Elections in expropriated Brazil

Image: Lucio Fontana


Considerations on the political reorientations of the middle and popular classes

An autocrat between electoral triumph and government tragedy

Despite the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for the presidency of the republic, the last elections confirmed the rooting of Bolsonarism in the social fabric and in the democratic regime. At least since 2010, far-right groups have invested in militant networks and collective actions. It was not by chance that they disputed the direction of the June 2013 protests and started to take to the streets building popular support necessary for the parliamentary coup of 2016 and the electoral success of 2018 (Rocha 2019). If before the ultra-reactionary political organization was sewn by collectives and mass protests, the Bolsonaro government attributed to it the character of an autocratic project (Singer 2022).

By controlling the state apparatus, Jair Bolsonaro consolidated his hegemonic position in the conservative field. With no commitment to public administration, he created an “infrastructure of mobilization”, in which government decisions (as opposed to historical social achievements) incited continuous engagement with far-right agendas through the efficient use of social networks (Lago 2022). At the same time, he encouraged his followers (military, Christian fundamentalists, ultraliberals) with the distribution of bureaucratic positions. Bolsonarism thus became one of the dominant forces in the Brazilian political and social system.

This conclusion is validated by the outcome of the general elections. First, far-right politicians who broke with Jair Bolsonaro suffered bitter defeats. This is the case of Janaina Paschoal, Joice Hasselmann, Alexandre Frota, the Weintraub brothers and Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Among the strays, the Lava-jato activists (Deltan Dallagnol, Sérgio and Rosângela Moro) were victorious, who, in their campaigns, returned to being Bolsonaristas of the first order (Struck 2022).

Bolsonarism and its allies advanced in the National Congress. In the senate, they won 14 of the 27 seats. The Liberal Party (PL), Bolsonaro's association, will have the largest bench. He overthrew the traditional right: the MDB will not have a majority of senators. The Upper House will be occupied by former Bolsonarist ministers, among them, the Christian fundamentalist Damares Alves. Current vice-president Hamilton Mourão was also elected (Struck 2022).

In the Lower House, despite considerable advances by sectors of the left, there was a reactionary wave on the right (Struck 2022). The PL also led the election and elected 99 deputies. The ruralist, evangelical and security area benches doubled. The tendency is for the new legislature to have a neoliberal character and contrary to customary guidelines (DIAP 2022). Although the alignment of parliamentary forces is oriented more physiologically than ideologically (and Lula's experience indicates the possibility of rearticulations), the Congress elected in 2022 is “the most conservative since 1964” (Souza/Caram 2022).

Finally, with regard to the Executive, 13 of the 27 elected governors supported Bolsonaro; 10 of them, Lula. The victorious candidate from São Paulo draws attention. Former Bolsonarist minister, Tarcísio de Freitas had more than 2,5 million votes in relation to the Workers Party (PT) competitor, Fernando Haddad. With its victory, Bolsonarism tends to have a leading role in the richest state of the federation (Valor 2022).

In this context, Jair Bolsonaro's own vote was expressive: around 51 million votes in the first round and 58,2 million in the second. From one round to the next, the difference between the candidates dropped from 6 million to just over 2 million voters. Comparatively, Jair Bolsonaro grew more than Lula in all states. The variation between the "new votes" was, however, insufficient to change the result, either because Lula maintained a large victory in all the Northeastern states (60% or even 70% of the votes), or because it reduced the damage in the South and Southeast , where Jair Bolsonaro's lead fell (Riveira 2022).

Jair Bolsonaro is unequivocally a popular leader and an electoral phenomenon. His government balance sheet is, however, catastrophic. Costa and Weiss (2022) briefly describe the results achieved: worsening income concentration, increased poverty, deterioration in the quality of education and public health, high environmental degradation. The projected annual economic growth for the Brazilian economy between 2020 and 2022 is 1,1%, while the global average is 1,8%. Mismanagement of the pandemic produced the tragedy of 700.000 deaths. Corruption cases in different areas (buying vaccines, education) and related to the Bolsonaro family were wide open. How to explain the discrepancy between the quality of government and electoral success? Obviously, the answer based on supposed conservatism or irrationality of Brazilian society is useless from the point of view of the complexity of the phenomenon.

In contrast, Costa and Weiss (2022) respond by indicating four power devices that support Bolsonaro: permanent mobilization of his radical base; spoliation of nature, the public and the bodies of workers; discursive construction of popular identity and co-option of resentful sectors that lost social position; and, finally, formation of a system of fears via manipulation of communication and arming the population, capable of discouraging support for its competitors.

