US activist and writer Mike Davis has recently highlighted demographic reports suggesting that the bulk of the world’s new population will emerge in slums in the Global South. In Brazil, an enormous urban corridor stretching from Rio to São Paulo is emerging, mimicking the trend towards increasing urbanisation without significant economic growth.
As the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano points out, the state’s response to this has largely been to increase repression while the rich hide in fortress villages patrolled by armed guards. While media sources have tended to treat the current crisis as a pure antagonism between the police and criminal gangs, many of these gangs are linked to the police.
In 1992, Galeano writes, the police killed four people a day – by the end of that year, the police had killed more people than the military dictatorship had killed in 15 years. Indeed, many senior figures in the police and in politics had been leaders in the dictatorship.
There were widespread reports of police involvement in death squads. São Paulo alone, with a population of over ten million, has security forces of up to 131,000 – by way of comparison, Greater London, with a population of over seven million people, is policed by a force of 31,000.
On top of this vast repressive apparatus, there is a growing layer of “private police” employed by the rich to protect their property. In May, the Associated Press reported that the police brutality in Brazil exceeded crime.
Police violence against innocent people is a daily occurrence, so that while “favela [slum] residents are not enamoured of the PCC [Brazil’s most notorious organised crime group]”, they “look the other way, finding the gang less threatening than the law”.
One residents group remarks that the PCC “does not cause the fear and hatred slum dwellers feel toward police”. Every time police paramilitaries sweep through shantytowns, the PCC gains more supporters.
The gangs usually involve the poor exploiting the poor, but they have often emerged in opposition to the state with declared goals of liberation and equality. The Comando Vermelho, for instance, emerged in 1979 under the military dictatorship. The PCC, similarly, has filled a gap supplied by the absence of effective working class organisation, organising cultural and political events.
Yet despite their claims to pursue left wing ends these groups have succeeded in hegemonising the trade in guns and drugs, and have secretly dealt with government officials. Their corruption and violence is not a pathological anomaly in a state so corrupt and violent.
One of the hallmarks of the governing Workers Party has been a series of scandals that have highlighted the corruption of many of its leading members while pointing to the paucity of its social agenda.
The government has reacted to these revolts by blaming the far left. This is a symptom of the way in which the brutalisation of the working class, and the pursuit of policies that produced gang recruits, was provided for by the defeats sustained by the left in the 1980s and 1990s. It also points to the growing ruling class fear of a socialist revival, which they hope to control with mounting repression.
The success of the World Social Forum, repeatedly hosted in Brazil, the emergence of the left wing opposition party P-Sol, and the MST landless workers’ movement point to an alternative to gang-based activism. Potentially it is also an alternative to the state with its brutal police and to the inhuman capitalist system that thrives on this misery.
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