Initial notes on contemporary hell

Photo by Carmela Gross


Comments on the book by Robert Linhart, Le Sucre et la Faim

Forty-three years after its first publication, which Le Sucre et la Faim reveals to us at the time of its first edition in English?[I]

What did your critical originality consist of in 1980? With an intriguing pace and a strikingly visual content, Linhart's investigation aimed at the reciprocal determination between the expansion of sugar monoculture and the phenomenon of mass hunger as a capitalist product; therefore, as something modern, rational and functional for the reproductive logic of capital.

Let us remember: the cultivation of sugar cane in colonial territory

Portuguese emerged as a modern enterprise, the export-oriented segment of a slave-manufacturing economy. Such a laboratory, it also equipped itself with techniques and practices that did not exist in the European context of communes and guilds that fought jealously and energetically for their own rights and powers, as shown by the movement of Ciompi, in June-August 1378, in Florence.[ii]

Instead, the production of value reached a new level in the new and advanced frontier of mercantile capitalism, starting with the colonial latifundia that implied an organic association with the slave trade. Soon, new forms and techniques, optimized in productive terms, stood out: arising from violence and the low cost of labor relations, dissociated from human and social relations, they were intended exclusively for the production of surpluses for export.[iii]

In colonial territory, the new productive mode led to the disorganization of the varied uses of the collection and subsistence economy, among other facts. Thus, the scarcity of daily food and hunger became widespread, resulting from the disorganization of basic production that previously served the self-preservation of native populations, even reaching groups linked to the colonizers.

Violence and hunger, spoliation and dehumanization constituted the basic ingredients of the plantation aimed at producing surpluses destined for European trade. However, the focus of Linhart's investigation looks beyond the reconstruction of the synthetic scheme of the regular interactions between conquerors and conquered in the course of the initial cycle of looting, plundering and surprise attacks. Rather, the objective is to point out that the decisive and original articulation between monoculture and mass hunger took on an unprecedented scale – this time, planned – based on the new measures imposed by the civil-military dictatorship since April 1964, and, even more so, after Institutional Act no. 5, decreed on December 13, 1968, which intensified the repressive power of the civil-military dictatorship against workers' organizations and the opposition in general.

The logical and structural connection between the new mode of production implemented in the mid-16th century and the productive leap following the 1964 coup allows the reader to notice the persistence of basic traits of colonialism and slavery, under another name, but as essential links development of the sugar agroindustry. Traces soon worsened in the new horizon opened by the intensive production of ethanol coupled with the expansion of the automobile industry. This was taken by the military regime to a level of production and profitability that gave the Brazilian mega-branches of VW and Fiat greater magnitude than their European headquarters.

In this context, two aspects stand out:

1. Attention to the persistence and worsening of essential disparities in slavery and colonialism to engender a new productive leap places Linhart's essay among the set of studies (basically Latin American, but not only) that introduced the concept of overexploitation in the international debate;

2. In line with the analysis of the overexploitation as the basis of a new production cycle, the detailed examination of modernizing measures and practices in the sugarcane agroindustry, by Robert Linhart and photographer François Manceaux, situates Le Sucre et la Faim as one of the precursor investigations, in 1980, of the new capitalist leap that, being unfolded and intensified on a systemic scale, will be implemented globally.

Specifically, what were the first steps – monstrous at the outset – of what has come to be called, more recently, the “new reason for the world”?[iv] Firstly, the plundering of access to land, that is, to the means of production of family farming, and also to the essential right to housing.

Thus, before the 1964 coup, latifundium workers and their families lived in austere and small houses, however surrounded by a small portion of land where they practiced family cultivation of subsistence agriculture, without property title, but according to ancestral custom permitted within the lands. of large plantations. After the 1964 coup, and especially from AI-5 onwards, peasants were expelled from their homes by the large landowner, who thus expanded their area for monoculture.

Launched in the region where the so-called Peasant Leagues had been organized pre-1964, crushed by fierce repression after the coup, the process of plundering access to land, revisited through the eyes of Linhart and Manceaux, can be seen today as an initial laboratory of the extensive process of confiscation of workers' assets and basic rights, carried out on a global scale in the following decades, to culminate in the extinction of the Welfare State (where it had existed). In one way or another, the scope of the process covered not only the reality of European economies, but also liquidated the global symbolic role of the Welfare State as an aspect of development, now considered dysfunctional, in the new key of systemic capitalism.

Displaced, the workers had no other option than to settle with temporary and precarious means, and on their own, in the urban outskirts. In them, trucks of contractors come every morning to randomly collect the available labor, as in an act of extractive collection. Absolutely precarious, without any security, guarantee or provision of benefits and work facilities, these homeless workers would come to be commonly referred to as “cold floats” by the way they ingest, in a hurried and abrupt manner, without even heating them, the precarious and miserable homemade meals that they carry in the lunchboxes in which they eat, sitting on the floor, in the midst of intensive and exhausting journeys, beyond all description.

The practically forced way of working only made things worse. Recent reports show sugarcane harvest workers, forced into the fictitious status of autonomous micro-entrepreneurs, who take drugs to increase daily production, based on whose weight and accounting they are paid according to an extremely sinister and updated form of production. Stalino-Stakhanovite, in service (now as before) of the cause of late and accelerated modernization. I leave aside the poignant signs, captured with artistic practices and critical rigor in the book, to highlight only the judgment of the nutritionist, Dr. Nelson Chaves, interviewed by Linhart, that workers cold floats Today, they eat less and worse than slaves.

In fact, chronic hunger or malnutrition through processed foods and the lack of hygiene have become permanent conditions of the way in which migrant peasant families pile up on urban outskirts, such as tools left in sheds or warehouses. They are accompanied by a procession of chronic and lethal diseases and illnesses, including diarrhea, which is deadly for children.

In the narrative mode of the essay that articulates the production of surpluses and mass hunger, two constructs are inseparable: historical reach, critical rigor and perceptual and plastic aptitude to capture and raise awareness. Through their hybrid form, both in the instantaneous sensitive appeal and in the power to reflexively condense forms of long historical duration, both operate readily and in a combined way, as image and thought, in the mold of what Walter Benjamin called Denkbild.

Linhart learned these two visual constructs from consultations and dialogues with Brazilian interlocutors. Thus, both derive directly from dialogue and immersion in the critical culture of intelligentsia that make up Linhart's investigative mode. Such constructs are the metaphors of the “concentration camp” and the “nuclear bomb”.

It should be noted at the outset that, if the narrative in such an operation managed to short-circuit productive leaps four centuries apart, it was by highlighting, with such constructs, the persistence of traces of slavery and colonialism, synthesized with advanced modernity and internationalized. In this way, the thought-images used in the narration allow us to synthetically combine the remote rural interior of Pernambuco, at first glance backward and provincial, with two devices forged in thriving and technologically advanced economies: the concentration camp and the nuclear bomb.

Thus obtained in the narrative flow itself, the critical-investigative condensation is unique and rarely achieved in other modern works of art and reflection. Covering an arc of four centuries in terms of temporality, the logical connection appears between the practices of slavery and colonialism and the necroindustry of death, responsible for the “sinister inventions” of mass death in gas chambers and, shortly thereafter, the nuclear bomb . In effect, the two inventions, although produced by countries at the time at war, were reciprocally combined by both, depending on genocidal purposes, advanced production practices, laboratory developments, technology and forms of industrial organization. In this sense, they constituted one and another manifestations of progress understood unilaterally, as is common in capitalism, such a process of pure technological sophistication, devoid of any democratic and ethical dimension.

From a historical and critical-reflexive point of view, Linhart is careful to root them as forms originating from the Brazilian debate, while also articulating the two maximalist metaphors, one with the other. The first of them, the concentration camp, comes from a book by Francisco Julião (1915-1999), lawyer and founder of the Peasant Leagues,[v] and also a deputy impeached and imprisoned by the civil-military regime. Julião uses the concentration camp metaphor in his book Cambão: The Hidden Face of Brazil,[vi] to evoke the iron circle in which northeasterners find themselves enclosed and inexorably condemned to a slow, programmed death by chronic hunger.

The second figure mentioned is that of dirty bomb, to figure out the effect of mass hunger. The metaphor, borrowed from a poem by Ferreira Gullar (1930-2016) with the same title, alludes to the pathological scourge of diarrhea triggered in the body corroded by the chronic form. In the Brazilian debate, both metaphors were used by authors to refer to situations in the Brazilian Northeast. The Northeast – for the European listener or those unfamiliar with Brazil’s disparities, a kind of Noon Brazilian – is the synthesis region that embodies and exposes in its dramatic contrasts the structurally exclusive and unequal character of the late modernization process implemented in Brazil. Linhart, with his own experience as someone who had grandparents who were victims of extermination camps, was able to distinguish features in the impact of the disease on northeasterners that were equivalent to those seen in victims of Nazi camps (or, it can be noted, today in the Gaza ghetto).

Similarly, the figure of the nuclear bomb, as used in Gullar's poetry,[vii] it evokes a holocaust, from the point of view of someone who is the target of a genocidal operation, launched indiscriminately and irrevocably, like a scourge, on a mass of people (as is the case today on the Palestinians). However, genocidal design and execution are, in Le Sucre et la Faim, read as class planning. In other words, as measures planned in favor of the large estates, not only to suppress and erase the political and organizational experience of the Peasant Leagues in the pre-1964 period, but to increase and perpetuate exploitation, eliminating all resistance through the prior dissemination of extreme insecurity in relation to basic needs and rights to food, housing, health, hygiene and dignity.

In short, acting as critical intelligence resources, such constructs induce historical and dialectical reflection through the condensation of historical forms with distinct temporalities and geographic origins: the advanced and the backward, the modern and the archaic, etc. However, merely formal and empty schemes would remain, if they were not at the same time enlivened, in materialistic terms, by visual descriptions, obtained through truly cinematographic narrative procedures. In this way, the measurement of scenes and aspects of the real processes of class exploitation and oppression gains rare and unprecedented vigor due to the synthesis of two narrative modes: the sensitive and the critical-reflexive.

