TAZCVRL: Power beyond the state in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

TAZCVRL: Power beyond the state in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro

Article on the nature of life and power in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.


power in the favela
"The bandit is the hero, the defender, the popular avenger, the irreconcilable enemy of the State, and of all social and civil order established by the State. " M. Bakunin (1)

This graffiti – TAZCRL - was spotted on a wall in the hilltop bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro (the “Montmartre of South America”, according to one guidebook). Probably it could be nowhere else. It stands for Temporary Autonomous Zone Comando Vermelho Rogerio Lemgruber.

TAZ is the concept-text of “ontological anarchist” Hakim Bey (or Peter Lamborn Wilson) (2) Deliberately he gives no definition ... “in the end the TAZ is almost self-explanatory”, he says, “almost a poetic fancy”. A “certain kind of free enclave” in space and time, a pirate island in the net, a momentary collective liberty, “a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen”, a short summer of anarchy, festival, carnival.

CV = Comando Vermelho is the original Rio criminal faction. Founded on the prison island Ilha Grande in the 70s by 90 isolated maximum security prisoners. In secret language they exchanged books and ideas, they lived by a social code of solidarity and discipline.(3) The motto – "Peace, Justice, Liberty". When members of the ninety were released – or escaped – they brought the code and the organisation back to the city's favelas.

Many of Rio's favelas, dense urban settlements built on squatted land and said to house two million (though statistics here is a guessing game), are now under the control of the comando and its offshoot deadly rivals. Here the state, the police, don't enter. Or only to provide the most minimal of services. Or only to kill. Invade, leave bodies on the ground (as in the unofficial hymn of the BOPE, elite "men in black" police killing unit with skull and crossed pistols insignia, as glorified in the hit film Tropa de Elite) and withdraw. No attempt to occupy.

RL = Rogerio Lemgruber was number one of the ninety, the founder martyr.

Who wrote that graffiti? Is Hakim Bey on the faction's updated reading list? The usual view is the Comando lost the revolutionary spirit after the coke trade took off in the 80s and brought success in business. Which doesn't mean by any means that Rio traficantes are all illiterate thugs - but I suspect this was more likely the work of some clued-up Santa Teresa ironist.

In any case, I'll use it to spark off some thinking about what I believe are central issues for anarchists right now in Brasil, and the world at large. If it's true that the nation-state is shifting, perhaps fading, in the face of trends of globalisation and informalisation (including favelisation), then there is not only a theoretical but a direct practical reason why anarchists need to move away from defining ourselves in reference to our old enemy the state. We need to look closely at power relationships beyond traditional forms of government – both at their fundamentals, and at the specifics of how they're shifting today. The non-state power-zone of the Rio favela can give us a lot to think about.

favela TAZ?
The favela probably gets closest to Bey's pirate fantasies in the Baile Funk - an electronic party which, in the imagination of the shocked and fascinated Brazilian middle classes, encapsulates favela life in its totallest scariest loudest wildest freest most poetical version. Here is rave, outrageously dressed flesh carnival, chrome-plated firearms for buccaneers to drool over, statelessness, music (cannibalised electronic beats), wild children (there are matinée kids' balls too), all of it. And much better than Burning Man, this is the real thing, not trustafarian seasonal recreation but spontaneous creation of the unwashed multitudes. Autonomous zone - space of freedom where the excluded of the city can kick loose without a cop in sight. Fireworks and letting off your pistols in the air, scaring shitless the rich neighbours down the hill behind their twenty foot razorwire fences.

Bey's autonomous zones don't need a conscious revolutionary intent, but maybe at least a whiff of utopia. For Funk researcher Paul Sneed, the baile funk is utopia, sensual dream of abundance, energy, intensity, transparency, community:

“... funk is principally a counterculture consisting in emotional and physical practices conjuring up and sustaining a politically charged and powerfully moral musical space through which the community of the baile funk is unified, emotionally lifted beyond the inadequacies of poverty and brought into a spiritual state that makes available the feeling of what it would be like to live in a better world.”(4)

But the baile funk utopia, if that's what it is, is indeed temporary, and when the party comes to an end favela life has a different quality. There is drudgery and fear and power cuts and open sewers - and getting up to go to work for shit wages, like people do everywhere. The state hasn't returned, but the state of everydayness is back with a vengeance.

Favela dwellers are often migrants (typically from the North East, Brazil's poorest region) but they're not TAZist "nomads". They can't just move on to the next party. Indeed the piratical cream – the traficante bandits – are perhaps furthest of all from nomadism, as in many cases they are wanted men trapped on the home hillside for fear of police or rival faction.

The favela is ad-hoc and precarious (though more established favelas now do have legal land rights), but it is not temporary or momentary. The older and bigger ones have been there for decades. There hasn't been a widespread policy of evictions in Rio since the 1980s. Favelas house more than a quarter of Rio's population (again, guesstimates rather than statistics), and favelisation is an increasing trend. The favela is not an exception or hole in the net, simply a mainstream housing form for working class people in Brazil's cities.(5)

So the faction-controlled favela is hardly a TAZ. But all the same I think it is interesting to look at the power relations of this zone in terms of "autonomy", and this is what I'll pursue here. The state is absent. Does absence of the state = autonomy?

I doubt Bey is bothered about being consistent in his use of this heavily loaded label "autonomy". As a first approximation, auto-nomos involves a self - an inside rather than an outside, an us rather than a them, or maybe a me rather than a you; and it involves order. The self part we'll come back to, for now the order.

mechanics of liberty
Factional favelas operate on a social code under which theft, assault, rape are rare. Something like in the fabled "good old days" of the Kray twins in the East End of London - you can leave your door open at night. It's true that, at least in between invasions by police or rival factions, there is safety and tranquility compared to State-controlled parts of the city.

What sustains the “social code” of the favela? Assuming favela dwellers are not just inherently better, nicer, more social people than everyone else, I think there are two big factors. One is community. Comunidade is the current PC euphemism for favela in Brazil. But it is apt: the favela is a community in a definable sense, more so by far than the condominium “gated communities” of the middle classes.

To go with Michael Taylor (Anarchy, Community, Liberty)(6) – a community is a group whose members have direct, many sided, and in some ways reciprocal, relationships. For example, the relationship between the condominium dweller and the night watchman is direct and ongoing but one-dimensional, with no interactions except in their roles as resident-employer and guard-employee. They are not part of the same community.

The working-stiff favelado and the gunman live next door to each other. They have friends, acquaintances, relatives in common. They are friends, acquaintances, relatives. They buy bread and milk in the same bakery, drink in the same bar, get kept up all night by the same utopian funk party, suffer the same water cut, power cut, landslide, police raid, their shit washes into the same open sewer. They and hundreds of others live together with multi-layered, densely interlinked interactions.

The second factor is enforcement. Or to put it more plainly, violence. If you rob or rape within the community you will be expelled or killed. In some cases very brutally: torture killings, dismemberment, 'microwaving' with burning tyres, etc.

The two factors work together. An occupying army for all the brutality it employs will never have the same enforcement efficiency as a force rooted within. The faction is able to apply “intelligence-led” “precision violence” in a way the US Air Force can only dream of. A community is a dense network - information flows quick and thick, knowledge collects in nodes and spreads between them. Everyone knows who done it. And the faction is part, a central part, of that everyone.

These two factors: the community network; the violence hierarchy. Which is the bigger factor? Are they at all separable? Could you have order without enforcement? Without any degree of community?(7)

The gunmen are a part of the community in a further sense. They could be anybody, and anybody could be them. Any resident can join, and it's possible to leave again. Joining the faction is simply a normal career option for youngsters in the favela, whose other choices are typically menial, demeaning and very badly paid. Traficantes are just the same as everyone else, only with more chicks and better wages and a lower life expectancy.

This belonging to, coming from, the community, is a key part of the ideology of the faction. The Marxist themes are gone nowadays - evangelical christianity has pretty much wiped out socialism as the dominant organised ideological force amongst the urban working class in Brazil. What is played up strongly is rhetoric of “usness”, belonging, and the idea of the faction as defender and provider. Another common slogan is - “é nois”, "it's us". Indeed, the traffic does bring money into the favela, and at least some of this is distributed through aid, social spending, festivity.

For all the “usness”, though, the traficantes are an elite. Perhaps not separated by race, education, accent, dress, etc. But an elite nevertheless. Certainly in the most basic, material sense - they hold power.

Here a rather bare – but ultimately useful - two-part definition of power from political scientist Keith Dowding.(8) Object power is the ability of an actor (person, group, etc.) to bring about outcomes. E.g., my arm is powerful if it is able to bend this iron bar.

Social power – which is what we are concerned with – is the ability to affect the interests of others, so that their actions bring about outcomes. For example, a threat – I stick a gun to your head and tell you to hand over your money. Or an offer – I'll let you have a go on my skateboard if you give me your sweets. Or what about this – you are madly in love with me, I tell you that to prove it you have to throw your bundle of money into the fire.

Or this – I persuade you that if you follow the law you will go to a better world after you die. What is important is not just your 'material' interests in the sense of what you will actually gain or lose by your choice of action. But also, or even more importantly, your beliefs about your interests - and perhaps even where your interests come from in the first place.(9)

rogue state?
In the favela the faction uses power in both these ways. With its guns and organisation it makes very real material threats. It also makes real offers of money, work, services. But (as is well described by Sneed in terms of funk culture), it also builds up ideological power – its 'usness', and moral superiority over the state. Even hardworking anti-drug born again Christians in the favela will often agree that the faction is better than the police. For one thing the faction is part of 'us'. And it doesn't kill randomly or in as great numbers. (At least this is the common perception inside the favela. Official sources, Brazilian news media, and most condominium dwellers will say the contrary.)

This support, or at least acceptance, of the faction is essential for its survival in a very precarious environment. For example, residents will pass information to the faction that allows it to uphold order, and to defend itself against enemies. And they will withhold information from those enemies. Fear of violence explains some of that, but not all. E.g., there are stories of faction leaders who have lost community support because of their brutality, arbitrariness, or failure to maintain order - these leaders typically end up getting caught or killed by the police or a rival gang.

This description seems to take things a long way from the faction-dominated favela as a TAZ - on the contrary, the faction has all the classic characteristics of the state. Max Weber's famous definition of the state is: “its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”.(10)

For “administrative staff” read “gunmen”. The social code mentioned above very much involves a claim on the monopoly of violence, and often a successful claim - despite invasions and incursions and counter-claims of legitimacy from outside bodies (which many states also suffer), there are favelas that have remained under faction control for many years.

The most problematic part of Weberian state theory is “legitimacy”. One way to read this is that a violence-monopolist is legitimate when widely believed to be so by the inhabitants of its territory.

To quote another classic thinker about the state, David Hume - “NOTHING appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.”(11)

The most important support of Government, according to Hume, is what he calls ‘opinion of right’. To a large measure, he thinks, people obey the government just because they think it is right to do so. When people lose this belief in a government it will totter and it may fall.

Or as contemporary Humean theorist Ken Binmore puts it - “all that separates us from anarchy are the ideas in people's heads.”(12)

Does the faction have legitimacy? Many residents, who know at first hand the brutality and thorough corruption of Brazilian police and officialdom, trust the faction more than the police.

On the other hand this may not be enough for the faction to rob legitimacy from the official state – useless as the Brazilian education system may be, it seems at least to succeed in inculcating national identity and maybe some residual belief in the principles of state government.

I think this raises interesting questions about competing claims to legitimacy – or are maybe they claims of different natures? But that's as far as I'll take it here.

multipolar power
The faction is not the only group that has power in the favela. By the very broad definition above, there are a lot of people who have power. The parent has power over the child – and vice versa, too. The beloved has power over the lover. The boss has power over the employee. In the nuclear family we find power relations. In the extended family and Bey's favoured anti-nuclear “band” too.

All these power relations exist in the favela. Informal or “private” power relations overlap and intersect with "social" power relations involving larger-scale groups, including organised groups like the faction. But even if we restrict ourselves to this "social space", we can find a range of powerful actors.

For example, in many favelas the residents' association (associação de moradores) plays an important role. If the faction is the favela police and possibly judiciary, the residents association typically does many of the everyday jobs that are in other places taken by state organs. The favela is often still legally a squatter community, but it has internal property rights, and a residents association often plays the part of land registry and planning authority. It may also organise amenities, street cleaning etc. In more established, legalised or semi-legalised, favelas it often receives money from the official state for these services, acting as intermediary where the city government (prefeitura) cannot enter directly.

