The Brazilian subdemocracy

Clara Figueiredo, series_ Brasília_ fungi and simulacra, esplanade, 2018


Brazil has an incomplete, incapable, inoperative and invisible political regime for the majority of the population

Although the prefix “sub” does not just mean inferiority, that is, something or someone “below”, even when we use it for other designations, most of the time the understanding of the word refers us to a bad, low-quality or obscure signifier. . In this sense, we can exemplify the three qualities of this signifier with words such as subhepatic, underworld or subhuman, or even subreptitious. It is true that signifiers such as subconsciousness and substation do not necessarily refer to a questionable meaning in itself. They only indicate the specificities inherent to the prefix.

Having made this brief and necessary preamble, let us discuss the title of the text itself. A priori, the attentive reader would ask a question: how is it possible to qualify the current national political regime with such a negative term? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to just justify the moment, at least embarrassing, that our country is going through, in the hands of a group with a clear authoritarian bias? The answer to this perceptive reader is: no. It would be nice if it were a detour along our republican path, but the routine of our democracy is precisely to be an incomplete, incapable, inoperative and invisible political regime for the majority of the population, that is, a “democracy” below expectations. that the nomenclature itself requires. In other words: a sub-democracy.

Let's be clear and didactic to corroborate our suspicion with some historical examples:

(a) There has never been popular participation in the changes of political regimes that we have had throughout our more than 500 years of subjugation to the interests of the powerful countries at the time. In this sense, we went from a mere extractive colony to an empire, in the specific “Tupiniquim” mold (with all our idiosyncrasies), and then to a republic, without the “people” taking the reins of the game that has been played in the last 132 years (1);

(b) The advances in issues of protection for the Brazilian worker, even in their most fuzarca moments, there in the Vargas government, did not occur through the proletarian struggles so effective in other countries, but were based on the capitalist advance and the necessary adjustment of the third-world liberalism to the demands of international capital and its local partners. It is, at the very least, a half-truth to blame Vargas' populism for leveraging this legal-state device (2);

(c) The inability of popular mobilization in absolute terms, shown in the advent of the civil-military coup of 1964, faithfully portrays the ineffectiveness of the apparatuses contrary to the return of an authoritarian period, but also the complete invisibility of the popular strata in the eyes of the usurpers of power (3);

(d) The long-awaited and publicized “redemocratization” was a compromise, once again, between the national civilian elite, already quite globalized, in the middle of the decade of flourishing neoliberal doctrine, led by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and the military, who were already fed up with managing the mess they caused in more than two decades of dictatorship (remember that the last military president, General João Figueiredo, asked them to forget him). It is true that the protests were already daily and some of them were huge, such as the movement for the “diretas-já”, which brought together a million people at a rally in Candelária, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1984. However, that was the apex of the demonstration of popular force, which did not manifest itself again, which favored the slow, safe and gradual “transition”, as Geisel said. In other words, the return of popular participation in choosing our leaders (I prefer this way of seeing what has always happened in our country, to speaking in terms of a mythical concept such as democracy, even more so in these tropics, despite the maintenance of term “democracy” for being more didactic) is more to authorize the great agreements made intra-offices of the institutional powers, “with the supreme, with everything”, than for popular revolts of great importance, planned and sustained (4);

(e) Finally, coming to the most current period, the “hobby horse” in Brazilian “democracy”, represented by the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff – whose outcome we are experiencing, now with a government, as I said above, with a clear authoritarian bias (but still not totalitarian, at least until 2022) -, cannot be attributed, once again, to the popular will, even that there have been numerous demonstrations for or against the fall of the president. There was no popular movement from the lower strata, joined by the middle class and blessed by part of the elite. There was indeed, and this is a fact, the manipulation of the media-legal-industrial apparatus in favor of the fall of Dilma Rousseff and the demonization of the PT, based on legitimate popular demands, such as the reduction of fares in public transport and improvements in conditions service at SUS (5).

In this way, the concept of Brazilian “sub-democracy” is not in the way it took place, but in the method to which it was submitted. In fact, in our republican trajectory, the people have always been excluded, deceived, even marginalized, before being reintroduced into the political scene, just to legitimize the agreements signed between those in power. In this vein, it does not matter whether the governments that followed were headed by soldiers, as in the Vargas periods and in the 1964-1985 dictatorship, or not, as in the post-dictatorship period. No wonder, the expression “Democratic Republic of Rights” was only introduced in the 1988 Constitution. But it is symptomatic that, until 1988, democracy was not even mentioned in the Magna Carta of our country.

The most important thing to emphasize at this point is that Brazilian “subdemocracy” has always navigated between two other key concepts in our history of popular participation in choosing the nation's representatives: myth and democratic necropolitics. About the democratic myth, it has been said that: “The tragedy of modern democracies lies in the fact that they have not yet managed to realize democracy” (6). Now, if this is an understanding increasingly accepted by scholars of Western democracy itself (7), what actually exists in Brazil, based on its invasion in 1500 by social inequality, the essence of our society? About the national necropolitics, worse than the one conceptualized in general terms by MBEMBE (8) it is our “hard journey” (to paraphrase the great Gilberto Gil, my countryman) since we suffered the tragedy of being inserted into the mercantile world, and then industrial-financial. It only changed the imperial stage of who controls us.

Thus, Brazilian sub-democracy struggled between the imagined order of Brazilian democracy and our peculiar necropolitics since the industrial revolution needed “order and progress” to implement a green and yellow capitalism, but with a foreign language. I need not remind you of the real intentions that led the English to put an end to slavery. In the same way that, on a chronological scale, I don't need to tell you the true or main objectives of the military coup, with a “yankee” flavor, or even the special causes of the recent impeachment of President Dilma.

Indeed, as this political regime never satisfied the junction between the social order and the political order, one cannot definitively speak of democracy. In our case, quite the opposite, as CARVALHO shows us (9), the primeval order of our society was not the incessant pursuit of social well-being. In effect, reversing the logic of developed economies, the search for a less unequal society was the last concern of the legal system, a fact that has made Brazil always appear as one of the countries with the greatest social inequality in all times, even becoming the champion in several historical moments.

Finally, it is necessary to say in this brief essay that Brazilian sub-democracy also mitigated the concrete reality of sponsorship, nepotism, cordiality and violence of all kinds on national soil. The word “democracy” seems to have the power to eliminate all the evils of bourgeois society. In fact, if the genocide of the Uighurs on Chinese soil is violently denounced by the western media (10), rare are the times that American genocides are reported by the same (11).

Despite this, the authoritarian excesses of the elites that governed the country always affronted the least of common sense. It is not possible to question the type of democracy that we have had since its inception in the homeland, without remembering that it arrived through a military coup. It would also be a good idea to criticize a supposed democracy that has, approximately, half of its little more than 130 years of history with military in power. And more, how to extol some “Brazilian miracle” in the middle of the military dictatorship? The miracle was economic, if any, not social. And although such a “miracle” has relatively modernized the country, it has not translated this modernization into a significant and permanent reduction of social inequalities. Who still remembers the “gabiru man”, so widely publicized by the yellow pages of a weekly magazine, in the 1990s, as the portrait of our social iniquity?

I believe that the same logic applies to our contemporaneity. I know that it would be too much to demand of our politicians a system of checks and balances like the American one, to avoid “outsiders” (although it is not perfect, see the recent period of Trump) (12), but in Western countries that still have a true attachment to the mythical Athenian democracy, episodes such as the arrival of a Bolsonaro on the scene, as here, since the end of the second world war. Except on the periphery of Europe, of course! Although it is important to note that not even in Germany itself did Nazism die. It seems to me that, like COVID-19, we will have to fight and live with this specter of evil prowling the earth for a long time to come, as Tony Judt rightly said (13).

The inherent question of Brazilian society, contrary to what was believed in redemocratization, so divided in its petty interests of classes and their fractions, and wide open as never since the political chaos that led to the impeachment of President Dilma, is to seek to understand how it was possible we go through more than a century boasting a political regime that never existed in this country, even in its most legendary form. There are already some thinkers who are weeding these shortcuts for a better understanding of our great farce. (14).

maybe STOLEN(15) was too hasty to consider that our historic impasse took place in the military period. At that moment we had a northern crack in our hearts and minds, that is, the struggle to end the dictatorship, albeit in a very limited way most of the time. Our historic impasse seems to be taking place now, that is, is it that all we want is to return to the peaceful home of sub-democracy, which gives meaning to this very unequal society? Consequently, the question asked by FURTADO is relevant (16): “…will we plunge definitively, I mean into the next century, into lumpen-humanity?” Like few others, he had serious reason to be afraid of this answer.

* André Márcio Neves Soares is a doctoral candidate in Social Policies and Citizenship at the Catholic University of Salvador (UCSAL).


1 – To better understand this period, see: CARVALHO, José Murilo de. THE BESTIALIZED: RIO DE JANEIRO AND THE REPUBLIC THAT WAS NOT. 4th. Edition. São Paulo. Company of Letters. 2018;

2 –DEL PRIORE, Mary; VENANCE, Renato. A BRIEF HISTORY OF BRAZIL. São Paulo. Editora Planeta do Brasil. 2010;

3 – COMPARATIVE. Fabio Konder. The Brazilian Oligarchy: Historical View. São Paulo. Contracurrent Publisher. 2017;

4 – Same;

5 – SANTOS, Wanderley Guilherme dos. DEMOCRACY STOPPED: BRAZIL IN THE 2017ST CENTURY. Rio de Janeiro. Editor FGV. XNUMX;

6 – MARITAIN. Jacques. CHRISTIANITY AND DEMOCRACY. São Paulo. AGIR Publisher. 1957;

7 – KURZ, Robert. DEMOCRACY EATS ITS CHILDREN. Rio de Janeiro. Consequence Publisher. 2020;

8 – MBEMBE, Achilles. NECROPOLITICS. São Paulo. Publisher n-1. 2018;

9 – CARVALHO, José Murilo de. CITIZENSHIP IN BRAZIL: The long road. 21st. Edition – Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian Civilization Publisher. 2016;



12 – LEVITSKY, Steven; ZIBLATT, Daniel. HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE. Rio de Janeiro. Zahar Publisher. 2018;

13 – JUDT, Tony. EVIL ROUNDS THE EARTH. Rio de Janeiro. Objective Publisher. 2010;

14 – I THINK, especially of: SOUZA, Jessé. THE ELITE OF DELAY: FROM SLAVERY TO LAVA JATO. Rio de Janeiro. Leya Publisher. 2017;

15 – FURTADO, Celso. INTELLECTUAL CORRESPONDENCE: 1949 – 2004. 1st. ed. - São Paulo. Company of Letters. 2021;

16 – Same.


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