The legitimization of violence to solve social problems in Brazil

It has been 30 years since Brazil established a democratic social contract, embodied in its Federal Constitution of 1988. After decades of dictatorial rule (1964-1985), the nation emerged willing to build a project of modernizing reforms that would incorporate millions of Brazilians into a new model of fair and honest development. Over the years, however, Brazil has been unable to cope with extreme levels of urban violence and a continuously increasing number of homicides. Brazil alone accounts for about 10% of the world's recorded homicides, with approximately 60,000 violent deaths every year.

The population is besieged by fear of crime and urban violence. At the same time, both citizens and the government regard the violence as embedded in our social fabric, and see it as a legitimate response to threats and uncertainties.  

The Brazilian Forum on Public Safety conducted a national survey in April 2017 on the population’s experiences with, and attitudes towards, urban violence. The representative national sample of 2,065 persons aged 16 and older has a margin of error of (+/- 2 percent. The results suggest that roughly 50 million Brazilians aged 16 years or older know of at least one murdered relative or acquaintance; almost five million have been injured by firearms; and roughly 15 million know an individual killed by police forces. Clearly, the burden of violence is falling very heavily on the Brazilian population.

"What this country needs, mainly, before laws or political plans, is some courageous, tireless and dedicated leaders in whom the people can lay their faith."

According to an intercept survey—where respondents are approached in public places—also conducted by the Forum on Public Safety (forthcoming) with about 2,000 interviewees across the country, 69% of Brazilians aged 16 or over agree that: "What this country needs, mainly, before laws or political plans, is some courageous, tireless and dedicated leaders in whom the people can lay their faith." While this result shows that Brazilians are in dire need of good and inspiring leaders, it could also suggest that the population is subject to authoritarian influences, with the right combination of charisma and promises of public safety.  

The sentence in the question above is a translation of one of the questions asked in Theodor Adorno's classical study of authoritarian personality in 1950. For the author, periods of crisis like ours, in which people feel more insecure and impotent, are fertile for the advancement of authoritarianism and of leaders who try to convert themselves into “messiahs” capable of comforting the population.

Indeed, Brazilian society has adopted a violent pattern of coping with the existing crime, and this coping mechanism also has moral and religious undertones. The democratization of the Brazilian State after two decades of military dictatorship coincided with the sharp increase in indicators of violence. This phenomenon translated into the de-legitimization of human rights and consolidated among society the idea that human rights exist only for the protection of criminals. Teresa Caldeira and James Holsten call this phenomenon part of the disjunctions of Brazilian democracy. Indeed, in the same study as above, 60% of the Brazilian population aged 16 or over agreed that: "Most of our social problems would be solved if we could get rid of immoral people, fringes and perverts." In addition, 53% of Brazilians aged 16 years or older agreed with the phrase: "The policeman is a warrior of God to impose order and protect ‘good people’."

Wikimedia Commons/Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil/CC BY 3.0 BR (Some Rights Reserved).

Over the years, however, Brazil has been unable to cope with extreme levels of urban violence and a continuously increasing number of homicides. 

However, the Atlas of Violence 2017, launched by IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research) and the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety, showed that Brazil’s burden of violence is not equally distributed. Homicides are concentrated in the northeastern region of the country, and most victims are young Afro-Brazilians aged 15-24 in poor or otherwise vulnerable urban contexts. Additionally, at least 120 prisoners were murdered in the penitentiary system in January this year, as the result of a 2016 dispute between two criminal factions. This violence in prisons, as well as police strikes, illustrate that authorities at all levels of government are unable to deal with the problem effectively.

To address these issues, we must reconstruct the public agenda around themes of civil and human rights, as well as ​​democracy. Brazil is currently wracked by unprecedented levels of political disillusionment and moral panic. Many of our achievements in the areas of citizenship and institutional modernization are in question. The risk of "democratic de-consolidation" is aggravated by the non-reform of our police and criminal justice institutions, and by the ultra-right discourse of political leaders such as Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, a presidential candidate in the next elections.

Populism and authoritarianism are common elsewhere, as evidence by the Trump election in the USA, Brexit in the UK, and the support for Marine Le Penn in France. Brazil, however, is witnessing the lowest levels of public support for democracy since the 1980s. What further aggravates this situation in Brazil is the fear of urban violence, which reinforces the predominant idea of ​​"an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"—evidence of a general skepticism towards the state’s ability to provide citizens with the security they deserve.

One important challenge is that of reforming the Brazilian state, with special emphasis on the criminal justice system. But we also have the challenge of making a highly unequal society believe in equality and respect for the rule of law as a factor of change that can truly improve living conditions.