THE CATCH-22 OF BRAZILIAN NATIONAL IDENTITY AND CORRUPTION DISCOURSE – by Mads Damgaard

By Mads Damgaard, ph.d.-stipendiat, KU

Brazilians are corrupt.

I’m against corruption.

I’m Brazilian.

National stereotypes are terrible things. They are terrible in a double sense: Terrible as concepts to think through, as they tend to cloud and obscure the vicissitudes of humanity – and terrible, as in dangerous and not to be trifled with.

While academics of the humanities in most cases do well to shy away from stereotypes such as “the Brazilian” or “all Brazilians”, no scholar can stop such stereotypes from cropping up in everyday discourse, over and over. Like mushrooms, stereotypes sprout vast-ranging networks of roots, in bewildering and sometimes paradoxical formulations. One such paradox is condensed in the epigraph of this article. The stereotypical identification of Brazilian-ness with corruption is perhaps the most common prejudice held by outsiders, next to “sexual” and “fantastic football players”. No amount of academic debunking seems to kill such cultural clichés.

Stereotypes find fertile ground in the everyday practices and rituals of social life, where nations come together as a community in the imagination – the daily paper, the novel, the morning coffee (Anderson 1983). They are also nurtured intentionally with political motives, when politicians try to mobilize and arouse feelings of collective effervescence by waving the national flag and by constructing national or sub-national identities and rhetorical unity. In the following, I will discuss how the fertile ground of practice (in the Bourdieuan sense) and the nurturing moves of populism (in the sense of Ernesto Laclau’s empty discursive nodes, see Laclau 2005) make such stereotypes come alive and render them powerful, albeit paradoxically so. That paradox, condensed in the first clause, is the subject of this article, and the starting point of a discussion concerning the alleged dark side of Brazilian national identity.

O Jeitinho

The first sentence of our initial clause is perhaps best understood through an example: The notion that Brazilians are (all) corrupt will be illustrated through the jeitinho. Again, o jeitinho is a stereotypical shorthand, characterizing an apparently coherent set of actions and practices, performed every day in Brazil.

Jeitinho means, literally, the small road, and figuratively, the way out of a bureaucratic cul-de-sac by illicit means. In practice, jeitinho (Almeida, 2007; Duarte, 2006; Rodrigues, 2011) means asking for a favour that requires some rule to be bent. It means escaping the rigid Lusophone bureaucracy, and it often means giving something back – propina, or kickback – a bribe, if you will. It is, analysed anthropologically, a culturally inherited way of strengthening bonds through a network of favours, payments and small transgressions, thus making partners complicit and inclined to cover each other’s backs. It is alive and kicking, both for the street peddler trying to get out of a fine, and for the political entrepreneur in legislative bodies and court rooms. Everybody knows the implications – and everybody knows somebody who, through the jeitinho, cheats the system. Thus, the stereotype goes something like this: Of course, they (the stereotypical Brazilians) don’t practice the jeitinho themselves, or so the story usually goes, at least when prompted. But on the other hand, that refusal rarely means condemning a friend, cousin, or brother for finding a way out of administrative red tape with extra-legal measures.

As a quasi-accepted practice, jeitinho is one part of a double bind, a catch-22 peculiar to the great wave of corruption scandals engulfing the Brazilian parliament and Presidency these years. In the following, we will have a brief look at the other part of the double bind, that of the populist discourse connecting the Brazilian nation to the combat against corruption:

The Protests of June 2013 and the Impeachment of Dilma Rousseff

With increasing regularity in the last few years, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of São Paulo, Rio, Brasília, Porto Alegre and other state capitals, denouncing corruption in the political sphere. The wave of manifestations began in June 2013, when relatively minor protests against bus fare increases and general discontent with political management, unexpectedly snowballed into millions of protesters, waving wildly different flags. Famously, many banners, in lieu of space to list all the causes of the protest and societal problems, settled for “It was never just about the 20 cent fare increase”. What was it about, then? An impressive array of political mobilization claimed a stake in the June protests, but tellingly, the media coverage was especially tuned to those protesting against corruption.

The government took the cue and responded to that part of the motley political cauldron of points of discontent, proposing various ways of strengthening anti-corruption. Those measures never got off the ground, however, and the following year, in 2014, the Petrobras corruption scandal was triggered, sending shock waves through the political system that are felt to this day.

As is the rule with state companies, the oil giant Petrobras had its directors appointed through political processes, and the directories of supplies, construction, and international affairs had been divided between three major political parties of the government. These directors had then been tasked to not just administering their portfolios, but also making sure that money from contracts between Petrobras and the existing cartel of contractors in the construction sector would be channelled back into party slush funds. In March 2014, a small-time investigation carried out in Curitiba suddenly hit the jackpot by exposing one of the money-laundering schemes in place to occlude the graft in Petrobras. The case threatened to influence the result of the October elections for the presidency, but the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, just managed to carry the votes.

Shortly after the elections, the cry for impeaching Rousseff was heard in the streets of Brazil. As former chair of the administrative board of Petrobras, Rousseff was the obvious target of discontent with the Petrobras corruption, if not, at that moment, with the alarming state of the national economy. In February 2015, March, August and December, manifestations against Rousseff and her party gathered huge throngs in the state capitals, framing her and the Workers’ Party as “corruPTos”, a pun on the party abbreviation PT. Evidence has emerged that the protests were funded by opposition parties, but the slogans of the mobilization spoke of spontaneity and grass-roots: One major organizer was called Movimento Brasil Livre (The Free Brazil Movement), the other Vem Pra Rua (Take to the Streets).

On the protesters’ banners, in the speeches, their songs, pamphlets and online calls for action, the corruption of Brazilian politics was targeted. This constitutes the second part of the catch-22:

I’m against corruption. In fact, corruption is viewed as the most serious problem facing the country, ahead of unemployment, a nearly-broken public healthcare system, crumbling schools, and rampant violence in untold neighbourhoods across the country.

But, and here’s the return leg of our paradox, part 2 of the catch: Everybody wants to keep the jeitinho. 1 Well, not if you ask someone directly, of course. Rather, it is perfectly obvious from legal and media records that even in a political climate obsessed with anti-corruption, top tier politicians don’t seem to stop taking bribes – just like the jeitinho in the daily life of many, many Brazilians seems to persist.

Why would anyone want to maintain the practice of the jeitinho? Because, in the mundane world of compromises and making-ends-meet, it makes everything so much easier; because otherwise you couldn’t count on calling in favours someday, and because the hours and hours of waiting in lines, filling out forms, formally complaining, or even just filing a simple document will eat out the soul of anyone unlucky enough to depend upon the monstrous bureaucracy of Brazil.

The protests of 2015, culminating on March 13, 2016, saw several millions of people calling for the impeachment of Rousseff and the ousting of other corrupt politicians. How can we understand such hypocrisy on a mega-scale?2 One answer could be that though it appears as self-flagellation, protesting against corruption was a strategic union of national signifiers and certain political stereotypes, locating the cause of corruption with the left-wing government and masking the role of the CEO’s of the private sector, the corrupt directors of state companies and the role played by the supporting parties.

Our Flag Shall Never Be Red

The national dimension of the anti-corruption sentiments and the calls for impeachment was all too visible. The organizers had strategically claimed the green and yellow colours of the Brazilian flag as the graphic identity of the protests pamphlets, online calls to action, banners and other manifestation paraphernalia. At each public protest, the national anthem was also heard from the loudspeakers of the wagons leading the protests.

There were practical reasons as well as historical reasons for linking the flag and the national colours to the protests against corruption in the government. One important reason, expressed in a nutshell by Ernesto Laclau (2005) is the emptiness of the national signifier. With the generalized call to action, all of Brazil was discursively configured as the protagonist in the fight against corruption. Such a rhetorical move touches upon the very bedrock of how populist discourse can be constructed, says Laclau, because it envelops “the Brazilians” in a rhetorical unity, while shedding any dividing particularities in the internal, conceptual architecture:

… any popular identity needs to be condensed around some signifiers (words, images) which refer to the equivalential chain as a totality. The more extended the chain, the less these signifiers will be attached to their original particularistic demands. That is to say, the function of representing the relative ‘universality’ of the chain will prevail over that of expressing the particular claim which is the material bearer of that function. In other words: popular identity becomes increasingly full from an extensional point of view; for it represents an ever-larger chain of demands; but it becomes intensionally poorer, for it has to dispossess itself of particularistic contents in order to embrace social demands which are quite heterogeneous. That is: a popular identity functions as a tendentially empty signifier. (op. cit. p. 96)

The green and yellow colours promised to include everybody in the protests, whilst warning that anybody opposed to the protests would necessarily be anti-patriotic. The implicit claim, then, was the classic “either you’re with us, or you’re against us”. Thus, the previously empty signifiers came to mark and signify certain elements as different, creating a quite specific construction of national identity. In more detail, we need to ask what it would take to be against this empty but potentially nation-embracing rhetoric.

Of course, even though the national colours and the discourse seem to signify unity, room was still left for pointing out antagonists. By being against that national unity, signified by the national flag, anthem, and colours, you would supposedly signal not only anti-patriotism, but also an ideological stance: The colour-spectral dimension of the protests was forcefully tied to the cries denouncing communism and socialism as the deeper cause of corruption: “A Nossa Bandeira Jamais Será Vermelha”, Our Flag Shall Never Be Red. That statement associated the colours of the protests with a symbolic struggle over the hegemony of the state – since 2002, the centrist-social democratic Worker’s Party had dominated Brazilian politics, and the Worker’s Party choice of colour is and was, in classic left-wing fashion, red. Thus, the colours associated with Worker’s Party government were antagonized, even if the centrist-social democratic rule of Worker’s Party that begun with Lula taking the presidential mantle in 2002 had required all revolutionary aspirations to be sacrificed on the altar of the World Bank and the hegemonic Washington-consensus way of doing reforms. The green and yellow colours doubled their visual discursive workload by also tying the anti-corruption protests to anti-Cuban and anti-Venezuelan discourse of Brazilian right wing politics.

But claiming the flag had practical implications readily apparent to any large-scale street manifestation organizer. In Brazil, of course, home of the Carnaval – the world’s perhaps most visually daunting spectacle – the import of a coherent colour scheme and easily recognizable group identities is well known. Furthermore, six decades of rampant football fever have put untold millions of shirts of iconic national team players – Pelé, Ronaldo, Dunga, Ronaldinho, Neymar – in the drawers of the Brazilians. Thus, the welding of national identity through football icons, “national” outrage against corruption and a particular political moment of government-loathing emerged. In sum, the rather empty patriotic ideology of the protests combined national symbols with a particular political agency. National identity was thereby constructed, in a sense filling out the semantic void of the invocation of the flag.

As the President was finally ousted with the Senate’s vote for impeachment on August 31, a number of senators burst into singing the national anthem. 26 of the 81 senators are currently investigated by the Supreme court for corruption, fraud or other illicit activities. Several of these senators have been cited in testimonies in the Petrobras case as responsible for appointing the directors that later channelled money to party slush funds. This conclusion, quite fittingly, played out in front of the flag with the national lemma imprinted on it: “Order and Progress”.

A Supremely Ugly Document

While the street protests claimed the flag and the shirts of the national football team, the Senate and the Lower House of Congress claimed the Constitution as the national bulwark against corruption.

But, paradoxically, the Brazilian Constitution, with its awkward phrases, enormous size, and petrified clauses, could be seen as the real culprit. Because of the many compromises and skewed checks-and-balances embedded in the Constitution of 1988, the Brazilian political system has coalesced into a weird form of presidentialism-turned-parliamentarism.

The 1988 Constitution created many possible roads to vetoes, leaving the congressional door wide open for stalemates between executive and legislative branches3. Such stalemates create a consensual and inflexible style of governance. Worse, the Constitutional text has ensured minor parliamentarians a non-exhaustible source of income: Votes of the Congressmen are always a potential “nay”, and such legislative attitude has negligible costs for the common politician. In order to ensure bills getting passed, the Executive branch must therefore incessantly struggle to feed the ravenous appetite of the Congressional cattle for pork and political resources, if not straight-up money in brown envelopes. The jeitinho, at a much larger scale, trading political favours by the welding of personal bonds, reappears as the quotidian way of securing political progression and congressional support.

It was well known to constitutional scholars that the 1988 Constitution was “a supremely ugly document” (Reich 1998:5), but the Brazilian system seemed to behave anyway, even in somewhat a manageable and orderly fashion. The system of managing those coalitions, as disclosed in the Petrobras scandal, was in fact to a great extent facilitated by the greasing of political wheels.

And still, despite that knowledge of greased wheels and oily kickbacks, demonstrated by scores of plea bargains and witness accounts, the Congress and the Senate insisted on holding up the Constitution as the answer to the political crisis. Even with corruption probes threatening central players in the major parties of the Congress, synchronous with a veritable government meltdown, the idea perpetuated that impeachment of the President would solve the problems of the political elite, as long as the wording of the Constitution was honoured and the processes laid down by the Supreme Court upheld. Never mind that impeachment would not change the crisis of political representation, would not stop the veto construction of the parliamentary system, or that impeaching the president will not prevent the leap-frogging new president Michel Temer from being implicated in the very same corruption scandal as his predecessor.

In the political discourse of the supermajority of the Brazilian Congress, impeaching Dilma Rousseff was, emphatically, not a coup d’état. Why? Because the Law was upheld – because impeachment proceedings occurred within the framework of the Constitution.

The President’s Two Bodies

The benevolent light of the Federal Constitution shone upon the Senate, and let the body of the people’s representative and sovereign, the President, be metaphorically burned and substituted for a new body. Kantorowicz’s classic study of the sovereign subject and the double representation or embodiment can fruitfully inform our inquiry into national identity, corruption protests and impeachment:

… the corpus republicae mysticum […] was equated with the corpus morale et politicum of the commonwealth, until finally (though confused with the idea of Dignitas) the slogan emerged saying that every abbot was a ‘mystical body’ or a ‘body politic’, and that accordingly the king, too, was, or had, a body politic which ‘never died’… (Kantorowicz 1957:506)

Ousting one sovereign body makes room for the ritual ascendancy of another, supposedly clean body, proving that the process of expulsion did the people some good. The President is corrupt and ousted, hurray! Viva o novo presidente. The insight into medieval legal and constitutional theology pinpoints how it is possible to sustain the idea that specific persons, not the societal institutions and practices of Constitutions and jeitinhos are the ‘real’ problem. The corpus politicum is a priori morally good, while specific instances and Presidents might be corrupt. The question is reduced to the transferral of power unto the next in the dynastic (or Presidential) line of succession.

This fallacy leads ultimately to the last bit of the catch-22, the eternal double bind of Brazilian anti-corruption discourse and national sado-masochistic relations to political representatives.  The very same adoration and patriotic claims of national restauration and grandeur that underpins the political apotheosis embedded in every general election creates the unsustainable illusion of a powerful Presidency, government and Congress. Disappointing those expectations, the explanation can never be the status quo-preserving political system or the supremely ugly Constitution. The reason for political failure, of course, is unerringly cast as corruption – the single moral flaws of individuals, or, at the most, a single party. That paves the way for a new cast of political leaders, except they are never new in any real sense, but are rather the flotsam drifting at the given moment on the top of the wave of self-loathing directed towards the body political.

In this way, the initial movement is repeated ad nauseam:

Brazilians are corrupt.

I’m against corruption.

I’m Brazilian.

It is like the dialectic made famous in Heller’s novel Catch-22, in which Orr, a friend of the protagonist’s, must be choosing rationally by claiming insanity: A self-annulling process.

By tacitly accepting the jeitinho (or even partaking in it), the stereotypical small-scale corruption is made legit. Denouncing and protesting against it only paves the way to power for other politicians who will eventually be found all too “Brazilian” and corrupt.  Ousting one supposedly corrupt president and introducing another basically mirrors the repeated use of the bureaucratic backdoor and loud denunciation of one’s compatriots for corruption. The hope for a better democracy is dispelled in the very act, and the nation’s reputation for corruption perpetuated. By introducing new politicians to power, driven by a self-eclipsing desire for purity, projecting one’s own transgressions vis-à-vis the society into the televised dramas of the evening news, the initial idea is forgotten, defeated, and the same state of affairs is eventually reproduced.

