Notes on Right Directions

Image: Plato Terentev


The master needed the slave, the king needed the subject, just as the rich Brazilian needs the poor

What's the point of going to New York if your doorman can go too? That's what Danuza Leão asked herself back in 2012. She was heavily criticized at the time and apologized, but the crucial thing about this case is that the socialite provided us with important clues about sociability and wealth in Brazil: the pleasure that the material bonanza here provides to moneyed is not convenience and comfort, but social distance (or social abyss). “It's really good to have exclusive things, which only we have access to”, she added. Exclusivity is what provides pleasure and meaning to the experience: if too many people have access, it loses its charm.

The practically four hundred years of legalized slavery in the country created the perspective that being someone means being different from the poor and enslaved layers. The social practice that generates meaning to existence is that of distinction: what legitimizes a person is the uniqueness of their privileged access to social goods: education, travel, food, entertainment, etc. With regard to education, see the example of that girl in Leblon, in July 2020, in a clash with the health surveillance inspector, who was investigating the crowds at the reopening of some bars in Rio de Janeiro and called the person who accompanied her citizen: “Citizen, no! Graduated civil engineer, better than you”.

Or even the other example of the architect who yelled at the police that he couldn't arrest her because she was an architect. Once the higher education phase was completed (which was restricted to a select group), please do not confuse me with any other person born in Brazil. Rights and duties must be differentiated. It's the famous "do you know who you're talking to?" After all, speech – even that of the law, which should treat anyone without distinction – would need to adapt to social class.

The so-called rise of the C class, the access of blacks and the poor to university through quota policies from the 2000s are some phenomena that generate resentment-Danuza-Leão. What made sense – exclusive access to social goods – no longer makes sense. How is the self-narrative facing our new reality? After all, the master of a slave needs a slave to be one. Likewise, if it is social distance that provides identity, that gives meaning and content to personal experiences, what happens when it becomes an obstacle fought by public policies?

It turns out that these public policies become the number one enemy of this social segment. The master needed the slave, the king needed the subject, just as the rich Brazilian needs the poor, the distinguished person requires what he understands by riffraff, but far from it. Because it is being at a distance from the rabble that makes possible the experience of “differentiating yourself from the rest of humanity”, to quote Danuza once again.

The reader should note that what can be understood as bad karatism – and perhaps it really is – also comes from the tragedy of the Brazilian elites when it comes to symbolically recomposing their existence in the world. This is where his enormous resentment of any policy aimed at reducing social inequalities arises. Once again: it is the social inequalities that give them meaning in the world, therefore, whoever wants to reduce them will invariably be their enemy.

“Blacks at my university?”, trans people who are now demanding the same social goods, feminists denouncing the illegitimate privilege of white men: social democratization is the end of Brazilian-style sociability and with that end what was understood as organized world. This means that the moment of reduction of social distances is the moment of crisis for the elites. What seemed contradictory and counterintuitive ceases to be: if it is the social crisis that generates meaning, the moment of combating this crisis is what generates the collapse of identity.

It is not by chance that these people are fixated on the idea of ​​public safety. Social improvements effectively jeopardize this secularly constructed social place: it is being contested. But not everything can be said loud and clear, so fear appears in a repressed way, as fear of violence, chaos, death. “Where are we going to stop?” And in times of crisis, the group's solidarity is strengthened. And in the name of aristocratic identity, the security forces are armed and a multitude is murdered. As the Titans used to say, “riches are differences and death is no longer surprising”. Just as the sun no longer causes astonishment: not least because it rises for everyone and enjoying it would be unbearably democratized.

In 1957, Ingmar Bergman made two films that dealt with crisis, death and the search for meaning: the seventh seal e wild strawberries. In the first, Bergman makes an interesting anachronistic exercise of placing the atheist Antonius Block (played by Max von Sydow) in the darkest moment of the Middle Ages: the plague of the fourteenth century. Death comes looking for him, he distracts her in a game of chess and goes in search of God and the reason for existence. In the end, by his selfish pursuit, he is not redeemed.

Yes, wild strawberries tells the story of Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström's role), an old scientist who has withdrawn from everyone and has a dream that he is going to die. Over the course of the film, he realizes the mistakes he has made in life, stops being grumpy and manages to connect again with the people around him. It should be noted that, in both films, it is a crisis caused by the image of death, which is transformed into a search for meaning.

But each of the protagonists took a different path. Antonius Block continued to treat those close to him with contempt or coldness and ended up entering the torturous dance of death that brings him to his end. Isak Borg, on the other hand, who was able to connect with his own humanity, with his youth, with the family members who participate in his traumas, feels loved and becomes capable of loving again.

I wonder what the behavior of these Brazilian elites will be in the future. Will they reformulate the way they understand their identity, as Isak Borg did, and will they realize that a world without so many discrepancies is better than one that legitimizes one position by the misery of the other? Or will they remain attached to their perceptions of a state society in a changing world?

At some point, when meeting the doorman at the airport, the exquisite architecture graduate will be able to say: “dear Severino, sit down. Eat my bread and drink my wine. Tell me a little about yourself, since we see each other almost every day and we don't know anything about each other”? Then, will they share the satisfaction of knowing that more people can fulfill their travel dreams, enjoy each other's presence, talk about their different experiences and enrich themselves with things they didn't know until then? Well, history tells us no.

History teaches us that the Brazilian elites will fight back, claim lost privileges. 1964, 2016 and 2018 were not for nothing. The statement by Milton Ribeiro, former Minister of Education in the Bolsonaro government, that the University is for the few was not for nothing. The revealing text by Danuza Leão was not for nothing. Social networks will tend to inflate resentment and, like Antonius Block, who did not have his lamentations heard for his conceit, they will go out in a solemn mournful dance, carrying everything they touch to the hell of distance. Although always in the name of good.

*Rafael Mantovani is a professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). Book author Modernizing order in the name of health: the São Paulo of military, poor and slaves (1805-1840) (Fiocruz).


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