Anthropologist Lilia M. Schwarcz on Brazilian Authoritarianism

Dec. 10, 2019

On Thursday, November 21st, the Brazil LAB hosted a book forum with Lilia M. Schwarcz, Professor of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo and Visiting Professor at Princeton University, with Debora Diniz and Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones as discussants. 

Schwarcz, a leading Brazilian public intellectual, art curator, and winner of five Jabuti prizes for her historical, anthropological, and artistic works presented her best-selling book Sobre o Autoritarismo Brasileiro (On Brazilian Authoritarianism, Companhia das Letras, 2019). Describing the book as a form of “political work” intended for the “general reader,” Schwarcz drew on a range of sources to interrogate the “repeating structures in the history of Brazil” that have sedimented into “an authoritarian framework that Brazil is quick to distance itself from.” 

Treating the past as a “battle of discourses and repetitions,” Schwarcz outlined aspects of Brazil’s long and deep history of slavery, the myth of racial democracy, contemporary forms of outmoded lusotropicalism and the political “authorization” of history (‘giving the past a sheen and a spin’) to argue that what Brazil produced has been “a nation in which inclusion combined seamlessly with exclusion.” The common sense view of the Brazilian society as “miscigenated” was “never synonymous with equality and only served to create and deepen hierarchy.” Emphasizing that “rights and democracy need to be won anew each day,” Schwarcz addressed Brazil’s growing intolerance and the everyday realities of corruption, social inequality, and masculine white privilege, explaining why the “ghost” of authoritarianism continues to haunt society today. 

In her response to Schwarcz, Debora Diniz (Professor of Law at the University of Brasília and Visting Fellow at Brown University) raised the question of the authorship of national history (“how to write a history of Brazil?”) and the moral and gendered choices a writer makes when undertaking such a task, as Schwarcz does in her book. While highlighting that “it means a lot to point a finger on our own history and say, j’accuse!”, Diniz also drew attention to forms of authoritarianism taking shape in other parts of the world and how these examples collectively urge us to reconsider the limits of concepts like “polarization” to explain the broader popularization of authoritarian ideas and regimes. 

Princeton’s Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones (Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Emeritus) emphasized the need for academics to engage in the public debates called all to consider thinkers who are non-academicians as powerful public intellectuals. Drawing attention to Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory (the act of remembering a memory), Díaz-Quiñones also highlighted the need to revitalize our conception of history and make it more pluralistic, attuned to different forms of truth-making, especially in the context of highly unequal societies like Brazil. 

The discussion that followed in the standing room only included faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students as well as a range of other interdisciplinary collaborators and community participants of the Brazil LAB. Schwarcz drew attention to the particularity of the contemporary political moment in Brazil to suggest “it is not that Brazilians are naturally intolerant, but today many more like to claim they are intolerant.” Brazil’s troubling present needs to be seen in light of its long and repeating past. The distinctiveness of Brazil’s current political regime is a consequence of the deeper history of authoritarianism that Schwarcz traces in her powerful book.

The book forum was organized by the Brazil LAB and co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Department of Anthropology.