Christianity and Unemployment in Brazil

"... capitalism is an idolatric and materialist system, for the true God is overplaced by the idols of the boundless riches.... "

--- the Brazilian Catholic Bishops, 1999 (see ahead)


Brazil has the biggest catholic population in the world. Since colonial times her history shows that the participation of the low clergy at the side of the popular causes was not infrequent. Brazil also is the craddle of the Liberation Theology, that intends to link socialism to christendom, being priest Leonardo Boff its best known thinker.

Liberation Theology stems from the division of the Catholic Church between a church that is an opium on behalf of the rich people and a church that defends the poor, a division that has been in existence since the Roman Empire, though many times obscured. It may have some tints of the feudal struggle against the nascent bourgeoisie, but nowadays with a changed signal and with no fear of socialism.

From the Vatican II Council on (1962/1963) and its accompanying call for __aggiornamento__ (to be switched on the daily needs of the people), the most part of the Catholic Church in Brazil stepped to the left and some sectors even to the far left. Vatican II so originated a stance quite different from the reactionary Pope Leo XIII's social encyclicals of a century ago, being the most conspicuous the __Rerum Novarum__.

Soon after the Vatican II Council the progressive government of João Goulart (an anticipation of Allende's Popular Unity) was overthrown as part of the US strategy aimed against the spreading of the Cuban Revolution, in conjunction with local big entrepreneurs and great landlords. During the ensuing military dictatorship of 1964/1985 it was knitted a close alliance between the progressive sectors of the Catholic Church and the organized movements of resistance, including the urban guerrilla ones. Among these there was a formerly lay catholic organization, AP -- the People's Action. Its members justified the resource to weapons from St. Thomas Aquinas's right of rebellion against tyranny.

Liberation Theology evolved from this characteristic political soup and has given origin to the CEBs-- the Ecclesial Base Communities, a grass root movement that once played a very important role into organizing people against the military dictatorship of 1964/1985 and that was at the origin of many workers' mass movements in Brazil, including the formation of PT (the Workers Party) and of MST (the Landless Movement). Despite of the persecution launched by Pope John Paul II, Liberation Theology still pervades both the base and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Brazil, the lay movements and other Christian denominations too, specially Methodists and Lutherans (who have a stronghold in the populations from German stock).

The Latin American Jesuits Manifesto of 1998, for instance, that emphasized the struggle against neo-liberalism and the needing of a new social order, is deeply embedded in the Liberation Theology. CNBB --- the National Conference of the Brazilian Bishops, that is one of most respected institutions in Brazil, has relentlessly criticized neo-liberalism and the inhumane globalization process and not seldom it is short of repudiating capitalism altogether.

The papacy, though remaining in the right-wing side, has recently made some advancements towards the catholic left. For instance, at claiming for the annulment of the external debts of the poorest and smallest nations, what is being transformed into a revolutionary campaign for the annulment of all the external debts of the improperly called Third World, not just the "poorest" countries' ones. Other two examples are the sternly addresses from the Pope against neo-liberalism, though he holds the social-democratic-like illusion that it would be possible to fight neo-liberalism while not fighting capitalism at the same time.


From now on I will be referring to an article that was written by priest Antonio Valentini Neto and that was originally published in a newslletter of CNBB --- the National Conference of the Brazilian Bishops. The article is the main text of the 1999 Brotherhood Campaign, an annual important political event in Brazil. Its theme this year is the fight against unemployment. The text has been widely distributed throughout the country. I don't send the Valentini text because its abridged form has 14 KB and it is not written in English.

The article claims among its objectives: a) "the denunciation of the social-political-economic models which bear unemployment and other justice problems"; b) "the announcement of the society according to evangelic criteria, where the individual is not a slave of the idolatric economic order". Everybody knows that the author is very probably referring to capitalism and socialism respectively, but these names are deemed to be __shibbolet__ catchwords and so are diplomatically avoided, as a general rule.

