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Pascal Lamy failed to break ...