Pi Attitude Zone: Self-Fulfilment

Brazil’s New Middle Class [2]: Shedding History’s Chains

Pi’s previous blogpost looked at the historical background to the recent “middle-class upheaval” in Brazil.  The spate of marches and demonstrations have targeted modest but unjustified rises in public transport fares, the “wasted” public funds lavished on FIFA-mandated stadia for World Cup football games, lousy public services in general, and rampant corruption in public life – a legacy from centuries of haughty rule by a white minority with an unshakeable sense of entitlement.

Pi thinks something bigger is going on than just the four grievances listed above.  It has to do with an emergent middle class newly aware of its numerical power, raising its expectations, and finding its voice.  A former underclass has discovered a collective political influence, and is demanding a place at the table for the first time in Brazilian history.

In the mid-1990s the polarization between rich and poor in Brazil began to shape-shift into something else.  The catalyst was an able technocrat president, Fernando H. Cardoso, who reversed the policies of the generals, tamed the country’s hyperinflation, and set the scene for modernization.  His successor as president was Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva, a former hero of labor strikes during the era of military rule, and leader of the Labor Party (PT - Partido dos Trabalhadores). Lula had stood for president before, and had the prize snatched away.  He finally came to office in 2003 at an auspicious moment, with inflation tamed and a raw materials boom already under way.  (At the time, a fast-expanding China was buying whatever Brazil could produce).

The national economy grew fast during the Lula presidency, and for the first time in Brazil’s history the benefits were shared around among pretty much everyone.  New social programs like Bolsa Familia (the family allowance) put money in the hands of desperately poor families, and raised them from poverty in their millions.  (The quid-pro-quo was that mothers had to get their kids vaccinated and make sure they attended school).  Since Lula’s accession in 2003, around forty million Brazilians (out of just under 200m) have joined the burgeoning middle class.  Economic growth has now slowed to a crawl, and a recent credit boom has left many with burdensome debts, but people are still better off than a decade earlier.  As always in this vast country, unemployment is low by world standards, and openings for workers remain high.  People power tends to grow when labor is in demand, once it can no longer be suppressed by the whip or the baton.

Since 2011, Lula’s protégée Dilma Rousseff has held the presidency.  What did Lula bequeath her? 

Whatever else he did or did not do, Lula's policies  gave the “have-nots” in Brazil new hopes and expectations, a feeling that they could take their place at the table, and a new conviction that they deserved it.  The "Lula Factor" must have worked, because the rich people have been complaining behind their hands that they now have to share airports and beach resorts with “those people”.  Not everyone in Brazil really likes or admires the “carnival/samba/feijoada” attitude to life, a reality that few non-Brazilians understand.   

But now the black/brown folk are in the majority again, for the first time in 100 years.  That combination of factors is proving socially explosive in all kinds of ways.   See Pi’s next blogpost for the continuing story.

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