Monday, September 27, 2010

The poverty of Brazilian democracy

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The electoral campaign time provides an opportunity for critical reflection on the type of democracy that prevails among us. The proof of democracy is that over a hundred million citizens have to go to the polls to elect their candidates. But that still doesn't say anything about the quality of our democracy. It is shockingly poor or, in softer language, a "low intensity democracy" in the expression of the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Souza Santos. Why is it poor? I take the words of Pedro Demo, from Brasilia, a brilliant mind who, because of his vast work, deserves to be further heard. In his Introdução à sociologia ("Introduction to Sociology" --2002) he says emphatically: "Our democracy is a national staging of refined hypocrisy, replete with 'beautiful' laws, but ones that are ultimately always made by the ruling elite to serve itself from beginning to end. Politicians are people who are known for earning a lot, working little, making deals, hiring relatives and cronies, getting rich at the expense of public coffers and going above the market ... If we were to link democracy with social justice, our democracy would negate itself." (p.330,333).

This description is not a caricature, with few exceptions. This is what is found every day and can be seen on TV and read in the newspapers: scandals of depredation of public goods with numbers in the millions and millions. Impunity goes on because crime is a thing of the poor; the criminal assault on public resources is skill and the 'privilege' of those who got there, to the source of power. One understands why, in a capitalist context such as ours, democracy serves those who live in opulence or have the ability to exert pressure first, and only then thinks of the people, who are served by poor policies. The corrupt eventually also corrupt many of the people. Capistrano de Abreu observed correctly in a letter in 1924: "No government method can avail, in the case of people so viscerally corrupt as ours."

In our democracy, the people do not feel represented by those elected; after a few months they don't even remember for whom they voted. So they are not used to accompanying them or demanding anything from them. In addition to material poverty, they are doomed to political poverty, maintained by the elite. Political poverty means that the poor do not know the reasons for their poverty, and believe that the problems of the poor can be solved without the poor, just through state handouts or populist clientelism. Through this, the mobilizing potential of organized people who may demand changes -- ones that are feared by the political class -- and call for public policies that address their demands and rights, is aborted.

But let's be fair. After the military dictatorships, democracies of a popular and socialist stamp have emerged throughout Latin America from below and so make policies for the least, raising their level. Capitalist macroeconomics continues, but has to negotiate. The network of social movements, especially the MST, put the State under pressure and under control, signaling that democracy can be improved.

I see two basic points to be gained: first, Boaventura de Souza Santos's proposal to build a "democracy without end" in all fields, especially in the economy, since the dictatorship of rulers is installed in it. This is more than delegational, it is a movement open to participation, as widely as possible.

The second is an idea I've championed for years: that democracy can not be anthropocentric, thinking only of humans as if we lived alone up in the clouds, without realizing that we eat, drink, breathe and are immersed in nature on which we depend. We must join the two contracts, the social and the natural one; include nature, water, forests, soil, animals as new citizens that have a right to exist with us, especially the rights of Mother Earth. It is then sociocosmic democracy, in which humans coexist with other beings, including and not hurting them. The PT of Acre showed us that it is possible to articulate citizenship and florestanía ["jungleship"], i.e. the jungle respected and included in the well-being of the peoples of the jungle.

Utopia? Yes, in its best sense, showing the direction towards which we should walk from here on out, given the changes the have occured in the planet and in the inevitable encounter of peoples.

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