Class war in Brazil: in defence of social security

During the government of the Brazilian President Washington Luís, on referring to the syndicalism of the 1920s, said that “The social question is a police case”. That phrase summarises how the Brazilian political elites have treated movements of social demands. Brazil was experiencing a first wave of industrialisation, the union organisations came from an upsurge in syndicalist struggles that culminated in the 1917 general strike and the 1918 insurrection, with the hegemony of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism. The demands of the subaltern sectors were translated into numerous social protection laws that would be formulated in the following decade. It was a way for the elites to pacify the class conflict.

 

Thus was born the germ of social security in Brazil, with the creation of the Retirement and Pensions Fund in 1923, considered the country’s first social security law. The law provided for medical aid, retirement, dependency pensions and funeral aid. Initially the law only provided for railway workers but was soon extended to other sectors.

Other social protection laws were passed in the 1920s, such as the Holiday Act (1925) and the Child Labour Regulation Act (1926/27) and were part of a broader framework, where working class struggles imposed a scheme of minimum social protection that would be institutionalised in the following decades, starting with the actions of the Getúlio Vargas government and the development of labourism.

 

In Brazil, the institutionalisation of the social security system tied the minimum protection of rights to the control of trade unionism by the state, operated by the Vargas government in the construction of the labour pact. The logic of the game was simple. The workers would support Vargas who, in turn, would guarantee them small economic gains. In the 1950s and 1960s, the populist pact ran out of breath and the political and economic elites constituted a bloc of interests that opposed the national-reformist bloc. Supported by businessmen, politicians and American imperialism this bloc imposed a military dictatorship and crushed the organised working class before it threatened the prevailing system of domination,  but kept a minimum of social security as a form of decompression of the class struggle. The new social welfare system born with the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 was built with the pressure of a vigorous popular and union movement that interfered in the discussions of the new constitution of 1988, helping to establish a set of acts involving Health, Assistance and Social Welfare, using the term “Social Security”.

 

In the 1990s, Brazil was to be integrated into the globalised economy in a peripheral way. The solutions of the political elites were to increase the rate of surplus value by cutting rights and increasing working hours. The Brazilian bourgeoisie tried to resolve the bleeding of the unequal competition of global capitalism by increasing the exploitation of the Brazilian working class. This was done by the presidencies of the liberal governments of Fernando Collor de Melo and Fernando Henrique Cardoso with changes that increased the contribution time of those that wanted to retire.

 

A new class pact and the failure of conciliation

 

The 13-year rule of the Workers’ Party (PT) government was based on a class pact between workers and bosses, where an economy focused primarily on the domestic market and commodity export would guarantee robust gains for Brazilian employers and increase access to consumption for millions of workers. The structural elements of the reproduction of the inequality of Brazilian society remained intact, but the gap between the poorest and the middle class diminished.

This scheme worked efficiently, albeit with innumerable internal contradictions until the 2008 economic crisis. The crisis didn’t affect the second mandate of the Lula government much (2007-2011), but its consequences fully affected his successor, President Dilma Roussef (2012-2016). Both in the Lula government and the Dilma government retirement changes were made that cut into the workers’ flesh but, at the same time, they conceded small economic crumbs of access to consumption and credit that helped reduce class tensions while maintaining the illusions of sustained growth in accordance with capital. These illusions were totally broken in 2013 with the advance of the economic crisis and the political polarisation between two distinct projects of capital management.

The 2013 protests that took the main Brazilian capitals were characterised in their first phase by the defence of social rights and, in their second phase, were already dominated by a conservative coalition. This coalition of neo-pentacostal churches, right-wing groups and ultra-liberal think-tanks radicalised the Brazilian political agenda towards the extreme-right in the following years, deposed President Dilma Roussef and put the ultraliberal agenda in power with the Temer government, Dilma’s Vice. With the help of political elites dissatisfied with the class pact and stimulated by antipetismo (anti-Workers Party-ism), these forces elected the reactionary and proto-fascist Jair Messias Bolsonaro at the end of 2018. With this new economic and political bloc in power, they articulated initiatives deepening capitalist exploitation, total subordination of the Brazilian economy to the international financial system, acceleration of the reprimisation of the economy, destruction of the internal market, together with attempts to criminalise organised social movements. The dismantling of social security would be the most important part of this ultraliberal plan.

 

The attacks on social security and the June 14 standstill

 

The bill to be approved increases the minimum age for workers to retire, decreases the value of the benefit that will be received upon retirement, imposes rules that make it difficult to receive the full value of the benefit, hinders retirement due to work related accidents, increases social and gender inequalities and makes the general living conditions of the Brazilian working class precarious (especially in the countryside) at previously unimagined levels. There are also big interests of the financial system in the so-called private pension system in appropriating workers’ funds and putting them into the financial system casino, as was done in Pinochet’s Chile.

June 14th, despite being planned as a general strike, was limited to standstills in the big capitals of the Brazilian states. This scenario is a symptom of the inability of the major union federations to mobilise their bases. Unionism bureaucratised and coopted by 13 years of the PT government has had its mobilising capacity increasingly reduced to the big institutional apparatuses of the unions and student movement. With some exceptions, the most radical actions of blockading roads were carried out mainly by the most precarious sectors (homeless, landless etc.) and revolutionary political groups outside the major union federations. Even so, these groups alone didn’t have the capacity for wider intervention.

Working class support in general was also modest, due to the erosion of bureaucratised unionism and the conservative consensus, which has gained strength from 2015 until now.

Despite this, the 14th was important to regain strength in the streets, amidst a Bolsonaro government fraught with leaks from private talks by its justice minister acting outside the law. With 12.5% unemployment and a stagnant economy, Bolsonaro's social base is beginning to crumble, but still maintains a hard core of bourgeois, military and middle-class reactionary sectors and part of the wage earners in its defense. The battle against the pension reform will decide not only the future of workers' rights in Brazil, but also the fate of the Brazilian political regime for the coming years. If the government doesn’t approve the reform, the country's chance of again entering a spiral of political crisis may lead Brazil to a new crossroads. May the working class see the crisis as an opportunity to defend and advance their rights!

 

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