Brazil and the Economic Problems of Socialism

Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil was recognized at the time as a brilliant work of social commentary and a stunning feat of visual imagination. I believe that it is the strongest statement of classical liberal views in a work of popular culture to emerge since that time. It shows the connection between socialism the use of a police state to create a state of terror.

In this essay, I will concentrate on the film Brazil as a critique of economic central planning. In a subsequent essay I will address Gilliam's foresight in depicting a dystopian political system that resembles today's domestic and international political developments.

Many fictional representations of totalitarianism in science fiction films have been created by script writers unaware of the Mises-Hayek critique of socialism. Films often portray an economic system that is a centrally planned economy wealthy far in excess of today's world. Totalitarian powers in these films are depicted as technologically advanced, omnipotent, omniscient and in total control of their populations.

Mises' critique of socialism holds that only a market economy can produce technological advancement, refuting the coexistence of totalitarianism and economic efficiency often seen in film. I think that Gilliam understands this problem. Brazil 's political world is oppressive, and it exemplifies the tension between the totalitarian desire for absolute power and the incompetence and lack of individual responsibility inherent under such a regime, which makes the exercise of power less effective than it otherwise might be.

In Brazil, technological progress has gone into reverse, stupidity has won out over innovation, shirking takes the place of productivity, and the absurd is accepted as normal. There is a repeated visual motif of overly complex technologies that perform simple tasks badly. Many devices are broken, malfunctioning, or otherwise not user-friendly. For example, data entry workers peer at tiny computer monitors through huge magnifying glasses. A breakfast machine sprays coffee and produces soggy toast. Alarms will not shut off. These are all clear examples of bureaucratically imposed solutions that have not passed a market test.

When the internal security policy arrive to arrest terrorist suspect Mr. Buttle – himself an innocent citizen wrongly fingered due to a mechanical problem in a computer system – the Department of Works who come in after them to clean up the mess have brought along the wrong size repair kit to fix the hole in the floor that they drilled to facilitate a surprise entrance.

JILL: There must be some mistake … Mr. Buttle’s harmless…

BILL: We don’t make mistakes.

So saying, he drops the manhole cover, which is faced with same material as the floor, over the hole in the floor. To his surprise it drops neatly through the floor into the flat below.

CHARLIE: Bloody typical, they’ve gone back to metric without telling us.

A mechanical problem that produced the mistaken identity brilliantly ties together in a sinister closure the destinies of two otherwise unrelated characters. This device was introduced in the script by the anti-Communist playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard was one of several writers who wrestled with the script before it reached its final form.

At one point, Sam Lowry (the protagonist), wakes up to find that the heating and cooling system in his apartment is severely malfunctioning. The call routing system that takes his call for help is also broken. The agency that maintains the cooling system is aptly named "Central Services."

Sam's call is intercepted by the renegade plumber Harry Tuttle. Tuttle, who is one of the two heroic characters in the film, had once worked for Central Services, but resigned because he wanted to do home repairs without the administrative burden. He pursues his career outside of the law as a combination of Spiderman and heating engineer. The seriousness of this choice is shown in an armed near-confrontation between Tuttle and two Central Services engineers.

SAM: Sorry. Wouldn’t it be easier just to work for Central Services?

TUTTLE: Couldn’t stand the paperwork, couldn’t stand the paperwork. Listen, this old system of yours could be on fire and I couldn’t even turn on the kitchen tap without filling in a 27B/6…. Bloody paperwork.

SAM: Well I suppose one has to expect a certain amount.

TUTTLE: Why? I came into this game for the action, for the excitement – go anywhere, travel light, get in, get out, wherever there’s trouble, a man alone. Now they’ve got the whole country sectioned off and you can’t move without a form. I’m the last of a breed.

Tuttle quickly locates and repairs the problem. Unfortunately, working on home equipment without proper authorization by Central Services is a crime, which has placed Tuttle on the Ministry of Information's wanted list, which leads to the wrongful arrest of Mr. Buttle in his place. Brazil is a world in which entrepreneurs are outlaws. Doing good quality work on short notice to satisfy customers makes you an enemy of the state.

Another contrast between private enterprise and government bureaucracy is shown in one of the funniest scenes in the film in which Sam uses Central Services' own procedural rules against them to prevent them from discovering the presence of Tuttle.

