Third way – Bobbio's lessons for Brazil

Image: Evie Shaffer


In the absence of another electorally viable candidacy, everything points to an election to be decided between Lula and Bolsonaro

Since the 1994 presidential election, the issue of the so-called “third way” has been absent from the electoral political debate in the country. That year, the mainstream of economics and politics was looking for an alternative between Paulo Maluf, then mayor of São Paulo (at the time in the PPB, former PDS) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT). In October 1993, sitting on one of the sofas in his apartment in Brasília, the then Finance Minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, alongside his friend Sérgio Motta, and the then PSDB president Tasso Jereissati, listened to Antônio Carlos Lavareda, then “guru ” of the party when it came to opinion polls. They evaluated the sociologist's dream, apparently without any support in the conjuncture, to run for president.

The numbers buried Tasso's dream, with only 2% in the polls, with 60% of the electorate having never heard his name. This situation, however, prevented any commemoration of the sociologist within the fierce internal dispute within the PSDB. FHC was technically tied with Tasso. The more Lavareda talked and explained his bunch of numbers, FHC widened his eyes, covertly, at Serjão, who knew him well enough to understand him through his eyes: “Let's get out of this as soon as possible”. They didn't decide right away.

The option for the so-called “third way” became the Minister of Social Security, Antônio Britto. It was the best off in Lavareda's spreadsheets: 15%. The reason was its sympathetic image with the elderly or retired constituency. Britto had reduced the queues at the INSS. Journalist and former reporter for Rede Globo, he was popular. Your recall in part of the electorate was still the spokesperson for Tancredo Neves, who was beside the nation in those 38 days of martyrdom in 1985. But the numbers signaled that the construction of the “third way” involved the question of Social Security, of a management and a discussion about this “collective insurance”, that is, social cohesion. In other words, for its ability to respond to the population's day-to-day storms.

Less than a month before the deadline for defining the candidate, in another meeting, at the house of the then Toucan deputy Sérgio Machado (CE), FHC even said: “There are two candidates, me and Britto. I would top the ministry if Britto accepts being a candidate”. At that time, the approval of the Social Emergency Fund (FSE, years later FEF, Fiscal Stabilization Fund, and later Unbinding of Union Revenues, DRU), the budgetary basis for the implementation of the Real Plan, had a minimal chance of obtaining two-thirds of the two legislative houses. The economic program with the face of the presidential candidacy was opposed by all pre-candidates.

FHC said he would remain in government to approve Real and Britto, surprising everyone, preferred to flee the fight with his co-religionist Orestes Quércia, and dispute the government of Rio Grande do Sul. In a few months, FHC was duly incorporated into this role with the Plano Real, the FSE was approved, withdrawing resources from Social Security, however, paving the way for monetary stability. History, everyone knows, made FHC himself the chosen one, freeing the PSDB from supporting Lula or the PMDB's anti-racist wing, the possible alternatives. FHC ended up being the “third way” – something that was never heard of again until that year.

The memory of 1994 is necessary for the discussion of a theme so present in the literature of the social sciences and, at that moment, so lightly cited by politicians and the press as if the construction of a “third way” was part of the menu or the will of a group affiliated with this or that legend. No other topic in political science is more complex than the so-called “third way”, because it – and this is what is generally ignored – is the construction of peace itself. Its emergence requires the stance of the most unblemished magistrate and the ability to design concrete perspectives in favor of collective well-being. It is a very complex task and, in the current debate, it has been trivialized or vulgarized, hence its minimal chances of being successful.

It is necessary to return to Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004) to understand its nuances. Bobbio dealt directly with the theme in two conferences. The first under the title “The third absentee”, on December 30, 1983, and the second, under the title “The third in politics”, on August 22, 1986[I]. Both concerned the Cold War and the risk of an atomic conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Italian philosopher begins with the diagnosis of the moment: “Humanity finds itself, for the first time in its history, in an extreme situation, beyond which an unprecedented catastrophe could occur. (…) Everyone is convinced that something urgently needs to be done. But nobody knows exactly what.” And he sums up the situation at the time with a phrase that today belongs to those interested in the Brazilian “third way”: “Who stops them, who will stop them?”. Bobbio observes that since peace is only established with the victory of one of the sides or the intervention of a “third party”, while that one is absent, the geopolitical picture would remain the same. Bobbio would later identify several third parties who ended the cold war.

In the second text, Bobbio is more explicit and perhaps his lesson will be more useful to Jair Bolsonaro's and Lula's contenders. What makes the “third” in fact be identified as “third”, he teaches based on the “sociology of conflict” by George Simmel (1858-1918), is an equidistant position, above and legitimate in relation to the two poles.

Perhaps this is the greatest shortcoming of those who postulate this role in next year's election. For now, according to Bobbio, we are in the “absent third” stage and this scenario feeds the “controversial state”. Candidates for third would certainly be identified by Bobbio as “serious cases of crisis of legitimacy” or, as he calls it, “apparent third” – the one who, in terms of posture or proposals, “lines up alongside one or other of the competitors”.

In the first debate between the PSDB pre-candidates for the presidency, the two main contenders made a mea-culpa for supporting and voting for Bolsonaro in 2018. Another candidate is pointed out as biased by the Federal Supreme Court. And another lacks historical equidistance from the opposite pole. This history – and Bobbio points out that the past matters in the crystallization of the third party – distances the pretense of the “neutral” from the image of what it really is: “a passive and fragile third party”.

The first step towards the construction of the third, teaches Bobbio, is to assume the condition of “mediator”, the one who places himself “between” and here justifies having told the story of 1994. FHC dialogued with the PT and with the PMDB and , even with the right on the verge of joining the PFL. Bobbio claims that, even though the mission to break the dyadic logic is bankrupt, the third-place candidate must first demonstrate the effort to balance both sides.

The “third way” in this pre-election period, always following Bobbio, refers to what the philosopher classifies as Tertius Gaudens – the one who, totally different from the neutral, appears [to the electorate] to “want to take advantage of the conflict” between the two poles, or the tertius dolens – one who suffered some disadvantage with the establishment of the conflict and, now, regrets it or wants to “play the victim due to incapacity or villainy”.

Bobbio refers his analysis to the classics of political philosophy and international law, which offer a generous handful of examples of the construction of the third party in politics, its complexity and, in general, its absence. And he concludes with his colleague Pier Paolo Portinaro, author of the book Il Terzo, a political figure?: “The only third party is missing that could make international society definitively leave the controversial state, the Third above the parties”. And what would that be today in Brazil? What is missing?

Let us now recall the lesson of Michelangelo Bovero, Bobbio's successor as head of the chair of political philosophy at the University of Turin, in a conversation we had, in 2014, at the home of former Minister Celso Lafer, in São Paulo. Bovero warned against the epidemic of “empty faces” in politics.[ii] Or the absence of consistent projects – and, once again, let's go back to 1994 – that were related to the population's daily needs – in particular social security.

According to Bovero, one of the reasons why it is difficult to differentiate candidates is “the usurpation of the political milieu by the economic-financial sphere” which, in his analysis, would have homogenized the proposals and provoked a crisis in the presidential system and in democracies. This reality feeds “leaderism” or “empty faces” populism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and two decades of Thatcherism, the English sociologist Anthony Giddens emerged as the great formulator of a “third way”.[iii] Its values, according to Giddens, would be: equality, protection of the vulnerable, freedom as autonomy, there are no rights without responsibilities, there is no authority without democracy, cosmopolitan pluralism and philosophical conservatism. However, Giddens' formulation, embodied in Tony Blair, failed due to its “passive” nature, “Gaudens"and "dolens”, especially after a plan to privatize the subway – à la Thatcher – was discovered inside a folder forgotten by Blair in a television studio. And also because Giddens advocated social security potentially producing Daniel Blakes, the character in Ken Loach's film, on a large scale. This fragility made Giddens himself abandon this, shall we say, line of research.

Recently, the most successful example of the “third way” was the French Emmanuel Macron, author of the feat of destroying two traditional parties and defeating the extreme right. His project was built, above all, defending a new model of social security in the face of an aging population and the migratory crisis, which he called the “reconstruction of Europe”. It worked until the demonstrations of the “yellow vests” forced him to review all his plans by laying bare his tactics”Gaudens”. In a few months, a very different Macron faces the polls to run for another quinquennat proving another lesson from Bobbio: “No political movement can be both left and right”. The pandemic, it seems, has Macron leaning towards greater state participation in the economy and greater social protection.

This seems to be the main point at this moment in Brazil. It is also the flaw in the shaky construction of the third way in this year's presidential elections. The postulants are absent or incipient in the debate on social security. Meanwhile, the two poles reaffirm their convictions and histories or, even in an implausible or economically unsustainable way, try to mimic redesigning social protection in the face of high unemployment and growing inequality between rich and poor – and extreme poor! The reason for politics, as Bobbio taught, is the equality and dignity of men and to follow this path it is necessary, first of all, to recognize and value human rights.

*Jorge Felix is a journalist and professor of economics at the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH) of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Extended version of article originally published in Journal of USP.



[I] Bobbio, N. (2009) The missing third: essays and speeches on peace and war, trans. Daniela Beccaccia Versiani, São Paulo, Ed. Manole.

[ii] FELIX, J. (2014). Empty faces in action, interview with Michelangelo Bovero, Caderno EU & Fim de Semana, newspaper Valor Econômico, available in

[iii] GIDDENS, A. (1998) the third way, Rio de Janeiro, Ed. Record.

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