The Revolution Will Be Organized: Power and Protest in Brazil’s New Republic, 1998-2018
What explains the resurgence of authoritarianism in some of the world's largest democracies? In Brazil, a rich literature documents the successes and shortcomings of left-wing social movements, but far fewer studies examine the anti-democratic countercurrents with which they contend. The recent election of a neo-fascist military officer to the presidency and dramatic welfare state retrenchment beg systematic inquiry into the organizational underpinnings of the country’s shifting political terrain. Despite substantial reduction of economic inequality throughout the 2000s, apparent structural improvements did not correspond with deeper democratic engagement of the subaltern masses. Drawing on a five-year prospective case study that began at the height of the leftist Worker’s Party (PT)’s popularity, this study examines the organizational foundations of political power in Brazil. Secondary survey data and more than 200 in-depth interviews situate the research in historical perspective, while two years of ethnographic fieldwork and longitudinal social network analysis are used to (1) map the changing organizational universes of the Brazilian Right; and (2) prior to observing key outcomes of interest, compare the strategic interaction of 36 political collectivities across the ideological spectrum as they jockeyed for state power during a high-stakes electoral contest. This meso-level examination of how political parties, right and left-wing social movements, and the country’s financial, industrial, agricultural, and religious power elite interact reveals how a constellation of right-wing actors wield power—often invisibly—in Brazil.
The findings corroborate the scholarly consensus that organized groups of economic elites wield more power than any other set of actors in the political field, but shed new light on the mechanisms by which blocs of investors dominate the formal political arena even during times of rupture. These mechanisms are not always effective and must be understood in the context of the age and fragility of democratic institutions, a highly fragmented party system, the international economic conjuncture, and a domestic war of position that took place at the level of informal politics, particularly in churches, newsrooms, and think tanks across the country. In this way, economic elites rendered their political power less obvious, allowing them to evade direct confrontation from both social movement challengers and a newly empowered judiciary. In the presentation, I offer some discussion about the utility of studying the links between fractions of capital and formal politics in order to understand the ascendance of authoritarianism worldwide.
I conclude by offering a sketch of a theory of civic capital. Civic capital is distinct from the much more common and well-studied arsenal of capitals at more traditionally powerful social actors’ disposal (human, cultural, economic, political, and social) because it is the only one that can only be held, accumulated, and spent at the level of the collective (rather than the individual). It is also distinct from what scholars often describe as “disruptive capacity,” a source of power sometimes generated by mass mobilizations. Where democratic forces outmatched authoritarian ones in my case study, I observed higher levels (and more strategic use of) civic capital.
Liz McKenna is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley. Her book, Groundbreakers: How Obama’s 2.2 Million Volunteers Transformed Campaigning in America (co-authored with Hahrie Han, Oxford University Press, 2014) examines how the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns expanded traditional models of field campaigning using the principles and practices of community organizing.
Liz’s broader research agenda focuses on how protests and social movements across the ideological spectrum interact, and how they vary in their capacity to influence formal politics. Her dissertation uses a prospective case study design to study the leadership, membership, organization, and strategies of right and left-wing movement coalitions in Brazil as they contest state power.
Before Berkeley, Liz worked as an organizer in Rio de Janeiro and Port Clinton, as a regional field director in Columbus for the Obama re-elect, and as the founding program manager in the San Francisco Bay Area for New Sector Alliance. She holds an M.A. in sociology from UC Berkeley and a B.A. in social studies from Harvard College.