Political Liberalization, Social Pacts, and Rural Politics in Brazil

Dwight R. Hahn
John Carroll University


This paper examines the current political alliance in Brazil of the PSDB and PFL and its implications for rural politics in the northeast.[1] In particular, the analysis here was motivated by the question of whether the formal process of political liberalization initiated by the Ernesto Geisel government has affected or could affect the rural politics of northeast Brazil. The tentative answer to that question is that rural unionism, combined with urbanization has made for a shift in northeast Brazil away from the patriarch-dominated politics of the past toward the patrimonial politics of industrial, southern Brazil. Thus, where clients have moved away from (i.e., migrated to the city) or have joined an autonomous rural union movement, the patriarchal relations that controlled political behavior have been severed. Nonetheless, this did not mean there has been an unfolding of liberal pluralist political behavior.

In fact, while the formal procedures of political liberalization have allowed a certain reshuffling of the key constituencies, the very alliance of the PSDB and PFL represents (at least for the near term) a stable, and stabilizing, combination of political elites from both the urban southern (patrimonial) Brazil and the rural northeast (patriarchal) Brazil. This alliance was able to keep the outsider (from below) Luis Inácio da Silva from the Presidency. Currently it is vigorously engaged in the seemingly "neoliberal" project of privatization and the exclusion from state power of the populist remnants of corporatist Brazil. For the political elites of the northeast who have found their national political voice in the PFL, the alliance has helped assure them of their positions of power and privilege despite the rhetoric of land reform from the camp of the PSDB. This paper's major argument is that the national level alliance of the PSDB and PFL has provided a new means by which the traditional elites of the northeast may continue their domination of northeastern society and politics.

Patrimonialism and Patriarchalism

Key to explaining the significance of the current regional alliance indicated by the PSDB-PFL compact, are the concepts of "patrimonialism" and "patriarchalism." These terms come from Weber's (1947: 347-358) use of the them to describe forms of traditional authority. He used patrimonialism to refer to an authority relationship in which the leader controlled an administrative staff selected from his "patrimony" and based on personal loyalty to the leader. Further, through this administrative apparatus the leader was able to compel obedience from "subjects" rather than persuading compliance from "members." In such a social entity, political rights and economic rights came together, in the sense that political power included the command of all resources. Property rights or political rights for any group independent of the leader (or state authority) did not exist.

Richard Morse (1992, citing Mario Góngora[2]) makes use of the concept of patrimonial state and society to explain political behavior in Latin America generally, in contrast to North American political behavior. As Morse explains, patrimonial leadership was ever alert to forestall the growth of an independent aristocracy (1989:105). Riordan Roett cites Raymundo Faoro's use of Weber's concept to explain Brazilian political history in Donos do poder (Roett, 1992: 33). Through usage the term has come to indicate a state that, because of the "inherent logic" set in motion at its foundation, concentrates political and economic power inside the sphere of the state. Civil society, essential to Lockean liberal politics, or "pluralist politics," is given short shrift in such an arrangement. The state dominates society.

Another distinction based in Weber's terminology and description of "traditional authority" is that between patrimonial and patriarchal social relations (and political arrangements). In a recent manuscript that overviews much of the Brazilian literature on Brazilian political culture, a Brazilian political scientist observed that southern Brazilian politics were based in patrimonialism while politics of northeastern Brazil were based in patriarchalism.[3] Weber's description of patriarchalism involves a leader who is without the means of physically compelling obedience--i.e., without an administrative staff. From this, according to Weber, follows the relationship of leader to member rather than leader to subject. This is to say that political/social relations within a patriarchal entity tend toward the "communal," whereas social relations in the patrimonial entity, outside of the relationship between members of the administration and the leader, can tend toward the "associational." That is, one of the distinguishing characteristics between a patrimonial and patriarchal entity is that the latter is composed entirely of "members" while the other is composed of those who belong to the "administration" and those who do not but are compelled to belong to the social entity through the threat of force.[4] Thus, the political behavior of patrimonial society is bound to be different from that of patriarchal community.

