Policy for whom?

Image: Anderson Antonangelo
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By PHILIPPE SCERB*

The relationship between the poorest and the politics they depend on is melancholy and devoid of power.

For a few months now, anyone who walks along Minhocão, in São Paulo, doesn't just see the worn facades of old buildings and cool young people who walk, run and cycle on weekends when the elevated highway becomes a park and closes off access to cars. Often alongside graffiti and graffiti that so well express a gentrification process that coexists in harmony with poverty and degradation, messages critical of Jair Messias Bolsonaro and his government leap to the forefront.

One Sunday in early February, I noticed one of them for the first time. On a purple cloth, hanging from a window sill at Santa Cecília station, it read: “How many deaths are left for impeachment?”. At that moment, I couldn't help remembering a passage from a book I had just read.

In the last pages of “Who killed my father”, the French writer Edouard Louis describes an episode from his childhood in which his family takes a brief trip to the beach to commemorate a government measure that increased by one hundred euros the benefit that parents of students receive annually to fund back-to-school costs.

According to Louis, who after high school left the decadent industrial city where he lived in northern France to study at a prestigious Parisian college, that fondly guarded memory reflects a fundamental difference in the relationship between the poorest and the wealthiest with policy. For the former, politics is a matter of life or death – and his book makes a point of making that clear when describing the harmful effects of some government measures on his father's mental and physical health. The dominant ones never go to the beach to celebrate a political decision. They can complain about right-wing or left-wing governments, but politics doesn't affect their health, it doesn't change their lives – or very little. For most of them, says Louis, “politics is an aesthetic issue: a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world. For us, it's live or die."

It does not seem exaggerated to say that this gap has rarely been as deep as it is today. On the one hand, politics ceased to be a drowsy, uninteresting, secondary subject to become one of the main criteria for defining the identity of part of the middle and upper middle classes. Practically everything is politicized, from food preferences to the Big Brother Brasil audience, as belonging to certain social groups now involves sharing a worldview largely permeated by moral values. Hence the need, for example, to respect strict guidelines with regard to language and behavior.

But if politics today occupies a central place in the lives of those driven, in this relationship, by aesthetic and cultural imperatives, it has received little attention from those whose survival depends on its course. Although laws and government measures mean life or death for the poorest, their genuine disinterest tends to contrast with the virtuous and sometimes hysterical engagement of the former. And the reasons are not impossible to understand.

For a long time, the feeling that prevailed in relation to politics was indifference. After decades marked by strong conflict between antagonistic ideologies and projects of society, the 80s brought, at the same time, the crumbling of the communist world and the subjection of progressive parties to the neoliberal agenda. The new consensus erased the most visible distinctions between the forces competing for political power and stripped it of its former relevance. The alternation between right-wing and left-wing governments, after all, resulted in incremental changes and no longer justified a heightened interest in a policy that, if it no longer expanded the life possibilities of workers, did not drastically restrict them.

With the unfolding of the 2008 financial crisis, however, apathy gave way to indignation and a diffuse desire for transformation in an environment of accelerated deterioration of present conditions and future expectations. As the democratic system proved to be impervious to the interests and control of the majority and the traditional political forces did not indicate any commitment to change, a good part of the population resorted to what, in their eyes, appeared to be the most radical transformation they could find. . It is in this context that, both in the center and on the periphery of capitalism and after a significant cycle of protests, extreme right-wing leaders and parties emerged as the only real alternative to an order that was running out.

In several countries, they even reached the main spaces of power. This inaugurated a new period regarding the relationship between citizens and politics. Part of those who do not depend on it to survive came to see the blunt criticism of the new and regrettable rulers as the best means of reinforcing the grandeur of their identity and values. Manifestations of disapproval on the most diverse social networks, in conversations with acquaintances and at windows, with banners or pans, fulfill this function well.

But among those for whom, in Louis' words, politics is a matter of living or dying, the current moment is less one of revolt and engagement and more one of resignation. It is as if the change that had been shown to be possible turned out to be innocuous for expanding their life possibilities. Of course, not all of them supported and voted for leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. A good part even disapproves of their governments. However, the vast majority recognized in them the only renewal available, for better or for worse, in the face of a system dominated by homogeneous elites and an order that was insensitive to their immediate demands and incapable of meeting their longer-term expectations.

In addition to its materially and symbolically regressive effects, therefore, right-wing populism has still emptied any hope of a political alternative to the current combination between an increasingly aggressive neoliberalism and a liberal democracy that is increasingly less inclined to control and popular participation. For the change that these rulers promise and, more or less rhetorically, have delivered, does nothing to improve the reality and prospects of subordinates.

The relationship between the poorest and the politics on which they depend thus becomes melancholy and devoid of power. After all, if their daily life is marked by a tough and, as a rule, individual struggle against the degradation of their objective conditions and for the most basic survival, politics has proven to be an instrument they cannot count on to change this reality. And that doesn't even deserve your interest and your limited energy.

The timid reaction of the majority of those governed in relation to the abuses of the Bolsonaro government is the clearest symptom of this problem. Even in the face of an administration that does not shy away from openly flirting with death and the accentuated restriction of life possibilities, resistance and popular mobilization lack the trust, essential, that things could be different.

Nothing can be expected from a so-called democratic right insofar as its social strength comes from a bourgeoisie willing to give up political power to accommodate its economic interests to anti-democratic regimes.

What is striking is the inability that the progressive field has shown to make people, especially those whose lives depend on politics, believe in the viability of another type of society. Squeezed between fragmented cultural flags, the left bases its precarious relationship with the masses on distant memories of better times and on the often conservative defense of certain norms and corporations.

Perhaps a policy capable of making people dream has never been so urgent. And this defense does not carry with it idealistic traits. On the contrary, it is eminently pragmatic. It is about giving clear and concrete signals to the social sectors whose relationship with politics is a matter of life and death that, through it, the future can be better than the present. This will probably take away from politics the glamor it has today, but that is another problem.

*Philippe Scerb is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at USP.

 

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