Can Bolsonarism return to power?

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By VALERIO ARCARY*

Lulism, or political loyalty to the experience of governments led by the PT, made it possible to win support among the very poor. But the left, although maintaining positions, has lost hegemony over its original mass social base

“Two gloves on the left hand do not make a pair of gloves. Two half-truths do not make a truth.”
(Eduard Douwes Dekker, Ideas)

Can Bolsonarism return to power in 2026? Yes you can. We must consider the existence of powerful objective and subjective factors to explain the resilience of the far right, even after the defeat of the January 2023 semi-insurrection.

But, firstly, it is lucid to recognize the international context of the phenomenon, in which the extreme right plays an instrumental role: (a) the turbulence in the State system with the strengthening of China and the strategy of North American imperialism to preserve supremacy of Troika, for which a tougher protectionist orientation is useful; (b) the disputes caused by the emergence of the environmental crisis and energy transition that leave those who carry out the fastest decarbonization at a temporary disadvantage.

(c) The turn of bourgeois fractions to the defense of authoritarian regimes that face popular protest and embrace a national-imperialist line; (d) the tendency towards economic stagnation and the impoverishment and shift to the right of the middle classes; (e) the astonishing crisis of the left, among others.

But there are Brazilian peculiarities in the country's political fragmentation. There are essentially five of them: (i) hegemony between the military and police; (ii) the gravitation of the vast majority of Pentecostal evangelism towards the extreme right; (iii) the weight of Bolsonarism in the most developed regions, the Southeast and South of the country, especially among the new middle class that owns, or has very high education that performs executive functions in the private and public sector; (iv) the leadership of the neo-fascist current within the extreme right; (v) the audience of the extreme right among the middle classes earning between three and five, or up to seven minimum wages.

The first four singularities have been extensively investigated, but the last one less so. Studying it is strategic, because it may be the only one possible to reverse, in the context of a very unfavorable situation of social relations of still reactionary forces.

There are objective factors that explain the distance, division or political separation between portions of the working class and the very poor, such as the inflation of private education and health plans, and the increase in Income Tax, which are threats to a consumption model and standard of living, and subjective ones, such as social resentment and moral-ideological rancor. The two are intertwined and, perhaps, even indivisible.

But it wasn't like that when, forty-five years ago, the final phase of the fight against the dictatorship began. The PT was born supported by metalworkers, public teachers, oil workers, bank workers and other categories that, compared to the reality of the popular masses, had more education and better salaries. Lulism, or political loyalty to the experience of governments led by the PT, made it possible to win support among the very poor. But the left, although it maintains positions, has lost hegemony over its original mass social base. This tragic reality, because it involves the fracture of the working class, requires us to analyze it from a historical perspective.

The post-war period (1945/1981) of intense growth, in which GDP doubled every decade, and which favored absolute social mobility in Brazil, accompanying accelerated urbanization, seems to have been irretrievably in the past. Full employment and increased education levels, in a country where half of the workforce was illiterate, were the two key factors in improving the lives of this stratum of workers. But they don't push as much as they did in the past.

It is evident that, in the last decade, Brazilian capitalism has lost momentum. It dropped 7% of GDP between 2015/17 and, after the covid pandemic between 2020/21, it took three years to return to 2019 levels. Despite all the anti-social counter-reforms – labor, social security – which aimed to reduce costs of production, the investment rate did not exceed 18% of GDP in 2023, despite the transition PEC's authorization to breach the Public Spending Ceiling.

Brazil, the largest industrial park and largest consumer market for durable goods in the periphery, became a slow-growing nation. The increase in education levels is also no longer such a powerful driving factor. Improving your life has become much more difficult.

The Brazil of 2024 is a less poor country than it was in the XNUMXth century, but no less unfair. There is, of course, still a lot of poverty: two tens of millions or even more are still food insecure, despite Bolsa Família, due to the economic cycle. But there was a reduction in extreme poverty without qualitatively reducing social inequality.

