Posts Tagged ‘Portugal’


It’s mostly flown under the radar, at least in the United States. But, in Portugal, the ruling austerity coalition, Portugal Ahead, lost its parliamentary majority in yesterday’s election.

Meanwhile, the Left Bloc, the sister party of Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza, looks to be on course for its best-ever result of 10.2 percent of the vote and 19 seats, up from its previous score of eight.


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“I think but I don’t exist,” Lisbon, Portugal (2015)


Most of the coverage of the European parliamentary elections has focused on the success of “populist,” right-wing parties.

However, it is also the case that six countries—most notably Greece but also Spain, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, and Romania—moved not to the Right but to the Left.

Brazil Turkey

Many years ago, in a seminar on the transition to democracy in Portugal, all the presentations were about how the middle-class played the key role in participating in protests against the old regime and demanding democratic rights. I suggested, instead, that workers had been the catalyst of the protests and their demands for new forms of democracy, not the ready-to-compromise middle-class, represented the real challenge to the existing political and social order.

While I cited numerous other examples of the role of the working-class in demanding and expanding democracy—from the British Chartists through working-class organizations’ challenging race- and gender-based exclusions in the United States to unions in the struggle for democracy in South Korea—the modernization thinkers in the seminar scoffed at the idea and went back to talking about the middle-class as the real basis of democracy.

What about now, in the protests we’ve been seeing in recent months in Turkey and Brazil? While the news reports and political commentary I’ve been seeing (like this special Reuters report on “Why Brazil’s new middle class is seething”) emphasize, like the Portugal seminar participants, the role of the middle-class, my own view is they’re overlooking the resentments and desires expressed by members of the working-class (alongside poor people and students).*

As it turns out, even Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (whose work I have criticized repeatedly, such as here and here, in the past) find it necessary to contest the middle-class modernization story:

not only in recent examples, but throughout history, democracy emerges and takes firmer root because of protests and demands from the previously disenfranchised or excluded —-or at least so we argued in our first book, The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

Though the middle class does play a role in the democratization process, it is often not the driver of the protests or even their main catalyst. Democracy arrived in high-growth authoritarian regimes such as South Korea and Taiwan not because of the wishes or the actions of the middle class, but because of the effective protests, in the face of repression and sometimes violence, organized by students and workers. In Britain, even the landmark First Reform Act of 1832, extending voting rights to the middle class, resulted not because of middle-class protests but because of the Captain Swing Riots organized all over the country by agricultural workers as we suggested in The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and a recent paper by Toke Aidt and Peter Jensen documents.

It’s time we move beyond the fixation on the middle-class and give workers their due in creating and then expanding democratic rule in the modern world.

*To be clear, I’m not saying middle-class people aren’t involved in these protests, just that they don’t play the key role modernization thinkers ascribe to them. Also, part of the discrepancy may be a matter of misrecognizing the class positions occupied by the protestors. In my view, the “middle-class” couple that is the center of the Reuters story—a healthworker and a sales clerk who together earn three times the minimum wage in Brazil—are clearly members of the working-class.


A national strike against austerity measures by Portuguese labor unions on Thursday shut down many public services.


Apparently, Paul Krugman and I crossed paths—way back in 1976.

According to his “maudlin memories of youth,” Krugman was one of five MIT graduate students sent to Portugal during the summer to work on the national accounts and to offer economic advice to the folks running the central ban—in a continuation of a long line of mainstream economic advisers from the United States to the Portuguese government stretching back to the 1960s.

Me, after graduating from college, I went with a Watson Fellowship to study the prospects for socialism after the Carnation Revolution of 24 April 1974, with a project titled “The Political Economy of the Portuguese Revolution 1974-1976” (which I mention briefly in this interview).

Krugman found a country that was “fascinating, lovable, and still very poor.” I found a country that, from north to south, was struggling to explore and expand its new-found freedoms and to debate its future after the end of fascist regime of Marcelo Caetano and the Portuguese Colonial Wars in Africa and East Timor. That summer, liberal Mário Soares was elected Prime Minister of a weak minority government (in coalition with the Social Democratic Party), and proceeded to impose austerity measures that were criticized by the opposition Communist Party and the Armed Forces Movement, while collective farms continued to operate on millions of acres of occupied lands in the Alentejo.

1976 was also the year I decided to return to the United States and to apply for a graduate program in radical economics. Places like MIT held no interest for me. Instead, I applied to Stanford (where Paul Baran had taught), the New School, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst and ended up, in 1977, enrolling at UMass.

Today, the right-wing Social Democratic Party led by Pedro Passos Coelho, elected in 2011, is hellbent on imposing the troika-sponsored austerity policies that have resulted in a shrinking economy and 18 percent unemployment.

And, while to my knowledge Krugman and I have never crossed paths again, the Portuguese people have been forced to take to the streets once again to find a way out of the economic crisis.


The motto of the Portuguese government of Pedro Passos Coelho appears to be, if at first you don’t succeed in imposing austerity—because the Constitutional Court struck down more than $1.3 billion in austerity measures—then try, try again—by cutting social security, health, education, and public enterprises.

“Today, we are still not out of the financial emergency which placed us in this painful crisis,” [Coelho] said.

“After this decision by the Constitutional Court, it’s not just the government’s life that will become more difficult, it is the life of the Portuguese that will become more difficult and make the success of our national economic recovery more problematic.”

As Alison Roberts explains,

The drive to cut spending on welfare comes as ever more people in Portugal are relying on it.

Unemployment is at a record high and the government does not see it peaking – at around 19% – until late this year.

It is not as though the areas now being targeted are not being squeezed already.

In health, for example – seen as one of Portugal’s success stories since its 1974 revolution – patients have long had to pay a small fee for check-ups and tests in the SNS, the national health service, unless they fall into one of several categories of exemption. The fees were raised sharply last year.

Meanwhile, as elsewhere in Europe, technological advances and an ageing population are pushing health spending up.

The recession has also seen many people who once had private insurance going public, adding to the burden. The health minister – one of the most respected in the government – had even said that no further cuts were possible.

Opposition parties accuse the prime minister of using the court ruling as an excuse to press ahead with an ideologically-driven plan to roll back the state.

Austerity has repeatedly provoked mass protests, so some of those who celebrated Friday’s court ruling may soon be demonstrating against the government’s proposed replacement measures.