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Condominium Logic and the Rise of the Far Right: Historicism of Fear, Ressentiment, and Affect in Brazilian Politics

ReviewBook review: Lacan e a Democracia: clínica e crítica em tempos sombrios (Lacan and Democracy: Clinic and Critique in Dark Times) by Christian Dunker

In his most recent book, Lacan e a Democracia: clínica e crítica em tempos sombrios (Lacan and Democracy: Clinic and Critique in Dark Times) Christian Dunker — the Brazilian psychoanalyst and professor at the Institute of Psychology of the University of São Paulo — articulates psychoanalysis with politics, calling into question our current conception of democracy. The author proposes that there is a democratic potency of the psychoanalytic ethics, as both psychoanalysis and democracy are based on the verbal language or on what is said and enunciated by the subjects. 

Dunker finds the link between psychoanalysis and democracy in Lacan’s writings on psychoanalysis and criminology: in 1950, Lacan suggested that psychoanalysis, in the context of a given democratic society, could contribute to the understanding and comprehension of the phenomenon of crime and criminality, as well as other issues that encompass democratic regimes, beyond the theses of the time relating to the “born criminal” and criminal atavism. 

Following the subtitle of the book “Clinic and Critique in Dark Times”, there is an attempt to bring about a set of propositions that might help to analyse and understand the context in which the far right expanded in Brazil, reaching different classes and subjects.

Dunker recognizes that psychoanalysis is not a science and that it does not have a method of empirical verifiability: psychoanalysis would be much more a worldview, a perspective. Articulating psychoanalytic concepts such as death drive, paranoia, trauma, guilt, and narcissism, Dunker develops a kind of metapsychology to analyse the expansion of the far right in Brazil from the following historical milestones: (a) the rise of gated communities in the 1970s which set the stage for “condominium logic” and later the establishment of so-called “condominium democracy”; (b) the 2013 Jornadas de Junho (“June Journeys”) and the establishment of the crisis of “condominium democracy”; (c) the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016; (d) nationalist and “armamentist” digital activism and neo-Pentecostal evangelical militancy (important factors for the election of Jair Bolsonaro); and (e) the management of the COVID-19 pandemic from a denialist perspective. Here, the institutionalized denialism of Bolsonaro’s management would be part of a political pact whose function is to deny suffering as a biopolitical strategy that ends up flowing into pure necropolitics.

In this review I will focus on the transition from so-called condominium logic to condominium democracy and its subsequent crisis that erupted more or less in the early 2010s and which, according to Dunker, helped to set the stage for the ascension of the far right in Brazil.

Thus, Dunker suggests that two major recent historical moments in Brazil played an important role in the expansion not only of the far right per se, but also the mobilization of affects such as guilt, fear, hatred, and ressentiment. The first moment dates back to the 1970s, still during the dictatorship, when the expansion of gated communities gave rise to what he names as “condominium rationality”. Dunker draws a parallel between the Brazilian social-spatial segregation and the reactionary polarization of Brazilian society. According to Dunker, there is a hermetic rationality or a social symptom that has the reflex to deny the rise of diversity and social demands by building up a society based on structural segregation and a false feeling of belonging. 

The second important event is the Jornadas de Junho. The demonstrations of June 2013 initially launched by the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) were a milestone for a new scenario regarding social demands and social movements in Brazil. A small rise in bus fares triggered mass protests. Within days, this had become a nationwide movement whose concerns had spread far beyond fares. More than a million people were on the streets, shouting about everything from corruption, to the cost of living, to the amount of money being spent on the World Cup.

Condominium logic is an important notion in order to understand the critique that Dunker articulates between psychoanalysis and democracy in the Brazilian context, because the author’s hypothesis is that the root of Brazilian fundamentalism is based on the crisis of this condominium rationality. 

In this sense, the culture of the condominium is a kind of normativity, a silent pact of acceptance of segregation and the emergence of a moral authority that arose from the expansion of the 1970s technique whereby parts of the urban landscape were walled off as a means of sociocultural organization. According to the psychoanalyst, the structuring of life in Brazilian society around the gated communities brought the effect of reducing heterogeneous social interaction, increasing tolerance of social segregation, and also generating a mechanism of invisibility for the different. 

The figure of a new type of moral authority also becomes associated with these elements: the figure of the trustee (síndico), a kind of private manager of this community life, since he holds the knowledge of the regulations that organize this new form of coexistence and is, therefore, the manager of the life and the social dynamics that take place inside its walls. This new form of coexistence, where a simulacrum of democracy begins to be portrayed, would have potentiated a kind of social pathology that Freud called the “narcissism of small differences”, becoming in this context the “narcissism of great differences”: the social arrangement of living among (near) equals, helps to place any and all differences at the level of the intolerable. This was one of the social mechanisms that created the fertile ground for the validation and legitimation of sensitive affects like hatred, irritability, and a constant feeling of threat from the Other, on a greater political scale. According to Dunker, “in this type of social bond, power and authority merge into a kind of word that speaks for itself, a word of order that does not ask for justification or reason, but that legislates” (p. 49, all Dunker translations are my own).

