May 14, 2022


Persisting Paternalisms

The Auxilio Brasil in perspective

Since late last year, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro appears to have shape-shifted. Once a staunch public ally of business interests, he now presents himself as the president of the poor. The basis of this transformation is his new conditional cash-transfer program Auxilio Brasil (Brazil Aid), which, in December 2021, replaced the world famous Bolsa Familia (family allowance). Originally denouncing the Bolsa Familia as a scheme to give money to “lazy” people, Bolsonaro now claims that Auxilio Brasil will transfer more cash and reach more people.

Auxilio Brasil is commonly framed as a cynical move by Bolsonaro to position himself favorably for the looming 2022 presidential elections. His most likely opponent in the election, former president and leader of the left leaning Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), enjoys ratings in the mid 40s while Bolsonaro’s ratings wallow in the low 20s. Bolsonaro is also fending off calls for impeachment. More than 130 requests have been filed over issues ranging from the dissemination of fake news, to the disastrous handing of the Covid crisis.

These contemporary political dynamics are deeply embedded in the development of the Auxilio Brasil. But historical factors are also at play—like it’s predecessors, the program perpetuates a system of paternalism which determines which sections of the Brazilian poor are entitled to benefits, and under what circumstances. Understood in this context, the Auxilio Brasil preserves a developmental tradition adapted from Portuguese colonialism to the twenty-first century.

Paternalism in the Longue Durée

The Brazilian state has historically been tasked simultaneously with the management of domestic class relations, and the coordination of the national economy within a dynamic world market. Intensively exploitative natural resource extractivism has been foundational to this undertaking since Brazil’s formation. Gendered and racialized paternalism has been the core ideological and material force through these aims where pursued. 

The political economic roots of paternalism (personalismo, coronelismo or clientelismo) in Brazil stretch back to its founding, when Portugal allocated vast stretches of land for settlement to political captaincies—new positions of command combining land grants and governing rights over new territories—in return for loyalty to the crown. Land allocation was not simply the granting of a factor of production, but a structure of political power, including “the ability to direct the legal and coercive apparatus of the state in one’s region,” and the route to further wealth accumulation. The scheme, modeled on the settlement of the recently incorporated territories of Madeira and the Azores, rewarded “amigos do rei” (friends of the king) who were faithful to the crown as it pursued a program of territorial expansion. It persisted through the slave economy and during the transition to wage labor, as the country experienced various economic booms and busts: sugar (1540-1640), gold (1690s-1800s), and coffee (mid 1800s-1930).    

More slaves were imported to Brazil than any other country in the new world. It was the last country to abolish slavery, in 1888. Through importing slaves and exporting raw materials and agricultural products, the state played an essential role in mediating the country’s political economic formation. Local state agencies certified the health of newly arrived slaves to determine whether they were ready for plantation or mine work, and the state created or licensed mercantilist companies to undertake export trade, while channeling imports through specified ports and imposing tariffs. 

The vast scale and the extreme exploitation of slave labor necessitated a strategy for preserving political domination. Plantation and mine owners deployed brute violence to this effect. But rulers also sought the relative consent of slaves to their subjugation. It’s this latter motive which formed the foundation of Brazilian paternalism. In colonial Brazil, large rural landowners presided over kinship-type relations—the exchange of favors and protection from the boss, for work and obedience by the slaves. Female slaves bore a particularly heavy burden under this system. They worked on the plantations and took prime responsibility for the social reproduction of slave family units (cultivating crops and preparing food). They also bore the brunt of slave masters’ sexual abuse: rape, and/or paternalist exchange of favors.

During slavery, the minority white population regarded persons of African descent as slaves. Torture of slaves to enhance discipline or impose punishment was legally sanctioned by the state. The power of owners over slaves extended even when the latter had gained their freedom through convoluted (and reversible) legal means. Cartas de alforria (certificates of freedom) could be purchased from their masters for a mutually agreed upon payment, or could be granted by masters to slaves as a reward for favorable service. But freedoms could also be revoked. One author describes an incident whereby:

In 1795 the prior and friars of the Carmelite monastery of Salvador instituted legal proceedings to re-enslave a former slave to whom they had granted his freedom, but who had subsequently proved disobedient and had made calumniatory remarks about his former owners. The judge upheld the friars’ complaint and sentenced the culprit to servitude once again, ‘convicted as the law decrees for repaying by ingratitude the favour of having been granted his freedom (1982, 40).

