Republic of capital — capitalism and political process in Brazil

Image: Lin Barrie


Commentary on the book by Décio Saes

Unveiling the interactions between the political process and the dynamics of capitalist development is, without a doubt, a primary task of the Marxist field. At the end of 2023, researchers interested in such links were presented with a new edition of Republic of capital: capitalism and political process in Brazil, a work in which the political action of social classes and the dynamics of the development of Brazilian capitalism are subject to the accurate observation of Décio Saes.

Retired professor of political science at Unicamp, Décio Saes is one of the pioneers in introducing Althusserian issues and Poulantzian political theory on Brazilian soil. He participated in the formation of a significant group of Marxists and is pointed out by analysts of Brazilian intellectual production as responsible for inaugurating the Poulantzian school of Campinas (Berringer, 2020), a set of studies influenced by the theoretical instruments developed by Nicos Poulantzas in Political power and social classes (2019[1968]).

In his career, marked by harmony between theoretical rigor and broad historical research, he dedicated himself, firstly, to the theoretical status and political action of the middle class. In his professorship, after a “deep assimilation” of Althusserian Marxism (Martuscelli; Nucci Jr., 2020), he formulated an innovative interpretation of the bourgeois political revolution and the formation of the bourgeois State in Brazil. In recent years, he has undertaken analyzes of Brazilian political regimes, the evolution of citizenship and, more recently, the formation of the public education system.

The book is the result of the author's long-term research on Brazilian politics in its institutional, ideological and behavioral dimensions. Décio Saes, like few others in the academic field, combines clear and objective language with rich and sophisticated analyses. The chapters cover a long historical period: from the transition from modern slavery to the neoliberal governments of the 1990s.

In total, thirteen articles make up the collection, six of which were previously present in the first edition – launched in 2001 – and seven included due to the exquisite reorganization and expansion work carried out by Angelita Matos Souza and Danilo Martuscelli. In view of this effort, the work was divided into four blocks of texts grouped by intersectional themes and related theoretical issues.

The first block, entitled “Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil”, brings together three deeply connected texts about the formation of the bourgeois State in Brazil, the transformation of the modern slavery legal-political structure and the social agents that triggered this process. In short, the question that guides this bloc is when a modern bourgeois State would have emerged in Brazil. In this triad, the author exposes his original reading of the Brazilian bourgeois political revolution based on the Althusserian problematic, fully contained in his thesis of free teaching.

In the first of the texts, “The participation of the Brazilian masses in the anti-slavery and anti-monarchic revolution (1889-1891)”, Décio Saes opposes the thesis that the coffee farmers of Oeste Novo in São Paulo would have been the main protagonists of the anti-slavery and anti-monarchic revolution that took place between 1889 and 1891.

For the author, the interest of the republican coffee bloc in reinforcing the mechanisms of domination of its workforce limited its actions and led it to adopt a political strategy of compromise with the old slave-owning dominant class. Repositioning the role of the dominated classes in this process, Décio Saes maintains that this revolution was triggered by an anti-slavery social movement that brought together the revolts of the enslaved masses and the legal egalitarianism of the urban middle class.

In “Florestan Fernandes and the bourgeois revolution in Brazil”, Décio Saes discusses the classic “sociological interpretation essay” on the origins of the Brazilian capitalist regime and the formation of our competitive social order. Firstly, he criticizes Florestan Fernandes' theoretical eclecticism by making two distinct theoretical issues compatible: the Marxist issue of the implementation of the capital-salaried labor relationship with the Weberian issue of the diffusion of rationality in social life.

It then contrasts Florestan Fernandes' theses about: (a) the periodization of the Brazilian bourgeois revolution; (b) the definition of historical protagonists; and (c) the specificity of our revolution. In summary: in Florestan Fernandes' analysis, the bourgeois revolution in Brazil began with the decolonization of 1822 and found its social agents in the coffee grower and the immigrant. In another way, from Saes' perspective, the beginning of the revolution occurred with the 1888 slavery rupture led by rural slaves and the urban middle class.

Closing the first block, the text “The evolution of the State in Brazil (a Marxist interpretation)” includes an analysis of the different interpretative schemes of the state phenomenon in Brazil and an alternative proposal guided by the social function of the State and the unveiling of the content of its structure legal-political.

Beforehand, Décio Saes summarizes two non-Marxist conceptions about the evolution of the State in Brazil: the preponderance of private power over the State and the patrimonial essence of the Brazilian State. In common, both suggest that the State is an entity that can exist in any society. Despite multiple approaches, Marxism maintains that every State has a social function: ensuring the cohesion of the current class society and controlling the conflict between antagonistic classes.

Finally, Décio Saes characterizes the succession of two predominant legal-political structures in Brazil, even though the political regimes in the post-1930 period varied: a modern slave system, from the 1888th century until 1888, and another bourgeois legal-political structure, from XNUMX. until nowadays.

The thematic block “Balance of the impacts of the bourgeois revolution in Brazil on the political-institutional and economic configuration of the republican period” is the only one with four texts. Despite the scope of the objects and themes, one of its main theses is that the pattern of evolution of citizenship and social rights are, ultimately, conditioned by the level of capitalist development of a social formation, which implies considering the configuration of political hegemony within the power bloc and the stage of popular struggles.

The fourth text of the book – the first of the second block – is entitled “Capitalism and political process in Brazil: the Brazilian path to the development of capitalism”. In it, Décio Saes outlines an overview of the process of transition to capitalism in Brazil and the paths of capitalist development adopted in the country.

Initially, it recalls that the Brazilian transition took place from a slave society marked by the low development of productive forces, without a feudal stage and without the distribution of large land property. Such characteristics had repercussions on subsequent capitalist development: a more accelerated process of industrialization led by the urban middle class in which a fragile industrial bourgeoisie was faced with a narrow internal market.

In the text “Democracy and capitalism in Brazil: balance and perspectives”, Décio Saes discusses the limited and unstable character of the Brazilian democratic experiences of the First Republic and the Republic of 1945-1964. Its central thesis is that the Brazilian “democratic deficit”, far from being the result of original cultural traits, is closely related to the development of capitalism in Brazil and the crises of hegemony within the power bloc.

In the first experience, two limitations stood out: the absence of effective party pluralism and the more apparent than real functioning of a “dominant party system”. In the Fourth Republic, located in another stage of the bourgeois revolution, the multi-party system occupies a secondary place in the state decision-making process, as it is the bureaucracy that directs the industrialization policy. Furthermore, the urban working classes will be politically controlled by the state, whether by the unions or the labor party.

In the end, the author also lists three limitations of the political regime of the New Republic: the survival of the process of militarization of the State apparatus, hyper-presidentialism and the ascendancy of the State bureaucracy in the state decision-making process.

The text “The question of the evolution of political citizenship in Brazil” characterizes the limitations imposed on political citizenship in different republican periods and relates these limitations to popular struggles and the configurations assumed by the political hegemony of the dominant classes. The central content of the text is the approach to the unstable and intermittent evolution of citizenship and its limitations, constitutional or practical, between 1891 and 1988.

The limitations of citizenship in the First Republic, for example, were the result of the control of voting by the dominant classes, but not the constitutionality of political rights. In another way, in the period from 1930 to 1937, the bourgeois-liberal dimension of citizenship evolved with the incorporation of female suffrage and the establishment of electoral justice and secret voting, later liquidated by the Estado Novo.

Subsequently, populist democracy restored the right to vote and witnessed the inclusion of a broad electorate in large cities, less submissive to coronelistic practices. Finally, Décio Saes also observes that the treatment of political citizenship during the military dictatorship was complex, as the preservation of a liberal-democratic symbolism gave the regime an air of legitimacy. Thus, the unstable and intermittent character of citizenship is perceived, closely related to characteristics of Brazilian social formation.

The theoretical scheme of the previous chapter is empirically tested in “Social rights and transition to capitalism: the case of the Brazilian First Republic (1889-1930)”, the last article in the second block. The initial discussion about the concept of social rights didactically explains how such rights are subject to revocation and are not universally distributed among segments of the working classes.

Next, Décio Saes shows us how the configuration of social rights in the First Republic were related to the interests of the social forces of that situation, being social legislation typical of a social formation in the process of transition from modern slavery to capitalism. The mercantile-exporting bourgeoisie, pressured by the middle classes, accepted social security legislation for professional categories strategic to their interests. On the other hand, land ownership adopted a defensive posture – even with elementary civil liberties – and the industrial bourgeoisie opposed factory legislation, retaining its workforce through philanthropic practices and psychological coercion.

The third block “Classes and class conflicts in the long history of Brazilian politics (1889-1989)” brings three texts that are less aligned in terms of theoretical objects or research problems, but temporally articulated in the discussion of class conflicts in successive conjunctures. The fundamental themes of this bloc are political hegemony in the power bloc, the disorganizing state function of the working classes and the political positioning of the middle class.

In “Capitalist state and dominant class”, Décio Saes elaborates brief comments on the book “State and coffee capital in São Paulo (1889-1930)” by Renato Perissinotto – a work dedicated to the relationship established between the São Paulo state bureaucracy and large coffee capital in this period. In summary, comments are situated on three levels:

(a) criticism of Perissinotto's theoretical inconsistency in combining the Poulantzian fractionation of the interests of the dominant class with a “sociology of social groups”; (b) evaluation of the work's thesis about the conflictual nature between the São Paulo state bureaucracy and big coffee capital, suggesting that political conflicts between the hegemonic fraction and the bureaucracy are common, given the role of the bureaucracy in maintaining the political unity of the group of the power bloc; (c) disagreement with the theoretical premise according to which the state bureaucracy acts in an instrumental way, always seeking to guarantee the expansion of the economically most powerful sector of the ruling class.

The subsequent article can be considered a synthesis of Saes' studies on the middle class. In “Middle class and politics in Brazil (1930-1964)”, the author addresses the political positions taken by the Brazilian middle class from the 1930 Revolution until the 1964 coup d'état, as well as providing a precise description of the concept of middle class and of its fractionation. His general thesis is that the middle class, although united in the common cult of the work hierarchy, tends to divide politically.

With the exception of a temporary unity in the political crisis of 1930, the First Republic and the period 1930-1964 confirm this proposition. On the one hand, the upper layer of the middle class, based on a liberal and anti-interventionist discourse, supported the policy conducted by – and for – the hegemonic commercial bourgeoisie and, in the following period, resisted the rise of the political protagonism of the popular classes. On the other hand, the lower middle class moved from a diffuse criticism of oligarchic politics, present in popular unrest and spontaneous demonstrations, to reinforcing the role of the State as a promoter of their material well-being, especially through their attachment to union action.

Finally, the essay ends by discussing the predominance of the upper middle class and its anti-popular and anti-communist discourse in the political crisis of 1964, even though the fear of proletarianization, the defense of order and anti-communist propaganda also attracted segments of the lower middle class. .

The last text of the third block touches on two aspects of the role played by the State in relation to social classes: (i) the organization of hegemony of a fraction of the dominant class in the power block; and (ii) the political disorganization of the dominated classes. In the first part of “State and social classes in Brazilian capitalism in the 1970s/1980s”, Décio Saes analyzes the oligopolization of banks during the military regime and the recovery of the political strength of this sector. In opposition to the theses that point to the hegemony of the industrial bourgeoisie in the post-1964 period, he argues that it is banking capital that holds hegemony in the power bloc.

However, given the socially negative view of its “parasitic” activity, its hegemony is exercised in condominium with the industrial monopolist fraction, responsible for carrying out the ideological organization over the working classes. In the second part of the text, Décio Saes discusses the ways in which the Brazilian State, during the military regime, disorganized the dominated classes. In addition to the traditional individualization of production agents, this occurred through the corporatization of workers via state unionism, the open repression of demands and the attraction of the masses to spatially and professionally located policies.

The title of the last thematic block of the book is precise in the temporality of the articles: “From the transition to the democratic regime in the 1980s to neoliberal politics in the 1990s”. His texts, shorter than the previous ones, outline Saes' reflections on redemocratization, the remnants of the military dictatorship, the introduction of neoliberalism in Brazil and the return of populism on the Brazilian political scene.

The text that opens the fourth block – “The question of the 'transition' from the military regime to democracy in Brazil” – addresses criticisms of the theses that identified, back in 1988, a process of redemocratization whose result would necessarily be the advent of a full democracy. From this point of view, the form of state and the Brazilian political regime at the time would be a mixture of democracy and dictatorship. In opposition, Saes considered that the Armed Forces still exercised strong control over the state decision-making process, acting through a type of parallel state network that horizontally crossed the various branches of the State apparatus.

In addition to this aspect, Décio Saes also questions the understanding of this dynamic as a strict fulfillment of a single and intentional project, whether of the bourgeoisie or the Armed Forces. In his view, given that social processes depend on the correlation of forces and involve collective agents in struggle, the result will be the intersection of multiple projects.

In “Neoliberal politics and the conservative political field in current Brazil”, the question about the political hegemony of a specific fraction is revisited, now limited to the neoliberal period of governments headed by the PSDB. Initially, Décio Saes defines neoliberal policy as any state action that contributes to the dismantling of national economic independence, the promotion of social well-being, full employment and the mediation of socioeconomic conflicts. However, it is difficult for neoliberal governments to fully implement such a program, as the historical conditions of each social formation vary.

In the Brazilian case, the pace of implementation of such measures was more moderate than expected by the government, with resistance even from its support base. The big industrial bourgeoisie, the big national banks and even sectors of the working classes, such as the middle class, did not adhere to the entire neoliberal program, as certain aspects of these policies hurt particular interests. For Décio Saes, resistance to the neoliberal program was, therefore, one of the explanatory elements for the slow pace of implementation of neoliberalism in Brazil.

The final chapter of the book deals with the links between populism and the neoliberal stage of capitalism. In “Populism and neoliberalism”, the central theme is the re-emergence of populism – typically used to designate a process, situated in the transition to capitalism, of replacing the political-party organization of the working classes with state action identified in a leader – as a form of dismantle the State and restore market freedom.

In the end, Décio Saes suggests that the reason for the return of populism may lie in the “socially perverse effect” of interventionism in acting to benefit the private monopoly bourgeoisie, but not defending the working masses.

In short, the book contains significant reflections for those committed to interpreting Brazilian capitalism and – just as important – transforming it. Given the breadth of the work, but aware that Saes' critical fortune goes beyond our comments, we dare to highlight some relevant and useful aspects of three recurring themes in Saes' trajectory: the political action of the middle class, the action of the bourgeois State and the configuration of the political regime and citizenship in the political process.

Firstly, Décio Saes was notable for being one of the few Marxist researchers with theoretical and empirical contributions on the middle classes. In the opposite direction of the predominant refusal of the concept of middle class in the Marxist field, his analysis contradicts their reductionism and economism and highlights that the middle classes are a historically fundamental political actor in the Brazilian political process. Presenting diverse political positions, the middle classes were a social base of support and active agents of numerous social and political changes in Brazil. Completely disregarding the role and importance of this social sector, in addition to being an ideological obstacle, is an obvious mistake.

Secondly, the recent predominance of research situated within the scope of post-structuralism or post-modernism, contrary to macro-structural issues and often inclined towards neoliberal individualism, has removed the State and social classes from the list of theoretical objects. In effect, retaking these objects and recovering their totality has become an increasingly necessary task for those who assess that the interests of social sectors are not as random as the voluntarism of these perspectives presupposes. In this sense, Décio Saes has much to contribute with a totalizing analysis of class domination in a country marked by multiple forms of inequality.

Third: in a context in which the dominant current of political science opts for analyzes of institutions disconnected from society and the economy, Saes' research on the political regime helps us to deeply understand the dilemmas and limitations of Brazilian political institutions.

Currently, in a period in which the hegemony of international financial capital leaves us with a project of limited citizenship, Décio Saes' theoretical and practical contributions are essential to change this state and defend effective rights for the different segments of the working classes. To those moved by praxis, leaves the message that the fight to expand citizenship must be constant and involve the construction of projects, intense popular struggles and confronting the interests of the bloc in power.

Finally, even more essential, given the topicality of the topic, is the usefulness of Décio Saes' contributions to examining the emergence of neo-fascism and the contemporary extreme right. Under the backdrop of neoliberalism, such phenomena reveal themselves to be deeply connected with the interests of the dominant classes, with the political action of the most conservative sectors of the intermediate layers and with significant impacts on the living conditions of the popular classes.

* Arthur Solomon is a doctoral candidate in political science at Unicamp.


Décio Saes. Republic of capital: capitalism and political process in Brazil. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2023, 304 pages. []


BERRINGER, Tatiana. The Campinas School: Poulantzian analysis of Brazilian politics. Marxist Criticism, no. 51, p. 37-56, 2020.

MARTUSCELLI, Danilo; NUCCI JR, Renato. Politics and social classes in Brazil: reflections on the work of Décio Saes. In: MACIEL, D; COSTA NETO, P; GONÇALVES, RJM (orgs). Intellectuals, politics and social conflicts. Goiânia: Editora Kelps, 2020.

POULANTZAS, Nicos. Political power and social classes. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp, 2019 [1968].

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