Precarious Democracy: Ethnographies of Hope, Despair, and Resistance in Brazil

Precarious Democracy: Ethnographies of Hope, Despair, and Resistance in Brazil. Edited by Benjamin Junge, Sean T. Michell, Alvaro Jarrín, and Lucia Cantero. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2021.

Reviewed by: David C. Thompson, Simon Fraser University

In the last decade, the promise of Brazil’s democratic project imploded, taking with it the possibility of social mobility and development. A prolonged recession, a series of political scandals and a visceral sense of crisis left a question mark on the horizon that was, eventually, answered by a new authoritarian wave. But while many scholars have interrogated this moment of uncertainty, Precarious Democracy: Ethnographies of Hope, Despair, and Resistance in Brazil asks us to look more carefully, to pay attention to its heterogeneity and to examine its impact across different communities. This edited volume brings together the work of North American- and Brazilian-based scholars to address a single concern: what happened? But rather than funneling us into a monolithic narrative, the question draws the reader into a varied, often contradictory, landscape where futures are lost and found, and where the stakes of Brazilian democracy are remade.

Within this mosaic, formed by the book’s eighteen chapters, several key themes emerge – the qualities of hope and despair, disillusionment as a mode of politics, and the struggles between old and new aspirations, to name a few. The editors’ introduction sets the stage with a broad overview of the tumultuous years from 2013 to 2019, where a cascading series of scandals took down not only the ruling Workers’ Party, but also a vision of nationhood. Lilia Moritz Schwartz then offers a critical overview, including a detailed outline of the book’s chapters and a theorization of the ‘crisis’ at the heart of this historical period.

The remainder of the book is divided into four sections, each with a distinct thematic focus. ‘Part I: The Intimacy of Power’ demonstrates how Brazilian politics both makes, and is remade by, the intimate relations of gender, race and kinship. Benjamin Junge teases apart the stakes of Bolsonaro’s rise to power as they reverberate within a single family. Jessica Jerome’s ‘Among Mothers and Daughters’ argues that a fundamental shift in the experience of the state has drawn young women away from the activism of a previous generation and towards disillusionment. Kalil, Pinheiro-Machado and Scalco center guns as a commodity and an object of desire for Brazilian men, who aim to reassert themselves as patriarchal protectors and as legitimately middle-class. Finally, Patricia Pinho points to whiteness as a motor of authoritarianism and identifies a shift in its meaning from ‘neutrality’ to victimhood, as part of a backlash against Black social mobility and political visibility.

‘Part II: Corruption and Crime’ shifts attention to the affective qualities that have emerged within, and in opposition to, illegality. Sean T. Mitchell takes up the concept of ‘cruel pessimism’ to diagnose the despair that swept Brazil following a cynical and ultimately cannibalistic anticorruption campaign that sapped faith in institutional politics as a site of future-building. Karina Biondi’s chapter, framed by the apparent contradiction of criminal support for punitive Christian politicians, offers a careful analysis of how evangelical discourse has saturated the world of crime, both within and outside prisons. John F. Collins charts the concurrent arrival of a cash economy and criminal networks in a rural Bahian community, which catalyzed a shift in forms of rationality among residents. Lucia Cantero then examines oil as an icon of Brazilian development and an object charged with political affect, even as such affect swung from elation to hopelessness as the result of a corruption scandal.

‘Part III: Infrastructures of Hope’ examines political affect among various communities in a context of rising precarity and an emerging authoritarian movement. Rojas, Olival and Olival’s ‘Despairing Hopes in Amazonia’ presents a portrait of abandonment in southern Amazonia, marked by failed development programs and local elites’ grip on the aspirations of poor residents. Falina Enriquez then examines the rising precarity of Brazil’s traditional middle class through Recife’s ‘alternative’ music scene, where both entrepreneurial identities and new solidarities emerge as state support evaporates. Moisés Kopper centers apathy in his study of a social housing project, and argues that it allows disillusioned residents to preserve a vision of social mobility, turning away from institutional politics and towards ‘private democracies.’ Sarah LeBaron von Baeyer then takes the huge support for Jair Bolsonaro among Brazilians living in Japan as a symptom of a precarity that is felt within and between both countries, one met with a growing nostalgia for an ordered past.

The final section of the book, titled ‘Old Challenges, New Activism,’ identifies long-standing and recent strategies of resistance in the face of a violence and authoritarianism. Lashandra Sullivan’s ‘Holding the Wave’ takes the concept and the practice of segurar, or ‘holding on’, to account for contemporary Black feminist and LGBTI+ strategies of wellbeing and survival. Carlos Eduardo Henning follows LGBTTI elders as they refuse narratives of crisis, instead locating the present moment within longer histories of struggle. Alvaro Jarrín spotlights trans and travesti activism, which blurs art and politics to directly confront ‘disgust’ as a political affect. In the final chapter, Medeiros, McCormick, Schmitt and Kale consider the circulation of memes among Brazilian university students as an emergent mode of political action.

Together, these authors trace the erosion of some horizons of possibility, and the arduous construction of others. As a result, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the empirical and conceptual attention paid to political affect, offering the reader a fine-grained analysis of how Brazilians create, inhabit, or instrumentalize hope, anxiety and despair. While the volume does not claim to constitute an exhaustive account of this historical moment, the absence of research conducted with or by indigenous people is striking. Such work might offer a radically different diagnosis of Brazilian democracy and its supposed ‘promise.’ But what is included here teems with insights into how this democracy is felt, inhabited, and challenged. For those interested in contemporary Brazilian politics, the Precarious Democracy is a compelling account of a rapidly shifting political and affective landscape. At the same time, this book is of interest to any reader concerned with how politics is felt in an uncertain political present, a point that extends beyond national borders.

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