Slaves resisted their subjugation—breaking equipment, slowing production, attempting to seize power from their masters—especially following the world-shattering experience of the 1791 Haitian revolution. Quilombos, groups of escaped slaves who had set up peasant-like communities, were established near towns or ports. They sustained themselves by combining peasant agriculture with raids on the urban centers. 

But slave rebellions were put down by colonial authorities. During the colonial period royal decrees ruled that re-captured slaves could be branded or have their limbs severed. Local states and plantation owners employed militias and bandeirante’s (mercenaries) to capture and/or kill escaped slaves and destroy their communities. 

When Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822, the new state’s constitution secured the long-term reproduction of paternalism. The bourgeois revolutions in America and France consisted of popular uprisings and their constitutions represented attempts to secure popular control over the state. The Brazilian variant, by contrast, maintained agrarian oligarchs’ independence from the newly established constitutional monarchy. Whilst the nation was now politically sovereign, its internal class relations (slavery) and external economic relations (exporter of agricultural products and raw materials) did not change fundamentally. 

Class relations did begin to change towards the end of the nineteenth century, when slavery was finally abolished and plantation owners in the now-booming coffee sector sought wage workers. Coffee planters’ turn to European migrant labour to work the fazendas was not determined solely by economic calculations. Rather, the Brazilian state and planter class were deeply concerned about the predominantly black composition of the country’s population. In a paper delivered in 1911 to the First Universal Races conference in London, a Brazilian representative argued that “[t]he importation, on a vast scale, of the black race to Brazil has exercised harmful influence on this country’s progress. For a long while it has been a brake on its material development and has made it difficult to exploit immense natural wealth.” The importation of white European workers was the solution. They were ideologically classified as harder-working and more efficient than black workers of African ancestry. This ideological division is reflected materially in the contemporary class structure in Brazil, where black people occupy only a tiny part of middle and upper classes and are heavily over-represented amongst working and non-working poor. 

From the late 1930s, under Getúlio Vargas’s Estado Novo (New State) the state used tariffs, subsidies and direct state investments to establish an extensive industrial base. The new state was modeled on Salazaar’s corporatist Estado Novo in Portugal, and Mussolini’s crushing of working class organizations in Italy. Vargas’ embrace of Fascist ideology was designed to serve a dual purpose—rapid and relatively autarchic economic development, and the use of hard nationalist ideology to rout any potential domestic Communist challenge.  

Vargas secured peace between capital and labour (of mostly European descent) through novel state-capital-labor forms of paternalism. He established the Ministry of Labour in 1930 to which trade unions were compelled to register, and imposed limitations on their ability to represent their membership. Corporatist structures included state recognition for a single union for each occupational category per geographic area, and unions’ orientation to welfarist provision to their members (assistencialismo) funded in part by the federal state and in part by a trade union tax upon workers in each category. Trade unions were forbidden for using their funds for political purposes. Industrial federations in São Paulo welcomed these moves, encouraging their affiliates to support Labour Day because it “promis[ed] to be an expressive demonstration of the spirit of social harmony which, fortunately, govern[ed] the relations between labour and management.” 

Pliant trade unions kept a lid on workers’ discontent, the state provided concessions to privileged workers in strategic industries in exchange for obedience to the regime’s objectives, and cracked down ruthlessly on communists and independent working class organisations. Most women (because they were not formally employed), self-employed workers and peasants remained excluded from this system. 

Following the end of the Second World War Brazil enjoyed a brief nineteen year period of democracy. Guided by the Economic Commission of Latin America’s ideology of developmentalism—where states invest directly, and coordinate private investment to accelerate industrial transformation—Brazil became one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Established Brazilian indigenous firms, especially in consumer non-durable industries (textiles, food, clothing) were highly protected, while state subsidies were designed to foster a capital goods (machinery, tools, equipment) sector. 

Corporatism was maintained and industrial peace secured for a while through increases to the minimum wage in the formal sector (albeit increasingly lagging behind productivity). However, minimum wage increases were not sufficient to quell a rising tide of protests by industrial workers—especially once those experiencing rising living costs and relatively tight labour markets gained an increasing sense of their economic importance and power. In the rural sector, following the 1959 Cuban revolution, Peasant Leagues began mobilizing for land reform. 

In response to these demands from below the military staged a coup in 1964. Backed by industrialists worried about militant workers and rural oligarchs opposed to any talk of land reform, it smashed independent working class and peasant organizations, used torture and repression to scare its opponents into submission, and provided some minimal concessions to workers and peasants through newly plaint trade unions. The military regime intensified Brazil’s heavy industrialization strategy through what Peter Evans labeled a “triple-alliance” between state, local, and multinational capital.

Paternalism Challenged

The economic crisis of the 1970s weakened the military regime. Fissures opened up within the highest social circles. While the military’s central role in the economy had maintained support from industrial and financial capital when the going was good, the latter groups began to resent its presence when the economy faltered. Industrialization had also established a mass working class. For a decade or so—from the early 1980s to the early 1990s—Brazil’s deep-rooted paternalism was confronted head-on by these workers and their nascent organizations. For the first time in Brazilian history, an independent mass workers movement emerged. And from the massive São Paulo industries, the PT was born. As Jeffrey Sluyter-Beltrão describes:

The party’s program… called for a ‘rupture’ with free market capitalism and the construction of a democratic-socialist welfare state geared to redressing Brazil’s unsurpassed social inequalities… The Workers’ Party called for an immediate suspension of payments on the foreign debt, radical land reform ‘under workers’ control’, nationalisation of the financial and transport systems, and ambitious state-led overhauls of the housing, healthcare and education systems (p 12).

The mass movements also forced onto the political agenda negotiations about, and the eventual establishment of, a new constitution in 1988. The radical potential of the draft constitution was tempered by the military’s role in overseeing negotiations. The compromise position established a set of broad-based human rights, centered upon a vision of a social-democratic welfare state. Under the constitution the state was responsible for establishing and protecting universal social rights based on citizenship rather than favoritism, privilege or wealth. These rights included state provision of education, pensions, housing, and a universal free health service. It limited the working week to 44 hours, mandated maternity and paternity leave, holidays and increased employment security.

However, the constitution was born at the very moment in which Brazil shifted towards liberalization. Under the presidencies of Fernando Collor de Mello (1990-1992), Itamar Franco (1992-1994) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1994-2002) the state increasingly reneged on its constitutional commitments, dismantled its developmentalist apparatus, embraced free trade, privatized previously state-owned corporations, increased labour flexibility and cut formal sector wages. Between 1980 and 2000 labour’s share in national income declined from 50% to 36%. The social basis of the PT’s support was progressively hollowed out—through rising unemployment, labour market informality, and a decline in mass struggles from below. 

The language of deserving (and undeserving) poor was deployed by successive presidents and the media to justify the reorientation of the state away from universal benefit provision and towards means tested policies. Such policies were designed and implemented to mitigate only the symptoms, rather than the causes of poverty, through promoting greater market inclusion for low income groups. After the 1989 defeat Lula and the PT leadership began its long-march to the center. 

(Progressive) Paternalism Restored 

The PT finally won the presidential election in 2002. During the election Lula committed to repaying Brazil’s foreign loans and portrayed himself as ‘Lulinha (little Lula), Peace and Love’. He was re-elected in 2006, and his successor Dilma Rousseff won two elections, in 2010 and 2014. Brazil under the PT changed, but only partially. 

The PT presided over progressive paternalist policies via a ‘compensatory state’. It used receipts from the global commodity chain—iron ore, soy, beef, sugar, oranges, oil—to implement some anti-poverty measures. These cohered around large-scale state infrastructure investments, (limited) distribution through programs such as Bolsa Familia, the expansion of credit and increased minimum wages. Over 20 million jobs, mostly in the public sector, were established during the 2000s. As Alfredo Saad-Filho notes:

The real minimum wage rose 72 per cent between 2005 and 2012, while real GDP per capita increased 30 per cent… The income of the lowest decile rose 6.3 per cent annually between 2001 and 2011, in contrast with 1.4 per cent per annum for the highest decile… Female income rose by 38 per cent against 16 per cent for men (60 per cent of the jobs created in the 2000s employed women), and the income of blacks rose 43 per cent against 20 per cent for whites.

Though progressive compared to the previous government, the PT did not challenge the power of big landowners, financial and industrial conglomerates, the army, police force or the corporate media. Establishing a new form of paternalism, it included and co-opted many of the trade unions and social movements that had supported it on its long-march to office. Consequently, while the Brazilian urban and rural working class benefitted materially from the PT’s policies, they were treated (and responded) as consumers rather than as politically active citizens.

For example, the world-renowned landless laborer’s movement (Movimento Sem Terra, MST) constituted an important base of rural support for the party. Since the formation of the MST in the 1980s, it achieved an effective agrarian reform from below, successfully occupying and settling around one million people on the land. However, following the PT’s 2002 victory and the incorporation of many of its social movement supporters into the state, MST land occupations fell from 285 in 2003 to thirteen in 2012.

Though lauded by the World Bank and the Economist, the PT’s Bolsa Familia exemplified these broader tendencies. Providing around R$200 (about US$35 in current exchange rates) to households, it won the PT millions of votes, particularly in the impoverished Brazilian North East. But just as earlier policies like the Bolsa Escola supplemented targeted transfers for structural redistribution, the Bolsa Familia adopted the perspective popularized by 1990s behavioral economics—that lifting individuals out of poverty would solve long term trajectories of inequality. Against calls for a universal cash transfer policy, the Bolsa Familia was determined by families’ poverty level and provisional upon recipients proving their children’s school attendance and family vaccinations. The demand for proof fell overwhelmingly on women, based upon gendered assumptions of their domestic role. And given that the majority of recipients were working for poverty pay, the scheme effectively legitimized the pervasiveness of meagre wages.

The conditionality of Bolsa Familia enabled the PT to promote it as a program of benefit provision for the deserving poor to the middle class and business groups who worried of profligate spending. But this enshrined in state-society relations a set of paternalistic assumptions: that the state could legitimately steer the poor to make the right choices, that the middle classes were not subject to such conditions, and that local bureaucrats had the right to withdraw the benefit if they deemed fit. Rather than challenging exploitative employment practices, Bolsa Familia dealt with their symptoms.

For a decade or so, rising global trade provided the PT government with revenues which funded its social programs and investments. Once the cycle collapsed in the 2010s these funds dried up. From 2015 onwards, in the context of collapsed growth rates and reduced export prices, the PT began introducing classic austerity measures: cuts to the budget and public investment and restrictions to pensions and unemployment benefits. Shrinking state revenues and expenditures were mirrored by rising costs elsewhere in the economy. Working class anger boiled over in 2016, leading to mass protests across the country. 

Beyond Paternalism? 

Given Bolsonaro’s long-standing contempt for workers, the poor, women, indigenous peoples, and people of color, does his discovery of the potential benefits of conditional cash transfer programs represent a change of heart? While Bolsa Familia reached 13.9 million families at its peak, Auxilio Brasil is heralded as reaching 14.6 million families as it is rolled out. But Auxilio Brasil has more conditions attached to it than Bolsa Familia. In addition to the former schemes’ requirements, recipients must demonstrate that if they are pregnant they are receiving prenatal care, that they are recording and monitoring their nutritional status, and that 18-21 year old family members are enrolled in an educational establishment. The scheme represents a significant extension of state monitoring of women’s fertility and domestic arrangements, based on assumptions of women as house-keepers. 

The funding for Auxilio Brazil runs until December 2022, just a month after the elections of October and November. After that, whichever party is in office will determine the fate of Brazil’s poor. If he wins in 2022, Bolsonaro may push Brazilian workers ever-further away from any claims upon the state, and ever-more towards seeking out old-style paternal dependence upon any employers, land-owners, and other figures of power. 

Given Bolsonaro’s low poll-ratings and the long-standing popularity of the frontrunner Lula, it is probable that Bolsonaro will lose the 2022 presidential election. While we may see the end of Bolsonaro, it would be unwise to expect the end of paternalism.

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