The Day Brazil’s Economist Furtado Became Sartre’s Chauffeur

Brazilian economist Celso Furtado Around the middle of October 1960, on a Friday afternoon, Celso Furtado decides to hear Sartre’s conference to be held in Recife, Brazil. Driving in his jeep, free of his chauffeur, he arrived into a packed house: The usual seductive figure was talking on many issues, but at the end of the session a “small” detail was left out, there was no translator so that Sartre could receive questions.

Somebody blurted out something on “is there anybody that is willing to undertake the task?”, and almost automatically Celso offered himself. Among the many questions, always answered with the Marxisant emphasis, there arose perhaps the most pertinent central political question of the day in the Northeast and perhaps of Brazil which had been circulating under the “reform” or “revolution” disjunction.

Sartre’s answer once again insisted that the recent political and institutional structure in process was not a serious matter because it did not go to the root of the issue and was most probably no more than a plaisanterie (joke).

Furtado’s translation kept the word plaisanterie, and many laughs surged among the audience, his discomfort grew not knowing if it was due to his humble task as translator or the surprise to many given his oblivious gesture as to what was being said there.

That was not the only deficit of the day; the organizers had also forgotten to get Sartre the means to reach his hotel to which once again Furtado offered himself as the driver.

Once on the road, Sartre asked Celso what was his line of work. His answer in a very polite and diplomatic vocabulary mentioned that he was the man responsible for the new politics of development in the Northeast which had just been labeled as pure plaisanterie.

Seeing Sartre’s perplexity and discomfort, Celso in a very suave tone, went on to explain to his now avid listener, his own political and theoretical history. The professor heard what Celso had to say:

Before I start, excuse my French, I hope my accent did not hinder your answers to the public and for what follows. I concluded a doctoral thesis in Paris in 1948 on Brazil’s seventeenth century economic history, and by 1949 I arrived in Santiago de Chile to be part of the recently created Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), under the aegis of United Nations.

Shortly followed Raúl Prebisch’s advent, the most eminent figure in the economic field in the region. Among us at ECLAC there was a consensus that the “periphery” of the world economy had to be transformed from a merely passive raw material provider to the “centers” or industrial countries into fully autonomous entities with their own economic policies, much more independent of the negative consequences of the upturns of cyclical nature of capitalist growth reflected by the industrial nations.

But first we needed to problematize a series of basic notions in the economic discipline then dominant. On the one hand, state participation in organizing the economy was not the real issue, given Keynes’s critique of neoclassical thought, but on the other, the real problem was how to question the sacrosanct principle of the international division of labor, that was primordial for us to be able to propose some form of management of the economy and industrial policies.

Prebisch articulated theoretically the cyclical nature of the world economy underscoring the periphery’s deterioration of its terms of trade vis-à-vis the industrial nations, due to the existence of a systematic asymmetric elasticity price demand for their respective products.

We took very seriously Keynes’s notion that the neoclassical doctrine was just a “special” case, but equally Latin America’s problematic had not been examined from an independent perspective or at least not from the regions perspective. We wanted to transform, not just translate to Latin American’s, the then dominant economic discourse.

I decided to go much further and turned on its feet Keynes’s same dictum and retrospectively I must say it was a bold move which initially got me into a whole series of troubles at ECLAC when I published my first book in 1954. Prebisch and the institution were not happy to say the least although I dedicated the book to him. Rules of anonymity for those working at ECLAC where established for the first time.

Perhaps the main issue of discontent in the book was that I had a much more radical view as to the reasons and pace with which the industrialization should be undertaken, to top it all my case was argued showing that the deterioration terms of trade were not crucial as a basis for that strategy.

It was then that the notion of a very specific process of inflation first arose in my views, which later on was named “structural”. I initially differentiated the “static” orthodox notion vis a vis and “dynamic” heterodox one. It was our Mexican colleague J. F. Noyola who managed to synthesize those views a couple of years later as “structural”.

The book undertakes an analysis of economic thought in relation to Latin America’s problematic and shows that it fails on many issues given the specificity of the economic structures of the region which in turn explained its “underdevelopment”.

If Prebisch showed that the structural diversity between center and periphery explained how the growth of one pole inadvertently affects the other, I undertook to study inter and intra region asymmetries, power asymmetries that underlie the exchange/production mechanisms among the various production units. Perhaps I should bring into the picture, your compatriot Perroux and his followers which said something similar and questioned the mechanical notions of general equilibrium.

I must emphasize that my views and some of our colleagues perceived the industrialization process as a “means”, not as end in itself. Most of the region’s countries were nations not yet fully constituted, thus the crucial questions where how to integrate the vast populations into the potential future nation, industrialization and transformation of the structural factors of production was a means to that effect. We knew capitalism’s asymmetric/power relations tends towards the concentration of income, or if you like, of the “fruits of the technological progress”.

That is why we repeatedly underscored the importance of the other part of the ECLAC doctrine: or the so called “structural reforms”: fiscal, land reforms, and the modernization of the state and education apparatus. In some way it was the only way we could discuss the extension of the democratic process. I heard your surprise to find the open discussions on democracy and transformation of Brazil, well that forms part of the very institutions which I am trying to extend in the country.

My dedication to the region of the Northeast and its conditions is not only dearly to me because I was born there. There lies the most blatant and violent reflection of the nation’s inequalities. Before I created the Superintendence for the Development of the Northeast (SUDENE) in 1958, in 1953, I was part of the Joint ECLAC – National Bank of Economic Development (BNDE) Group, which was to undertake the study of the Brazilian economy with particular emphasis on planning techniques with me as its director.

In 1957 I left ECLAC, spent a short period at Cambridge University, England, returning to Brazil where I took up the post of Director for the Northeast section at the National Bank of Economic Development (BNDE).

It is my contention that for a country like Brazil, with its nation under construction, the Marxist notion of the revolution, or the “reform” or “revolution” disjunction was out of place. As I said before, Latin American structuralism presumes a space where the evolution of a nation can be seen as part of the process of structural reforms; evolution means confronting and superseding the “structural obstacles”, structural obstacles product of the heterogeneity of the productive units, regions and sectors, heterogeneity always relative.

The problem, given the heterogeneity between and within regions, productive units, is to undertake policies conducive to a greater integration of the population in the project of the nation in question. That is why my posture is in favor of “piecemeal” reforms other wise a more authoritarian society could emerge given the structural conditions of Brazil’s population.

Some intellectuals have argued that this notion of change and evolution of societies can be read in the vocabulary of the north American institutionalism of the twenties, but I think they don’t have a fully develop doctrine like Latin American structuralism..

In that precise moment arriving at the Hotel, Sartre, interrupted Celso and said: “Celso, I am sorry I didn’t mean to downplay your efforts they are well taken. Please contact me when you are again in Paris.”

Celso: I am not planning to do that in the near future.

But it was sooner than he imagined. In 1964 the military coup in Brazil forced him into exile and Celso was to spend much of his productive life in that city until his return to Brazil in the early 80’s when the struggle for the democratic process and the construction of the nation started once again.

Regretfully, Celso’s journey and works in the mid sixties made him the unfortunate representative of the dependency school which reflected the pessimism in the early years in exile. And yet soon after, by the mid seventies Celso returned to what is second nature to him: theoretical reconstruction, products of the period which take him to recover Latin American structuralism.

For more details see the author’s work: Celso Furtado: Um Retrato Intelectual, Xama, São Paulo, Brasil, 2005; pp. 368; ISBN 85-85910-73-9.


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