In Brazil, the interests of large estates have driven the state’s agenda of priorities for many centuries. These include the maintenance of slavery until the end of the 19th century, the absence of labour rights in the countryside for most of the 20th century and, more recently, a series of labour and social rights violations and the increase of slave-like labour in the countryside and in the city. This is without considering the informality of more than 70% of domestic employment.

By Prof. Erica Almeida¹

Since 2013, the coordination between the agrarian oligarchies, the bankers and a large part of the business sector not only provided political support for the impeachment process of Dilma Rousseff, but also for the Labour and Social Security Reforms that penalise those who make a living from work, especially the poorest. As if the attacks on workers’ rights were not enough, transformed into completely devalued “merchandise”, the ultraliberal policy of successive governments continues to advance, through large economic investments, on indigenous and quilombola territories, on peasant lands, on the seas and rivers of artisanal fishermen, risking the social reproduction of these traditional communities and the environment on a local, national and global scale, and with it the survival of humanity.

Seen as a structural dimension of the experience imposed by European colonialism, slavery functioned as an element of classification and hierarchy between those who had humanity and those who did not, sustained by the ideology of white supremacy and racism. The end of the terror of slavery failed to end institutional violence against blacks. The violence and racism embedded in the institutions of the republican state shaped the way they operated, especially against the poor and black segments of the population. These social practices had no other intention than to disqualify and silence blacks and, with them, all their culture, tradition, doings, knowledge, beliefs and religiosities – in fact, a right of white Europeans since the 18th century.

Without any support from public policies aimed at their economic and social integration, the new “citizens” were forced to “make do” in a hostile and racist world and to submit to the worst jobs and wages, with undignified housing and, almost always, the experience of stigmatisation, police violence and imprisonment. From the 1950s onwards, the expulsion of workers from the countryside created the ‘boias-frias’, precarious and impoverished rural workers, who now live on the periphery of the cities. Once again, without the support of public policies, these workers had to take care of their housing, generally self-built, and the “maintenance” of their children.

Cities reproduced class inequalities in their daily life, adding to structural racism, racialising urban spaces and forging peripheries completely deprived of rights to urban infrastructures and to a set of material and immaterial collective goods and services. Marked by socio-spatial and racial segregation, the city of Campos dos Goytacazes, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, formerly the territory of the Goytacazes Indians, developed while maintaining a set of inequalities in access to land, income and social, political and cultural rights. This daily life of “deprivation”, which often characterises the peripheries, continues to shape the city’s landscape, aggravating the social and racial gap and penalising thousands of working families who continue to live on the margins of decent employment.

After more than 30 years of the Citizen Constitution, which incorporated a set of rights into the constitutional text, social practices, especially institutional actions, are moving in the opposite direction to the 1988 Federal Constitution (FC), especially in socially stigmatised spaces. Perceived as belonging to “criminals”, the places of the working poor and blacks were transformed into areas of “dangerous people”, justifying not only the absence of a set of institutions and actions related to social protection and the guarantee of constitutional rights, but also the ostensive and violent presence of other institutions and governmental actions.

This inability of the state, through its institutions, to protect everyone, regardless of class, race and/or ethnicity and gender, is not a problem of budget or human resources, although these problems are present in all areas of the state. It is the result of the lack of institutional recognition of the status of the Brazilian working poor as citizens. This rejection is even greater when it denies humanity to black men and women, particularly young people, who are considered unworthy of living. This stance is not limited to state institutions, but has been gaining legitimacy in civil society as well, backed by those who actively participated in the 2016 Coup d’état and in the process of destroying labour rights, and who continue to operate against employment, health, education and social assistance – public policies necessary for the vast majority of the population – and against the environment, our greatest collective heritage. The actions of the last two (mis)governments in terms of privatisations, the defunding of public policies, the attacks on liberal institutions and the 1988 Constitution, the indiscriminate use of institutional violence in confronting social movements and the militarisation of public security, summarise a continued ‘modus operandis’ in the resolution of social conflicts and their “pacification”, generating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity and imposing a set of challenges to the struggles for rights.

In this sense, it is not a question of asking whether institutions work, but of questioning institutional practices, as well as their relations and articulations with private and corporate interests, some of them anutterable. This allows us to think that the omission of an uncompromising defence of universal rights and participatory democracy (which goes beyond elections every four years) may mean not only the absence of republicanism in our late “republican” institutions, but also the subordination of a large part of them to the interests and projects of the new “owners of power” and their rationality. A business rationality that is increasingly spreading in “public” institutions, or those that still retain that adjective, and that transforms workers into entrepreneurs and citizens, consumers and competitors. The possibility of a future in danger appears in the actions of social movements resisting this widespread destruction of common interests and the agenda of collective rights. In resisting, the experiences of sharing and building new meanings and new sociability’s, more collective and in solidarity, are recovered. It is for them that we must bet!

¹ Social Worker, Professor of the Social Service course and of the Postgraduate Programme in Development, Environment and Public Policies (PPGDAP, abbreviated in Portuguese) at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), Campos dos Goytacazes, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.