The deepening of indignity

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The ruling classes in Brazil are deeply conservative and insensitive to the interests of the poorest

Brazil today is one of those countries that has been dominated by the denialist authoritarianism of the extreme right, which materialized in the tragic election of Jair Bolsonaro. However, I do not intend to remain trapped here in what I usually call “conjuncture illusions”. Understanding the worsening of class conflicts and the deepening of the indignity of work is a task that requires a double movement. First, we do need a clear overview of the current situation. In a second moment, however, it is necessary to reconstruct the deeper structural aspects that brought us here.

On issues of the conjuncture, it is necessary to try to escape what I usually call the “novelization of politics”. In practically the whole world, the media have specialized in transforming the daily life of the political field into a great spectacle. In the so-called knowledge society and reflexive modernity, it seems critical to show all the time what political actors are doing. We were all trapped in this soap opera, following its new episodes every week. The problem is that this systematically hides what happens in the economic field all the time, that is, the profound structural transformations that capitalism has been going through in recent decades.

This is exactly where we need to focus our attention. In a descriptive and analytical movement, I can say that Brazil in the current situation is experiencing a serious deepening of the precariousness and indignity of work and the relations between social classes. This reflects a global scenario, but also presents specificities in Brazil. Here it is worth highlighting that the concepts of precariousness and precarious work only describe work situations that are obviously bad and that only deepen. With the idea of ​​indignity, I try to go further and thematize the moral and symbolic dimensions of the situation.

In the current Brazilian context, marked by the anti-democratic governments of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro, a decisive aspect of the deepening of indignity was the approval of a labor reform that is explicitly against the needs of workers. In short, without the presence of the State in the negotiations, the reform weakens workers by allowing employers to take all the decision-making in their favor. That is, it is explicitly a new form of market authoritarianism.

In this scenario, I propose the idea of ​​indignity to think about the immoral and unacceptable condition in which at least 30% of the Brazilian population finds itself today. This is the minimum level of dignity that a person needs, that is, the minimum for their material and existential support. The idea of ​​human dignity, which appears in the Brazilian constitution, refers to this minimum, which is not guaranteed for everyone. In the Brazilian scenario, Jessé Souza defined our subclass as the “rabble”, who live below the minimum standard of citizenship.

In addition to these, who really live in poverty and practically have no work, at least another 30% of Brazilians, that is, a precarious working class, performs what I define as unworthy work. It is about uncertain work, without ties and without a guaranteed salary, which also does not offer the minimum to guarantee dignity in material and moral terms. With that, we have more or less 60% of the Brazilian population, that is, our popular classes, 30% living below the line of dignity and another 30% living on the limit of dignity.

The explanation for this sad scenario is not simple and does not come down to discussions about the situation, as has been done. This has been our main theoretical and empirical enemy. It has been common, for example, and not only in Brazil, to attribute the victory of the extreme right in the elections and all its serious consequences to the mistakes of the left in the previous conjuncture. Even if the left and its parties have made mistakes, this interpretation is false, as it does not reconstruct the structural and historical reasons that brought us here. With that, the political conjuncture dominated by the extreme right only deepens, but does not explain, the condition of unworthiness of the popular classes and the gap between them and the dominant classes. That is, the rise of the extreme right to power is a consequence, and not a cause, of the condition of indignity produced by contemporary capitalism.

In Germany, the work of Klaus Dörre helps us understand what he has called, following the American sociologist Arlie Horschild, “deep history”. With the metaphor of the “waiting line”, Dörre has been analyzing for years how the precariousness of work has always led fractions of the working class to adhere to the feeling and mentality of the extreme right. Thus, in order to understand the broader scenario that brought us here, we need to make a historical reconstruction of the structural changes of capitalism in recent decades.

When we revisit the works of some of the main analysts of contemporary capitalism such as Claus Offe, Ulrich Beck, Robert Castel, André Gorz, Boltanski & Chiapello, among others, as I have been doing in recent years, what we discover is the specter of indignity coming too in central countries. The precariousness and indignity of work has always been the structural mark of peripheral countries like Brazil. However, since the 1970s, this has been the main product of global capitalism, as these authors' studies show.

