Critical Hope in Fearful Times
The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency represents a full reaction against the Pink Tide, or the progressive wave of Left-leaning governments that swept through Latin America over the past twenty years. A defender of torture and an ex-Captain, Bolsonaro’s campaign and subsequent victory centered authoritarianism and social cleansing ideologies, shaking the foundations of Brazilian democracy. Democratically elected Dilma Rouseff’s impeachment in August 2016, and her replacement by vice president Micael Temer, a friend to Wall Street and an informant to Washington, showed us how militarized capitalism had already been in motion. Indeed, when many Latin Americans commented on Dilma’s removal, they referred to it as a coup, orchestrated by internal and external forces to regain control over Brazil’s vast non-renewable resources. As we have seen throughout the Americas, it takes military state power to extract and control land and territories, and to further marginalize the dispossessed. Though it is still unclear exactly what role the Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras played, Lula and Dilma’s efforts to redirect fossil fuel profits for social policies was at the center of Brazil’s recent political and economic drama. Balsonaro’s election pushed back on social access legislation and policies, where efforts to distribute wealth, address historical racial exclusions, and redress landless peasants created a fierce reaction by white and wealthy elites.
As I discuss in Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Political Undercurrents in the Americas, in the digital media era, politically Left governments encounter deep colonial legacies and a radically skewed global economy, making redistribution a pathway filled with bots, Right wing fear rhetoric, and elite interests. Many “pink tide” states actually increased foreign and state profit through policies designed to pay for fossil energy reserves, water rights, and mineral resources in arrears. In addition to exacerbating debt, new governments made incomplete gains on gender, reproductive and LGBT issues. As I ask throughout the book:
Why do we continue to rely on the state for a better future when the patriarchal and authoritarian underpinnings of the liberal nation-state have historically represented “no future,” especially for Indigenous, Black, women, and cuir/queer and transgender people, and for planet Earth’s biodiversity?
From the vantage point of the present, it has become increasingly clear that progressive states did not represent a break with neoliberal governance as promised but represented a continuity with authoritarian legacies. The imprisonment of Indigenous Mapuche people and land and water defenders makes this transparent. At this critical juncture, and with so much hanging in the balance of electoral outcomes, in addition to voting what other modes of politics exist? How do we think, act, and imagine beyond the traditional affairs of the state?
Rather than resort to the nihilism of capitalism, or fall too deeply into the liberal sentiment that all is lost, we might consider the artistic and political undercurrents that lie within Brazil and all around us, and that provide what radical pedagogue Paulo Freire first called “critical hope.” For instance, when Balsonaro announced in his campaign on October 7, 2018 that he would “put an end to all activism in the country,” three thousand groups from Brazilian civil society responded with an impassioned statement about the dangers Balsonaro represented. I take their statement and those working within social movements and collective choreographies in Brazil as central to how we imagine alternatives in the here and now.
A transnational social movement against authoritarianism, racism, and the erasure of social difference is essential to a historically grounded and future imaginary of critical hope.
In 2015 in Sao Paolo, I had the opportunity to witness and be engaged by Teatro da Vertigem’s production “Bom Retiro: 958 Metros.” This was a stunning participatory work of political critique that showed the rich texture of urban social life, race/class divisions, submerged memories, and the urgent potential for being moved beyond collective depression. In the vein of popular theater, Teatro Vertigem located the work within a shopping center in the Bom Retiro neighborhood, the area of Sao Paolo that borders urban peripheries and nearby favela communities. Early scenes of the evening performance took place just inside of locked gates, where actors from surrounding communities banged on the metal simulating the hate speech against the urban and rural poor that aimed to bar entrance into Brazil’s “economic success” narrative. Our audience of about one hundred members, stood in the hallways of the mall, in front of glass encased stores with white mannequins on display in the windows before us. Suddenly, the lighting shifted and what emerged from behind the glass were the illuminated and ghostly figures of Black and Asian seamstresses whose gendered and racialized labor powers sweatshop industries. This visual layering of inside and outside imitated the constructed barriers of the cityscape and global economy.
As our guide led us from the shopping mall through the surrounding streets of Bom Retiro, every level of the urban built environment became integrated into the moving theater set. We saw a Black actor suspended on a wall above us, narrowly escaping the surveillance of cameras and focal lights, as a helicopter flew overhead. Using the verticality as well as the grounded levels of street life, Teatro da Vertigem took us through the informal economies of the urban scape. As fruit vendors pushed their carts and sex workers made their way through deserted city streets, we walked alongside them. Incorporating actors from throughout Brazilian society became integral to the experience of an enlivened social theater that populated and animated the multidimensional history of the city.
As our theater audience and group passed by a sanitarium, the audible/inaudible words of a “mad man” foretold the scene of social cleansing we were about to witness. We could not suspect that we were on our way to the old Jewish theater, the historic bustling center of Ashkenazi community life. Once there, we sat on rickety leather theater seats, and were overpowered by the smell of mold in the dank and vast space. On stage, a new shadowy production emerged that seemed to speak of the social disappearance of histories of authoritarianism. Indeed, as director of Teatro da Vertigem Antonio Araújo discussed, the dictatorship was learned in school books as facts rather than as something to be critiqued or connected to a critical history of global fascism. The on-stage scene was interrupted by loud alarms and bright flashing lights, as actors dressed in white and tall rainboots came in and began flooding the aisles with large buckets of water. We filed out quickly, with damp feet, scared and bewildered and in awe of the concrete metaphor for social cleansing that had been enacted before our eyes. We had become complicit to the scene of fascist ideologies that unfolded in our time and place.
Though Bom Retiro was directed by Antonio Araújo these productions are part of collaborative methodologies that mix theory, history and high concepts with social and artistic praxis from within and outside of university walls. They also incorporate trained and untrained actors as a form of radical pedagogy, a way to intensify the stakes of experimental and experiential critique. Situated in the Jewish theater, and near the favela, we became aware of the undercurrents of racial tension, and the hatred and exclusions that continually dispossessed residents. Indeed, we not only witnessed the history of fascism and authoritarianism in the nation but were asked to participate in it. This was not necessarily a pleasurable experience and in its profound impact, could not easily be incorporated into either the logics of neoliberalism, or the celebrations of multiculturalism. Instead, Teatro da Vertigem literally forced a catharsis with our own complicity with social violence, and the forgotten histories of anti-semitism and colonial racism made emergent in the new format of urban gentrification. This artistic, collaborative, thoughtful, and embodied contending with submerged undercurrents represents critical hope. We must find our way to a future that perceives and enacts beyond the inherent violence and exclusivity of the liberal nation state.
This post was originally published as part of the University of California Press’ blog series related to the American Studies Association conference in Atlanta and as part of the American Studies Now blog series.