Thomas Kuhn, corruption and Dilma

The way out of Brazil’s current situation is nothing less than a new political paradigm: a system that does not require corruption for its governance. Español

Matías Bianchi
21 April 2016

People read the day's headlines focused on the congressional impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff, in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, April 18, 2016.AP Photo/Felipe Dana

The crisis Brazil is going through is baffling to both friends and strangers. Until recently, the country seemed poised to finally discredit Charles de Gaulle’s irony that Brazil is the country of the future, but that it will always be that way. In the last decade, Brazil became one of the ten top economies in the world, its corporations went global, it developed into an organizer for BRICS, a speaker for the region with the United States, an established candidate for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, a capitalist development model with social inclusion. And almost all the credit went to its ruling party, especially to its leader, Lula, who emerged as the referent for a modern, pragmatic Left that finally seemed capable of ruling the beast.

Next scene: we see a divided country, with hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets, the economy mired in the worst economic crisis in its history, and Dilma Rousseff blamed for leading an inept and, above all, corrupt machine.

Corruption: hypocrisy or political strategy?

Against this complex and puzzling scenario, due to several causes, corruption emerges as the salient point explaining almost everything. The focus on corruption is remarkable in that this is a phenomenon recurring in several countries in the region: the need to jail the corrupt and undertake a moral cleansing of politics. You only have to discuss the issue with neighbours or leaf through any major newspaper to assess the power and scope of this argument. In Brazil, it takes the shape of cases such as mensalão and Lava Jato and a superhero judge who has the "courage" to clean up politics.

The funny thing is that there is no legal cause for corruption against Dilma, and that what she is being judged for is "administrative irregularities in the budget." The situation becomes ridiculous when you look at who is behind the impeachment. The main actor is Eduardo Cunha, who is himself being prosecuted by the Supreme Court – for having bank accounts in Switzerland and appearing in the Panama Papers -, and the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) –, a party that was been at all levels of power since the country’s return to democracy. Behind them, the oligopolistic corporate media, agro-business and concentrated business sectors. But in the midst of confusion, all of this does not matter much. The discourse of corruption is simple and powerful to explain the country’s problems. Is this hypocrisy or political strategy?

Some clues are to be found in sociologist Sebastian Pereyra’s recent book Politics and Transparency, in which he states that the insistence on corruption is an excuse to discredit politics and, in particular, the ideological struggle. The aim is to moralize and de-ideologize politics, and thus dilute the cleavages of interest. Corruption makes it easy to tell apart politicians, and put them all in one bag. Facing them stands civil society which, in principle, is honest. Differences in country models, the role of the state, social inclusion, and fiscal policy are side issues. Politics is about management and everything will work fine if controlled efficiently. Pereyra mentions how the discourse on corruption gathered strength in Latin America in the 1990s, when it was necessary to privatize state enterprises in order to end their being controlled by corrupt politicians. This argument does not deny the existence of corruption, nor that corruption should be prosecuted, but it shows how functional it is to private actors. The strategy is not new: a coup was staged to remove Brazil’s dictator (1930-1945), then elected president (1951-1954) Getulio Vargas from power on charges of corruption, but what did the military do afterwards to fight it?

Thomas Kuhn and paradigm change

As Bernardo Gutiérrez points out, it so happens that the PT and Dilma are no strangers to what is judging them now. Good old "pragmatism" has finally led the PT to be part of the machinery of Brazilian politics, reaching agreements with the traditional parties and the powers that be. Salvador Schavelzon wonders how the PT expects solidarity from students calling for better public transport, from the middle classes hounded by neoliberal adjustments, and from family victims of police violence. Dilma, Lula and the PT have been caught in the trap of "governance" with which they toyed. The PMDB, Temer, and the rest were their political associates. The end of the story is like that of the frog and the scorpion.

This is why, today, the main crisis is a political one, and the discourse on corruption catches society’s anger towards its political class on the grounds of its lack of legitimacy. But as Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han says, transparency is a “scandalized onlooker’s”, anti-political discourse. In the midst of confusion, the powerful have the upper hand. Who will take power after Dilma’s impeachment?

What is the way out of this situation? Certainly not impeachment by a highly conservative and corrupt Congress, where representatives voted in the name of God, family, and one of them even for the man who tortured Dilma in the old days of the military regime.

What we should be thinking is about changing the political paradigm. In a conversation with Brazilian colleagues, the name of Thomas Kuhn came up. In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn explains how science works in paradigms: he argues that science evolves within established rules until, every so often, a revolution opens up new frontiers - and then starts operating under a new paradigm.

Let us use this concept as a metaphor for politics. Brazilian society has changed structurally in recent decades: it has now a more robust middle class, a better educated citizenry the rights of which have been extended, and an emerging generation of democratic native adults. In focus groups I organized there late last year, the contrast between current institutional politics and emerging social sectors who are exploring new frontiers, who are designing collaborative logics, who are including new issues on the public agenda and carrying out democratic practices that are completely innovative, was all too evident. What these sectors are proposing is a new paradigm.

What remains unchanged, however, is the political system. It should come as no surprise that 80% of Brazilians trust neither Dilma nor Cunha. That is, the main current political expressions do not account for the emerging politics mentioned above. The Congress that is voting Dilma’s impeachment consists mostly of white, old, rich men, linked to local state elites. It has nothing to do with Brazil’s colourful society, made up of large black, poor, students, peasants, workers, indigenous and other groups, the interests of which are not reflected in the current political system.

I count myself among those who think that the PT has been the biggest political innovation in Brazilian history and, certainly, a political referent for the region. However, it got caught in its own game. The time has come for us to think about renewing politics and distributing power, featuring emerging actors and social practices. This is a great responsibility for organized social sectors. They have to be careful not to fall into the homogenizing “throw them all out” discourse on corruption, which is functional to only a few. Above all, they must be able to identify and pursue their own interests. Instead of undertaking a moral crusade against politics, we should be discussing political systems that do not require corruption for their governance, and how to regulate the role of the media and business in political life.

This article was published also by Asuntos del Sur.

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