Democracy on the Capitalist Periphery



Author introduction to newly released book.

A history of democracy in Brazil – which is not the purpose of this book – would probably begin after the Second World War. It was only then, under the influence of the Allied victory, that the intention to build a regime in the country that could pass as democratic was actually affirmed. The political experiment that ran from 1945 was marked by tensions and upheavals, including successive military coup attempts and counter-coups, and came to an end after less than 20 years. Its limit had been reached when popular forces judged that they were in a position to impose a package of “basic reforms” with the aim of reducing the social inequality prevailing in the country.

A long dictatorship followed and a carefully negotiated transition, which allowed the return to democracy in the second half of the 1980s: power returned to civilians in 1985, promulgation of a new Constitution in 1988, direct presidential elections in 1989. Despite the profound changes on the international scene and the no less significant realignment of domestic political forces, the democracy of the New Republic also proved short-lived.

It was beaten in 2016 and, in 2018, saw the presidency awarded, in formally competitive elections, to someone who did not hide that his project was to undo the work of the transition. O impeachment President Dilma Rousseff's illegitimate birth is the emblem of a process of breaking the constitutional pact that allowed the democratic order to prevail in Brazil, once again on the initiative of groups that felt threatened by the unequal order that grants them advantages and privileges. Jair Bolsonaro's victory, in turn, shows how fragile the consensus that should guarantee the continuity of the New Republic was.

Apparently, inequality is the limit of democracy in Brazil. Tackling one increases the risk of losing the other. But the frontier – how far it is possible to advance in reducing inequality without destabilizing the democratic regime – is not determined in advance. And, even more importantly, this self-imposed limitation undermines the legitimacy of using the “democratic” label. A democracy that is doomed not to challenge the reproduction of social inequalities is, at best, a half democracy. The dilemma presents itself, then, in a different way: it is not an option between democracy and instability, but between democracy and semi-democracy.

The relationship between democracy (a form of political domination) and equality (a parameter for assessing the social world) is perhaps not such a central theme today, but it has a long history in the history of political philosophy. For Rousseau, equality is a necessary condition for any free government; The Copernican revolution he established in the theory of the social contract resides precisely in his understanding that the function of the State is not to produce inequality of power from an initial situation in which it did not exist, as Hobbes and Locke thought, but, on the contrary, , prevent it from establishing itself. In a famous passage fromthe social contract, he points out that the proper society for building its democratic institutions is one in which “no citizen is so opulent that he can buy another, nor so poor that he can be constrained to sell himself”.[I]

Almost a century later, Alexis de Tocqueville was still using “democracy” and “equality” practically as synonyms, but his perception of equality was already much more formal, less material than that of Rousseau.[ii] In CB Macpherson's reading, this is the characteristic that distinguishes “liberal democracy” from previous democratic theories: it “accepted and recognized from the beginning […] the society divided into classes and sought to fit a democratic structure into it”.[iii] The relationship between democracy and equality becomes more complex, since an egalitarian social world cannot be presented as a premise.

Income, schooling, class, gender, race: the regime that wants to be democratic coexists, however, with all these axes of inequalities. As a more complex understanding of equality and inequality develops, sensitive to the manifestation of social asymmetries even when they have already been purged from the letter of the laws, the contrast between the founding discourse of democracy – the power of a “people ” accepted as homogeneous and undifferentiated – and the social world in which it is established.

Schematically, it is possible to point out four basic intersections between democracy and equality.

(1) Democracy presupposes the equality of worth among all people – and, perhaps less emphatically, also a potential equality of competence and rationality. The entire justification for opting for a democratic order stems from this: everyone must count equally, the will of one weighs as much as the will of any other, just as the well-being of each person is worth as much as the well-being of any other. . Therefore, everyone must participate equally in the decision-making process. Not by chance, from Plato to the present day, the opponents of democracy in the first place affirm the existence of natural inequalities and denounce the risk that, giving power of influence to all, the result is the decay of the quality of collective decisions.

(2) Democracy produces (political) equality, by transforming everyone into citizens endowed with identical rights. It can thus be described as the political form of a society of “unequals who need to be 'equal' in certain respects and for specific purposes”[iv]. Conventional equality, while prohibiting certain forms of discrimination, allows the State to act “as if” everyone were really equal. From this point of view, it becomes, as they never tire of pointing out critical perspectives, a tool for hiding and, therefore, for naturalizing social inequalities.

