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francisco de oliveira


The platypus sports an unbeatable combination for strangeness: first, an odd

habitat with curiously adapted form to match; second, the real reason for
its special place in zoological history—its enigmatic mélange of reptilian
(or birdlike) with obvious mammalian characteristics. Ironically, the feature
that first suggested pre-mammalian affinity—the ‘duckbill’ itself—supports
no such meaning. The platypus’s muzzle is a purely mammalian adaptation
to feeding in fresh waters, not a throwback to ancestral form.
Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus

he theory of underdevelopment—the only original alterna-
tive to the classical growth theories of Smith and Ricardo—is
decidedly not evolutionist. As is well known, evolutionism
had a major influence in practically all scientific fields. Marx
himself harboured a great admiration for Darwin, the formulator of one
of the most important scientific paradigms of all time, whose dominance
is today near absolute. But neither Marx nor the theorists of underdevel-
opment were evolutionists. Marx’s theory, which focused on ruptures,
saw concrete class interests as the driving force of history—that is, the
consciousness, however imperfect, of constituent subjects: ‘Men make
their own history’. Evolutionism excludes ‘consciousness’: natural selec-
tion operates by chance to eliminate the weakest. For their part, the
theorists at the un’s Economic Commission on Latin America (cepal)
were influenced by Weber—also at the margins by Marx—whose para-
digm is singularity: not selection, but action imbued with meaning.
There is no Weberian equivalent of the evolutionary ‘finality’ of the
reproduction of the species.

Underdevelopment, then, did not form part of an evolutionary chain

stretching from the primitive world through successive stages to

40 new left review 24 nov dec 2003

oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 41

full development. Rather it was a historical singularity—the form of

capitalist development in ex-colonies, now become a periphery of the
world system, that furnished inputs for capital accumulation in the core.
This relationship, which persisted even through drastic transforma-
tions, was just what prevented the former colonies from ‘evolving’ into
the higher stages of capitalist accumulation; that is to say, from catch-
ing up with the dynamic centre, however often they received injections
of modernization from it. Marxism was equipped with the most for-
midable arsenal for the critique of classical economics, and possessed
a general account of capitalist development in its theory of accumu-
lation. But it failed to specify its concrete historical forms, above all
in the periphery. When it did attempt this, it obtained major results—
the ‘Prussian road’, ‘passive revolution’—but of the most general sort.
Indeed, for a long time a kind of Marxist ‘evolutionism’ held sway, yield-
ing a rickety theorization of the capitalist periphery based on Stalin’s
schema of historical stages, running all the way from a primitive com-
munism before the emergence of classes, to a modern communism
after their disappearance. In the case of Latin America, where the theory
of underdevelopment was considered ‘reformist’ and an ally of us impe-
rialism, stagism led to serious errors of political strategy.

Underdevelopment could be classified as an instance of Gramscian ‘pas-

sive revolution’, as Carlos Nelson Coutinho and Luis Jorge Werneck
Vianna maintain.1 But unlike the theory of underdevelopment, this
notion tells us nothing about the particular ex-colonial conditions of Latin
America that give the states of the region their political specificity. Nor
does it touch on the descent of labour from the degrading institutions
of slavery and the encomienda, which confer on them their social speci-
ficity. Florestan Fernandes came close to an interpretation along such
Gramscian lines in A Revolução Burguesa no Brasil (1975), but he also owed
much to cepal and Celso Furtado. Behind these writers lay the classic anal-
yses of Brazil produced in the 1930s, which dwelt on the peculiarities of
Portugal’s colony in South America and a sociability shaped by a combina-
tion of the Iberian legacy and a system of exploitation based on slavery.

Underdevelopment was thus not a truncated evolution, but a product

of dependency, issuing from the conjunction of Brazil’s place in the

See Luis Jorge Werneck Vianna, A Revolução Passiva, Rio de Janeiro 1997; and
Carlos Nelson Coutinho, ‘Uma via não-clássica para o capitalismo’, in Maria da
Conceição D’Incao, ed., História e Ideal: Ensaios sobre Caio Prado Jr, São Paulo 1989.
42 nlr 24

international division of capitalist labour with the articulation of domestic

economic interests. For this very reason the internal class struggle
offered an opening—linked to a shift in the international division of
labour—in the shape of the Revolution of 1930 which brought Vargas to
power; and the industrialization by import-substitution that ensued from
it. In his Formação Econômica do Brasil (1959), Celso Furtado gave us the
key to that conjuncture: the crash of 1929 leading to a kind of Brazilian
18th Brumaire, in which industrialization arose as a project for continued
domination through other forms of the social division of labour—even at
the cost of toppling the coffee-owners from their central position within
the local bourgeoisie. The term ‘underdevelopment’ is not neutral: its
prefix indicates that the peripheral formations so constituted have a
place in the international division of capitalist labour, which is accord-
ingly hierarchical, since otherwise the concept would be meaningless.
But the concept is not stagist in either a Darwinian or Stalinist sense.

Advancing across backwardness

My ‘Critique of Dualist Reason’ attempted to bring these crossed paths

together: as an exercise in critique it belonged to the Marxist tradition,
and as a study in specificity to the line of cepal. Although the passions
of the time moved me to some invective against the cepalinos, I have long
repented of those errors, which were a clumsy way of trying to introduce
new considerations into the building of a specifically Brazilian model
of underdevelopment—in their fashion, a homage of vice to virtue. The
essay was Marxist and cepalino in the sense that it sought to show how the
articulation of the economic forms of underdevelopment included politi-
cal forces, not as an external contingency but a structuring factor. Furtado
had touched on this in his interpretation of the crisis of overproduction of
coffee in the 1930s, but then abandoned this great insight. The Eighteenth
Brumaire should already have taught Marxists that politics is not exter-
nal to class movements, that classes are forged in struggle; but they too
had forgotten this lesson. Here were the two legacies to which I returned
in trying to understand why and how leaders like Vargas and their
creatures—the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (ptb) and the Partido Social-
Democrático (psd)—had presided over Brazil’s industrialization, resting
a modern manufacturing sector on a backward subsistence agriculture.

Three points stood out in this process. The first concerned the function
of subsistence agriculture in the internal accumulation of capital. Here,
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 43

Raúl Prebisch and Furtado had run into the ground with a notion of the
backward sector as obstacle to development, a thesis still in vogue in
such theorizations as Arthur Lewis’s account of wage-formation in con-
ditions of excess labour-power.2 These ideas lacked any historical basis,
since the Brazilian economy had posted a secular growth rate since
the nineteenth century without parallel in any other capitalist economy
in the world.3 Studies of the coffee economy showed that its initial
cycle of expansion made use of the subsistence plots of the crop-pickers
to supply their needs at low cost, a system then incorporated into
the mature fazenda system—benefactions as ‘primitive accumulation’.
Furtado himself, when he studied subsistence farming in the Northeast
and in Minas, saw its ‘function’ in the genesis of accumulation and the
expansion of markets outward from São Paulo. I argued, then, that back-
ward agriculture financed modern agriculture and industrialization.

The birth of the modern Brazilian banking system, one of whose cradles
was in Minas, offered further proof of the relation between forms of sub-
sistence and the most advanced sectors of capital, a theme we can find in
Marx’s Civil War in France. I noted that subsistence agriculture not only
helped to lower the cost of reproduction of the labour force in the cities,
facilitating the accumulation of industrial capital, but also produced a
surplus that could not be so reinvested, and was drained off in real-
estate speculation. Francisco Sá Jr’s essay of the same period explored
this process in the local conditions of the Northeast.4

In this set of imbrications between subsistence agriculture, the banking

system, the financing of industrial accumulation and the cheapening
of the reproduction of the labour force in the cities lay the fulcrum of
capitalist expansion in Brazil. But this was not perceived by the line
of Furtado and cepal, for all its heuristic value. I strongly disagreed
with theories in which backward agriculture was viewed simply as an
obstruction, the explosive growth of cities treated as a marginal phenom-
enon, and legislation for a minimum wage held to be incompatible with
capital accumulation. Not that I considered these solid foundations for

Arthur Lewis, Theory of Economic Growth, London 1955; Raúl Prebisch, ‘El
desarrollo económico de América Latina y algunos de sus principales problemas’,
El Trimestre Económico, vol. 16, no. 63, 1949. This seminal cepal report can be
found in Adolfo Gurrieri, ed., La obra de Prebisch en la cepal, Mexico 1982.
See Angus Maddison, Monitoring the World Economy 1820–1992, Paris 1995.
‘O desenvolvimento da agricultura nordestina e a função das atividades de sub-
sistência’, Estudos cebrap, January 1993.
44 nlr 24

the expansion of Brazilian capitalism. On the contrary, it was and is the

latter’s weakness to generate such an unequal distribution of income as
to constitute a grave obstacle to future accumulation.

It was from this that I derived an explanation for the role of the ‘reserve
army’ involved in informal activities in the city. For most thinkers of
the time these were little more than consumers of the surplus or mere
lumpen; in my view, they were one of the ways in which the cost of
reproduction of the urban labour force was lowered. The phenomenon
of shanty constructions explained the paradox that the poor, including
factory workers, were the owners of their own homes—if that is what
the horrors of the favelas can be called: so reducing the monetary cost of
their own reproduction.

