Venceu o sistema de Babilônia
e o garção de costeleta
Oswald de Andrade, 1946

The epigraph condenses, in caustic mode, the historic disappointment of a libertarian modernist at the postwar outcome. The defeat of Nazism in Europe and the end of the Vargas dictatorship in Brazil had been moments of unusual hope, but they had not opened the door to higher forms of society. So far as we were concerned, victory went to the Babylonian system—that is, capitalism; and to the maître dee—that is, kitsch aesthetics. The social and artistic ferment of the 1920s and 30s had ended in this.

Another historical cycle later, the essays of Francisco de Oliveira—differences of genre aside—trace an analogous anticlimax: the exhaustion of a ‘developmentalism’ that is now ending without having fulfilled its promise. Written thirty years apart, his ‘Critique of Dualist Reason’ (1972) and ‘Duckbilled Platypus’ (2003) represent, respectively, moments of critical intervention and sardonic observation.footnote1 In one, the intellect clarifies the terms of a struggle against underdevelopment; in the other, it identifies the social monstrosity we have become, and will remain until further notice. The title of the former, of course, alluded to Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which Sartre had recently attempted to bring Marxism, revolution and the dialectic itself up to date under the sign of a philosophy of freedom. Today the comparison of our realities with the duckbilled platypus—an animal belonging to no familiar species—underlines the incongruities of Brazilian society, viewed rather as result than as what it might be changed into. The zoographical spirit of the allegory, conceived by a long-standing member of the pt at the very moment when the party has won the Presidency of the Republic, gives cause for reflection. The parallel with Oswald brings to mind the long list of our historic frustrations, from the nineteenth century on, springing from the persistent discrepancy between Brazil and its chosen country-models; and from our continuous hopes of being able to bridge that gap through a visionary social turn.

According to de Oliveira, Brazil’s transformation into a social platypus was completed by the forward leap in the forces of production we witness today. Accomplished by others, this has not been easy to replicate. The Third Industrial Revolution is a combination of capitalist globalization with scientific and technical knowledge that is sequestered in patents and subject to accelerated obsolescence; any attempt to acquire or copy it piecemeal is rendered futile. From the national point of view, the desirable course of action would be to incorporate the process in its entirety; but that would require investment in education and infrastructure seemingly beyond the reach of a poor country. In conditions of neo-backwardness, the inherited traits of underdevelopment undergo a supplementary deformation which gives the platypus its particular form.

In the camp of labour, the new balance of forces has eroded rights won in earlier periods. The extraction of surplus value meets less resistance, and capital loses what civilizing effect it might have had. An increasing informalization of work is taking place, as occupations replace jobs and the wage relationship is dismantled. The link between downsized labour and external dependency, tightened by the semi-exclusion of the country from scientific-technical innovation, implies a defeated society.

A reconfiguration has also occurred in the camp of property and power, which casts new light on its previous character. Rather than relying on mechanical deductions from immediate material interest or social tradition, de Oliveira’s stress here falls on the conscious aspect of class decisions, taken with a certain degree of freedom that only made their tenor worse. In the period of underdevelopment, he insists, the dominant bloc chose a division of labour that would shore up its rule, even at the price of mediocre international standing. He cites the view of Fernando Henrique Cardoso who argued, shortly before the coup of 1964, that the industrial bourgeoisie in Brazil actually preferred to be a junior partner of Western capitalism than to risk an eventual challenge to its hegemony. In the face of this historic renunciation, the task of continuing the country’s economic development would fall to the organized urban masses: ‘Ultimately the question will be: sub-capitalism or socialism?’footnote2 Forty years later, de Oliveira finds an unexpected grain of optimism in that elite renunciation—but an optimism cast back into the past and which, by contrast, clouds the present. If such choices and decisions had existed, then the ‘door to transformation’ once stood open. Even if ignored, or deliberately refused, break-outs in the period of the Second Industrial Revolution—when science and technology were not yet monopolized—were still possible. It is a line of thought that warrants a certain nostalgia for underdevelopment and its struggles, viewed from the petrified present.

The most polemical and counter-intuitive thesis of ‘The Duckbilled Platypus’is that a new social class has emerged in Brazil. Starting from the ‘recent points of pragmatic convergence between the pt and the psdb’ and the ‘apparent paradox that Lula’s government is executing Cardoso’s programme, and radicalizing it’, de Oliveira remarks that: