The issue of violence

Image: Paulinho Fluxuz


An analysis of the essay “Nos Marcos da Violência”, by Florestan Fernandes

The text that we will approach in this article composes the fourth essay of the work of Florestan Fernandes The Dictatorship in Question Published in 1982 by TA de Queiroz. The book, as Florestan addresses in the preface, aims at a direct confrontation with the current military dictatorship and makes explicit the radical position of the intellectual who emphatically states that he is not “a sociologist in search of “ethical neutrality” nor a socialist in search of what capitalism of the current era can do in “for social reform”.[I]

The test In the Landmarks of Violence, which we intend to analyse, is a written version of the class taught in the postgraduate course at PUC in 1981, the theme of violence was suggested by the students themselves, as explained by Fernandes. Such information does not seem irrelevant to us: at the end of the 60s and during the 70s[ii], the theme of violence began to appear more frequently in the news, in addition to common crimes, the so-called “death squad” was at its peak promoting the so-called “social cleansing” with the collusion of the military and the sensationalist media.[iii]

State violence was also widespread: in addition to political repression, torture, disappearances and deaths against opponents of the dictatorship, police executions in favelas and peripheries, mainly in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, became increasingly common. frequent, targeting mainly the black population.

Given this context, it is pertinent for the sociologist to bring up the theme of violence, which for Florestan has always been overlooked in the public intellectual debate, to explain the relationship of this phenomenon in society and its implications for the institutionalization of oppression and repression in Brazil.

To start talking about violence, Florestan mentions its absence. Or rather, he evokes, as happens in the intellectual debate, his apparent absence in Brazilian society, a society that has always named itself as cordial and peaceful.

This mystifying tradition is more evident to those who dedicate themselves to the study of race relations and prejudice and reveal how the slave society always tried to reconcile slavery with the ideology of the dominant classes.

In this way, according to Fernandes, an inverted and static utopia is constructed in the bourgeois mentality: inverted for placing the slaveholding racial order above all moral principles and static for elaborating a Christian conscience assimilable to the horrors of the practice of slavery.

This inverted utopia, which at the limit can be understood as a moral ideology of bourgeois cynicism, is perpetuated in class society, being assimilated in economic and social forms and mainly in new forms of racial relations through the construction of the myth of racial democracy as a mode of representation and discourse that covers the form of alienation and subalternization of blacks by the elite[iv]

It is with these premises that we find the first key to understanding violence in Brazilian society through its denial, the “prejudice of not having prejudice” is the extreme form of violence.

Both in slave society and in class society, the denial of violence is used as a tactic by the ruling class that uses the affirmation of humanity for a few men, thus, moral rules are limited to this small niche of the most humane ones who share the same conditions economic, psychosocial, cultural and racial.

The less human, that is, the great mass of the Brazilian population, does not share this positive humanity, the defense of order becomes the function of those “more human” who consecrate the monopoly of violence as a natural right.

The problem with this representation that the dominant class constructs about itself is that it removes the legitimacy and even the viability of any manifestation against the order of the oppressed classes. To the extent that conflict is denied, an inverted representation of who has the right to use repression as a guarantee of an alleged order that only benefits those at the top is constructed. The contestation of the “less human” will never be recognized as a form of mobilization and legitimate pressure.

The content of the confrontation between the unequal is emptied to make way for an alleged “social peace” ensured at great cost by the “more humane”.

This ideology of bourgeois cynicism gains muscle in Brazilian society (especially in high-brow circles, for obvious reasons) so successfully that Florestan Fernandes is faced with the need to reflect on one of the greatest national myths: cordiality.
Understanding the political and ideological implications in the constitution of cordiality as a “worldview category”, the sociologist proposes to go further and asks: Who is the man is cordial and for whom? What is the other side of the cordial man's coin?[v]

Violence and Class Struggle

According to Florestan Fernandes, every stratified society depends on a mass of institutionalized violence to maintain order and also to ensure that, if there are social changes, the social order will remain valid.

In class society, the capitalist mode of production requires the expropriation of labor in an organized and growing manner and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a class – the bourgeoisie. This bourgeois domination may change its form with the evolution of history, but it does not change its intentionality. Thus, a democratic State continues to fulfill the same functions of class domination and concentration of power even if the means appear in a more veiled way than in other forms of regime.

Capital's continuous demands for the super-exploitation of the workforce and the concentration of wealth demand a gigantic mass of institutionalized violence. However, this same class regime, produces unsustainable contradictions typical of the social relations of production (class struggle) and also produces a certain recognition of the exploited of their condition, which the author formulates as the “necessary minimum of common order”[vi] where the aspirations and needs of a material nature are materialized in forms of organization that permeate the tutelage of the bourgeoisie. In the words of Florestan:

It is around this necessary minimum of the common order that the first and great battles of the antagonistic classes take place. The initial victories mark the conquests of citizenship, of social, legal and political guarantees by the working classes, which are converted from “helpless victims of order” into “challenging partners”, ready to resort to the most varied forms of pressure or counter-pressure to annul the excesses of “bourgeois despotism” in factories, the state and other key institutions.[vii]

The threat to bourgeois despotism is nothing more than the counter-violence of the exploited who react as a block against the institutionalized violence of the bourgeois state. In class society, counter-violence will always be the other side of the coin, the possible reaction of the oppressed classes and can, depending on the objective conditions and the degree of organization, have a revolutionary content, leaving its defensive character to become a force. driving force capable of destroying the bourgeois state.

The mass of institutional violence meted out to the dispossessed classes assumes centrality in the regulation of class conflicts, even when there is the possibility of self-defense and self-assertion of the exploited classes in defense of their objectives. This mass of institutionalized violence serves to guarantee the limit, the balance and that certain conquests of the working classes do not challenge bourgeois domination.

Such a mass of violence is constantly distributed over the key institutions of organization of the working classes – unions, associations, social movements, parties. Therefore, the use of violence becomes a natural social technique of bourgeois society.[viii] Therefore, the use of violence by bourgeois society is not circumstantial but constant, routinized, that is: structural in guaranteeing the capitalist order.

However, as the working class gains autonomy and organically accumulates, it starts to assimilate this natural social technique and starts to use counter-violence in different ways, defensively and offensively. Organized counter-violence can be employed as pressure within the order or take extreme form as a revolution against the order.

Regardless of the objective, the mass of violence used needs to be disproportionately strong and must rely on a large part of society, since it only targets a minority part of that society (the ruling classes) thus becoming active counter-violence.

The use of active counter-violence is intrinsic to the class struggle, it is a historical process by which the bourgeoisie itself has already used itself and it is the only way out not only for the revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist system and the bourgeois state but also to guarantee that, even partially, the working class dribbles bourgeois supremacy by guaranteeing representation in civil society, being able to convert the autocratic bourgeois order into a pluriclassist democracy.

In other words, it is only through counter-violence that even reforms within the order can be carried out without the impediment of the bourgeoisie itself, which should be the historical agent in conducting these reforms![ix] In the case of peripheral and dependent countries, this is more symptomatic: the Brazilian Revolution can only be completed by the workers themselves, who press through counter-violence to complete “bourgeois” tasks, tasks that are incapable of being carried out by the bourgeoisie itself.

It is important to point out that even if counter-violence is used as a driving force to carry out these tasks within the order, for Florestan Fernandes there is a constant need for workers not to delude themselves in the face of the pluriclass democracy that opens up as a historical possibility in moments specific.

These are important conquests, but they must have a revolutionary programmatic horizon, because the military dictatorship established in 1964 proved that the Brazilian bourgeoisie, associated with foreign capital, saw in the establishment of channels of participation of the working class a great threat to bourgeois autarchy, thus needing to do use of preventive counter-revolution for the deployment of state terrorism and the closing of all channels of pressure from workers.

Demobilizing violence and its effects on class society

In addition to revolutionary counter-violence and the mass of institutionalized violence, Florestan draws attention to a type of violence that overlaps with the violence of order and that dynamizes it and, to a certain extent, legitimizes it: it is the mass of anomic violence present throughout the world. social enviroment. There is a negative evaluation of this type of violence since it implodes the organization of a mass of positive counter-violence in the subordinate classes and also because in the psychological field it builds a narrative of demoralization of the use of counter-violence as a legitimate instrument of contestation.

It's that old tune of the exploited supporting manifestations of state violence endorsing a conservative narrative, sometimes fascist: "human rights for human rights", "a good bandit is a dead bandit". The constitutive role of fear and panic in the population's imagination set up by a program such as Datena and its similar is well known.[X].

There is a narrative of constant danger and endemic violence that influences the population's opinion on the need to ensure more ostensive violence that falls on itself. In the sociologist's perception, anomic violence is demobilizing and legitimizes the application of order violence as something natural, necessary or even exemplary.

Beyond cordiality: armed conflict in Brazilian society

So far, we have had an explanation of the key concepts of the use of violence in class society in general. In the second part of the chapter, the author elaborates on how violence has shaped – and will continue to shape – Brazilian society.

The particularities that conceptualize capitalism of the difficult type characterized by a process of prolonged decolonization and an inevitable external dependence that influence the way institutionalized organic violence and counter-violence are established are presented.

The blood pact between the archaic structures of super-exploitation of human labor and the modern industrial economy were extremely advantageous for the accumulation of wealth by the Brazilian elites. The consequences of such an economic and social formation can be seen in the total compaction of the bourgeois fractions by promoting an authoritarian modernization that annuls the subordinate classes of the possible gains that modernization could bring.

There is no project on the horizon of the elites that involves the Nation, democracy or progress – although these words are constantly part of the vocabulary of the bourgeoisie. Thinking about our historical formation, Florestan Fernandes formulates that there is, in the face of such an unequal class regime, a concentration of institutionalized and organic violence that ensures, protects and shields the ruling class at the same time that it manipulates or rather stimulates, inorganic violence in the dispossessed classes.

This is the explosive combination: the State and civil society are totally shielded from the onslaughts of those from below, nullify the revolutionary potential of the organic counter-violence of these social actors and stimulate an amorphous violence, which does not accumulate in the organization of those from below, but On the contrary, it crushes and dehumanizes them, therefore, inorganic violence is, in a certain way, the denial of citizenship to those below, encouraged and financed by the dominant classes.

This panorama, according to the sociologist, reveals the lack of protagonism of the dispossessed masses in politics and the impossibility of accumulating forces for a cohesive action that aims to overthrow bourgeois power or, at least, build a class consciousness capable of creating ties permanent solidarity.

Fernandes raises two questions that summarize his diagnosis of Brazilian society: the first question is consistent with the patterns of domination that have changed little over the centuries, in this case, institutional violence continued to act with the same segregating intentions.

The second aspect, amalgamated with the first, is related to the way civil society remained colored by colonial and slave relations. Hence the need for the Second Abolition[xi], the agenda of the Brazilian Black Movement which, for Florestan, should be shared by the entire marginalized, exploited population, by the condemned of the earth.

As seen so far, there is little cordiality in Brazilian society and a lot of bourgeois despotism. Our historical condition made it impossible to organize counter-violence from below even on a defensive scale, the bourgeoisie is the only one that benefits from the organic violence that can be used to achieve all its ends, including the implantation of a military dictatorship through a coup d'état. State. That is, the class struggle, essential in a class society, is constantly demobilized while the ruling classes act autocratically and State terrorism becomes a legitimate condition of their governability.

Therefore, ideologically reinforce the myth of cordiality so propagated by the Brazilian intellectual elite. The cordial man proclaims “social peace” and bases the relationship between exploiters and exploited, forgetting to add that this social peace is the social peace of the dead[xii], because it exterminates the other side.

Cordiality here was used mainly in the estates and slave regime, as a complement to the organic violence of the ruling class and never as a mitigating factor. It served very well during a specific period but gradually lost its functionality in class society due to the very dynamics of monopoly capitalism and the implementation of free labor.

