Between setting fire to the statue and releasing a note: the redefinition of public space

Image: Matthias Cooper


Continuation of the debate with Vladimir Safatle

I wrote the article “From Bastille to Borba Gato: the misconceptions of violent political action”, a critique of a text by Vladimir Safatle published in the earth is round in which he defends the act of setting fire to the statue of Borba Gato. I confess that I was disappointed by the lack of conceptual elements in Safatle's response.

After all, we are completing almost 100 years that critical theory discusses the theme, first addressed by Walter Benjamin in his essay “Critique of violence”. In recent years, several authors in the field of critical theory have published important reflections on the subject. Étienne Balibar posted violence and civility, where he rediscusses the relationship between Marxism and violence; Richard Bernstein posted Violence, in which Fanon, Arendt and Benjamin are revisited and, last year, Judith Butler published The force of nonviolence, where she proposes an ethics of non-violence in the process of repairing historical injustices.

Safatle's response basically involves three questions: first, he asks why my article did not mention the arrest of the popular leaders involved in the action, certainly an act of injustice by the Brazilian state that deserves our repudiation, but that does not change the question posed by the my article. The question I asked, and which Safatle was unable to answer, is whether the logic of violence that comes from an exclusionary and violent state should determine the logic of action of social movements.

Secondly, Vladimir asks himself what he intended to criticize in my article: “The violence of the Brazilian state in arresting demonstrators who set fire around a statue that celebrates slavery and colonial violence? The violence of having to live with a statue that represents an armed bandeirante, that is, armed against Amerindians and enslaved blacks? The violence of seeing a hunter of men and women celebrated? No. What frightens him is the “method” used by those who set fire to a symbol of armed violence that occupies public space”. That is, Safatle remains a faithful follower of the tradition of those who think that any fight against state oppression using any method is legitimate and that the left and progressive forces should not waste time discussing what comes after destruction and what I call reframing.

Thirdly, Safatle correctly poses the question that “democracy does admit situations of dissociation between justice and established law. The history of social struggles for the expansion of rights was made by actions that, from the point of view of established law, were understood as “violent” and “criminal”. Workers in the XNUMXs resorted to the crime of going on strike to fight for rights that would never be won without “violence”, since a strike was then a criminal action”.

Although I have exactly the same position as Safatle that democracy does allow situations of dissociation between justice and established law, I am impressed by the author's inability to make distinctions and not understand what is at stake in different situations. Walter Benjamin already pointed out the legitimacy of working class actions for rights, but he made it clear in his text that the legitimacy of working class actions was linked to a dynamic of non-violence.

Benjamin considers the strike an omission of action and legitimizes it based on this interpretation. He says: “It is true that the omission of an action and even a service, which amounts to a “rupture of relationships”, can be a totally pure and violence-free means. According to this conception of the state (or of law), the right to strike grants workers' associations not so much a right to violence as a right to withdraw from violence…” (Walter Benjamin, From criticism to violence, P. 19, Buenos Aires, 1995). It is impressive that 100 years after this article, the Sorelian from the University of São Paulo has still not understood this point. There is a relatively short path between Benjamin and Butler that the author herself recognizes and that Safatle refuses to take seriously.

However, Safatle's biggest mistakes are linked to his conception of how democracy establishes new rights. I contrast two recent examples of processes of political re-signification: the Borba Gato case that we are discussing and the case of the statue of General Baquedano, in Chile (see photo below), which was re-signified from the moment the Chileans climbed it and placed it in their top the Mapuche flag. The institution of the new does not happen from setting fire, a destructive form of action, but from the use of the language of politics.

In the case of Chile, we have three moments of resignification and the institution of the new: first, the placement of the Mapuche flag on top of the statue of the general who led the war with Peru and Bolivia in the XNUMXth century; secondly, the removal, by the Chilean government, of the statue of General Baquedano, since it became a dispute over meanings in which the government was defeated. It is evident that the defeat of the Piñera government and those who defended the colonial status quo was much more decisive when the government itself decided to remove the statue of the general. Finally, a Mapuche indigenous woman was elected president of the Constituent Assembly in Chile.

This is how I understand the concept of resignification and the institution of the new: through concrete disputes about the meaning of political practices. I have my doubts about whether setting fire to the statue of General Baquedano would have brought the Mapuche indigenous woman, Elisa Loncón, to the presidency of the constituent assembly.

The construction of the new requires not only destruction work, but also construction work whose characteristics are part of an open debate. A central part of the authors who are part of a critical and progressive tradition are opening this discussion. Vladimir Safatle seems to think that labeling them conservative is enough to participate in the debate in an uninformed and unreflective way.

*Leonardo Avritzer He is a professor at the Department of Political Science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of Impasses of democracy in Brazil (Brazilian Civilization).


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