Brazil: the country of slavery yesterday is the country of socialism today

Although President Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and the PT (the Worker’s Party) suffered great losses in the municipal elections some weeks ago, it is still clear that PT in particular and socialism at large still has strong support among the population, especially in intellectual, cultural, and political circles. The Brazilian political spectrum often intrigues observers both from inside and outside the country: among the 35 registered political parties, almost none presents itself consistently as liberal or conservative. The only one to do so is the newly created Partido Novo (literally New Party). Other parties present themselves as socialist, social democrats, or don’t talk about this at all. To use the infamous left-to-right political spectrum, all political parties present themselves either as left or center. To present itself as right is still taboo for Brazilian political parties. Things surely seem to be changing as the already mentioned Partido Novo enters the scene and some individual politicians, such as Jair Bolsonaro, present themselves openly as right-wing. Also, social movements such as Movimento Brasil Livre and think tanks such as and Instituto Von Mises Brasil help create momentum for a new right in the country. It is possible that in future elections conservative and liberal candidates will gain seats, especially in the legislative chamber, but as parties are concerned, the right is still mostly a wasteland in Brazil. But why is that so?

Many analysts blame two factors for the lack of party representation for the Brazilian right. First, there’s the military government, from 1964 to 1985. Although statist both in political and economical terms (as it would be expected in a military government), this period was consistently identified as “right.” Therefore, to identify someone as right is still usually understood as to identify as a supporter of the military regime. Second, there is the successful work of the left, especially in the propaganda arena. The main reason for the 1964 coup was the threat of a communist revolution, such as in Cuba. The military was successful in fighting the communist guerrilla insurgency in the countryside, but were mostly unaware of the intellectual struggle in schools, universities, and other places (despite much talk of censorship to this day). Related to that or not, the fact is that the right is still underrepresented in intellectual and cultural spheres.

I’m not saying that either of the above explanations is wrong, but I’d like to suggest an alternative that goes much further in the past: Brazil is the country of socialism today because it was the country of slavery yesterday. When slavery was abolished in 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Western world to do so. An estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. This is ten times as many as were trafficked to North America and far more than the total number of Africans who were transported to all of the Caribbean and North America combined. According to the only national census accomplished during the monarchy, in 1872, Brazil had a population of about 10 million people. 15.24% were slaves, and 84.8% were free. It is most likely that this census doesn’t reflect the reality of the whole monarchical period, as successive laws against slavery, immigration, and other factors moved these percentages over time.

José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a major figure in Brazilian politics of the time, praised freedom in his writings, but kept slavery in place, even with British pressure to abolish it and subsequent promises to help. He did that because he needed the slave owners’ money and thought that abolition wasn’t politically wise. Bernardo Pereira de Vasconcelos, founder of the Conservative Party, was a slave owner and even rented his slaves for public works. Many subsequent leaders of the Conservative Party, such as Paulino José Soares de Sousa, were part of the Fluminense slave-owning aristocracy either by birth or by marriage. Anyway, the Conservative Party wasn’t in a hurry to abolish slavery. The lack of revenue and the political implications were matters of much greater concern than the humanitarian cause. When they finally passed the gradual laws for abolition (and ironically they passed them all) it was to appease the liberal opposition, not for the sake of the cause. Conservatives were also unwilling to employ the Africans as free workers or to treat immigrants as free individuals: their plan was to gradually abolish slavery and to substitute it with a cheap immigrant labor force in large estates through laws restricting access to land. To their surprise, this plan never succeeded. Their last effort, to bring supposedly naïve Chinese in to substitute slaves, was barred by the liberals.

The legacy is that the country of slavery yesterday is the country of socialism today. As Herbert Spencer once said, “All socialism involves slavery.” Even better, Alexis de Tocqueville said that “Socialism is a new form of slavery.” Both share the same thought: slavery is forced labor of one individual to another. Socialism is forced labor of everyone to everyone else. When “rights” abound, it’s worth asking how they will be paid. Brazil is a country of rights, but not of duties or responsibilities. Just as it was the right of the elites of the past to have the slaves working for them, it’s the right of people today to receive social benefits from everyone else. People can (maybe naïvely) defend socialism as much as people in the past defended slavery, but to treat adults as infants is neither moral nor wise. Sure, Brazil still has a population that suffers from the mistakes of the past. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

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