In no sense was this a Darwinian adaptation to the rural and urban

conditions of capitalist expansion in Brazil, nor a ‘survival strategy’, as
a certain kind of anthropology would have it. Rather, these were basi-
cally the unresolved forms of the agrarian question and the status of the
labour force, the subordination of the proletariat, as a new urban social
class, to the state—so many expressions of the distinctively Brazilian
form of transformismo, as a conservative modernization, or of revolu-
tion in production without bourgeois revolution. For once the dualism of
cepal theories was rejected, what struck the eye was the ‘productive’ char-
acter of our backwardness, its indispensable role as a partner in capitalist
expansion. With this, underdevelopment could be seen as the perma-
nent exception to the capitalist system on its periphery. As Benjamin
said, the oppressed know what is happening to them. Ultimately,
underdevelopment is the exception that is made of the oppressed:
shanty-towns as the exception to the city, informal labour as the excep-
tion to the commodity, patrimonialism as the exception to inter-capitalist
competition, state coercion as the exception to private accumulation,
Keynesianism avant la lettre—this last found in ‘late capitalisms’ too.5

The singular condition of underdevelopment could have been resolved in

a non-evolutionary way, out of its own contradictions, if there had been
a social will to take advantage of the ‘riches of iniquity’ on the periphery.
Brazil’s place in the international division of capitalist labour, recon-
firmed by every cycle of modernization, could have provided the modern

See José Luis Fiori, ed., Estados e Moedas no Desenvolvimento das Nações, Petrópolis
1999, especially the second part.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 45

technical means to ‘jump stages’, as in the Vargas and Kubitschek periods.

The growth of trade unions could have brought an end to the high rates
of exploitation made possible by the low cost of the labour force. Agrarian
reform could not only have stemmed the ‘reserve army’ in the cities, but
also liquidated patrimonial power. But half of the solution was missing:
such emancipation was not a goal shared by the national bourgeoisie.
On the contrary, already weakened by the growing internationalization of
industry, above all in the newest branches of manufacture, it turned its
back on an alliance with subordinate classes.6 The coup of 1964, followed
by others in the majority of Latin American countries, closed down pos-
sibilities that had once lain open.

The long military dictatorship of 1964–84 opted unambiguously for the

‘Prussian road’: heavy political repression; iron control of the unions; a
high degree of state coercion; an increase in the weight of state enter-
prises in the economy, beyond the dreams of any nationalist of the
previous period; an opening to foreign capital—‘forced march’ industri-
alization, in Antonio Barros de Castro’s phrase. No effort was made to
do away with patrimonialism, nor to resolve the acute problem of the
internal financing of capitalist expansion, which had been the Achilles’
heel of the previous constellation of forces. Instead external debt became
the way out, opening the gates to financialization of the economy and of
the state. The results were plain by the time of the last military govern-
ment, under the same economic czar who had presided over the earlier
‘Brazilian miracle’, Delfim Neto. Considered a miracle-worker, it became
clear he was a total impostor.

Anatomy of the platypus

What is the platypus like? It is highly urbanized, with a sparse rural pop-
ulation and labour force, and therefore little pre-capitalist residue; on
the contrary, it has a strong agrobusiness sector. It has a well-developed

Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s Empresário Industrial e Desenvolvimento Econômico,
São Paulo 1964, recognized that the national industrial bourgeoisie preferred
an alliance with international capital. This is perhaps the best academic work
produced by this former sociologist, now ex-president and eternal candidate for
occupancy of the Planalto. Roberto Schwarz maintains that, during his presidency,
Cardoso implemented to the letter the conclusions of this book: having renounced
a national project, the local bourgeoisie opted without hesitation to integrate the
country into global capitalism.
46 nlr 24

industrial sector that has undergone the Second Industrial Revolution,

and is currently inching its way towards the Third—molecular-digital
or information—Revolution. Its service sector is very diversified at the
high-income end, if more extravagantly wasteful than sophisticated; at
the other end, it is extremely primitive, tied to the meagre spending of
the poor. The financial sector is still somewhat atrophied, yet because of
the financialization of the economy and high internal debt, it nonethe-
less accounts for a high proportion of gdp: 9 per cent in 1998, whereas
the figure is only 4 per cent in the us, Germany and France, and 6 per
cent in the uk—economies at the financial centre of globalized capital-
ism.7 In terms of the economically active population, the rural share is
small and declining, industrial employment peaked in the 1970s but
is now also on the wane, and there has been a continued boom in
service-sector jobs. This is the portrait of an animal whose ‘evolution’
has followed all the family footsteps; if it were a primate it would practi-
cally be a homo sapiens.

The platypus seems to be endowed with ‘consciousness’, since it was

democratized almost three decades ago. But it has yet to produce knowl-
edge, science and technology: it is basically still copying, though the
deciphering of the xylella fastidiosa genome indicates that it may not be
far away from certain advances in the field of biogenetics.8 One can only
hope it will not decide to clone itself. What is lacking from its ‘evolution’?
The answer lies in its circulatory system: the high proportion of debt to
gdp demonstrates that the economy cannot function without an external
supply of money. The advances it has received are formidable: in 2001
total foreign debt reached an alarming 41 per cent of gdp, and interest
payments servicing it were 9.1 per cent of gdp. There are few capitalist
economies like this. Perhaps the proportion is as high for the us, but
with a radical difference: the vital fluid that circulates internationally

