Middle class, political conservatism and resentment

Image: Antony Trivet


The core of the middle class that adhered to the extreme right to find an outlet for their racist, misogynistic and classist impulses will not adhere to leftist governments

In the last 10 years, the middle class has played a central role in the Brazilian political scene, explained by its decisive participation in the parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff and in the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Some data illustrate this statement. In the demonstrations in São Paulo in favor of the impeachment of Dilma in 2015, the middle class profile was predominant, with 70% of individuals with a higher education diploma and 40 to 50% with a monthly income of more than 10 minimum wages[I].

On the eve of the second round of the 2018 election, the voting intentions for Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, respectively, were as follows: 63% x 28% in the range of 5 to 10 minimum wages and 62% x 31% among those who earn above 10 minimum wages. Among those with a university degree, the difference was 55% for Jair Bolsonaro and 34% for Fernando Haddad.[ii] Although a significant portion of the popular classes also voted for Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, it is clear how the middle class profile is highlighted in that vote.[iii]

There are different theses that seek to explain the reasons that led a good portion of this class to adhere to anti-PTism and support the candidacies of Jair Bolsonaro and extreme right-wing politicians, so that resuming them can be a good starting point for our discussion. The resentment of the middle classes can be explained by at least four reasons, which are connected: (a) reaction to the PT's social policies; (b) loss of spaces of social distinction, such as universities and airports; (c) fear of proletarianization; (d) decrease in material gains in terms of income.

The middle class, although it also survives from the sale of its workforce and depends on a salary, used to enjoy environments of social distinction that, intimately, gave it the feeling of moral superiority over the rest of the population. The well-paid doctor and lawyer, although they cannot ride in a private jet, like the owner of Ambev, did not need to share the space in bus stations with the common people, having planes and airports to meet their fellow people and make their trips to the Disney.

Well, when airline tickets become cheaper and airports are accessed by the popular classes and non-white people, there is panic on the part of the Brazilian middle class. This dissatisfaction is portrayed by Paulo Guedes when he comments on the period when the dollar was low in Brazil: “everybody going to Disneyland, maids going to Disneyland, a hell of a party”.[iv]

In the column written by Luiz Felipe Pondé in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, back in 2012, we can clearly see this petty bourgeois resentment: “The airport has turned into a kind of barbecue on the roof, it looks like a bus station”.[v] In another column, shoots the wise thinker: ''Airplanes increasingly look like buses full of ill-mannered people taking pictures of themselves while screaming about their plans to visit ten cities in ten days paid in a hundredfold. These neo-barbarians transformed the previously delightful experience of traveling to discover new worlds into a visit to a shopping mall on the outskirts and its food courts”.[vi]

Another environment that typically functioned as a place of social distinction for the Brazilian middle class is the University, with an emphasis on public institutions. With the consolidation of the necessary affirmative policies – racial quotas and social quotas for public school students – a progressive democratization of public universities in Brazil is underway, whose student profile is no longer just white, upper middle class and from secondary schools. private.

Public universities allow the middle classes to guarantee their children prestigious professions with high salaries, occupying privileged places in the social structure. In other words, universities are devices for the social reproduction of this class. The relative loss of exclusivity of this space causes not only symbolic, but also material impacts on the middle classes, as universities guarantee both institutionalized cultural capital and insertion in the network of contacts that will guarantee good positions in the labor market and, consequently, good wages .

In the movie what time does she come back there is a scene that illustrates how the crossing of these class boundaries can create resentment for the petty bourgeoisie. Val, a maid from an upper-middle-class family, is consoling Fabinho, her employer's son, because he didn't pass the entrance exam. Then, Val receives a call from Jessica, her daughter, informing her about her excellent performance and probable approval to enter the university. When Val returns excitedly to her room and talks about her daughter's positive result in the entrance exam, we see the bitter reaction of Fabinho and her boss. In contemporary Brazil, the maid is part of the family, as long as her daughter does not dare to “steal” the university place of the son of the bosses.

One of the typical privileges of the Brazilian middle classes is the possibility of hiring domestic work for low prices. This is a peculiarity of Brazil, as the country is the second largest contractor of domestic services in the world and, in addition, the amount paid for cleaning in the country is lower than in other countries on the continent.[vii]

Now, it is not a surprise that part of the middle class was not very satisfied with the approval in 2013 of the PEC for domestic workers, a constitutional amendment that guaranteed these workers the labor rights guaranteed, for more than 70 years, to other employees with a formal contract. This fact shows a typical trait of the Brazilian middle class – with a slavery and colonial heritage – which is the appreciation of intellectual work and the disdain for manual work, although this class often uses the manual work of maids, doormen, gardeners , drivers, among others.[viii]

If some services that the middle classes used to exploit, such as domestic work, had an inflation in their value due to the rights conquered, on the other hand, there has been a reduction in the income gains of part of the middle class in the last two decades. In the period from 2006 to 2012, although there was a decrease in inequality in Brazil, income redistribution did not occur from the richest 1% to the poorest 50%, but from the middle layers to the poorest.[ix] That is, the poorest saw their standard of living improve, the bourgeoisie continued with the largest slice of the pie and the middle classes felt a stagnation of their material gains.

This fact refers to the fear of proletarianization on the part of the middle classes and, added to the conservatism and moralism of this class, creates fertile ground for the strengthening of the extreme right. The precariousness of middle class labor relations – uberized lawyers and psychologists, pejotization of doctors and engineers, increasingly fragile labor protection, expansion of intermittent jobs – thickens the soup of political conservatism.

Therefore, according to the logic of this class, the multiplication of precarious jobs is not the fault of the financial, industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, who saw their profits increase with the approval of neoliberal reforms, such as the labor one, but of the working class, which began to place its sons and daughters in universities and frequenting airports.

The tight 2022 election race was also marked by an expressive vote by the middle classes for Jair Bolsonaro and with the population earning up to two minimum wages voting mostly for Lula. The table below illustrates this difference, showing that the higher the income level, the higher the voting intention for Jair Bolsonaro and the lower for Lula.

 2 minimum wages or less2 to 5 minimum wages.5 to 10 minimum wagesAbove 10 minimum wagesTotal
Source: Datafolha, October 28 and 29, 2022.

Apparently, Lula is aware of the importance of politically disputing the middle classes and some measures announced or already implemented by his government corroborate this statement. The reduction in the price of popular cars (with a value of up to 120 thousand) through the concession of tax credits to automakers is one of the measures that we can highlight. Another action that appeals to the middle classes is the creation of a new ceiling in the Minha Casa Minha Vida program, including properties worth up to 350 thousand reais. The promise of exemption from income tax for those who earn up to 5 reais also serves the lower middle class.

Obviously, the core of the middle class that adhered to the extreme right to find an outlet for their racist, misogynistic and classist impulses will not adhere to leftist governments, considering the nostalgia they feel for the country's colonial and slavery period. However, these reactionary traits do not belong to the middle classes as a whole, so the progressive camp must be aware of the importance of politically disputing the middle classes if they do not want the extreme right to regain power in the next elections.

Matheus Silveira de Souza is a doctoral student in sociology at Unicamp.


[I] ORTELADO, P; SOLANO, E; NADER, L. “Research political demonstration August 16, 2015”. Available at: https://gpopai.usp.br/pesquisa/160815/.

[ii] DATE SHEET, October 27, 2018.

[iii] Although there is an extensive debate about the concept of the middle class, we adopted as criteria the level of income, access to a university degree, performance of skilled non-manual work and attachment to the meritocratic ideology. For a deeper understanding of this discussion, check out the article by Sávio Cavalcante and Santiane Arias, whose title is “The division of the middle class in the political crisis”.

[iv] POWER 360. Paulo Guedes criticizes the low dollar: “a maid would go to Disney”. Published on February 12, 2020.

[v] SHEET. The airport has become a barbecue on the roof, says Pondé. Published on April 08, 2012

[vi] SHEET. Barbecue on the roof in Paris. Column by Luiz Felipe Pondé. Published on Jan 11, 2010.

[vii] UOL. “The differences of being a domestic in Brazil and in the USA”. Published on September 16, 2021.

[viii] CAVALCANTE, Savio Machado. Middle class, meritocracy and corruption. Marxist criticism, São Paulo, n. 46, p. 103-125, 2018.

[ix] MEDEIROS, Marcelo: SOUZA, Pedro Herculano Guimarães Ferreira de; CASTRO, Fábio Ávila de. The stability of income inequality in Brazil, 2006 to 2012: estimation with income tax data and household surveys, Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, 2015.

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