by Pedro Henrique Santos Queiroz

Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling


Whether as a category of social stratification or a subject of collective action, the term “class” has appeared frequently in recent debates about Brazilian political life. The renewed interest in the topic can be traced back to, at least, the first attempts to interpret the experience of upward social mobility by numerically expressive groups of people during the years of the government of the Workers’ Party (Portuguese acronym: PT) at the head of the Presidency of the Republic. There was then a diffuse perception that something was changing in the Brazilian class structure, and that, whatever these changes might be, they would affect somehow the forms of the political expression of the social conflict.
An important part of these debates has been guided by the authorial contribution of academics who went through the presidency of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Portuguese acronym: IPEA). According to the official description available on the institution´s website: “IPEA is a federal public foundation linked to the Ministry of Economy. Its research activities provide technical and institutional support to governmental actions for the formulation and reformulation of Brazilian public policies and development programs”. In short, IPEA functions as a kind of Brazilian federal government´s official think tank.
In the following, we will present a brief overview of the authorial contributions of former IPEA´s presidents Marcio Pochmann (from 2007 to 2012), Marcelo Neri (from 2012-2014), and Jessé de Souza (from 2015-2016). We use the expression “authorial contributions” to signal that these perspectives were developed independently by the authors in their respective academic trajectories and do not necessarily coincide with the institutional production of IPEA.
From Lula da Silva’s first term in 2003 until the deposition of Dilma Rousseff in 2016, there is an interesting dissonance between the presidents’ speeches and those from militants of the Workers’ Party. While the militant base remained more attached to the party´s labor identity and origins, which led them to see the popular groups who experienced upward social mobility in those years as part of a “new working class”, in several public statements by Lula and Dilma, the thesis of the rise of a “new middle class” is endorsed.
The most consistent elaboration of the thesis of the emergence of a new middle class is that of Marcelo Neri, presented in his 2011 “The New Middle Class: the bright side of the poor”, which uses the criterion of family income per capita, and points to the growth in the 2003-2009 period of class C. In monetary values, class C identified by Neri is the one whose family income is between R $ 1064.00 and R $ 4561.00 at 2010 prices in big Sao Paulo. During this period, this class grew 34.32% (about 29 million people), and became the majority (50.5% of the population), largely from the absorption of groups from classes D and E, which fell, respectively, 11.63% and 45.50% (Neri, 2011, p 12-13). Neri adopts an evasive solution to avoid the classic sociological debate about social classes by stressing that his definition of the middle class refers only to the average statistical location of this group about the other income groups.
However, the definition of class C as a statistical middle class is problematic, since the rents earned at the top of the pyramid are underestimated in the PNAD (National Survey of Household Samples, the main basis used by Neri), which distorts downwards the real average.
The book “New Middle Class? The work at the base of the Brazilian social pyramid ” was published by Marcio Pochmann as a direct response to Marcelo Neri in 2012, the same year in which Pochmann left IPEA and assumed the presidency of PT´s Perseu Abramo Foundation.
Pochmann’s objection to the characterization of rising groups as a new middle class is based mainly on the criterion of occupational insertion. In this sense, the author highlights the greater concentration of jobs that were created during the PT government period in low-paid, high-turnover jobs in the service sector. Based on databases from the Ministry of Labor and Employment (acronym in Portuguese, MTE) and Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (acronym in Portuguese, IBGE), Pochmann identifies that of the net total of 21 million jobs created in the 2000s, 94% of them were up to 1.5 minimum wages (which, for, in turn, had a real and significant increase in the period), with the tertiary sector generating 2.3 times more jobs than the secondary sector, an increase of 10% in the global turnover rate to the past decade (from 33.5% in 1999 to 36.9% in 2009) and average annual growth of formal outsourced employment of 13.1% (against an average of 9% in the past decade).
In a different direction from that of his predecessors in the presidency of IPEA, Jesse Souza developed an approach on class inequality that privileges its explanation in terms of habitus dispositions, a sociological concept taken from Pierre Bourdieu that refers to a socially constructed and lasting set of behaviors and lifestyles acquired, in large part, in a pre-reflexive way. With this, Souza moves away from the centrality attributed to the income and occupational insertion components in the definition of the class condition and draws attention to the “affective, invisible, imperceptible transmission because of every day and within the private universe of the home” of lifestyles and emotional factors related to success or failure in the labor market (Souza, 2012, p. 24). Per this theoretical orientation, Souza’s methodological choices are to value individual case studies, chosen for their quality of statistically relevant social types, with successive qualitative interviews. Following these guidelines, Souza’s great conclusion is to identify two groups of the popular classes in Brazil, “the rabble” and the “battlers”, both of them not identifiable to the middle class.
The “rabble” is composed of marginalized and invisible sectors, of precarious habitus, which does not guarantee the material and emotional conditions (discipline, self-control, prospective thinking) to participate in the competitive social order with something more to offer than your own body as a cheap and disposable source of physical strength. They are domestic servants, motorcycle couriers, drug trafficking “soldiers”, prostitutes, among others. The political profile of the scum is fatalism, magical thinking, and acceptance of the image of delinquency that is imputed to them from above by the dominant ideology.
The “battlers”, on the other hand, are one step above. They are telemarketing operators, small rural owners, marketers, among others. Freed from the extreme social vulnerability of the rabble, they can incorporate elements of work ethics and meritocratic ideology, without, however, being confused with the established middle class: “halfway between prison in everyday need, which characterizes the“ rabble “And their lifestyle, literally without a future, and the privilege of” being able to wait and prepare for the future “, which characterizes the middle and upper classes, we have the lifestyle typical of the fighters” (Souza, 2012, p. 52 ).
To conclude: the question of whether groups that experienced upward social mobility in Lula and Dilma governments should be considered as a new middle or working class was not trivial. The political implications of answering this question were imbricated to different agendas about what kind of society Brazilians collectively aimed to live in what seemed to be then ( in the years 2000´s and the first half of the 2010s) the near future. In that sense, the ongoing worsening of social indicators since 2015 points to the end of the cycle in which these questions were made and the need to reframe its concepts to the new configurations of class inequalities that are now emerging in Brazil.