Pi Attitude Zone: Self-Fulfilment

Brazil’s New Middle Class [1]: The Background Story

The middle class is the new force in Brazilian society.  “Middle class” usually means rather dull, with conventional and complacent attitudes and mild manners.  But in Brazil?  There, the new middle class is rather different, as will be clear to anyone aware of the recent eruption of street demonstrations and protest rallies. 

Two enormous trends are rocking the country, one demographic and the other socio-economic.  The dominant demographic change is that black and mixed-race people, previously a powerless and disenfranchised underclass, now outnumber white people for the first time in over a century;  and they vote.  The socio-economic upheaval is the rapid emergence of a large new ethnically-mixed middle class, where before there had mostly been the very rich and the very poor.

A little historical background is probably necessary to understand what is going on now in this vast and fast-changing country.  For centuries, indeed since its origins as a nation, Brazil has set a world standard  for social inequality.  When Portugal sent 400 men (and no women) to colonize the country in 1530, there was a population of about 2.5 million “Indios” spread along the Atlantic coastal strip, mostly Tupi and Guarani.  These indigenous peoples were savagely reduced by European diseases and exploitation.  With the “Indios” largely wiped out or driven off, the Portuguese settlers needed a pliant workforce to tame their vast new territories.  They set about importing a black slave population from Africa, a total of four million of them.  

In the two centuries between 1700 and 1900 (by which late date slavery had mostly ceased in Brazil), slave imports and miscegenation built up a numerically dominant but politically down-trodden population of black and brown folk.  On the back of their labor, Brazil cashed in on its economic riches, first in sugar, then in mining and coffee.  Even with new waves of white settlers from Europe lured by the bonanza, the colored workforce still outnumbered their white masters and bosses by a big margin.

In the early 20th century, with slavery finally gone, Brazil found itself with the same problem as before – an inadequate work force.  Labor shortages have been the dominant factor in Brazil’s history for half a millennium.  The only viable answer was to throw the country open to an unprecedented wave of European immigration, this time from Germany and Italy as well as Portugal.  The sugar and coffee booms had collapsed by then.  Gold and gem mining was in decline.  But white newcomers’ labor helped create a new boom in cattle, crops and minerals.

By 1950, this foreign influx made up about two-thirds of Brazil’s population.  White domination was now numerical as well as socio-economic.  To keep a lid on low-paid workers’ discontent, an army coup in 1964 ushered in twenty years of military rule.  When the junta collapsed under its own incompetence in 1988, Brazil’s first-ever ‘free’ (actually manipulated) elections anointed a “playboy prince” as president.  His ineptness (hyperinflation peaked at 33% per month) was matched only by his astonishing corruption.  In the face of a wave of popular contempt, he was impeached and forced to resign within two years of taking office.

The scene was set for the biggest social, political and economic change in modern Brazilian history.  See Pi’s next blogpost for the continuing story.

Zone: Self-Fulfilment Country: Latin America Product – Communications