Jesus' Chloroquine: a reflection on Brazil's historical injustices, part II

We are heading towards the end of May with more than one thousand Covid-19 deaths per day in the country, according to official data. However, we know that more people are dying than the data shows, since there was a terrible increase in the number of deaths due to respiratory syndrome without a determinate cause—and, since we didn't test the living and the dead in sufficient numbers, we're left in the dark. The second health secretary of Bolsonaro's administration, Nelson Teich, left his post after only 28 days, probably concerned about having his medical registration revoked if he agreed with the president and recommended the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat patients with the new coronavirus. In his place, president Bolsonaro put an army general that has already released the drug.
Foreman punishing a slave, by Jean-Baptiste Debret

Even before Teich asked to leave, the Ministry of Health was already being staffed by members of the armed forces without any expertise or experience to deal with this type of situation. It's common knowledge that Teich never decided anything during the days when he was health secretary. He went in there just to fill in the void left by the firing of Bolsonaro's first health secretary, Mandetta.

At this point in time, some things can be state accurately. One is that the president is inept and has dictatorial tendencies. Furthermore, he is surrounded by obscurantists who, in turn, are misinformed by pseudo-intellectuals who spread obscurantism. Those citizens who still support the current administration—the whole of it or partially—do so because they are as inept and obscurantist as members of the government. Those who were hopeful that the military would bring some stability to the government by guarding the president's madness were completely wrong. The generals and officers around him appear as inept and obscurantist as figures like Abraham Weintraub, secretary of education, and Ernesto Araújo, minister of foreign relations—both are literal flat-Earthers and anti-vaxxers.

The big problem is that the obscurantists who end up supporting this government and others like it around the world are not few. In the case of Brazil, the fact that many of Bolsonaro's voters have regretted their vote, and the fact that the majority of the electorate did not vote for him—when we add those who voted against him with those who abstained from voting—doesn't change the fact that it would be naive to say that there aren't tens of millions of Brazilians who support him and would support any other obscurantist and authoritarian leader. This is the raw data of our planetary reality: we are surrounded by fools who, in the midst of a devastating health crisis, prefer clinging to unfounded convictions rather than following what the scientific consensus advises.

Much can be said about the errors of contemporary science, but these criticisms can be qualified or even countered, depending on the way they are approached. Instrumental reason—which is not exactly the same as scientific reason, but has joined it in the form of contemporary technoscience—has produced nuclear weapons and other unimaginable horrors, it's true. However, the contemporary scientific method can be seen as just that: a method. What we do with it is in the realm of the humanities, of ethics. When researchers in the fields of medicine and biology say that a lethal virus is circulating and that we must isolate so that the world's health systems don't collapse, they are making a cold prediction of reality. There is no value in this statement.

Of course, most of these researchers also value the following: it is bad that lives are lost in a pandemic, especially when we can put public policies into practice so that loss of life is minimized. We could promote social isolation and government aid for the most vulnerable, for example. But that is not the whole story, unfortunately. There is another side, the side of scientific denial and obscurantism. We have a significant minority of tens of millions of people who blindly believe that the scientific consensus is wrong, or worse, lying. In their minds, the pandemic and the social distancing measures to contain it are pretexts to break the economy of the country and the world. According to these obscurantists, the State, for some reason that they cannot explain properly, would be unable to help the vulnerable during this time of crisis, even though that same State is capable of giving trillions to banks so that they have liquidity during the pandemic.

There is a hint of conspiratorial fantasy and magical thinking in this type of reasoning, if we can call it reasoning. Those who think that way are adepts of unsubstantiated beliefs, beliefs that claim the existence of sinister agents, who work in the shadows, manipulating certain important events. According to this crazy idea, such macabre agents would be able to control everything as puppeteer controls his puppets. Their goal would be to profit from the disgrace of the good people.

The bizarre thing is that this kind of mentality if always coupled with the belief that the political system defended by such “sinister agents” is naturally doomed to failure or, at the very least, extremely inefficient. Many of us have heard or read ridiculous theories about how Marxist-inspired regimes are, at the same time, extremely inefficient and capable of orchestrating infallible diabolical conspiracies, which is impossible: either they are extremely inefficient or they are capable of orchestrating infallible conspiracies. This also happens on the other side of the political spectrum. It is possible to find people who claim that the owners of major means of production are capable of putting an end to all popular revolutions, but that such actions won't work in the end because the capitalist system is inexorably headed for failure. In other words, the capitalists are effective enough to end all revolutions, but the historical subject and the forces of the proletariat will end up destroying them anyway.

