Reform and political crisis in Brazil



Considerations on the book by Armando Boito Jr.


Reform and political crisis in Brazil it brings together eleven articles of political analysis and an appendix in which the author responds to criticisms that were addressed to his theses. Written and published between 2007 and 2017, they have been reproduced without any changes to the original version. This fact, rare in collections of texts aimed at understanding the historical situation, attests, in itself, to the quality and relevance of Armando Boito Jr.'s book.

The up-to-dateness of these texts, written in the heat of the moment, is largely due to the rigorous management of a consistent theoretical framework, precisely articulated with empirical data. The method adopted in the book, in the best tradition of Marxism, avoids separating politics from economics and social life. Nor does it ignore the antagonisms derived from the division of society into classes.

Armando Boito Jr. it does not hide its sources. He reiterates in several passages that he incorporates concepts presented and developed by Nicos Poulantzas into his theoretical apparatus. In Reform and political crisis in Brazil the two most used and decisive concepts are “power bloc” and consideration of the game between “class fractions”. It is not, evidently, a mechanical absorption, but an adaptation oriented according to the peculiarities of the object of study.

The historical arc addressed extends from Lula's inauguration, in 2002, to the coup that overthrew President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Armando Boito Jr. It focuses, in the two parts that make up the book, on distinct and interconnected issues: the action of social classes in the reform efforts of PT governments and the “nature and dynamics of the political crisis of impeachment”.


In the first articles in the book, Armando Boito Jr. seeks to answer fundamental questions of political analysis in recent years: what was the social base of support for the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva? What power arrangements allowed them to survive destabilization attempts, such as the one launched in 2005 during the “mensalão” crisis? Unlike most of the literature on the subject, the investigation is not concerned with identifying the PT's electoral base. After all, the question is not how Lula got there, but how he stayed there – despite the disarticulation of the popular field in Brazil, a factor that made mobilizations in his defense impossible.

The procedure adopted in these articles involves determining the composition, during the period addressed, of the “bloc in power”. This concept assumes, contrary to the illusions of democracy, that the capitalist State prioritizes the interests of big capital in its actions, even when it seeks to cool down class conflict and stabilize bourgeois domination. Nicos Poulantzas used it, in the words of Armando Boito Jr., “to think of the bourgeois class as the unit (social class) of the diverse (class fractions) in its relations with the State and the rest of society” (p. 22).

The task of naming and distinguishing the fractions of capital is not limited to listing the representative agents of the various areas of the economy – bankers, industrialists, farmers, merchants, etc. It demands the identification of the interests that unite a determined group in contrast with other groupings of capitalists. It requests, therefore, the monitoring and observation of the history of purposes and actions, in general contradictory, of the different sectors of the capitalist class.

In this vein, the dynamics of the state apparatus and the party structure are explained through the internal conflict of the bourgeois class. Meeting the demands of capital, necessarily unequal, establishes a kind of hierarchy between the fractions. The sector privileged by the economic policy implemented by the State is called the “hegemonic fraction”.

A relevant component of the conflict is constituted by the relations of these fractions with the working classes. Armando Boito Jr. clarifies that the preference for the term “conflict” – already present in the subtitle of the book, “Class conflicts in PT governments” – aims to highlight that competition revolves around the redistribution of surplus value produced. He reserves the classic term, “class struggle”, for situations in which the dispute tends to jeopardize the capitalist system itself.

According to Armando Boito Jr., the process of globalization, intensified in recent decades, has not completely dissolved, in countries on the semi-periphery of capitalism, the combination of interests that make it possible to discern between an “internal” and an “associated” bourgeoisie. While the former still bases most of its accumulation process on local structures, the latter can be defined as “the local arm of the current form of dependency” (p. 26).

The thesis that the book proposes to prove states that from the Fernando Collor government, with the implementation of neoliberalism in Brazil, the associated bourgeoisie established itself as a hegemonic fraction. The Lula government, however, promoted the rise, within the power bloc, of the internal big bourgeoisie, increasing its relative weight in determining the actions of the State.

In general terms, Reform and political crisis in Brazil argues that the neoliberal model (which succeeded, from the 1990s onwards, the developmentalist model), by promoting the retreat of labor and social conquests, won the support of the capitalist class as a whole. Its developments, trade opening, financial deregulation, and even the privatization policy contradicted, however, the interests of significant portions of the great national capital.

From the second half of the 1990s onwards, a rapprochement was attempted, through joint efforts and agendas, between employers' associations and trade union centrals. Thus, the way was opened for a convergence that, after Lula's inauguration in the presidency, resulted in the constitution of a “neo-developmentalist political front”, social support for the policies of economic growth and income transfer of the PT governments.

This political front was led by the great domestic Brazilian bourgeoisie. It included most of the popular sectors in its wide range: the lower middle class, the working class, the peasantry and informal workers (named in the book, following a rich tradition of Latin American sociology, as members of the “marginal mass”). It emerged and consolidated itself as a counterpoint to the hitherto hegemonic alliance between large international finance capital, the bourgeois fraction subordinated and integrated to that capital, sectors of the large landowners, and the upper middle class (state and private).