Another distinction between patrimonial and patriarchal social relations is in the nature or size and power of the political authority--i.e., state--that exists. Patrimonial states are concentrations or centralization of political (and economic) authority. Thus, the phrase "patrimonial-based state," i.e., the state based in a patrimonial tradition, describes the state that developed in southern Brazil. This is not to say that it took a single configuration. One variant of such a state is the corporatist state of Getúlio Vargas, but so too is the "developmentalist" state of the Juscelino Kubitschek government and the post-1964 military governments. Patriarchalism does not contain the inherent logic necessary for, or is supportive of, the development of a strong state. Political authority is spread horizontally rather than vertically among "patriarchs." This describes the politics that developed in northeast Brazil (and other parts of rural Brazil) where agrarian elites dominated politically through alliances with each other, the state governors, and municipal mayors. When the apparatus or bureaucratic structures of the state and federal executive authority did expand (e.g., the Vargas period), those structures were used by elites as resources (e.g., jobs and contracts ) for distribution of patronage to their "members" (Chilcote, 1990: 113-140). Whether through political parties, white collar jobs in the bureaucracy, or as "peons" on the land of the "patron," members of a patriarchal entity are loyal to the patron or patriarch. Through these social relations rural elites were able to organize support for their party candidates. That is, patronage, or clientelist, politics worked to assure the political domination of the local elites.

In this way the PFL (along with its "relatives" the PDS and the PPR) was able to dominate the elections of the northeast in the post-military period in rural areas. Election data[5] from the gubernatorial races of 1994 demonstrate the dominance of the PFL (or its alliance) in the northeastern states that lacked a rural union movements independent of clientelist or corporatist ties to the state[6]. Of the nine northeastern state, these states were Maranhão, Sergipe (where PFL and PSDB stood in the same alliance), and Bahia. In seven of the states (including Sergipe) the PSDB or its alliance won the governorship (and, except for Ceará, the PFL alliance was a close second). Only in the state of Pernambuco (site of some the most aggressive rural union activity) did an alliance that included PT win the governorship.[7]

Survey research on preferences for 1994 Presidential candidates indicates that urban populations (particularly in the northeast) gave the highest percentages to PT candidate, Luis Inácio da Silva.[8] Without his alliance with the PFL and its ability to pull in votes through its clientelist networks in the northeast, Cardoso would have been hard pressed to defeat Inácio da Silva. It was precisely the ability of the rural ruling class to enforce traditional lines of authority that allowed the PFL to deliver a winning ticket with the PSDB. The strength of the PFL demonstrates the continued significance of the patriarchal social relations to the lines of political authority and loyalty in the northeast. That is, political behavior associated with the patriarchal social relations has not been erased. Further, where the parties representing the rural ruling class has been broken, political behavior has not necessarily become liberal pluralist.

Lack of Lockean Liberalism and Lack of Civil Society

Neither patriarchalism nor patrimonialism provides the "inherent logic" of a strong civil society. Political liberalization involves the self-creation of a civil society that, for political purposes, is composed of associations (freely formed and joined by individuals with self-determined similar interests) that can and do influence the rule-making and implementation process of the state. The creation of the conditions, at least, for such formal political liberalization to occur in Brazil was intentionally pursued by the Geisel government in Brazil (Skidmore, 1988: 163-165). The difficulty in obtaining liberalization in Brazil, or any other Latin American country, begins however in its political tradition. The conceptualization as well as the practice of an active civil society separate from the state is based in a liberal tradition that for the most part has not been part of the dominant Brazilian political tradition.

To complete the charting of the practices of patrimonialism and patriarchalism, we need to overlay the ideologies of Thomism and positivism. As argued by Richard Morse, Brazilian (and Latin American) political culture has been dominated by Thomistic ideology.[9] This ideology has supported the political practices of hierarchy, personal loyalty, and building of the patrimonial-based state and its variant forms. What at first glance may appear to be an opposing ideology is that of "positivism." The Brazilian military in particular was influenced by the belief in social progress through "scientific" examination and manipulation of society (see, e.g., Roett, 1992). Positivism,[10] in particular, recognizes the efficacy of the state. Both ideologies, Thomism in particular, leave little room for a Lockean liberal support for the efficacy of a civil society filled with individuals following their self-perceived interests. [11]

In fact, then, the patriarchalism of the northeast is not being threatened by liberalism. It may, at some point, be threatened by the patrimonial state--but it has so far maintained accommodation with the patrimonial center. Patrimonialism itself, however, may be threatened by liberalism. That is, Cardoso's PSDB might conceivably represent a liberal surge against the patrimonial state. But such an idea must counter with Cardoso's use of the state to promote his party's social democratic vision of the good society. Both Cardoso (1993) and his Minister of Administration, Luis Carlos Bresser Pereira (1993) have argued that the purpose of the privatization program is to make the Brazilian state leaner and stronger. In his 1993 article, Cardoso argues that government should be neither ideologically neoliberal nor populist--caving in to demands from below.