Such devices can be rethought in light of the patterns of expropriation activated in the current phase of capitalism, marked by financialization, and its impact on the middle and working classes. Based on this approach, the previous question could be reformulated: Why, despite the governmental tragedy, did Bolsonaro achieve an excellent electoral performance, but, at the same time, was unable to defeat Lula?


The long expropriation between frustrations and hopes: righting of the middle classes and popularization of the PT base

The financial regime of expropriations has been imposed over the last three decades by measures to make work more flexible, fiscal austerity, deregulation, privatization. The Brazilian socioeconomic reality has changed. From deindustrialization to the decline in the share of wages in national income, everything was accompanied by a reprimarization of the export basket, reducing technological progress (Gonçalves/Machado 2018).

The working class, of course, weakened; the middle classes too, squeezed by the retreat of technical occupations (Saad Filho 2014). On the other hand, financial engineering and high interest rates enabled the accelerated enrichment of rentier fractions, as well as their (unusual) alliance with the union bureaucracy, around access to public and pension funds to convert them into negotiable assets (Oliveira 2003).

As heterogeneous as they are, the middle sectors have experienced frustrations with this regime since 1990 (Gonçalves 2022). This dynamic of disillusionment was reflected in the presidential elections. In 1989, Lula, already a PT candidate, had the preference of the votes of such sectors in relation to the elected competitor, Fernando Collor de Mello, whose government, by freezing savings and investing in privatizations, started the march of the middle classes towards impoverishment. In the 1994 and 1998 elections, they continued to support Lula, who had the most votes among those with schooling and in the income ranges from 2 to 10 minimum wages. The then-elected president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, had a large advantage in the extreme ranges and among the least educated. The Cardoso Era was created by a vast program of expropriation of the public and social guarantees. The new disappointments were converted into votes for Lula in 2002, when he was elected with massive votes from the middle classes (Lavinas / Gonçalves 2018).

Several measures of the first PT Era (2002-16) contributed to the increase in frustrations arising from financialization. Among them, his social policy model stands out. According to Lavinas (2015a: 13ss), as an inclusion strategy, a model of Welfare which emphasized the granting of individual credit as a means of accessing essential services. At the same time, there was a limitation on resources, goods and public provisions. As an illustration, in 2013 “expenses with tax and social security waivers were estimated at R$218 billion, while public health and education together received R$163 billion” (Lavinas 2015b).

This scenario – the limitation of public services and the increase in individual credit – accentuated the dependence of the middle and working classes on the financial system. In order to access means of subsistence without the collective state provision, these classes were affected by increasing levels of indebtedness. Exposed to deregulated markets, the first sense of credit empowerment turned into a debt nightmare.

The contradictory feeling generated by “empowerment at first sight x long-term debt” was reflected in the presidential elections from 2006 onwards. precariousness, such voters moved to the right (Lavinas/Gonçalves 2019). At the same time, the base of the pyramid, measured by family income of up to two minimum wages and enthusiastic about the feeling of improvement thanks to unprecedented financial inclusion, adhered to Lulism. In the 2018 elections, although Jair Bolsonaro won in the three schooling ranges, in the middle and higher categories the differences in relation to Fernando Haddad, former PT candidate, were more expressive. In the Northeast, in turn, a region characterized by the greater presence of poor and less educated segments, Fernando Haddad maintained the high advantage that his party obtained in the three previous elections (Singer 2021).

In perspective of Wear, the financial regime of expropriation reversed the PT's electoral base: the adhesion of the middle classes, noted between 1989 and 2002, was replaced by a more impoverished profile in the elections from 2006 to 2018. As seen, such alternation is linked to the perception of financial inclusion.

Popular extracts only managed to achieve what was historically denied them, access to consumption, by the PT's credit policies. It is irrelevant to discuss whether or not the feeling of improvement is an illusion. By opening up to the market, social ties are undoubtedly expanded, but at the same time, relationships that were not formed by mercantile exchanges become so. It is the same logic described by EP Thompson (1966: 212) about primitive accumulation in England: between “pessimists” and “optimists” about the conditions of the masses at the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, the historian maintained that the slight improvement it meant the beginning of the catastrophic experience of capitalist life.

Living with the financial system for a longer time, the middle classes were not surprised by the access to credit. They felt the catastrophe in the form of dependence on debt to guarantee their means of reproduction. This situation stressed the classic dilemma of the middle classes: between the economic attraction of differentiating oneself from the popular sectors and the commitment to social justice (Lavinas/Gonçalves 2018). The only way to encourage their adherence to the latter is to show the limits of private resources to satisfy their needs, and to present the advantages of equal provisions under their relative prosperity with the working classes.

As, however, the first PT Era did not invest in these provisions, but in expanding credit, it abandoned the middle sectors to financial expropriations (Gonçalves/Lavinas 2022). Disillusioned and devoid of a collective identity, they searched for market projects that claim their exclusivity and privileges through devalued exchange rate policies (which make imported consumer goods cheaper), the release of financial flows (to have access to more credits in their portfolios) and foreign direct investment (for skilled jobs and easier disposition to luxury goods) (Saad Filho 2014). Despite its uneasiness with expropriations and indebtedness, the middle class, with no egalitarian alternative on the part of the PT, could only see the market as a solution to its frustrations with the market. Therefore, she turned electorally to the right.


Bolsonarist autocracy as management of over-expropriation and expression of middle-class dissatisfaction

Throughout this class realignment, the expropriating financial regime was taken over by the global crisis, which began in 2008. The impact of the collapse of property prices commodities in Brazil it was devastating. At the beginning of the Rousseff government (2011), growth stalled. GDP plummeted from 7,6% in 2010 to 0,1% in 2014. This unfavorable scenario highlighted the dissatisfaction of the middle classes. The June 2013 protests exploded and, over the following months, became polarized between groups that criticized and defended market policies (Gonçalves 2022).

The anti-crisis formula of saving the financial system via austerity, already adopted by Dilma Rousseff, could not be implemented without settling the potential for dissent. The solution was Michel Temer's parliamentary coup (2016): on the one hand, it overcame the uncertainties regarding the PT government's ability to enforce the claimed pace of expropriations; on the other, through repressive mechanisms, it undermined labor rights and imposed a ceiling on social spending for 20 years. The middle classes took to the streets demanding the respective coup.

The political shielding of expropriations, especially at the pace and intensity demanded by the hegemonic anti-crisis formula, requires a balance between coercion and consensus. This was only achieved with the success of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, who obtained massive votes, mostly among the middle sectors. Bolsonarismo managed to elevate conservatism to the dominant form of expression of the middle classes' dissatisfaction with their social relegation, protecting the financial system by creating false culprits based on prejudiced practices (racism, sexism, etc.) and the discourse on corruption linking -a to PT (anti-petism) (Gonçalves 2021).

Bolsonarist autocracy proved to be well adjusted to the conditions imposed by the financial market during the crisis, which postulated an increase in rigor and social acceptance of austerity policies. It is, therefore, the type of government suited to the implementation and management of over-expropriation. A political model capable of realizing expropriatory surpluses. He won a pension reform that raised the retirement age for women and the number of years of qualified contribution; the aggressive reduction of public spending in areas such as education, science, health and the environment; the autonomy of the central bank, etc. (Gonçalves/Lavinas 2022).

Finally, it is possible to divide the electoral impacts of Wear of the financial regime of expropriation in three areas. In the first place, the popular segments largely migrated from the right to the PT due to the financial inclusion policies that, under the PT governments, provided them with unprecedented access to credit and consumption, generating a sense of social improvement. Secondly, the middle classes shifted, roughly speaking, from the PT to the right due to their experience with indebtedness, linked to public underfunding. Finally, these classes vented their dissatisfaction on the extreme right. Without transforming alternatives in the progressive field, they accepted prejudiced values ​​that create scapegoats for their precariousness, preserving and, with that, releasing the authentic mechanisms that expropriate them. Bolsonarism is, in this sense, the optimal solution for the continued reproduction of the financial regime of expropriation. He manages to capitalize on the excess of frustrations that such a regime produces.


Bolsonarism shaken: Covid-19 crisis and its effects short term in the middle-class electorate

As I showed in an article published in Pink Magazine, the autocratic Bolsonarist project was shaken by the Covid-19 crisis (Gonçalves 2021). The pandemic has highlighted the importance of public health provisions and the scientific system. With that, the discourse of protection of the other and of life regained strength in the political field, weakening discriminatory and weaponizing practices. At the same time, due to the dismantling of the productive economy, governments were forced to create emergency relief measures for different economic and social sectors. Jair Bolsonaro was forced to adopt a “war budget” that made the fiscal regime more flexible. He also needed to create an Emergency Aid program that covered 67 million beneficiaries. Monetary transfers and license authorizations kept families under some protection (Gonçalves/Lavinas 2022).