The enemy is always seen as a beast destined for ruin but, at the same time, an evil genius capable of orchestrating the most diabolical conspiracies against the just cause, whatever it may be. We have to analyze another possibility, that human history is just a succession of moments that give us the impression that we are going somewhere. What we call progress, from this perspective, is just a set of novelties that give us the impression of a course. However, these novelties hardly change the essence of who we are and the nature of our deepest afflictions.

Even so, if we take the hypothesis of historical nihilism as correct, there are those individuals and groups that try to improve our condition based on certain objectives. There are people who, even within this decadent and deadly condition to which we have all been thrown in at birth, work towards human emancipation or improving the quality of life for all. Could anyone deny that certain societies in the last hundred years have at least tried? Although certain attempts have ended in resounding failures, we cannot pretend that they were not made, nor can we pretend that there aren't many of us yearning for something better than the life we live under this exploitative system. Brazilian civilization, however, could hardly fit within the group of societies that seriously tried to change for the better, even though in certain aspects Brazil has developed a lot.

Geopolitically speaking, the American continent was built on top of millions of dead and enslaved bodies. The inhabitants of the Americas live on the stage of one of the greatest genocides in human history, perhaps the greatest. It extends from the extreme north to the tip of South America. When we looked at the particular case of our country, we had, besides slavery and genocide, ignorance—which has been State policy since the Portuguese crown banned universities in its colony. According to the policy adopted by Portugal, these lands were not to be inhabited, but raped and stolen. The first universities to appear on the continent, in the 16th century, existed in Spanish controlled America. That doesn't mean much since the Spanish colonies were also raped and plundered and they ended up underdeveloped and poor like the Portuguese colony, i.e. Brazil. Brazil's first higher education institution was created only after the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in the 19th century.

Although having a university during the colonial period is not a sufficient condition for a country to be considered developed today, having none is certainly not a good sign. And this is just a detail, an accessory fact, say. The great scandal of our national formation was the institution of slavery and the subjugation of non-European peoples. On this point, the readings of Gilberto Freyre's work by contemporary sociologist Jessé Souza presents us with some of the most important and pernicious aspects of our development as people. We have an undeniable mark left by slavery, racism and patriarchal colonial culture that permeates our entire society, whether we admit it or not. Even though our racism and elitism developed differently from the racism and elitism that exists in a place like the United States, we are a country with an extremely racist culture and we have an exacerbated negative view of the lower classes.

As Jessé argues, when we leave aside the valuations and romantics of Freyre's work, when we focus only on its empirical aspects, we can start to build the image of our country's formation without alluding to the myth of continuity with the Portuguese nation and the so-called “cursed inheritance”. Portugal today is a developed, advanced capitalist country, with a high standard of living and some social protection net for its citizens. This all came a few decades after the end of Salazarism and its backwards policies that held the country back. The idea that Brazil has a “cursed inheritance” and therefore it will never change for the better stems from unsubstantiated myths that characterize one of the pillars of our civilization, the Portuguese, as intrinsically problematic, together with the Indians and the blacks. But there are no curses in the formation of societies, just as there are no real curses in anyone's life. Our violent, patriarchal, racist and corrupt society is explained, in large part, through our concrete formation, a formation that took place through certain peculiar historical processes. All existing nations have gone through long historical processes to become what they are, from the most developed nations with the highest standards of living, to the least developed. There is no magic or curses at work to make some countries worse and others better.

Let us look at a narrative of how some of these processes took place in Brazil. Working on the thought of German sociologist Norbert Elias, Jessé Souza says that colonial Brazil resembled Europe before the late Middle Ages—although it was not exactly the same, of course. He writes:
However, the previous social form, medieval warrior society, as described by Elias, is in many ways similar to colonial Brazilian society as seen by Gilberto Freyre. First of all, due to the autonomous character of the manorial domain conditioned by the absence of institutions above the immediate territorial lord. (SOUZA, 2017)
Regarding the characteristics of our colonial society, Jessé continues:
In the case of Brazilian colonial society, social isolation was even greater due to the absence of vassal relations, which, at least in time of war, demanded the provision of services and, therefore, the maintenance of the minimum discipline necessary for the military company. In fact, in the case of Brazilian slavery, we are dealing with a limit concept of society, where the absence of intermediate institutions makes the family element its main component. Hence, the specific drama of this societal form can be described from socio-psychological categories whose genesis points to the so-called primary social relations.

