sacrificial citizenship

Image: Zachary DeBottis


How we became the most fertile field of neoliberal experimentation since Pinochet's Chile

Wendy Brown coined the concept of “sacrificial citizenship” to highlight one of the main features of neoliberal rationality. The accountability and blaming of individuals appear as pillars of this rationality. Maurizio Lazzarato concentrated his energies on deciphering what he brilliantly called the “government of the indebted man”.

The two concepts, constructed with elegance and foresight, are fundamental to understanding how we have become the most fertile field of neoliberal experimentation since Pinochet's Chile. The institutionality, both there and here, justified the adhesion. Let's see what is contained in Article 6 of Law Number 14.431, of August 3, 2022.

“Art. 6th-B. Beneficiaries of federal income transfer programs may authorize the Union to make discounts for their benefit, irrevocably and irreversibly, in favor of financial institutions authorized to operate by the Central Bank of Brazil, for the purpose of amortizing amounts related to the payment monthly loans and financing, up to the limit of 40% (forty percent) of the benefit amount, as established in regulation”.

It is unlikely that rentiers, the middle class and even that well-paid part of the civil service, understand the meaning of the attachment of social benefits such as the Continuous Provision Benefit and the Brazil Aid. These acronyms (BPC, Bolsa Família, Auxílio Brasil, LOAS, Seguro Defeso, Auxílio Gás, Aposento Rural etc.), for a fraction of society, are nothing more than abstractions. They do not know, or pretend not to know, since indifference and ignorance fertilize neoliberalism, that there is an unequivocal relationship between hunger and poverty, and also between the reduction of income and unemployment.

real household income real per capita in 2021, according to IBGE (2022), it was R$ 1.353,00, the lowest amount recorded since 2012. To the army of low-paid people we can add a legion of 14 million unemployed. Most made up of young people. This equation is even worse when we include 40 million people working informally. The reduction of income, unemployment and informality paved the way for debt. It is not for lack of entrepreneurial talent that 66,8 million Brazilians, equivalent to 41,4% of the population, are in default, as shown in Figure 1.

This debt, which corrodes character and feeds despair, is not the result of gambling or even moments of pleasure in the cabarets of Asa Sul, in Brasília. Believe me. More than 41% of the debt volume is related to banks, cards and finance companies. It's borrowed money to starve. It is borrowing that produces hunger.

Figure 1: Evolution of consumer defaults
Source: SerasaExperian (2022)

These data, found in any economic and social diagnosis, are enough to demonstrate the pressure on our Social Security system. Poverty and, consequently, hunger, would be even more overwhelming if it weren't for public direct income transfer systems. Every month, 2,1 million benefits are issued for elderly people in poverty and another 2,59 million benefits for people with disabilities. It is this resource, a minimum wage, that frees millions of Brazilians from absolute indigence. They are poor, sick and forgotten elderly people, children with microcephaly left in the care of abandoned mothers, etc. Invisible people who inhabit urban peripheries and sparsely populated municipalities.

Beside them, and also overlapping, there is another large group of vulnerable people who survive with the Brazil Aid. In August 2022, 20,2 million families benefited. The value of the average benefit of the Auxílio Brasil, in June 2022, was R$ 210,39, rising to R$ 2022 in July 607,85. A significant increase were it not for the reserved destination, as we will see, of 40% of the value of the benefits. Every month, just for BPC and Auxilio Brasil, approximately 18 billion reais are allocated to people with some degree of vulnerability.

The figure exceeds two hundred billion reais per year. It is, in the judgment of some, a lot, a lot, a lot of money. “Our” money spilled, as they argue, into the mud of public assistance. This has to stop. The poor and potentially miserable must now also make their share of sacrifice for the nation. It's time to reward the financial market with raw money, currency.

It is no longer enough just to extract, like a vampire, the “clotted blood” of the worker, to remind the German economist. Increasing the Selic Rate or inflating “committed operations” will no longer be enough either. The poor will never understand this grammar. Offering loans with stratospheric interest rates for the most vulnerable, with payment guarantee, bankrupting local businesses in countless small towns, will be a good way out. The boomerang effect will be, from now on, perverse.

Figure 2. Total benefits and total value of BPC and Auxílio Brasil benefits issued in July 2022
Source: INSS (2022), MDS (2022)

That was, I have no doubt, the spirit of that group of people who dedicated themselves to shaping Article 6 of Law Number 14.431, of August 3, 2022. They imagined that the miserable millions, unlike bankers and financiers, did not make sacrifices enough to overcome the crisis and, therefore, must be punished. No subtlety. The cretins knew well that indebtedness, which precedes begging, is one of the last resources of the miserable.

The miserable, before the room of indigence, tries to survive by going into debt. He will be totally dysfunctional when indigent because he loses his debt capacity. Barons understand this game. Now, imagine, they can get into debt in small installments and all sponsored by a government that, ironically, also claims to be indebted. The social benefit, pledged, will be passed on to financial institutions via payroll credit in an irrevocable and irreversible manner. Imagine the gymnastics of harassment of the poor and hungry! They will not explain, of course, that interest can exceed 70% per year. This, however, is nothing new. Here we must look for the genealogy of our neoliberalism.

Let us remember the article Art. 192 da Federal Constitution of 1988 which was, in 2003, excluded by a Constitutional Amendment. Paragraph 3 of the said article reads as follows: “Real interest rates, including commissions and any other remuneration directly or indirectly related to the granting of credit, may not exceed twelve percent per annum; the collection above this limit will be conceptualized as a crime of usury, punished, in all its modalities, under the terms determined by law”.

The fragile pact of solidarity, once represented by Federal Constitution of 1988, perished. The crime of usury went completely off the radar. The credit offered by banks, consumer indebtedness and the blaming of the poor feed Brazilian neoliberalism. Women, men and young people, indebted, begin to incorporate the liturgy of sacrifice. They are now governed by debt. It is the end of politics. French fries 1,2,3 …

* Tadeu Alencar Arrais Professor of Geography at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG).



BRAZIL. Federal Constitution of 1988. Brasília, Saraiva, 1988.

BROWN, Wendy. Sacrificial citizenship: neoliberalism, human capital and austerity policy. Sao Paulo, Zazie, 2018.

IBGE. News. Household income per capita drops to the lowest… falls-to-lowest-level-since-2012.

IBGE. National Household Sample Survey. Rio de Janeiro, IBGE, 2022. In.:

INSS. Monthly Statistics. In.:

LAZZARATO, M. The government of the indebted man. São Paulo: M1 Editions, 2017.


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