Publicaciones

In fear of abandonment : slum life, community leaders and politics in Recife, Brazil

Koster, M.

Resúmen

This book sets out to contribute to the pursuit of ‘making nonpersons full human beings’
(Boff & Boff:1987:8). It provides insights in the lives of residents of the slum of “Chão de
Estrelas” in Recife, Brazil. I argue that slum dwellers should not be mystified and
misrecognised as “the other”, as different from “normal” citizens, because of their
marginalised position. I show that the slum is, in fact, an eminently knowable world.
This book presents how slum dwellers, directed by local lideres comunitarios, community
leaders, strive for material and intangible resources and engage in utopian projects. I
argue that the needs and aspirations of these people, who are at constant risk of being
ignored, disconnected, and abandoned, emerge from their yearnings for recognition and
connectivity, and a fear of abandonment. To understand this life in the slum, I focus on
the ways slum dwellers attempt to realise their needs and aspirations, modes of
operating which I call “slum politics”.
Chapter 1 defines slum politics as grounded in the needs and aspirations of those
who live in the margins. Drawing on the work of Oscar Lewis (1959, 1965), it analyses
how life in the slum, through stigmatisation and a long history of marginalisation, is
reproduced in ways that are fundamentally different from middle- and upper-class
people. This difference, expressed in particular needs and aspirations, is not generated
because slum dwellers are a different kind of people, but because have they been
structurally segregated in the dominant political and economic order. This chapter
documents how these particular needs and aspirations, although not solely held by
slum dwellers, are more emphatically and urgently present in their lives in the margins
of the political and economic order, and have material, intangible and utopian
dimensions. Material needs exist, for instance, for money, food, and employment.
Intangible, or social, needs can be viewed in attempts to establish connections to all
kinds of people and to gain prestige. Utopian aspirations find their expression in slum
dwellers’ cravings for solidarity, a better environment, and a desire to be connected to
the world instead of being ignored by it.
This chapter coins the concept of slum politics as the ongoing and never finished
endeavour of slum dwellers of creating connections and possibilities which break off all
the time. Slum politics, driven by attempts to be connected to the political and economic
order, centres on the notion of connectivity, the intricate face-to-face relations between
persons which need to be constantly maintained, and a fear abandonment, which means
being forsaken and excluded by everybody. It includes practices in the realms of family
life, making a living, and dreaming about the future.
Chapter 2 provides a portrait of community leadership. It shows how community
leaders are the main facilitators of slum politics, as they articulate and consolidate needs
and aspirations of their fellow slum dwellers, which they, being slum dwellers
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themselves, know well. Community leaders distinguish themselves from other slum
dwellers by their talent to establish and maintain myriad connections, both to other
slum dwellers and people outside the slum. Through these connections they attempt to
create access to resources, to gain prestige, and arrive at recognition of their needs and
those of their fellow slum dwellers.
Community leaders also need their connections in order to make a living. They
engage in the realm of electoral politics, looking for resources and prestige. Yet, their
practices inevitably implicate them in particular tensions between opposing dimensions.
They are confronted with the diverging expectations of fellow slum dwellers. This
results in tensions of love for the community versus self-interest, and between the
expectation that community leaders derive prestige and resources through electoral
politics and the accusation that they are contaminated by electoral political interests.
Slum dwellers are attracted by electoral politics’ image of opulence and possibilities
beyond compare. Meanwhile, they distrust involvement in it, as it seemingly
marginalises community issues in favour of assuming and maintaining public positions
and making money.
Chapter 3 introduces the community leaders Ovídio, Creuza, and Zezinho, their
personalities, their projects, their operational styles, and their competition. It pays
attention to how they articulate and consolidate needs and aspirations of their fellow
slum dwellers, and operate between the tensions introduced in chapter 2. Each leader’s
trajectory towards becoming a leader is presented, including their historical record of
achievements and their thematic interests, comprising issues in which they specialise,
which allow them to establish connections with people around specific topics. Three
case studies are presented, one on each community leader, closely examining how they
give shape to slum politics in their projects.
Chapter 4 discusses how ordinary life in the slum is lived, through narrating
histories of how four families in the slum organise their lives. These stories shed light on
the way the economy is lived in a site where unemployment is high, self-employment
often the only way to make a living, and allowances form a great part of the money
coming in. I show a particular economic dynamic, where much of the money remains
circulating within the slum, with a specific gendered labour division, an emphasis on
connections, gift-giving, and a social use of money.
In Chapter 5, I analyse how slum politics is intertwined with, but different from,
electoral and themselves, know well. Community leaders distinguish themselves from other slum
dwellers by their talent to establish and maintain myriad connections, both to other
slum dwellers and people outside the slum. Through these connections they attempt to
create access to resources, to gain prestige, and arrive at recognition of their needs and
those of their fellow slum dwellers.
Community leaders also need their connections in order to make a living. They
engage in the realm of electoral politics, looking for resources and prestige. Yet, their
practices inevitably implicate them in particular tensions between opposing dimensions.
They are confronted with the diverging expectations of fellow slum dwellers. This
results in tensions of love for the community versus self-interest, and between the
expectation that community leaders derive prestige and resources through electoral
politics and the accusation that they are contaminated by electoral political interests.
Slum dwellers are attracted by electoral politics’ image of opulence and possibilities
beyond compare. Meanwhile, they distrust involvement in it, as it seemingly
marginalises community issues in favour of assuming and maintaining public positions
