Some friends have written to ask about the Brazilian government’s announcement of an attack on the humanities (▻http://tiny.cc/d10t5y) –– and, very kindly, how/whether that affected me personally. As I thought other people might be interested, here’s a couple of things.
Secondary things first: the decision, whatever it is, does not affect me directly, as PUC-Rio is thankfully under the jurisdiction of a rather more stable authority, the Vatican. (Well, the Jesuits, technically –– and let me tell you, one really comes to appreciate the charms of actual warrior priests when faced with the Holy Crusade LARPers we currently have in power.) Indirectly, however, this decision, whatever it is, can have effects across the board.
“Whatever it is” is the main thing at this point. There is no decision as such yet, and the announcement is quite vague, possibly because, not having much of a clue how the state machine works, they still don’t know how to implement it. “Decentralising funds” doesn’t really mean anything, and public universities have autonomy to employ their resources, so “defunding the humanities” is not something Brasília can decide like that. What this can mean in the long run, however, is two things. One is something that has already been happening for a while and was already expected to get worse: a substantial cut in research funding across the board, but especially for the humanities. This does have an impact on non-public universities as well, or at least the few like PUC that do research, since the vast majority of research in Brazil is publicly funded, particularly in the humanities. The other thing, which was also expected to some extent, is that the new chancellors the government will pick for federal universities will be politically and ideologically aligned with it, and will implement this policy.
It is worth pointing out that, because of the notoriously perverse way HE recruitment works in Brazil, the humanities tend to be the courses of choice for the students who went to the worst schools (read poor, black, brown, indigenous), as they’re easier to get into. So defunding the humanities is indirectly also a policy of restricting access to HE, reverting the positive trend of expansion established in the last two decades. With the economic crisis, of course, that reversal had already begun.
Now, as for the context. This government’s ideological core is not just anti-intellectual, but made up of wannabe alt-right ideologues, conspiracy nuts and a bunch of ressentis who managed to square their belief in free competition with their utter failure in life by constructing the fantasy of a communist-globalist plot against the(ir) world. Less charmingly, they are historical revisionists (regarding the dictatorship, the Nazis, slavery...) and climate denialists. It is therefore in their interest to eliminate anything that refers to a reality other than the one they have fabricated or deals with the development of critical tools for analysing evidence. This extends to the war they are already waging against the state departments that deal with the census, statistics and applied research. The more they can make the world inaccessible by either fact or interpretation, the freer they are from the resistance imposed by reality –– including from the very possibility of statistically assessing the impact that their actions will have.
Why now, though? Bolsonaro is too divisive and politically inept, his programme potentially too harmful, to build a stable majority. It’s still unclear whether he can deliver a pension reform, which is essential to ensure the continuing support of big capital, and his popularity rates have taken a considerable fall since January, especially among the poor. (See: ▻https://tinyurl.com/yyl2kff7). He knows, on the other hand, that his greatest asset is a very engaged core base of true believers. US friends will be familiar with this behaviour from Trump: whenever the boat rocks, he will throw his base a bait, and this is mostly what this announcement is.
Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro doesn’t even have economic recovery going for him, so if things remain as they are, we should expect him to become more divisive, and his support to become more unstable (in every sense). But there’s another political rationale to this attack specifically. As more poor people were making it into university, especially in the humanities, the left was also losing most of its direct presence in the peripheries and favelas. This means that this layer of the university-educated poor, who have increasingly taken on a protagonist role, have become central to any future left strategy in the country. This was the background from which hailed Marielle Franco, an object of especially vicious hate for Bolsonarismo, and in relation to whose death they still have serious questions to answer (▻https://tinyurl.com/y3btg54d).
If you’re worried and you’d like to help, stay tuned to this story, stay in touch with colleagues in Brazil or in your countries/institutions who are doing stuff on Brazil, keep an eye on the news and be ready to call out reporting in your countries that normalises the absurdity of so much that’s going on. It might be a tad premature right now, but motions from union branch and professional association motions might be in a good order at some point; every little bit helps. It is likely that there’ll be opportunities in the future for putting pressure on foreign governments to get them to put pressure on Brazil to curb the worst impulses of this government. Several measures announced in these early months were retracted once there was some pushback, so that does not seem a far-fetched possibility. In the meantime, you might consider circulating this manifesto by 600 scientists from all over the world demanding that the EU hold Brazilian trade to minimal indigenous rights and environmental standards: ▻https://science.sciencemag.org/content/364/6438/341.1. This is the kind of thing we’ll probably be seeing more of in the near future.