Then we can say that this whole dynamic is unmasked: cordiality, cronyism, bossiness, paternalism is transformed into defense through the conflict armed by the bourgeoisie on behalf of its interests. The extreme of this situation was set in 1964, when the dominant classes realized the impossibility of accepting the legitimacy of the counter-violence of the oppressed.

A new period is opened, commanded by the armed conflict with the objective of promoting a preventive counter-revolution where the workers are not considered opponents but enemies, that is, they need to be annihilated.[xiii] Thus, the civil order suffers a contraction and manifests itself as a class privilege shielding any form of movement of the popular classes.

In armed class conflict, there is no way out within order, there is no hope that civil order will be restored, there is no hope that dialogue and negotiation will serve to restore a civil order that legitimately accepts the pressure of the working class as a legitimate adversary in a class society and even bourgeois legality and the expansion of civil society within the framework of liberal-democracy will have to be reconstituted from below.

Faced with this situation, the oppressed classes must previously carry out a “double historical rotation”[xiv] capable of putting an end to anomic violence within its social milieu, which, as we have seen so far, only serves to disorganize joint action, and, second, to accumulate a mass of counter-violence that can serve as self-defense and counter-attack against the bourgeoisie.

What are the forms, models and successes achieved with the organization of counter-violence, only the exploited classes will say during the process and with the challenges forged during the struggle. Florestan rejects ready-made formulas mimicking the past or revolutionary socialist experiences by saying that the tactical and strategic means of struggle are born from the historical situation itself.[xv]  

However, he leaves us with a warning: only the socialist content will point to a revolutionary horizon and it is only in this way that the working classes will take a step beyond a contest within the order and be able to transform their accumulated counter-violence into a tool for the destruction of society. existing order and the construction of a new society.

*Jullyana Luporini de Souza Master in Economic History from the University of São Paulo (USP).



[I]    FERNANDES, Florestan. The dictatorship in question. São Paulo, TA Queiroz, 1982. p. 02

[ii]   Observation pointed out by historian Lincoln Secco in the debate “100 years of Florestan Fernandes” carried out by the study group GMARX.

[iii]  MENEGUETTI, Francis Kanashiro. Origin and Foundation of Esquadrões da Morte in Brazil. XXXV ANPAD Meeting. Rio de Janeiro, 2001.

[iv]  GONZALEZ, Lelia. Spring for black roses. São Paulo, UCPAD, 2018. p. 101

[v]    FERNANDES, 1982, p. 131

[vi]  Ibidem, p. 133

[vii] Ibidem, p. 133

[viii] Ibidem, p. 136

[ix]  […] there is no escaping the observation that dependent capitalism is, by its nature in general, a difficult capitalism, which leaves few effective alternatives to the bourgeoisies that serve it, at the same time, as midwives and nannies. From this angle, the reduction of the historical field of action of the bourgeoisie expresses a specific reality, from which bourgeois domination appears as a historical connection not to the “national and democratic revolution”, but to the type of dependent capitalism and the type of capitalist transformation that he supposes. FERNANDES, Florestan. São Paulo, Editora Globo, 2006. p. 251

[X]    We must not forget that Brazilian TV, more specifically the Cidade Alerta program on the broadcaster Record, showed an attempt to execute two young people by the São Paulo Military Police live in 2019. This action was celebrated by presenter Marcelo Rezende who said “shoot my comrade, who is a bandit”. Available in> Access 24 Aug. 2020.

[xi]FERNANDES, Florestan. The Meaning of Black Protest. São Paulo, Publisher Expressão Popular, 2017.

[xii] FERNANDES, 1982, p. 141

[xiii] Ibdem, p. 154

[xiv] Ibdem, p. 156

[xv]  On tactics and strategy in the organization of workers, we recommend reading this short interview by Florestan given to the newspaper O Corneta. FLORESTAN Fernandes talks about class struggle. The Horn. São Paulo, Apr. [1985?]. Available in> Access 22 Aug. 2020.


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