Friday, March 6, 2020

Book review - A Elite do Atraso, by Jessé Souza

I really enjoyed  the book "A Elite do Atraso", by Jessé Souza. 
For the ones that don't know him, here is a wkipedia stub ( He is a Brazilian thinker who has done extensive research in the field of Social Theory. He accurately captures our current state of affairs. Although his focus is on Brazilian society, most of his research is applicable to the United States and to other countries around the world. He clearly shows some bias at times, but he acknowledges that and it is not hard to see beyond it.  

His book "A elite do atraso" is fascinating reading. According to him, at some point in the mid 1970s, we started the shift from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism. At this point, the fiscal state, which had effective mechanisms to tax the industrial transactions, became a deficit state. While it's very costly to shift industrial operations across national borders, moving financial assets is very easy and very low cost. Miraculously, the tax income disappeared and states had to borrow money to pay for the needs of society. By converting their industrial operations into financial assets, the elite not only avoided taxation, but became the lenders of the states. They stopped paying taxes via financial manipulations. This reduce the state's revenue, which needed then to borrow money to pay for its expenses. The lenders were the ones that retained the money. By charging interest on the money they previously owed to the state, they were also able to accumulate more economic capital at even faster rate. The state lost revenue and increased the expenditure in the form of interests paid on the debt accrued.

Souza  points out the mistake of using income or amount of economic capital accumulated to classify society in upper, middle and lower classes. There is a psychological and emotional aspect grouping individuals in a society that transcend their pure economic capital.

Instead, he prefers to analyze society based not only on the economic capital, but also on their abilities and sentiments and their access to other types of capital, like cultural capital. It seems that he got some inspiration on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, but he expanded way beyond Bourdieu's views. I'm no expert on Souza or Bourdieu, but as far as I could read from both, Bourdieu focus seems to be on education and its importance in changing the predicted outcome of an individual. Souza expands on Bourdieu work, but explaining better why the cultural capital has this effect on the outcome of individuals and which individuals in our society have access to this type of cultural capital.

For Souza, the middle class is the extract of society that is is responsible for the perpetuation and propagation of our societal model, assuming the tasks of both controlling and supervising material goods and justifying and legitimating the social order, both at market and state levels. The middle class has limited access to economic capital, but they have access to cultural capital and their ability to accumulate cultural capital is what gives them a slim chance of ascending to the higher echelons of society. This possibility, albeit slim, is what keeps them faithful to their role in society. Also, the impression that the accumulation of cultural capital is result of their merit in pursuing it, gives the middle class the perception that their cultural capital accumulation is derived from their merit only and not privilege. They see themselves as the moral compass of society.

He divides the middle class into 4 distinct groups: Protofascists (30%), liberals (35%), expressives (20%) and critics (15%).

The first two groups are the ones more traditionally recognized as middle-class, the class of the technical knowledge the directly serves the capital needs and its reproduction and less capable of prompting social transformation.

Protofascists are the ones that embrace hate and spend very little effort in reflecting upon facts and opinions. They are usually very Manichaeans, with a simplistic and clear division between good and evil. 

Liberals share the same simplistic, moralistic view of the world, but for them the democratic rituals establish an organized existence for all, and they need some convincing arguments to accept exceptions to the democratic rule. We can say that for this group, the ends might justify the means, even if these means are questionable but the ends are of high moral ground. At this point I disagree with the author's view that this is a singularity of the Brazilian society. The election of Donald Trump in United States, strongly supported by the conservative, religious middle class, despite his questionable morals, proves that both countries share the problems. There are points along the book in which the author lists certain feature unique to Brazilian society that are easily applicable to other countries. 

Moral, for Souza has two facets: one is of productivity and another one is creativity. While the first two groups positioned themselves on the productivity side of morality, the expressives embrace the creativity, which he equates to the ability to be faithful to one's deepest emotions and feelings. He calls them expressives, because they are the ones that harness the ability to express these feelings and emotions that are usually repressed in favor of productivity.

One can be "expressive" and unable or unwilling to make any social critique that can promote effective social change. We can say that this group has the heart in the right place, but has a problem of prioritizing the solutions. In face of saving the whales and lifting millions out of poverty, they have a hard time deciding which should come first for society. They would probably go for saving the whales in hopes that this will cause enough social change to allow the poverty problem to solve itself. For me this would be the ostrich group, that buries its energy in less socially controversial issues in hopes that they can pull the solutions for the more controversial issues in their wake. 

On the other end of this spectrum of the groups with higher cultural capital inside the middle class are the critics. They are the ones that perceive the social world as a construct and hence can be subjected to change. This is a counterpoint of the social world being a given reality that one has to adapt to. This group bears the burden of being conscious of the contradictions demanded of the middle class and realizing how hard is to achieve personal and social freedom in the context of a wicked and oppressive society. It sounds like a romantic view to me.

I'm wondering if all the empirical data the author collected for his research captured the incidence and type of mental illnesses on each group. They all seem to present a pathological behavior to me and I bet the Critics have a high incidence of depression.

I'm almost done with the book. It's not an easy reading. The author definitely didn't target engineers when writing it. 

Also, I believe he is very passionate about the recent events in Brazilian politics, like the impeachment of the first female president of Brazil and the dismantling of successful government programs to lifted millions out of poverty. I don't know if he didn't have data, resources or both to compare his empirical findings in Brazil with that of other countries, which made him conclude that his models reflect some unique characteristics of the Brazilian society. References he makes of researchers from other countries lead me to believe that maybe he didn't want to make assertions about other countries without analyzing a larger dataset. I hope he does that and I also hope to find his publications in English, because I think his work is deserving a broader audience and ample discussion.

While reading his book I tried to check his conclusions against other sources of information and found some other references about ways to stratify the middle class that have hints of his take: In this paper  by Richard Morin, Senior Editor, Pew Research Center they tried to expand the concept of middle class beyond the income per se and some of their conclusions are similar to the ones by Souza. They also divided the middle class into 4 groups and the percentages are very similar to the ones found by nSouza. It would be interesting to apply the same clustered analysis they employed to the data collected by Souza to see how similar or dissimilar the middle class is in both countries. It would also be interesting to read the scientific paper produced by Souza that originated his book for the broader public.  

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