Nevertheless, in the same text lies ahead a stern condemnation of capitalism, albeit implicitly giving room to the puerile illusion of an ethical capitalism and evoking the messianic promises of the New Jerusalem:

"Capitalism without ethical breaks is a nefarious system, according to Pope Paul VI in the __Populorum Progressio__. It transforms profit into an essential motor of economic progress; competition into the supreme economic law; and private property of capital goods into an absolute right, neither with limits nor with accompanying social obligations. According to CNBB, capitalism is an idolatric and materialist system, for the true God is overplaced by the idols of the boundless riches, of the profit at whatever price, of the unrestrained consumption put to the service of a privilegiated minority. This situation, that denies elementary rights to the majority of the people, it is a violence against the dignity of the Lord's sons. More yet: this situation is a strong obstacle and a tenacious resistance to the announcement and to the inauguration of the Kingdom of God amidst us."

The article even dares to border a communist suggestion that was very popular in the Middle Ages: "unemployment ..... also contradicts the [ethical] principle of the universal destination of goods in order to propiciate to everyone a life with dignity."


Unemployment is typical of the present stage of capitalism, says Valentini, on behalf of CNBB.

The article says that work and job are commonly regarded as synonyms and defines work as "a full time and steadfast job, from the end of the schooltime up to retirement, which is paid with a regular salary and within a frame of production of goods and services." These features are disappearing each passing day all over the world, according to Valentini, who also quotes the ILO (International Labor Organization) 1997 report that estimates 1 billion unemployed people in the whole world.

As to Brazil, Valentini quotes the trade-unions economic services DIEESE, that estimates that 13.9 % of the economically active population was unemployed as the average of 1997, jumping to 17.2 % in March, 1998. He also quotes IBGE, that is the federal statistics office, which uses a very strange definition for unemployment: if an individual remains unemployed after three consecutive months this automatically means that he or she have really got an occupation for the simple reason of being still alive ! Even so, IBGE recognizes that unemployment has increased twofolds in Brazil between 1994 and 1998 --the apex of the golden neo-liberal era, by the way--- what means 12 million unemployed Brazilians in August, 1998 (optimistic official numbers, not DIEESE's).

Valentini says that youngsters are half of the total of unemployed people, though many children are being compelled to work in order to add to the family income or even to supply it. Blacks are most prone than whites to become unemployed as women are most prone than men.

Two economists are quoted without comments: the left-wing Jorge Mattoso, a professor at the Campinas University (one of the Brazilian economic think tanks) and the right-wing José Pastore, a professor at the São Paulo State University. The former ascribes the growing unemployment in Brazil to: a) the subordinate position of Brazil in the world economy (what makes one remembers the "dependence theory" by president Cardoso, when he was a leftist); b) the free trade policy, with no effective dumping controls; c) the high interest rate and the high exchange value of the real (written before the recent devaluation). The latter traces the growing unemployment to international competition, technological changes and changes in the production methods, low growth, the lack of dumping controls and of trade barriers, low education patterns and hampering labor legislation. At reading all this stuff, sometimes I wonder if economists really understand economics...


Valentini also points out that the slave labor is back and on the rise, what is a feature of this final stage of capitalism (globalization). He adds: "it is very difficult to assess the real number of slave workers and to identify the victims."

By the way, I note that people in despair, who have lost every hope to find a regular job or even to be occasionally hired to perform humble tasks, do accept slave labor without complain in sweatshops, in agriculture, in domestic jobs, and even in fashionable retail outlets at stylistic shopping centers.

The basic pattern of slave labor is as follows (these remarks are mine, not Valentini's):

a) people are paid less than a living wage (the official minimum wage in Brazil is inferior to the living wage); b) at the very best, they are paid the minimum wage with some very meager commissions on sales or production above a certain high volume; c) not seldom, the non-organized and "free" rural workers in remote areas are hired just for food; d) there are neither work schedules nor work shifts, and sometimes not even meal breaks, what may means to work 70 or more hours a week, including weekends and holidays; e) slave workers sleep in the streets or within the sweatshops (this a normal rule in the case of building sites); f) the right to organize and to unionize is denied; g) harassment or sexual abuse of working women are an open possibility; h) intimidation and actual violence against those who complain to the boss or who seek outside help (caucus groups, press, members of parliaments, labor courts etc.) are common; i) children aged 7 years old are put to work in agriculture and in the unecological coalification process of the vegetable coal industry that still exists in some backward rural areas; j) needless to say that the labor legislation (which in Brazil is very detailed and intricate) is not complied with, what means that some basic wage-related payments are not made, as severance pay, vacations, extra working hours, the 15 days sickness tolerance etc. etc.; k) illegal fines and other illegal kinds of punishment are arbitrarily imposed; l) a growing number of employers are illegally either reducing or delaying the payment of salaries, what includes big companies, law offices etc.; m) there are companies which are illegally paying salaries with their own inventories, so turning workers into unwilling salespeople.