The Brazilian figure is from ibge, System of National Accounts; for the other
countries, averages for the period 1985–91 are taken from Fernando Cardim de
Carvalho, and are available at Note, however, that the Brazilian
figure dates from the period of low inflation after the Plano Real, which distorts
the calculation of the product of the financial sector, posing various methodologi-
cal difficulties. By way of comparison, in 1993 the financial sector accounted for an
estimated 32.8 per cent of Brazilian gdp.
Mariluce Moura, ‘O novo produto brasileiro’, Pesquisa fapesp no. 55, July 2000.
Xylella fastidiosa is a bacterium that causes a range of plant diseases, notably affect-
ing orange trees and coffee plants.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 47

and returns to the us is its own blood, the dollar, which the us itself
issues. From this point of view, ‘evolution’ has taken a step backwards:
we are no longer looking at underdevelopment, but a situation that if
anything resembles that before the crisis of 1930, when the costs of
servicing the debt—that is, interest payments plus amortization of the
principal—consumed the country’s entire receipts from exports.9 But
there is a fundamental difference: before 1930, coffee exports constituted
the entire Brazilian economy; we are now dealing with an industrialized
country that is nevertheless returning to the same subordinate financial
position.10 This external dependency has also created an equally terrify-
ing internal burden of debt, as a mechanism for absorbing the domestic
liquidity injected by the influx of speculative capital from abroad. But
it is also an advance on future production so that, if we add up the
internal and external debt, the result is that in order to produce a given
annual gdp, Brazil must run up an equivalent amount of debt. The
financialization of the economy has become a reiterative process.

Subjugation of virtual labour

In the underdeveloped past, ‘informal’ labour could be regarded as a

temporary transition towards a formalization of wage relations, of which
there were signs by the end of the 70s11—in my view, combining insuf-
ficient overall accumulation with a bias towards industry. In theoretical
terms, here was a form this side of value: the very work-force created
by migration towards the cities, rather than a pre-capitalist reserve
army of labour, was used to provide services to cities that were in the
process of industrializing.

See Anibal Villanova Villela and Wilson Suzigan, Política do Governo e Crescimento
da Economia Brasileira, 1889–1945, Rio de Janeiro 1973. I have made particular refer-
ence to their research in an essay on the extreme violence of the inter-war crisis:
‘A Emergência do Modo de Produção de Mercadorias: uma interpretação teórica
da economia da República Velha no Brasil’, in Boris Fausto, ed., História Geral da
Civilização Brasileira, vol. iii: O Brasil Republicano, São Paulo 1975.
Between the final quarter of 2002 and March 2003, the external loans that
financed Brazilian exports dried up, and the real lost 30 per cent of its value. Once
political fears of the pt government vanished, external funds flowed back and the
exchange rate strengthened again. Such dramatic financial dependency, with fright-
ening levels of volatility, is now practically irreversible.
See Elson Luciano Silva Pires, Metamorfoses e Regulação: O Mercado de Trabalho
do Brasil nos Anos Oitenta, PhD thesis, Sociology Department, University of São
Paulo 1995.
48 nlr 24

Subjugated by a combination of the molecular-digital revolution and

the globalization of capital, the productivity of labour has somersaulted
towards the plenitude of abstract labour. In its dual constitution—
concrete forms and abstract ‘essence’—the consumption of living labour
has always encountered an obstacle in the porous border between total
time worked and productive time worked. All growth in labour produc-
tivity originates in capital’s struggle to close the gap between those two
quantities. Ideally, the aim would be to transform the total time worked
into unpaid labour, which only sorcery could achieve. Here absolute and
relative surplus value virtually merge: absolute, because capital makes
use of the worker when it needs him; relative, since that is only possible
because of immense productivity.

There is a contradiction here: the path of relative surplus value should

be one of a decrease in unpaid labour, but in reality it is the opposite.
Rather, increases in the productivity of labour mean that intervals of
non-work disappear, and all working time becomes production time.
The services are the region of the social division of labour where this
rupture is most vivid. A kind of ‘abstract virtual labour’ has been created.
Its ‘exotic’ forms can be found where labour appears as recreation, enter-
tainment, community between workers and consumers: in the shopping
centres. But it is in information that abstract virtual labour resides. The
heaviest, most primitive kinds of work are also home to it. Its form is
a phantasmagoria, a non-place and non-time, equal to total time. Think
of someone in their house, accessing their bank account via computer,
doing the work that would previously have been allotted to a bank clerk:
what kind of labour is this? Concepts such as formal and informal have
no explanatory force here.