Although in a conjunctural way in the center, in countries like Germany, with the fragmentation of the welfare state, the condition of indignity has been a real threat to an increasing number of people, especially immigrants. In other words, it is a question here of the increase of a global rabble. However, rich countries like Germany still manage to guarantee a minimum level of dignity for the most needy, with government programs, which is impossible in countries with structural poverty like Brazil. Considering that we have always had a structural rabble as a central aspect of our society, with the current situation of the extreme right, this scenario only deepens and worsens.

In the previous conjuncture, in which Brazil was led by the left governments of the Workers' Party, even though the structural misery has not been changed, we witnessed the relative improvement in the life of our working class, supported by effective government actions. Not by chance, the main figure in this context, former president Lula da Silva, is today the name most quoted by the Brazilian people to win the presidential elections this year.

In this tragic scenario, the ruling classes in Brazil have a profoundly conservative aspect, which largely explains the election of Jair Bolsonaro. Faced with changes in the previous situation, which improved the lives of a considerable fraction of the working class, the Brazilian elite, faithfully followed by the upper middle class, showed profound discomfort, which deepened hatred and intolerance towards the less privileged. Thus, we have a scenario of undignified relations between social classes, in which the most privileged feel threatened in their social condition.

In a survey that I have been carrying out for five years in Brazil, with executives, I found results that, in large part, help us to understand why the most privileged feel uncomfortable with social change, which to a large extent led to the vote for the extreme right . In interviews with more than 60 Brazilian executives, I tried to understand three central aspects. The first concerns their social origin, which means class origin. The second brings us to the lifestyle. The third mobilizes political positioning and its relationship with the class condition.

With this, what we find, in the first aspect, is that the vast majority have a privileged background, having been born in the Brazilian upper middle class. Most of the parents were businessmen or liberal professionals, which allows us to characterize the existence of a “corporate habitus”, transmitted from father to son. Due to their class condition, these executives had access to the best schools and the best training possible, many of them studying abroad since their youth.

Regarding the lifestyle, we found that it is guided by what we can define as a “market mentality”. Throughout the research, we investigated the main magazines read by executives, such as Forbes Brazil, for example, who defend an extremely meritocratic worldview. Their lifestyle is also marked by a high level of consumption, which can be seen in the volume of goods and reflects their high wages.

Finally, the political position of the executives is radically conservative, explicitly defending the market's ultra-meritocratic mentality. This worldview is in tune with their privileged class condition, averse to the possibilities of social change. Not by chance, when asked about a series of social issues in Brazil, executives blame the State and defend the market. They are, for example, in favor of labor and social security reforms, reforms whose content is explicitly contrary to the interests of the working class.

In addition, when asked who they would vote for president in 2018, few assumed they would vote for Bolsonaro, who was not yet the explicit candidate of the market. Most said they would vote for names explicitly linked to the market, such as Geraldo Alckmin, Henrique Meireles and Álvaro Dias. When asked about the public figure they most admired, most answered Sérgio Moro. It is not by chance that this is the judge who arrested Lula da Silva and carried out the entire legal farce against him. Now, in 2022, Moro is a highly rated name to run for the presidency of the republic in Brazil.

Faced with such results, we can see that the ruling classes in Brazil are deeply conservative and insensitive to the interests of the poorest. On the contrary, since the previous conjuncture, his ultra meritocratic political position was the main responsible for the deepening of the indignity that now affects at least 60% of the Brazilian population. It was this position that largely paved the way for the rise of the extreme right and its serious social and political consequences. Faced with this tragic scenario, we have a message from the popular classes: Lula da Silva's name is once again in first place in polls. Let's see what happens.

* Fabricio Maciel he is professor of sociological theory at the Department of Social Sciences at UFF-Campos and at the PPG in political sociology at UENF.

Base text of a lecture held at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Education in Freiburg, Germany, in January 2022.


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