and making money.
Chapter 3 introduces the community leaders Ovídio, Creuza, and Zezinho, their
personalities, their projects, their operational styles, and their competition. It pays
attention to how they articulate and consolidate needs and aspirations of their fellow
slum dwellers, and operate between the tensions introduced in chapter 2. Each leader’s
trajectory towards becoming a leader is presented, including their historical record of
achievements and their thematic interests, comprising issues in which they specialise,
which allow them to establish connections with people around specific topics. Three
case studies are presented, one on each community leader, closely examining how they
give shape to slum politics in their projects.
Chapter 4 discusses how ordinary life in the slum is lived, through narrating
histories of how four families in the slum organise their lives. These stories shed light on
the way the economy is lived in a site where unemployment is high, self-employment
often the only way to make a living, and allowances form a great part of the money
coming in. I show a particular economic dynamic, where much of the money remains
circulating within the slum, with a specific gendered labour division, an emphasis on
connections, gift-giving, and a social use of money.
In Chapter 5, I analyse how slum politics is intertwined with, but different from,
electoral and governmental politics. I follow Partha Chatterjee’s theorising on popular
politics, conceptualised as those ‘contrary mobilisations’ that may have ‘transformative
effects … among the supposedly unenlightened sections of the population’ (2004:49).
Chatterjee distinguishes the politics of marginalised people from the politics of the state
apparatus and the government, and argues that the former should not be understood as
“pre-political” and backward, but as a politics with its own parameters and logics,
‘different from that of the elite’ (idem:39). My reservation to Chatterjee’s theorisations is that he presents popular politics as a residual category, derived from governmental
politics. I argue instead that slum politics is not primarily reactive to or derived from
governmental politics, but co-exists with it as it is constituted in the needs and
aspirations of slum dwellers.
Chapter 6, zeroing in on the 2004 municipal elections, shows the overlap between
slum politics and electoral politics. It documents how electoral politics penetrates into
the slum and contaminates slum politics. Community leaders employ the moment of the
elections to negotiate with candidates to garner resources for the community and
themselves. However, electoral politics entails the possible risk of steering away from
community interests into issues of self-interested yearnings for power and money. Two
case studies show attempts of community leaders, as political canvassers, to manoeuvre
in the realm of electoral politics in such ways as to also make money, cater to needs and
aspirations of fellow slum dwellers, and steer clear of accusations of being selfinterested.
Chapter 7 presents a case study of encounters between slum politics and
governmental politics. Parts of Chão de Estrelas were planned to be regenerated by a
large World Bank funded slum upgrading programme. I analyse the preamble of the
programme, how it affected the population of the slum, and how community leaders
dealt with it. With reference to Bruno Latour’s work, I argue that the ambiguity which
existed around the programme actually called it into existence. I contend that a project
creates a context in which it becomes real, through rumours and ‘little solidities’ (Latour
1996:45), like meetings, surveys, maps, aerial photographs, offices, brochures, registers,
maps, surveyors and their reports, and census stickers.
I also argue that the programme affected slum dwellers in their most vulnerable
places: their homes, neighbourhoods, and possibilities for work. As a consequence,
feelings of despair, evoking fears of being ignored as a person with specific needs and
aspirations, hit hard in the lives of slum dwellers.
Chapter 8 analyses how life in the slum is framed by violence. Next to the symbolic
and structural violence of discrimination, slum dwellers face acts of violence on a daily
basis, like fights, assaults and shoot-outs, often related to drug trade. Community
leaders and drug traders maintain a tacit balance by which they steer clear of contact
with each other. Slum dwellers, I show, perceive of violence as extraordinary through
acts of mentioning it, reflecting upon it, avoiding it, and expressing aspirations for a life
without it. In contrast, they also see violence as normal, as it is an everyday life
experience.
Furthermore, this chapter argues that, whereas actual violence occurs at random,
potential violence is structured and structuring. Dealing with potential violence, slum
dwellers ban violence discursively from their personal lives by depicting it as related to
‘the other’ and ‘elsewhere’. In addition, they adhere to moral categories which define
those who die from violence as evil, as such seeing their death as a good thing which rids the community of wrong-doers.
Turning again to the intersection between slum politics and governmental politics,
the chapter argues that the concept of citizenship does not resonate with the lives of
slum dwellers who reside in sites where citizenship rights per definition do not hold.
Part of the violence slum dwellers face is related to the intrusive workings of the statedesigned
project of registered citizenship, which centres on the compulsory carrying of
identity cards. Slum dwellers, instead of being recognised as citizens through their
identity cards, are discriminated and approached in violent ways by the police who
consider them as criminals.
Chapter 9, as a conclusion, argues once more against the mystification and
“othering” of slum dwellers, and distances them from the philosopher Giorgio
Agamben’s notion of homo sacer (1998, 2005). Slum dwellers do not coincide with homo
sacer, as they are not officially abandoned by law and maintain personal connections
with people outside the slum. Further, the dominant image of the slum dweller as a
dangerous criminal separates him from homo sacer, who is harmless. Moreover, slum
politics assigns a political quality to life in the slum, which makes it a politically
qualified life (bios) instead of the bare life (zoē) of homo sacer. Slum dwellers’ position in
the political and economic order, although marginalised, is different from the position of
homo sacer, who exists outside of the order. Finally, in contrast to homo sacer, slum
dwellers are not a minority, but a fast growing social class which will soon exist of more
than half of the world’s population. I incite anthropologists to study not only the general
exclusionary workings of political systems, but also the mundane practices and utopian
aspirations of people living in the margins, as an analysis of these may help to imagine
novel political possibilities.