In this perspective, underdevelopment would appear to have been an

evolution turned inside out. The dominant classes, incorporated into
a division of labour that sets producers of raw materials against produc-
ers of capital goods, chose an internal form of division of labour that
would preserve their dominance. ‘Consciousness’ selected it, rather than
chance. So the door remained open to transformation. Today, the platypus
has lost the capacity to choose; therewith its evolution is truncated. The
evolutionist, neo-Schumpeterian literature on the economy of techno-
logy suggests that technical progress is incremental, and so depends
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 49

on prior scientific accumulation.12 While technical progress during the

Second Industrial Revolution was based on knowledge that was widely
diffused, allowing countries to ‘leap forward’ suddenly by appropriating
it, the new kind of scientific knowledge is not available on the shelves
of the supermarket of innovations, but is locked up in patents. It is also
disposable and ephemeral, as Derrida has remarked. This combination
of disposability, ephemerality and incremental progress blocks the path
of economies and societies that remain in the rearguard of technical-
scientific knowledge. The deciphering of the xylella fastidiosa genome
looks as if it will be little more than an ornament of local pride, a demon-
stration of the skills of Brazilian researchers in a specialized niche, not a
presage of a new rule for the production of knowledge henceforth.

The unattainable matrix

The molecular-digital revolution erases the frontier between science

and technology: the two are shaped by a single process. Science is
made by making technology, and vice versa. This implies that techno-
logical products are not available for use, divorced from the science
that produced them—just as the reverse holds: scientific knowledge
cannot be produced without the appropriate technology. The manufac-
ture of atomic and hydrogen bombs and the corresponding production
of nuclear energy—though fusion has yet to be successfully completed—
already exhibited that cancellation, or supersession. The molecular-digital
revolution deletes—to use a computing term—the barrier between
them definitively. What purely technological products remain are
merely consumer goods.

From the point of view of capital accumulation, this has profound

consequences. The first and most obvious is that peripheral—now
sub-national—systems or countries can only copy disposable commodi-
ties, not the techno-scientific matrix that produces them. The result is
a perpetual race against the clock. The second and less obvious conse-
quence is that accumulation realized by copying disposable commodities
also enters into an accelerated obsolescence, and leaves nothing behind,
unlike accumulation based on the Second Industrial Revolution. The
new matrix demands levels of investment that always remain beyond

See Carlos Eduardo Fernandez da Silveira, Desenvolvimento tecnológico no Brasil:
Autonomia e dependência num país industrializado periférico, PhD thesis, University
of Campinas 2001.
50 nlr 24

the capacities of domestic forces of accumulation, reinforcing the mech-

anisms of external financial dependency. Results always fall short of
efforts: rates of accumulation, measured by the coefficient of invest-
ment in gdp, are declining, as are growth rates. In terms frequently
used by the theorists of cepal, the output–capital ratio deteriorates:
more and more capital is required to obtain less and less product.13
Since globalization increases labour productivity without bringing about
capital accumulation—just because of the divisible nature of the molec-
ular-digital technical form—incomes remain staggeringly unequal,
intensifying this contradiction. To give another example, the productiv-
ity of soft-drink vendors at stadium entrances has been increased by
the ‘just in time’ inventories of the refreshment manufacturers and dis-
tributors, but the labour by which the vendors realize the value of such
merchandise could scarcely be more primitive. Molecular-digital accu-
mulation conjoins the crudest use of labour-power.

Impasses of the periphery

Overcoming disposability and ephemerality would require a colossal

effort of scientific and technical research, multiplying the share of
research and development in gdp several times over, to leap to the fore-
front of technical progress. According to Carlos Fernandez da Silveira,
in 1997 the Brazilian figure was less than 1.5 per cent. The accumu-
lation of capital needed for a jump of these proportions would mean
not only lifting the ratio of investment to gdp over a long period—in
1999 it stood at some 18 per cent—but above all changing the mix of
investment, with a higher proportion going to r&d.14 There have been
historical periods in which certain national economic subsystems have
accomplished such a feat, at the cost of enormous political repression

The prospect of Brazil producing its own digital tv sets, or else copying what
is internationally available, is now under discussion. Another option would be to
enter into a technical-scientific consortium with China. The pt’s Treasury Minister,
Antonio Palocci, takes the view that it is not worth it, since it would require
an investment of billions of real for a precarious return, given the small size
of the Brazilian market, and the system of patents overseen by the wto. For
him, any attempt to export Brazilian-made digital tvs would be a dangerous day-
dream. The same dilemma presented itself in the case of colour tvs, and was
resolved by adopting the Palm-m and ntsc models, that is, disposable copies. No
technological-scientific effort was made to create an original model, only to adapt
existing patterns.
Data taken from Revista bndes, June 2001.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 51

and an extremely frugal regime in which the production of consumer

goods remains insignificant. In the case of Japan, for instance, the popu-
lation has become so accustomed to saving that the country now has
an enormous surplus of deposits that do not become investment; even
the consumption of electronic gadgets—whose production has shifted
to China—cannot absorb Japanese incomes. In the case of the Soviet
Union, the production of consumer goods was utterly scorned, crippling
Soviet agriculture and eventually leading to widespread hunger. Here,
the technical forms of capital accumulation of the Second Industrial
Revolution facilitated extraordinary advances; but because these were
typically indivisible, they could not be used to produce wage goods:
metallurgical equipment cannot make bread.15 The paradox is that capi-
tal accumulation in the forms of the Second Industrial Revolution could
move forward using the technical-scientific knowledge that was available,
though the forms themselves were indivisible; in the molecular-digital
revolution, the forms are divisible, but technical-scientific knowledge
itself becomes indivisible in the unity of science and development.

