Is the future Brazilian?


A new book argues that the West is increasingly being shaped by a Brazilian-style mix of fear and hedonism, writes Tom Hennigan

Imagine the entire world turned into one enormous Brazil, an exotic and exuberant place but also fearful and violent; simultaneously utopia and dystopia.

Several years ago, shortly after the wild optimism of the 1990s was ended by the 9/11 attacks, the Italian sociologist Giuliano da Empoli went there on holidays and says he caught a glimpse of mankind's future.

What he found was a society with a remarkable ability for fusing races and cultures, but nonetheless one scarred by inequality, racism and violence. It is a country where the luxury condos of the haves look right into the shacks of the have-nots but finds an outlet for its tensions in the frivolity of what Empoli calls "the Brazilian ideology of carnival" with its attendant cults of the body, sex and celebrity.

What struck Empoli during his trip was how many of the emerging social trends of recent years in supposedly more developed countries are far more advanced in Brazilian society.

Some of these trends are sombre - for example, the fear of crime and the attendant rise in the phenomena of gated communities and private security. Some are more frivolous, such as the explosion of plastic surgery, body waxing and the cult of the body beautiful.

Others are more complex. Up to an astonishing 80 per cent of Brazil's 185 million people are of mixed race. Racial inequality still stunts its society but Empoli notes that as early as 1933 - the year Europe witnessed the rise to power of Hitler and decades before the US embraced black culture - Brazilian intellectuals began to champion the country's racial diversity as a source of strength and pride.

Empoli began to wonder if Brazil was the "allegorical mirror, capable of reflecting the conditions in which we find ourselves", where rich western societies increasingly indulge our multiplying lusts amid a gathering dread of crime, terrorism and environmental disaster in an ever smaller, more globalised world.

Seeing in a society such as Brazil's a glimpse of the world's future goes against most ideas of progress that until very recently passed as received wisdom in developed corners of the globe. Before 9/11 the future was, writes Empoli, a river that flowed from the heart of the western powers towards the world's periphery and countries such as Brazil. Western optimism, which reached a crescendo in the 1990s, said this river would bring the economic, political, cultural and technological models that would modernise late-developing societies.

This ended with 9/11: "It became possible that the future, like the salmon, would swim against the river's current, producing the unthinkable: a future where the periphery would force itself to the centre." Empoli returned from his trip to Italy and set to work on Hedonism and Fear - The Brazilian Future of the World, his frequently polemical but always thought-provoking book, already published in Italy, France and Brazil and ripe for a translation into English. The book's central thesis is that western societies are increasingly being shaped by fear and hedonism, two conditions that have already done much to mould Brazil into the series of contradictions that it is today. While many have long feared the Americanisation of the world, what we are in fact experiencing is its Brazilianisation.

EMPOLI WRITES THAT Brazilians have long lived in one of the world's most unjust societies, with one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world. For Brazilians such a fact is banal, in a country where millions live in slums but which also has the world's second biggest fleet of private jets. Attendant stratospheric levels of violent crime in the form of murders, carjackings and street robberies have created a deeply ingrained fear of the marginal, the criminal underclass - society's "other".

In this, Empoli argues, Brazil has been a front runner. Crime in richer Western societies is nowhere near Brazilian levels but fear of crime, whether by a criminally inclined underclass or by terrorists in the "war on terror", has gathered pace in recent years, resulting in the growth of our own gated communities, private security, and government surveillance, in what are still ostensibly peaceful societies.

But this increasing fearfulness takes place against a background of rising hedonism and frivolity. Tending to the corporeal is one of the great themes of our age, notes Empoli. We are bombarded with images of perfect bodies by a media saturated with sex. This has helped give rise to a new culture of fitness centres and cheap and readily accessible plastic surgery. We are the new epicureans with our obsession with food, restaurants and chefs.

It is what Empoli calls the "democratisation of the orgy". He notes that in the 18th century, young English aristocrats used the Grand Tour to indulge in sex tourism. Now, tour companies offer millions of young people package holidays to resorts promising sex, alcohol and drugs.

Prostitution and pornography are undergoing huge booms in western societies. Mass events devoted to outpourings of emotion, such as football matches and rock shows, have never been as popular or received such prominence.

As with fear, Empoli sees Brazil as having had a jump on more developed societies when it comes to such hedonism. It is in Brazil that carnival has reached its most developed form, and, while it only lasts for the days running up to Lent, its guiding spirits of beauty, glamour and sex have long influenced Brazilian culture year round. In Brazil, plastic surgeons are pioneers and public heroes and only the beautiful people appear on television. Meanwhile the beach and its overt display of the body is a national obsession.

Since medieval times, carnival's role has been to liberate people from their rigidly enforced place on society's ladder, even if only temporarily. In this link, Empoli spots an explanation for our own richer societies' increasing carnivalesque hedonism.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), income inequality in richer societies is growing more rapidly than at any time in recent decades, while social mobility is atrophying in both the US and the EU (Ireland's recent history being a great exception). And outstripping this actual process is the fear of it. In Empoli's own Italy, 80 per cent of the population believes the middle class is becoming poorer.

As incomes and social mobility atrophy and social position is determined more by your parents' position on society's ladder than any other factor, "the carnival becomes the only rational escape", according to Empoli.

The potential impact of all this on our politics is best illustrated by the career of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is for Empoli the "impeccable interpreter" of what he terms the Brazilianisation of our age.

Here was a skilled reader of the times, someone who sought to portray himself not as a political leader, but rather a member of the celebrity star system, who flaunted his huge wealth as the epitome of the consumerist dream and who, rather than play the traditional political family man, revelled in his none-too-discreet flirtations with far younger, beautiful women. Berlusconi, leader of a member state of the G8, was politics as carnival - plastic surgery, make-up and all.

He owed much of his political success to his ability to play on his country's collective emotions, thanks to his control over two of the great expressions of our carnival age: football and television.

Berlusconi's rise to power was always closely linked to the success of his football club, AC Milan, and his ownership of most of Italy's private television network, notorious for its vacuous diet of celebrities, game-shows, scantily clad women and football.

BUT IF BERLUSCONI played on the carnival spirit of the age, he also exploited our time's fearful, dark side. Here was a leader who promised to crack down on the criminal classes, despite facing multiple legal charges of criminality himself. With his neo-fascist allies, he fought to restrict immigration. And it was under Berlusconi that Italy signed up for the Bush war on terror and sent troops to Iraq.

For Empoli, new actors such as Berlusconi are the result of progressive politics finding it increasingly difficult to respond to the aspirations of Brazilianised societies, obsessed as they are with consumption, spectacle and fear of the other. The book will come as a rude shock to those who consider themselves progressives, as his ability to pick out trends in our modern culture and deftly place them into his Brazilianisation model will challenge their faith in the idea of inevitable progress as cool-headed rationalists understand it.

But Empoli himself is rather more upbeat. For him the solution is not to recoil in horror and retreat further from the orgy, leaving the field to actors such as Berlusconi and the culture they epitomise, but rather to engage more fully with the new spirit of the age, in all its frivolous, superfluous glory. Even learn to love it. Only when they have done that, he concludes, will progressives be relevant again.