The relationship between residents association and faction is a topic in itself. It is commonly said that residents associations have to act with the approval of the "boca".(13) They are separate bodies but the faction can place direct limits on the association's actions using its threat power. On the other hand, the association might act as a barometer and conduit of community acceptance of the faction.(14)

Other groups occupy what you might call the “civil society” of the favela. These include churches, which have strong support, and NGOs with money behind them. Many favelas also have a strong commercial sector, in some big favelas even organised in traders' associations.

Besides organised groups, we could also consider community itself as a potential source of power. Individuals when diffuse and scattered are no match for a strong group such as the faction. But communities (owing to the network and relational properties discussed earlier) have the potential to organise very quickly and form powerful ad hoc groups, for example in opposition to a leadership that has lost legitimacy.

More generally, it may be better to think of organised, defined groups with fixed identities as occupying a point at one end of a spectrum of actual or potential coalitions. Even a well disciplined military unit can, under the right conditions, collapse into mutiny. Random groups of strangers can spontaneously coalesce to great effect. In between are many more or less informal, but often potentially powerful, groupings – friendship networks, traders in the same market, mothers who meet every day at the school gate, ...

Besides groups within the favela, there are outside powers that impact on life inside. The majority of favelados work outside the community, often providing services for the rich “asphalt”-dwellers below. Their lives are by no means circumscribed by the borders of the favela. For example, the favela depends on infrastructure from outside, including the electricity grid and water supply.

And there is the official state, which despite its very apparent absence, makes its power known in many ways from without. Of course, just in terms of force of arms, the Brazilian state could crush a given favela at any minute.

Some of these powers may work in the same direction, for the same ends, at least some of the time. But often they are in conflict. The favela is the site of an intricate balance of powers.

For example, the faction makes the bulk of its income from drug traffic. The traffic depends on flows of product - cocaine and marijuana, and of arms, from outside. Brazil does not produce cocaine. It does produce guns, and many commentators suggest the majority of faction weapons are of national production, often officially destined for military or police use. These flows go through state territory. They flow freely because of state corruption.

In fact, the traffic is taxed. Policemen and officials and politicians of all levels directly benefit financially from maintaining this status quo. For many within the state, it would be bad business to destroy the traffic.

Others within the state may be more concerned with the human – or public relations - cost of escalating the “war”. While there are also those who call for escalation, or at least to be seen to be doing something about the problem. The play of these different interests within sections of the state organisation is another power play-off.

The result of all this is a cold war with occasional flare-ups – invasions and temporary occupations.

And on the other side, the faction can strike back with its own incursions into wealthy and tourist areas (as the CV did with hotel and bus attacks in 2005; or even more famously the PCC "uprising" in São Paulo in May 2006).(15)

I've written "faction-controlled favelas", but according to one view this is really a case of "outsourcing" state control - to use a new term for an old strategy. The state washes its hands of the social problems of the favela, lets them get on with it as sub-contractors, and collects its tribute.

However accurate or not this picture, I'll play safe and make a more general statement. In the favela there is not just one agent or group that has power. There are many. Power relations are complex, multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, multi-polar, edgy, unstable, dynamic.

beyond the state fetish
We often seem to have this tendency to think of power as monopolar. Or at least, converging on a single pole. In stories and histories it works like this – after a fraught period of struggle, one winner emerges, and the territory returns to equilibrium. Societies suffer temporary periods of instability - China's warring states period, Rome's year of four emperors, civil wars, etc. - before a return to monopolistic order. Power equilibrium is a monopoly.

The way globalisation is shifting power away from nation-states is well studied. Less well known but maybe just as significant is the trend of informalisation - of work and production, but also of space. In Brazil, despite the efforts of the first stable social-democratic government trying to engage with housing questions, more and more people are living outside formal land law. Pockets and whole layers of non-state power, or claims to power, are ever more common.

And this is no longer just a “third world problem”. According to the thesis of Mike Davis (Planet of Slums), the favelas and unlicensed street markets of Rio, Caracas, Cairo, Jakarta are the future of the planet – deindustrialised, megaslum cities where the old politics and the old warfare give way to new forms of power struggle.(16)

Political theory has always fetishised the state: right back to Plato and Aristotle, theorists begin by asking not – what is a state?, but – what is a good state? Anarchists oppose the assumption of state legitimacy (political authority). But anarchists have sometimes been no less guilty than the rest of fetishising the state, defining ourselves by our anti-statism.(17)

In the post-modernist "ontological anarchism" of Hakim Bey, the state still has a leading role - indeed this is “an era in which the State is omnipresent and all-powerful”. Though perhaps this isn't the nation state of old. It is “the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation”.

One way to take this tendency in contemporary thinking: hold onto the concept of State, but let it swell out from where it was fixed as the military-political nation-state of Weber.

Indeed Marx had already beefed out the concept with an injection of economic power. “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”(18) The story goes something like this: the state is the centre, headquarters, peak of political power, built up by absolute monarchy through the immediate pre-capitalist period, only to be conquered and occupied by the bourgeoisie, the holder of economic power.

At least on some readings, we can say that there are different dimensions of power at stake: the State, in which political power is concentrated; and Capital, in which economic power is concentrated. Of course, for Marxists, the State is mere superstructure. The implication - once the bourgeoisie has taken economic power (Capital), the political superstructure (the State) should inevitably fall into its hands.

In Gramsci's refinement, the dominant class holds not only the economic base and the political state superstructure, but the other main superstructural domain which he identifies as “civil society”. This is the place of a third kind of power – cultural power, or in its developed form, “hegemony”.

Marxist theory does allow for a kind of multipolarity. In a developed capitalist phase the bourgeoisie holds all the cards, but this wasn't always the case - in an earlier transition phase that class held economic but not political power. For Gramsci, a group must already have “leadership” in civil society space before it can win political power. (And still - “it subsequently becomes dominant when it exercises [political] power, but even if it holds it firmly in its grasp, it must continue to 'lead' as well.")(19)

But for Marxism such multipolarity exists only in temporary moments of crisis, before the system as a whole equilibrates with one class achieving dominance as a whole, across all dimensions. Extended periods of multipolarity mean incurable structural contradictions which must be resolved as a new winner asserts its dominance.

This idea of monopolarity still lives on in much post-Marxist, and even much anarchist, thinking. It can survive even if we get rid the idea that one type or dimension of power, such as economics, is the underlying "base".(20)

Sometimes Bey doesn't call the dark power "State", but instead "Babylon”, “the Net”, “Empire”. Empire is also the term adopted by post-Marxist theorists Hardt and Negri to name "a global order, a new logic of structure and rule – in short a new form of sovereignty” ... “composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule.” (21)

But whether or no these concepts are superseding or refining the old enemy-state concept, they all have one big thing in common. They are singular. Monopolies.

The Hardt-Negri Empire is diffuse in the sense that it is scattered, networked, spread out geographically and organisationally. There is no emperor at the head of it. But it is still one: a global order, a single logic.

Not being Marxists, we don't need to have a dogmatic commitment to a monopolar (or a monodimensional) power analysis. Talking of dimensions and of poles or points of power are abstractions which we can use, with care, if and when they work for our theoretical needs. The State is just one particular abstraction we may use in power analysis - when it works.

Autonomy is self-organisation or self-order. The faction is part of the community, of the self - é nois. This self stands in contrast to an other, and perhaps the simplest way to define autonomy is negatively, as freedom from external power. In this “home rule” notion we can say: a zone is autonomous if it is not, in some meaningful sense, subject to power from the outside.

Autonomy is not an absolute. In common jurisprudential use it means something short of independence: e.g., Hong Kong is an autonomous city within Chinese territory. The political independence of the Hong Kong government is very much limited – it has a measure of autonomy. Autonomy is a matter of degree.

But even a zone with a very high degree of political autonomy – perhaps because it has the military strength to resist power from without by force - is still likely to be penetrated by outside power in other ways. As we saw, the favela zone is dependent on the outside for food, water, light, etc. With globalisation, even the strongest nation state is dependent on economic power from the outside.

And, maybe most importantly of all, outside power enters through words, ideas, images, sounds, memes, spectacle. Just the most obvious example is the fact that the favela is bathed in the airwaves of MTV and Rede Globo (22), Big Brother, the 8 o'clock soap opera, etc. (Though in any analysis of cultural power we need also to take account of the fact that the favela is itself a big producer and exporter of memes - so much of Brazilian culture comes from the hill.)

But I think autonomy in this “home-rule” sense is not enough for anarchists. 'Home rule' autonomy looks only at power relations as they cross or stand on the border between the zone and the outside. However my starting point is this: as an anarchist I am against domination, power hierarchies, concentrations of power - in anyone's hands. If autonomy just means that part of some "self" group dominates another within a determined area, that falls far short of an anarchist aspiration. We can't ignore how power is distributed inside the zone.

Is there some other deeper specification of autonomy that could fit with anarchist aspirations, or should we move away from the very idea of government by a self? I think it's an interesting philosophical question, but I'm not going to try and squeeze in any kind of answer here.

anarchists in the favela
To my way of thinking, anarchists are with the working class, lumpen and all, anarchists are with the disenfranchised and the impoverished, anarchists are with those who don't just desire change but need it as a physical, material need. So anarchists should be in the favela. All the more so if the future is a planet of slums.

In fact anarchists in Brazil tend not to be in the favela. In Rio there are dedicated, committed and courageous anarchists, for example, living and working in homeless occupations on the city's periphery. But, for some at least, the favela is seen as an impossible terrain for activism – and largely that's because of the faction.

For example, the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro (FARJ) is an active class-struggle anarchist group which works with occupation (squatting) and homeless movements. But it is not active in the favelas. According to one FARJ spokesperson:

"It is not necessarily that, because the state is not in those areas, creativity and self-organisation come to the surface. The state is necessary to sustain capitalism, but being without the state does not mean that we are without capitalism and other forms of domination, so libertarian ideas and practices do not arise automatically."(23)

For sure. But then where do libertarian ideas arise automatically? Isn't that what anarchism is all about, spreading these ideas and practices?

Certainly it's not easy. In the traffic-controlled favela you can forget the liberal rights to freedom of speech, freedom of association and all the rest. I can understand that many anarchists won't accept working under these conditions, but probably there is only one way to do activism in the favela, and that is to do it in such a way that it doesn't threaten the faction. That means confining activism to areas where libertarian beliefs and faction interests coincide – or at least don't collide.

But groups of libertarian-inspired favela residents, if they work carefully and especially if they are well-connected and rooted inside their communities, can do useful work. I've seen good examples of activism directed towards building community strength, consciousness, education, the ability to resist external power.(24)

When it comes to addressing inequalities of power within the zone, though, activists have to hold off, at least until they build up considerably greater strength. The only possible source of this strength will be the community itself. And the traficantes are indeed part of the community.


1 I've seen this quote quoted by various writers (mainly Marxists - including Eric Hobsbawm in his "Bandits") but don't have the original source. Here's one reference which locates it "Words addressed to students" (1869): http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/hunter/hunterch1.html

2 Available for free (English version) here: http://www.hermetic.com/bey/taz_cont.html.

3 Of all the sources on the origins of the CV, probably the most interesting is the book written by another key founder member, William da Silva Lima, “the Professor”. Quatcentos contra um: uma historia do comando vermelho, Iser-Vozes 1991.

4 Paul Sneed – Machine Gun Voices p 177 – unpublished PhD thesis, available to download here: http://beatdiaspora.blogspot.com/2006/10/machine-gun-voices.html

5 For lots more facts on favelas, and analysis of marginalisation vs. reality, see Janice Perlman: "The Myth of Marginality Revisited: The case of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, 1969-2003", on the web here thanks to the abahlali website: http://abahlali.org/files/perlman.pdf

This South African squatter movement website has an excellent virtual library with much more reading on global favela issues: http://abahlali.org/node/240

6 Michael Taylor – Community, Anarchy, Liberty, Cambridge Univ Press 1982. Premier text of what you might call “analytical anarchism”.

7 Another interesting question - compare the favelas occupied by militias of off-duty policemen and others on the side of state law and with tacit state support. While there will be some degree of interpenetration with community - the militiamen make their homes in the favelas they control - it is probably less than in a faction territory. By all accounts the brutality in these zones is of a higher degree. Less community factor, more violence factor.

8 Keith Dowding – Power, Univ of Minnesota Press 1996. Note that Michael Taylor - cited above - works with a similar rational choice framework for analysing power, which differs from Dowding's mainly in the details. I use Dowding's terminology because I find it a bit neater and more flexible - for example, Taylor separates out "persuasion" as something different from power.

9 The more common theoretical discussion of power and anarchism at the moment comes from "postmodernist anarchist" academics who draw especially on French poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault'. The most important reference for Foucault's own thoughts on power is A History of Sexuality vol I, part IV. But also interviews such as this one - http://www.vanderbilt.edu/historydept/michaelbess/Foucault%20Interview - in which he expresses himself perhaps more clearly - and in which parts of his fundamental thinking actually look very close to the more "analytical" theories of people like Dowding, Taylor, or maybe Steven Lukes (Power: A Radical View). I like the clarity in the analytical approach but I also think Foucault adds a whole extra layer in terms of studying how power gets "frozen" into social practices, institutions, norms. I think bringing the two theoretical approaches can be very fruitful.

10 Max Weber – politics as a vocation – free on the web here: http://www.ne.jp/asahi/moriyuki/abukuma/weber/lecture/politics_vocation.html

11 David Hume - On the first principles of government – various online editions available.

12 Ken Binmore – Game Theory and the Social Contract, vol 1, ch 1. MIT Press 1994. This book deserves to become a classic of modern analytical moral and political philosophy, using game theory to cast new light on classic problems. Binmore is certainly not an anarchist, and by anarchy here he doesn't mean anything good.

13 Boca de fogo = "mouth of smoke" is the name for a house where drugs are sold, so by extension the headquarters of the faction.

14 See this excellent bit of reporting by Carlos Costa at website Viva Favela - http://www.vivafavela.com.br/publique/cgi/public/cgilua.exe/web/templates/htm/principal/view_0009.htm?editionsectionid=9&infoid=45426&user=reader - three interviews with a policeman, a militia leader, and a faction boss on their relations with residents' association activists. And handily translated into English by top-notch anglophone Brasil blogger Colin Brayton here - http://cbrayton.wordpress.com/2007/10/06/rio-the-cop-the-militiaman-and-the-king-of-the-hill/.

15 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_S%C3%A3o_Paulo_violence ; http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2006/05/journal_brazils.html

16 http://abahlali.org/files/NLR26001.pdf Also a whole collection of reviews and responses to Davis on the Abahali website: http://abahlali.org/node/240.

17 Or perhaps more generally by a pantheon of monoliths - e.g., the trinity of state, church, capital.

18 Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels - Communist Manifesto

19 Antonio Gramsci – Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Lawrence & Wishart 1971, p254. Once was free on the web at marxists.org - now no longer. Thanks L&W, up the workers!

20 For a great historical critique of what you might call "monodimensionality" in Marxist theory see Todd May Poststructuralist Anarchism chapter 2

21 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire. Free on the web here – http://www.angelfire.com/cantina/negri/.

22 Globo is the all-dominant TV empire in Brazil. For an intro to Globo see the the UK Channel 4 documentary "Beyond Citizen Kane" - never shown on Brazilian TV, widely available on youtube and elsewhere on the web. From the early 90s, but things haven't changed too much.

23 Interview with the FARJ, translated into English and posted on the website anarkismo.net, 23 June 2008. http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=9207

24 My observations here are based on living and doing community activism alongside local friends and comrades in Rio.


May 13 2009 15:07

I love these clear examples of post-leftism disappearing up its own arse to glorify criminal gangs as alternatives to the states. The state arises out of the need for capital to (violently) maintain and stabilize commodity exchange, which is exactly what Comando Vermelho and the other factions do.

May 13 2009 16:06

It's not actually glorifying them, it's saying they basically function as little states

May 13 2009 22:18

It's saying:

These kind of non-state power structures exist - and actually they are becoming increasingly important in working class areas in many parts of the third world, and maybe the world as a whole. So we need to think what we do about it if we're not going to abandon what I think should be one of the main fields of activity for anarchists. These entities have features in common with states, or alternatively states have many features in common with criminal gangs - but they're not exactly the same thing. They don't fit neatly into the old categories, and in order to understand what's going on we have to move beyond 19th century ways of thinking about state/anti-state. I think a more general anarchist analysis of power is the way to go.

Now if there were a constructive marxist criticism of this idea i'd be very interested to see it. How does the picture above fit into marxist state and class analysis?

May 13 2009 23:23

It could perhaps be viewed as a situation of competing states or dual power? There is really very little difference between a state and a criminal gang anyway - in fact states evolved out of ancient gangs in many cases.

The primary obstacle to working in favelas and other slums with a strong organised presence isn't a lack of analysis of course. It's a lack of strength, as you and the FARJ person said. The answer may lie (as you suggest) in organising in the gaps that do not confront the gangs or the state at first, until sufficient strength is reached. What exactly those areas are is not clear to me (aside from the few workplaces). In general a strategy of organising in the gaps not controlled by other organisations (whether they are branches of the state, unions, NGOs/charities or gangs) is a good start for a weak anarchist movement.

It would be rather convenient if cocaine or other drugs were legalised as this would greatly reduce the power and size of gangs, as it did when prohibition of alcohol ended in the US. This would leave a vacuum allowing an anarchist movement to operate in greater freedom.

This may be of interest http://libcom.org/library/sekwanele-social-movement-struggles-land-housing-post-apartheid-south-africa

I certainly don't think of community as a meaningful whole. A community is made up antagonistic classes and anarchists should operate in a way that leads to the self organisation of the oppressed elements triumphing over the dominating classes.

May 14 2009 10:06

I thought Comando Vermelho were radicalised by brazilian marxist rebel groups in the prisons...Lets just say this they are as authoritarian as the brazilian state.

May 15 2009 01:19

888 - thanks for your comments and pointers to the abhalali articles.

I largely agree with you about lack of strength being the issue. However, I do think good analysis - or at least, avoiding dodgy or lazy analysis - can be important. For example, my impression from some brazilian activists (I'm not talking about the FARJ here) is that sayin the faction is "just an arm of the state" or "just as authoritarian", and impossible to work near, can serve as a handy excuse for washing your hands of the favela.

And actually, when has lack of strength ever stopped anarchists? Apart from a few decades in one south european country we've never really been much but a tiny intransigent minority hoping some of our wild dreams might rub off on those around us.

Drug legalisation - i just can't imagine this happening. US politics i guess has a big role to play in that, amongst other things, and while US hegemony still is not to be sniffed at in Latin America that's unlikely to be ignored. Not to mention the local vested interests in getting their cut of the traffic. And what would actually happen if the traffic disappeared? At the moment drug traffic at least provides some work and status for armed angry young men, which innoculates and contains a big potential source of unrest. Though that doesn't necessarily mean that it the traffic were suddenly cut that violence would be channeled in the kind of direction we anarchists would applaud.

Class and community. Yes - in what sense can you analyse the power differentials within a "community" like this one in terms of "class"? If you look to Marxist class theory in terms of economic production i think you will have a hard job to get a handle on this - though, as I said, I'd be very interested to see a good marxist class analysis here. Not one that just writes all this off as lumpenness or throwbacks to some kind of Hobsbawmian social banditry. You could say the traficantes are just pawns of the outside elite, but is that enough to understand how these kind of forces are growing, where they might lead?

In any case I'm not sure whether I'd characterise the relations inside the community in terms of class. There is an obvious class divide between the Brazilian elites in their gated communities and the people in the favela (whether we interpret it in marxist production terms or with a broader anarchist analysis of power is another question.) Those divisions are clear and entrenched. Whereas divisions between faction members and others within the community are much more fluid - people move in and out of the faction, are connected as friends and family etc., and they live next to each other in much the same conditions. You could say there have different economic interests, but i don't think the same clear antagonism of interests as between capitalists and workers.

So i would say - there is a power hierarchy; and class is a form of entrenched power hierarchy, but not the only one. A power hierarchy doesn't necessarily mean a class division.

(To take another example which is much more discussed, you often get bleak authoritarian power hierarchies within the family, but would you call that a class issue? Some Marxist feminists, e.g. Monique Wittig, do take class analysis that far. But if every organised concentration of force is a state and every hierarchy is a class divide then don't these terms lose some of their value?)

sickdog - yes that's the usual story, both on the brazilian left and on the right. Da Silva Lima (ref above, also filmed interview "sehora liberdade" which is on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lCHgA93XhQ , english subtitles) gives a slightly diferent version of events in which the "common" prisoners did a lot of their own radicalising, and there was two-way influence between them and the middle class marxist "politicals" who he claims learnt a lot from the bank robbers' solidarity and organisation.