Project Description

These photographs of the Amazon used in this article were taken by Eduardo
Viveiros de Castro, at different times, and were chosen for
publication by Investigate Europe by Eduardo Sterzi and Veronica
Stigger, curators of the anthological exhibition of the photographic
work of the Brazilian anthropologist.

Investigate-Europe-Logo

July 25th, 2019

The Portuguese journalist and writer Alexandra Lucas Coelho talks to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In this interview with Brazil’s famous anthropologist Viveiros de Castro discusses Bolsonaro’s cruelties in Brazil, the strength of the indigenous populations and what Europe’s colonialist perspective on the past has to do with all of it.

As to why we think this is an important piece for our audience, despite focussing mainly on Brazil, read IE’s Paulo Pena’s blog post.

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Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, photographed by Bruno Fuji

It’s not a choice. Humans will be forced to live differently in a few years. Environmental and political disasters will increase. Europe may be living its final gasp. Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who has worked in the Amazon, is convinced: The colonised peoples are ascending. And in the Brazil of Bolsonaro, it’s like the world is already upside down.

Are intellectuals still worthy? What can the left parties do, when the right dominates the media and social networks? And the word, where is its place? The following conversation was recorded in Portugal, and completed by email. The context is at a time when Brazil is going through something similar to the Watergate with the revelations by the investigative journalism site The Intercept, about how the arrest of Lula da Silva and the election of Bolsonaro could have been promoted by a political-judicial orchestration.

  1. The indigenous people will fight

Being human is not an attribute, it’s a viewpoint. Man sees himself as a man and sees the jaguar as an animal. The jaguar sees itself as human and sees a man as an animal (prey). The gazelle sees itself as human and sees the jaguar and man as animals (predators). And so on. Each species sees itself as human and sees the others as animals. It was Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who developed this thesis, known as “Amerindian Perspectivism“, after decades of working in the Amazon. This is his most popular thesis as an anthropologist.

At the age of 67, he still lives in the city where he was born, Rio de Janeiro. He is a Professor at the Federal University, at a time when public education is under threat, with the government announcing major budget cuts and the suspension of major master’s and doctoral scholarships; the National Museum, where Viveiros works, was devoured by a dramatic fire; and Jair Bolsonaro is the head of “a government of gangsters”. Viveiros even said he’d leave the country if he got elected. He hasn’t physically left, but he’s retreating from the public sphere.

Alexandra Lucas Coelho: by Rui Gaudêncio

Alexandra Lucas Coelho, photographed by Rui Gaudêncio

I interviewed him for the first time in 2014. Five years later, in Guimarães, northern Portugal, we met again, where Viveiros opened an anthological exhibition of his photographic work in the Amazon since the 1970s. It hasn’t been exhibited in other places outside Brazil yet, but Europe would benefit from seeing it.

As well as learning from the indigenous people something about the upcoming collapse – that it’s not about “looking at the other”, but trying to “see how they see”.

When we sat down to talk, Viveiros tells us that he recently received an invitation to give a lecture in France on “Being an indigenous Brazilian under Bolsonaro’s Government”. He told them they had to call someone indigenous to talk. “Maybe it was usual 20 years ago, maybe then I didn’t realise how absurd it is to call a white anthropologist to say what it’s like to be an indigenous Brazilian under Bolsonaro’s government.

It’s not like being an indigenous Brazilian in general, that could be an anthropological issue. But that’s a political question. It’s not for me, it’s for the indigenous people.

Indigenous peoples have achieved a capacity for self-expression, for self-defence, which has made the role of the anthropologist much less relevant, and to some extent uncomfortable. For them and for us. The dangers of speaking on their behalf are very great.”

The Bolsonaro government has sent numerous alarming signals to the Amazon, and to the indigenous people. But Viveiros, who is far from being an optimist, says that “there is cause for optimism”, although “this government, in many ways, is worse than the civil-military dictatorship” that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. “Because he was elected, under conditions that are known, and can therefore burst into legitimacy; because he is shamelessly cynical; because he is brutally neoliberal; because he exhibits a repugnant servility towards the United States of Trump; because he has an explicit commitment to the ecological destruction of the country; because he is fanatically obscurantist; because he has sinister links to paramilitary groups.”