The case of Brazil was quite different. Here, even in the best years under
Kubitschek, investment never exceeded 22 per cent of gdp. To raise
it, the military dictatorship resorted to external financing, creating an
enormous debt that became an engine of coercive growth and financial
subordination. But since incremental accumulation must be continual,
there being no ‘day after’ when high rates of investment are no longer
required, there now seems nothing to hand for a country that has just
created a Zero Hunger programme to cope with the terrible, prosaic con-
sequences of an immeasurably unequal distribution of income.

When they reach the periphery, the effects of an astounding increase

in the productivity of labour—that abstract virtual labour—are devas-
tating. Taking advantage of the enormous reserve of ‘informal’ labour
created by industrialization, molecular-digital accumulation did not need
to undermine the concrete-abstract forms of labour drastically, except in

In the theoretical debates of the 1950s, the ‘model’ adopted by the Soviet Union
seemed to give it an advantage—as Maurice Dobb and Nicholas Kaldor argued—
because capital goods drove economic development. But due theoretical attention
was not paid to the indivisibility of the technical forms of the Second Industrial
Revolution, which finally led to the bottlenecks of the Soviet experience. In the
Keynesian equation, p = c + s or i. Which meant, in the Soviet case, that there was
no way consumption would not suffer, although the model did produce astonishing
growth rates in the first period of the Five Year Plans.
52 nlr 24

certain small Fordist niches. The extraction of surplus value could be

accomplished without resistance, unimpeded by any of the earlier barri-
ers to complete exploitation.

In the 1980s the tendency towards formalization of wage relations

ground to a halt, and what is still improperly termed informal labour
expanded. Converging with so-called productive restructuring, the result
was what Robert Castel has termed ‘disaffiliation’, or the deconstruction
of the wage relation.16 This process can be observed in every sector of
the economy and at all levels. Tertiarization, casualization, flexibilization;
unemployment rates of almost 30 per cent in Greater São Paulo, 25 per
cent in Salvador; not as contradictorily as it might seem, occupations
rather than jobs—groups of youths at intersections selling almost any-
thing, both cleaning and dirtying car windscreens, peddlars everywhere.
In São Paulo, Quinze and Boa Vista streets—traditional purlieus of bank-
ers and their clerks—have become vast carpets of assorted ironmongery.
The area around the handsome, brightly lit Municipal Theatre stages the
dramas of a society in ruins, a bazaar of many forms where horribly
kitsch copies of high-quality consumer goods are sold. Thousands of ven-
dors of Coca-Cola, Guaraná, beer and mineral water throng the entrances
to sports stadiums twice a week. We are theoretically dumbstruck: this
is abstract virtual labour. Pious programmes attempt to ‘train’ this work-
force, providing it with ‘qualifications’—a Sisyphean task, like filling a
basket with water, pursued in the belief that good old-fashioned work, ‘on
the books’, will return when the business cycle revives.17 The reverse is
true: when recovery occurs, it will be intermittent and of unpredictable
duration. In every succeeding period of growth, abstract virtual labour
will become still more deeply embedded.

Despite impressive growth rates, sustained over a long period, the platy-
pus is one of the most unequal capitalist societies on earth—more so
than even the poorest economies in Africa which cannot, strictly speak-
ing, be considered capitalist at all. I am tempted to say, with French
elegance, et pour cause. The most obvious determinants of the contradic-
tion lie in its combination of external dependency with the depressed
status of labour. The latter once supported a form of accumulation that

Robert Castel, As Metamorfoses da Questão Social, Petrópolis 1998.
In all these ‘re-qualification’ courses, workers are taught some computing, the
new polyvalent worker’s equivalent of an appeal to God. There is nothing more
tragic: they are being taught the very foundations of disposability.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 53

financed expansion—that is, underdevelopment—but, combined with

the former, creates an internal market that can only consume copies, in
a vicious circle.

Once the molecular-digital revolution becomes the principal technical

form of capital accumulation, the market can be sliced up without giving
rise to crises of realization, derived from over-accumulation. These occur
only when the galloping concentration of wealth decelerates. So far
as popular consumption is concerned, despite well-intentioned criti-
cisms, there are no crises of realization: digital compartmentalization is
fully capable of descending into the infernos of a staggeringly skewed
distribution of income. Crises of over-accumulation unfold solely as
problems of oligopolistic competition, as in the telecommunications
sector today, after privatization. There, greedy for the most succulent
prizes, the global telecoms giants threw themselves into a predatory
contest, setting up mobile phone systems and lowering the price of
handsets—increasing imports—only to run up against obstacles in the
indigence of the poor. Yet virtually all products of the molecular-digital
revolution can reach the lowest-income groups as consumer durables,
as the forests of antennas and even satellite dishes on the hovels of
the favelas testify. It could be said, in the manner of the Frankfurt
School, that this ability to bring consumption to the poorest sectors of
society is itself the most powerful social narcotic. Celso Furtado had
already warned of this development; but, in my view, overemphasized
the importation of predatory consumption patterns, rather than viewing
the distribution of income as its determinant. His last book, small but
great, altered his admonition for the better.18