(3) What this concealment erases is the fact that democracy is vulnerable to existing social inequalities. The material and symbolic advantages of privileged groups spill over into the political arena, which explains their greater presence among rulers and, above all, the greater receptivity of rulers, whatever their origins, to their interests. It is not, after all, about mere asymmetries in the control of resources, which could be contained with measures that seek to prevent them from spilling over into the field of politics. They are structural patterns of domination, which are manifested within democratic institutions.

(4) Finally, democracy is instrumental in the fight against inequalities. The dominated groups have incentives to use formal political equality to their advantage, forcing the adoption of measures that oppose the reproduction of inequalities and domination in other spheres of social life.

Understanding the tensions between these four elements is crucial for apprehending the problems of contemporary democracies – and also the peculiarities of those that were built in countries on the capitalist periphery. These, for historical reasons, linked to colonization and the pattern of international economic exchanges, are countries that exhibit profiles of inequality that are more accentuated than in Western Europe and North America, from where our theoretical models are generally imported. The mismatch between our reality and the theories we are led to employ to interpret it is, as will be seen below, one of the issues that crosses this book.

The quote from CB Macpherson just given has an ellipsis. The original says, as quoted, that the theory of liberal democracy accepted and recognized society divided into classes from the beginning, but points out: “more clearly at the beginning than later”. In fact, as the liberal-democratic order asserted itself, becoming the standard in the western world, the awareness of its connection with class society was relegated to a distant background. Democracy is perceived as restricted to a political arena in which formal equality prevails, so the inequalities that persist beyond it can be disregarded. This is also the understanding horizon of a large part of Political Science, which established itself as an academic discipline throughout the XNUMXth century. Many of his models postulate a social world divided into two types of agents (voters and candidates), indistinct internally and seeking the satisfaction of their interests. Class, like gender or race, appears, at most, as a lateral, secondary element.

This book is based on the opposite conviction – that any interpretative model of politics and democracy that does not give centrality to social inequalities, in particular capitalism, will be doomed to fail. Democracy is a form of political domination, but it does not superimpose itself on an uninhabited social world, but on a world structured by capitalist domination (and also by male domination and racial hierarchies). It is a specific form of State management, but this is not an abstract entity, but a capitalist State.

Citizens endowed with political rights are not incorporeal creatures but concrete persons, their situation in the world determined by factors such as position in production relations and access to property, gender and sexuality, ethnic origin and skin color. . In order to understand the functioning of really existing democracies, it is necessary to understand the meaning of accommodation between their rules and the existence of profound inequalities – of wealth, class, gender, race and others – that impact the ability to enter the public sphere. and production and defense of their own interests.

This is a research agenda to which I have dedicated myself for many years. This book is born from the confluence between it and the recent political situation in Brazil - marked by the coup of May and August 2016, which removed a president in contravention of the rules in force, in a process of degradation of the legal guarantees provided for in the 1988 Constitution, and paved the way, first, for a government that imposed an accelerated setback in civil rights, and then for the electoral triumph of an obscurantist and admittedly authoritarian candidate.

The characterization of impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff as a coup was the subject of political debate, even if today it seems increasingly difficult to refuse it. The contrary argument pointed to compliance with the rites provided for in the Constitution and the approval of the Federal Supreme Court, which would be sufficient to guarantee the legality of the process. Beyond this formal aspect, however, there is the definition of the crime of responsibility, a necessary condition for the replacement of the head of government in the presidential regime. It has not been demonstrated that Dilma Rousseff committed any such crime and, more importantly, a large portion of the congressmen who voted for her withdrawal were unconcerned with the issue, invoking justifications that went beyond the letter of the law (the management of the economy, the “body of work”, the defense of the patriarchal family, etc.).

If the coup is defined as a “turn of the tables” by a part of the State apparatus, which redefines the rules unilaterally and in its favor, then it is more than reasonable to define what happened in Brazil in 2016 as a coup.[v]. It is not limited, it is always good to remember, to replacing the occupant of the Presidency of the Republic. It was the initial moment of a realignment of political forces, to the detriment of those located on the left, which became the target of persecution by the repressive apparatus, and of a restructuring of the State's commitments with different social groups, imposed without the process of negotiation and agreement that would be required if the constitutional order were to remain valid.

What emerges from this confluence between the research agenda and the palpitations of the political moment is not a project to reconstitute the history of the present or a distended conjuncture analysis. The aim is not to compose an informed narrative, nor even a critical analysis of the recent Brazilian political process, but to use it in order to illuminate the central questions about the relationship between political democracy and social inequalities.

