We who live in Brazil are part of an experiment. We may have not noticed yet, but we are part of an experiment. The destiny of our bodies, our death, are part of a new experiment in social technology, a new form of management. Moreover, one to be exported. Nothing that is happening in this country that is fused with our history is either the result of improvisation, or of the will of those in command. For the simple reason that no one can ever understand historical processes by trying to clarify the intentionality of their agents. To know what historical agents think about what they might be doing is what matters the least. As it has been said so many times, usually they do without knowing.
The experiment that we are a part of, in which we were all forced into, has a name. It is the implementation of a “suicidal state,” as Paul Virilio once said. In other words: Brazil has now demonstrated definitively how it has become the stage for the implementation of a suicidal state. A new step in the managerial models immanent to neoliberalism. Only now, its face is the cruelest. Its phase, terminal.
Those who believe that this is just the traditional image of the necro-state are mistaken. We are moving beyond the necropolitical thematics of the state as manager of death and disappearance. A state like ours is not just a manager of death. It is rather the ongoing agent of its own catastrophe, the maker of its own explosion. To be more precise, this new state mixes the death management of entire sectors of its own population with an ongoing and risky flirting with its own self-destruction. The end of the New Republic will be reached with the macabre ritual of the emergence of a new form of state violence – along with periodic rituals of bodies being destroyed.
A state of this nature appeared only once in recent history. It materialized itself remarkably in a telegram. A telegram which had a number: Telegram 71. It was with this telegram that, in 1945, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the destiny of a then lost war. It said: “If the war is lost, let the nation perish.” With it, Hitler demanded that the German army destroy whatever was left of the perishing nation’s infrastructure. As if this was the true final objective, that the nation should perish by its own hands, by the hands of what it had unleashed. This was the Nazi way to answer a secular rage against the state itself and against everything that the state had, until then, represented. A celebration of its own destruction and of ours. There are many ways to destroy the state and one of them, the counterrevolutionary one, is done by accelerating towards its own catastrophe. Hannah Arendt spoke about the astonishing fact that those who adhered to fascism did not waver even when they became its victims, even when the monster started to devour its own children.
The astonishment, however, should not be here. As Freud would say: “Even the person’s self-destruction cannot be accomplished without libidinal satisfaction.” In truth, that is the real experiment: an experiment in libidinal economy. The suicidal state can turn the revolt against the unjust state, against the authorities that have excluded us, into a ritual of self-liquidation, performed in the name of the creed of sovereign will and of the preservation of a leadership that must stage their omnipotent ritual even when their miserable impotence is as clear as a sunny day. If fascism has always been a preventive counterrevolution, let us not forget that it has always known how to transform the revolutionary festivity, the party that is revolution, into an inexorable ritual of sacrificial self-immolation. To make the desire for transformation and difference spell the grammar of sacrifice and self-destruction: that has always been the libidinal equation that founds the suicidal state.
Brazilian fascism and its proper name, Bolsonaro, have finally found a catastrophe to call their own. It arrived under the guise of a pandemic. This pandemic would usually demand from sovereign will and its compulsively repeated social paranoia to subject itself to collective action and to a generic solidarity, given the emergence of a social body that would not leave anyone on the road to Hades. But, before the submission to a demand for auto-preservation, which removes from paranoia its theater, its enemies, its persecutions, and its delusions of grandeur, the choice was, however, to keep flirting continuously with generalized death. If we still needed any proof that we are dealing with a fascist logic of governance, this would be the definitive one. This is not the classic authoritarian state that uses violence to destroy its enemies. This is a suicidal state of the fascist type that only finds its strength when it can test its will while facing the end.
It’s obvious that such state is founded on that mix that is so much part of Brazil: a mix of capitalism and slavery, advertising of coworking, the young face of sustainable development and the murderous indifference regarding death reduced to a side-effect of the necessary good functioning of the economy. Some believe that they are listening to businessmen, restaurant owners, and advertising professionals when in fact pigs, dressed as heralds of economic rationality, begin to talk about how what is worse than the fear of the pandemic is the fear of unemployment. The truth is, they are before slave owners who have learned to speak business English. The logic is the same. Only now it is being applied to the entire population. The plantation cannot stop. And if some slaves must die, well, no one will really make a fuss about that, right? After all, what do 5.000 or 10.000 deaths mean, when we are talking about “securing jobs” – in other words, securing the fact that everyone will continue to be massacred and exploited in senseless and endless actions as they work under the most miserable and precarious conditions imaginable?
The history of Brazil is the continuous use of that logic. The novelty is that now it is being applied to the entire population. Until recently, the country split its subjects between “persons” and “things,” that is to say: between those who would be treated like persons, whose death would cause grief, narrative, emotion; and those who would be treated as things, whose death is just a number, a fatality that does not induce any need to grief. Now, we have arrived at the apex of that logic. The population is just the disposible supply for an endless process of accumulation and concentration that must not stop under any circumstances.
Naturally, centuries of necropolitics have given the Brazilian state some skills. It knows that one of the secrets of the game is to make bodies disappear. You remove numbers from circulation, you question data, you shift those who died from coronavirus to another rubric, you open graves in invisible places. Bolsonaro and its friends, coming from the cellars of the military dictatorship, know how to operate this logic. In other words: this is the old art of managing disappearance that the Brazilian state knows so well. Anyway: there is no alternative. This was the price to pay, so that the economy doesn’t stop and jobs are guaranteed. Someone had to pay for the sacrifice. The funny thing is that it is always the same who pay. The real question is this: who never pays for the sacrifice while preaching the spurious gospel of the whip?
