Fragment on democracy, violence, and citizenship

James Holston – Fragment on democracy, violence, and citizenship



James Holston


If democracy with mass citizenship has been one of the hallmarks of Western nationality, its conceptualization has rarely considered violence among citizens as a characteristic rather than episodic condition of its development. Instead, democratic theory in the West has generally proceeded as if the problem of internal violence had already been solved. That is, it assumes the pacification of societal violence through the development of a civilizing process in Norbert Elias’s sense, the modern disciplines in Foucault’s sense, or the modern nation-state that combines rule of law with the monopolization of the means of coercion, in Max Weber’s sense, and uses both to control violence. Democratic theory has thus assumed that the problem of internal violence against citizens has been resolved – or, better, dissolved – by assigning it to the Western development of culture and the nation-state.[1]



However, the anthropological investigation of the world’s democratization since the 1970s, especially beyond the North Atlantic, revealed a systematic coincidence largely missed by political science: Precisely as political democracy has taken root in the most diverse societies and cultures, new kinds of violence, injustice, corruption, and impunity have increased dramatically. This coincidence is the perverse paradox of global democratization. Evident yet apparently hard to see in other disciplines, it was anthropology – with its messy methodologies that investigate the difference between what people say and what they do, its ethnographic defamiliarizations of lived practices, its use of history as an argument about the present – that demonstrated an inherent relation between democratic change and violence: that in much of the world there has been an extensive legitimation of democracy and democratic citizenship at the same time that democracy has been deeply destabilizing and generating its own kind of violence.



The anthropological study of new democracies revealed the extent to which the supposed resolution of violence offered by other social sciences is the expression – even the charade – of the particular histories of a few nation-states (such as the United States and Britain) rather than a general or universal trait of democratization itself. In the new non-Western democratization, violence remains entangled with democracy. This entanglement is distinctive because democratization is engaged with the idioms of violent social relations that remain constitutive in so many societies with different cultures and histories. Thus, many have political democracies with a striking disjunction: they feature reasonably free and fair elections and legislation based on democratic principles and values; at the same time, their citizens suffer systematic violence by forces of public and private, organized and unorganized coercion that act with the confidence of impunity. Politically democratic in terms of any reasonable theory of democracy, their citizens’ bodies are not protected by the state’s justice system. Rather, they are vulnerable to violence, trapped in the reproduction of violence that privatized justice promotes, and humiliated by impunity. Cultures of fear, indifference, illegality, and abuse of power characteristically proliferate within the public body of these political democracies, coexisting with democratic values of public life. Perversely, the rule of law becomes both brutally violent and ineffective to combat violence. In this common sort of political democratization, moreover, urban public space becomes both newly politicized and newly dangerous, alternatively abandoned and fortified.



An important finding of the anthropological study of emerging democracies is that what I call the new insurgent movements of democratic citizenship perpetuate fundamental attributes of the entrenched citizenship they oppose. This means, for example, that the citizen-members of these movements I work with in São Paulo typically accept the values of special treatment rights, individual property ownership, and the strategic legalization of the illegal. However, I also find that rather than merely nourish new versions of these attributes, the insurgent disrupts: It remains conjoined with the entrenched, but in an unbalanced and corrosive entanglement that unsettles both.



Thus, we cannot expect insurgent citizenship to be stable in its expansion. It too has holes into which it collapses. Exactly because the old formulas of differentiated citizenship persist, new incivilities and injustices arise with democratization. Hence the intertwining of the entrenched and the insurgent has contradictory effect. It erodes the taken-for-granted categories of domination that gave daily life its sense of order and security. If it did not, it would be inconsequential. Democracy is not the only force of such destabilization, and it gets tangled with others, such as urbanization, privatization, and neoliberalism. However, without doubt, it provokes violent reactions, some to restore old paradigms of order and others to express outrage that their elements – now more visible because disrupted – persist. As a result, democracy brings its own kinds of violence that irrupt where it destabilizes older formulations of order and repression.



Emblematic of this unstable mix of old and new citizenships is the high levels of everyday violence by both criminals and police. This mix finds its most perverse expression in Brazilian society when both criminal drug cartels and police-based death squads use a language of democratic rights and rule of law to justify their brutal violence. But so much has now been written about these violences that I want, in closing, to draw attention to other public expressions of the sense of violation and outrage that the unstable mix of insurgent and entrenched citizenships produces. I refer to the in-your-face incivilities and aggressive aesthetics of the everyday public in São Paulo: the blaring of rap and funk, not samba; the use of racial terms that polarize rather than hybridize; the marking of wall surfaces everywhere with spray-paint tagging (pichação).



