The following essay originally appeared in print in Palladium 04. To receive original content in future print editions, subscribe here.
She ran her hand up my thigh. I almost spilled my drink. There have been many times in my life where the absurdity of the moment stood out to me and this was one of them. She whispered something in my ear that I had a hard time making out. My Chinese isn’t exactly stellar, but I could tell her Thai accent wasn’t going to make things easy. This was truly the place for edifying intercultural exchange—another laowai, another Thai prostitute ready to greet him. Rituals are important.
Judy’s is one of the coolest places in Shanghai. It’s a relic from a time when Shanghai used to be even cooler. The decor was down to a tee. It hadn’t changed since the 1990s: tacky bright purple and pink flashing lights which used to be ubiquitous in all the go-go bars of Asia at the time, alongside besparkled girls performing cute little choreographies to kitschy 1990s Chinese pop songs.
But this was now a different Shanghai from those days. You could tell by the crowd. Judy’s was now frequented by foreign tech workers and businessmen, mid-level party officials, and serious salarymen. They were all regulars here—Ali Baba’s forty thieves. The location was perfect in Jing’An district, where Shanghai’s bustling tech scene was picking up and luxurious offices and the chicest brands were going up all around Nanjing road, a few hundred meters away. Judy’s was around the block from my office and became a regular watering hole for the colleagues in my building. Tongren Road, where Judy’s was located, was bustling with all sorts of nightlife. I had recently gotten into an altercation with the sons of a PLA general at a hip-hop club down the road. As I said, full of life.
To my greatest disappointment, I had never met this mysterious Judy in all the times that I had been there. This madame was one of the most infamous figures in Shanghai. She had been in the trade since the early 1990s, like many at the time, but she had managed to survive the clearing out of Shanghai’s notorious red-light district. In a city where even the most reputable and ritziest clubs were constantly raided by the police, her business was thriving. She had changed with the times. A bit past the intersection of Tongren road, she also owned another club, Manhattan, where she procured Vietnamese girls. Thai and Vietnamese girls are the most sought-after in East Asia because of their beauty. And Madame Judy’s was the most sought-after den in Shanghai. Madame Judy was in the business of only the best.
Why was she allowed to operate an illicit establishment in the middle of a total surveillance state? Did she have a tacit understanding with the Shanghai police chief? What was she providing to stay afloat? Bribes? Undoubtedly, but perhaps also intelligence. China is a country of rumors and there were many surrounding Madame Judy. She might have been trafficking in them as well. Where better to fish for rumors than a brothel?
There is a governance lesson in the way that Shanghai’s police manage the city’s underground: the underground is useful. Consequently, there is an ideal level of crime in a society and it is not zero. Competent governance requires making room for a criminal underground. The competent ruler can leverage it to cement his hold on power or to take power against a flailing state. Additionally, the underground is a great place for rising political elites to learn the more fundamental realities of power. This becomes particularly useful when you’re looking to take on hyper-sanitized, ultra-meritocratic, mandarinate elites.
Shanghai, one of the safest cities in the world, is proof of concept. You can walk anywhere at any hour with absolute peace of mind. Young professional women, especially, love that about the city. But China is a place with a lot of grey. There is more going on under the surface. There was clearly a very active criminal underground operating in the city. Judy’s brothels were only the surface; prostitutes drugged gullible men and stole their belongings—or sometimes, their organs. There was a very active drug trafficking scene, despite this crime carrying the death penalty. People disappeared all the time and the stench of human trafficking was everywhere. China is not for beginners.
China is also where Western liberal prejudices go to die. You can’t have prosperity under communist rule, except if you can. You can’t have functional markets without the rule of law, except if you can. You can’t have a criminal underground under a total surveillance state, except if you can.
There was more going on here than simply the Shanghai police being unable to quash the underworld. The Shanghai government had understood the value and the services that the underground provides. They understood that it functioned as a pressure valve. You didn’t have any political freedoms, but your supply of bootleg booze, cheap cigarettes, and women (or organs, as the case may be) would never be tampered with. This modus operandi is present in many countries under authoritarian rule and the criminal underground is always party to the arrangement.