But “as bad as it might be, certain things that have happened in these 50 years are irreversible,” he believes. “Women aren’t the same as they were 50 years ago, neither the LGBT… They’re not going back to where they were. There will be resistance. And the same goes for the indigenous peoples. No matter how threatened they might be, with constitutional amendment projects, with gunmen killing and expelling Guarani, with refusals to demarcate land, the indigenous people today have much greater intercultural competence and political experience to deal with the white world.

Their ability to react is far greater than it was 50 years ago. There’s going to be – it’s already happening – a very big offensive against them; but they’re going to react. There are also many more means of reaction, via the international community. Channels of communication with the UN, with international organisations, with the world press.”

Indigenous Brazilians represent one per cent of the population, but they are much stronger than that one per cent. And they have known the apocalypse for 500 years, if we think that from the indigenous point of view the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500 was the end of their world – because of epidemics that decimated native populations; because of weapons, slavery and the invasion and theft of their lands. From this perspective, from which they have long resisted, the indigenous peoples are much more capable of dealing with Anthropocene, the ‘New Era’ and the catastrophes predicted.

“In Brazil, however, we are so busy and worried about the internal political catastrophe and we forget that it is part of a major and much more uncontrollable catastrophe. Bolsonaro and his government will go away, sooner or later. The damage can take 40 years to disappear, but it will pass, even though some of the disasters it is already causing are irreversible, especially in the environmental area, but also in the field of public education… On the other hand, climate change will not end, the increase in the temperature will not disappear, it will just increase. This can be controlled, mitigated, but I doubt it will be.

So, we are here so worried about Bolsonaro that we don’t see the melting of the glaciers, and ultimately what counts is the melting of the glaciers and the many other processes of changing the thermodynamic regime of the planet during the Holocene. The problem is the world. But Brazil is very big, it’s a significant part of the world.”

Countries as big as Brazil and the United States turn “national governments with environmentally disastrous policies into planetary threats,” he summarises, recalling that “it was not aimlessly that the British journalist and ecologist Georges Monbiot called Jair Bolsonaro ‘the most dangerous man on Earth,'” in a video recently released. “This combination is diabolical, especially in Brazil. In the USA, something is starting to happen very timidly, with the Green New Deal proposal, an outline of a reaction to Trump’s official denial, financed by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, Robert Murray, Robert Mercer. Let us not forget above all the recent worldwide youth movement, the climate strike led by Greta Thunberg. In Brazil, there is nothing like this, yet, because we are fighting against an avalanche of absurdities and immediate political and environmental atrocities that are burying us.”

Like the collapse of the Vale mega-company mining tailings dams in Mariana and Brumadinho (Minas Gerais), killing “ecologically an entire region, and hundreds of people”, for example. “In any other country everybody would be imprisoned, ministers would resign… Nothing has happened. And it’s not going to. They’re going to give little money to the families of the dead. The president of Vale said that ‘Vale is too big to be condemned’. In a slightly better world, a sentence like that would lead to an immediate arrest.”

He stresses that these disasters “are happening”. “There is a combination of environmental disasters and political catastrophes. It is as if Brazil has entered a particularly harmful astral world. A cloud over the country. Mariana… The fire at the National Museum… Brumadinho… The Bolsonaro government… The projects of collapse of the social protection devices… The extinction of environmental protection agencies… The government of Bolsonaro is not responsible for the Mariana disaster, it happened before, and it is due to a relationship between the state, the stock, the territory and the population that is inscribed in the country’s DNA; a relationship, or rather, a power system that allows Vale to do whatever it takes, like ruling the state of Minas Gerais, defining the environmental laws, devouring the land, poisoning the waters, polluting the air.”

And how are the indigenous people better prepared to face this?

“The indigenous Brazilians are much better prepared to live without electricity or running water. Just as, in fact, the poor of the planet are better prepared than the rich for misery, for a precarious existence, to spend days without eating, because they are already going through that. What will happen soon, I do not even say in the long-term, is the collapse of the various systems of maintenance of human life that supports our technological civilisation.

Portugal has caught fire, California has caught fire, rich places are catching fire, being flooded, there is a trigger of events over which you have no control. Those things will increase, the hurricanes, the forest fires, the floods. Southeast Australia was underwater two or three years ago. For us, urban citizens dependent on hyper-complex systems of technological mediation, these disasters make us absolutely powerless; we do not know how to live outside our socio-technical networks, fed by monstrous energy consumption. If you run out of light, you run out of computer. When an indigenous Brazilian’s rifle runs out of ammunition, they take the bow and hunt. If I run out of ammo on my rifle, I’m not going to hunt. You can make archery, not a rifle .”

You don’t even know how to hunt. “For starters, I don’t know how to hunt. The so called ‘traditional peoples of the planet’ are people able to revert to techniques and livelihoods that are beyond our reach. We are animals that have lost the ability to reproduce outside a highly-controlled environment. We’re too domesticated. We can’t live outside that technological bubble that surrounds us. If we run out of electrical power, we’re lost. No more computer, I can’t talk anymore.

Nobody knows how to write letters anymore. Brazil’s mail service is practically destroyed. We won’t be able to communicate anymore, we won’t have any more news, we won’t have any more food in the fridge. Without a refrigerator to store our foods produced very far away, we do not live. As Bruno Latour says, the increasing distance and difference in size between the land on which one lives and the land from which one lives is a characteristic of Anthropocene, or, as others prefer to call it, of Capitalocene. Indigenous people don’t have refrigerators. So, if these systems of technological mediation collapse, people who depend little on them, because they are poor, or because they are outside the big urban areas, or whose way of life has not been entirely ‘domesticated’ by technocapitalism, have more chances to survive.”

It’s not even about deciding to change. “Decelerating is not an option, we won’t be given a choice: we’ll be forced to slow down. Gradually. We’re going to be be forced to leave things behind. It’s not a decision. We will consume less, yes, but not by virtuous decision, but because there will be no more cod, the tuna is running out on the planet, the ‘fish stocks’ are disappearing. You’ll have to stop using the car anyway. We’ll run out of oil; Uh, are we going to switch to electric batteries? But then comes the problem of electricity. Where are you going to get it from? From nuclear?

All thinkers, since the nineteenth century, including Marx – and in the twentieth century, in traditional Marxism – have the belief that the human species, through technology, is able to overcome any obstacle. The belief that there is always a solution and divine providence has become technological providence. There’s Marx’s famous saying: humanity only poses problems that it can solve. That doesn’t sound like the truth anymore. The planet is finite, the so-called natural resources are finite; there are material limits inherent to each social mode of material life production.

My impression is that several of these limits are being reached, faster than we imagined, and will probably force us to adopt less comfortable forms of life – less comfortable from a certain point of view, determined by the social mode of production of today’s dominant life. Today it’s impossible to think of life without a cell phone. But we’ll have to reinvent a life without a cell phone.

And the indigenous people, who are using cell phones, and rightly so, are perfectly capable of conceiving life without cell phones. I’m not sure we can do the same. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. We will face a lack of choice linked to the planetary ecological crisis, caused by the techno-industrial way of life under capitalism.

I’m talking about the next 20 to 25 years. Things are speeding up. Every day you see a report saying that the Arctic is melting much faster, that the bees are becoming extinct. If there are no more bees, half the food of plant origin disappears. We are facing an explosive combination of parameters – energy consumption, an increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the melting of polar regions, the extinction of species…

The Syrian war cannot be thought of separately from the very serious climate crisis that has occurred in the Middle East in the last 10 years. The Arab Spring was preceded by a brutal drought, a shortage of wheat, of bread in Egypt. These situations will happen more and more frequently.”

  1. A possible gasp in Europe

This is “the moment when Europe as the dominant historical agent seems to be reaching a terminal stage” says Viveiros de Castro. “It’s as if the cycle that started in 1500 is closing now. Now it’s China’s turn. And it’s the populations of the former European colonies who come back, who ‘go up’. I remember a photo of a race riot in London 20 or 30 years ago. One of the demonstrators carried a sign that said: ‘We are here because you were there’.

Hundreds of thousands of people can say this in the suburbs of Lisbon, or other former colonial capitals. How do you see the current Portuguese debate about building a Museum of Discoveries (or of Travel)?

“These museum projects are like a crispness, a reaction to the fact that it’s over, it’s over. That cycle is over.”

