Lilia M. Schwarcz on Brazilian Authoritarianism

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Oct. 7, 2022

On Wednesday, September 28th, the Brazil LAB organized a conversation with award-winning Brazilian author and public intellectual Lilia M. Schwarcz on her timely book Brazilian Authoritarianism: Past and Present, recently published by Princeton University Press (English translation by Eric Becker). Brigitta van Rheinberg, Jeremy Adelman, and Rafael Cesar served as discussants on the panel. Professor of Anthropology João Biehl, the Director of the Brazil LAB, moderated the discussion.

Schwarcz, a professor of anthropology at the University of São Paulo, a visiting professor at Princeton and one of Brazil’s leading public intellectuals argued in her opening remarks that Bolsonaro needs to be viewed “not as a cause… but as a consequence of a long history of political violence and authoritarianism in Brazil.” Schwarcz’s book – whose English version was released just days before Brazil’s historic presidential elections – painstakingly details Brazil’s bicentennial history of racial and authoritarian politics, which have resulted in naturalizing forms of structural inequity especially towards Afro-Brazilians, women, LGBTQ+ populations, indigenous communities and other minorities.

In his discussion of Schwarcz’s book, Adelman, professor of History at Princeton University drew attention to “two traps the book eruditely avoids”. These include “the trap of the nation” and “the trap of authoritarianism.” For Adelman, the distinctiveness of Schwarcz’s book is in its “treatment of the nation not as a cult but as an ongoing project” as well the fact that authoritarianism (in Schwarcz’s formulation) is “always in dialogue and in conflict with alternative imaginaries of justice,” making Brazil’s history “a past of possibilities.”

Van Rheinberg, Associate Director and Director of Global Development at Princeton University Press drew attention to the urgency and vitality of Schwarcz’s work, hailing it as the first book translated from Portuguese to English in PUP’s academic list. Rheinberg also raised several provocations inviting Schwarcz to shed light on how her book has been received in Brazil and how her own thinking on Brazilian authoritarianism has been influenced from a world-historical perspective.

Cesar, an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University highlighted the fact that “while Bolsonaro may be gone forever, ‘Bolsonarismo’ is here to stay”. In this regard, Schwarcz’s book is not only a seminal text on Brazil per se but also a critical reflection on “the method of history and historical writing,” in which the author deftly parses through a myriad of “myths that mobilize the public,” masterfully scrutinizing “the eugenics that drive historical change” in Brazil. For Cesar, Schwarcz’s text is exemplar of a new “anthropology of historicity,” which draws attention also to how the craft of the historian is fast altering in a time of archival elapse between texts, documents, digital technology, and social media.

A vibrant and lively engagement with the audience followed, in which critical questions were raised about the future of authoritarianism in (a possible new) Lula-lead regime, the role of the Brazilian ‘Centrão’ in conditioning and condoning popular politics in Brazil, the ways in which Brazilian authoritarianism is inflected by wider political currents in Latin America as indeed the world, and possible solutions to breaking the grid-lock of structural inequities, which continue to plague Brazilian polity and society. Schwarcz, in her response, luminously highlighted that “history is not destiny… it is a reminder” of plural possibilities and that a victory for Lula is in no way going to end the specter of authoritarianism in Brazil. Above all, Schwarcz believed, “the racial question is the greatest contradiction in Brazil today… we abolished the slavery and replaced it with several conservative laws and a constitution,” yet “the language slavery created is so ingrained in Brazil that it has created a country that has naturalized inequality.”

The event was co-organized by the Brazil LAB along with Princeton University Press and Labyrinth Books and co-sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, the Program in Latin American Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.