The new bush captains

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Some black men oppose the fight for freedom of black men and women using social networks and institutional spaces organized by right-wing think tanks, spreading in their own way the ideas of conservative thought

By Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza*

Every week, since Jair Bolsonaro and his political group were elected, in October 2018, Brazilian society tries to understand with perplexity what happened (and happens) to the country. The political and speech obscenities of a seemingly never-ending movement mount up week after week.

Rodrigo Nunes, professor of contemporary philosophy at PUC-RJ, was right when he stated in 2016 that we live in an era of obscenities in Brazil[1]. I would only add: an obscenity of certain sectors of the political, economic and cultural elite. We watched in astonishment, even shocked, for example, at the nomination of the new president of the Palmares Foundation, aimed at valuing black culture – someone who, if he does not hate it, certainly despises it, according to his statements.

Whether or not such statements were based on knowledge of history, recent facts and the current situation of black men and women is of little importance. German scholars, philosophers, sociologists and humanists, called mandarins by Fritz Ringer[2], knew the history of Germany and the Jewish peoples well and joined Nazism. It is true – as a certain author said some time ago – that knowledge and theory “in itself” becomes “material force”; but it is necessary to consider our fascination with knowledge (rational and institutional, and even practical) as a solution to everything. Before it was!

The obscenity of the present is due to the fact that the contempt for black culture and its historical and political significance is enunciated by a black man. A black man. There are arguments that claim that whites and whites do not have the legitimacy and authority to name him captain of the woods; which can be a problematic consideration (pity not having space to develop the issue here). Whatever; however whoever writes to you owns those two items considerably. As a black man on the left, I can categorically and emphatically state that Sérgio Nascimento de Camargo is a captain of the bush, which is regrettable.

But Sérgio de Camargo is not the only one. With the rise and reorganization of the Brazilian right after the June 2013 demonstrations, a set of public and not-so-public figures of conservative blacks emerged. Mostly men, they predominantly use social networks and some institutional spaces for debate and reflection granted and organized – by think tanks from right. In addition to Sérgio de Camargo nominated for the presidency of the Palmares Foundation, the promoters of conservatism in Brazil today are philosophy professor Paulo Cruz, Rio de Janeiro military policeman Gabriel Monteiro and Fernando Holiday; being the first member of the Instituto Brasil200 and the other two of the MBL.

But why are they entirely captains of the bush? And what can explain such a phenomenon today? The appearance of the captains of the bush in the history of slavery in Brazil is inseparable from the struggle for freedom of black men and women. If the captains of the bush were linked to the incessant quest of slaves for the status of free men and women, there was something peculiar in the small history of those characters. In this sense, the Guerra de Palmares was decisive. It was "one of the most notable episodes of slave resistance in the history of New World slavery"[3].

It must be remembered, however, that Palmares was one of the many regional Quilombos that spread throughout the Brazilian territory between the XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries; there were Quilombos in Minas, Bahia, Goiás, Mato Grosso, Rio de Janeiro and in the southern region (Pelotas)[4]. Even so, it was Quilombo de Palmares that brought the greatest concern to the slaveholding class. Located in Alagoas, in the Captaincy of Pernambuco, the inhabitants of Palmares had significant natural protection (as one of the military tactics).

Such circumstances were fundamental in the resistance and political-military counter-offensive strategies against the forces of order. As João José Reis says “the socioeconomic structure of Palmares […] was strongly marked by the political-military organization”[5]. Only with the expeditions coming from São Paulo did it become possible to defeat Palmares. The fear of new Quilombos after the Palmares War – has plagued the slave-owning classes in Brazil ever since. With the increase in the volume of transatlantic slave trade, due to the economic cycle of mining (between 1701-1720, 292 enslaved individuals entered Portuguese America, between 1720-1741, 312,4 and between 1741-1760, 354[6]), the slave population would inevitably tend to fight for their freedom, either by resisting in the slave quarters or in the main house; or fleeing and forming new Quilombos.

The figure of the captains of the bush responded to these specific circumstances. Blacks who managed to be freed, they knew the ways, tactics and escape routes of their brothers[7]. In exchange for money, relative prestige, social ascension and building self-esteem – the bush captains placed their individual interests above the collective causes of women and men who wanted to be free, freeing themselves from physical and psychological suffering in the slave quarters. Thus, to prevent new Palmares and similar politico-social and politico-military structures, the slave-owning class institutionalized the “captain-of-the-mato figure”[8]. According to Rafael Bivar Marquese, whom we are following in this section, the captains of the bush were fundamental for the non-emergence of new Palmares in Portuguese America[9].

Since 2013, the bush captains have resurfaced in Brazilian society. Fernando Holiday was one of the first – and is one of the most outstanding. Being followed by the current president of the Palmares Foundation, Sérgio de Camargo, by Paulo Cruz (philosopher), Gabriel Monteiro (carioca military policeman) and “Negão” (Youtuber). However, there are two distinct aspects, in addition to the obvious historical and time factor, in the phenomenon we are witnessing in comparison with the context after the Palmares War. The first is the event-Djamila Ribeiro; and the second the diffusion of conservative thought and its idea of ​​human nature.

If today there is no longer a fight against slavery; the struggle of black men and women persists for effective freedom. That is, our demands today are for access to public universities, recognition of black intellectuals (such as Lélia Gonzales and Beatriz Nascimento), equal health for the black female population (the end of obstetric violence), the end of prejudice in job selections – and, above all, that police violence stops exterminating us.

These new requirements gained significant momentum, even new, with the figure of the philosopher Djamila Ribeiro and her theory of the place of speech. Arising and acquiring intellectual projection in the context of the June 2013 demonstrations and after them, Djamila put into circulation in the Brazilian public debate (academy, press, collective discussions) the notion and language of place of speech; published in book at the end of 2017[10] The philosopher's essay is now read by young black men and women throughout Brazil.

Furthermore, the vocabulary of the place of speech awakened and highlighted, directly and indirectly, a generation of black intellectuals, who today are decisive in the organization, thinking and resistance of black people. Thula Pires (PUC-RJ) and Adilson José Moreira (constitutional lawyer); Giovanna Xavier (UFRJ) and Márcio Farias (sociologist/PUC-SP); Juliana Borges (Researcher-School of Sociology and Politics of São Paulo) and Taliria Petrone (Federal Deputy and Black Activist PSOL; Sílvio de Almeida (FGV-SP) and Nathália Carneiro (Political Science/Grupo Gira-USP); Erica Malunguinho (State Deputy Activist Trans-PSOL) and Marílea Almeida (Historian-Unicamp ) – are today the cultured and sophisticated expression of Brazilian black social-critical thinking; and they are, declared or not, personalities of the national left.

While the end of public and engaged intellectuals is being debated, resulting from productivism and soulless specialization (Max Weber) in the academic world – let it be said that some sectors of the university left itself make a timid criticism of this state of affairs –; the aforementioned personalities embody the idea and role of the committed intellectual: in the sense that Jean-Paul Sartre gave it in his In defense of intellectuals[11],or in the more contemporary version of Bell Hooks, of the intellectual as one concerned with social change and radical politics[12]. By being critical of the prevailing oppressive system, public and engaged intellectuals are the voice of those from below. In the Brazilian case, black intellectuals and black men are the disruptive voice of oppressed black people, historically and today.

This is what conservative thought does not admit, and has never admitted in its social history. Intellectuals, of the sophists[13] to Djamila Ribeiro and Vladimir Safatle – including Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, the socialists of the 10s and 20s of the last century and the first generation of Critical Theory, Lélia Gonzales and Florestan Fernandes, Bell Hooks and USP philosophy – has the ability to drive social transformation. Schumpeter was right when he said in Capitalism, socialism and democracy, to his own chagrin, that not being a “social class”, and therefore independent and autonomous, making use of the “book, the pamphlet, the newspaper”[14] and the persuasive voice: the intellectuals were able to “stimulate, invigorate, verbalize and organize” those who were unhappy with the system. This was, and is, unacceptable to social order theorists.

In its four modalities (English, French, German and American) since Burke, conservatives, and some liberals, are against the radical and effective transformations of society. In a letter to Eric Voegelin dated August 25, 1950, Leo Strauss agrees with his interlocutor – “I completely agree with what you say about interpreting the world or changing it: that is, in fact, the root of all bad"[15]. And in the English cultural scenario Oakeshott refused to accept any political and government association that envisioned human perfection through rational and abstract processes (conducted by intellectuals) of transformation of the existing conditions of existence, human societies should not bow to politics of faith; and in a similar environment Roger Scruton considered it legitimate, “levels of natural prejudice, common culture and the desire for the company of one's own species […] to condemn them as 'racists'”[16] and trying to transform them is like eroding the “national identity”[17].

The argument of conservative thought against those, and especially intellectuals, who seek freedom, equality and recognition for all is that there is a certain human nature – by which we are not only unequal and hierarchically distinct from one another, but perverse, depraved, potentially destructive and greedy. After all, Zumbi dos Palmares wasn't such a good person... And whatever we do, we're nothing more than Josianes and Jokers (in the version given by filmmaker Christopher Nolan). In a word: human nature is fallen and immutable. The search for its transformation is a fatal mistake of the left and its intellectuals. And it has to be uncompromisingly contained.

In itself this formulation would not be a problem; it turns out that in the context of modernity it has complex implications. In Habermas's terms, modernity is discursively and ontologically the search for the self-transformation of the subject - we seek to constantly break with "frivolity" and "boredom"[18] from past; the modern world opens up to the “future” in a continuous renewal against tradition. Conservative ideas are not readily totalitarian (as Hannah Arendt defined it) and/or authoritarian; however, there resides in them an opaque tendency towards authoritarianism.

This in no way diminishes conservative thought and its theorists (we need not deny it: Burke's contribution to interpreting the French Revolution, the encyclopedic scholarship of Eric Voegelin, the imposing German diction of Leo Strauss, and the elegant English prose of Oakeshott and Scruton). But they, the conservatives and some liberals, have to respond at all times (and the counter-response can sometimes be carried out by the Bolsonaro family and Olavo de Carvalho, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon) to Lenin's response to a question they asked him after 1917: when asked whether, in the face of human miseries (natural or otherwise), the struggle was worth it, the Russian replied: “and the fool awaits an answer”. People, and black people, will continue to not accept human suffering, they will always be in search of a better present and future, effectively free and truly egalitarian; and why not, happy.

The new captains of the bush spread in their own way the ideals of conservative and right-wing thinking. It can be argued that Sérgio de Camargo, Paulo Cruz, Holiday and Gabriel Monteiro are far removed from what the most prominent conservative theorists wrote. However, let us remember – as Perry Anderson commented from TS Eliot – that “any important belief system constitutes a hierarchy of levels of conceptual complexity […] from highly sophisticated to grossest simplifications”[19]; and that “ideas have weight in the balance of political action and the outcome of social change”[20].

Now, when Sérgio de Camargo says that “there is no salvation for the black movement”, that “slavery was terrible, but beneficial for descendants”; when Paulo Cruz states that conservatives are against radical transformation (they accept thoughtful changes) because human nature is immutable[21] and now and then speaks of the past with idyllic praise; and Gabriel Monteiro argues that a bandit and a black bandit (and killed by the police) is because of his bad nature[22] – are enunciating and circulating for those who read, see and hear certain notions of conservative and right-wing thought.

These interventions are said in circumstances in which, as if the murder of Marielle Franco by militiamen was not enough (as everything indicates), an eight-year-old black girl, Agatha, was shot in the back in an action by the Rio de Janeiro military police, and Lucas, a A 14-year-old black youth was found dead in a river in the region of Santo André, greater São Paulo, after neighbors saw him being approached by military police. The class impudence and foolish snobbery – typical of characters from Machado de Assis and Marcel Proust respectively –, from our elites (but from where nothing is expected, nothing really comes), their conservatives of the hour and the captains of the contemporary bush are something incomparable.

It is evident that black intellectuals, in particular black feminism in Brazil, have problems, as well as the left as a whole (those due to excessive glamorization, the naive search for solving the problem of racism through institutional means – it is worth here, what Wendy Brown formulated about the feminist movement, leaves criticism and social resistance to find the white man in state organizations[23] – and the unfounded belief in pedagogy and processes of knowledge of the different to end racial prejudice; and these for their vanguardism, for their pacts of occasion, their loss of effective radicalism and for their vexatious treatment, today, on the question of the black, forgetting Marx's consideration for what the subject of social transformation in a certain historical moment is the one who concentrates in itself the contradictions and evils of society[24]); even so, it is also true that they could well be new Zumbis, Dandaras, Acotirenes and Aqualtunes – and the political combination of these with the left could turn out to be explosive.

The elite that today governs the country and its tink tanks and political movements like the MBL, with the Bolsonaro family, Paulo Guedes and Sérgio Moro at the forefront, do not want to see a new Palmares reappear. And the new and modern bush captains learned the lesson of five centuries that Lucien de Rubempré, the tragic character of the lost illusions de Balzac stubbornly accepted and fought against – that things of the spirit, poetry and the arts never gave men something to eat.

*Ronaldo Tadeu de Souza is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Political Science at USP


[1] See Rodrigo Nunes – The Victory of Obscenity: How 2016 took the unspeakable to stardom. São Paulo Paulo, Illustrious Supplement, 04/12/2016.

[2] Config. Fritz Ringer – The Decline of the German Mandarins, Edusp, 2000.

[3] Config. The article by Rafael Bivar Marquese – The dynamics of Slavery in Brazil: resistance, slave trade and manumission in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. New Cebrap Studies, no. 74, 2006.

[4] See José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy – Os Fios de Liberdade. USP Magazine, no. 138, 1998.

[5] Config. João José dos Reis – Palmares: the struggle for freedom. In. Schuma Shumaer – Gogó de Emas: The Participation of Women in the History of the State of Alagoas, Official Press/SP, 2004.

[6] Rafael Bivar Marquese, Op. Cit.

[7] Config. Haroldo Nascimento – Capitães-do-Mato still surround us. AfroPress-News Agency. 11/09/2006 [Acesso em 01/12/2019].

[8] Op. cite.

[9] Op. Cit.

[10] See Djamila Ribeiro – What is a Place of Speech?, Literacy, 2017.

[11] See Jean-Paul Sartre – In defense of intellectuals, Attica, 1994.

[12] See Bell Hooks – Black Intellectuals. Feminist Studies, nº 2, year 3, 1995. It is important to observe Hooks' suggestive elaboration on black intellectuals. She considers the isolated activity and solitary and at the same time critical and insurgent contemplation of intellectuals to be positive – and that black women should fight for this space as a form of resistance. Here, in a frank dialogue, she ponders Cornell West's reservations about the isolationism of intellectuals as a social tendency.  

[13] In your reading of Gorgias of Plato, Leo Strauss interpreted that his criticism of the sophists “is a criticism of intellectuals”. Config. Faith and Political Philosophy: Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin (1936-1964), It's Achievements, 2017, letter 26.

[14] Config. Joseph Schumpeter- Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, especially part 2 – Growing Hostility, Unesp, 2016.

[15] VIEW Faith and Political Philosophy: Correspondence Between Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin (1936-1964), É Realizações, 2017, letter 33.

[16] Config. Roger Scruton- What is Conservatism, It's Achievements, 2015.

[17] Op. Cit.

[18] Config. Jurgen Habermas – The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Martins Fontes, 2002.

[19] Config. Perry Anderson – Ideas and Political Action in Change. Left Bank Magazine, no. 1, 2003.

[20] Op. Cit.

[21] Config. Paulo Cruz –; See also your interventions in the programs Panic e Morning Show from Rádio Jovem Pan in São Paulo.

[22] Config. Gabriel Monteiro – See the various videos of Gabriel Monteiro dealing with the problem of crime.

[23] See Wendy Brown – Finding the Man in the State. Feminist Studies, nº 1, v. 18, 1992

[24] Karl Marx – Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right-Introduction. In: Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, Editions 70, 1993.

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