The tight relationships between state and civil groups of the Vargas corporatist period and the developmentalist period may be shrugged off by the new state. But, the state is doing the shrugging and the state is still being viewed as the tool for directing society. And, indeed, this is where the PSDB and the PFL will no doubt part company--the one from the positivist-patrimonial tradition, the other from the neoliberal (economically) patriarchal tradition. That is the PFL is following the logic of its tradition by calling for the reduction of the patrimonial state (and protecting its independent social position in the northeast). Up to that point, however, both the positivist PSDB and patriarchal PFL can agree on the use of state to engage in desestatização.

Conclusion: Future of the Alliance

Through the period of "developmentalism" of the 1946 Republic and into the military period, the Brazilian state had become a bureaucratic entity responsible for product and employment as well as the administration of social programs such as health care and social security. A state so large was bound to crowd out the economic interests of at least some of Brazil's business class. It's very existence challenged the notion that Brazilian society could develop an active civil society (that is composed of groups not directed by or economically dependent upon the state.) Instead, the Brazilian state had been effectively taken control of by its bureaucratic class, Such a structure is incompatible with liberal politics as well as being a major impediment to privatization (or to use the Portuguese word, "desestatização," which speaks directly to the idea of the state's undoing). As state bureaucrats, workers, and private providers to the state enterprises formed an alliance to prevent privatization, the Cardoso administration has mobilized politicians and electoral support for that process. Ironically, the alliance of FHC's PSDB with the PFL represents a politically successful combination of positivist (or technocratic) social democratic thinking and patriarchal traditions within the common ground of neoliberalism.[12]

Through the alliance, the PFL has effectively protected its elite constituency from the threat of serious land reform. Land reform was a conceivable threat precisely because the political objective of the social democratic (and technocratic) PSDB policy-makers was (and remains a part of the PSDB rhetoric) the reform of the current use of rural land in much of the northeast. In its effort to strengthen the state by reforming the state enterprises, the PSDB has cast aside its own left's concern with land reform. Electorally this make no or little difference to the PSDB--the organized rural left has gone PT anyway. For the PFL, where the rural northeast landholders and their clients are essential to the party's legislative strength, the PSDB's interest in agrarian reform is not threatening because it is being proposed for areas that have essentially lost their meaning either as sites of production (commercial agriculture) or as sites of status (for traditional landed elite). [13] In exchange for not seriously pursuing such policies, the PSDB has gained the PFL's support in undoing the bureaucratic or technocratic state. Nonetheless, the PSDB and the administration of Cardoso is not simply content with privatization. They share in the technocratic heritage of what Riordan Roett (following in the work of Raymundo Faoro) calls the "patrimonial" state. The PSDB wishes "to grow" the private economy and begin income redistributive programs. That is, the PSDB does have a social democratic vision of society even if it is a vision it would impose from above. This vision is bound to conflict with "patriarchal" politics of the northeast elites.


Bresser Pereira, Luis Carlos

1993 "Reforms and Cycles of State Interventions" World Development Volume 21, Number 8: 1337-1353

Cardoso, Fernando Henrique

1993 "The Challenges of Social Democracy in Latin America," in Social Democracy in Latin America: Prospects for Change, edited by Menno Vellinga, Boulder: Westview Press

Chilcote, Ronald

1990 Power and the Ruling Classes in Northeast Brazil Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Dos Santos, Wanderly Guilherme

1977 "Liberalism in Brazil: Ideology and Praxis," in Terms of Conflict: Ideology in Latin American Politics, edited by Morris Blachman and Ronald Hellman, Philadelphia: Institute for Human Issues

Maybury-Lewis, Biorn

1994 The Politics of the Possible: The Brazilian rural Workers' Trade Union Movement Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Morse, Richard

1992 (third edition) "Claims of Political Tradition," in Politics and Social Change in Latin America: Still a Distinct Tradition, edited by Howard Wiarda, Boulder: Westview Press

Roett, Riordan

1992 (fourth edition) Brazil: Politics in a Patrimonial Society Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers

Skidmore, Thomas

1988 The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil: 1964-1985 New York: Oxford University Press

Weber, Max

1947 The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, translated by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parson, edited by Talcott Parsons, New York: Oxford University Press

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