Consider tagging. In recent years it has become ubiquitous in São Paulo. Taggers are invariably young men from the peripheries. They transcend their home neighborhoods by inscribing wall surfaces throughout the city with their names, in a repetitive script that most residents condemn as ugly, unintelligible, and criminal. Their intrusions leave no cityscape unmarked, especially surfaces that seem least accessible, so that citizens cannot avoid seeing them. By these means, taggers contest the fortification and privatization of São Paulo and create a new visual public of city surfaces that asserts the presence of the peripheries everywhere. If this in-your-face demonstration is their objective, however, most Paulistanos consider it proof of the deterioration of urban space and its public.



Yet, as they seem intended to disrupt the assumptions of national inclusion that ground Brazil’s entrenched differentiated citizenship, should we view such incivilities as expressions of insurgent citizenship, as forms of protest and civic actions? Predictably, elites view these new proximities of the peripheries as intrusions into spaces they once ruled completely. They respond by creating new kinds of distance. Motivated by fear, suspicion, and outrage, elites withdraw from the sort of everyday personal contact that made their style of rule – their regime of differentiated citizenship – famous for its surface congenialities. Instead, they develop an array of new social and physical barriers. On the one hand, they wall themselves into residential and commercial enclosures, guarded by private security and high-tech surveillance, that create new segregations of urban space. On the other, this mindset culminates in racist criminalizations of the lower classes, which oppose human rights and support police violence.



These aggressive strategies of intrusion, withdrawal, and privatization produce a destabilized urban landscape. Although the accomplishments of insurgent citizenship are visible throughout the city, so are the interiorizing and privatizing rejections of them. At the same time, for example, that neighborhoods in the peripheries exhibit many improvements in infrastructure and social resources, buildings there and everywhere bristle with the hardware of security. Even as local governments invest in new cultural facilities (e.g., museums, parks, and performance centers), middle-class families abandon neighborhood parks and squares, which deteriorate as a result, for the recreational spaces of private clubs, malls, and residences. The city thus seems simultaneously renewed and decayed. Moreover, as it builds an efficient subway, the middle-classes have also largely abandoned public transportation for private modes, in which they increasingly hide from view behind dark-glass and bullet-proof armor. These contrasts of public investment and routine privatization, renovation and decadence, democratic access and elitist interiorization, have become pervasive in São Paulo, explicit in ordinary urban experience.



In this context, it may be stretching credibility to call tagging an expression of insurgent citizenship. Yet it does disrupt the ideologies of universal inclusion that help sustain the ruling elite’s formulations of differentiated citizenship. These ideologies effectively blur – in the sense of making less appreciable – its massively and brutally inegalitarian distributions. The civility of the entrenched regime thus emphasizes inclusion, accommodation, ambiguity, and heterogeneity as idioms of social relation, expressed in a variety of nationalist ideologies, cultural institutions, and social conventions – for example, in those of “racial democracy” and carnaval. These idioms of inclusion are further complimented by cultural conventions of seduction that give personal relations of gender, race, and class a gloss of complicit accommodation, a sense of intimacy that obscures but maintains fundamental inequalities: I refer to the seductive ambiguities produced through the (untranslatable) artifices of jetinho, malícia, malandragem, jinga, jogo de cintura, and mineirice, universalized in the institutions of samba, carnaval, and capoeira, and celebrated as constitutive of Brazilian culture – a culture that nevertheless maintains horrific inequalities.



My point is that these ideologies and conventions of inclusion have only recently become less convincing. As insurgent citizenship disrupts the differentiated, these dominant formulations of inclusion wear thin and the inequalities they cover become intolerable. Increasingly exhausted, they get replaced in everyday relations by in-your-face incivilities. The problem for contemporary Brazilian society is that although the inequitable distributions remain, their blurrings have lost efficacy. This exhaustion increasingly exposes the hard facts of inequality “for Brazilians to see.” The undeniable exaggerations of violence, injustice, and corruption in the current period of political democracy may thus be considered in these terms: the gross inequalities continue but the political and cultural pacts that have sustained them are worn out. This flaying of a social skin transforms city and society. It produces rawness, outrage, and exaggeration. In this sense, we may say that the deep changes produced in this democratization also, perhaps necessarily, produce incivility as a public idiom of change.



I conclude that although Brazil’s democratization has not been able to overcome these problems, neither has the counter-configurations of violence and injustice been able to prevent the development of significant measures of democratic innovation. Above all, it has not prevented the widespread legitimation of an insurgent democratic citizenship. For the time being in Brazil, as in so many places, neither democracy nor its counters prevails. Rooted, yet rotted, they remain entangled, unexpectedly surviving each other.

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