The Putschism of yesterday and the Putschism of today

The argument for a moderating power “above political disputes” that could step in in the name of the people to enact regime change began during imperial times and is still used as a justification for returning power to the royal family today. During the 1940s, this so-called “moderating role” was passed on to the Brasilian Military, which had disastrous results in 1964, when it was used as an excuse for a coup which resulted in 21 years of non-transparent, corrupt, neo-fascist rule that destroyed the Brasilian labor movement, political system and, eventually, the economy. In this article, Jesse Souza argues that the Brazilian judiciary has positioned itself as the new “moderating force” in Brazilian society and is a key player in current attempts to overthrow the democratically elected president.  – Brasil Wire

This story has a long tradition. It has been running the same way since the beginning of the 20th Century- when Brasil began to transform into an urban, industrial society. It always reunites the same elements: conservative press, self-righteous sectors of the middle class and interventionists in the constitutional order.

During all of 2015 President Dilma’s second mandate was marked by intense attacks by the media and the National Congress with its so-called “bomb subjects”. The president-elect was put on the defensive and threatened by various impeachment motions. Pressure for her to resign began in the first days of her second mandate. During the height of her popularity it was Dilma who, contrary to Lula’s strategy of conciliating opposing interests, dared to stand up to  the interests of Brasilian speculative capital. Her goal was to stop draining resources from the public social needs into the pockets of the few dozen who control the economy, political system and media, and reroute funds to the productive sector. The strategy was not only sabotaged by the elite, but they are making her pay for it as witnessed by the boldness we are seeing now.

The most important thing here is not only the selective nature with which the question of corruption is addressed, concentrating only on the PT party and using all means necessary to connect ex-president Lula to any scandal in order to disqualify his possible candidacy for the presidency in 2018. Even though this may be partially true, it isn’t, by a long shot, the most interesting part of this story.  It is as clear as the sun at noon that this political crisis, created and manipulated through the media, has lead to an economic crisis. A large part of this was built politically. Furthermore the theme of corruption can only be used to trick and manipulate the population, because the definition of corruption is arbitrary and can be applied according to the pleasure of whoever makes the accusations.

Recently, for example, the press reported that ex-president Lula was a “lobbyist” for Odebrecht corporation abroad. This issue is unexceptional in all advanced countries where presidents constantly pressure to get contracts for their nation’s large industries and service providers. To the contrary of generating mistrust, this issue is viewed as national leaders’ engagement  to maintain  wealth and jobs and each success is commemorated. When the notion of corruption is vague and undefined and can be applied selectively everything is acceptable in favor of your friends and against your enemies (1).  The strategy becomes “if he gets it, he took it” and daily headlines build a heavy artillery against governments with relations and commitments- those which in our case could and should be much deeper- to the poor and working class.

The attack has to be made against the supposed and in fact false (2) “bloating” and “rigging” of the State, always referring to sectors which haven’t been privatized for the use of the 1% but are still used to benefit the majority of the population. The narrative of the demonized State and the virtuous market, first built “scientifically” as analyzed in detail in my recently published book “A tolice da inteligencia Brasileira” (3)  is latter reproduced as a naturalized and self-evident truth that is generally accepted by the public. Whether referring to institutional practices  or anything else across the corners of the whole country, it creates a perfect backdrop for assaulting the national intelligence. Their are even government ministers who use Raymundo Faoro and his nonsense about patrimonialism to  support their arguments in defense of the state (4) or in the attacks on and appeals for dismantling it (5), which were finally accepted and put into practice by the president herself after she was put on the defensive by the same narrative (6).  This fact is the greatest proof that this world view has become practice and continues to command the horizon of our thinking, actions and notions of the impossible.

