To say that Brazil is in the midst of huge political and economic crises is probably an understatement. Brazilian GDP has decreased for 3 years in a row, unemployment stands at 10.9%, and inflation is high. States like Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais have decreed a “state of fiscal calamity.” Central political figures have been involved in unprecedented corruption scandals. Dilma Rousseff, the former president of Brazil, has been impeached. Members of the political establishment are nervous about being implicated in plea bargain testimonies as a part of corruption investigations. The emblematic former president Lula is very likely to be charged, as is the former head of the Congress, the head of the Senate, ex-ministers, ex-governors and maybe even the acting president, Michel Temer.
Intellectually, the 90s were essentially leftist.
As a result, a massive popular movement has emerged and protesters have taken to the streets all over the country. Interestingly, among the traditional “Fora Dilma” (Dilma Out) signs and Lula’s inflatable dolls dressed as prison inmates, it was not uncommon to see Gadsden flags, and “Less Marx, More Mises” and “Olavo is Right” signs. Mises was the leading economist of the Austrian School of Economics, which advocates radically free markets. Olavo de Carvalho is a Brazilian conservative philosopher who lives in America.
A Long Time Coming
The intellectual underpinnings of the recent Brazilian protests are the result of a decades-long movement seeking a deep ideological change in the country. It is said that Hayek advised Anthony Fischer to avoid politics and influence intellectuals instead because he believed that the intellectual arguments would prevail in the long run. Fischer went on to create the Institute of Economic Affairs. Several years later, we saw the rise of public figures like Thatcher and Reagan. Something similar is happening in Brazil.
In the 1980s, Brazil faced hyperinflation, dictatorship, and state bankruptcy. Brazilians who had studied abroad and learned free market economics and understood the importance of individual liberty began to form groups designed to teach these ideas to businessmen. They translated many books by Mises, Hayek, Kirzner and even Ayn Rand. Several “Institutos Liberais” (Liberal Institutes) were created, but the movement remained small and ultimately ineffectual for several years. In the mid-90s, it almost disappeared. Intellectually, the 90s were essentially leftist. Marxist anti-market and anti-globalization views were dominant in virtually all of Brazil’s universities.
Unlike the Olavo’s conservative movement, the libertarians lacked a central ideological leader.
A single conservative philosopher began to rise to prominence. Olavo de Carvalho denounced the left’s dominance as a Gramscian cultural revolution strategy. He benefited from the increased availability of the internet and started to gather followers nationwide. As a college professor, Olavo taught while smoking, drinking coffee, and quoting obscure philosophers. As an activist, Olavo pulled no punches against his ideological opponents. He started several private long-distance courses and maintained a website full of libertarian and conservative content, one of few such collections Brazilians could access at the time. Olavo broke with libertarianism after a few years, becoming more conservative. Olavo continued to grow his audience as corrupt practices of Brazil’s Workers Party became known to the public and lent support to his theories. The number of his students and followers (Olavetes) skyrocketed and many other conservatives thinkers have risen to popularity since.
Libertarians, on the other hand, started a movement of their own. Unlike the Olavo’s conservative movement, the libertarians lacked a central ideological leader. In a relatively short period of time, they have achieved very impressive results. Today, libertarianism is growing faster in Brazil than in any other country. The word “Mises” is the subject of more Google searches than either “Marx” or “Keynes.”
Brazil is full of Institutes, websites, and blogs about libertarianism and Austrian economics. Instituto Mises Brasil (Mises Institute – Brazil) has translated several Austrian books and publishes articles every day. Estudantes pela Liberdade (Students for Liberty) holds conferences in hundreds of cities and has become the largest student association in the country by far. Dozens of student discussion groups have popped up in Brazil’s universities. Spotniks publishes daily articles debunking the mainstream media’s many statist claims. Instituto Mercado Popular (The Popular Market Institute) discusses market-based solutions to public policies. Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (The Institute of Business Studies) and Instituto de Formação de Lideres (The Leadership Training Institute) hold annual gigantic conferences in five capitals. But the biggest battlefield, of course, is online. Each of these institutions has thousands of Facebook likes and followers. Alongside these, independent YouTubers and bloggers also help to disseminate and popularize the ideas of a free society.
Liberty in Brazilian Politics
This movement has started yielding political fruits. The Novo (New) political party, which holds classical liberal views and refuses to be financed by public funds, has managed to elect four city councilman in four important capitals. The Partido Social Liberal (The Social Liberal Party) is a small party that is gradually being taken over by LIVRES, a bleeding-heart libertarian movement that seeks to align leftist flags and libertarian proposals, but the movement has yet to win over the party establishment.
Brazil has been stuck between Hobbes and Rousseau. They have never tried Locke.
Public opinion in Brazil has been a mix of Marxist, Positivist and Developmentalist ideas. Many still hold radical communist ideas: the poors are poor because the riches are rich, because of capitalist exploitation, because of the greed of foreign owners of capital. Brazil is also the only country with a positivist church. Comte, the father of positivism, believed technicians and experts should plan all aspects of ordinary life to compulsorily promote science and progress. It is the elitist view that ordinary people cannot think for themselves, that poor people are a lower class to be commanded, and are a problem to be cleaned away. Positivism has been implicit in the minds of Brazilians and explicit in the slogan on our flag “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). Developmentalism, a tropical mix of mercantilism and Keynesianism, has been the mainstream economic doctrine developed by Latin economists. It asserts that “what is good for rich countries is not good for us.” Its core policies are central planning, interventionism, protectionism, and an expansive state as the motor of development.
Historically, Brazil and Latin America have been stuck between Caudillism and Marxism, between populism and good intentions, between coup d’etat and revolutions, between an extremist left and a militaristic right, between Hobbes and Rousseau. They have never tried Locke. This could be the beginning of something different.