Notes

1

In fact, it seems impossible to imagine the end of the jeitinho. Just after the 2016 Carneval, I found my own face on the second page of the major Rio de Janeiro daily O Globo. Hanging out for a 5-month fieldwork in the Brazilian capital to study the corruption discourse, I left Brasília for a brief stay in Rio, the cidade maravilhosa. Here, the media conglomerate Globo contacted me for an interview in the paper and a televised interview for their news channel. In the interview, I discussed the tsunami of news on corruption in the Brazilian mediascape, but the eventual published headline ended up reading: ”Maybe the jeitinho will change in 10 years”. The practice of jeitinho seems so ingrained in Brazilian culture that the idea of any changes seemed newsworthy to the editors of Globo. The headline of the Globo interview must have sounded ridiculous or naïve to many readers. Changing the jeitinho? No way, that’s never going to happen. Yet, protesting against corruption was part and parcel of the political arena and the most visible agenda item in the media, dwarfing even the Olympics in Rio and the deforming zika virus.

2

Maybe the double bind of the Brazilian self-understanding of corruption practices must be understood as a Lacanian pattern, a remnant from Catholic morality, going from sin to confession and redemption on a weekly basis. The transgression of the Law, the jouissance and desire to escape the straight-jacket of rigid rules, are too tempting to resist, but requires penance that in itself produces jouissance (Lennerfors, 2008): The righteous feeling of moral outcry against corrupt authorities, juxtaposing in manifestations one’s own transgression to those of the political elite, purging in a way one’s own soul by denouncing the representative body of the nation, Congress as well as the President. Echoing Georges Bataille (1991), the transgression is implied in the law, and so the just and right way of doing things is constituted and mutually constitutes the dark side of the law (Damgaard 2015). The loudest protests are the most suspect, then, or, with a British bon-mot: “Pot calls the kettle black”.

3

One political observer coined the term “movement in immobility” to encompass the dignified meandering of the political system, walking but never really getting anywhere (Nobre, 2013).

4

In the late 90’s, as the democratic system had stabilized and even solved the problem of hyperinflation, many political scientists actually marvelled at the Brazilian presidential system. Thus, researchers invented a new ideal type to describe it, and characterized it as a presidential system working through coalition management, or “coalitional presidentialism” for short (Powers, Raile and Pereira, 2008).

References

Almeida, Alberto Costa (2007) A cabeça do brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Record.

Bataille, Georg (1991) The accursed share, vol. III. New York: Zone Books.

Damgaard, Mads (2015) “Corruption: Multiple margins and mediatized transgression” in Ephemera, Vol. 15(2), p. 411-434.

Duarte, Fernanda. (2006) “A double-edge sword: The jeitinho as an ambiguous concept in the Brazilian imaginary.” in Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 1, 125-131.

Heller, Joseph (1961) Catch-22. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kantorowicz, Ernst (1957) The King’s Two Bodies. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

Lennerfors, Thomas Taro (2008) The Vicissitudes of corruption. Degeneration, transgression,

jouissance. Stockholm: Arvinius (Ph.D. Thesis).

Nobre, Marcos (2013) Imobilismo em Movimento. Da abertura democrática ao governo Dilma. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras

Pereira, Carlos; Power, Timothy J. & Raile, Eric D. (2008) Coalitional Presidentialism and Side Payments: Explaining the Mensalão Scandal in Brazil. Brazilian Studies Programme, University of Oxford, Workshop Paper 03-08.

Reich, Gary M. (1998) ”The 1988 Constitution A Decade Later. Ugly Compromises Reconsidered” in Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 40:4, s. 5-24.

Rodrigues, Ronaldo et al. (2011) “Brazilian jeitinho: Understanding and explaining an indigenous

psychological construct” in Revista Interamericana de Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology, Vol. 45, Num. 1, pp. 27-36

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