The fact is that corruption, understood as a negation of fair play or deceipt aimed to profit, is endemic in capitalism and certainly endemic in all other historical forms of social surplus appropriation in all places and historical epochs. Just as the wealthy classes in Brasil build an anti-state ideology to further monopolise and instrumentalise the state in their favour, the historic capitalists created an ideology of the “free market” to legitimise their behaviour. Max Weber, with his extraordinary influence in all of the social disciplines contributed  to connect capitalism to protestant temperance. With this he created a false opposition, accepted today by nearly everyone, between “adventure capitalism” as the capitalism of looting and of great eventual profits and “modern capitalism”, sober, built with a notion of daily profit, permanent but “just” and “restrained”. In this way modern capitalism is perceived as a rational, moral victory that is considered in the Western World one of the great elements of virtue and human perfection.

Nothing could be further from the truth. George W. Bush’s government’s looting of the Middle Eastern petroleum fields under the baton of the great petroleum corporations serves as a continuous example of so-called “modern” capitalist method, enforced both militarily and politically. Regarding sobriety and temperance it if existed one day it doesn’t hold up to any sober analysis. Today’s monopoly capitalism doesn’t just fabricate false accounting statements for companies and countries where there is profit interest and create the illusion that large, fraudulent companies and banks are “too big to fail” (which became evident during the financial crisis of 2008), as also establishes a pricing standard without any rational relationship to effective costs. The producers receive a tiny part of the profit, the great middlemen  earn up to 40 times more without adding any value to the products by the simple fact that they have monopolized control over the market (7). Therefore, this corruption, defined as fooling and falsifying fair trade, is the mode of the day in markets everywhere, much more so in a market that is as poorly regulated as ours.

In Brasil super-profit is seen as intelligent and clever- forgetting that if one person is clever there must be millions of fools-  and corruption is always seen as governmental or of having some kind of connection with the state. This absurd idea gained the hearts and minds of everyone indistinctly, independently of political ideology and is now a type of second skin for all Brasilians.  It functions above all as a political kidnapping by the owners of large fortunes. In eras of recession, as we have now, when the “flour is scarce and you want the first porridge” the wealthy want to cut social spending and keep the state for themselves. This story has a long tradition in Brasil. It has been working in the same manner since the beginning of the 20th Century- when Brasil began to transform into an urban and industrial society. It always reunites the same elements: conservative press, self-righteous sectors of the middle class and interventionists in constitutional order.

The moral-ism of the Brasilian middle class has always been both extremely selective and anti-democratic. It’s implicit selectivity implies seeing evil as always something outside of itself and never in it’s daily actions of exploiting the other classes from which it robs time, energy and any possibility of future redemption. The antidemocratic character that we’ve seen in recent protests of the politicized coxinhas shows nothing new.  Since the 1922 lieutenant’s revolt the policy of universal suffrage was already received as a greater obstacle to the real renovation of Brasilian Society. The middle class’ moral-ism has always unified its disgust for politics in general in search of an idealized virtue that spreads  into an indivisible general will- an  authoritarian illusion that becomes the seed of every revolted politician who has a middle-class and petite-bourgiouse support base from French Jacobism to the past Century’s European fascism.

This authoritarian stew has to be mobilized by the conservative press – as the true party of the dominant order and  its privileges- whenever policies stray from agreements between the wealthy and powerful towards the interests of the majority of the population.  This has happened with no exceptions throughout Brasilian history, whenever universal suffrage is able to put leaders who identify with the working class and poor in power. In all cases the conservative middle class was used as molding clay in the attempts to overthrow the governments of Getulio Vargas, Jango Goulart and now Lula-Dilma. These coups always cite  “popular support” as a form of legitimacy despite always taking place in the interests of a half dozen powerful people. The corruption and its conceptual vagueness is always a theme that galvanizes emotional solidarity with the middle class, which imagines itself morally superior to the other (8) and confers moral and political respectability to these assaults on popular sovereignty. As I said earlier, corruption, defined selectively and arbitrarily, is the only Brasilian way to transform the most private interests into supposed universal interests.

The press is fundamental in this process and the first element in the Coup building strategy. It is needed to legitimize the assault against the principle of popular sovereignty as the only source that enables connecting legality and legitimacy to the democratic and representative regime. With the popular sovereignty consecrated in the vote and the only source of legitimacy of modern power in all its dimensions, including constitutionally consecrated rules (9), the conservative press has always made the dislocations of a Chinese contortionist to discredit the only source of rights for everyone in modern democratic life. For this, it was always necessary (and still is, as we can witness right now) to produce e second item of coup-ist strategy; puff up the captive conservative public – that in a society as perverse and unequal as ours, is anti-people in its essence- with references to an indivisible  “general will”  (10) which, supposedly is more important than the individual will shown in the voting booths. The third formal element in all coup strategies is, therefore, an institutional actor who can channel the pre-fabricated “general will”. The truth is that this is really the will of  a half dozen very wealthy people who manipulate their shock troops, formed within an infantilized middle class that idealizes itself.

What is missing therefore is this third formal element present in all Coups against the principle of popular sovereignty, which has to precisely incorporate the apolitical element that responds to the moralistic anti-political anxieties built among us with a lining of science. This third element should be a type of “Queen of England”  viewed as neutral and above the disputed interests. In part, the very conservative press in Brasil always poses as neutral and likes to sell itself as an institution of public interest” as if it weren’t any other business willing to do  to nearly anything to increase its profits. Since we never made  any regulation of the press  this peculiar type of business- which deals with information and the possibility of manipulating information for business and political goals- has always historically been bought by all types of economic interests that pay the highest price (11). The emblematic figure in this historic phenomenon was Assis Chateaubriand, a species of “patrimony of the Brasilian press” and the purest example, followed by many others, of indiscriminate and truculent political use of the press medium to further advance his wealth and power (12).

Nevertheless, it was always necessary that the third element was anchored in the constitutional order, which in the Brasilian case has had the tradition of the Imperial “moderating power”. Within this division of the work towards the Coup it falls on the “disinterested” and “neutral” press to give the password or create the conviction of a mood of crisis, always based on the critical selection of corruption, so that the unfettered bayonet could exercise its role. This partition of work towards a Coup for maintenance of a society that benefits the few was also reproduced in the “Re-democratization” Constitution of 1946: it’s article 177 guarantees military leaders the powers to judge if the president has disrespected  constitutional powers, law and order (13). The principle of an entitled democracy is transposed in the constitutional text, anchored in the armed forces and in their expressed possibility to intervene when the “public order” is in danger, therefore always in the interests of the dominant 1% if their wealth is threatened. This consolidated the third formal element in all Coups that were made against us, based on constitutional principals, based on the fiction of the existence of an institution that existed above politicians and their parties.

The game of modern Brasilian pseudo-democracy is armed: the consequent approval of the moral-ism of facade in sectors of the  Brasilian media and the resentment against those at the top (always considered corrupt, especially in Government) and the hatred against those at the bottom, destined to to be wittily written off by the “neutral as money” press, views its interests as threatened in some way. Together the “people” (even though 80% are on the outside) and the “neutral press” clamor for intervention by the “non-political” and “non corrupt” Armed Forces, which reflects the “general will” of the entitled and protected.  In the case of Vargas, who implemented soft social democratic strategies of social inclusion that were aimed to be  compatible with dynamic capitalism, the “selective corruption” accusations against leaders connected to the poor and working classes became principal weapon for his defeat (14). Jango Goulart’s base-level reforms were interpreted as communism and the combat against corruption, once again selective in nature (which became much greater and uncontrollable in the military governments that followed him) served once again as the motivation for installing a regime of exception.

Today, few people  see the continuity in this anti-popular tradition of anti-democratic intervention and “white-coup-ism”. The only really effective change related to prior coups is the tact that it hasn’t entered the current Brasilian debate, which is trapped in the current context, theoretically poor and lacking in historical perspective in relation to what is currently underway. Since the military lost legitimacy as guardians of order – first through violence and torture and then by the very cases of corruption among the military in power or those protected by them- the need for another vigilante arose to incorporate the “general will” above politics, to commit justice with its own hands, to the liking of the middle class which approves of, for example, the indiscriminate slaughter of poor people by the police (15)

The perfect candidate to occupy the gap left by the military arose in the 1988 Constitution’s creation of the Executive and Judiciary as control organs which ambiguously reunite the attempt to universalize rights and lack of confidence in politics- created by us through psuedo-scientific means – and the need to install a new “tutelary power”  to preserve the interests of the wealthy, powerful 1%.

These institutions recruit their staff from the conservative and moralist middle class. All of the material and idealistic interests of these institutions which have  some of the highest salaries in the Republic and all manners of benefits, privileges  and social prestige, especially within in its class of origin, are reserved for fighting against corruption. They have gained from the project to substitute the armed forces with a new “moderating power” in Brasilian pseudo-democracy. They are the control organs such as the Federal Accounting Courts, the States Attorney and the Federal Police, allied with the “Vigilante judges” incensed by the conservative media as the new people’s heroes (people here meaning the conservative middle class) as the new representatives of the “general will” (or, the economic interests of the richest 1%). These organs are supposedly above politics, making them the new candidates to incorporate the “moderating power” in the Brasilian pseudo-democracy.

Modern law whose only greatness is the incorporation of popular sovereignty in modern society, is the first to lose with the substitution of the sovereign and objective judge (16) with the narcissistic figure of the vigilante, which accepts incorporation and theaterization of the pre-fabricated “general will”. The very definition of law in the modern form, marked by respect for legal procedures as a guarantor of  the contradictory as a means of securing predictability and judicial security, has been substituted by what Max Weber called “Kadi Justice”. In other words, a material standard of justice built under the command of extrajudicial elements dictated by the context, subject to all kinds of emotional pressure and the interests of the times (17).

The Judiciary has engulfed itself in the mud of this “law by occasion” to increase its control agencies’ relative power within the state apparatus and virtually govern.  Beyond the political interests in occupying space of power, all of the material and ideological interests of the judicial operators fight for this expansion of jurisdiction. Under the guise of being paladins of anti-corruption, they demand higher and higher salaries and more and more benefits of all kinds.

Federal Congressman Eduardo Cunha’s recent offensive comes from another side of the political spectrum. It does not travesty itself of the general interest and doesn’t assume the form of  judicial protagonist which wishfully offers to bury and substitute the political system. It assumes the form of negotiation in the light of day, without using techniques to trick the public. The weakness of the December 13, 2015 protests shows that the public needs to be tricked and manipulated in its real feelings of resentment and despair. If Cunha’s strategy works the result will be a retrogression with unpredictable consequences even for opportunists like the PSDB, which is positioning itself as the faithful heir to the opportunistic coup-ism of the National Democratic Union, which they irresponsibly support. Crisis always has the virtue of showing different interests in the light of day.

Since politics needs hypocrisy I think these judicial coups have the greatest chance of success. The vigilante judges, fueled by the conservative media and with the power to do anything, are throwing 2000 years of civilization’s development in the legal sphere into the garbage. The “super-judge” only has to repeat the same lie every day, that his is above party, economic and political interests. In this way, he can even legally torture people thrown in jails without any proven guilt without any proven judicial reason- a type of psychic torture certainly as cruel as the military’s pigeon perch.

The clothes and the costumes have changed, the coup has modernized itself, substituting the arms for the pseudo-judicial and the appearance of neutrality, the bayonet exits the scene and the archaic and arrogant toga of the judicial opera takes the stage. But the main form is preserved. The same 1%  continues  running everything  and instrumentalizing information for its own pleasure. The other 99% are either directly manipulated, such as the middle class coxinhas or watch the spectacle from a distance, bestialized. As always it is a spectacle that they will have to pay for without the right to participate in the banquet.

Jesse Souza is a political science professer at Universidade Federal Fluminense and president of IPEA. He is the author of “A tolice da inteligencia brasileira” (the stupidity of Brasilian intelligence”) recently published by Leay. This article is a updated and modified version of the final chapter of this book.


1 Aécio Neves, por exemplo, teve sua menção no escândalo da Lava Jato simplesmente silenciada pela imprensa.

2 Segundo trabalho do técnico do Ipea Felix Garcia Lopez, as despesas líquidas com pessoal em relação à receita líquida da União diminuíram entre 1995 e 2014, negando um suposto “inchaço” do Estado. Ao mesmo tempo, apenas 13,1% de todos os cargos de Direção e Assessoramento Superior (DAS) têm alguma relação partidária, negando a tese do aparelhamento. Ver Felix Garcia Lopez, “Evolução e origem dos nomeados para cargos DAS na administração pública federal no período 1992 a 2014”, Brasília, Ipea, 2015.

3 Jessé Souza, A tolice da inteligência brasileira, Leya, São Paulo, 2015.

4 O ministro da Justiça, José Eduardo Cardozo, lembrou na imprensa, quando estourou o escândalo da Lava Jato, que todos os brasileiros, na verdade, usam o “jeitinho”, como ensinado por Faoro e Roberto DaMatta, na vida cotidiana.

5 O ex-ministro da Fazenda Joaquim Levy, em sua posse, citou Faoro, cuja “teoria” não vale um vintém furado, como mostramos aqui, para legitimar o Estado mínimo.

6 O trabalho de Felix Lopez, citado anteriormente, mostra que toda essa discussão do “inchaço” e do “aparelhamento” estatal não guarda nenhuma relação com a realidade.

7 Ver Ladislau Dowbor, “Produtores, intermediários e consumidores: o enfoque da cadeia de preços”, Revista Econômica do Nordeste, v.45, n.3, p.7-16.

8 O fato de estar no “meio da sociedade” implica submissão ressentida aos poderosos acima dela e ódio pelos de “baixo”. A superioridade “fabricada” com relação aos que têm poder é baseada na ilusão de que estes são sempre “corruptos”, transformando a inferioridade econômica e social real em superioridade “moral” fantasiada. Como diz Max Weber, a primeira necessidade das pessoas não é ver a verdade, mas, ao contrário, “legitimar” a vida que efetivamente levam como a melhor possível.

9 Ver sobre isso o clássico de Jürgen Habermas, Faktizität und Geltung [Entre facticidade e validade], Suhrkamp, 1992.

10 Pierre Rosanvallon, La Légitimité démocratique. Impartialité, réflexivité, proximité [A legitimidade democrática. Imparcialidade, reflexividade, proximidade], Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2008.

11 Ver Paulo Henrique Amorim, O quarto poder, Hedra, São Paulo, 2015; e Fernando Morais, Chatô, o rei do Brasil, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1994.

1 Ibidem.

13 José Murilo de Carvalho, Forças Armadas e a política no Brasil, Zahar, Rio de Janeiro, 2005.

14 Ver a excelente trilogia de Lira Neto, Getúlio, volumes I, II e III, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 2014.

15 A matança de pobres, com ou sem a desculpa do tráfico, no Brasil, é uma “política pública informal” com alto apoio popular.

16 É patente a diferença entre um juiz alemão, por exemplo, sempre sóbrio e discreto, com o desavergonhado “narcisismo midiático” de vários juízes brasileiros, em todas as instâncias, em uma função na qual a distância das paixões políticas é precondição para seu bom desempenho.

17 Max Weber, “Rechtssoziologie” [Sociologia do Direito]. In: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economia e sociedade], J.C.B., Mohr, 1985, p.471.


Illustration: Eugêni

By Jessé Souza

Jessé Souza is a Professor of Political Science at UFF and the President of IPEA. Author of "A tolice da inteligência Brasileira", recently released by Leya.