A desire to artificially prolong power?

“In Portugal we know that the cycle ended earlier; it was the first power and it was the first to stop being so. But Portugal is and always will be a part of Europe, its museum is a celebration of old Europe, Christian, conquering, heroic… Portugal was the historical vanguard, and so it is a legitimate representative, I think, of the project to universalise Europe. Asymmetrical universalisation, of course. But Europe may be running out.”

A gasp?

“Maybe. One of the signs of the wheezing, melancholic and, seen from the South, somewhat ironic – the continent of Reason finding difficult to be rational – the attempt to make the European Community, and all of a sudden you see that they failed, because of the UK.

And there is the sinister ascension – or shall I say reascension? – of the right wing parties, in Poland, Hungary, Italy… As if the EEC were an attempt by Europe to state ‘we exist’. And the people of the South say, ‘No, you don’t matter so much anymore. Important now is China. But perhaps that will change; perhaps Europe will continue to be an indispensable reference for the species until the extinction of the latter. Futurology is a profession without much future…”

Viveiros adds that the European celebration of a pioneering past has a correspondence with the Brazilian celebration of the Bandeirantes, descendants of the Portuguese celebrated as “pioneers” of land, “tamers” of indigenous people.

“The main highways that connect the capital of São Paulo to the interior of the state have the name of a ‘Bandeirante’. And there’s that gigantic sculpture in Ibirapuera Park, a group of indigenous Brazilians pushing a canoe, with a bearded bandeirante on the bow.

The Guarani were there a few years ago and they graffitied the entire monument with red paint, which caused great indignation among the Paulistas. They believe they conquered Brazil from the Spaniards, that they pushed the Treaty of Tordesillas to the West, destroyed the Jesuit missions in Paraguay, took over Minas Gerais, and ethnically cleansed the hinterland of the Northeast. ‘Bandeirantes’ are considered the Brazilians of the Brazilians.

I wrote on Twitter, or Facebook, which provoked a wave of hatred against me: ‘I think the Guaraní did little, they had to destroy this monument of the Bandeirantes, it is an abomination to have a monument commemorating the indigenous genocide in the centre of the capital of São Paulo, and you have to take the name of these roads. It’s like, in Germany, calling Hitler Highway, Himmler Highway or Goebbels Highway.”

In 2017, a statue of Padre António Vieira was inaugurated in Lisbon with indigenous children at his feet. Vieira was a protagonist in colonial Brazil in the seventeenth century, famous for his literary and unique sermons. What is the point of inaugurating such a statue today?

“I think you can inaugurate a statue of Padre António Vieira with his sermons in hand. Because Vieira is the word, he is the emperor of the Portuguese language. If you want to celebrate it like this, I think it’s great. Now the evangeliser, father of the indigenous children, really, I find absurd. He will go down in history for his contribution to the Portuguese language. And for its important role in Portugal’s relationship with Brazil. ”

What about the museum idea, in general, today? Is it, in itself, a colonialist idea?

“I’m afraid so. Because the old museums were other people’s museums, about others. Now you’re making the museum of yourself. A statement that we are the past. Celebrating what we are no longer. The museum of Portugal’s past is a sign that Portugal is past, it’s just a museum, in a sense. There are already so many architectural monuments, remains, memories of the Discoveries. If you need to make a museum, it would be a memorial to slavery. But I’d have to ask what the black people think.”

It will be done, proposed by an association of African descendants, voted by the citizens.

“When the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, caught fire, thousands of objects were lost from people who disappeared, that is, they were disappeared,” says Viveiros. “There were people saying, ‘What a catastrophe, a memory of peoples was lost that only existed in the museum’.

And there were people saying, ‘colonialist museums had to finish, they were trophies stolen from the indigenous people’.

There were those two reactions. The few indigenous people I heard talking about the fire lamented the loss of memory of the disappeared peoples, and the testimonies of the indigenous past in general. Those who said it was great that it burned were all white.”

  1. Bolsonaro is scum

In June, when the Bolsonaro government completed six months, the journalism site The Intercept began to publish a series of works, based on a vast leak of information, on how there might have been a political-judicial orchestration to condemn Lula da Silva and favour the election of Jair Bolsonaro. A kind of Brazilian Watergate, in which judge Sérgio Moro, responsible for Lula’s conviction and now Minister of Justice, is one of the main protagonists.

