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Book Review: Moisés Kopper’s Architectures of Hope: Infrastructural Citizenship and Class Mobility in Brazil’s Public Housing

Gabriel G. Roman

In this 2023 book, Moisés Kopper ethnographically investigates the political, material, and subjective layers of the Brazilian housing policy Minha Casa, Minha Vida (MCMV). Drawing on fieldwork conducted mainly between 2012 and 2015, in a local housing association and social movement in Porto Alegre called Conselho de Desenvolvimento do Partenon (Codespa), the author critically traces the way private hopes are honed and harnessed through institutional, economic, and material processes, sometimes being converted into collective and political assets. At the same time intimate and public, the stories of housing activists and policy beneficiaries document the bottom-up political struggles for a better life through what the author calls material hope.

In part 1, comprising the introduction, the book discusses the inception of a specific type of hope grounded in a large socio-economic transformation Brazil went through, between 2004 and 2013, with what economist called the arrival of a new middle class. This shift was materialized through, among other things, the MCMV. The policy is presented and contextualized in this first part, which situates the housing projects within broader class-formation processes. Many concepts which become central to the following chapters are introduced, such as material hope, which, as the author defines “[…] highlights the entanglements of grassroots and post-neoliberal institutions politics, the pursuit of value through market infrastructures, and the projection of life into enduring futures.” (p. 36). As this definition makes explicit, the temporality and materiality of hoping are central to the book, both aspects which are often lacking in the critical scholarship of social movements.

Part 2 attends to the history of Codespa and the ways its quest for housing unfolds in multiple scales, through political alignments, everyday bureaucracy, emergent subjectivities, and the fomentation of hope. The first chapter introduces the efforts of community leaders, most notably a woman named Benedita, in negotiating and enlisting politicians, state officials and representatives of the private sector in a precarious participatory machinery for the implementation of housing policies. The stories of Benedita’s becoming a community leader and the development of Codespa are interspaced with historical data on housing policies in Porto Alegre, providing a necessary political context for the narrative. The core of the chapter is the construction of a multiscale moral discourse for the creation of a new political subjectivity of the ‘model’ community, worthy of the desired policy implementation. The second chapter explores the procedures done for the assessment of potential benefactors and the distribution of housing units in Codespa. As the detailed ethnographic description underscores, this is made possible by what the author calls a machine of worthiness, that is, a socio-material assemblage which includes both humans and non-humans. This assemblage performs an important techonomoral work: it provides a sense of objectivity to the contentious moral decisions inside the movement, while at the same time allowing for some flexibility for the leaders to deal with everyday contingencies. The machine of worthiness is further scrutinized in the following chapter, where everyday technologies of participation are explored. It investigates the process through which artifacts such as t-shirts, food baskets, stories, and even information, assist in converting the uncertainty of waiting and private hopes and dreams into collective assets for political mobilization. In the last chapter of this part, Kopper presents a person-centered narrative of Dona Hilda, a 95-year-old woman who learned to effectively navigate this political and bureaucratic assemblage and become a model beneficiary. The text experiments with ethnographic form, making use of the interlocutor’s verses to guide this foray into Dona Hilda’s lifeworld and the political affects and subjectivities emergent in the moral economy of worthiness. These chapters, thus, present the complex and multiscale process through which infrastructural citizenship is pursued through the politization of hope.

While in part 2 the diverse processes through which hope is harnessed by Codespa is explored, in part 3 the topic is the aftermath of the struggle, when hopes and subjectivities become reshaped as the new apartment owners deal with their inclusion into the consumer market and community life. In chapter 5, Kopper documents the processes of low-income consumption undertaken by the new house owners. Drawing on a topographical metaphor, the author traces the narrative of several female head of households as they strive for their ideals of the good life through their inclusion in the social market and governmental credit schemes. As they do so, their hopes are refashioned, becoming either critical hope, as they learn to become informed consumer citizens who must cope with flawed markets and indebtedness, or deferred hope, when their dreams are interrupted and postponed. In the following chapter, the reader explores an MCMV building guided by threads of gossip and rumors which seem to contribute to the creation of a new political assemblage. The politics that unfolds among beneficiaries is not directly related to national matters, but rather become what the author calls private democracies, concerning everyday political disputes within the association. In a novel way, Kopper also attends to the material quality of the gossips and how they become imbued in the building’s architecture. In the last chapter of the book, the author analyzes the development of surveillance and security apparatus in the newly acquired apartments, where this specific materiality is constitutive of new middle-class belongings. This process is described through the conceptual tool of a middle-class sensorial, defined as “[…] a topography of images and affects through which class mobility is experienced and located in time and space.” (p. 282). This cartographic approach allows Kopper to explore the subjective and affective experiences of his interlocutors, as well as to be attuned to the socio-material relations that do class-formation work, such as infrastructure. Finally, in the conclusion, the author contextualizes the repercussions of the implementation of the MCMV project in the Brazilian political landscape. He critically points out the various types of hope which have been honed and captured through public policy in this post-neoliberal moment, and the way such social spendings have been significantly cut due to political and economic shifts.

Throughout the 7 chapters, the book makes way for a critical analysis of public policies through conceptualizations of hope. Hope is explored not only as a subjective feeling, but also as a practice which becomes materialized and temporalized in everyday life. It also manages to masterfully combine qualitative data, collected through a five-year long ethnography, with quantitative data from surveys, allowing the reader to shift between multiple scales of the making of a social movement. Beyond offering an engaging text to scholars of Latin American post-neoliberalism and anthropologists of infrastructure and class, I believe the book’s biggest contribution is the innovative conceptual toolbox it puts forth. Although sometimes overwhelming, terms such as material hope, machine of worthiness, critical hope, and deferred hopecould be fruitfully adapted to studies of policies in other settings and, thus, encourage the production of more nuanced and critical scholarship. Far from engaging in a simplified critique of the housing movements studied or an endorsement of the discourse of activists, the book crafts a complex narrative which makes visible fragments of hope pivotal to any quest for the good life.

Gabriel G. Roman is a PhD Candidate at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) through the ERC-funded project SeedsValues.