The functional distribution of income between capital and labor experienced variations at the margin. Personal income distribution improved between 2003 and 2014, but has increased again since 2015/16, following the institutional coup against the Dilma Rousseff government. Extreme poverty has decreased, but half of the economically active population has an income that does not exceed two minimum wages. A third of employees earn between three and five minimum wages. Inequity remained almost intact because, among other reasons, the place of middle-income earners with a higher level of education experienced stagnation and a downward trend.

Numerous studies confirm that an increase in average education is not related to employability, and IBGE research confirms, paradoxically, that unemployment is greater as education increases. Most of the millions of jobs signed since the end of the pandemic were for jobs worth up to two minimum wages, with very low educational training requirements.

Two mobility rates are considered, absolute and relative, to assess greater or lesser social cohesion in a country. The absolute rate compares the occupation of the father and the son, or the first activity of each with the last job of each. The relative mobility rate determines the extent to which obstacles to accessing employment positions – or study opportunities – that favor social mobility, could or could not be overcome by those in a lower social position.

In Brazil, both the absolute and relative rates were positive until the 1980s, but the first was more intense than the second. In other words, we experienced intense social mobility in the post-war period due to the pressure of urbanization and internal migration, from the Northeast to the Southeast, and from the South to the Central-West. But it stopped being that way. This historical stage ended in the nineties, when the flow that came from the agrarian world dried up.

Since then, poverty has decreased, but middle-class workers have experienced a more hostile reality. What explains this process is that the trajectories of social mobility in the last twenty years have benefited millions of people who lived in extreme poverty, but very few have risen significantly. Many improved their lives, but only rose to the step immediately above that of their parents.

Relative social mobility remained very low, because the material incentives to increase education were, in the last forty years, lower than they had been for the generation that reached adulthood in the fifties or sixties. The reward families receive for keeping their children out of work for at least twelve years, until they complete high school, compared to the previous generation, has decreased, despite easier access.

A country can start from a situation of great social inequality, but if social mobility is intense, social inequality should be reduced, increasing social cohesion, as happened in post-war Italy. Conversely, a country that, compared to its neighbors that occupy a similar place in the world, had low social inequality may see the situation deteriorate if social mobility becomes regressive, as is evident today in France.

In Brazil, contrary to common sense on the subject, most of the new jobs in the last ten years did not benefit the most educated part of the population. Studying more did not reduce the danger of unemployment. Average schooling has risen, in the last forty-five years since 1979, from three to more than eight years. But two transformations took place that had a lasting impact on the consciousness of working-class youth.

The first is that Brazilian capitalism is no longer a full-employment society, as it had been for half a century. The second is that, even with the sacrifices made by families to keep their children studying, postponing entry into the job market, employability was concentrated in activities that require little education and offer low wages. For the first time in history, children lost hope of being able to live better than their parents.

Unemployment among those with higher education is, proportionally, greater than that of those with low education and, if personal income inequality has decreased in the last fifteen years, it is because the average salary for integration into the labor market of those with average and high level of education has been decreasing. Therefore, the dizzying expansion of uberization is not surprising. IBGE's monthly employment surveys in the metropolitan region of São Paulo indicate a very slow evolution and only close, at most, to the recovery of inflation.

Almost forty years after the end of the military dictatorship, the economic-social balance of the liberal democratic regime is discouraging. The reforms carried out by the regime, such as expanding access to public education, implementing the SUS, Bolsa-Família for extreme poverty, among others, were progressive, but insufficient to reduce social inequality.[I] The hypothesis that a more educated population would gradually change the country's political reality, driving a sustainable cycle of economic growth and income distribution was not confirmed.

A form of gradualist illusion in the perspective of social justice within the limits of capitalism was the hope that a more educated population would gradually change the country's social reality. Which brings us to the limits of the coalition governments led by the PT, which relied on consultation with the ruling class to regulate “savage” capitalism. Although there are long-term correlations between schooling and economic growth, no direct causalities have been identified that are indisputable, even less so if we include the variable of reducing social inequality, as South Korea confirms.

What is incontrovertible is that the Brazilian bourgeoisie came together in 2016 to overthrow the Dilma Rousseff government, despite the moderation of the reforms carried out. It shouldn't surprise us that the ruling class had no qualms about going as far as manipulating impeachment, subverting the rules of the regime to take power for its direct representatives, like Michel Temer. The challenge is to explain why the working class did not have the will to fight to defend it.

Salaries accounted for more than half of national wealth at the beginning of the nineties and, in the last thirty years, they fell to just over 40% in 1999 and, despite the recovery between 2004 and 2010, they still are today, in 2024 , below the level of 50% in 2014. This variable is significant for assessing the evolution of social inequality, because Brazil in 2024 is a society that has already completed the historical transition from the rural world to the urban world (86% of the population lives in cities), and the majority of those working under contracts, 38 million with a formal contract and 13 million civil servants, receive salaries.

Another ten million have a boss, but no contracts. It is true that there are still 25 million Brazilians who make a living from self-employment, but they are proportionally fewer than in the past.[ii] In short: the functional distribution of income between capital and labor did not improve. The bourgeoisie has no reason to complain about the liberal regime. Still, a bourgeois fraction, such as agribusiness and others, supports neofascism and its authoritarian strategy.

The data indicating that, within the universe of wage earners, social inequality has decreased are convincing. But not because injustice has reduced, although misery has been reduced. This process occurred because two opposing trends occurred in the labor market. One of them is relatively new, and the other is older. The first was an increase in salary floors for the least qualified and least organized sectors. The minimum wage has been rising above devaluation slowly, but continuously since 1994 with the introduction of the real, accelerated during the years of the Lula and Dilma Rousseff governments.

This phenomenon was new, because in the previous fifteen years the opposite had happened. The minimum wage is a key economic variable because it is the minimum wage for INSS pensions, which is why the bourgeoisie demands decoupling. The economic recovery favored by the global cycle of increased demand for commodities allowed, from the second half of 2005, a decrease in unemployment that culminated in 2014 in a situation of almost full employment.

The mass distribution of Bolsa Família also appears to have exerted pressure on the remuneration of manual labor, especially in less industrialized regions. The second trend was the continued decline in wages for jobs requiring secondary and higher education, a process that had been going on since the eighties. In conclusion: the available data seems to indicate that increasing education is no longer an important factor in social mobility, as it was in the past.

The political loyalty of the popular masses to Lulism is an expression of the first phenomenon. The lives of the poorest improved during the years of PT-led governments. The division between employees who earn above two minimum wages expresses a social resentment that was manipulated by Bolsonarism. If the left does not regain trust in this group of workers, the danger for 2026 is great.

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3OWSRAc]

Notes


[I] Social inequality is a variable that seeks to measure the disparity in economic-social conditions. Radar Social, a study by Ipea (Institute for Applied Economic Research) confirms that 1% of the richest Brazilians have an income equivalent to the portion made up of the poorest 50%. Self-declaration has significant margins of error, if the data is not cross-checked with other sources such as IRPF (Individual Income Tax) and IRPJ (Corporate Income Tax). This uncertainty has always been great when assessing inequality in Brazil. Check it out at: https://www.ibge.gov.br/

[ii] Another dimension of studying the transition of a predominantly rural society is the assessment of Brazilian demography. We are at the height of the demographic transition. The population over 60 is still 15%, lower than central countries where it reaches 20% or even 25%, but children and young people, who were 50%, have fallen to just over 20%. In 1970, Brazilian women had, on average, 5,8 children. Thirty years later, this average was 2,3 children. In 2016, it was 1,8 and has since dropped to 1,5. The demographic curve is, at the same time, fascinating and disturbing: every year, more or less two million young people look for their first job. This shows the dynamism of the expansion of the available workforce, and the need for high GDP growth rates to reduce unemployment. The size of this growth in the EAP can be fully assessed if we compare data from Brazil with those from France: the expansion of the active population went from 20 to 26 million in the space of 40 years, from 1950 to 1990, that is, it grew by 30 %, while in Brazil it doubled in 30 years.


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