This summer’s World Cup was, if nothing else for Brazil, a great chance to remind us that while it is no longer home of the best football it remains in possession of what is arguably the most beautiful and suggestive national flag of them all. Painted in harmonious earth tones, it has an instantly recognisable geometrical design involving a star-filled celestial globe inside a yellow rhombus set on green field whose overall effect emits a certain retro-futurist glamour that conjures up the world of Jules Verne.
Brazilians owe their emblematic good fortune to the otherwise unremarkable aesthetic sensibility of the country’s first president, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca. He nixed plans to give the new republic that replaced the Bragança monarchy a lame imitation of the American stars and stripes. Designed by lawyer and revolutionary ideologue Ruy Barbosa, such a flag actually flew over Rio de Janeiro for the first few days of the infant republic’s life before the marshal thankfully ordered something more original.
The men who designed it for him were fervent futurists who believed science would transform what had been until the previous year a slave colony into a modern nation. They ended up producing perhaps the world’s busiest flag in which each of its many components is invested with symbolic significance even before we consider the inclusion of that slightly sinister national motto: Ordem e Progresso.
Just its stars alone give it a rare level of complexity and symbolic import. Legislation governs the exact size and location of each of the twenty-seven heavenly bodies contained within the celestial globe, one for every state in the union and the federal district with the star map reproducing the sky over Rio at 8:30 am on November 15th, 1889, when the republic was declared.
By including the Southern Cross on a national banner for the first time its creators also referred back to the dawn of Brazilian history when one of the earliest mentions of the constellation was made in perhaps the first document written on the country’s soil, by a member of the expedition of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the explorer credited with discovering what he originally called the Island of the True Cross.
Spica, the only star found above the flag’s white banner, helped Greek astronomer Hipparchus discover the precession of the equinoxes and symbolises not only the jungle state of Pará but also Brazil’s territorial presence above the equator. Down and to its left is Canopus, of the constellation Carina, formally known as Argus ,which as well as the state of Goiás also represents those modern Argonauts, the Portuguese navigators who set out in search of their own golden fleeces. Even the flag’s celestial sphere itself echoes the Manueline orb used to symbolise the great Lusitanian maritime adventure that initiated our global age during the reign of King Manuel I.
This division of symbolic labour among the stars has caused a certain amount of discontent. Unhappy at having the federal district represented by the dim Sigma Octantis at the bottom of the sphere, in 2000 a deputy from the capital, Brasília, introduced a bill that would see this role transferred to the much brighter Spica, which also has the advantage of being alone above the white banner. Representatives from the country’s twenty-six states, less convinced by the capital’s special claim to greatness, archived the bill.
This level of political pettiness little excites Brazilians. But that is not to say many do not have strong opinions about some of their banner’s elements, most controversially its motto Ordem e Progresso.
This found its way onto the flag because the guiding force in its design, Raimundo Teixeira Mendes, was a follower of positivism, the nineteenth century doctrine developed by the French philosopher Auguste Comte. A pupil of Saint-Simon, Comte shared with his far more influential contemporary Karl Marx the belief that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws and set about “scientifically” developing a secular political system that even included its own secular cult, the Religion of Humanity.
In his native Europe, where order and progress were traditionally viewed as opposed ideas ‑ the former the watchword of the right, the latter of the left ‑ Comte is remembered today as the founder of sociology rather than for his political theorising. But in late nineteenth century Brazil his ideas exerted a strong appeal to a younger generation frustrated with the empty rhetoric of imperial politics which failed to mask a deeply backward society.
Particularly influential within the military that ousted the emperor, this generation was nevertheless fearful of the potential for social and racial chaos contained within the vastly more populous lower ranks of society. Haiti’s slave revolt and the violent swings from anarchy to dictatorship in Spanish-speaking America influenced the conservative nature of imperial politics, even among the opposition.
Positivism, with its creed of l’amour pour principe et l’ordre pour base; le progrès pour but (love as a principle and order as the basis; progress as the goal) seemed to offer a means of national development and a steady expansion of the benefits of citizenship without threatening revolution.
Disciples of Comte were a minority among the plotters who sent Dom Pedro into exile in Europe but they made the most of the turmoil during the republic’s birthing to write their motto onto its new flag. But once the new order stabilised their enemies moved against them determined to cleanse the national banner of what they saw as the creed of an unrepresentative sect.
As early as 1892 a former officer turned federal deputy tried to muster the votes to replace the celestial sphere and its banner with the new state’s coat of arms. The attempt failed, but it was not the last. A more modest proposal was made in 1908 to remove just the white banner and its controversial legend. This also failed to muster the votes and the white banner and its motto have been secure since.
Order and Progress are two things, many Brazilians will sarcastically point out, that their society conspicuously lacks. In the light of persistent poverty, gross inequality, the entrenched sense of insecurity produced by frightening levels of crime and endemic corruption it is not hard to understand why they might view their own motto as mocking them.
But taking the long view one can see that Brazil since 1889 has undergone a period of remarkable progress. Though this has slowed in recent decades, economic performance for much of the twentieth century was one of the most spectacular anywhere in the world. If Brazil still lags behind Europe and North America this is in part because its 1889 point of departure was so unpromising. Since then the poor, undeveloped, rural slave colony has learnt to read and vote; it has urbanised and industrialised and finally grown into its continental territory after centuries of clinging to the coast.
This process has wrought tremendous change on a society in which order has remained the watchword. Considering the country’s transformation, it is astonishing that for all the political turmoil this generated there has been no overturning at any point of the establishment. Though many of the country’s successful political movements have claimed the tag “revolutionary”, Brazil has in fact never experienced one, either by force of arms or through the ballot box. Progress in Brazil has been thoroughly conservative.
This is not to say that its elit remains immutable. It has mutated, incorporating and expelling elements over the decades. But what has not changed is its control over the majority of the country’s wealth and the sense of political and social entitlement this engenders. Brazil’s uneven, misshapen and unjust progress, and all the ills that flow from it, are at root due to an unwarranted determination that progress should take place within the context of a particularly ungenerous order.
This innate respect for continuity is reflected in the flag. The yellow rhombus and green field are not, as some Brazilians believe, symbolic of the country’s vast forests and mineral wealth, but rather a holdover from the previous imperial flag, with the green representing the House of Braganza of Dom Pedro I, the first emperor, and the yellow the House of Habsburg of his wife Maria Leopoldina. These gestures were a curiously conservative decision by supposed revolutionaries.
This Brazilian duality of order and progress, of long transitions rather than ruptures, reached its zenith during the rule of Getúlio Vargas, who seized power in the “Revolution of 1930” and has a cast iron claim to be the country’s most transformative politician.
A rancher, he sought industrialisation without upsetting the country’s horribly unjust land settlement and the new urban political arrangements he instituted flowed from the top down, with the state left in control of working class organisations and responsible for the brutal suppression of independent left-wing forces. An admirer of Mussolini, Vargas, it is no coincidence, was a son of Rio Grande do Sul, the Brazilian state where the ideas of Comte made their deepest and most lasting impact.
Today no Brazilian politician of standing bothers themselves with the teachings of Augueste Comte but it is a country where progressives are still forced to ally with conservatives and change, no matter how radical, somehow always seems to take into account the interests of the few before the needs of the many. It is not by chance that despite all the transformations of the last one hundred and twenty-five years Brazil’s distribution of wealth still speaks to its slave-owning colonial past.
In Europe it might seem contradictory, and many Brazilians who otherwise love to wrap themselves in their flag might feel mocked by it, but in Ordem e Progresso Brazil has a fitting motto that explains much about its condition today.