The limits of liberal democracy

Image: Daniel Watson


The transmutation of economic power into political power of classes owners

Periods of electoral campaigns are opportune moments to observe how liberal democracy actually works, that is, its limits and its contradictions. It is important to clarify right away that limits here are not quantitative in nature, so that they can be extended by expanding the number of voters and political freedoms, although this has occurred in history due to pressure from the popular classes. The explanation of the real functioning, not the ideal of the mainstream of political science (Cf. DAHL, Robert. polyarchy), occurs because the pressure of competition for the vote leads many relevant actors to loosen their tongue, verbalizing (and/or writing) what is recommended to remain silent for the sake of maintaining the belief in legal-political equality.

It is no secret that the great liberal authors of the XNUMXth century, with due regard for the specificity of each one, defended restrictions on the right to vote under the general argument of the people's unpreparedness for political life. These restrictions were linked to the widely accepted conception among the intellectuals of the time that the right to vote is correlated to property, so that granting the right to vote to the popular classes would compromise the proper functioning of institutions.

Although already in the XNUMXth century Locke had proclaimed that every man is an owner, because his body is his first property, this first property was not enough to include its holder in the democracy of owners, those with the right to elect representatives, since the function The main concern of the State is to protect private property, not that of the body, whose owners have always found it difficult to ensure the protection of the State.

However, the irresistible popular pressure throughout history made it unavoidable to adopt measures to expand the right to vote. As history has recorded, such expansion was accompanied by measures restricting the executive power of representative bodies (Cf. HOBSBAWM, Eric. the age of empires), as well as more or less violent combat, depending on the case of each country, against the political organization of the popular classes.

The history of the expansion of the right to vote and of the institutions that regulate the electoral process (parties, legislation and electoral justice, for example), even under pressure from the popular classes, is the history of the institutionalization of the political power of the propertied classes. As Poulantzas observes (Cf. POULANTZAS, Nicos. Pouvoir politique et social classes), the State does not exercise its own power, born of the institutional design of the State, as institutionalist studies intend; rather, the State is the institutionalization of power born of the social relations of production, that is, of the owner over the non-owner. The institutional design of the State is just the effect of class struggles according to the history and traditions of each country.

Therefore, the owner's economic power is always transmuted into political power, a transmutation mediated by political institutions. In representative liberal democracies, the electoral process reproduces at the level of political institutions the real abstraction of mercantile relations, which abstracts from the use values ​​of goods, as well as the differences between sellers and buyers. In this way, buyers and sellers of labor power (therefore, unequal in the social relations of production), by virtue of abstraction, become equal subjects of law.

Thus, inequality operates under the cloak of equality. If I use the word mantle and not myth, it is because this formal equality is real and, therefore, the criticism that treats this formal equality as a myth or a decoy is wrong; shifts the focus of criticism from real abstraction to ideology, which has the theoretical and practical consequence of clouding the causal relationship between social relations of production and political institutions.

It is important for these brief notes on the recently ended electoral process that the transmutation of economic power into political power of the property-owning classes is carried out through the primary role of the State in managing the currency and the workforce (Cf. BRUNHOFF, Suzanne de. State and capital: an analysis of economic policy). Under this management, and because it is a primary function of the State, the intervention of businessmen and politicians linked to them is usually dubious: they strive to keep the issue away from the actual electoral debate or, when the issue leaks, treat it as an issue technique that must be protected from “political interference”. As currency and labor power are central instruments of economic policy, alongside others that the State can make use of, the place of domination of the owning classes and, of subordination, of the non-owners in state institutions becomes obscured.

In any case, businessmen are expected to maintain a discreet intervention in the electoral debate, financing candidacies, lobbying, giving interviews, promoting seminars, etc., in order to maintain the appearance that the electoral dispute is an open field for everyone. who wants to participate in it as an individual-citizen concerned with the public good. Certainly, these activities already carry the inequality mentioned above, insofar as they run counter to the ideal of equal competition, but this is not evident in the cacophony of the electoral debate.

In situations that present real or imaginary threats to the power of the property classes, these classes usually give up the mediation of institutions to transmute their economic power into political power, transmuting it directly through economic pressure on voters, governments and/or candidates. It is raw economic power, without the mask of institutions, in the manner of Elon Musk on the coup in Bolivia in 2019: “Let's hit whoever we want! Deal with it".

In these elections, there were numerous demonstrations by businessmen and politicians linked to parties on the right of the ideological spectrum in defense of retaliation against workers who express their intention to vote for Lula. Here are some illustrative examples: “The HR director at the northeastern store Ferreira Costa, Karina Lopes, made a post on social networks with threats to PT employees, stating that if there was a “mass layoff”, supporters of former president Lula (PT ) would be the first to leave”.[I]

“I just arrived at the company and found out that there were 12 to 13 people here, I'll even send 13, if there's 13 it's even better that there's a leftist number, because the people were going to vote for Lula. I just made their resignation now”.[ii] “In Caiana (MG), in the Zona da Mata region of Minas Gerais, Mayor Maurício Pinheiro Ferreira, in a video published on his Instagram on October 4, pressured civil servants to change their vote to Bolsonaro on October 30. He goes so far as to say that he will not be responsible for paying wages if his candidate does not win”.[iii]

These are just a few examples, taken at random, among the hundreds that the Public Ministry has already catalogued. After the elections and Lula's victory confirmed, hundreds of roadblocks were carried out across the country by demonstrators who called themselves patriots and, a few days later, began to camp in front of the barracks and ask for military intervention. Much can be said about the complicity of the military with demonstrations typified as a crime, a subject that I will not address here.

For the subject discussed here, the transmutation of economic power into political power, it is important to highlight that such manifestations would not occur with the same simultaneity and the same organizational pattern observed without prior organization, nor could they be maintained without adequate logistics, which has a relatively high cost, impossible to be financed by popular movements. Didn't give another one. Press vehicles from different editorial lines reported on business financing.

I cite two examples, among the many found in the corporate and independent press. At the Diary of the Center of the World, it reads: “Nothing like this has ever been seen in the Central Plateau, whether in terms of organization or abundance. Hundreds of tents offer up to five meals a day while sound trucks cheer the unfortunate with a maddening and permanent succession of national anthems, from the National to the Independence, from the Flag to the Infantry, from the Soldier to the Aviator”.[iv] Na Folha de São Paulo: “More than 70 trucks flying the Brazilian flag arrived in the federal capital between Sunday (6th) and Monday (7th). Drivers told the report that 23 of them left Água Boa, in Mato Grosso, in an action organized by businessmen in the municipality”.[v]

These examples, as well as the previous ones, are demonstrations of the legal deinstitutionalization of the transmutation of economic power into political power, a kind of return from impersonal to personal, manorial domination. Of course, this passage from impersonal to personal domination cannot be complete under capitalist social relations of production, since such relations require a sphere of public legitimacy governed by the ideal principle of equality, so that it is necessary to preserve a facade of legal order.

In order to preserve this façade of the legal system, personal domination is restricted to the company, the private domain of the capitalist, where its legislating power must not be opposed, as claimed by the sponsors of demonstrations for military intervention. Another is the meaning of the statement made several times by Jair Bolsonaro, then a candidate, that workers would end up understanding that it is better to have a job without rights than a right without a job. Thus, the transmutation of economic power into political power without state legal mediation is projected in the public sphere, that is, the citizen-worker must recognize in the public sphere (especially in the act of voting) the subordination of his conditions of existence to the interests of the citizen-capitalist, and all that ensues, by voting for the latter's candidate.

To conclude, it is not idle to add that this concept of transmutation of economic power into political power, formulated here based on the contribution of Nicos Poulantzas, does not correspond to the concept found in the Brazilian institutional literature of projection of private power over public power. The concept of legal-political transmutation of economic power into political power designates a necessary transmutation for the reproduction of capitalist social relations of production, precisely because under such relations the worker is also a subject of law.

The forms of legal-political institutionalization of this transmutation result from the correlation of forces between the classes in struggle. In conjunctures of defeat for the working classes, such as the one that opened with the 2016 coup, this transmutation tends to acquire a fascist form.

*Jair Pinheiro he is professor of political science at Unesp-Marília. Author of The construction of popular power in Venezuela (anti-capital fights).


[I] Available at:

[ii] Empresário Ruan Davi. Disponível em: Vídeo disponível em:

[iii] Disponível em:  Vídeo disponível em:

[iv] “Proto-fascism found its natural habitat in Brasilia”, DCM, on 14/11/2022, available at:

[v] “Businessmen send employees and pay expenses to inflate anti-democratic acts”, Folha de São Paulo, dated 09/11/20022, available at: .shtml

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