Policies to combat the pandemic were, however, accompanied by scientific and health denialism. Shaped by this reactionary vision, the “war budget” was badly planned: while the extraordinary credits approved for financing medicines and costing beds were not executed, the purchase of vaccines was delayed. Jair Bolsonaro's economic policy was accompanied by a defense of fiscal discipline, which denied the ethos of emergency measures. The short countercyclical rest of 2020 was interrupted with Constitutional Amendment 109, which fed expropriations via austerity by creating a sub-ceiling within the social spending ceiling. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes began to defend an Administrative Reform to further tighten the remuneration of public servants and withdraw their rights. In the second half of 2021, GDP retracted (Gonçalves 2021).

The political dividends of the pandemic have been dismal for Jair Bolsonaro. His rejection increased significantly. He lost former political allies, such as, for example, the resignation of ministers Luiz Henrique Mandetta (Health) and Sérgio Moro (Justice). The Federal Supreme Court, accompanied by the legal elites, and major media (Globo and Folha de São Paulo) openly became opposition to Bolsonarist denialism. The same can be said of some branches of the business community.

Jair Bolsonaro's autocratic project for managing over-expropriation proved to be flawed in dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. Its model of balance between violence and legitimacy, efficient to immunize financialization in relation to the excesses of frustrations, did not work effectively in the face of the emergence of new habits, styles, values ​​and bonds of solidarity, sewn by the fight against the pandemic. The search for the promotion of life did not accommodate Bolsonarist radical conservatism. Alongside dissonance, accusations of corruption emerged, precisely about purchases of vaccines. Jair Bolsonaro fell into disrepute with certain fractions of the capital and his popular disapproval increased.

Since 2021, he has operated to reverse this situation. It forged alliances with Centrão, intensely mobilized its bases and called for mass protests for the last Independence Day holidays. In addition, in 2022, the Bolsonaro government approved and implemented a package of social benefits and subsidies worth BRL 41,25 billion.

This scenario shows that short term, the pandemic created noise within the financial regime of expropriations. First, it promotes social norms that question it, to the extent that it demands increased measures in public areas (health, social security, etc.) to the detriment of privatization programs. In addition, the autocratic political model that protects such a regime from the surplus of frustrations that it generates cannot function at its maximum performance. By failing to provide legitimacy (divergence between conservative convictions and survival values), it exposes Bolsonarist violence that, wide open, can be blocked.

The Covid-19 crisis was thus one of the main causes of rejection of Bolsonaro by his voters. A first assessment can associate it with his defeat in the recent elections. In the Southeast, a region marked by more schooling and a wide range of voters with average wages, the PT obtained 7,7 million more votes in the current election, compared to the 2018 vote. explanation given for Lula's victory (Couto 2022). In São Paulo, despite having once again led the PT, the current president lost 1,1 million votes in the last 4 years (Sampaio 2022). In Minas Gerais, he was defeated. This suggests that, in more urban zones and inhabited by middle sectors, a portion of the electorate returned to the PT. A portion, however, that is not enough to overcome Bolsonaro in these spaces.


Conclusion: a hypothesis about the 2022 Elections and EP Thompson's warning to the PT

The hypothesis that I leave to reflect on this phenomenon is: the effect short term of the Covid-19 crisis in the Bolsonarist autocratic project of over-expropriations was responsible for weakening its social and electoral acceptance by the middle classes, but not for exhausting its appeal in such sectors, generated by the implications of Wear of the financial regime of expropriation. Its broad vote and the success of its allies were undeniable. It is still a political alternative to the legitimacy deficits and the demand for violence that financial expropriations demand.

The conflicts generated by the pandemic were enough to elect Lula, not to annul Jair Bolsonaro. Such conflicts open the possibility for egalitarian universal projects, capable of competing with Bolsonarism by absorbing the social disappointment stimulated by the functioning of the expropriatory financial regime. But such projects were never embraced by the PT as a government. On the contrary, the PT participated in the gears of that regime and contributed to the production of dissatisfaction.

In this regard, one last observation is necessary. The difference in the results of the two rounds of the current election in the Northeast showed a slight drop in PT votes compared to 2018 (Folha de S. Paul 2022). This may indicate the trend that popular segments are moving from the PT to the extreme right. Having been in contact with the world of credit for a long time, these segments may be moving from a feeling of “slight improvement” to a “catastrophic experience” with debt. Lula should take EP Thompson's warning seriously if he doesn't want Bolsonarism to be even stronger in 2026. For that, however, he will need to oppose his old policies that gave centrality to financial expropriation and show that the emancipatory values ​​that emerged from pandemic are contrary to the continued expansion of the market.

*Guilherme Leite Goncalves Professor of Sociology of Law at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj).

Originally published in Pink Magazine, flight. 6, no 2.


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