Emergence of a new class

In principle, of course, organizations of the working-class could trans-

form the inegalitarian structure of our income distribution, as they did
in the national subsystems of Europe with the creation of the welfare
state—the spread of wage relations becoming the vector for labour to
acquire collective power. This did in fact occur in the 1970s, up to a point.
The military coup of 1964 had already been triggered by the signs that
workers’ organizations were no longer mere ‘transmission belts’ for what

See, respectively: Subdesenvolvimento e estagnação na América Latina, Rio de
Janeiro 1966; Análise do ‘Modelo’ Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro 1972; and then Em busca
de novo modelo: reflexões sobre a crise contemporânea, São Paulo 2002.
54 nlr 24

the sociological literature termed ‘populist’ domination.19 The emergence

of the great union movements of the 1970s, of which the pt is largely the
product, seemed to indicate that a ‘European’ road could be followed.20
The share of wages in national income increased, and the universalizing
logic of the demands pursued by the ‘authentic’ unions—in auto, oil
and banking—looked set to expand wage labour and its correlates, social
security and various indirect benefits. State enterprises were the spear-
head of this process—oil workers were ‘public functionaries’ engaged in
the production of commodities—which gave rise to large pension funds.

That movement halted in the 1980s and went into steep decline there-
after. Eroded by restructuring of production, abstract virtual labour and
political ‘force’, labour no longer has any social ‘force’. The shifts in the
technical-material basis of the economy could hardly fail to have reper-
cussions on class formation. If Edward Thompson was right to insist
that a ‘worker’ is not merely a position in the process of production,
it remains the case that if such positions did not exist, there would be
no workers. Class representation lost its basis and the political power
founded on it withered. In the specific conditions of Brazil, such a loss
has an enormous significance. Today no break with the long Brazilian
‘passive road’ is in sight, but this is no longer underdevelopment.

The class structure was also truncated or modified. The upper layers
of the old proletariat became, in part, what Robert Reich called ‘sym-
bolic analysts’.21 They are the administrators of the pension funds that
originated in former state enterprises, of which the most powerful is
Previ—the fund of the functionaries of the still state-owned Banco do

There is now an ongoing reassessment of that literature, which took populism
to be a quasi-fascistic form in Latin America thriving on the passivity of the work-
ing classes. See Alexandre Fortes, ‘Trabalhismo e Populismo: Novos Contornos de
um Velho Debate’, unpublished; and Jorge Ferreira, ed., O Populismo e sua História.
Debate e Crítica, Rio de Janeiro 2001.
There was a contradiction here: what was termed the ‘authentic’ trade union
movement—as opposed to the stooges installed in the large unions by the
dictatorship—worked along American lines. Negotiations at plant level then
extended elsewhere precisely because the employers were large multinationals,
above all in the automobile sector, which always led the movement in the indus-
trial suburb of São Bernardo. The classic example was Metalúrgicos de São Paulo.
Later, the crisis of external debt and the consequent inability of manufacturers to
pass on higher costs to consumers brought this American-style unionism closer to
European models.
See The Work of Nations, New York 1992.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 55

Brasil. This stratum sits on the boards of such key financial institutions
as the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (bndes),
in their capacity as workers’ representatives. The final flowering of
Brazilian welfare, which was basically organized in state enterprises,
produced these funds. The Constitution of 1988 established the Fund
for Workers’ Assistance (fat), which is now the largest source of long-
term capital in the country, operating precisely through bndes.22 This
simulacrum of socialization has produced what Robert Kurz calls ‘mon-
etary subjects’.23 The function of the workers who ascend to these posts
is to ensure the profitability of the very funds that are financing the
restructuring of production that creates unemployment.

Private-sector unions are now also organizing their own pension funds,
after the example of those in the state sector. Ironically, this was precisely
how Força Sindical defeated the trade union of the then nationalized
steel industry (Siderúrgica Nacional), which was linked to the cut
(Central Única dos Trabalhadores)—by forming an ‘investors’ club’ to
finance the privatization of the enterprise.24 No-one subsequently asked
what happened to the workers’ shares, which either turned to dust or
were bought up by the Vicunha group, which now controls the industry.
It is this that explains recent pragmatic convergences between the pt
and the psdb, and the apparent paradox that Lula’s government is carry-
ing out Cardoso’s programme, and radicalising it. This is not a mistake,
but the expression of a genuinely new social stratum, based on techni-
cians and intellectuals doubling as bankers—the core of the psdb; and
workers become pension-fund managers—the core of the pt.25 What

