Brazil-Catastrophe: constellations of the destruction we are experiencing

Image: Brett Sayles


Newly Released Book Preface

Every catastrophe has a constitution: once it has accumulated enough, it is possible to find a “certain meaning” in it. This is not seen in historiographical details rich in details, dense in descriptions – this is definitely necessary. However, the catastrophic meaning refers to the set of facts that constitute the catastrophe. Once we have cut through the thicket of incidents and gone through the quagmire of dates, perhaps it will be possible to realize that there is a certain orientation towards catastrophe.

In this book, I try to tell the story of the Brazilian catastrophe. However, I don't do it in the current sense. There are already many great contributions in this sense and, of course, the reader will be able to find them without much difficulty – many of them were used as sources for this work. My interest here is in describing a catastrophic historical process that occurs in Brazil, in demonstrating how the set of social, economic and political practices set in motion a disjunctive process that, today, seems to affect the entire world. Having said that, it is worth highlighting that we are not exactly interested in the specific individual who, on a given day, made such a decision – as can be seen throughout these pages, we are not constructing a narrative sutured in terms of major events, but an attempt at historical interpretation. which is, in fact, a development. I hope to demonstrate the Brazilian historical process itself as a catastrophe. This catastrophic condition has to do with the very nature of peripheral formation. The periphery is simultaneously a presupposition and a result of the valorization of value, however, although it participates in the unity created by the form of value, the categorical formation that this form imposes as a historical necessity has not been positively implemented, creating a desynchronized reality. It is, therefore, a concrete expression of the categorical negativity characteristic of capital. The way of being characteristic of the periphery has to do with the negative moment of the categorical realization of capital, which can only be realized in a negative way. The periphery is, so to speak, the expression of the negativity of the substance that moves social reality, the appreciation of value. In this way, I seek to understand the constitutive process of realizing the form of value in Brazilian territory and its contradictory and tense connections with the world market that (re)produce our catastrophic condition by aiming at the abstraction of capital.

I follow the trail of gunpowder of the Brazilian critical tradition, which took on the task of radical criticism in relation to the process of capitalist modernization on the periphery of capitalism. Understanding this specificity, that the atmosphere of backwardness is the wind that blows the sails of national progress, is a necessary condition for understanding general capital. Observing destructive modernization on the periphery is like following the history of modernity with catalysts. Implementation, consolidation and collapse happen almost simultaneously – as Caetano sang (quoting Levi-Strauss): “Here everything seems like it was still construction and is now ruin”. This strange simultaneity of the non-simultaneous is something foundational in Brazil. The Brazilian critical tradition goes against the national-developmentalist impulse, which wanted (and still wants) to believe in the possibility of “the gap being overcome linearly, like someone who overcomes stages previously traced along the path of today's fully modern societies” (Arantes, 1992, p.26) . Here, we repeat that the delay (if we want to insist on the nomenclature) in national formation is not something to be overcome, but a necessary element of progress in these parts. A truncated formation is not a limit for entry into the modernizing waves – on the contrary, it is its condition, its own form of inscription, which carries out a historical crystallization of an amalgam between delay and progress.

As Chico de Oliveira (1998, p.206-208) once stated, Brazil “has always combined a position of vanguard of backwardness and backwardness of the avant-garde”. This is not a mere pun with a Hegelian touch, but a concrete diagnosis of national formation and deconstruction. The delay of the avant-garde expresses that development, progress and entry into the higher circuits of the globalized economy only materialize in Brazil as a “melding of deep-rooted authoritarian sociability” – strictly speaking, pre-modern. On the other hand, the vanguard of backwardness means that the country, “as soon as the borders of the Second Industrial Revolution had been surpassed, soon found itself grappling with the loss of the State's regulatory capacity, ranging from the inability to regulate the economic system in its areas political-territorial, until it presents the exposed fracture of private violence”.

As Marildo Menegat (2023, p.120) formulated when thinking about the essay The Brazilian Fracture of the World, by Paulo Arantes (2004), “the challenge”, which I also pursue here, “therefore, is to think about the process of formation of Brazil through its lagging modernizations.” That is, starting from the recognition that the way in which the set of historically determined categories that provided a ruler and compass for the modern intra-European experience were never fully consolidated here, or, more precisely, function in a different way. Roberto Schwarz (1999) is precise: “neither do they apply properly, nor can they fail to apply, or rather, they are false but they are the obligatory reference”.

There is no longer any doubt that Brazil is a relevant subject for thought. However, we are interested here in thinking about the country not as an identity, but as a problem. The contradictions of Brazil – seen as the country of the future, which “developed fifty years in five”, but which, despite its modernization, presents retrograde relations, which is used as a metaphor for crony capitalism, which holds the record for economic growth , but configured as one of the most unequal in the world – are indicative of the relevance of Brazilian matter for thought. In Brazil, dialectics is already given, although systematically neglected. Be that as it may, the specificities of our country, its history of formation and its process of destruction are elements that allow us to understand the entire world. There is an epistemological advantage in the peripheral position: the part reveals the whole. Even in the differences – which are many and profound –, the periphery indicates the horizon of the world.

The last few years, which have revealed our national disintegration, are not detached from the general disintegration of the commodity producing system. The deconstruction of the New Republic pact, the disillusionment with the end of the last round of modernization for development, the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018 are some of the scenes of this national meltdown. Brazil is a product of its time. In fact, the country seems to indicate a time that has yet to reach the rest of the world: the collapse of commodity sociability. After all, this is your unheard-of truth.

This process gains social adherence as fear and resentment spread, like a virus: the end of social forms of social mediation historically constituted by capitalism does not result in better days. In crisis, this dissolution is only experienced negatively and, thus, many cling to fetishistic ways of supporting these frayed social forms. The Brazilian particularity presents the phenomenon of the concrete totality of the collapse before la lettre. The experience of collapse gains substance if we remember the recurring founding myth of our nation, which was always grappling with a promise of the future. In general, we understood that Brazil, the real Brazil, with all its potential, would be realized in the future. It was as if there was an appointment with the future and history was going in our favor. However, I think that today it is possible to reread this myth more precisely. Brazil is the country of the future not because it carries the imminent promise of fulfilling the expectations that fell upon it, but because it has become the index of the world's future. The scheduled meeting with the future, in this sense, has already occurred. And what resulted from that was a catastrophe. Brazil is the catastrophe that awaits the rest of the world. In reality, with the progress of the global collapse in the face of the internal crisis of capital, it seems that the hands of the world's clocks are finally synchronizing with ours. It is the world that has caught up with us. Now, wasn't Brazil the country of the future? Of course! It just wasn't the future we expected. And now that future has arrived: “Brazil, the country of the present”.

As the crisis progresses, the “Brazil” condition becomes widespread. The dissolution of the social forms that shaped everyday life opens space for the wilding of society. In Brazil, this condition had been deepening for a long time, as a country with peripheral capitalism never completely constituted these social forms and used archaic forms to enable its own modernization. Our paradoxical condition, modernization can only have unity under the barbaric and violent amalgamation that continually unfolds on the periphery. In other words: here there is no room for dualisms, as Chico de Oliveira observed. What is happening today, however, is nothing more than the implosion of this fragile mantle of civility that seemed to organize barbarism with more or less efficient population management techniques.

When we realize the shipwreck we are in, the stoic position of a Lucretius, who was experiencing something sublime, no longer fits. For those on board the sinking ship, there is no point in contemplating their own condition – only the desperate escape to stay alive, even if for that it is necessary to cling to decadent social forms, which make the survivors sink even more quickly, making them drown. It is in this light that we must understand the explosive rise of the new right-wing radicalism. And in this same record we understand the retrograde position of a large part of the opposition camp, which seems to have as its only possible horizon the return to an ideal of a country that is in the past. It is the key to the collapse that allows us to unlock the exit door from the catastrophic labyrinth in which we find ourselves.

In addition, the text has a frank and open political stance. Not in the sense of proposing something to replace our situation. Nor do I present a manual on how to get out of this quagmire. This text is just a reading of our current moment. However, the position I take here risks throwing the chorus of happy integrated people out of tune – or those who would like to occupy these ranks. That we are experiencing a catastrophe is also no longer something that is often questioned. In fact, there are several: economic, civilizational, health, environmental catastrophe, etc. The word comes from ancient Greek katastrophe, derived, in turn, from the word katastrephein, which is formed by the prefix kata, “down”, and straphein, “turn”. This descending moment seems to impose itself as the only possible horizon, which produces all sorts of “morbid symptoms” that, unlike what the Italian philosopher expected, do not herald the birth of the new – but only the hardships of perishing.

Brazil-catastrophe it constitutes an effort to make sense of our emergence. Writing this essay is an attempt to organize a catastrophic constellation. This is not about creating a “historiography of Brazil”, already done by so many authors. The main intention is to identify that our catastrophe, which is becoming blatant today, was already inscribed since the invention of the nation. This catastrophic development that now culminates explosively is not a bolt from the blue. The storm had been there for a long time. But only now, when the drips really thickened, did many begin to realize the seriousness of the situation. To be more direct: Brazil and catastrophe are the same thing.

The text operates at a high degree of abstraction, taking “Brazil” and “catastrophe” as its fundamental categories. As we know, there are specificities in the determined way in which the totality is realized on different scales and in different places. Dealing with this problem in the context that I propose in this book brings a multitude of problems. For example, a certain flattening of the differences in the determined forms of expression and realization of the totality is inevitable. I hope, however, that the benefit of reading the argument, even if presented in general terms, based on this abstraction, can contribute to thinking and criticizing the current state of affairs.