Another recurring visual motif is the massive amount of paper that is delivered, routed, stamped, sent through antiquarian pneumatic tubes, and otherwise shuffled by the vast bureaucracies that pervade the film. Paperwork records and tracks real events, and more importantly paperwork tracks other pieces of paperwork, leading to an exponential growth in the amount of paper that is generated.

An example of the overgrowth of paper is shown when, after the wrongful arrest of Mr. Buttle, a bureaucratic official arrives to do the paperwork with Mrs. Buttle before he is hauled away:

OFFICIAL: (tearing out sheet from pink book) That’s your receipt for your husband. (taking blue book from her)

MRS. BUTTLE: Thank you. And this is my receipt for your receipt.

Gilliam has an astute eye for the subtleties of spiritual corruption that occur under a police state. In the above scene, the sudden arrest of her husband leaves Mrs. Buttle in a state of intense trauma, near total panic. When presented with the paperwork to sign, Mrs. Buttle emerges from her panic to become momentarily lucid while signing the paperwork, and then lapses back into her state of trauma. This moment reveals how the population of Brazil had become so conditioned to signing receipts that it is like a basic metabolic function.

The large volume of paper that is moved through pipes and tunnels is both a part of Gilliam's visual motif of overly complex technologies that don't work, and serves as an elaborate system for the dispersion and denial of responsibility by any one individual so characteristic of governmental bureaucracies.

Gilliam uses denial of responsibility as a key plot mechanism. After a random mechanical error wrongly identifies Mr. Buttle as a terrorist, the mistake must then be covered or the responsibility shifted to a succession of ever more sinister governmental departments by those responsible. The protagonist, Sam Lowry, is a low-level clerk in one such entity. In this scene, Sam's boss Mr. Kurtzmann is constitutionally unable to exercise the accountability to sign a form:

KURTZMAN: How do I authorize a cheque?

SAM: Here we are. Pink and blue receipts. All you’ve got to do is sign these and the back of the cheque.

KURTZMAN takes out his pen and tries to sign the papers but his hand is giving him trouble.

KURTZMAN: (exhausted after all the emotion) Oh God! I think I’ve broken a bone. What a pathetic thing I am.

SAM: (taking the pen from him) Here.

SAM signs the cheque and receipts. A big CLOSE UP shows that he is scribbling KURTZMAN's signature. SAM pockets the papers and the pen.

SAM: Right, I'll be on my way.

KURTZMAN: You are good to me Sam.

The theme of denial of responsibility is also reiterated by the visual motif of the Executive Decision-Making Machine. It appears several times in the film, once on the desk of arch-bureaucrat Harry Lime and is also is given back and forth as a gift. It consists of a weight that randomly falls off a sloping edge into either a "yes" or a "no" box. The user, presumably an executive, makes important decisions by random chance using this device.

In addition to denial of responsibility, Gilliam illustrates other unproductive aspects of non-market bureaucracies. One is the principle that the incompetent advance. Sam's co-worker at the Ministry of Information Retrieval does not know how to use the computer on his desk.

Gilliam has the ability to make his political-economic points in a humorous way. One of the funniest scenes shows how paper-shuffling departmental drones have developed the skill of shirking to a high art, coordinating their goofing off precisely to the opening and closing of the boss's door in order to avoid discovery.

Gilliam also conveys the decline of aesthetic life under bureaucracy. Massive grotesque heating ducts span interior spaces. Gourmet cuisine consists of small lumps of texturized food substances colored with food coloring. Women are obsessed with plastic surgery that makes them uglier than they were before. People live in hideously ugly concrete housing projects (resembling government housing projects in modern Britain and America) with names like "Green Pastures" and "Shangri-La."

In this essay I have only touched on a few of the gems in this film. It bears repeated watching to pick up actions of background characters in many of the frames. In the family scene before Mr. Buttle is arrested, for example, his children are playing with action toys resembling the troopers who burst in to arrest him. Later, when Sam arrives at the Buttle's apartment complex to deliver a refund check to Mrs. Buttle, the children outside are playing at re-enacting the arrest sequence.

Gilliam's great gift in Brazil is his ability to take the darkness of totalitarian central planning and illustrate it in a way that is humorous and at the same time terrifying. It is my view that Gilliam's film reveals him to be an astute economic commentator whose work can only be fully understood as an expression of classical liberal political values.

Favorite Brazil Sites

  1. FAQ.
  2. Script.
  3. Buy the new DVD release featuring a documentary about the film and Gilliam's commentary.

May 27, 2003

Robert Blumen (send him mail) is an independent software consultant based in San Francisco.