Inequality as a structural block

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By VLADIMIR SAFATLE*

Economic inequality brings with it a properly biopolitical urgency; it defines the rhythms of life and death that separate social groups

Equality is the fundamental normative horizon of democratic life. Its meaning is not linked to some form of imposition of homogeneities, as if it were not possible, in an egalitarian society, the effective recognition of difference. In fact, we can say exactly the opposite, namely that only in a radically egalitarian society are differences and singularities possible. For, in this context, “equality” means absence of hierarchy, absence of subjection. When hierarchy reigns, differences can only be experienced as inequalities, as hierarchy imposes levels of values. What is different from what is above is necessarily less valued. In this sense, being different in a hierarchical society means being unequal, being more vulnerable, not conforming to what is expected in order to have power.

It should also be noted that the critique of hierarchy does not necessarily mean ignorance of the existence of social relations based on authority and power, but simply means that such relations of authority and power can circulate in various directions, that they do not crystallize, that they are continuously reversible and dynamic. That is, in a society devoid of hierarchy, power relations do not become domination relations.

Power and domination are not necessarily the same thing, although they often overlap. Power is the ability to exercise your own power of action and engage others in this process. Power is understanding that this power of action is not individual, but is an expression of the unfolding of social relationships, past and current, of which I am a part. Therefore, the action that derives from it is not an imposition. She is a date. Every encounter is a power relationship, as it allows the circulation of dynamics of action and transformation through a collective engagement that resonates unconscious dimensions of my motivations to act.

Domination, in turn, is the subjection of the will of one subject to the will of another. Therefore, it can only exercise itself as command and surveillance. For an individual will is exercised only by force or by the promise of participation by later commands.

That is, in a radically egalitarian society, differences are not destroyed by hierarchies, power circulates and does not crystallize in specific points. And if differences are not destroyed, it means that an egalitarian society recognizes such differences, that is its real dynamic. We must speak of “dynamics” in this context because recognition is not simple recognition. Recognizing something or someone does not simply mean taking note of its existence. Rather, it means structurally changing who recognizes, because by recognizing another that until then I did not recognize, something in my world changes, I am affected by what until then was non-existent to me, a structural mutation of the field of experience occurs. Therefore, egalitarian societies are plastic and in continuous mutation.

These initial statements serve to remind how inequality is not only a socioeconomic problem, but a structural blockage in the realization of a democratic society. It is not one problem among others, but the central problem when it comes to understanding the normative deficits of a society and the limitations in its potential for creation and cohesion. And, at this point, it is clear that Brazilian society appears as a dramatic case, due to its exponential levels of inequality.

The problem of inequality in a society like Brazil is something that requires a transversal approach, as it affects multiple dimensions of our ways of life and our material reproduction processes. Such dimensions cannot be treated separately, but require focused approaches that may be able to consolidate an articulated set of actions.

Schematically, we can say that there is no discussion about inequality among us without being able to analyze the articulations between economic, regional, racial, gender and epistemic inequalities. A country like Brazil, which was constituted from the naturalization of hierarchies and colonial erasures, cannot confuse the fight against inequality with the implementation of redistribution policies. In fact, redistribution is a central factor in this debate, but it does not eliminate the need to deal with the multiple dimensions of blocked recognition arising from the hierarchies present in social structures of gender, race and circulation of knowledge. Redistribution and recognition are thus constituent dimensions of policies to combat inequality and need to be on the horizon of every constitution of articulated government actions.

 

Economic and regional inequality

It is clear, however, that historically, economic inequality has drawn more attention from those who study the Brazilian reality. What could not be different for a country that is among the ten countries with the greatest economic inequality in the world, according to the Gini index. This economic inequality proved to be extremely resilient, despite the numerous policies attempted in recent decades. In fact, it has gotten worse in recent years. Just take into account the fact that, in 2000, the richest 1% of the Brazilian population held 44,2% of the national wealth. In 2010, this number drops to 40,5% and in 2020 it rises again to 49,5%. To get an idea of ​​the magnitude of such numbers, in the USA, 1% of the richest population holds, in 2020, 35% of the national wealth.

It is worth remembering that, according to the same Gini index, in 2020 Brazil paradoxically experienced a significant drop in inequality, as a result of the massive transfer of income carried out at the time of the pandemic. However, this was an emergency policy, which did not effectively touch the structures of income concentration and preservation of gains and properties that characterize Brazilian society. Therefore, she was an outlier. This fact demonstrates how the necessary policies need to be lasting, and this requires mobilizing a properly structural dimension of the Brazilian economy.

Let us note, among others, how the issue of economic inequality brings with it a properly biopolitical urgency, that is, it defines the rhythms of life and death that separate social groups. Take, for example, the levels of life expectancy in the neighborhoods of the city of São Paulo. According to the Inequality Map, in Alto de Pinheiros, the average life expectancy is currently 80,9 years. In Guaianazes, it is 58,3 years old.

This clearly demonstrates how Brazilian society, by atavistically preserving its levels of inequality, sovereignly decided who can live a long life and who must die quickly.

Against the stabilization of such situations, it is necessary not only public policies of repair, but of structural transformation. They should pass through two axes. The first recalls that economic inequality is the direct result of inequality in the control and ownership of productive apparatuses. This is the most untouched question of our capitalist societies, however, it is one of the fundamental keys to the fight against economic inequality. Societies that create devices for self-management by the working class or joint participation of the working class in the process of managing companies and corporations are better able to carry out administrations aimed at the collective interest and common enrichment.

We can recall, in this context, an example from our State of São Paulo. From 2003 onwards, the factory of Flaskô plastic tanks and barrels, headquartered in the municipality of Sumaré, became self-managed by the working class. During this period, she saw her production increase, working hours decrease and wages rise. Because the vision of the productive process proper to those who are effectively linked to production is more rational and less onerous. Examples of this nature demonstrate that incentives for self-management (such as tax exemption for companies that switch to this management mode) and participatory management (such as laws that oblige companies and corporations to have at least 30% of their boards of directors made up of female workers' representatives and workers) would have a relevant impact on the structure of economic inequality.

Likewise, limiting the difference in earnings is a fundamental element in such a policy. This involves a tax reform that effectively taxes income and profits, instead of taxing consumption. We must remember that Brazil is, along with Estonia, the only country in the world not to tax profits and dividends. Likewise, he is unaware of a tax on large fortunes, even though such a tax is provided for in the 1988 Constitution. There is a demand for tax justice that must be the real horizon of public policies.

But the limitation of earnings also involves the possibility of imposing clear limits on salary differences. Brazil is a country where the lowest and highest salary within a company (not counting bonuses and other income) can reach up to 120 times. A legal limitation of this difference, as well as the implementation of a maximum salary, could serve as a strong factor to limit such inequalities.

Added to this is the fact that countries like Brazil still experience profound regional inequalities, the result of the concentration of their industrial development and their tax policy in which the collection goes to the Union without the corresponding transfers to states and municipalities. Since the 79,4s, thanks to the pioneering work of economists such as Celso Furtado, the need for specific sets of regional development policies with respective management institutions has become clear. If we want to use the same life expectancy criterion to measure the impact of regional inequalities, we must remember that in States like Santa Catarina life expectancy is 70,9 years while in Maranhão we find XNUMX.

 

Gender, race and epistemic inequalities

But as mentioned earlier, reflection on Brazilian inequality requires a transversal approach in which problems of redistribution and recognition can be considered together. Capitalism's process of primitive accumulation requires not only the dispossession of paid labor, but the use of free labor. In this case, either as work carried out by enslaved populations, or as unpaid work resulting from the patriarchal subjection of women. And even in the traditional structures of the dispossession of paid work, we find the impact of gender and racial inequalities. Brazilian society preserves its hierarchies of inequality through the consolidation of certain sectors as potentially vulnerable.

In this regard, let us remember how Brazil was a country created from the implementation of the economic cell of the primary-exporting slaveholding landholding on American soil. Before being a colonization of settlement, it was about developing, for the first time, a new form of economic order linked to export production and the massive use of slave labor. Let us recall how the Portuguese Empire was the first to engage in the transatlantic slave trade, reaching a quasi-monopoly position in the mid-35th century. XNUMX% of all slaves transported to the Americas were directed to Brazil. Since the slaveholding estate was the basic cell of Brazilian society, and Brazil was the last American country to abolish slavery, it is not strange to conceive of the country as the greatest experiment in colonial necropolitics in modern history.

In fact, the colonial dynamic is based on an “ontological distinction” that will prove to be extremely resilient, preserving itself even after the decline of colonialism as a socioeconomic form. It consists of the consolidation of a sharing system between two regimes of subjectivation. One allows subjects to be recognized as “persons”, another that leads subjects to be determined as “things”. Those subjects who reach the condition of “persons” can be recognized as holders of rights linked, preferably, to the capacity of protection offered by the State.

As one of the consequences, the death of a “person” will be marked by malice, by mourning, by the social manifestation of the loss. She will be the object of narrative and commotion. Subjects degraded to the status of “things” (and the structuring degradation takes place within slave relations, although it normally remains even after the formal end of slavery) will be objects of a death without intent. His death will be seen as carrying the statute of degradation of objects. It will not have a narrative, but will be reduced to the numerical quantification that we normally apply to things. Those who inhabit countries built from the colonial matrix know the normality of such a situation when, even today, they open newspapers and read: “nine dead in the last police intervention in Paraisópolis”, “85 dead in the rebellion of prisoners in Belém”. The description usually boils down to numbers without history.

It is not difficult to understand how this naturalization of the ontological distinction between subjects through the fate of their deaths is a fundamental device of government. It perpetuates an undeclared civil war dynamic through which those subjected to the maximum economic plunder, to the most degraded conditions of work and remuneration, are paralyzed in their strength of revolt by the generalization of fear in the face of the State's extermination. It is thus the armed wing of a class struggle to which, among others, evident markers of racialization converge. For it is a question of making such an ontological distinction pass within social life and its everyday structure. Subjects must, at all times, perceive how the State acts from such a distinction, how it operates explicitly and silently.

In this sense, we note how such necropolitical dynamics responds, after the decline of explicit colonial relations, to strategies for preserving class interests, in which the State acts, in the face of certain classes, as a “Protective State”, while it acts in the face of others as “Predator State”. In short, it is necessary to insist on how necropolitics thus appears as a device for preserving structures that paralyze class struggle, normally more explicit in territories and countries marked by the centrality of colonial experiences.

This management of an undeclared civil war necessarily involves the degradation of epistemic matrices linked to populations subjected to extermination (original peoples) and slavery. At this point, the Brazilian university must be aware of its paradoxical position. We can speak of a paradox because the Latin American university is facing an emancipating and silencing process. For example, the first university in Latin America (San Marco, Peru) dates from the XNUMXth century. It takes place in the midst of a colonial war against a people with extensive technological knowledge and a complex cosmovision, namely the Incas. One of the functions of the university will be to impose a cultural and epistemic silencing that will last, in a way, until today. Having this self-critical awareness, also understanding yourself as part of the problem, is one of the greatest contributions that the Brazilian university can make to the fight against inequality.

*Vladimir Safari He is a professor of philosophy at USP. Author, among other books, of Ways of transforming worlds: Lacan, politics and emancipation (Authentic).

 

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