Antonádia Borges, University of Brasilia, Department of Anthropology
Privilege in countries like Brazil and South Africa (where I do research) are imbibed with a peculiar sense of inequality. In these two places poverty and racism are blatant: those who have not are not considered as human as the elite members. What they have, their possessions, are valued as worthless. For those who rule the country, the fact that millions have no place to live in peace is an intrinsic aspect of capitalism. However, despite the “truth” behind this affirmation, there is a question on the continuous production of exclusion and poverty that has not been addressed yet.
Instead of agreeing that those who live in poverty are just poor, it is important to ask for more historical evidences. Who comprise the poor in Brazil? Mostly blacks. However, since Brazil has been produced as a nation as a racial democracy, we need to understand that despite various shades of skin color, what makes someone black is her strength to challenge the power. But where resides her power? In the fact that she personifies a history of usurpation. Therefore, the rampant use of violence to repress her.
Black communities stay in places located far from the view of the wealthy whites, on the outskirts of the city, of the citizenship. There, they are an easy target for State violence. Indigenous groups are still being uprooted from their land for the sake of predatory economic interests like mining or dam construction to provide energy for a rapacious industry. The continuous obliteration of black people in Brazil and South Africa is justified in the name of development. Poverty therefore is a sine qua non to development. These issues are intimately related to knowledge. Policies of public assets redistribution – from housing to social grants – are theoretically meant to alleviate poverty.
The feature I’m interested in understanding has to do with the work done by poor citizens for the State.
After being forcibly removed from their places and ways of living, they become a target population, in other words, needy poor families who are supposed to feed the State (in its various instances) with data on their own lack of everything. The State can’t survive without such figures, such evidences provided by those who are meant to be the target of a specific policy. It is a vicious circle.
People who are almost illiterate need to gather documents, to do serious research in their personal archives, to prove something that would be otherwise evident: the fact that they are on the bottom of a social ladder that has suppressed their knowledge, that has reduced them to be poor. In short, a roof, a shelter or a piece of land are assets of knowledge. In case of dispossession what we have is an ontological exclusion. In cases of ownership what we might have is capitulation.
Against further forms of work-force exploitation, capture and silencing, different groups of the so-called poor are organized in various political fronts: movimentos sem terra (landless movements) and movimentos dos trabalhadores sem teto (homeless movements). Beyond a struggle for land and housing as a way to redress inequality as historically produced, they acknowledge themselves as knowledge makers, whose sagacity might be their most powerful weapon against oppression. They challenge State technology to produce taxonomies and to hierarchize their needs as more or less urgent. They refuse to accept that public health, education, housing and so on continue to be provided through policies that put the poor against the poor, diverging them from their main opponent: the State as a killing system.
(photo credit: Veronica Kaezer)