During the campaign, Viveiros didn’t believe that Bolsonaro could win. “During the first shift there was a short moment of hope. An intense reaction to try to make [Bolsonaro’s main opponent, the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando] Haddad rise, lots of street activism. We followed demonstrations. We embraced and greeted the people who were doing the street work, of conquering the electorate, centimetre by centimetre. From the first shift on, I thought Bolsonaro would win. I went to watch the second shift at my daughter’s house and had a stomach complication, I threw-up. As the numbers came in I was throwing-up. It was a coincidence, something that hurt me. But certainly there was a mystical relationship with the fact that it was happening, the shameful victory of a shameful candidate.”

A kind of rejection of one’s own body?

“Yeah, the impossibility of accepting that the impossible happens.”

On the Bolsonaro phenomenon “you can have a short narrative, which will explain what has happened since 2013; and a long-term narrative, since at least 1988”, with the transition to democracy after more than two decades of civil-military dictatorship.

“The right wing has been articulating itself to react to the 1988 Constitution that was created to destroy it… That is what they want to do now, with the various changes to the Constitution now proposed.” To demolish the achievements of democracy, “which are far from perfect”, because in that Constitution “the military have guaranteed absurd political privileges in a democracy”. They undermined some foundations of democracy precisely because these foundations were fragile. “The so-called democratic period after ‘85 was, and remains, that of a democracy consented to by the military. The military consented because they were no longer able to govern.”

But as soon there was “a timid attempt by the Truth Commission, a trial of the dictatorial past, as it happened in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile — but there in a literally juridical way — the Brazilian military jumped with rage, and began to praise the former torturer Ustra”. The colonel responsible for Dilma Rousseff’s torture.

The Truth Commission “had no legal effect, did not have the power of criminal accountability, although it publicly identified 377 people responsible for deaths and torture,” he says.

“Considering that the number of deaths by the dictatorship was much higher than the 400 or so included in the official report of the commission – at least 8000 indigenous and at least 1200 peasants – the number of those identified as ‘responsible’ was remarkably modest”. But it led to the military re-entering the political scene. “This government has more military than the military government of the dictatorship. First and second level posts. It’s a military government.”

And in this government, in which there are generals, military intellectually more prepared than the president, Viveiros says, “Bolsonaro represents the scum of military governments, the most filthy basements inhabited by torturers. The “spiritual affinities, let’s say, of this government are with the groups linked to the unemployed torturers of the dictatorship”. They went to the militia, to “Jogo do Bicho”. People who “belong to the underworld of organised crime, gunmen Narcos, bodyguards for ‘bicheiros’, mafiosi who extort the poor peripheries of Rio de Janeiro and other cities”.

In short: “The feeling is that the Brazilian government is very close to gangster groups.”

On the one hand, “unbridled neoliberalism, represented by the Minister of Economy [Paulo Guedes], ‘Chicago Boy’ who worked in Pinochet’s Chile and wants to implement in Brazil the same social security regime, whose disastrous consequences are widely known”.

A “project of maximum privatisation, of everything, airports, roads, state companies, of public lands to favour mining, agricultural businesses, shameless favouring of the banks, which are the ones that will profit from the reform of the social security system. Guedes “is a banker, accused, moreover, of illegal manoeuvres, or worse, with pension funds”. And “virtually all high-ranking members of the government are under formal investigation or suspicion,” he says.

Viveiros “didn’t believe that we could have gone this far”. But who elected this government, and what does this say about the state of Brazil?

“There are two important types of voters. One who is the fascist voter, nostalgic for the dictatorship, typically male, in general middle class, resentful of all those achievements of the social movements of the last decades; such as feminism, indigenous rights, the black movement or LGBT. Those who feel threatened in their privilege. And they have been bombed for decades by the corporate press, which demonised the PT governments.

This voter is also an admirer of police violence, who thinks bandits should be killed, who is disgusted by the poor, who sees black people as sub-human, who applauds when police helicopters gun down the slums from above. So that’s the voter who knew exactly who they were voting for. This voter belongs both to an ascending middle layer, which is repugnant to its ‘inferior’, and to the upper-middle class, high, but always in danger and panic-stricken at the thought of decay. My electoral area is in [the Rio neighbourhood of] Leblon; there were only Bolsonaro supporters there on voting days. Leblon is upper-middle class.

This middle class thinks it’s rich, but that’s actually very far from the very rich – the owners of the banks, the big speculators, the mega-entrepreneurs of agribusiness – that identify with the 0.001 per cent. They feel they own slaves. They still see themselves in Casa Grande [where the masters lived, in colonial times], and see the rest of Brazil as a great Senzala [where the slaves lived].

And there is the other typified voter of Bolsonaro, who is the taxi driver, the small businessman, who voted for him partly out of fear, thanks to the campaign of terror waged by the press, partly out of racist hatred, and partly because they did not pay attention to everything that was being said by the candidate.

Many of them were enchanted by the rough figure of the Bolsonaro, that inarticulate man, with his violent, rude, macho speech. ‘Ah, this guy is like us…’ Hence this thing that Bolsonaro does, appearing in public in slippers… This attracts this small, very resentful middle-class. Resentful of ‘now women are wanting to rule over men, there are LGBT everywhere, transvestite, transsexual…’ and the mass of evangelicals, of course, who belong mostly to the lower middle-class, and who follow the political directives of their pastors.” Like Edir Macedo, leader of the powerful Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD), which owns the powerful TV Record, and helped to elect his nephew, Marcelo Crivella, to the city hall in Rio de Janeiro.

“The evangelicals have been able to provide a certain type of social assistance that the Catholic Church is no longer able to provide, and which the left has not been able to provide. Living in the favelas is something beyond the reach of that Brazilian left that is still very middle-class, intellectual, urban. But not all the Brazilian left is middle-class and urban.”

  1. Lula and Dilma

Viveiros de Castro voted Haddad in the two rounds of the last presidential election. He had voted null and void in 2014. He said he wouldn’t vote for Dilma (Rousseff) “not even under a firing squad.” He strongly disagreed with her, especially on what concerns the Amazon. “The great works, such as the Belo Monte dam, which was something I related to more closely, because it was the region I knew best. I thought she showed an enormous insensitivity to the way of life and to the struggle for the rights of the traditional peoples of the Amazon. Even before she was president, she had mistreated an important peasant woman leader of the Xingu, who had gone to ask for the dam not to be built. “Dilma simply punched the table: ‘Belo Monte will happen, go away…’ Absolute lack of sensitivity, rudeness, evil.”

How does this anthropologist define himself politically?

“I am neither a socialist nor a communist, I am, in the absence of a better label, an anarchist. Eco-anarchist left-wing, please do not confuse with these imbeciles who call themselves ‘anarcho-capitalists’. Even though I’m not a null ballot fanatic, on the contrary, there are times when you can’t vote null and void, that was one of them.There was no choice. Against absolute absurdity, brutality, there was no alternative but to vote for Haddad.”

But did you see a leader in him, in fact?

“Haddad’s problem is Lula. Lula didn’t want Haddad. He wasn’t his favourite candidate. While Lula is active, it will be very difficult for a political leader to emerge in the PT capable of flying on his own, and not to be a Lula’s puppet. Haddad doesn’t seem like the most charismatic person either. Unlike Lula, who is pure charisma. Although he’s a cultured, educated man, Haddad doesn’t give me the impression of great dynamism.” Moreover, “I think that the current government is determined to end the PT and arrest Haddad, to get him out of the race in 2022. But I think the possible project for Haddad is the government of São Paulo. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in 2022. I don’t know if there will be a 2022…”

Another candidate who opposed to Bolsonaro, Ciro Gomes, “has charisma, but he is very dubious politically”; he chose as his vice-president Kátia Abreu, an “enemy of the indigenous people, champion of Brazilian agribusiness, of the export of commodities to foreign countries”, who also went hand-in-hand with Dilma before. Viveiros would never vote for him. “Anyone who, like me, is concerned about the Amazon, the environment, and the planetary ecological catastrophe, knows that the Amazon has a fundamental importance for the future of the country and the planet. You can’t accept that kind of alliance.”