The slave labor is not restricted to the classic pattern of the clothing and textile industry sweatshops (by the way, Asian and Central-American workers earn less !) Some of its features ---specially the relinquishment of maximum mandatory work schedules and the default on extra hours--- are becoming common even in some unheard of workplaces such as big auditing and consulting firms (including international ones) and airlines. In the former case the excuses are deadlines and contracted hours which are made smaller each new year, allegedly to satisfy the client; in the latter case (that has been the cause behind some plane crashes, specially in small companies) the reason is mad competition or just dumb greed.

There also is another subtle example, that is rather a refined job torture in one of the most successful investment banks of Brazil. Its open market desk is (or was) deemed to be the most profitable of all. Its chairman once gave an explanation that would rather be fitted to a slave-owner: at the end of each month he fired the last performer among the well paid open market dealers, no matter the reason for the "failure" (that could be a very profitable one, nonetheless). He did it (or still does) in a humiliating way and refusing to pay the wages due to his monthly victim.

The neo-liberal government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso has actually been pushing such backward practices with the so called "flexibilization" and "partnership" schemes ---- these catchwords of the new capitalist creed that have swiftly streched out all over the world--- and with the help of the yellow-dog practices of corrupt trade-unionists. "Flexibilization" and "partnership" schemes mean the abolishment of work practices that had been hitherto taken for granted as conquests of the civilization.

It is worthwhile to remember that the "flexibilization" and "partnership" policies are the same practices which were shown as an anti-Marxist "proof" that the working conditions of the 19th.century capitalism, which would justify socialism, do not exist anymore in the modern capitalism of the second half of the 20th. century. Nevertheless, practices alike to the 19th. century ones still are in Brazil silly called "savage capitalism", as if it would be possible to exist a "good" one.


The article made by Valentini on behalf of CNBB analyzes the deep psychological consequences of continued unemployment on the individual, and on his or her family and the societal disintegration as well. It would have been interesting to translate into English the full inventory of disgraces, however being everywhere well known or well imaginable ones . I refrain from doing this for the lack of space.

Valentini lists, for instance, severe depressions and suicides, which are said to be on the rise in Brazil. Each new privatization is accompanied alongside by suicides of workers that think they will never recover from unemployment, because mass dismissals are the first acts of the new managements.

It must be said that mass firing of employees have been occurring even in cases where they end up lowering the quality of services and goods, as it has been happening with the electricity shortages that begin soon after an energy company is sold. As you know, the neo-liberal definition of good management is the management that fires the most part of employees in the shortest span of time. Even so, neo-liberal ideologues preach twaddle to the workers, as a magical solution, the need to find new and highly specialized "niches" (another neo-liberal hit word). President Cardoso, during his reelection campaign, has even suggested "afro coiffeurs" as an example !...

Since Valentini is writing on behalf of CNBB to a Brazilian audience, he fails to disclose that insurance against unemployment is a ridiculously low amount that lasts only three months, what adds to increase uneasiness. Self-employed people, who are also subject to long periods without work, including lawyers, physicians, dentists, etc., have no coverage at all.


Lately the Catholic Church has been assuming a pro-active approach, whereas yesterday it limited itself to appoint to the problems and injustices.

So, Valentini and CNBB propose "to create a new model of society based upon justice and solidarity, which has as its priority the human being and which makes possible to develop his/her potential" etc. How would be called this new society, since they have already assimilated capitalism to Baal-style idolatry?

A little after the proposition above one might thinks that is reading an utopian quote from a broken version of "The German Ideology": "there must be instituted a new form to socialize the fruits of labor and of technology. Up to now production has practically been made only by human work. Since it is now possible to produce wealth without the work of everybody, it is necessary to guarantee otherwise the survival of those who are being replaced by technology."

In more practical ways, on behalf of CNBB, Valentini suggests the reduction of worktime without an accompanying reduction of wages; the end of extra worktime; agrarian reform; labor statutes which forbid dismissals, which incentive human work and which impose certain criteria on the introduction of new technologies; the annulment of the external debts... Oh, what CNBB and Valentini propose is revolution, nothing less than this !

Vade retro ? Ite, missiva est. Pax vobiscum,

Roberto Magellan