On politicization and depoliticization

Image: G. Cortez


Politics as a cartography through which the boundaries between what is or is not thinkable and nameable are defined

A doctoral research, carried out in nine housing complexes on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, recorded a way in which residents classified themselves according to the different positions they assumed in social life.[I]. More specifically, they were referring to the different ways they evaluated the housing conditions in which they lived. There were then three categories used there: the “revolts”, the “upstarts” and the “unprepared”.

With this original form of classification, a group of residents sought to characterize the different positions of the subjects regarding their insertion in popular housing programs that had led them to live in locations far away from urban centers. A first caveat to make is, from the outset, that such a classification – by the way, without any statistical significance – will probably have been conceived from the point of view of those who classify themselves as “revolts” and who maintain a position, shall we say, unflattering in relation to the other groups that live there. Having said that, it is worth asking whether the opportunity to access a critical perspective that, although vague and impressionistic, was born within a popular housing space, would not justify an exercise that considered such categories as indicators of different postures in relation to social life more broadly; that is, to speculate on the assumption that categories like these, originating in a spontaneous critical sociology, can, in a way that is approximate, express a stratification of the popular strata according to different levels of involvement with questions related to the construction of a world common, that is, of its politicization.

Political sociology suggests that the ability of actors to politicize their positions would be a function of at least two variables: a) the learning that enabled them to visualize things in collective terms, with awareness of the cleavages and divisions that cross social life; b) the communication situation in which they speak, taking a stand on conflicts that go beyond the individual plane of existence of the interacting social subjects[ii].

The so-called “revolts”, for example, would be, from this perspective, those who would have demonstrated the acquisition of such learning and knew how to explore the communication situations they faced. They would have assumed what Foucault called “counter-conduct” in the struggle they developed against the procedures put in place to conduct them. The rebels do not behave, therefore, as “it should be”. On the contrary, when they adopt political counter-conducts, they create kinds of public counter-spaces, territories where discourses and practices claiming equality are put into circulation. Within these sub-spaces, ideas born in reaction to the condition of exclusion they experience in the dominant public spaces circulate.

In all spaces, they seek to develop debates on the existence of litigation, on the objects of litigation and on the parties that face it; but also about the very conditions and rules under which such disputes take place. That is, on the very configuration of conflict arenas, whether in the legal field or in other instances such as public hearings, participatory councils, etc. such as those that were in force prior to the inauguration of neo-fascist forces in the federal government in 2019.

But, what about the other subjects, why wouldn't they mobilize their collective intelligence to think about their condition, their future and the means of building it? That is, why would they behave “as due”, according to the procedures put in place to conduct them?

First of all, it is worth remembering here sociological theories that, endorsed by the very classifying action of this spontaneous sociology verified in the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, maintain that, even in conditions of apparent conformism, there is a constant concern in societies about “what is, what what is worth and what matters”[iii]. In other words, latent criticism persists even in situations where, apparently, order and consent reign. Devices that ensure the maintenance of order would, in turn, be strategically put in place because they are placed under the threat of the possibility of criticism, in particular when, as in the present case, it comes from agents or popular movements.

Taking into account these two assumptions, the persistence of critical activity and the action of devices aimed at its containment and maintenance of domination, what would be the clues to understand the historical conditions that would explain the supposed “unpreparedness” and the attributed illusion of ascension? consumption, that is, the subjects' submission to depoliticizing factors?

In the first place, it is necessary to consider the various signs of popular frustration with the degradation of the formal political sphere. After the neoliberal reforms, politics ceased to designate the action of the legitimate power to deliberate on collective life, being associated with the function of organizing the exercise of a financial power that is superior to it, basically assuming functions of police, regulation and administration[iv]. The sphere of deliberation, within the scope of the formal political system, was absorbed by the realism of the debate between what “can be done” and what “cannot be done” and by the pragmatism of governance that favors clientelism and the privatization of the public machine . From politics, whose question was to know what kind of society best suited its members and how to get there, little remains when the order of things is presented as ineluctable and the debate takes place in words that intend at the same time to say everything and their contrary.

Apparent consensus has become essential to policies to attract international investment. The need to offer advantages to international capital – social cohesion, security, “ecological sustainability” – started to justify that the projects in dispute cancel each other out in favor of an interlocal or interurban competition. With the emergence of an authoritarian neoliberalism, in turn, financial business agents proved to be quite plastic in their ability to coexist with a government that has as its project the destruction of the public dimensions of the State and the use of the governmental machine to protect the interests of large landowners, owners of capital and weapons.

Secondly, the mechanisms of consumerism operate, that is, the logical articulation between the programmed obsolescence of goods, the advertising effort for sales and the indebtedness of families, which promotes a circumstantial convergence between corporate, financial, electoral and group interests. low-income. The latter are encouraged to believe in the possibility of their social ascension through consumption, rather than in the joint development of their powers of judging, speaking and assigning meaning to issues related to life in common. There are two mechanisms mobilized in the effort to “sell” ways of life: “microeconomic” advertising, which seeks to manipulate individual purchasing decisions; and “macro” or institutional advertising, which seeks to reduce citizens' critical capacity in relation to political processes, including those related to government and corporate decisions that are important for the construction of collective futures. This “macro” publicity is decisive to close the productive chain of the dominant lifestyle, articulating the consumerism of goods and places to the structural pattern of space use – namely, the mall – seeking to make the population’s attention turn basically to to the search for ways to participate in the accelerated circuit of consumption.

It is necessary to consider, in turn, the new Political Economy of the workers' time. With the neoliberal reforms, the dissolution of jobs and rights, the free time previously assured by wages began to be occupied by activities necessary for the creation of conditions for survival – the viração, the informality, the precariat. There was a lack of time available for the dispossessed to think about anything other than the survival of their families.

It is also worth considering the effects of the emergence of a kind of “business government of the territories”, which takes advantage of the void of rights that should be guaranteed to the popular layers in terms of health and education to develop private social policies. Faced with the government's abandonment of public policies, large corporations began to occupy these spaces, providing as a favor what is the right of the population. Through the so-called “social risk” studies, large companies began to anticipate not only conflicts, but also the very dynamics of society's self-organization, seeking to promote a kind of top-down neoliberal associativism. Resorting to a kind of private political intelligence, dedicated to identifying the agents who criticize their big projects, the so-called “anticipation of conflict” business departments help corporations to invest in the demobilization of society.

Finally, the operation of a pedagogy of inequality has been intensified through a variety of means of dissuading political action: the evidence of class justice – expressed in the color and income of prisoners and victims of police violence; the criminalization of critical action – as in cases like that of the judge who recorded in his sentence that human rights defenders murdered in Ipixuna “contributed in some way to the crime”[v]; the disqualification of the dispossessed as politically incapable and “insufficiently competitive”; the exercise of threat against popular leaders who develop what extreme right activists call “activism”.

Therefore, the idea of ​​politics as a cartography through which the boundaries between what is or is not thinkable and nameable as an object of collective intelligence in the perspective of overcoming inequality gains relevance. The question of who is legitimately entitled to exercise it and the places where it is possible to do so is also on the agenda. Given the moving character of these frontiers and the influence of depoliticizing forces in the construction of the supposed “lack of preparation”, the persistence of critical capacity in situations where, apparently, order and consent reigns.

It is present both in the critical exercise of the “revolted” residents of the peripheries, as well as in the groups that resist the expansion of neo-extractivist capitalism in the countryside and in the forests. Such ability is exemplified by the attitude of the quilombola lady who refused the imposition of eucalyptus planting in her quilombo area by a large pulp company. Showing her competence in historically understanding the nature of the processes in which she was involved, she conjectured: “the company is not God; as she came, so she may go.”

* 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).



[I] Andre Prado, at the end of town, Ed. UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 2017, p. 274-276.

[ii] Sophie Duchesne, Florence Haegel, La politisation des discussions, au croisement des logiques de specialisation et de conflictualisation, Revue française de science politique 2004/6 (Vol. 54), p. 877 to 909

[iii]Luc Boltanski, From the critique, Précis de sociologie de l'émancipation, Paris, Gallimard, 2009.

[iv] Jean-Paul Curnier, Douceur d'um naufrage, Lines n. 41, May 2013, p. 42

[v] Nova Ipixuna: Judgment that acquitted the person responsible for the murder is annulled, Global Justice, 12 August 2014, https://br.boell.org/pt-br/2014/08/12/nova-ipixuna-julgamento-que-absolveu-mandante-do-assassinato-e-anulado.


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