Incompetent Leadership and the Need to Readdress our Approach to Public Policy

Will coronavirus strike a final blow to Brazilian neoliberalism?

Published about 2 months ago in Latin America and Politics

neoliberalism brazil

Whatsapp image 2020 04 09 at 15.45.07

Despite its economic growth in recent decades, Brazil still struggles with deep social inequalities. Photo: Matheus Carvalho/ Personal archive

We (read ‘the world’) have been unbalanced for a while now. At differing levels, depending on how intensely these events affect us, we are constantly being confronted with migratory crises, climate change, nuclear tension — the list goes on. From a sociopolitical point of view, and taking a step back from the collective health implications it obviously has, the coronavirus pandemic is yet another item on a list of events shaping the international agenda and mobilizing public opinion worldwide. 

Nevertheless, in countries such as Brazil and the United States of America, where populism underpins the federal administration, a pandemic or, say, an environmental hazard, cannot be fought solely on scientific grounds (i.e. because they pose serious threats to society's health and general well-being). What we are seeing in both countries today is that, regardless of how serious an event is, it needs to go through the moral compass of far-right ideologies before being properly addressed by public policy. 

In Brazil, the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has made it his government's mission to reduce the reach of the State, aiming to cut public spending whilst giving a more prominent role to the private sector in driving the economy. I argue that this rampant neoliberal approach to the economy is not only illogical in a poverty-stricken country, but it is also adding further strain to the destructive power of the coronavirus pandemic we are facing. 

As I am writing this from Brazil's Northeast, there is an ongoing struggle within our society regarding the appropriate response to the pandemic. On the one hand, millions have decided to undergo quarantine and self-isolation, fearing a similar fate to that of Italy or Spain, whose governments waited for too long before taking appropriate measures. On the other hand, Bolsonaro, who is outspokenly skeptical of science, is heavily critical of self-isolation and quarantine, for fear that the negative economic consequences will weaken his government. He has even tried to launch a communications campaign, costing roughly the equivalent of 1 million dollars, to convince people to go back to the streets (fortunately, this was quickly overruled by Brazil's Supreme Court).  Paradoxically, whilst only 33% of Brazilians consider Bolsonaro's response to the pandemic as being “good”, 76% approve the response of the Ministry of Health — although the minister himself is constantly being undermined by his own boss: the president. 

This lax response to the coronavirus pandemic is a clear example of how, under Bolsonaro's government, public policy needs to go through the compass of ideology before being actioned. Obviously, no government in the world would take the economic repercussions of a lockdown lightly, nor would they act before taking those into account. However, if a government's foundation is based solely on the premise of reducing State size and deregulating markets (which is the central idea of neoliberalism, and of Bolsonaro's economic team), when the time comes to weigh people's lives against economic losses, in the context of a lockdown, the latter is seen as being more important. This is precisely what Brazil has been up against for the past two weeks, as death tolls rise and the public health system gets closer to collapsing.

The neoliberal argument behind Bolsonaro's administration relies heavily on the fact that 13 years (2003-2016) of the Workers' Party ('Partido dos Trabalhadores') left-wing government led to the overgrowth of the Brazilian State, making it ineffective and prone to political corruption. It is not this article's objective to digress on this neverending topic; nevertheless, it is clear that the administration has entangled itself in a neoliberal ideology that is a victim of its own contradictions: if they act ‘too much’ on the pandemic, employing federal resources to fight it, they will be going against their raison d’être and upsetting the more radical members of their constituency — which includes some of the richest business people in the country. 

Whenever a global crisis presents itself, with the ensuing collapse of stock markets, the neoliberal argument is quickly made redundant by the fact that governments have to employ billions of dollars to help ailing companies. But the idea that the State should be as absent as possible to benefit markets is not only redundant. It is also inhumane. In countries such as mine, in a historical struggle with deep social inequality, advancing individualistic, market-oriented approaches to public policy poses an existential threat to those on the fringes of society, who need some kind or another of government welfare in order to tend to their basic needs and hopefully escape the poverty trap.

This is not the first time that Brazil has flirted with rampant neoliberalism. In the 1990s, fresh out of a two-decade dictatorship that made public debt and inflation skyrocket, Brazil followed the same trend as many of its Latin American counterparts. This involved selling State-owned companies and opening up domestic markets to foreign trade and investment, thereby reducing State size and stimulating a stagnant economy. The trend came to be known as the Washington Consensus, for it was prescribed by Washington D.C.-based institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States Department of Treasury. 

Many economic analysts credit these policies to having controlled inflation and created the platform that allowed Brazil, in the 2000s, to achieve annual growth rates of up to 7,5% of GDP (2010). However, what these analyses often fail to take into account is the social impact these policies in the 90s had upon the most vulnerable members of society, those who endured growing poverty, chronic unemployment and hunger.

Nonetheless, in one respect, Brazil's neoliberalism of the 1990s resembles that of present-day: both replicate economic prescriptions of foreign origin. In the 1990s, these prescriptions came to us as a consequence of the Reagan-Thatcher neoliberal economic model from which the Washington Consensus derived, whereas in present-day, it is largely due to the automatic alignment of Brazil's foreign and economic policy with Donald Trump's (it is a known fact that Trump and Bolsonaro are close friends and mutual admirers).

 Throughout its history, Latin America — and most of the developing world for that matter — has relied on European (up until the 19th century) and American (from the 20th century onwards) political and economic models. In the polarized world of imperialistic vs. colonized countries, this was a natural path. But we are long overdue in terms of questioning these imported models and of creating our own. And I say that not as a rejection of Western values per se, but rather as a need for empowerment to help us achieve higher levels of welfare in our societies. American neoliberalism is certainly not the answer we are looking for — but Chinese communism and Scandinavian social democracy, for instance, aren't, either. We need models that reflect our reality, our challenges, our values.

 'Every crisis brings opportunities', we often hear. The pandemic that is upon us, though first and foremost a public health hazard, is already changing the social and economic fabric of societies throughout the globe. Not only is it changing people's behavior, but it is also making them question government policies that would otherwise go unnoticed. And I believe that this crisis is also providing nations with an opportunity to reflect upon its public policy choices — especially the failing ones. In Brazil's case, I do not hesitate to say that it is high time that we do that. 

Grim as our current predicament may be, with a failing healthcare system and an incompetent leader in the presidential palace, I feel, in a way, optimistic. ‘Every crisis brings opportunities’, but this is ‘crises’, plural: it's a public health crisis, a socioeconomic crisis, a political crisis, and even a crisis of values; all in one go. I wonder, hopefully not too naively, if this could be the platform we needed to readdress, with all our humanity, our humble role on this planet. And although this might sound like an idea from the realm of utopia, I am of the opinion that it truly pertains to the realm of politics.

As humankind, we are in for more than a few tough months ahead. Let us not allow that to be in vain. 

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