It is precisely as a constitutive and structurally sadomasochistic society—in the sense of a specific social pathology, where the pain of others, the non-recognition of otherness and the perversion of pleasure become the ultimate goal of interpersonal relationships—that Gilberto Freyre interprets the essential seed of Brazilian formation. Freyre clearly perceives that the direction of the primary aggressive and sexual impulses depend “in large part on opportunity or chance, that is, on external social influences. More than predisposition or innate perversion.” (SOUZA, 2017)
From the section above we can extract the following: in colonial Brazil, there was a type of social organization based on land owners. These masters were originally Portuguese. They often came here without their families. They had to use a sort of cultural and moral plasticity that didn't exist even in the Spanish colonies. Even those Portuguese settlers who brought European women still ended up having relations with native women and black slaves, relationships from which illegitimate mixed-race children were born. All of this, which in Europe would be unthinkable, was lawful when what mattered was to populate the colony with loyal subjects to the Portuguese crown.

Unlike British America, where what mattered was always someone's origin, so a white master who had mixed-race children would hardly be able to give them a better life, in the case of Portuguese America, the masters had an almost absolute power of life and death within their lands. He was the law and exercised his power without being bound by allegiance relations, like the warriors of Early Middle Ages, and without the need for constant accountability with a nearby State. The king of Portugal and his court were too far away to be mad at polygamous colonial lords who had dozens of children out of wedlock with native and African women they owned. Despite this plasticity and freedom to mix, the Portuguese colony was no utopia of social or racial equality. Far from it:

Undoubtedly, the culturally and racially hybrid society that Freyre writes about in no way meant equality between cultures and “races”. There was systematic dominance and subordination, better yet—or worse in this case—, there was perversion of the domain in the limit concept of sadism. Nothing could be further from the idyllic or rosy concept of society. The relationship of the Portuguese man with Indian and black women was sadistic. The relationship between the master and his own white woman, the dolls used for reproduction and one-sided sex that Freyre tells us about, was sadistic. Finally, the relationship between the master and his own children, the beings who suffered and were beaten the most after the slaves, was sadistic. (...)

The political and social consequences of these private tyrannies, when they are transmitted from the sphere of the family and sexual activity to the public sphere of political and social relations, become evident in the dialectic of “mandonismo” and authoritarianism on the one hand, more precisely on the side of the elites, and on the other hand in the abandonment and contempt for the masses. This dialectic would later take multiple and more concrete forms in the oppositions between doctors and illiterates, more European groups and classes and the Amerindian and African masses, and so on. (SOUZA, 2017)

From reflections such as these, Jessé Souza states that it is possible to write a whole genealogy of our society, including the middle classes. Through a long process of transmission and intergenerational cultural transformation, the middle classes of the 19th, 20th and 21th centuries inherited the role of the mestizo and angry foremen who worked for the plantation masters, now transformed into the figure of the socio-economic elite. The most conservative members of today's middle class try at all costs to preserve a distance from the poorest sectors, identifying with the elite that dominates and exploits them instead of realizing that they are much closer to the popular masses—in most cases, they are closer to the poor even in physical appearance, as they are more or less racially mixed, unlike the rich elite, which is still almost entirely white.

To conclude with the citations, it's worth highlighting one of the most striking passages of Jessé Souza's book:
The great thinker of the civilizing process, Norbert Elias, analyzed the European process, highlighting as a main point—not by accident—the historical cut with slavery in the Ancient world. Inside the great sociologist head was the belief that the civilizing process is based on the perception and consideration of otherness, of an “other” that has to be respected. Elias interprets guilt in a Freudian way as the basis of a process that leads to the modern State and democracy. But what happens when there is no guilt in the exercise of material and symbolic violence against the most fragile of us because they are considered to be subhumans, slaves and unworthy of being treated and recognized as humans? This is the main legacy of slavery in modern Brazil. A heritage that has been made invisible and therefore never made aware. (...)
How has such a naturalization of petty hatred been possible among us? This is the biggest Brazilian issue of the moment. No other issue compares to it in magnitude and urgency. (SOUZA, 2017)
The reader may ask: “but what does all of this have to do with the devastation that Covid-19 is causing in Brazil and with the Chloroquine issue?” I'll try to explain. The issue of Chloroquine as a miracle drug is yet another lure—an immensely cynical lure, by the way—invented by the owners of power to appease the immense mass of poor and miserable workers that exist in Brazil. The supporters of the current administration even invented a ridiculous jingle at the pace of Florentina, a famous song by the Brazilian clown Tiririca, but instead of “Florentina” they changed the it to “Cloroquina”. In the lyrics, Bolsonaro's supporters say that Chloroquine cures people “in the name of Jesus”. I am dead serious. This is Brazil in 2020. The insistence on a drug that has no scientific validation, on the contrary, is one more lie created by those whose dogma states that the people have to work and not received any form of help.

The believers of this political religion find it morally justifiable that the poor should expose themselves to any and all risks in order to produce wealth for the elites. If there is one thing that has been exposed in current times is that our rich elite cannot survive without extracting blood and sweat from workers. However, while the poor are exposed, the rich can isolate themselves, since they do little work, live off of interest, inheritance and in the few cases in which they became rich by “their own effort”, they were lucky to have a favorable environment for them to prosper—but in the end, even these “deserving rich” people ended up becoming the same as other owners of the means of production: they live off the work of others. Even a billionaire who manages his investments does not work, contrary to popular belief. He owns. The fact that he keeps up with his business and moves his capital from the comfort of an office or from his mansion doesn't make him a worker.

Normally, reality already shows how little we value the lower classes. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic, this downturn is even more evident. It can no longer be denied that a minority of the population has opportunities that the descendants of the poor, mestizo, Indian and black majority never had. Chloroquine is a kind of fake solution given by the elites and middle classes (watchdogs of the elites) so that the poor can return to work and produce wealth for the owners of the means of production, while earning misery and giving their lives in exchange. The use of religion makes this even more amazing, especially when it is used by those who preach the Gospel of Prosperity to support a drug that can be harmful to patients with Covid-19. This is a blasphemous and hypocritical use of faith, a political use which aims at the social and economic control of the vast majority of the unfortunate.

To say that nothing is sacred in Brazil is an exaggeration on my part, a hyperbole. There are still sacred things here. But this hyperbole serves to emphasize that a significant portion of Brazilians are blinded by anti-ideals. These right-wing fanatics don't care that hydroxychloroquine shows no efficacy against the new coronavirus. They don't care that this drug has serious problems. What matters to them is that we obey those in power. They also don't care about Ágatha Felix, an 8-year-old girl who was murdered by a policeman less than a year ago, nor do they care about João Pedro Mattos Pinto, 14, who was shot in his family home during a police operation in one of Rio's slums.

And you don't need to be a supporter of president Bolsonaro to not care. People like Luciano Huck (a famous TV presenter and billionaire who wants to become a politician now) think that the idea of changing our regressive tax code to a progressive one where the rich pay more than the poor is absurd. Right now, Brazil is one of the few countries in the world where the rich pay almost zero taxes and the poor have over half of their income taxed in some way—for example, basic food itens are overtly taxed, while yatchts and private jets aren't even taxed to begin with. These Brazilian billionaires are against taxing their immense wealth, but they don't care that in Brazil we have the opposite: a taxation on great poverty, something that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, even in other unequal countries. While our rich scream at the idea of paying more taxes, they are completely silent when it comes to commenting on the deaths of poor, black and mixed-race children and adolescents at the hands of policemen.

If Ághata or João Pedro were blond children with blue eyes living in Rio's southern districts or any other upscale neighborhood of São Paulo, there would be an upheaval in the country. If the street party in Paraisópolis was in an upscale neighborhood of São Paulo, the police would never have entered and caused a great panic that allowed the death of 8 youths who were trampled. The Brazilian army would never fire over 80 shots at a cool white guy in Leblon or Ipanema as it did with musician Evaldo Rosa's car, killing him and a homeless man named Luciano Macedo. This kind of thing only happens to the poor because, in Brazil, we have gone through a long historical process that produced a society that internalized the belief that the poor, the blacks, the natives and the mixed-race are disposable.

If all of these victims were from the upper middle class or wealthy, those responsible would answer in court, unlike all the cases I mentioned. In some of these cases, those responsible actually got promoted. The human beings that our Brazilian civilization sees as disposable and undesirable enough to be shot by State agents are the same ones that our civilization think should be exposed to the coronavirus: those who are at the bottom, working to sustain the luxury of the few who are on top.
There is no Brazilian belonging to the higher class who does not feel related to the boy Brás Cubas* in wickedness and the pleasure of mistreating the blacks—even if he was born and raised after slavery was officially abolished. That morbid delight in being mean to those considered to be inferiors and animals is very much ours: it belongs to all Brazilian boys affected by the influence of the slave system. (FREYRE, 2003)

(* Brás Cubas is the main character in Machado de Assis' novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.)

By Fernando Olszewski

(This article was originally posted May 20th, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)
. SOUZA, Jessé José Freire de. A elite do atraso: da escravidão à lava jato. Rio de Janeiro: Leya, 2017.
. FREYRE, Gilberto. Casa-grande & senzala: formação da família brasileira sob o regime da economia patriarcal. Recife: Global Editora, 2003.
. País tem história universitária tardia (Unicamp)
. Entenda como foi a morte da menina Ágatha no Complexo do Alemão (G1)
. 80 tiros: STM decide soltar militares presos por mortes de músico e catador (UOL)
. João Pedro, 14 anos, morre durante ação policial no Rio, e família fica horas sem saber seu paradeiro (El País)