The investigation was guided by a double hypothesis, which can be formulated as follows: (1) The stability of competitive democratic regimes depends on groups that control large power resources judging that the cost of subverting democracy is greater than the cost of live with her. Such costs, however, do not respond to an objective metric, being the result of a subjective evaluation of these same groups. (2) In the countries of the capitalist periphery, the tolerance of the dominant groups to equality is very low, which makes the subjective evaluation of the costs of the democratic order follow different standards from those that prevail in the developed world. The “instability” of democracy would thus be a function of greater sensitivity to the egalitarian potential that even a purely competitive democratic regime carries. In Brazil, the ruptures of 1964 and 2016, despite the multiple differences that separate them, are both illustrations of this same phenomenon.

The Brazilian case, therefore, illuminates the discussion about the limits of democracy in an unequal order and, in particular, in an unequal and peripheral order. The main one is linked to the mismatch between equal political power, which the vote promises, and the unequal control of political resources. As long as this unequal control is capable of producing a formal manifestation of egalitarian political power (ie, election results) that does not affect dominant interests, the system operates with low strain. But the greater the disjunction, the greater the possibility that democracy will enter a crisis. The second important limit concerns vulnerability to external pressures, since the countries on the capitalist periphery suffer constant interference from the central powers (in this case, specifically, the United States), which impose limits on measures aimed at allowing an expanded exercise of freedom. national sovereignty.

A one-sided reading of electoral democracy makes it a system that allows for the almost automatic transmission of popular will for government policies, a narrative that encompasses authors as disparate as Anthony Downs and Jürgen Habermas.[vi] Another one-sided reading reduces it to the “standard form of bourgeois domination”, as in the Leninist view. But democracy is best understood as the arena and effect of social conflicts. It is born as a result of these conflicts, under pressure from dominated groups, and produces the new space where they occur.

But it is not a neutral space: it reflects the correlations of forces that produced it. This is a vision inspired by the idea of ​​the State as the “material framework” of the class struggle, as exposed in the final work of Nicos Poulantzas[vii]. Far from being the neutral arena for resolving conflicts of interest, as in the idealist reading, or the instrument at the service of the ruling class – equally neutral, because potentially usable by any of the groups –, the State is seen as mirroring the relations of power present in society.

This tension between equality and inequality, which is constitutive of democracy, refers to class and wealth cleavages, but not only that. In the Brazilian case, for example, the overthrow of Dilma Rousseff had an undeniable reinforcement of a misogynistic discourse and the feeling of “threat”, given the advances in the presence of women, black men and women and the LGBT community, which also played a relevant role in the mobilization in favor of the coup.

The worsening of the political crisis in Brazil in recent years has revealed how this tension manifests itself in a peripheral context. The compensatory policies of the PT governments, although formulated in such a way as not to take away wealth from privileged groups, were judged intolerable. There is an economic component – ​​Brazilian capitalism is incapable or uninterested in finding ways to guarantee its competitiveness that do not go through the overexploitation of labor, therefore it depends on the permanence of an extreme social vulnerability.

There is a symbolic component, linked to the reproduction of social hierarchies. Democratic stability is more easily threatened, since the room for maneuver for policies that benefit the popular sectors is much smaller. And, finally, there is a properly political component, linked to the position of the Brazilian bourgeois class, which is well accommodated as a minor partner of international capital and, therefore, is not interested in producing a national project.

The crisis of democracy in Brazil is not, therefore, an accident on the way, nor a mere reflection of the global crisis of democracies, which the international literature points out since the beginning of the 2016st century and, even more, since the electoral triumph of Donald Trump, in the United States, in XNUMX. It is linked to the difficulty we have to face the gap between political democracy and social inequality.

How can this gap be addressed? The options, broadly speaking, are two. One is to ensure that the loopholes for the expression of the interests of the working class and other dominated groups, which the granting of political rights and universal suffrage generate, are neutralized, do not have an impact on State action. It is the path of de-democratization, that is, the construction of a regime that maintains the facade of democracy, but little or nothing of its substance. The other option is to expand the organizational capacity and pressure of the dominated, so that the eventual expression of their interests in institutional arenas is sustained in society.

It is therefore not a question of seeking to appease the social groups that today promote the dismantling of democracy in order to better protect their privileges, but of influencing the correlation of forces. This is the only possibility for building a democracy in Brazil that is capable, at the same time, of achieving some degree of stability and of remaining faithful to its egalitarian horizon.