Look what an interesting thing. In the Suicidal Republic of Brazil, there is no chance whatsoever to make the financial system pour its obscene profits into a mutual fund for the payment of salaries of the confined population; nor there is any chance for it to finally implement the constitutional tax over large fortunes, so that part of the money that the elites have vampirized from the compulsive labor of the poor be made available. No, those possibilities do not exist. There is no alternative: is it really necessary to repeat this one more time?
This violence is the matrix of Brazilian capitalism. Who paid the dictatorship to create apparatuses for crimes against humanity through which it tortured, raped, murdered, and made corpses disappear? Weren’t there moneys from Itaú, Bradesco, Camargo Correa, Andrade Gutierrez, Fiesp – in other words, the entire financial and business system that, today as then, has its profits guaranteed by those who see in our deaths nothing but a minor problem?
During historical fascism, the suicidal state was mobilized by a war that it could not stop. That means that the fascist war was not one of conquer. It was an end in itself. As if it were a “perpetual movement, without object or target,” its impasses leading to an ever-increasing acceleration. The Nazi idea of domination is not linked to the strengthening of the State, but to a movement in perpetual movement. Hannah Arendt will talk about “the essence of totalitarian movements that can only remain in power as long as they remain in motion and transmit motion to everything that surrounds them.” Unlimited war implying the total mobilization of the entire social sphere. Total militarization towards a war that becomes permanent, but whose direction cannot be any other than total destruction — pure and simple.
The only thing is that the Brazilian state never needed a war, because it was always the manager of an undeclared civil war. Its army has served no other cause than to periodically turn itself against its own population. This is the land of preventive counterrevolution, as Florestan Fernandes would say. The fatherland of endless civil war, of nameless genocides, of undocumented massacres, of processes of Capital accumulation made by bullets and fear against whoever moves. All of this applauded by one third of the population, by our grandparents, our parents, by those whose affect circuits are tied to the unconfessed desire for the sacrifice of others, and even of self, for generations. Pity who believes it is still possible to dialogue with those who, at this very moment, would be applauding members of the SS. Because alternatives do exist, but if they were to be implemented, then other affects would start to circulate, giving strength to those who refuse such fascist logic, and allowing finally for the imagination of another social and political body to flourish. Such alternatives include the consolidation of a generic solidarity: one that makes us feel that we are part of a system of mutual dependency and support, where my life depends on the life of those who don’t even belong to “my group”, that are not in “my place”, that do not have “my properties.” This solidarity that is built in the most dramatic moments reminds us that we participate of a common destiny and we must sustain each other collectively. Something very different from: “If I get infected, that’s my problem.” Atrocious lie since your infection will be, in fact, a problem of the collective healthcare system that will not be able to help others because it needs to attend to the irresponsibility of one of society’s members. But if solidarity thus appears as a central affect, then it is the entire neoliberal farce that falls, the one that had to repeat, with Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families.” The thing is, Margaret, that contagion is the most democratic and equalitarian thing that we know. Contagion reminds us, to the contrary, that there is no such thing as individuals and families. There is just society collectively fighting against the death of all, and that collectively feels the consequences when one of its members believes to live only by his or her own means.
As I said before, alternatives do exist. They include the suspension of public debt payments, taxing the wealthy and thus offering the poorest among us the possibility of caring for and attending to their communities without worrying about coming back from a work environment that will be the source of viral dissemination, a deadly Russian roulette. If someone among the fascist hordes knew for real how to count, this person would remember what happens to one of the only countries in the world that refuses to follow the recommendations to fight the pandemic: this country would be the object of a global sanitary cordon, an isolation derived from its being an uncontrolled center for the proliferation of the disease that other countries do not want to share. To be the object of a global sanitary cordon must be something really good for the national economy.
Meanwhile, we fight with all our might to find something that will make us believe that the situation is not really that bad, that all of this is but skids and slides of an ill-tempered lunatic. But no. There are no lunatics in this history. This government is the necessary becoming reality of our history of blood, silence, and forgetting. A history of invisible bodies and limitless Capital. There are no lunatics. On the contrary, the logic is quite clear and relentless. And this only happens because, whenever someone in this country says it is time to radicalize, there is always someone else who replies that this is not quite the time yet. Facing the implementation of a suicidal state, all that we have left would be the declaration of a general strike for an unlimited time, an absolute refusal to work until this government falls. All that we have left would be to burn to the ground the establishments of “businessmen” who sing their indifference to our deaths. All that we have left would be to make the economy stop definitively, by using all possible forms of popular counterviolence. All that we have left would be to stop smiling, since right now to smile is to consent. But not even a mere request for impeachment is made by those who say they make opposition. It is hard here not to remember the words from the bible: “But if the salt has lost its flavor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing.” It must be good only to make us forget that violent gesture of refusal that should be there whenever they try to push our own flesh down our throats, served cold.
—São Paulo, March 25, 2020
Translated by André Lepecki
Vladimir Safatle is Full Professor at the Department of Philosophy, at USP (Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil), and visiting professor at the universities of Paris-VII, Paris-VIII, Toulouse and Louvain. He co-coordinates the Laboratory on Research in Social Theory, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis at USP. He is the author of several books, including Grand Hôtel Abyss: Desire, Recognition and the Restoration of the Subject.
André Lepecki is Full Professor and Chairperson at the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. Single-authored books are Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement, and Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance.