Extractivism and authoritarianism – affinities and convergences

Ben Nicholson OM, Foxy and Frankie (2), 1933


Organizer Introduction to Newly Released Book

Since the 2016 parliamentary coup, the discussion on the crisis of the Brazilian democratic form has put the political role of business elites in the country back on the agenda. Questions multiplied about how the normalization of speeches and criminal acts ostensibly practiced by groups in power was made possible; or about the game of convenience that would have made the powerful push the country into the hands of agents committed to dismantling the public dimensions of the State.

It would be, from the outset, important to point out that the treatment of these questions should not be detached from the more general debate on the transformations of Brazilian capitalism observed since the neoliberalization processes were unleashed here. This is because we have seen a certain analytical detachment between the phenomena of the political sphere – often reduced to their institutional dimensions – and the processes proper to the type of capitalism that has been configured in Brazil in recent decades.

For it is in this historical plot that we should seek to understand the interweaving between phenomena such as reprimarization and financialization of the economy, violent expansion of the frontier of agromineral interests over public lands, indigenous and quilombola territories, and the spread of a habitus authoritarian.

The literature has designated as neoextractivism the model of capitalist development based on the exploitation of natural resources through little diversified productive networks, aimed at the export of commodities, configuring a subordinate insertion of the economy in the international division of labor and in the financialization process. We propose here to think of what we have been seeing since neoliberalization as the manifestation of a kind of elective affinity between neoextractivism and authoritarianism.

Inspired by Goethe and Max Weber, Michel Löwy[I] designated by “elective affinity” the dialectical relationship between two different social or cultural configurations, a relationship that would not be reducible to a direct causal determination or to an “influence” in the traditional sense. The challenge would be to identify the forms and practices that configure an active confluence between the neoextractivist model and authoritarian modes of action. The notion of elective affinity allows us to establish a critical distance in relation to the canons of current separation between the spheres of analysis, noting, in particular, the articulation of phenomena in which the identification of common traits allows bringing into the field of investigation facts that hitherto had not been duly considered.

Among these, we can cite, for example, the inclusion, in the economic calculation of large corporations, of procedures aimed at politically demobilizing society, in particular the groups affected by large agromining projects - which the literature of the management business calls the “conflict costs” – or in the Brazilian case, the “indigenous or quilombola cost”.

Such an affinity is certainly perverse, insofar as it feeds a set of practices characterized, in psychoanalytic language, “by the total absence of limits to the satisfaction of interests of those who do not consider the existence of the other and do not want to consider it, and who display their power without embarrassment, resorting to lies and bad faith, affirming private greed as a principle of general interest”.[ii]

“Autocratism with a fascist bias” is one of the expressions evoked to name the democratic erosion that has been taking place little by little, with the destruction of rights and the falsification of facts. In the recent Brazilian experience, we could add that it is an “autocratism of results” sustained by a conjunction between State authoritarianism and market authoritarianism, with the aim of withdrawing rights and constraining those who criticize abuses and normative setbacks. This is because for the agents of the agro-mining complex, all means have been admitted to achieve, as a result, the opening of new spaces for their businesses - flexibilization of rights and armament, hyper-consumption of pesticides and discourse of "sustainable mining", judicial harassment against researchers and encouragement of land grabbing.

With authoritarian liberalism, we observe the establishment of a reactionary division of labor based on a kind of “discipline economy”.[iii] The work of destroying rights and affirming inequalities is crossed by a division between discriminatory racist violence and the mechanisms of supposed mercantile rationality. The ultraliberal project of the Ministry of Economy, for example, would have to reorganize internal competition for capital and the management of the salary relationship – see the Minister's speech bragging about offering the business community the end of unions – while the authoritarian economy of looting promotes the market expansion through strategies of direct expropriation of territories and resources.

Such a convergence between practices of extractive capitalism and authoritarianism has been taking shape through a unique movement of circulation of authoritarian forms between the State and corporations, between actions and schemes already experienced by the Brazilian State during the dictatorship and similar forms that have been undertaken by large corporations themselves. extractive plants since the end of that regime, with a view to controlling territories of interest to their businesses.

The practices of the so-called “corporate social responsibility”, for example, by offering some benefit, allow large corporations to try to prevent affected communities from mobilizing or joining social movements, in strategies that are strongly in line with the so-called actions civic and social measures adopted by the armed forces as an anti-insurrection instrument during the dictatorship. Both the military and the corporate social responsibility departments seek, through these strategies, to pass off as a favor rendered to the populations what is their constitutionally guaranteed right, whether in the areas of health or education.

Large companies thus seek to manage socially critical local conditions, taking advantage of situations such as the pandemic to present themselves as more capable than the State to guarantee well-being in the locations of their interest. Anticipating conflicts, they seek to prevent the free and informed debate on the occupation of territories by their projects from involving the very populations that live and work there.

As the neo-extractivist model was consolidated, cases in which interest groups whose projects are the subject of environmental controversy also multiplied sought to embarrass researchers who pointed out irregularities in business projects. During the dictatorship, persecution of critics was supported by a surveillance system designed to identify and repress opponents. After the end of this regime, acts of this nature were incorporated by large corporations in the extractive sector.

Among them, it is common, for example, to resort to mapping what they consider “social risks”, that is, risks derived from the public repercussion of reports of abuses associated with their practices. There are empirically verifiable records that large corporations are adopting practices to monitor organizations and social movements whose activity is seen as a threat to corporate reputation. Such a practice would have even become a type of consultancy service that expands its offer to various fields of social life, such as those of the government itself, such as the survey of “detractors” commissioned by the Minister of Economy and by agencies regulators, such as the National Mining Agency.

Such modes of action are intended to restrict the field of possibilities and legitimacy of public debate and critical confrontation. There is no other meaning of constituting a kind of orwellian newspeak authoritarianism triggered in the dismantling of the apparatus of environmental policies in the country, as well as in the discursive strategies of extractive companies that seek to “environmentize” their image.

In such a context of authoritarian attacks on the meaning of words, the Human Sciences face particular challenges. Currently, it is up to them to properly build their research objects, investigate what calls for reflection and criticism about what seems to be given; that prompts discovery, invention and creation. Through his research, a work of thought and language is activated to say what has not yet been thought or said.[iv] The aim is thus to problematize the immediate impressions one has of the phenomena, denaturalizing social facts and considering that they are not inevitable, since they are open to multiple paths.

In times of instability and overlapping crises, as is the case of Brazil in the second decade of the XNUMXst century, these challenges are squared because the uncertainties experienced by the subjects were added to a veil of obscuration, the product of deliberate actions aimed at misinforming , generating public anguish and degrading the meaning of words. Mechanisms for the destruction of rights were installed inside the government machine; denialism regarding the facts of science, as well as anti-intellectualism, hostile to the critical spirit and research, sought to confiscate the language. With the complacency of the agents of the great agromineral business, words, instead of carrying the law and the communication of the spirit, begin to contain menace and falsehood.[v]

In contexts like this, the Human Sciences are also called upon to identify and combat disinformation and intentionally constructed and disseminated prejudices, as well as the purposes that contradict the evidence around which life in common should be built, to elaborate principles of justice and discuss future projects for the country. This role becomes particularly urgent when disinformation and falsification of facts become an instrument of government action. Helping society to think is also a way of helping society to breathe, to find the air, energy and intelligence necessary to face the enemies of intelligence and democracy.

* Henri Acselrad is a professor at the Institute of Research and Urban and Regional Planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR/UFRJ).



Henri Acselrad (org.). Extractivism and authoritarianism: affinities and convergences. Rio de Janeiro, Ed. Garamond, 2022.



[I] M. Löwy, Redemption and utopia, São Paulo, Cia das Letras, 1989, p.13.

[ii] DR. Dufour, La cité perverse – libéralisme et pornographie, Paris, Denoel, 2009.

[iii] E. Alliez, M. Lazzarato, Wars and capital, Ubu Publisher, 2021.

[iv] M. Chaui, Writings about the university, Ed. Unesp, Sao Paulo, 2000.

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

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