L’etat c’est moi – Elites & State in Brazil


Brazil has gone from colony to empire to republic to authoritarian rule and now to a young, unstable and messy democracy.  While each stage has had its own historical uniqueness, each stage has seen the disproportionate weight of the state and related bureaucracy.  The extractive nature of the colonial economy, the centuries of slavery and the frustrated attempts at industrialization in the 19th century and the geo-political dependency of the country in the 20th century all reinforced the preponderance of the state over civil society as Brazil’s elites jockeyed more to preserve privilege instead of creating a vision or even a plan for the country.

Slavery, poverty, lack of education, lack of leadership, and an insular and insecure elite contribute to the weakness of Brazilian civil society.  By controlling the state, different governments have tended to the left or right but have been universal in using the state apparatus to co-opt and anticipate popular demands.  By providing a basic minimum of services and a narrative of hope to meet expectations, this top-heavy system has survived and grown.

The “worker” governments led by Lula, Rouseff and the PT (Workers’ Party) started with the ideal of  “capturing” the state apparatus to bring equality and a change in the relationship between the elites and the masses and between workers and owners.  Initially well intentioned, the PT succumbed to an ideology of taking power at any cost and to the Brazilian culture where power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  With the PT in control of the government, the already oversized apparatus became more bloated.  And while Lula’s signature program was Bolsa Familia, his major achievement was growing the economy while reducing inequality. Though Lula takes credit, much of the progress was due more to reaping the rewards of a stable currency and a favorable foreign trade scenario driven by China’s imports.   Lula was lucky for a while. But “Economic Take off” under the PT policies proved unsustainable.  Government expenses went through the ceiling as party expediency expanded state bureaus and allowed corruption to drive tremendous inefficiencies, while lining the pockets of a newly arrived elite.

In Brazil, as long as the economy can generate enough surplus to keep the state working and growing, no one complains.  Everyone is used to going to some state agency to seek or defend a right, a benefit, and a favor.  This habit is reflected in the “jeitinho” and the cordiality of society.  Access through friends, associates, godfathers, patrons, and “senhores de bem” has long smoothed and compensated conflicts and inequalities.  Unfortunately perhaps, as Brazil grew in size and economic activity, cordiality had to decline.  With a population of 200 million and a $2 trillion economy, access to the state apparatus through patronage and cordiality outstrips the capacity for providing sinecures.   Basic services in education, infra-structure, security and public health decline as a bloated bureaucracy becomes inefficient and hurts the workings of the market place through misallocation of capital, land and labor.  The state weighs down the economy.

Although the current recession was partially driven by the slow down in China and the drop of commodity prices, it is mainly the result of a lack of savings and productive investment by both the private and public sectors.  The public sector cannot afford to invest after paying pension and basic expenses, which are constitutionally set.  The private sector is in turn strangled by high interest rates driven by instability, risk and government borrowing.  Moreover, the government’s lack of resources further drives the increase of an already disproportionate tax burden that hits the poorest harder than the rich.  In the last generation or so, cordiality became promiscuous. Concupiscence was ultimately reflected in the corruption of construction companies and government interacting in what can be described, without exaggeration as a “swingers club bacchanal”.

To criticize the state in Brazil invites condemnation as being a neo-liberal, the infamous moniker hung upon the PSDB and other parties to Brazil’s center and right.  But these parties themselves are no strangers to corrupt comingling.  The problem is really in the origin, reinforcement and enhancement over the successive governmental orderings of the state. Corruption and the statist mentality thus touches all groups left, right and center.

If everyone depends on the state, this stunts civil society and negatively impacts the role of the citizen.  It is interesting to witness that “grass roots” social movements such as the MST and MBL depend not on individuals for support but rather NGO’s that are supported by the government, international coalitions and/or elite party machinery.  Since access to the patron is reduced or increasingly limited, those who benefit seek to protect themselves typically as a caste and lobby entrenched in the state.  The current struggle over pension reform exemplifies the problem.  Those in the military, the federal bureaucracy, and the state administrations understand that they have “acquired rights” and argue that these rights are untouchable through constitutional protection.

Cristiano Romero recently described the situation: “Nobody should doubt the strength of public-sector special interests in Brazil. Many civil servants do not see the government as the representation of a politically organized society; they, the workers, are the state. It belongs to them. Like at many other state-run companies, employees think they “own” them.” (Valor Econômico 27 Mar 2017)

It would be nice to believe that new technologies such as social media unlock a greater role for action independent of the state.  Still interaction on social media will be insufficient if it is not associated with a material base.  Private and individual initiative (with state support?) in the market must generate value and surplus, which in turn can be partially redirected to reforming the political structure.  The problem is overcoming the structure currently in place and those who maintain the status quo.  From this perspective, the problem is not just the current government.  Instead, the problem goes much deeper than “Fora Temer” and is, perhaps, unsolvable in the short term.






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