I write this from my room in La Paz, during another stay in Bolivia. We were in Coroico (Nor Yungas) last week (see below), and will be back in Cochabamba in the week to come.
The pace is different. These past months have seen me defend my dissertation and secure employment for 2014. I’m juggling several writing projects and preparing some new classes — still busy, then. But I’m temporarily relieved of the pressures of a large research project and job applications. Without these immediate pressures, I’m making time to, among other things, enjoy watching the World Cup. As I’ve done so, I’ve read Dave Zirin’s excellent new book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil (2014), which I picked up at the Haymarket Books stand in the exhibition hall at LASA. The rest of this post identifies and discusses some themes from that book.
Readers of this blog may be familiar with Zirin from his articles in The Nation (e.g., this one, co-authored with Jules Boykoff, on Brazil’s 2014 World Cup as a pretext for the “pacification” of informal settlements). He also regularly posts at his blog Edge of Sports. This book continues his work at the intersection of sports and politics, focusing on the politics of Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. More immediately relevant for me is Zirin’s insightful analysis of how the World Cup and soccer are being used to secure consent for, as the book has it, “a profit orgy and tax haven for corporate sponsors and private security firms, obscene public spending on new stadiums, and then brutal cuts that fall on the backs of the poor when the party’s over” (Zirin 2014, 212).
Brazil’s Dance with the Devil celebrates the beauty and creativity of soccer but is unremitting in criticizing the institutions that seek to capture its energy for profit or nationalism. Under the influence of trans-disciplinary literature on the relationship between aesthetics and politics (e.g., Mustafa Dikeç’s excellent 2007 book Badlands of the Republic), I see Zirin examining how spaces of state intervention are constructed. He clarifies how mega-events provide an alibi for “massive security operations, graft, and evictions” that facilitate the enrichment of a transnational elite (Zirin 2014, 117). Of course, when this “stating of space” (Dikeç’s term) is oriented towards ensuring the production of sanitized space for the consumption of sport, and also towards enriching international capital and the ‘non-profit’ organizers of mega-events, it’s difficult to see where FIFA (or the International Olympic Committee [IOC]) end and the state itself begins.
Zirin illustrates the machinations of mega-event planning at the uncertain boundary of organizers (FIFA, the IOC), international capital, and the state (administering a “state of exception”) in his reporting from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. These favelas, i.e., communities of squatted informal housing, have emerged adjacent to areas of wealth and jobs through a long-standing government neglect in the provision of affordable housing. Lula’s (and now Dilma Rousseff’s) “Bolsa Família” support for impoverished families has apparently been insufficient to address the inequalities that gave rise to the favela form (see Zirin 2014, 77-80; 174-175). The ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) regime has converged with and capitulated to mega-event organizers, corporate sponsors, and urban redevelopers to the effect of exacerbating these inequalities. Zirin encourages readers to understand the enormous demonstrations of 2013, not only of favela residents but also of the urban middle-class, as an expression of this betrayal.
The evictions in the favelas, made possible by hosting the World Cup and Olympics and eliciting consent on that basis, are one of the clearest expressions of the PT’s betrayal. The residents of favelas have historically been protected from eviction by stringent squatters’ rights laws; they have held a constitutional guarantee to this space (which, of course, has not insulated residents from police brutality). But they are now — when billions have been spent on the construction of “FIFA-quality” soccer stadiums, and billions more will be spent in construction for the 2016 Olympics — a target; they have been made an object of state intervention, given to the senses through a stating of space.
“This means that new high-rises are going up, new high-tech security systems are being installed, new roads are being paved, and dozens of favelas have been demolished because they were built in areas deemed ‘high-risk’ or ‘designated for public use.’ Both of these phrases are extremely misleading. A ‘high risk’ area can mean anything from gang activity to landslides. Evicting people from spaces ‘designated for public use’ is particularly ironic when you consider that razing a favela will eventually lead to the private development and ownership of highly valued hillside real estate” (Zirin 2014, 20).
In a key chapter that situates Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup and Olympics alongside the experience of other host countries (2008 in China, 2014 in Russia, 2010 in South Africa, 2022 in Qatar), Zirin represents these international sporting events as “neoliberal Trojan horses.” Zirin (2014, 117) draws from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine for a conception of trauma- and catastrophe-facilitated capital accumulation, and then links this to what Jules Boykoff (2013) describes as celebration capitalism, “disaster capitalism’s affable cousin”:
“The issue is clearly not soccer. The issue isn’t even having a global tournament like the World Cup. It is the way these mega-events are linked to massive development projects used as neoliberal Trojan horses to push through policies that would stun the most hardened of cynics: a shock doctrine of sports” (Zirin 2014, 170).
Beyond a critical analysis of the context for a World Cup that I’m nonetheless enjoying (an expression of “cynical ideology,” as per Andrew Culp’s recent posts?), Zirin provides a brief political-economic history of Brazil, drawing mostly from secondary sources alongside the poetic sweep of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. (Galeano’s influence on the book is pervasive; epigraphs for almost every chapter are drawn from Open Veins or Galeano’s book on soccer, Soccer in Sun and Shadow.) The brief history in Chapter Two is especially useful for understanding the enthusiasm with which Lulu was received in 2002, less than two decades after the end of the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and less than a decade since the domestic economic policy and Asian financial crisis that landed Brazil in debt with the International Monetary Fund.
Voters elected Lula in 2002 as a labor leader who persisted in his activism despite the the anti-labor stance of the military dictatorship, and who participated in founding the PT in 1980. The social movement base of the PT aligned with Lula to give him 62% of the vote, “more votes,” Zirin notes, “than anyone who had ever run for public office in the history of democratic politics” (Zirin 2014, 67). In subsequent years, however, Lula emerged as a darling of free-marketeers, who “purred with admiration for the market-friendly policies […] of Lula’s presidency,” even as he maintained social programs distributing support to the poor and cozy diplomatic relations with the ‘post-neoliberal,’ Bolivarian governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.
Zirin critiques lulismo as both an unacknowledged continuation of government-facilitated exploitation of Brazil’s people and resources, which has historically consolidated the power of the country’s oligarchs, and also as a sleight of hand that appears to recapture a role for the state in post-neoliberal development but simultaneously stands as an obstacle to social movement organizations (e.g., the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Tierra) less compromising in their anti-capitalism. The discussion of Lula and the PT will also be of interest for students of neighboring Bolivia, witnessing the Morales administration’s shift from a movement party to an electoral party. (Despite a perhaps predictable demobilization of the sindicatos and movement organizations that have served as Morales’ base, the success of the Movimiento al Socialismo in making this shift may be witnessed in the 2014 election, this October.) As I read Zirin in Bolivia, I find his analysis confirming the characteristics of what Pablo Stefanoni recently described, in Le Monde Diplomatique- Cono Sur, as the “lulización de la izquierda latinoamericana.”
In the face of a PT “estatalizado” (Stefanoni’s term), and against the “shock doctrine of sports,” Zirin’s final chapter explicitly advocates and optimistically witnesses resistance to these mega-events in Brazil. What I appreciate most about Zirin’s treatment of resistance is its echo of his treatment of soccer as autogestión, exceeding the state and capital. Zirin (2014, 205) again quotes Galeano: “The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland.” Zirin writes of people making their own balls and playing without shoes; “so much of the play is in the body, the hips, that the ball becomes secondary to the act” (Zirin 2014, 91). In what he calls “resistance” too, the protagonists act “in violation of existing building codes and the mores of private property” to meet their needs without permission (Zirin 2014, 202). This isn’t a politics of ressentiment, described by Mark Purcell here; the oppressed, in this case, are asserting their capacities to do for themselves — in Mark’s terms, “their power to act into the world and create something new [puissance].”
Zirin details a resistance of people who refuse to believe that their oppressors are the only ones capable of creative agency. In terms offered by Jane Nascimento, an organizer against evictions in Rio de Janeiro favela Vila Autódromo, favela residents are “building” resistance, and doing so through a notable openness to the outsides of their community (Zirin 2014, 189). If state discourses of risk and public good have figured the favelas and favela residents as a dirty/noisy obstacle to the order and progress promised and marked by Brazil’s hosting of these international mega-events, then it behooves activists to make themselves heard not just as noise but as people with legitimate claims to space.
The aforementioned Vila Autódomo organizer explained how a naturalized social-spatial order has facilitated home demolitions.
“The evicted communities are often evicted with tear gas while TV cameras are rolling. It doesn’t stop it. The reason they treat us this way is because of this view that they promote that sees all favela residents as criminals. That’s how they see us, and they respond according to that” (Zirin 2014, 188).
Activists accordingly use social media and other forms of communication to challenge the criminalization that facilitates violent policing and evictions. Zirin looks to ongoing resistance in another favela to show how activists disrupted the consensus and sanitized “we” language that would transform their dissent into the inaudible noise of people who stubbornly refuse to respect sport as a symbol of “peaceful coexistence among peoples” (Dilma Rousseff quoted by Zirin 2014, 210). The example from Providência reveals people rejecting ways of operating proper to their profile in the social whole. Against possible eviction,
“Maurício took photos of all the residents who lived in the houses on the […] side of the stairs […] that would be unnecessarily evicted to build the tram. He had them blown up larger than life, then wheat-pasted them on the sides of the houses lining the stairs. It was a massive public art display that humanized the cost of demolishing all these homes. A public rally was called in Providência to highlight the city’s intransigence and neglect of the community’s wishes. The photo installation became a viral story on social media and eventually in Brazil’s corporate press. Finally, the city relented and decided to change its plan” (Zirin 2014, 201).
By challenging the naturalization of spaces for state intervention in the service of private enrichment, as well as the configuration of the “we” for whom these games are ostensibly being organized, the protagonists of Zirin’s “resistance” are inviting and actively forging solidarities that do not necessarily follow from preestablished or self-evident likenesses. It is appropriate, then, that the book ends with several lines on solidarity. A statement of dissensus, offering “a world of competing worlds,” the book’s final lines on solidarity open space for politics in the face of a “‘we’re all in this together’ national unity” (Zirin 2014, 12) that would seek to crush it.
“[…] solidarity is horizontal and carries within it the understanding that we can learn from others. I would argue that it also implies that our collective destiny is tied up with every eviction, every surveillance camera, and every cracked skull on the road to the World Cup and Olympics. It is their World Cup. But it is our world” (Zirin 2014, 216).