I will, therefore, insist here on the constitutive role of his aesthetic practices, that is, on the eminently visual and critical content of his narrative. An acute sense of editing organizes the whole, alternating the near and far vision and disciplining chains of sequences, sometimes unfolding as long continuous shots, sometimes giving rise to abrupt diegetic cuts, which transport the thread of the plot to another temporal or spatial context. . But this does not mean that the connecting thread is lost, as in such cuts the reflective intensity is accentuated.

This occurs, for example, in the chapter “Volta ao Recife” (Return to Recife), when one traveling focusing on the landscape – from the windows of a moving car heading towards Recife – it describes the sequence of the plantation's undulating leaves, seen like sugarcane stalks that follow one another in series. Meanwhile, the sea of ​​sugarcane fields is visually interrupted, here and there, by two or three types of patches (brown areas, traces of fires, but also, less frequently, by isolated remains of tropical forests) and, also, by a third and linear: red grooves that show the bare earth, exposing the production flow paths (in less than half a dozen lines, this alternating sequence of images visually summarizes a multi-century history of land ownership, in the form of large estates destined for monoculture , the harmful and precarious use of fires as a means of preparing the next harvest, the opening of productive territories through environmental devastation).

In short, Linhart and Manceaux's investigation is very valuable as a period document, which marks a historical turn in capitalism, proven even before the bloody experiment in Chile, producing a prototype of the neoliberal economic model. At the same time, due to its aesthetic and historical construction, Le Sucre et la Faim shows itself capable of highlighting the contradictions presented in a state of instantaneity, therefore, alive and burning as much as they are condensed as a matter of historical reflection, when they appear synthesized with other temporalities and nexuses.

So, how could we not notice in the germ, in the samples of the new barbarism collected and examined in Le Sucre et la Faim, that the images of the tragic migrations of desperate populations – desperate to abandon their concentration camps into which their home regions have been transformed – contribute decisively to the restriction of wage demands, wherever they may be? In effect, as long as capitalism has the gas and power to promote globally, in strategic locations, its concentration camps – for the global display of the terrifying power of mass hunger and the specter of chronic pandemics – the compression of wages and the concentration of capital will continue; as much as, as Linhart warns, “the immense rot” (l'immense pourrissement) of everything and everyone.

What else do we have to lose?

* Luiz Renato Martins is professor-advisor of PPG in Visual Arts (ECA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Conspiracy of Modern Art (Haymarket/ HMBS). []

Text of the work “First notes on the contemporary hell”, presented on 10.11.2023/20/XNUMX in the panel “Dispossesion, migration, and modern hunger” (Ana Paula Pacheco, Bruna Della Torre, Luiz Renato Martins), XNUMXth Historical Materialism Annual Conference, The Cost of Life: Oppression, Exploitation and Struggle in the Time of Monsters (09-12.11.2023), SOAS, Univ. of London, London.


Robert LINHART, Le Sucre et la Faim: Enquête dans les Régions Sucrières du Nord-Est Brésilien, Les editions de Minuit, Paris, 1980; ed. br.: Sugar and Hunger – Research in the Sugar Regions of Northeast Brazil, trans. J. Silveira, Rio de Janeiro, Paz e Terra, 1981.


[I] VIEW The Sugar and the Hunger: An Inquiry into the Sugar Regions of Northeastern Brazil, including “Third World, Inquiries, Social Analysis: An Interview with Robert Linhart by Jean Copans, Jun. 2, 1980”, photos by François Manceaux and the afterword: “43 Years Later: The Relevance of The Sugar and The Hunger” by Luiz Renato Martins, trans. by John M. Floyd (Linhart and Copans) and Emilio Sauri (Martins), Helsinki, Rab-Rab Press, 2023.  

[ii] See Lincoln SECCO, “A Proletarian Revolt,” in The Earth is Round, 31.08.2020.

[iii] “If we go to the essence of our formation, we will see that we were actually created to supply sugar, tobacco, and some other items; later gold and diamonds; then cotton, and then coffee, for European trade. Nothing more than this.” See Caio PRADO Jr., Formation of Contemporary Brazil: Colony, São Paulo, Brasiliense/ Publifolha, 2000, p. 20.

[iv] See Pierre DARDOT and Christian LAVAL, La Nouvelle Raison du Monde: Essai sur la Société Néolibérale, Paris, Éditions La Découverte, 2010.

[v] See, about the Leagues, Francisco JULIÃO, What are the Peasant Leagues?, Rio de Janeiro, Cadernos do Povo Brasileiro/ Editora Civilização Brasileira, 1962.

[vi] See Francisco JULIÃO, Cambão (Le Joug): The Face Cachée du Brésil, trans. Anny Meyer, Paris, editions François Maspero, 1968, p. 88.

[vii] See Ferreira GULLAR, “The Dirty Bomb” [1975], in Into the Fast Night [1975], pref. Armando Freitas Filho, São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2018.

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