With the democratic transition in the mid-1980s, Brazil found itself facing what the author calls a “condominium democracy”, an institutional and communitarian form where the state, tacitly or expressly, was dismissed or suspended. From the point of view of institutional politics, this logic of condominium democracy also helped to segregate the political agendas: on one side a stereotypical left focused on “social”, “cultural”, “behavioural”, and “identity” issues, while the right was concerned with structural issues such as the economy, taxes, and social security.

According to Dunker, with the democratic transition in the late 1980s, there was a rupture in this pact, because with the rise of liberal democracy and the implementation of public policies aimed at social inclusion, a tension and an anomic state were established in Brazilian society.

Dunker’s overarching argument is that after the progressive Federal Constitution of 1988 and the social policies of the PT (Workers’ Party) governments in the 2000s, the apices of the rupture of this pact happened in 2013. The steps towards social inclusion, taken in the late 1980s, 1990s, and in the 2000s were built mainly on inclusion through consumerism, and though they questioned condominium logic, they failed to overcome it. It was in the early 2010s that a general atmosphere of longing for the occupation of public spaces, for urban mobility, political participation, and effective exercise of citizenship — that is to say, a proper attack on condominium logic — took place and, finally, erupted in the massive demonstrations of June 2013. It is here that Dunker makes the argumentative turn of the book: he reminds us that with increased political demands came a backlash: the opposite reaction from those who were comfortable with this way of life structured according to the logic of segregation. And it is at this point that the feeling of nostalgia for a glorious past, typical of far-right ideologies, finds an echo in Brazil: the desire to return to the 1970s and re-erect the walls of authority, exclusion, invisibility, and silencing.

Thus, the rise of the far right and the election of Bolsonaro inaugurated an important change in the economy of affections in politics and a rupture in this pact based on condominium logic: “the shift from defensive rhetoric to offensive discourse by the Brazilian right indicates that the ideological colonization of the Other has become a strategic objective. No longer indifference and fear, but hatred and guilt command our economy of political affections” (p. 267). This is the emergence of a right (or far right), which focuses on issues of identity, cultural and social policies — themes that had up to that point been the domain of the left. 

Even though Dunker does not focus on the relevance of various social movements and class struggle itself, he provokes the reader to an analysis that goes beyond the debate around the rise of the far right as a mere politics of hatred: “it becomes crucial to think today about the function of affections in politics — for example, helplessness, fear, pity, hatred. It is liberal foolishness to think that affections, desires, or libidinal economies, on a small or large scale, are private matters and should be restricted to the scene of the family or the reproduction of social practices” (p. 25).

And in this line of argument, he calls on the part of the left that, when trying to integrate this agenda into the political debate, does so from a programme of “ethical purification”, formed by subjects who have overcome their contradictions, passions, and dystopias, making themselves believe they are part of a political organization based exclusively on solidarity and love. According to Dunker, this aura of ethicality “muddies the class struggle with class resentment, creating the image of a left that hates money and, in the end, has nothing to offer to the desire of ordinary people for prosperity” (p. 26).

In order to provide an outlook, and as a way of avoiding falling into this trap, Dunker suggests a political form that is not based on the tacit assumption of the individual form and the traditional means of its association by identification. In his words: “such a politics would have the dream as a model and the realization of the desire as its end. Such a politics would be called oniropolitics” (p. 27).

In recent years many works and research projects have been dedicated to understanding the various factors that contributed to the rise of the far right in Brazil. By articulating politics with psychoanalysis, the book succeeds in explaining authoritarianism and the growing polarization of Brazilian society beyond dichotomous arguments. Despite being a book based on the articulation of many psychoanalytic concepts, Dunker manages, through a metapsychology, to give historicity to these concepts. The notion of condominium logic seems to me to be fundamental to understanding the segregationist basis that has shaped not only the organization of life in society but also Brazilian politics itself: hermetic bubbles of self-centred values that have been taking on a greater political dimension.

The condominium is the materialized image of a society that is literally built from the segregationist logic of high concrete walls. Condominium logic is the metaphor for this highly segregationist society: not only is everyday life based on socio-spatial division, but also in political discourse, alliances, and imaginaries. To overcome authoritarianism in Brazil, we need to break down these walls not only on the material plane, but also at the level of affect and political landscapes.

You can find the book (in Portuguese) here

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