Brazil’s constitutional uprising

[disclaimer: this is a highly personal interpretation of the current events in Brazil, under the light of a certain understanding of constitutionalism, and would need to be backed by further research to go from speculation into actual political science. for a lot of it, you’ll have to take my word for now (and possibly make your own research).]

there has been an unswerving tension and gnashing of teeth over Brazil’s political situation since 2015, at least. depending on where you’ve got your news, the whole thing is framed as a popular uprising against an unified corrupted political class, or a coup d’état performed by a corrupted political class against fairly popular elected and non-corrupted officials. i’m skeptical of either.

first, i don’t think there is an unified political class in Brazil. second, i don’t think the major divisions within the current political landscape are reducible to conflict between left and right, or between economic classes. finally, i don’t think it mostly about statists vs anti-statists. all of these basically put my reading against socialist, liberal and conservative readings of the situation.

my framework here is that Brazil has always been ruled by a certain agreement amongst differing ruling classes – what you could call a constitution. the wildly varying agreements produced different political regimes. i could go back to the beginning, but what matters most for now is what i’ll be calling “new democratic synthesis” – i.e., the political regime established after the Military Dictatorship period, roughly in the late 1980s. it’s new, to differ it from the other democratic period in Brazil, which had a different constitution and different tensions. it’s a synthesis, because, as we’ll see, it brought to power new actors that weren’t previously present.

the new democratic constitution, then, is an accord between landed oligarchies, galvanized in a highly heritable Congress, especially through mechanisms of “coronelismo“; corporate interests (mostly business, but also any large organized interest group), represented largely by the president’s office and ministry, which have to be supported by large cash campaign flows; and educated middle classes, which compose the bulk of the state and private bureaucracies and are thus more or less represented within the judiciary branch. the agreement established amongst them was one loosely called “coalition presidentialism“, in which the landed oligarchies lend support to a corporate-backed president and follow his suit of policies, with the press and judiciary merely overseeing the whole process. it’s clear that the middle classes in this arrangement are the minor party – and this is of utmost importance to the current events.

let’s examine the events of the last 30 years under the light of this arrangement. i’ll be rather quick and superficial until we get to what i think is the fulcrum of the current crisis, around 2013.

it’s useful that the first president of the new synthesis played out basically the same dynamics that are currently happening, but in a smaller scale. Collor received support from the landed oligarchies and from corporate interests rather quickly (the support of major television networks is very stark, when you analyse it). he was suppose to reopen and liberalize a stagnant economy, and bring stability to the new regime. his election adversary was the urban middle classes candidate, Lula (oh the irony), which he beat rather swiftly. two years after he was renouncing under accusations (and conviction) of corruption. what happened?

inheriting a rather deteriorated economic situation (rampant inflation, low capital investment, bloated public sector, etc), his policies of liberalization had the immediate effect of worsening the economic situation of the middle classes, at the same time that it hurt the landed oligarchies. he quickly lost political support in Congress, at the same time that mass protests irrupted in the streets. he renounced short of being ousted. the constitutional cycle closed. the is the basic toy-model of the current crises.

his vice-president, Itamar Franco, took office afterwards, who finished most of the policies Collor had started, and brought a more or less stable economic environment to the country. a note on vice-presidents: to seal the proper alliance between the landed oligarchies and the corporate interests, all of the elected presidents so far had vice-presidents with deep political ties to the landed oligarchies. this ensures that, if the president loses the alliance, he’s replaced at least temporarily by friendly forces.

next, there was FHC‘s eight year government, from 1995 to 2002. in this period we can see the constitution working more or less smoothly: Congress follows the president’s policies rather unquestioningly, struggling merely over specific privileges for their specific localities, the judiciary merely overlooks the process, remaining largely submissive to the other powers.

this also shows exactly why the three sectors would agree to the constitution in the first place: landed oligarchs get resources to strengthen their local power, corporate interests get a regulatory environment suited to their increased profits, and the educated middle classes get a stable economic landscape and the promise of increasing living standards. all of this played out exactly as expected during FHC’s years.

now comes the first rather interesting point of turning. Lula, long a candidate favored by urban middle classes, made sure he got the support of corporate interests as well. advised by a sort of Latin American Steve Bannon, he swore allegiance to the economic orthodoxy – after years of unswerving syndicalism – and started wearing suits (very important). he swept two consecutive presidencies basically unopposed, with ever-rising popularity and rode the so-called “commodity cycle” pretty well. once again, we see the constitution working pretty fine.

there’s a bump in the road in 2005, though. the “mensalão” scandal – essentially a bribery scheme aimed at securing favorable votes in proposed legislation – broke out pretty heavily. the scheme in itself is less interesting than why it popped when it popped. as outlined above, the central interest of the landed oligarchies represented in Congress is acquiring the most resources to spend on local consolidation of power. vote-buying schemes is just one way of doing that, and is as old as any republican government, if not older. why did suddenly become a scandal?

my thesis: whistle-blower Roberto Jefferson (and possibly a small faction within Congress) wasn’t getting enough of the cake. releasing it just before an election-year gave some leverage for negotiation with corporate interests. it wouldn’t be different from most other corruption scandals before, if it wasn’t for the later (and largely unforeseen) heavy involvement of the judiciary, which would significantly alter strategies for the landed oligarchy-corporate interest alliance.

the process was one of the first high-profile cases in Brazil’s Supreme Court, the STF. the judgment, starting in 2007 (well after Lula’s reelection) and only being concluded in 2012, eventually tainted the most important figures in the Worker’s Party that could serve as successors for Lula, such as José Dirceu, as well as driving a lot of other strong names out of the Party, such as Marina Silva. such prosecution of politicians was unprecedented, and already signaled a strengthening of the judiciary power (and thus, by proxy, of the middle classes). all this forced Lula and the Worker’s Party to opt for Dilma Rousseff, a mostly unheard of name, for the succession.

during his second term, Lula had broken with Washington consensus orthodoxy, and started consolidating even more his power with corporate interests. civil engineering, commodity crops and oil extraction interests were heavily propped up, in what came to be knows as the “new economic matrix“, starting off in 2008. it consisted largely in increasing public sector spending with contractors in those industries, including the ambitious projects of hosting a FIFA World Cup in 2014 and a Summer Olympics in 2016. managing to keep GDP soaring, even as economic crisis hit the major world economies, he also kept his popularity. all this, coupled with his strengthening of political ties with PMDB (the major output for landed oligarchies interests), allowed him to successfully back Rousseff’s candidacy in 2010.

it’s here that things start getting convoluted. first, the new economic matrix isn’t sustainable outside of very specific economic conditions (namely, the “commodity cycle”, in which cash crops exports keeps resources incoming into public treasury). as these conditions came to pass (largely due to the slowing down of Chinese growth), the large public sector, and the state controls over several kinds of prices, started generating tensions of the possible agreement underlying the constitution.

i don’t have a historical series for middle class dissatisfaction, but if i had, it would have a big inflection point in 2013. the June 2013 protests were a convergent wave of grievances. the fiscal troubles of the federal government meant the municipalities, largely dependent on federal transfers to fund themselves, had to increase ticket prices for public transportation – the catalytic of the whole thing. couple that with a deteriorating purchase power due to increased inflation, a slow but steady de-industrialization beginning in 2011, and the first convictions for mensalão coming out in 2012, and you’ve got a recipe for a bomb.

the protests might not have solved anything, but it sure gave the middle classes a sense of their recently acquired power, especially with the unsuspected support of the press and mass media (which then started having a few squabbles with the executive). in 2014, the protests continued, now with a more direct anti-government (and also anti-corporate, given the World Cup) bent. all this fueled what’s possibly of the most vile electoral campaign so far in the new democratic synthesis.

with corporate funding falling more or less evenly across the left-right divide, the decisive factor in Rousseff’s reelection was that old alliance with landed oligarchies’ party PMDB. in a state-by-state breakdown, she won mostly where those oligarchies had their tentacles most spread. her victory, though, only signaled that this very alliance was in question.

right after the election, the unsustainable economic policies in place started to unravel, as price controls were lifted. inflation skyrocketed, GDP went into recession, and unemployment rose to all-time heights. the middle class grievances that seemed up until then unproven came starkly into focus, as a new wave of explicitly anti-Dilma protests took the country.

it was also in 2015 that Operation Car Wash began gaining traction. initially a routine money laundering investigation by the federal police, it started unveiling what is likely the largest corruption scheme in the country’s history. again, nothing really new, but of unmatched scale, as money from the state oil company Petrobras was piped in humongous amounts into local power consolidation. the strengthening of the Operation into an all out political case (with all the associated drama and TV time) tracks pretty fairly the strengthening of the judiciary as a representative for middle class power.

by this point in 2015, we begin to see again what we saw as a toy-model with Collor: Dilma slowly loses support in Congress, given her inability to control the judiciary advances over the political class, and at the same time the middle classes are storming the streets with call for her removal. the landed oligarchy-corporate interest alliance was strong enough to postpone her impeachment into 2016, but it frayed as major corporate leaders were arrested and in turn turned in political names, even elected Congressmen.

2016 saw despair on the side of the alliance given the seemingly unstoppable advance of the judiciary, now including the STF. Dilma’s failed attempt to grant Lula immunity after his indictment by appointing him as her chief of staff made the nightly news, as did some leaked calls among Congressmen, in which they plot the impeachment as a way of scapegoating Dilma, in order to “save everyone else”. which eventually happened, leaving Michel Temer as the new Itamar Franco, with a broken economy and a unruly mass of middle class dissatisfaction.

the plot was ultimately to no avail, as the operation kept raging on even after impeachment, as well as the interference of the judiciary in matters that were previously considered part of the attributions of Congress or the president. 2017 saw the attempts at reworking the alliance slowly fraying away, as the regulatory reforms that would supposedly get the economy growing again all but failed completely.

* * *

given the whole history i’ve tried to plot up there, i think the current political and economic crisis in Brazil can be seen as a constitutional uprising of the middle classes through the judiciary against the other two powers, of landed oligarchies and corporate interests. as we slumber towards this years’ election, there are few scenarios that could come to pass in order to either restore the current constitution, or overthrow it in favor of a new one.

one likely scenario is an alliance between corporate interests and the middle classes, in order to elect some neutral name (like Geraldo Alckmin), who could conduct a FHC-style orthodox economic reconstruction. landed oligarchies could get behind this, if there was some concession of immunity against the rampaging judiciary. this would amount to a re-balancing of the current constitutions, granting a more central participation to the middle classes, while it keeps the three powers in play.

the landed oligarchies could, of course, react violently. last time this happened, we’ve got a military dictatorship. they have, after all been governing the country largely uncontested for most of its existence. the election of a name like Jair Bolsonaro would amount to an affirmation of landed power, solidifying again Congress and the executive into what amount to a single entity. how the judiciary would react in such a situation is unknown.

another option is a radical replacement of constitution. landed oligarchies have after all been dwindling their reach since the establishment of the new democratic synthesis, due to urbanization and the consequent strengthening of middle class and corporate powers. if these latter two strike a deal powerful enough cut off landed oligarchies, a new arrangement comes into view. it would have a powerful executive working in tandem with a newly empowered judiciary, to the detriment of Congress. it’s hard to see how that doesn’t veer into neocameral directions. i don’t see any name that could represent such a radical breaking with the established order, so maybe the final resolution gets postponed into the next election cycle.