Portugal Table of Contents

For centuries the most distinctive feature of Portugal's social structure was its remarkable stability. Portuguese society was long cast in an almost premodern, quasifeudal mold. It was based on strong considerations of rank, place, and class. The system consisted of a small elite at the top, a huge mass of peasants at the bottom, and almost no one in between. Because Portugal's industrialization arrived so late, the country did not experience until late in the nineteenth century some of the class changes associated with rapid economic development in other nations. When industrialization finally did come, Salazar's dictatorship held its sociopolitical effects in check almost to the very end. Then these pent-up changes exploded in the Revolution of 1974.

Historically, Portuguese society consisted of two classes. Social prestige, political power, and economic prosperity were based on the ownership of land. The land was concentrated in large estates owned by a small elite which had obtained lands and titles during the reconquest of the peninsula from the Moors. As the Portuguese armies drove the Moors farther and farther south, their leaders acquired rights to the use and eventually ownership of the lands they conquered. These titles were confirmed by the king in return for the landowners' loyalty and service. It was, in its origins, a classical feudal contract but derived in the Portuguese case from warfare and territorial conquest. The Roman Catholic Church also held vast lands. From the very birth of Portugal, then, landed, governmental, military, and religious authority were closely bound.

The rest of the population counted for very little in this social order. The small traditional middle class, consisting of soldiers, merchants, artisans, and low-level bureaucrats, lacked any solidarity as a class or numbers to give it political power. The remaining 90 percent of the population eked out meager existences as tenant farmers, serfs, and peasants. Little social mobility existed. Instead, one accepted one's station in life and did not rebel against it; to do so was not only forbidden but seen as an affront to God's immutable laws. Generation after generation, down through the centuries, this rigid, unyielding, hierarchical social structure persisted.

It was not unusual that from the twelfth century through the fourteenth century, Portugal's formative years as a nation, the country was organized in this two-class system and on a feudal basis; that was the norm in Europe. What was surprising was that this class system and all its rigidities lasted through the seventeenth century, when the system became even more consolidated, and beyond. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a "new rich" class emerged that was based on commerce and investment, but members of this class bought land, intermarried with the old elite, and thus perpetuated the two-class system.

Even in the twentieth century, despite the onset of modernization, this structure persisted. With economic stimulus, a new middle class began to emerge. But it largely imitated upper--class ways--disdaining manual labor, cultivating genteel virtues, and distancing itself from the lower classes--and was coopted into the elite's way of thinking and behaving. In addition, an industrial work force began to grow up alongside the traditional peasantry, but under Salazar its labor unions were kept under control, and the workers had no independent bargaining power. Just as the emerging middle class joined the elite, the emerging working class was kept down as a sort of urban "peasantry." In this way, the essentially conservative and two-class system of Portugal was perpetuated even into the era of industrialization.

Under Salazar the regime did little to ameliorate the social inequalities that had long existed in Portugal. Salazar recognized that his strength lay with the conservative, traditional elements, especially the strongly Catholic peasantry of the north, so he did little to increase literacy or improve the road system that would lead to increased mobility, urbanization, and the eventual undermining of his power. He also tried consciously to keep Portugal isolated from the modernizing and culture-changing currents of the rest of Europe. His corporative system brought some benefits to the workers, but it also kept them under the strict control of the regime. Moreover, during Salazar's rule, Portugal lagged even further behind other nations in terms of housing, education, and health care.

Several sociological studies carried out in the 1960s confirmed that Portugal's ossified, hierarchical social structure continued even into modern times. One study found four social categories: an upper class of industrialists, proprietors, and high government officials accounting for 3.8 percent of the population; a middle stratum of rural proprietors, military officers, teachers, and small-scale entrepreneurs constituting 6.9 percent; a lower-middle stratum of clerks, low-level civil servants, military enlisted men, and rural shopkeepers adding up to 27.2 percent; and a majority--62.1 percent--consisting of workers, both rural and urban. Another study located 1 to 2 percent of the population in the upper class, 15 to 20 percent in the middle class, and 75 percent in the lower class. Both studies, carried out independently, arrived at strikingly similar conclusions.

Yet, even with all this rigidity, class change was beginning to occur, as a result of the slow modernization of the economy. Some groups were losing their traditional status and social power and were being displaced by groups better able to function in the evolving economy. These changes can be shown through a closer examination of the various groups that made up the country's elite, middle, and lower classes.

The Elite
The Middle Class
The Lower Class

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress