The release of the past

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By VLADIMIR SAFATLE*

Considerations on the inalienable right to tear down statues

“Who controls the past, controls the future”. This quote from 1984, by George Orwell, is one of the most important lessons about what political action really is. Every real political action knows the importance of understanding the past as a battleground. She understands that the past is something that never completely goes away. The most correct definition would be: the past is not what passes. The past is what is repeated, what is transfigured in multiple ways, what returns repeatedly. The past is what makes CEOs speak, in 2021, like XNUMXth-century slaveholders, what makes transgenders currently struggling speak like enslaved people struggling centuries past.

Our time is thick. In layers of this thickness, the dead and the living, specters, thresholds and flesh coexist. Only a pointillist and mistaken notion of the instant can reduce the present to the “now”. The “now” is just a politically interested form of blocking the present. For whoever fights for the liberation of the past, fights for the modification of the horizon of possibilities of the present and the future.

It would be useful to remember this in Brazil, that is, in this country that specializes in trying not to talk about its past due to a certain magical belief that if we don't talk about it, the past will go away and never come back. The apostles of oblivion should remember that this is how we created the country of continual repetition compulsion. A country that got used to seeing soldiers acting as if they were in 1964, in which a catastrophic policy of amnesty allowed the Armed Forces to preserve those responsible for crimes against humanity until they returned to threaten society. Forgetting is a form of government. The attempt to exile subjects in the pure present is their strongest weapon. We should start from there if we really wanted to understand what Brazil is.

Having said that, it is not surprising to see some criticizing one of the most important political actions in recent months, namely, the burning of the statue of pioneer Borba Gato, in São Paulo. Anyone who thinks this is just a “symbolic” act should think more about what they mean by symbols and how they are often the ones that drive the most decisive fights and the most impressive transformations. When it fell, the Bastille was no more than a symbol. But it was the fall of the symbol, it was a symbolic act par excellence, that opened up an entire historical epoch. The change in the symbolic structure is a change in the conditions of possibility of an entire historical era. Those who make a profession of “political realism”, of “materialism”, are perhaps hiding a certain fear that fundamental symbolic structures will go down the streets and be burned.

For a statue is not just a historical document. It is above all a celebratory device. As a celebration, she naturalizes social dynamics, she says: “so it was and so it should have been”. A bandeirante with a trebuchet in hand and looking straight ahead is the celebration of the “clearing” of “our forests”. This trailblazing is not the opening of anything, but a simple erasure of real and symbolic violence that has not ended to this day. Because we could start by asking ourselves: against whom is this weapon pointed? Against a “foreign invader”? Against a tyrant who sought to impose his yoke on the people? Or against those populations that were subjected to slavery, extermination and theft?

A bandeirante was a hunter of men and women, that is, the most brutal incarnation of a form of sovereign power linked to the protection of the few and the predation of the many. A bandeirante is, above all, a predator. Celebrating it is affirming a “development” that necessarily takes place in a country made up of a cream of rentiers ensconced in gated communities and a large mass that is still hunted today, who disappear without a trace or trace.

Destroying such statues, renaming highways, stopping celebrating historical figures who only represent the brutal violence of colonization against Amerindians and enslaved blacks is the first gesture towards building a country that will no longer accept being a space managed by a predatory State that, when it has no the trebuchet in hand, there is the caveirão in the favela, there is the fire in the forest, there is the militia. As long as these statues are being commemorated, as long as our streets are named after these, this country will never exist.

Whoever plays the mourner of a statue ends up becoming an accomplice in this perpetuation. Only its overthrow interrupts this time. This action is, above all, self-defense. When the military dictatorship created the most vile apparatus of crimes against humanity, a device for state torture and murder financed with money from the business community of São Paulo, it was not by chance that its name was Operation Bandeirante. Yes, history is relentless.

As I said at the beginning, the past is what never ceases to return. Borba Gato was there, in the DOI-Codi torture chambers, embodied, for example, in Henning Albert Boilesen: Danish businessman, president of Ultragaz and founder of CIEE, who delighted in inventing torture machines (the Boilesen pianola) and watching torture and murder. So when the statues start to fall, it's because we're on the right track.

*Vladimir Safatle 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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