The language of anti-politics

Image: ColeraAlegria


Something serious happens when words, instead of being bearers of the law and the communication of the spirit, become conduits of terror and falsehood.

A Minister of Education dialogues with Senators of the Republic. Senators claim: aggravated by the pandemic, inequality in the conditions of preparation for the National High School Examination tests generates a situation of worrying injustice. “The Enem was not made to do social justice”, replies the minister. Such public disregard for principles of justice expresses an ongoing shift in political rhetoric. The open form of authoritarian speech is “uncomplexed”, if we use an expression coined by the French extreme right. There is no use of a façade where the image of what would be the common good is displayed, contrasting with backstage, where shady ideas and dark transactions could eventually hide. Inegalitarian, racist, sexist and homophobic purposes are assumed in public. Aside from vocabulary nuances, during the infamous ministerial meeting on April 22, 2020, after all, the distance between the discriminatory purposes assumed in public by members of the government and those uttered behind the scenes of power proved to be small.

What would be the nature of this rhetorical inflection, this open public exposition, by representatives of government power, of social-Darwinist principles currently disapproved and hitherto reserved for the backstage of politics? How to understand the exhibitionist emergence of unequal discourses in societies where inequality is so pronounced? Sociology seeks to characterize the forms of coexistence between the argumentative sphere, where political actors verbalize their worldviews, and the concrete validity of inequalities that, in principle, under conditions of free expression, would be considered unacceptable and destined to be fought. A set of practical and discursive mechanisms can, however, contribute to ensuring the permanence of inequalities. Some authors refer to the validity of what they call “modes of domination”[I]. In authoritarian regimes, for example, it is possible to identify the combination of two of these mechanisms of domination: terror and ideology. In the first case, those who exercise domination do not need to justify their actions. Critical opponents are repressed and the possibility of publicly questioning power is made unfeasible: “here, no questions are asked” – that is the authoritarian motto. In the Brazilian experience, this impossibility of questioning the 1964-1985 regime of exception was well characterized by the expression “nothing to declare”, methodically repeated by a Minister of Justice during the dictatorship. The silencing of criticism and the consent of the population would thus be sought through the exercise of repressive violence and fear. In the second case, that of resorting to ideology, official justifications exist, but they are not allowed to be confronted with reality. The practice of censorship prevents it. Justifications are degraded into mere pretexts, words destined to keep the distance between official and unofficial discourse. Power imposes the unequal and oppressive established order, fueling a state of war against a strategically constructed internal enemy, as well as through symbolic acts, rituals, ceremonies, parades, decorations and hymns.[ii].

In the period 1964-1985, we saw, in Brazil, a combination of these two mechanisms of domination – by terror and by ideology. For arbitrary power, the exercise of violence and censorship was not enough. Around 1000 propaganda films were commissioned to be shown in cinemas across the country, as well as mass campaigns stigmatizing militancy that challenged repression and contested the regime's legitimacy. Seven advertising agencies dominated government contracts in the period, even dealing with what the Dictatorship called the “presidency candidate campaign”, a set of materials intended to praise the name of the military designated by the forces in power to continue the regime of exception, occupying the post of President. Efforts to silence critics were not seen, however, as capable of ensuring the conditions of subordination desired by power. Dictatorship agents believed it was necessary to face resistance to the regime not only because of the spread of terror, the risk of imprisonment and death, because, even muffled, criticism could, in the eyes of power, be heard, requiring investments in the production of images, slogans, jingles and other publicity instruments designed to obtain the population's consent to the regime's acts. At the same time that it narrowed the space for public debate, power promoted a degradation of the meaning of words: the breach of democratic legality was said to be done in the name of democracia; censorship was justified as a requirement of freedom protection; cultural production was curtailed under the pretext of defending of values; Justice was enacted in exceptional military courts that intended to embody a supposed legality.

After the end of the authoritarian regime, new ways of narrowing the possibilities of exercising politics began to appear. Neoliberalism sought to impose a unique so-called “post-democratic” thought: the hegemony of liberal orthodoxy was installed within the State and electoral systems were linked to the advantages offered by large corporations. Politics ceased to designate the domain of legitimate action to organize collective life, becoming more associated with the function of managing the conditions for the exercise of a power that is superior to it, financial power. In place of the repressive anti-politics exercised during the exceptional regime, starting in the 1990s, the mechanisms of an anti-market politics came into play. In the context of neoliberal “governance”, what Bourdieu called “depoliticization policies” became effective.[iii], actions that seek to destroy the idea of ​​politics as a way of exercising collective intelligence in the quest to overcome inequality. The sphere of deliberation, within the scope of the formal political system, saw itself increasingly absorbed by a pragmatism that, in the name of “governability”, favored the privatization of the State in the hands of business cartels, religious or oligarchic organizations. Little remains of politics when the order of things is presented as ineluctable. How is it possible to do politics using words that intend to say everything and its opposite at the same time, when it comes to defining what kind of society best suits its members and how to get there?

With the coming to power, in 2019, of a liberal-authoritarian government, we are confronted with new types of attacks on the possibilities of exercising politics. Anti-democratic forces take over government in a formally democratic regime. The violence of discriminatory discourse generates tension within what has been understood so far as the public sphere, where points of view about the world are constructed and the conditions for free and open debates are configured. Among the conditions for the occurrence of this debate, it is assumed, on the one hand, the presentation of arguments that justify the acts and, on the other, the contribution of factual elements that attest to the fairness of these acts.

This is not what has happened with Brazilian liberal-authoritarianism. We are facing a type of authoritarianism that, on the one hand, brutally says what it thinks, not hiding previously unjustifiable discriminatory purposes, and on the other, together with its brutal frankness, disregards or masks the reality in which it seeks to support violence and abjection of your speech. The desire to fight values ​​that approximate and resemble humans is enunciated, creating clumsy neologisms in order to embody contempt for the other. Supporters of solidarity, they say, are “victimists”; those who cultivate values ​​of equality are carriers of a pathology – “poorness”. Authoritarian speech projects indignity onto everything that has been understood so far as being human, an object of solidarity, a reason for empathy, a yearning for justice. But, at the same time, it hides the signs, facts, scientific evidence and testimonies of experience that could hinder the project of diminishing the poor, blacks and indigenous peoples, of destroying opponents and concentrating resources in the hands of the powerful. The social-Darwinist discourse assumes, therefore, the claim to the superiority of some, dispensing, however, with recourse to any principle of justification of their acts. Its spokespersons suggest believing that, in order to base their actions, it is enough to falsify information, mask data, disqualify evidence and systematize disinformation. There seems to be, therefore, an intimate relationship between the impudence of unequal preaching and the contempt for facts. And it is this false paradox, this logical connection between authoritarian frankness and the falsification of reality that it is important for us to understand.

The frankness of those who defend inequality would, in principle, make it possible to put the purposes they defend to the test of values ​​of justice and factual elements. However, in defense of their actions, they do not resort to ideas or principles of justice, nor to sharable empirical realities. They rely on narratives that dispense with both internal coherence and correspondence with any established knowledge or experience. Not by chance, science, the field par excellence of doubt, logic and empirical proof, is the object of contempt and denial. There is also a strong hostility towards intellectuals, mistrust towards everything that concerns the domain of the intellect, the critical and creative spirit, philosophical speculation and research without practical ends that can be defined in the immediate future.[iv]. Subjects who publicly raise embarrassing questions, confront orthodoxies and dogmas are stigmatized. Those who cannot be easily co-opted by governments or corporations and who seek to point out problems that are systematically forgotten or swept under the rug are despised. Those who believe that everyone has the right to expect decent standards of treatment from the powers that be are accused. It embarrasses those who seek to unmask ready-made stereotypes and clichés, contest official images and narratives, half-truths, reductive categories, preconceived ideas and justifications – or pretexts – for the actions by which the powerful seek to limit freedom of thought in order to accept What are you doing[v].

With liberal-authoritarianism, the use of words is imploded from within, subordinated as it is to the logic of violence, the fullest expression of authoritarianism. A singular world is configured, without principles of justification of the acts; a (sub)world without justice encrusted within another world, where the word intends to be a means of construction and dispute of principles of justice and construction of a culture of rights, where power can be contested, inequality criticized, the respected diversity. Culture is what teaches us to discern, helps us to make sense of the world, to understand the past in order to build a future. Culture is the learning of judgment through language, reminds us the philologist Barbara Cassin[vi]. It is not by chance that cultural institutions are now the object of attacks. The very public knowledge expressed in the census, on the map and in museums, which allows the cultivation of some reason and civility in governmental action and politics, is disqualified. Knowledge about the population – expressed in the census, subject to restrictions on the scope of information obtained by the IBGE – is undervalued. Knowledge about the territory and its environmental heritage expressed on INPE's maps is emptied, as well as knowledge about culture itself, condensed in the figure of museums and other cultural institutions under constraint. Alongside the attack on science, education and culture, a kind of Penelope Tapestry is established, which seeks to reach, in the light of day, the set of civil, political and social rights, in favor of a right to property above everything and everyone.

Something serious happens when words, instead of being bearers of the law and communication of the spirit, become conduits of terror and falsehood, wrote Georges Steiner[vii]. By disregarding any principle of acceptable justification, a world without culture is established; by the negation of all attestable foundation, a world without science. Injustice in purpose, untruth in foundation. As what is said does not hold, it remains for this peculiar “social-Darwinist mode of domination” to be based on false data. Without resorting to censorship, which prevented the factual contestation of unjustifiable purposes during the dictatorship, it remains for authoritarian liberalism to implode the meaning of words and falsify reality.

* Henri Acselrad Professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro


[I] Luc Boltanski, “Sociology of criticism, institutions and the new mode of managerial domination”, Sociologia & Antropologia, vol. 3, no. 6, July-December 2013, p. 441-463.

[ii] Luc Boltanski, op. cit. P. 448

[iii] Bourdieu, Pierre, Contre-feux 2, Raison d'Agir, Paris, 2001.

[iv]  Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American life, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1963.

[v] C. Wright Mills, “The social role of the intellectual”, Politics, vol. 1, April 1944

[vi] Barbara Cassin, Des mots, pour quoi faire?

[vii] George Steiner, Language and silence – essays on the crisis of the word, Cia. das Letras, SP, 1988, p. 139-140.


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