Meritocratic fiction – Brazilian executives and the new capitalism

Image: Michelangelo Pistoletto


Introducing the newly released collection organizer

The reproduction, naturalization and legitimation of capitalism are among the most urgent themes for current critical thinking. At this very moment, we have just faced a cruel pandemic, which has challenged science and all our ability to perpetuate itself as a worthy humanity. How we get out of here is still an enigma that will haunt us for some time to come. How we got there is a question to which good social science can offer some answer.

In this scenario, cognitive, affective and political denialism presents itself as our greatest enemy, which needs to be urgently faced, with empirical research and articulated sociological theory. This is one of the great challenges that we seek to face in Meritocratic fiction – Brazilian executives and the new capitalism, based on the empirical results of the research that supports it.

Our central objective is to understand the reproduction, naturalization and legitimation of contemporary capitalism in Brazil today, which we will define here as a “new capitalism”, considering its specific economic logic and its modified ideological and moral bases, in comparison with previous periods. To do so, we will start with the analysis of our empirical material, divided into three axes: the social origin, lifestyle and political position of Brazilian executives at different levels. We borrow the expression “new capitalism” from Richard Sennett (2006b), in his attempt to define the current global system in which we live.

For the author, the main characteristic of the culture of this current capitalism is the ideology of flexibility, which actually hides the rigidity of the class hierarchy, which is now established as never before. In his accurate analysis, Richard Sennett (2006b) considers as the main human effect of this new capitalism what he defines as “character corrosion”.

With this concept, the author seeks to account for the perverse individualism and the loss of capacity to act collectively and produce solidarity, which arises as an effect of the myth of flexibility and the consequent promise of happiness of the new capitalism. According to the ideology of flexibility, it is enough for each one of us to be willing to adapt to the current demands of the system, that is, to “wear the company shirt”, as André Gorz (2004) already warned, for us to be “employable” and , with that, we get our “place in the sun”. Nothing is more perverse and fanciful.

Right now, the new digital and platform capitalism shows its true face. Companies like Uber and I-Food, which are already among the biggest employers in Brazil, even though they systematically seek to deny any employment relationship, place themselves as “intermediaries” between an elite and a middle class, increasingly caged in their condition of privilege, and a mass of a new “digital rabble”, which squeeze and risk themselves in the streets to try to guarantee their dignity on a daily basis.

This same new capitalism — perverse, undignified, predatory, insensitive and hypocritical — seeks to show itself as its extreme opposite, that is, a capitalism of good, sustainable, politically correct, employer, inclusive, concerned with inequality and social issues. Throughout this book, we will show how and why this new capitalism constantly needs to support this discourse that is totally opposed to reality, as well as the role that Brazilian executives play in the construction of this great fantasy.

At this point, the most important sociological work is, without a doubt, the great book by Boltanski and Chiapello (2009) The New Spirit of Capitalism, a work still little understood in Brazil. Unlike some readings, especially on Boltanski's individual work, with an emphasis on the sometimes sterile discussion of what “critical theory” and “critical theory” are, here we will seek to highlight what in fact seems most urgent in this important work. . What became clear to us, throughout its reading, is that its central object conforms to the transition from an explicitly unequal capitalism, which suffered serious social and aesthetic criticism – as the authors define it, especially from the 1960s onwards – , for a new capitalism, which has as one of its central characteristics the ability and need to swallow criticism and show itself as a fair, honest, tolerant, inclusive and sustainable social system.

This is the tonality of the consciously assembled fantasy that we found in countless statements from our interviewees, in addition to other sources that we resorted to throughout the study, such as, for example, magazines Exam, You SA e Forbes Brazil, explicit advocates of what we are calling here the “market mentality”, as we will see later.

However, our analysis would be incomplete and too abstract if we did not try to identify the individuals and specific social classes actively involved in the reproduction, naturalization and legitimation of this new capitalism in all its perversity. One of the main teachings that all critical sociology has bequeathed us since its classics is that no “social structure” in the abstract is reproduced and eternalized without the action of individuals, that is, real people with feelings and ambiguities, who become supports and, at the same time, at the same time, active actors in the construction and reproduction of the prevailing mentality and behavior patterns in the societies in which they live.

The entire sociological discussion, throughout the XNUMXth century, which sought to account for the synthesis between structure and action and, at the same time, between individual and society, passing through different schools such as functionalism, symbolic interactionism and the Freudian Marxism of the School of Frankfurt, sought to place the individual dynamically in the face of social structures.