A warning: it is worth informing the reader that there is nothing new in this book. Everything here, in a way, has already been written by thinkers who take Brazil as their object. If there is any timid contribution in these pages, it is not exactly in the empirical or theoretical findings – these are all second-hand – but in the way they are organized and structure the exposition of our argument. The readings and comments from so many different areas and diverse themes that come together here border on dilettantism. However, I would like to believe that there is something in this myriad of references that makes sense and that can say something about Brazil, about our time and about the catastrophe we are experiencing. This approach, inspired by the constellations, is the fuel to operate the movement exposed here. A constellation is an identifiable star grouping on the celestial sphere that forms a certain pattern composed of important stars, apparently close to each other in the night sky. However, as we know, the figures found in the sky vary according to times and places. For example, the Roman constellation Ursa Major was Alexander's Chariot for the Greeks; For the Egyptians, it represented a Plow, while the Indians found the Seven Sages in it. This essay is an attempt to draw new lines, to form new images with the stars that are already there. A new arrangement in the way we perceive them can help us think about our problem: Brazil. It's about arranging them in a certain way that is different from the previous one, of establishing unthought-of connections and, thus, of learning something new.

As will be seen, the text of this essay has another characteristic: it is somewhat fragmented. Addressing the catastrophe that erupted and has never ceased to end since requires fragmented writing to account for the multiple fragments thrown up by the crumbling of a country. It takes a certain education by fragment to understand the meaning of the shards. Although it has a certain chronology, many of the events were taken from a rigid timeline – as history is not exactly a straight line. As a result, phenomena come and go on the pages not due to a lack of rigor, but due to the understanding that repetition and circularity have an epistemological function: it is necessary to recognize the catastrophic permanence that forged Brazil.

However, even with a constellation and fragmentary form, there is a certain orientation that organizes our interpretation. As the reader can see, there is an axis that structures our analysis, highlighting the status of the specific form of manifestation and transformation of work as an index of the social and political transformations observed in the development of our particular catastrophe. But I don't understand the work in the same way as traditional Marxism. In this analysis, the theoretical contribution comprises our catastrophe from the negative centrality of work. With this, I hope to escape the interpretation that is based on an ontological conception of work, conceiving it in a trans-historical way and, in this way, tied to the fetishism of work. From our perspective, it is about recognizing that work is a historically determined social form typical of modernity, which is in continuous transformation resulting from social dynamics. Therefore, our reading follows the internal dynamics of capital, which transforms the world of work based on its fundamental internal contradiction: the elimination of living labor in the circuits of value production due to the imperative of constantly increasing productivity in order to accumulate more. Understanding this great transformation, which, in practice, is a great decomposition of historically constituted social forms, is, in our view, a fruitful way of interpreting the national catastrophe.

In this way, I present some historical moments of Brazilian particularity, keeping in mind the insertion of this particularity at the global level of the concrete totality of the crisis. After all, no matter how much Brazil is taken as an object of analysis, its understanding cannot be made solely through the national economy and politics, since its integration into the world economy has been long-standing and deeply penetrated by the planetary forces of accumulation. Throughout this book, I will always seek to refer to the intimate connection between Brazil and the processes that shape and move the world economy as a whole. Finally, I hope to make it clear that the Brazilian catastrophe is a general catastrophe. The specific form of Brazilian insertion in the planetaryization of modernity, the different rounds of modernization, the moment of implementation of crisis management with neoliberalism and its continuous worsening will be discussed here. The topic will be the decomposition of the world of work, the decay of this principle of social mediation and the generalization of superfluity in growing parts of society, which invariably leads to the meltdown of politics and resulting explosive waves of violence. This neoliberal aftermath and the seismic shock of 2013 appear to thematize the demolition of the New Brazilian Republic and the state of anomie that fermented beneath its rubble. This process testifies to the withering away of the law and establishes a society in a process of dissociation. From this emerges a paranoid reason that finds war everywhere and is ready for battle. The effects of the catastrophe imply the meltdown of politics as we know it. Therefore, people's adherence to this catastrophe seems to be gaining renewed strength without indicating any regression, but, on the contrary, catastrophic progress.

This ongoing process in Brazil can be read as an announcement for a world in crisis. It is necessary to extract meaning from the catastrophe we are experiencing, as this is the condition to try to prevent the perpetual movement of disaster. Socrates, in Phaedo's dialogue, suggests that the concept Sun allows us to “see” the Sun without burning our retinas. In our case, we need to face our catastrophe head on before it is too late – after all, catastrophes destroy even the criteria and indices we use to understand them. Perhaps, as I write this book, I still hope that this threshold has not been crossed – but I believe we are on the verge of doing so.

* Thiago Canettieri He is a professor in the urban planning department at the School of Architecture at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). Author, among other books, of The Peripheral Condition (Consequence). []


Thiago Canettieri. Brazil-Catastrophe: constellations of the destruction we are experiencing. Consequence Publisher.

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