The chapters that follow mix theoretical reflection and analysis on the Brazilian political situation. I am hopeful that the combination will flow as I envisioned, with theory and concrete case illuminating each other. The first chapter discusses the evolution of liberal democracy after the Second World War, focusing on its successive crises, especially the current one. For a good part of the Political Science literature, the crisis is an effect of the decadence of the elites, who allowed themselves to be seduced by the so-called “populism”. It is more productive, however, to see it as a manifestation of the exhaustion of the exceptional historical circumstances that allowed, for some decades and in certain parts of the world, the reduction of tensions generated by the conflictual marriage between democracy and capitalism. The root of the crisis is the growing non-compliance of the capitalist class with any attempt to regulate its behavior, hence its gains, through democratic mechanisms.

The gaze shifts from international literature to countries on the capitalist periphery in the second chapter. In it, the course of chapter 1 is rebuilt based on the very diverse experience of countries that, instead of the economic prosperity, social integration of the working class and political stability that would have characterized the developed world, experienced the second half of the XNUMXth century in amidst poverty, exclusion, coups and authoritarianism.

As they experience their democratic transitions, the pact that allowed democracy to flourish in the countries of the global North is already eroding. If the de-democratization diagnosed in the first years of the XNUMXst century is understood as being the retraction of the power of popular sovereignty to constrain the action of powerful groups, starting with the propertied classes, then it can be understood as an approximation of the developed world to the reality of the periphery . It is what I call, with a slight provocative touch, the reverse teleology: instead of the North revealing the future of the South, as the literature on transitions asserted, we were the ones who anticipated the course that their democracies would take.

In the third chapter, which opens the second part of the book, the Brazilian case comes into play with greater prominence. The 1988 Constitution went down in history under the codename “Citizen Constitution”; the institutional order that it defined was considered, by major currents of Political Science, as capable of providing some stability to the system – albeit in fits and starts, and sometimes through impure mechanisms, such as the so-called “coalition presidentialism”. I analyze aspects of the constituent process, pointing out the limits incorporated in the new Charter, not exactly as defects, but as safety valves for the dominant groups – loopholes that would allow the country to be put back “on track”, if it were considered that democracy was on the way out. going too far in the direction of social equality.

The constitutional order, of course, explains only a part, less or more relevant, of the political dynamics. After the 2016 coup and the electoral triumph of Jair Bolsonaro, a part of Brazilian Political Science entered into a somewhat byzantine discussion, focused on knowing whether the blame for the crisis should be credited to institutions or political agents. “Something byzantine” because, after all, one of the main roles of institutions would be to channel the behavior of agents.

And also because institutions are not abstract entities: they are “populated”[viii], that is, occupied by certain agents, and only operate through them. In the two following chapters, the relationship between the main political agents and the institutional environment in which they moved is discussed, both in the sense of their adaptation, accepting the incentives that were offered to them, and the search for the transformation of rules and apparatuses in order to to better achieve certain goals.

Thus, chapter 4 deals with the Workers' Party, which became – even surprisingly – the centerpiece of the New Republic's party-political chess. Except for the few who still believe in the false discourse of PT “radicalism”, used by the agitation of the extreme right to justify the setbacks that it seeks to impose on the country, its trajectory can only be read as one of a growing moderation of purposes and accommodation with the current political system, which, according to one's taste, will be labeled as maturation or as capitulation. As I read it, the evolution of the PT was an expression of the growing awareness of the limits to social transformation in Brazil. The party chose to do little (relative to its initial project) instead of limiting itself to dreaming a lot. But, as history has shown, this bird-in-the-hand path, rather than two in the bush, also had its pitfalls.

They are the backdrop for Chapter 5, which looks at the collapse of the New Republic. Its starting point is the massive demonstrations of 2013, which I understand in the first place not as triggering new political processes, but as symptoms of a hitherto hidden malaise. The revelation of the dissatisfaction of different groups with the political options presented and with the management of the country changed the strategies of the political agents. The PT, despite the initial confusion, was able to lead President Dilma Rousseff to re-election.

The right-wing opposition, in turn, understood that an extremist discourse had high potential for mobilization and ended up embarking on the coup project. In the interpretation I offer here, the right-wing radicalism, of which Bolsonaro became an emblem, was not hegemonic in the articulations for the overthrow of Dilma, but it offered the indispensable seasoning without which the pro-impeachment it would not have been possible. For this reason, the Temer government and the alternatives most aligned with him in the 2018 presidential succession found themselves unable to build their own narrative and ended up swallowed by the “anti-politics” that was trumpeted by the heterogeneous coalition of forces that constituted Bolsonarism.

Chapter 6 devotes more attention to this actor, the new Brazilian extreme right. As much as he has been, for most of his career, an inexpressive and low-key parliamentarian, Jair Bolsonaro acted deliberately and intelligently to unify it around his name. Initially linked to the old anti-communism, nostalgia for the military dictatorship and penal punitivism, it embraced the “moral” agenda of religious conservatism and also appropriated the anti-corruption discourse. With a shrewd use of the possibilities for political manipulation opened up by new information technologies, he created an expressive group of fierce followers.

On the eve of the election, he joined the ultraliberals, embracing a market fundamentalism that was foreign to his previous trajectory. This new extreme right, whose amalgam Bolsonaro embodies, acts towards closing public debate, making use of different intimidation strategies, and the destruction of the basic consensus that had been defined by the 1988 constitutional pact.

An element that draws attention, not only in Brazil but in the de-democratization processes in general, is the low reaction capacity of the left, which sees a good part of its potential social base being captured by the discourse of the extreme right. Chapter 7 discusses the reasons for this phenomenon, which are many and intertwined in multiple ways: the defeat of the main projects of the left in the twentieth century (both in social democracy and in Bolshevism), the reconfiguration of the world of work, the pluralization of axes of struggle against social oppression, the emergence of new patterns of construction of subjectivities and public expression, the strengthening of individualist forms of activism associated with identity.

Without intending to give conclusive answers to this whole universe of questions, the chapter indicates that, if it is not able to point beyond capitalism and liberal democracy – that is: if it does not overcome the position of guardian of the social order today in crisis – the left will be doomed to remain on the defensive, accumulating important defeats and only occasional victories.

The conclusion, finally, presents an exercise of anticipation of possible scenarios for Brazil after Bolsonaro – believing that, after a disastrous government, whose enormous cost in suffering for the country has become undeniable, the theme of the return to “normality” is imposed to the main political forces. But the course of the book indicates that Bolsonaro is more a symptom than a cause. He or someone similar will continue to haunt Brazil, if the reasons for his success are not faced – the decay of the public debate, the refusal to confront, the accommodation of the popular field to the narrow possibilism that renounces the search for the transformation of the correlation of forces.

After all, if de-democratization is the result of the insufficiencies of liberal democracy, the true overcoming of the crisis requires not the return to the old closed game of the elites, but the construction of a political order that is capable of guaranteeing a more robust approximation to the ideal of popular sovereignty , that is, that it finds ways to fight against the various social oppressions.

* Luis Felipe Miguel He is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. Author, among other books, of Domination and resistance: challenges for an emancipatory policy (boitempo).



Luis Felipe Miguel. Democracy in the capitalist periphery: impasses in Brazil. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2022, 366 pages.

The book's virtual launch will take place on April 26, at 19 pm, with the participation, in addition to the author, of José Genoíno and Ricardo Musse; on the link



[I] ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques. The social contractOn Complete Works, t. III. Paris: Gallimard, 1964, pp. 391-2 (original ed., 1762).

[ii] TOCQUEVILLE, Alexis de. Democracy in AmericaOn Artworks, t. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1992 (original ed., 1835-40).

[iii] MACPHERSON, CB The life and times of liberal democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 10.

[iv] ARENDT, Hannah. The human condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 215 (original ed., 1958).

[v] For a brief discussion of the concept, see BIANCHI, Alvaro. “Coup d’état: the concept and its history” (in Rosana Pinheiro-Machado and Adriano de Freixo [eds.], Brazil in a trance: bolsonarismo, new right and de-democratization. Rio de Janeiro: Oficina Raquel, 2019). Without wanting, in any way, to simulate a value exemption that does not correspond to my understanding of scientific work, I point out that my use of blight to characterize the events of May and August 2016 in Brazil is based on political theory and should not be confused with militant rhetoric.

[vi] DOWNS, Anthony. An economic theory of democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957; HABERMAS, Jürgen. Law and democracy: between facticity and validity, 2 vol. Rio de Janeiro: Tempo Brasileiro, 1997 (original ed., 1992).

[vii] POULANTZAS, Nicos. L'État, le pouvoir, le socialisme. Paris: Les Prairies Ordinaires, 2013 (original ed., 1978)

[viii] MARAVALL, José Maria and Adam PRZEWORSKI. “Introduction” to José Maria Maravall and Adam Przeworski (eds.), Democracy and the rule of law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. two.

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