With this, what we learn is that we need to identify the real action of individuals and social classes in the reproduction of societies without reducing it to Manichaeism, which is a constant temptation in the current political scenario, but also without letting individuals and classes be erased. by the theoretical abstractionism of “structures”. In simple terms, individuals and social classes can be differentially responsible for the course of the society in which they live, depending on the positions of power they occupy. Not by chance, our main reference and influence throughout the research in this regard was the work of the American sociologist Charles Wright Mills.

A well-known and well-read author in Brazil, especially in the past, Wright Mills has now become a familiar author among the Brazilian academic public, particularly for his text “Do craft intellectuals”, an appendix to one of his great books, entitled the sociological imagination (1975b), undoubtedly a text from which we learned a lot. However, the Mills that we recover here is the great theorist of social classes in the United States in the 1950s, known in fact only by specialists on the subject of classes in Brazil. His two great books, entitled The new middle class (1976) and the power elite (1975a), if read together, form one of the most profound interpretations of capitalist culture throughout the XNUMXth century.

For Charles Wright Mills, in his book about the new middle class, which he will thematize from its central symbol, the white necklace, that is, the “white collar”, it was important to perceive this new class both as a new empirical object and in its deep meaning. For him, it was through it that one could see all the cultural change of capitalism in his time. The central motto of his analysis, which is of fundamental importance for our research, is that the search for prestige, power and status is placed as the main moral goal of capitalism, imposed not only on the elite, as he will see later, but also for the middle classes, including their lower strata.

Such perception is decisive, in the sense of understanding the “morality of capitalism”, which is built especially in the United States, a nation that evokes for itself like no other the symbol of an exemplary society, which can be seen through slogans such as the American way of life. As we will see throughout this book, such goals are set arbitrarily by the capitalist culture, composing the core of what we will call here the “market mentality”.

With that, all the executives we interviewed and analyzed, from the “senior directors”, that is, the “high circles” of which Wright Mills spoke, who actually make decisions about the direction of capitalism, to the lowest layers, that is, “the mass of managers”, will reproduce this mentality and the incessant search, sometimes insane, as we will see, for such goals, many times humanly unattainable. Understanding this fact is of great importance because, throughout the research, we understand that executives, especially those at the top, are the people who most produce and reproduce the current “spirit of capitalism”.

In the terms of Pierre Bourdieu, one of the authors who most influenced this research initially, they are the main “structuring structures” and, at the same time, “structured structures” of the new capitalism of good and politically correct. Not by chance, Pierre Bourdieu was one of the main authors who best synthesized the relationship between structure and individual action. However, in order to leave the purely theoretical plane and understand this relationship in practice, we need to see with empirical research which actors produce and reproduce, especially which structures.

In general, executives are primarily responsible for the objective and conscious construction of the culture and morality of capitalism today, with their actions often having perverse and irreversible consequences. Let's take just one very emblematic example: in the political, economic, human and environmental crime in Brumadinho, a replica of the crime in Mariana, Vale executives knew in advance the risk of the dam breaking and even approximately how many people could die.

When some of the main executives of Vale and Tüv Süd, the German consulting firm responsible for reports and opinions on the safety of cases such as Brumadinho, were denounced for an intentional crime by the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais, the two companies sought to dissociate their image of the crime in question.[I] The president of Vale at the time, a recognized top executive in the Brazilian scenario who ironically took over the company with the motto “Mariana never again”, was accused of negligence and hired a private team of excellent lawyers for his defense. This is the true face of good and politically correct capitalism, presented by the façade discourse of the business world, which we will also analyze throughout the book.

Finally, we will try to show here how the discursive façade of this new capitalism conforms to a true “meritocratic fiction”, in the sense of systematically hiding and denying its true face, that is, that of a capitalism that specialized in the perverse perpetuation of inequality. of classes even more invisible than in previous periods. At the same time, the new social domination led by executives systematically deceives the public when it claims to absorb all the social demands of our time.

* Fabricio Maciel and pprofessor of sociological theory at the Fluminense Federal University. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of Jena (Germany).



Fabricio Maciel (org.). Meritocratic fiction: Brazilian executives and the new capitalism. Campos dos Goytacazes, EdUENF, 2022, 244 pages.



BOLTANSKI, L; CHIAPELLO, E. The New Spirit of Capitalism. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2009.

BOURDIEU, P. The distinction: social critique of judgment. Porto Alegre: Zouk, 2007.

GORZ, Andrew. Miseries of the present, wealth of the possible. São Paulo: Annablume, 2004.

MILLS, CW The power elite. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1975a.

MILLS, CW the sociological imagination. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1975b.

MILLS, CW The new middle class. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar Editores, 1976.

SENNETT, R. The culture of the new capitalism. Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2006b.



[I] Check out the report on the fact in


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