Hamilton – Musicial Drama and Brazil at the Edge


Hamilton is the biggest hit musical in New York in quite awhile and I was lucky to get seats.  The story is a modern reinterpretation of the life of Alexander Hamilton told in rap with mainly Latin and black actors instead of the typical white guys that traditionally portray the US Founding Fathers.  The play ends with a member of the traditional elite, Aaron Burr, killing the upstart Hamilton in a duel.  However, Hamilton’s legacy prevails and the story with its idealism, ambition, demands for respect and show of hateful polarization obviously resonates today.  The author Lin Manuel Miranda, a genius playwright and immigrant, like Hamilton, wonderfully bridges the contemporary and historic with a delightful musical telling.

After watching the performance, the question that comes to mind has to do with Brazil’s elites and the ability to recreate a nation currently in deep crisis.  Among Brazil’s political class it seems almost impossible to identify anyone with stature.  (Perhaps the same could be said about the US.)  But, Brazil finds itself standing on a crumbling cliff with little time to back off.  Cumulatively over the past 10 to 15 years, the judiciary, police, the press and civil society have uncovered corruption that metastasized and now consumes the body politic.  Corruption, in and of itself, is a manifestation or symptom of a deeper malady.  And as ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has said: the current political and party structure is finished.   The evil is really the ingrained weakness and passivity of civil society and the sad state of institutions charged with governing the country.  Unfortunately, people simply accept abuse as the norm and have gotten used to precarious state services and the lack of education, health and security.  In this, the Brazilian system has failed and society, in its notorious accommodation, has not adequately responded.

Hamilton and his cohorts fought to their death over honor, revolutionary ideals. The resulting hatred from the war of independence was deeply rooted.  Although Brazil has rarely fought anything, there is certainly a feeling of polarization.  The divisions are wide ranging between the haves and have nots. They involve race and the lack of most everything starting with basic education.  Brazil’s murder rates and the incidence of violence are comparable to civil war-torn countries; but still, Brazilians invariably portray themselves as optimists even if they are forced to deal with frustration.

Brazilian voters favor politicians who promise them gains from the state in the form of favors. Patrimonialism, paternalism, bureaucracy, state intervention, nationalization and appeal to national pride have all restricted and constrained the development of the market and the free flow of capital and labor.  Only private property holders and the privileged rentiers defend ownership tenaciously.

Brazil’s political and economic elite – both national or international – have always avoided competition and sought monopoly or oligopolistic control.  Owning the state, being embedded in the state or having the state guarantee prerequisites has always been the name of the game.  This is true even among the so-called “forças produtivas” (forces of production).  Sao Paulo’s industrial caste, organized as FIESP, continues to be a protectionist bastion even as it supports street demonstrations with patriotic shirts and plastic ducks against corruption.  Success, achievement and protection and defense of privilege pass through the state.

To work in Brazil, as an employer or as an employee is to partner with the state. Reform is expected to come from the state and in a top down fashion. In Brazil’s brand of crony state capitalism, it is hardly ironic to witness, 74-year-old President Temer, retired in his mid-fifties with a fat pension, to be the current leader of social security reform.   Civil society, in general, resists change but not so much because it is not needed.  Instead, resistance comes from the fear of loss of favors and benefits, no matter how precarious, with no promise of something better coming from above.  The fear, easily played upon, is that reform and a move away from a patrimonial state will only make things worse.  There is a tremendous and understandable dread of market forces and Brazilian society has never accepted a protestant work ethic.  And because the playing field has always been tilted toward the elite, why would it?

Brazil increasingly looks like a premodern mafia-run state where family based businesses and interconnecting oligopolies control the system of rewards and distribution including how parties form and how individuals get elected.  The revelation of the growth and depth of corruption seems to prove this.  However, this is not the whole story and there is hope and some reason for optimism.  Even after tanking for nearly three years, Brazil is still among the world’s top 10 economies.  It has resources, size, complexity, and sophistication.  It remains to be seen if an accord can be reached so to revive and achieve levels of wealth and production of which the country is capable.   To turn the corner and prevail, Brazil needs a constitutional reordering and this is becoming increasingly clear as a result of the current crisis and the more or less orderly and legal way it is working out.  Brazil may and likely will continue to muddle along.  However, it will not follow Venezuela’s path to populist authoritarian dictatorship.  Elections will be held next year and there is increasing consensus of the need for continuing the legal proceedings of the Lava Jato, the ongoing corruption probe started at Petrobras but which now involves virtually all levels of politics and business.  Brazil’s major obstacle is to continue the reforms that are haltingly moving along and to decide that it really wants to be a democratic and capitalist country.  Certainly, in this aspiration, there is room and need for the left and redistributive policy.   But society, as a whole, needs to recognize that the current model of crony state capitalism is broken beyond repair.

The generation born since the Plano Real was implemented (1994) is coming of age and increasingly recognizes, more clearly than their parents and grandparents, that it cannot rely on the state to provide employment and investment.   Idealistic, reform minded and egalitarian, Brazilian youth want to express and showcase their potential, their start-ups and talents. Perhaps, the Hamilton’s author, Lin Manuel Miranda, offers in rap and hip hop an example.  As a youth Miranda migrated from Puerto Rico to New York where with hard work, intelligence, patience and sharpness he created a personal success story with national repercussion.  Brazil, no less than New York, is a land of opportunity.  Although the moment seems to be one of despair where everything is falling apart, now may also be the time for rebuilding and a fresh start of a new generation.

Here is a link to the music on YouTube: [FULL LYRICS] “Hamilton: An American Musical” by Lin-Manuel …

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L’etat c’est moi – Elites & State in Brazil


Brazil has gone from colony to empire to republic to authoritarian rule and now to a young, unstable and messy democracy.  While each stage has had its own historical uniqueness, each stage has seen the disproportionate weight of the state and related bureaucracy.  The extractive nature of the colonial economy, the centuries of slavery and the frustrated attempts at industrialization in the 19th century and the geo-political dependency of the country in the 20th century all reinforced the preponderance of the state over civil society as Brazil’s elites jockeyed more to preserve privilege instead of creating a vision or even a plan for the country.

Slavery, poverty, lack of education, lack of leadership, and an insular and insecure elite contribute to the weakness of Brazilian civil society.  By controlling the state, different governments have tended to the left or right but have been universal in using the state apparatus to co-opt and anticipate popular demands.  By providing a basic minimum of services and a narrative of hope to meet expectations, this top-heavy system has survived and grown.

The “worker” governments led by Lula, Rouseff and the PT (Workers’ Party) started with the ideal of  “capturing” the state apparatus to bring equality and a change in the relationship between the elites and the masses and between workers and owners.  Initially well intentioned, the PT succumbed to an ideology of taking power at any cost and to the Brazilian culture where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With the PT in control of the government, the already oversized apparatus became more bloated.  And while Lula’s signature program was Bolsa Familia, his major achievement was growing the economy while reducing inequality. Though Lula takes credit, much of the progress was due more to reaping the rewards of a stable currency and a favorable foreign trade scenario driven by China’s imports.   Lula was lucky for a while. But “Economic Take off” under the PT policies proved unsustainable.  Government expenses went through the ceiling as party expediency expanded state bureaus and allowed corruption to drive tremendous inefficiencies, while lining the pockets of a newly arrived elite.

In Brazil, as long as the economy can generate enough surplus to keep the state working and growing, no one complains.  Everyone is used to going to some state agency to seek or defend a right, a benefit, and a favor.  This habit is reflected in the “jeitinho” and the cordiality of society.  Access through friends, associates, godfathers, patrons, and “senhores de bem” has long smoothed and compensated conflicts and inequalities.  Unfortunately perhaps, as Brazil grew in size and economic activity, cordiality had to decline.  With a population of 200 million and a $2 trillion economy, access to the state apparatus through patronage and cordiality outstrips the capacity for providing sinecures.   Basic services in education, infra-structure, security and public health decline as a bloated bureaucracy becomes inefficient and hurts the workings of the market place through misallocation of capital, land and labor.  The state weighs down the economy.

Although the current recession was partially driven by the slow down in China and the drop of commodity prices, it is mainly the result of a lack of savings and productive investment by both the private and public sectors.  The public sector cannot afford to invest after paying pension and basic expenses, which are constitutionally set.  The private sector is in turn strangled by high interest rates driven by instability, risk and government borrowing.  Moreover, the government’s lack of resources further drives the increase of an already disproportionate tax burden that hits the poorest harder than the rich.  In the last generation or so, cordiality became promiscuous. Concupiscence was ultimately reflected in the corruption of construction companies and government interacting in what can be described, without exaggeration as a “swingers club bacchanal”.

To criticize the state in Brazil invites condemnation as being a neo-liberal, the infamous moniker hung upon the PSDB and other parties to Brazil’s center and right.  But these parties themselves are no strangers to corrupt comingling.  The problem is really in the origin, reinforcement and enhancement over the successive governmental orderings of the state. Corruption and the statist mentality thus touches all groups left, right and center.

If everyone depends on the state, this stunts civil society and negatively impacts the role of the citizen.  It is interesting to witness that “grass roots” social movements such as the MST and MBL depend not on individuals for support but rather NGO’s that are supported by the government, international coalitions and/or elite party machinery.  Since access to the patron is reduced or increasingly limited, those who benefit seek to protect themselves typically as a caste and lobby entrenched in the state.  The current struggle over pension reform exemplifies the problem.  Those in the military, the federal bureaucracy, and the state administrations understand that they have “acquired rights” and argue that these rights are untouchable through constitutional protection.

Cristiano Romero recently described the situation: “Nobody should doubt the strength of public-sector special interests in Brazil. Many civil servants do not see the government as the representation of a politically organized society; they, the workers, are the state. It belongs to them. Like at many other state-run companies, employees think they “own” them.” (Valor Econômico 27 Mar 2017)

It would be nice to believe that new technologies such as social media unlock a greater role for action independent of the state.  Still interaction on social media will be insufficient if it is not associated with a material base.  Private and individual initiative (with state support?) in the market must generate value and surplus, which in turn can be partially redirected to reforming the political structure.  The problem is overcoming the structure currently in place and those who maintain the status quo.  From this perspective, the problem is not just the current government.  Instead, the problem goes much deeper than “Fora Temer” and is, perhaps, unsolvable in the short term.