It was “a huge political mistake for Lula to have chosen Dilma twice”. A vanity mistake? “He chose someone who did not threaten him, a bad politician, with a very provincial vision of the future of the country, without any sensitivity to the active character of the rural, indigenous, ‘Quilombola’, peasant population, who he saw only as people to be lifted out of poverty, and not people who had something beyond their own poverty to offer.”

And then there was the factor of “real politik: that we cannot govern alone, we have to make concessions”. They ended up getting swallowed up by it, he says. “Very symptomatic that Dilma has been swallowed by Temer. Whoever makes a pact with the devil forgets that the devil always charges. What the PT did was a pact with the devil to govern.” Various devils, ruralists, evangelicals. And they all came to collect the bill. “The impeachment was the collection.”

  1. What can the left do?

“The left missed the opportunity, a fundamental opportunity, in 2013 with the demonstrations,” says Viveiros, who has the same vision of this as the philosopher and columnist, Vladimir Safatle.

“The one who managed to radicalise at that moment was the right. The government, Rousseff, instead of taking over the agenda, retreated and became the party of order. And the right turned the party of revolution. From the uprising. That was a huge strategic error. To face the demonstrations, the government decided to put the police on the street.”

To incarnate the system, to deliver the revolution to the right. “That’s what led to Bolsonaro. The revolutionary spirit was captured by the most conservative forces. The right-wing protesting in the street, in front of FIESP [Federation of Industries in São Paulo], which is a pyramid-shaped building in Paulista Avenue. It looked like you were standing before an Egyptian pyramid. It was the pyramid of the Capital, and the people below, staring, shouting praise to the Capital.

The left was paralysed, the government assumed the role of the police, and then this absurd person who is Bolsonaro managed to capitalise a series of resentments of class, colour, gender, fear of violence.”

More: “The right knew how to use the new communication technologies, YouTube, WhatsApp, much more efficiently. The YouTube influencers and the lies on WhatsApp had a spectacular effect.”

Social networks are a new instrument of insurrection, Viveiros de Castro thought in 2014.

“I made a mistake twice. I thought that Bolsonaro would not be elected; and a few years earlier I thought that social networks were the great instrument of democratisation and insurrection against the power of corporate media.” He was very active on FB then, and with thousands of followers.

“I left for several reasons, but one was that the networks became almost the property of the right. The right has invaded social networks. I’ve never used YouTube, one of their great instruments. I got out of FB, which sounds like an evil thing to me, and I stayed on Twitter. I started to realise that I didn’t like the kind of relationship in FB, a lot of people I didn’t know came in and talked to. I wasn’t willing to fight. And a lot of communications were nauseating. That gave me a disgust.”

He left after the 2016 impeachment.

A failure of citizen emancipation. The lack of revolt in the favelas. The emptiness on the left in the peripheries. “The left that is emerging from poor communities was murdered with Marielle Franco. But she didn’t die.”

The black council woman executed on March 14, 2018, who became a symbol in the world. “Black, lesbian, shanty-town, everything that this government wants to destroy. Marielle is very threatening because of all this. She embodied all the categories hated by that government, and much of the population. Hence the burden of hatred that her death has aroused. Scoundrels saying she was the lover of a drug dealer, breaking a street sign with her name on it, doing, saying and posting the most vile things. This shows how much hate the figure of Marielle aroused, therefore, how much danger. But there are other Marielles emerging. Certainly there’s a reaction from the left. But compared to the evangelical penetration from the right, it is still something small. Compared to the power of corporate media… TV Record covers the customs agenda, Rede Globo and Bandeirantes cover the economic neo-liberalism agenda. So Globo puts the stick on the Bolsonaro for its grotesque aspect, but it idolises Paulo Guedes [Economy Minister] and his murderous reforms, while Bandeirantes is practically the official agribusiness channel. Everyone grabs a piece.”

And the evangelicals are advancing through welfare, as in the Middle East the Islamists did.

“Welfare is becoming a project of power, whose aim is to universalise the evangelical confession that moves a very significant economy, and meets the existential interests of its worshippers. The message of the shepherds is not like that of the priests of Liberation Theology, who spoke of oppression. The question with the evangelicals is to stop drinking, get a job, don’t deceive the woman, take the devil from the people, ‘clean’ those possessed by addiction and disease. Neo-pentecostal evangelical churches of the IURD (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus: Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) type are, among other things, counter-witchcraft machines. The evangelical church traditionally administered the private lives of citizens; now it includes more and more the public sphere.” And there’s no more Bahian women selling ‘acarajé’, traditional food associated with the Afro-Brazilian world, the syncretistic ‘terreiros of candomblé’.

“The evangelical churches, some of them at least, have a whole discourse of possession and exorcism that has to do with certain forms of symbolic treatment of misfortune present in Afro-Brazilian cults. These neo-pentecostal churches dispute, to a large extent, the same target audience of the Umbanda. They’re a counter-umbanda, a neo-possession cult. The Holy Spirit speaks, people fall in trance – but in the case of the evangelicals, they fall in trance before capitalism. These churches are the telemarketing operators of capital, the dispensers of a gospel of prosperity, like their counterparts, and largely inspiring Americans.”

What can the left do? Today, a quarter of the population is evangelical.

“The only left that has comparable dimensions is the PT. Who else would have it? I’m a professor. One of the areas in which we need to intervene radically is in education, because the government wants to change textbooks, to monitor teachers, to interfere in universities. It has a long-term programme to conquer the population’s brain once and for all. So, as a professor, I imagine one thing in this area: that we have to fight in education.”

The 2013 demonstrations began with students fighting against the increase in transport. Since then there has been an important movement of high-school students defending their public schools. And now, in May 2019, with the announcement of vast cuts in scholarships, universities and federal institutes, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets twice, in more than 100 cities in Brazil.

“There’s a seed there, but there’s also a national union of conservative students with Bolsonaro. When I was in college in the 1970s, you had the infiltrated spies, the indifferent, and the rest practically all left. There was no consistent right-wing movement within the university in Rio de Janeiro.

In São Paulo, yes, there was the Communist Hunt Command, a paramilitary organisation with good representation at Mackenzie University. But the students were massively leftist, or at least indifferent. Today you already have at university groups, directories, right-wing, explicitly conservative guilds. They’re scholars inside the university. It’s very worrying. The public university will be a battlefield in the next few years.

Let us not forget the rcial quotas in higher education, which are placing thousands of young people from the peripheries in university. One of the targets of that government will be to try to put an end to the quotas. Because the policy of quotas allows communication between the traditional university left, middle and upper class, on the one hand, and the black peripheries and indigenous worlds, on the other. And that’s dangerous, having a college student in Maré…” The complex of favelas from which Marielle Franco emerged, and some of her heirs.

  1. How to get the word back?

“I’m clearly in an existential movement of retraction,” says Viveiros. “A bit tired, trying to retire. I’ll leave the country in a different way. I am much more hopeful of colleagues who are younger, more active. For example, Vladimir Safatle. Journalists like Eliane Brum, academics like Tatiana Roque, Acácio Augusto, Peter Pál Perlbart. Who are talking, writing, resisting. Which is what we can do, by acting, by denouncing.”

This government “destroyed the function of the word,” he says. “The word has become an instrument of confusion and lies. It’s no longer an alternative to violence. The alternative in politics is between violence and word. When the word becomes an instrument of violence, slander, lies, hatred, you no longer know what to do. To say anything about the government, whose means of government is the destruction of the word, is almost an impossible contradiction. They impose a kind of silence on us.”

So what?

“We can’t let them catch the word. But the fact is that they are succeeding in doing a fine job of sabotage, of destroying the function of the word. And to fight against it is, in certain aspects, more difficult than to fight against those who use violence without words. Everything you say is on the same plan as a lie. You can say anything. You become a liar even when you tell the truth. A kind of collapse of semiotics, in which the news lost any kind of referential with the fact. There’s the story of a hacker who released a fake news that he invented, saying it was false, but it was shared in the same way by people, and as if it was true. So you believe the fake knowing it’s fake. Like the Brazilian penis bottle: it’s impossible for everyone who circulated this news to believe it. They wanted it to be true. You start shouting what you want to be real, regardless of whether it’s true or false. The word became empty. So what can you say about a government like this? Grotesque, brutal, imbecile. You can only insult an insulting government. How will you oppose this thing that only uses words like this?

How will you fight for the word, regain the word?”

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