The share of fat funds in bndes’s liabilities increased from 2 per cent in 1989 to
40 per cent in 1999. See Relatório de Atividades do bndes de 1994 a 1999. In turn,
the share of bndes expenditures in Gross Fixed Capital Formation, that is, in total
investment, fluctuated between 3.25 per cent in 1990 to 6.26 in 1998 and 5.93 in
1999: Revista bndes, June 2001.
Os Últimos Combates, Petrópolis 1999.
Força Sindical was founded in 1991 on the basis of São Paulo unions by Luis
Antonio Medeiros, a ‘pragmatic’ former communist boss; one of its current leaders,
Antonio Rogério Magri, was Labour Minister under Collor, before being dismissed
amid allegations of corruption. The cut was formed in 1983 by unionists of diverse
origins—both pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese communsts, Trotskyists and Catholics.
The board of frb-Par, the holding company that controls the airline Varig, offered
three seats to the pt. Of those who became part of the Foundation’s governing body,
one is, or was until recently, a member of the administrative council of bndes, the
state bank that financed the restructuring of the civil aviation sector, in which Varig
is the main—and highly insolvent—enterprise.
56 nlr 24

they have in common is control over access to public funds, and an

insider’s knowledge of the lay of the financial land.26

The formation of this class in the periphery of globalized

capitalism—Reich’s theories are essentially concerned with phenom-
ena at the system’s dynamic centre—needs closer scrutiny. For not only
is there a new place for it in the system—above all in the financial
sector and its mediations in the state—which satisfies one of the Marxist
criteria for defining a class; there is also a new class ‘experience’, in
Thompson’s terms. The recent birthday celebrations of the former treas-
urer of cut could hardly be a more vivid illustration of the fact that
this experience is confined to the new stratum.27 It cannot be extended
to workers at large. Indeed, these people are no longer workers. They
gather in the new ‘pubs’, mingling with the bourgeoisie and its exec-
utives, but this should not lead us to confuse the two: their ‘place of
production’ is control over access to public funds, which is not that of
the bourgeoisie. The class also meets Gramscian requirements, since
it derives precisely from a new consensus on state and market. Finally,
since classes are forged in class struggle, its dynamic lies in the appro-
priation of major portions of public funds. This is where its specificity
lies: its lien is not on private-sector profits, but on the place where part of
those profits are made: public finances. A Weberian would say that the
new class is taking shape in ‘value-rational action’, which is ultimately
the form of its consciousness.28

In the extreme case of post-Soviet Russia, such knowledge and previous control
over state enterprises became straightforward plunder, but privatizations in Brazil
and Argentina differed only in degree. Those who were economists under Cardoso
and are now bankers are legion. The story of Menem’s privatizations could have
come from Chicago in the Prohibition era. See Horacio Verbitsky’s devastating
account: Robo para la corona: los frutos prohibidos del árbol de la corrupción, Buenos
Aires 1991.
A high point in the festivities after the pt victory in the presidential elections
of 2002 was the party given by the former treasurer of the cut, and of Lula’s
campaign. The press counted between 15 and 18 private jets and small aircraft land-
ing at the fazenda where the party was held. Who could have known that workers
owned so many planes?
I broached this phenomenon in ‘Medusa ou as Classes Médias e a Consolidação
Democrática’, in Guillermo O’Donnell and Fábio Reis, eds, A Democracia no Brasil:
Dilemmas e Perspectivas, São Paulo 1988, where I considered the ‘jellyfish’ of
appraisers an important part of the middle classes.
oliveira: Brazilian Platypus 57

Viewed from another angle, the platypus presents us with the peculiar-
ity that the main investment funds are the property of the workers. ‘This
is socialism!’ a revenant from the first decades of the twentieth century
would exclaim. But contrary to the hopes of some, the platypus lacks any
ethico-political moment. Hegemony, in Gramsci’s formulation, devel-
ops in the superstructure, and here the platypus has no ‘consciousness’,
only superstructural replication. The theorist who foresaw it was Ridley
Scott, with Blade Runner.

Such is the platypus. It is no longer possible to remain underdeveloped,

and take advantage of the openings allowed by the Second Industrial
Revolution; and it is equally impossible to progress by digital-molecular
accumulation—the internal requirements for such a rupture are want-
ing. What remains are ‘primitive accumulations’ of the sort fostered
by privatization. But under the dominance of finance capital, these are
now mere transfers of property; not, properly speaking, ‘accumulation’.
The platypus is condemned to thrust everything into the vortex of finan-
cialization. Now, under the pt, it is the turn of social security, which
will prevent it from redistributing income and creating a new market
that would provide the bases for digital-molecular accumulation. The
capitalist platypus is a truncated accumulation and an unremittingly
inegalitarian society. Long live Marx and Darwin: the capitalist periphery
has finally brought them together. Marx, who so wanted the approval of
Darwin, who did not have time to read Capital. But was it not in these
lands, in the Galapagos, that Darwin had his epiphany?