Home Column Eiiti Sato Brazilian crisis, a case for Political Sociology

Brazilian crisis, a case for Political Sociology

Eiiti Sato is Master in International Relations (University of Cambridge, U.K.) and PhD. in Sociology (University of São Paulo - Brazil), Professor of International Relations of the University of Brasilia (UnB) since 1984. From 2006 to 2014 was director of the Institute of International Relations (IREL) and was the first president of the Brazilian Association of International Relations (ABRI)

Eiiti Sato is Master in International Relations (University of Cambridge, U.K.) and PhD. in Sociology (University of São Paulo - Brazil)

Opinion By Eiiti Sato, PhD.

Looking at the current events in the Brazilian politics our mind inevitably turns into Political Sociology. Current crisis raises many questions which cannot be answered by simply regarding and interpreting the political game among politicians, political parties, and the revelations coming out from “lava-jato”. Such an approach perhaps can be useful to assess – or to guess – possible short term outcomes, but it seems useless to understand more essential and structural questions such as: how and why the Workers Party has succeeded to seize the power in 2002? Why fourteen years later the Workers Party was stepped down from the power leaving corruption and incompetence as its most remarkable heritages? Why in Brazil such an odd thing like “coalition presidentialism” was bred?

Political Science as practiced in current days hardly can explain questions like these because its main focus has been basically concentrated on the functioning of the political institutions and on the role they are playing in the political game as gears of the State machinery facing current problems. To understand properly the roots of the current crisis in Brazil, and to try to find possible road maps to move out from the crisis, it seems necessary to look at the social structure on which the Brazilian political system moves. Who are occupying the main positions in the Brazilian state institutions? Where they come from in terms of social class, and why the social and intellectual elite virtually abandoned politics in Brazil? Which are the norms governing the behavior of the main social forces?

Generally we use to think that most political systems have the problem of been closed to people other than those who are part of the national elite. In the case of Brazil what happens is quite the opposite. If we look at the political world in Brazil we hardly can find someone coming out from the elite in paretian terms. For example in the Chamber of Deputies of the Federal District – the very Capital of the country – among the 24 deputies of the Chamber no one comes from the elite (economic, cultural, or whatever). There are former policemen, labor unionists, primary school professors, public servants, and preachers of small evangelical sects, but none of the 24 deputies comes from the elite as characterized by Pareto or by any other political sociologists who has studied the relationship between society and the ruling class. In other words, among the members of the Federal District Chamber of Deputies none of them come from traditional powerful families or from a previous experience of been a successful businessman, an outstanding liberal professional, or a military who has in his career remarkable achievements. In general terms it seems very much unlikely that what has being happening in the politics of the Federal District is not happening similarly all over the country, i. e. the elite has virtually abandoned, or has been driven out from the political institutions.

Politics transformed into a social ladder

Obviously, as any social phenomenon many reasons can be pointed out to explain why paretian elite has moved out from politics in Brazil. A possible explanation can be the fact that, since the end of the 20th century politics became an activity of diminishing interest for successful businessmen, for talented liberal professionals, and for anyone highly qualified dedicated to activities related to the arts, letters, and science. As a matter of fact to most illustrated men and women politics became increasingly a sort of dirty job when compared to business and to any professional activity in which success is a product of talent, distinguished skills, and of hard work rather than a product of mischief, treachery, and other shameless behavior usually associated to politics. While such a bad reputation of politics was growing up among intellectual circles and among the Brazilian elite in general, for those without any particular talent, lacking of refined education, or poorly gifted in terms of professional skills, politics became a social ladder which could serve them, much better than any other way, as an effective mean to climb the social pyramid.

To those involved in political activities some abilities are necessaries such as convincing rhetoric, determination, and boldness. Everybody recognizes that these abilities are essential to act in political arenas, but such abilities to a large extent are firearms like, i. e. they can be used either for good or for bad purposes. Firearms are used by policemen to avoid crimes and to protect the life of innocents, but can also be used by thieves and burglars to commit crimes. Convincing rhetoric, determination, and boldness can be virtues and qualities of a preacher, and of a community leader, to teach moderation and to convince a political body to make wise decisions, but they can be also abilities used by swindlers and social climbers of any kind to attain their selfish and sometimes wicked goals.

Using the argument of democratization and non-discrimination most requirements were removed to select those who want to enter politics in Brazil. Indeed a road map can be traced to those who want to enter and to progress in politics. At the beginning he can join a labor union or a non-governmental organization (NGO) driven to help the poor, or yet a church of a small religious sect (sometimes created by himself). Next step is to register as a regular member of one of the 35 political parties. Another way is to enter public service in any level to build a network of influential acquaintances which will help him to climb positions and ranks. The high number of political parties combined with the electoral process for city councils of for chambers of deputies turns the political parties virtually unable to work as a filter to select candidates. In most small parties candidates are charged to run for a position producing additional income for the party, and even for big parties due to a tricky mechanism of transference of votes the number of candidates usually is crucial to elect candidates of the party. (10

Furthermore although formally the deputy or the member of a city council cannot be illiterate, there are many decisions of the Electoral Courts in which such a requirement was not observed because the courts have accepted the allegation that such a requirement was discriminatory.  In other words to be elected as member of legislative bodies in municipalities and of deputy chamber in State or Federal level a candidate doesn’t need any particular qualification, and the political parties are stimulated to present as much candidates as possible. In Brazil further than the Federal Government there are 27 States and about 5.700 municipalities, and in all those instances there is no reason to suppose that something different from the case of the Federal District can be happening in terms of who are entering and occupying political positions in legislative and executive branches.

The role of the elite in the political process

The classical works on elite’s theory such as those issued by Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels were driven essentially to explain the composition of the ruling class and the dynamics by which ruling elite is formed and changed along the years specially in democratic societies.  A central question raised by them was why and how a political system absorbs the best gifted people even if they are not rich or members of traditional and wealthy families. More than two hundred years of history show that Brazil has a wide and powerful economic, cultural and professional elite which has been able to produce remarkable works in the various fields of culture and science, and to produce also a complex and sophisticated network of social and political institutions to keep united and stable a country of more than 200 million people distributed over a territory almost as large as Europe.

It may be needless to explain the bad consequences of such a process which produces a deviant behavior of the political institutions. To a large extent the revelations of the “Lava-Jato” and of other investigations conducted by the Courts and by the Brazilian Federal Police are a good portrait of the consequences when political bodies lose their mission. Hundreds of politicians – including  those occupying leading positions in the political system – has been charged and will have probably to face a trial by the Courts accused of bribery and of using public money for their own sake rather than to provide public goods and to build roads, schools and hospitals to benefit the public.

In the Ancient times Aristotle has taught that “politics is the search for the common good”, but modern political science, which started with thinkers as Machiavelli moved to the understanding that to capture appropriately the world of politics the observer should look at the “la verità effettuale della cosa”, meaning that political events and political actors act not moved only by the search for common good as usually declared by rulers of any kind. There are many other motivations which can give birth to political behavior, and even to political institutions as well. A modern historian as Jakob Burckhardt – three  centuries after Machiavelli – has published his The Culture of Renaissance in Italy (1869) which has been recognized as a masterpiece on social science by showing among other things the actual behavior of the main rulers bred by powerful Italian families. The account of Burckhardt is a nude report on how cruel human being can be when threatened, and when power and large interests are at stake within an institutional environment in which the State is lacking of institutions and norms to bound and to control human behavior. If Burckhardt were alive and were observing the world of politics in Brazil probably he would be pointing out the bad outcomes of the process of transforming the mission of the political institutions from “promoting public good” into a “social ladder”.

James Bryce, the British political scientist of the late 19th century, admired the American political institutions, even though he identified some flaws, and in his book referring to the U.S. political system he included two provoking chapters:  “Why  great men are not chosen Presidents” (Chapter VIII), and “Why the best men do not go into politics” (Chapter LVIII). The book The American Commonwealth, was published in 1888 coincidently by the time when the U.S. was steadily rising to become the world’s wealthiest nation. Perhaps a remarkable difference to be considered is that those days American society was heavily betting on efficiency and productivity while in Brazil since the end of the 20 century has been betting on leniency and social inclusion.


(1) By the mechanism called “electoral coefficient” a candidate need to attain the “electoral coefficient” required by the position is running for. For example if the “electoral coefficient” is 50.000 votes, and a political party has presented 10 candidates but none of them has attained 50.000 votes, nevertheless when the total votes of the 10 candidates is considered the political party has 105.000, which means that the political party will have two slots in the Deputy Chamber.

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