Armando Boito Jr. does not fail to draw attention to the fact that the political participation of the popular classes has contributed, throughout the history of Brazilian capitalism, to boost cycles of economic development. This movement is explained, in part, by the weakness of the internal bourgeoisie in the face of the strength of the associated bourgeoisie. Add to this the difficulty of the internal bourgeoisie in reconciling and unifying the conflicting interests of its various sectors: big industry, national banking sector, agribusiness, state-owned companies, etc.[I] The sum of these factors, the matrix of an unstable balance, helps to understand the volatile nature of the political action of the internal bourgeoisie.

The book uses the term “neo-developmentalism” to modulate the differences between the cycle of growth promoted in the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, and the old developmentalism of the period 1930-1980. The neo-developmentalist economic project designates, in more precise terms, the possible development policy within the framework of the peripheral neoliberal capitalist model.

Armando Boito Jr. it also makes use of this theoretical arsenal to address other issues present in the first part of the book, such as, for example, the relative recovery of the capacity for action of the Brazilian trade union movement. In another article, he proves the scope and effectiveness of his theory, showing that the shift in foreign policy in PT governments stems from a change within the power bloc, having quickly become one of the sources of strengthening of the internal big bourgeoisie.


the second part of Reform and political crisis in Brazil is entirely devoted to analyzes of Dilma Roussef's governments and the coup that overthrew her. In order to understand the facts of that period, Armando Boito Jr., with a unique coherence, mobilizes the same theoretical framework based on the concepts of “power bloc” and “class fractions”, showing that they serve both to explain the stability and the destabilization of the governmental power.

The succession of events that culminated in the deposition of President Dilma Rousseff is presented as moments of a “restorative offensive” unleashed by international capital and by the fraction of the Brazilian bourgeoisie associated with it. To explain the process that consolidated, without much resistance, the change of the hegemonic fraction in the power bloc, Armando Boito Jr. refers to some factors not highlighted, although present, in the first block of the book.

It emphasizes, for example, the role played by the “upper middle class” in the process of dismissing Dilma Rousseff. This social layer, during the two Lula governments, remained aligned with the agenda of the oppositionist politics commanded by the associated big bourgeoisie. From 2013, however, it gained greater prominence, becoming the protagonist of decisive movements for the success of the “restorative offensive”. The leaders of the Lava Jato operation are, at the same time, members and representatives of the upper middle class.

In close collaboration with the portion of the state bureaucracy in charge of maintaining the capitalist order – members of the Judiciary, the Public Ministry, the Federal Police, etc. – triggered a series of actions that contributed decisively to the erosion of the government and the PT. In addition, the upper middle class actively and massively participated in the street demonstrations that legitimized the August 2016 coup.

These actions bore fruit in a minefield, the chronic instability of presidentialism, political representation and the current democracy in Brazil. However, in view of the execution, during the PT governments, of an economic policy that contemplated almost entirely the demands of the internal big bourgeoisie, how can one explain its adherence to the opposite program, to orthodox neoliberalism?

This conversion, the passive subordination of the internal big bourgeoisie to the hegemony and interests of the associated financial bourgeoisie, derives, according to Armando Boito Jr., from internal contradictions of the neo-developmentalist front. With the worsening of the economic and political crisis, the conflict, always latent, between the big internal capital and the working class acquires prominence.

The agenda of demands of the internal big bourgeoisie – prioritized in the Lula governments and in the first two years of Dilma Rousseff's mandate –, contrary to the interests of international and financial capital, gives way to an agenda in tune with neoliberal political practice. The different fractions of the capitalist class converge, reiterating in the same mantra, imperative demands: labor reform, social security reform, fiscal adjustment based on the reduction of social expenses, etc.

Reform and political crisis in Brazil, in his analysis of the ruling bloc and the social bases of the PT governments, gives special relevance to the internal big bourgeoisie movements. To do so, it follows the oscillations of this sector of capital over the last three decades. In the 1990s, the internal big bourgeoisie gradually displaced itself, presenting itself as a selective opposition to the newly implanted and hegemonic neoliberalism.

From 2003, during the two Lula governments and the first term of Dilma Rousseff, it rose to the status of leading fraction of the neo-developmentalist front. With the intensification of the economic crisis, fueled by a political crisis wrought by the groups defeated in 2014, the domestic big bourgeoisie adhered to the coup bloc, aligning itself, with few reservations, to the neoliberal reforms carried out during the government of Michel Temer.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. Author, among other books, of Émile Durkheim: social fact and division of labor (Attica).

Originally published in the magazine Marxist Criticism no. 48.


Armando Boito Jr. Reform and political crisis in Brazil: class conflicts in PT governments. Campinas\São Paulo, Unicamp\Unesp, 336 pages (


[I] In his participation in the launch of the book Brazil under rubble, Armando Boito Jr. points out that, in recent years, “agribusiness” has transitioned from the condition of “internal bourgeoisie” to that of “associated bourgeoisie”. Cf.  

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