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Review: Sean T. Mitchell, Constellations of Inequality: Space, Race, and Utopia in Brazil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2017

Sean Mitchell’s book is an illuminating account of the shifting landscapes of race and inequality that ravage Brazil in the early years of the twenty-first century.

Deftly transitioning between an intricate plot of First-World catch-up through space technology, and the scorching socio-material inequalities that continue to assail the worst-off, he shows how inequality is produced and reproduced and made an object of scientific, political, and ethnoracial contention. His point is well taken: forms of political consciousness do not automatically derive from socio-material adverse conditions; and economic theories are poorly equipped to capture how inequality is perceived, acted upon, and contested.

Inequality is a reality, but the culturally specific ways people devise to redress it hinge on unspoken utopias—ideals of wellbeing that shape present-day action—and these ideals change over time. Constellations of Inequality is a valuable contribution to the anthropological analysis of how class, race and inequality interact across scales of time and space, and a pledge for more historical and ethnographic studies that take seriously the issue of “how important forms of political consciousness develop out of the dialectic between historically specific forms of experience and forms of social mobilization, grounded in structures of legitimation and utopias of redress” (p.144).

Mitchell conducted the bulk of his ethnographic research between 2004 and 2006, during the early years of Brazil’s commodity-driven economic boom. When I started my own fieldwork, a few years later, among Brazil’s “previously poor” (Klein, Mitchell, & Junge, 2018), conditional cash transfers and essential infrastructure had poured even into the country’s most remote peripheries, giving way to new forms of social membership. Like Mitchell, I encountered many informants whose lives were chronicles of the redistributive policies enacted by the left-leaning Workers’ Party, people whose “demands are generally for modest rights of citizenship that other participants … already enjoy” (p.93).

To contextualize Mitchell’s arguments, let me introduce the words of one of my key informants, collected over the course of a four-year-long ethnographic fieldwork among beneficiaries of Brazil’s largest public housing program. In our lengthy conversations, Dona Hilda used to mingle personal experiences of spatial and temporal dislocation with her own conceptualizations of upward social mobility. Her narrative sometimes involved statements about her extended family, but when she mentioned her 18-year-old “white” great-grandson, her words caught me by surprise:

He is a self-made man! And he is so handsome! The boy is white! His father is mixed [mulatinho], slightly lighter-skinned than my son; but the boy looks like the son of a German [filho de alemão]. He doesn’t bother anyone and works really hard. He bought himself a motorcycle; works half shift and goes to college in the mornings. Private school is very expensive, but he always gets good grades and earned a fellowship. Once he graduates, he wants to go to Brasilia to get a job. He also wants to go to Canada. I laugh at this my boy. Canada?! It must be a very beautiful place, don’t you think?

Dona Hilda’s words illustrate the interplay of complementary hierarchy and mimetic convergence that, Mitchell argues, informs how inequality is experienced and redressed in Brazil. He defines complementary hierarchy as a structure of legitimation that sustains inequalities through clientelistic relations of unequal reciprocity between rich and poor, blacks and whites. These are supported by widespread ideologies of “racial democracy” that juxtapose enduring differences of class and race at the expense of open conflict outbreak. Conflict is further stymied by a utopia of redressing inequality Mitchell calls mimetic convergence, which presumes the erasure of difference as nations and poor people become more like the rich. Thus, he concludes, “the dominant historical models of redress of racial inequality in Brazil … have involved projects of convergence, … assimilation, and whitening” (p.16).

In Dona Hilda’s narrative, all these elements blended together. While being extolled by politicians and community leaders for her painstaking travails associated to her being black [negritude], Dona Hilda was all too aware of the intricacies of Brazil’s pigmentocracy, the idea that social status can be determined based on shades of skin color (Telles, 2014). This led her to celebrate her offspring’s racial mixture and the prestige that comes with embracing working-class values (Fischer, 2008), all the while being cautiously optimistic about the great-grandson’s future dreams of visiting Canada in this “transnational geography of interest” (p.170)[1]. These disparate scales reveal how (intergenerational) upward mobility came to be experienced along the fault lines of whitening, middle-class aspirations, and racial-specific claims of citizenship—a point I will return to at the end of this review.

Mitchell argues that in much of Brazil’s rural interiors and remote urban peripheries, where patronage and racial deference structured the better part of twentieth-century politics, complementary hierarchy and mimetic convergence are now in decline. He makes his point by telling the intriguing story of the implantation of a military-based spaceport in the peninsula of Alcântara, in the northeastern State of Maranhão, once a wealth-generating knot in Brazil’s slavery-based economy and today one of its poorest regions. The geographical forceful juxtaposition of cutting-edge technological development and everyday socio-material exclusion creates the perfect environment for Mitchell’s analysis of the shifting scales of inequality.

He considers how the construction, at the end of the Cold War, of this satellite launch base—which expropriated thousands of villagers from their thriving coastal settlements and relocated them into the inland “agrovilas” (agricultural villages)—has produced groundbreaking consequences to their livelihood that breach into present-day Alcântara. The fraught project, which promised to bring riches and progress, failed to do so, exposing differences in access to money, technology, resources, and prestige.

But Mitchell also uses the differences in access to space as a metaphor to reflect on the changing politics of inequality at the global level. Whereas the spaceport was once cast as key in an evolutionary temporality of First-World catch-up—and though it continues to be perceived by military as an instrument to lift Brazil up to the level of rich countries—deadly satellite launch failures, dwindling public resources, and administration conflicts paved the way for a competing, civilian-led space program. Rather than a utopia of technomilitary convergence, this program envisages a conservative, neoliberal utopia of space-industrial ambition that centers on profitability, managerialism, and foreign capital.

At the local level, though by no means disconnected form the broader politics of inequality, villagers in Alcântara have faced their own share of conflicts over land and identity in the wake of the spaceport’s construction, and their political consciousness and forms of mobilization have also changed significantly over time. Politicized residents of Alcântara were once represented by a local branch of the Rural Worker’s Union, in line with the history of most Latin-American countries, where cross-race, classed-based solidarities have shown to be historically stronger (see chapter six). Over time, however, they have come to organize around a clause in Brazil’s 1988 progressive constitution, which requires that the state grant land rights to quilombolas (descendants of escaped-slaves), and although Mitchell debunks the argument of a law-induced racialization in Brazil (see chapter five), struggles over land have increasingly been cast around the enactment of ethnoracial identities, making race and history key terms of citizenship in contemporary Alcântara. Here, too, mimetic convergence—the quixotic notion that inequality is redressed through a “politics of whole-cloth transformation” (p.34)—is replaced with a “primordialist utopia” (p.35) in which Afro-Brazilian identities become crucial categories of political mobilization.

Mitchell explores the roles taken up by collective bodies (such as international NGOs) and forms of expert authority (anthropologists, urban activists, and UN representatives) in articulating these lawful collectives and their conversion into “properly historical populations” (p.35). In chapter four, for example, he examines how competing meanings of “quilombola” prompted anthropologists and social movement leaders to frame their disagreements as ontological claims and matters of “technical necessity” (p.36). He takes these techno-political disputes seriously to argue that experts, the “magicians of black boxes” (p.101), do not simply assemble disparate elements contingently; they also produce mutually contradictory black boxes for wide-ranging audiences, and in order to discover which version of the truth will prevail, one has to consider how they stick under different political regimes. The making (and staking) of ontological and technical claims is thus intimately linked to the broader regimes of truth under which certain worldviews appear truer than others.

As Mitchell writes, the partakers in Alcântara’s land and space conflict

are intimate Others, inhabiting a cultural world with broad continuity, despite its massive inequalities. These groups cannot be convinced to desire the same things, given their structural heterogeneity, but they might be convinced to believe the same things, given this ontological continuity.” (p.111, my emphasis).

Transformations in Brazilian racial techno-politics and law have opened up new possibilities for re-racialization, Mitchell suggests in chapter five. Whereas “negro” and “quilombola” have always existed as elements of self-understanding, they are no longer identified with social exclusion, marginalization, and backwardness, instead having become linked to possible socioeconomic advance and to the workings of a translocal and sophisticated community—a shift that clearly reveals a reduction in traditional local politics, but also cations to the fact that villagers are now subject to the whims of new “powerful others” (p.49).

For politicized leaders like Machado and Janaína with whom Mitchell worked and on whose commentaries he draws to elaborate his argument, “quilombola identity is more than a descriptive one, it is also part of a particular ethical and political project” (p.134). Mitchell explores glimpses of the relational complexity behind identity-making in Alcântara, all the while describing Machado and Janaína’s adamant advertisement of their own idealized notions of just what constitutes a quilombola and how the community should draw from this patchwork of collective memory to build better futures.

Indeed, I would have liked to see a bit more ethnographic attention to the processes of persuasion (Mosse, 2004) that pervade the roles of these local intermediaries as they broker, contest, and devise new ontological, albeit unstable, racial normativities. Encounters, like the one in which Janaína laments that her community does not embrace African-Brazilian spiritual obligations despite what she sees as a shared black ancestry (see p.133), allow us to see how the translocal machine of identity conflates with the anxieties, aspirations, and contradictions of villagers as they inhabit the cyclical temporality of waiting for the ever-elusive promises of development.

Why is this important? Because it may not be that complementary hierarchy is in decline so much as it is in motion, refashioning its targets and scales of interdependence. Much like the socioeconomic transformations that took place under the Workers’s Party did not do away with the interjacency of class positionalities, but politicized subjectivity in important ways, so too—it seems to me—ethnoracial politics did not eliminate asymmetries of power, but rather geared them toward something closer to collaborative antagonism: forms of multi-scalar help despite existing differences in power and socioeconomic status. Dona Hilda, my own informant, continues to live under economic conditions most of us would readily deem precarious, but the introduction of “powerful outsiders” shifted the signifiers of complementary hierarchy to include (hitherto unimaginable) forms of racial pride.

Mitchell recognizes the fundamental ambiguity of this nascent ethnoracial landscape. He rightfully argues that “villagers would likely not have retained their land up to now had they and their advocates not made such persuasive public arguments about the legal inevitability of their ethnoracial claim to land possession” (p.112). But the extent of the subjective transformations eventuated alongside the Quilombo Clause is, as he also points, much harder to determine. Crucially, because it does not eliminate the cyclical temporality in which Alcântara villagers are enveloped—the feeling of uncertainty and stagnation that accompanies villagers’ perception of their well-being being perennially seized and remade into trans-local structures of legitimation (the spaceport, the NGOs, the anthropologists, the local leaders), just when the future seemed to hold something new.

Understanding the new facets of complementary hierarchy and mimetic convergence is even the more important in the years to come as Brazil takes an abrupt turn to the far-right. Will the undoing of social, economic, and racial rights be tantamount to a backsliding to old-fashioned forms of experiencing and contesting inequality, or will identity, class and race politics take on new claims of expert authority and political consciousness as poor Brazilians cope with the effects of Jair Bolsonaro’s blend of technomilitary convergence and neoliberal conservative utopianism? Whatever the outcome, it will provide a counterfactual to more closely assess the depth of identity-based approaches in addressing structural inequality in Brazil, and a vantage point into how such inequalities are conceived, both individually and collectively, to be lived, contested, and redressed.

References

Fischer, B. (2008). A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Klein, C. H., Mitchell, S. T., & Junge, B. (2018). Naming Brazil’s previously poor: “New middle class” as an economic, political, and experiential category. Economic Anthropology, 5, 83–95.

Mosse, D. (2004). Is Good Policy Unimplementable? Reflections on the Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice. Development and Change, 35(4), 639–671.

Telles, E. (2014). Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, race, and color in Latin America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Notes

[1] See chapter seven, where Mitchell discusses the scales of concern—local, national, and global—embraced by actors as they hold sway of struggles in Alcântara. This is also useful to think of the translocal utopias of wellbeing (a job in Brasilia; a trip to Canada) whereby the poor conceive their futures.

 

Moises Kopper is a postdoctoral research associate at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Germany. He holds a Ph.D. in social anthropology and publishes on topics including class and social mobility; infrastructures and wellbeing; neoliberalism, statecraft and development. His forthcoming book, Architectures of Hope, trails the making and remaking of material hope in everyday forms of poverty governance in Brazil’s public housing.