Schmitt offers one model for conceptualizing what’s going on: suspension of de jure processes by de facto power. Although Schmitt was concerned with the suspension of constitutional order, we can also extend this line of thinking to the co-existence of the rule of law alongside criminal structures which it may or may not be able to uproot. When the Shanghai police refuse to enforce the law against certain actors within the city’s underground, they are effectively making an exception. The government and the police suspend the due course of the state’s judicial mechanism in an ultimate act of sovereignty where the interests of the state are placed above its own regular functioning.
It’s a good model, but not a perfect one. The liberal state with a corporate political identity is modern, but the coexistence of law and criminality is not. There are other, older conceptions to draw on.
Another conception is that of the extension of privileges. When the monarchies of 17th- and 18th-century Europe allocated letters of marque for disrupting shipping, they were codifying a de facto exemption from the legal means of suppressing international piracy. They withdrew their legal prerogative in order to grant a distinct power to a subordinate. A personal-level “state of exception” transformed into a legal privilege, once again for the superior interest of the state. These mechanisms of suspension are necessary to the regular exercise of political power. The recruitment of rogue elements for reasons of state has historically been an integral part of these suspensions.
But what exactly are these underground or rogue elements and what relationship do they have to state power?
First, a little structural analysis is necessary. What exactly is the underground “under” and the state “over?” That middle is where the proper functioning of society occurs, where people dwell, work, marry, reproduce, and die according to the norms of what society considers worthwhile and respectable. This is the domain of “normal” society: the working man, the middle classes, the local gentry, the trades and major professions, and most of the bourgeoisie. It includes neither society’s commanding heights, nor its deviants, outcasts, and criminals. This is society’s core, not its outliers. Its members do not generate new sets of norms much, but their role in upholding and socially reproducing norms means that a real society-wide transformation isn’t complete until it wins over this social majority. Once this happens, formerly radical or deviant sets of norms themselves become the socially enforced and largely unquestioned markers of basic respectability.
This middle section of society is also where the immense majority of production happens, and thus where the logic of production regulates life. Nearly all societies can be divided between “productive” and “non-productive” sections. Even hunter-gatherers have these distinctions, with the production done by the hunters and the gatherers and the “lower” and “upper” elements represented in the figures of the outcast on one hand and the shaman on the other. The former is outside of the reproductive system by virtue of his exclusion and the latter is outside of it by his proximity to the higher spiritual forms.
Just as production has a logic of its own, so do the things which are excluded from it. This is true regardless of whether they are “lower” or “higher” in relation to production. The key distinction, in this case, is between productive and non-productive, regardless of whether the latter groups are rejected by productive society as filth or as transcendence.
Armed with this expansive distinction, it becomes evident that the underground isn’t simply the variety of criminal organizations that may operate under or outside the auspices of productive and respectable society. It also encompasses all elements which respectable society rejects as unclean, improper, or deviant. The same goes with “higher” elements which are rejected as superior, elusive values—praiseworthy, but not accessible to most people. The logic of production has no use for warriors, criminals, poets, or aristocrats because it sees these elements ultimately as either parasitic or disruptive to the processes of production. Yet it encounters a major problem: the logic of production requires the functioning of a coercive and administrative state.
The administrative state is the productive state. It is where paperwork is processed, where driver’s licenses are granted, roads are paved, and where all the functional, algorithmic and mechanical processes of the state are hard at work. The coercive state is where the higher transcendental processes which are concerned with state violence and the mythos of legitimacy take place. It includes monarchs and the traditions of monarchies, the armed forces, the secret and not-so-secret police forces, esoteric aristocratic and technocratic rituals, the charisma and magnetism of authoritarian leaders, the mandates of heaven and the divine rights of kings, and the mystical and elusive “People” in republics.
If these transcendental values do not exist, then the state does not exist, and state violence withers away by virtue of being unable to motivate itself. Paved roads, driver’s licenses, and paperwork are great, but no one is going to die or kill for them. The state, in its intrinsic capacity to coerce, requires these higher elements to even exist. All states are a mixture of both, but the nature of the regime in place determines the balance of these two parts.
It is at the level of transcendental authority and of the mystical and coercive elements of the state that the link between the underground and the state becomes clear. The warrior and the thug are reflections of each other. So are the liege lord and the crime lord, protection rackets and feudal dues, highwaymen and nomadic hordes, the courtesan and the prostitute, gangs and armies. Both the ruler and the kingpin have to operate based on personal codes proving their word, their authority, and their power—the former because he creates and enforces laws and the latter because he operates outside them. Neither simply follows them like a normal, productive citizen. Each of these binaries demonstrates upper and lower manifestations of the same phenomena.
This implies that law and criminality are not just intertwined conceptually, but structurally and socially as well. Are criminals so very distant from aristocrats? Can criminals, in fact, be aristocrats? Beyond being useful to the state, the underground has an intimate relationship with state power by virtue of its inability to be assimilated into productive society. The underground is made of the same raw material as the coercive, transcendent state.
Of Emperors and Thugs
On the 20th of September, 1979, three men assassinated Pierre Goldman in broad daylight in the middle of the Abbé-Georges-Hénocque plaza in Paris. Later that night, the assassins claimed their kill to the French press on a phone call: “Pierre Goldman has paid for his crimes. The justice of the state having once again shown its weakness and indulgence, we did as our duty demanded. We claim this act in the name of the ‘Honour of the Police’ militant group.” Pierre Goldman had styled himself a French Che Guevara and was preparing to lead an armed insurgency. After spending a year with Venezuelan Marxist paramilitaries, Goldman returned to France where he turned to robberies to fund his revolution. In one incident, two pharmacists were murdered and Goldman was pursued by the law.
When finally arrested, the entirety of the French left, including the likes of Sartre, Beauvoir, and Mitterand, clamored for his release. He was absolved of murder on a technicality and received a reduction on his other charges. Goldman was released in 1975, or five years after his arrest. Following his assassination, 15,000 supporters showed up at his funeral, including the luminaries of the French intelligentsia. 40 years later, his murder remains officially unsolved.
Goldman’s killing came hot on the heels of yet another political assassination. The previous year, on the 4th of May, 1978, a hit squad of two men entered the lobby of Henri Curiel’s building and gunned him down as he was leaving for his yoga class. Earlier the year prior, Henri Curiel was placed under house arrest under suspicion of being the head of a KGB network in France, but the French state had been unable to prosecute him and he was let go. The Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) officially claimed the hit. It does not come as a surprise that the OAS might have wanted Curiel’s head considering his long and illustrious career as an anti-colonial militant. Born to a francophone Jewish banking family in Egypt, Curiel reneged on his bourgeois roots in his university years and became a hardline revolutionary for the rest of his days. From the early 1940s onwards, Curiel actively participated in the organization and funding of a variety of anti-colonial struggles including the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale and the African National Congress in South Africa. He is also credited with recruiting George Blake, his cousin, who became the most famous Soviet mole inside the M16. Curiel’s murder also remains unsolved.
The murders of Goldman and Curiel are studies in how the state uses underground or rogue elements to advance its goals and score tactical points when the official organs are paralyzed. The context of these murders is the France of the 1960s and 1970s, when the stability of the country became very precarious, starting with the 1961 putsch attempt of several French generals in Algiers and the militarily unnecessary handover of Algeria to FLN. Then came a number of general strikes throughout the decade, the enormous power of a left-wing intelligentsia bent on toppling the French fifth republic, the numerous assassination attempts against De Gaulle, the widespread protests May of 1968, the years of lead, and all this in the middle of the Cold War.
The official French state apparatus was threatened by adversaries abroad, hostile elements at home, and rogue actors within. Yet, it managed to use the underworld and men from the “lower” sections of society to achieve goals it could not accomplish by its official “upper” organs. It could not put away Curiel and Goldman using the course of official justice and so decided to disappear them using unofficial means—yet in both cases, it could cite the stability and continuity of the republic as the source of legitimacy for its actions.
In January 2018, the French judiciary reopened the case of the assassination of Henri Curiel following the posthumous publication of the confessions of a certain René l’Élégant who revealed himself as the assassin of both Goldman and Curiel, whom he had murdered at the request of French intelligence. Not unlike the men he killed, René the Elegant had all the right credentials of the outlaw militant. He had joined the French royalist movement at the age 14 and he served in the 6e régiment de parachutistes d’infanterie de marine. With his professional military experience, he joined the Lebanese Falangists during the civil war. He then assisted the famous Bob Denard (dubbed the “Corsair of the Republic”) in a 1977 coup attempt in Bénin. Bob and René’s adventures played a similar political role to those of the assassinations: France could not officially intervene with its armed forces but had to maintain its interests in its former colonies. It is here again that we see the state can recruit sections of the underworld it normally persecutes as vehicles for projecting its own power, particularly when it wants to enforce order in times of crisis.
Mercenary, assassin for hire, committed royalist, but also a thug, René the Elegant was well known among French criminal circles. Himself of Italian origin, he was at ease with both small-time Corsican gangsters and le milieu de Marseille, the infamous Marseille mafia which was initially blamed for the murder of Goldman. The nickname wasn’t ironic. René wore bespoke shoes, the fold of his trousers was always impeccable, and he was flanked by a tiny little dog called Rocky. He was refined and came from a cultured background, his mother being a respected lyric singer. His family home was on the Champs-Elysées, where the iconic French actor, Jean Marais, was a regular guest. His refinement extended to all the arts. He was an avid cinephile and seamlessly combined argot (French street slang) with opportune quotations from the most famous volumes of French literature. All in all, he was the kind of character that only the intersection of French high culture and the French criminal underground could produce.
Beyond the immediate lesson in statecraft, we have in the person of René the Elegant the combination of society’s disreputable elements and its transcendental ones. These two extremes of social order have a close relationship to one another, one that raises eyebrows and even elicits condemnation from the broad and respectable middle—and should, since normal lawful conduct is the middle’s function. But it is, in fact, also necessary for social functioning. This is why we cannot differentiate so starkly between the upper classes and the downtrodden ones, between aristocrats and brigands, or between those who make the laws and those who exist beyond their reach. These categories can suddenly shift, with today’s criminal becoming tomorrow’s statesman or philanthropist—a pattern which played out many times among American elites through the generations, from the pirate-descended Vanderbilts to the bootlegging Kennedys.
Many modern nations have, at their source, ethnic criminal gangs. This is true of the raiding Northmen who became the dukes of Normandy and laid the foundations of modern England, as well as of the Frankish armed bands who lie at the origin of Charlemagne’s empire and of the French and German nations. In periods of decline, peripheral classes like criminals or barbarians often become a source of order, later translating into renewed authority. Since they survive by doing what the state and respectable, law-abiding institutions cannot do, they find themselves in a useful position when these the administrative organs of overstretched states go into sepsis. The governors of Roman Gaul integrated the Frankish bands into the security apparatus of the state, but these rogue elements outlasted the collapse of the administrative Roman state. Similarly, French kings bestowed titles on Northmen leaders and recruited them for defence against other roving gangs. This unity of the upper and lower is at the source of the emergence of adaptable state structures in times of decline.
Since the coercive part of the state follows the same logic as the roving gang by virtue of their niche outside of productive society, as soon as the lower elements acquire productive societal structures, especially the core economic ones, they are very easily able to embody the superior values of the state. This was the exact process of transcendence that was behind the emergence of the legitimate states of the early middle ages.
We also have modern examples of the process where the lower and upper unify into one to abruptly stop a period of decline and restore order—albeit, resulting in a political order far more distant and alienated from the productive base than its predecessor. One such case deals with the French liberal democratic coercive state as it atrophied under even limited bourgeois rule. During a chaotic period lasting from 1830 until 1851, France careened from the constitutional and evidently bourgeois July Monarchy to the short-lived Second Republic, and ended with the restoration of a new order with a more alienating, coercive, and transcendental imperative under Napoleon III. The Second Empire, which resulted from this settlement, oversaw two decades of order and development in the country. Despite its greater alienation from productive society, the Second Empire seemed able to rule it with greater authority. It had a transcendental imperative that its immediate predecessors lacked.
A century before the murders of Goldman and Curiel, the criminal underworld played a pivotal role in the creation of this new, authoritative regime and in the restoration of a new legitimate state order. In his “18th Brumaire” essay, Marx described the rise of Napoleon III:
This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in this scum, offal, refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old, crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade in which the grand costumes, words, and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.
Reading this passage, we see the emergence of this unique historical figure which embodies the unity of the upper and the lower: the figure of l’empereur-voyou, the Thug-Emperor.
In his multiple attempts at upending the order which had forced him into lifelong exile, Napoleon III spent prolonged periods in prison. While his conditions were comfortable and he used his six-year imprisonment at the Fortress of Ham to read, write and cultivate himself, it was nonetheless an experience that marked him and put him in proximity to the lumpenproletariat, the French underclass, psychologically and experientially. He later managed to escape his prison. Simultaneously acting as Bonapartist prince and seasoned convict, he used the collapse of the July Monarchy to elect himself to the National Assembly. Finally elected president of the Second Republic, he forced a confrontation with the National Assembly which he had every intention to win. Marx points to the secret ingredient to his victory over the bourgeois order:
This society dates from the year 1849. On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole. Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème…
One might naturally doubt how auspicious these beginnings for a new order could possibly be. Yet that would be a mistake. The reign of Napoleon III is notably marked by the complete rebuilding of Paris on the Haussmanian model, which required the clearing out of the slums and an end to the pauperism which led to the emergence of this massive underclass in the first place. The Thug Emperor had his ear to the ground. He energetically pursued strong social policies coupled with a commitment to free trade and state-led industrialization. His reign saw the emergence of France as a true industrial power broker on the continent. Despite his defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, it is the remnants of his state that are today the backbone of French technical and industrial power and of the French social and cultural apparatus which preserves France’s status as a true great power for the foreseeable future.
Napoleon III’s ability to keep his ear to the ground let him outmaneuver far better-placed enemies. You cannot rule from behind excel sheets. Only an infusion of this transcendental imperative can achieve the goals of a truly great state. The tragedy of the modern discourse on power is that it completely ignores this element. This ignorance misleads us into unproductive intellectual territory. It may come as a shock to some, but codifying your laws into the blockchain is not going to resolve the crisis of competence that we find ourselves in. In fact, it might be time to look in the other direction.
Not only the underworld, but also many other unpatrolled sections of society present interesting possibilities in terms of the emergence of new elites that can take on the mantle. As we have seen in the previous cases, a functioning and cohesive political order needs to be fundamentally alienating towards the productive orders of society because in defining, motivating, and defending that productive order, it necessarily acts outside of it on a more fundamental reality. When these elements atrophy, they need to be renewed from other sources. A Thug-Emperor to upend the American constitutional order and re-found a new industrial state may or may not be in the cards, but there are other lessons to be drawn.
Some time after I finished my work in Shanghai, I ended up in Macau, an island that has become my spiritual home. It has been a den of adventurers, poets, sailors, and pirates for five centuries and I find myself walking in the footsteps of these giants. There is a memorial in the Jardim de Luís de Camões to the great Portuguese poet who wrote his epic on the island. Behind the grotto where he wrote “Os Lusíadas” there is a half-erased inscription in French on a small plaque in homage to the writer. It is signed as follows:
To the Great Luis de Camoens, Portuguese of Castilian origin, soldier, clergyman, traveler and exiled poet, from the humble Louis de Rienzi, French of Roman origin, traveler, clergyman, soldier and expatriate poet.
March 30th, 1827
These were men cast out from the productive middle—men of the imperative. Before concerning ourselves with the right kinds of regimes, we must become the right kinds of people. With the South China Sea beckoning, I resolved to take the road trod by these travelers and adventurers centuries before me.
Brazil Is Not For Beginners
A local friend had invited my friend and fellow traveler Siavash and me a few days before to an evening at a crime lord’s mansion amid the slums, at the top of the hill that overlooks Ipanema beach. Unfortunately, there was a firefight in the afternoon and the evening was canceled. These things happened in Rocinha.
That friend was a Swedish woman who had been living in Rocinha for some years and had essentially been adopted by a family there. She had endeared herself to the hardened traficantes of her new home and had grown to love life in Rocinha. It was with local pride that she invited us to a “cultural evening” in the favela. It may come as a surprise to many, but even that life was sweet. She found it easily preferable to the middle-class mundanity of her native Sweden. It was one thing to go on an official tour of the favela—not too far into the thick of it—but it was another to be invited into the life of the neighborhood. As with many places in Brazil, but especially in Rocinha, anything could happen.
We were on our way to São Conrado station. This was the farthest the cab would go. I had learned a few days earlier in Babilônia, another favela, that there was no Uber or cab service in the slums and only a few taxi drivers known to the traficantes could even pick up and drop off inside them. Babilônia, like Rocinha, was on a hill. There was one soldier from the Policia Militar, armed with an AR-15, guarding the entrance to the favela. As soon as you traversed the steep road up the hill, you had left Brazil—at least the Federal Republic. If you walked far enough, you found other armed men who were not in uniform. Other princes ruled there and you were a stranger in an even stranger country. You were fair game.
Our Brazilian friends were astounded that we had decided to go to the favelas. Many had spent their entire lives in Rio and avoided even walking the streets at night. One had been robbed at gunpoint fifteen times in the last two years. None of them had been to the favelas. Non-residents of the slums routinely found themselves held hostage, tortured, and mutilated for so much as the wrong glance. We were gringos asking for trouble. But Siavash and I had tasted the sweet promise of Brazil. “Brasil! A ultima patria da liberdade!” we often said to each other. We weren’t about to lose our newfound Brazilian version of freedom. Who was to tell us where we couldn’t go? Besides, we couldn’t refuse a polite invitation to what was to be a wonderful evening. After all, we were raised with proper values. Refusing a friendly hand wasn’t one of them.
The taxi took on Avenida Vieira Souto, which stretches the length of Ipanema beach, on the way to São Conrado station. The sun was setting behind Rochinha and I was basking in the last golden rays of the day.
By the time we arrived, the sun had already set and the crowd was making their way out of the station and up the hill. These were the workers who powered the chic restaurants and venues of the famous Zona Sul. The muscle behind Ipanema and Leblon was Rocinha. The foot of the hill had a series of shops and markets which were closing as we made our way up. The night was young and the people of Rocinha were flooding the restaurants and bars at the base of the neighborhood to rest after a hard day of work. We had to find our way through a series of small alleys to get to the rendezvous point. It was a pool bar. As soon as we walked in, everyone turned to stare us down. We were unfamiliar faces. “What are they doing here?” they seemed to think. We were clearly out of our element and everyone knew it, but so far so good.
We went to the bar: “Uma botelha da Antartica, por favor,” I ordered.
Beer in Brazil comes very cold, naturally.
The guys at the pool stopped their game and turned towards us. Siavash and I decided that downing our beer looking as much at ease as possible was the best course of action. Eventually, the stares tired of us and rejoined their lively conversations. The pool game resumed.
Our contact made his way into the bar. He addressed us in English:
“You’re friends of …”
Rodrigo was a sympathetic, scrawny young man, with a permanent blunt in his hand and always dressed in the yellow and green jersey of the Brazilian national soccer team. He was a small-time trafficker and the lover of our mysterious Swedish friend.
The road up the hill was very steep. There was sewage water flowing down the road. Convoys of reckless motorcyclists raced down the hill at breakneck speed. Sometimes we had to dodge them. By the time we climbed up the hill, we were masters of the best view of Rio and we understood something that had escaped so many: Rocinha wasn’t a ghetto, it was a fortress—a place forte. One truly cannot know this city without having known its favelas.
The Roda Cultural da Rocinha was neutral ground. It was a skate park turned music venue and tonight it was teeming with life. Carioca funk and rap, so characteristic of Rio, were the main cultural export of the favelas and they had taken Brazil’s youth by storm. Even the most bourgeois parties in São Paulo now danced to it and young bankers, lawyers, and marketing professionals from the most respectable and wealthiest families all across the country twerked to the rhythms of Rocinha. João, a greying man in his forties with impressive dreads and the adoptive brother of our Swedish friend, organized these evenings. Like many men in Rocinha of his age, he had had his run-ins with the world of crime and had paid for it. He worked with the youth of his neighborhood and used Carioca funk and rap to keep them out of the drug trade.
The Roda Cultural was a small plaza flanked by a couple of bars and food stands. We ordered our Antarcticas as the rap battle got on its way. The crowd erupted in rapture. Eventually, high schoolers with their backpacks began to join in as they were coming home from school. Two younger girls who lived in Rodrigo’s neighborhood joined our table and continued to review their courses amid all the commotion. They were prepping for the vestíbular, the entrance exam for Brazilian universities, and used every opportunity to study. It is a difficult task and places are very limited, but many hope that education will be the key to a different life. They asked Siavash and me for help on some math questions as Rodrigo mentioned that Siavash was an economist and I was a computer scientist by training. We tried our best despite our mediocre Portuguese.
Rocinha was surprisingly lively, even by Rio standards. After the year of lockdowns that had killed social life in North America, we welcomed it dearly. Even without the pandemic, there is virtually nowhere in North America with the spirit of the neighborhood that dwelled here. Everyone knew each other and helped each other. There was a very specific way of being that was in place and we understood why our Swedish friend had decided to live among the people of Rocinha.
Rocinha was at an equilibrium. Many things existed side by side. Brazil has some of the highest homicide rates in the world. It is self-evidently an extremely dangerous country and the streets of Brazil—filled with gunmen armed with assault rifles and flanking armored cars—gave the impression of a warzone. And so it is. Brazil is a warzone in the middle of tropical paradise and thus has all the sweetness of paradise and all the tragedy of war.
But amidst all of this, life went on and an equilibrium was established. What the sovereign couldn’t control, the underworld took on. While dangerous, there is little petty crime in the favelas. They are dangerous to outsiders, but it’s in the interest of the crime lords to provide some sense of order to the locals. Broadly speaking, the residents do not steal from each other, they don’t hurt each other, and they don’t cheat each other—and those who do can fear their victims’ recourse to the local bosses. The princes who ruled from these bastions had imposed a semblance of order. They operated their own borders, ran their own economies, and raised their own armies. They often went to war with each other and they went to war with the state. This is where the dangerous reputation comes from. These narco-princes even took on the more mundane duties of the state. They ensured that banks and social services functioned on their territories; they ensured that students could go to school; they sponsored rappers, helped produce unknown Carioca artists, and promoted them to national renown.
When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Zona Sul, they imposed a mask mandate and a lockdown, something the state government of Rio de Janeiro was unable to do, with even policemen refusing to wear masks. They distributed medicine to the neighborhood and made sure the elderly had adequate food. They also acted quickly to reopen when they saw that the pandemic wasn’t as deadly as they feared. After all, Brazil is a place where people die very easily. A fraction of a percentage of deaths due to some foreign flu simply doesn’t register.
But like many places with fragile equilibria, it isn’t all roses. Many of the residents of the favelas yearn for the return of the formal state. They too are tired of the shootings between traffickers and police, of the drug trade, and of the unjust treatments they can receive from the traficantes. The most egregious is the right that gang members claim to all the women on their turf. They also blame the gangs for painting a target on their backs. The state of Rio de Janeiro deploys the infamous Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (Special Police Operations Battalion) in the favelas. They mostly mobilize in response to kidnappings of police officers, to the more extreme acts of cruelty and mutilation that gangs sometimes carry out against rivals, and sometimes just in punitive expeditions to retaliate for the murder of Rio policemen. BOPE is the kind of unit that would feel more at home in the Battle of Baghdad than in a routine patrol in the neighborhood. Brazil is not Hollywood. When BOPE goes on an operation, they leave an unmistakable, indiscriminate trail of blood. They often conduct extrajudicial killings, engage in torture and there were even rumors that they were planning on assassinating the governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro for excessive corruption. Like China, Brazil is not for beginners.
To travel in Rocinha was to see an underworld with one foot tentatively planted in the upper realms of legitimacy. After all, Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos, and others who owned and controlled the favelas had mutated into quasi-states and tackled governance issues—a high crime rate, health and sanitation, food security, and artistic patronage—that the Brazilian state could not solve with all the resources of the eighth-largest economy in the world. If the Brazilian state ever does reconquer its own cities and internal territories—if it ever gains something like a real monopoly on violence within its borders—it will almost certainly occur with high levels of defection from the underworld, not simple suppression.
In the meantime, the favelas are part of the Brazilian social ecology. There is a lineage of alienation from productive society here, just as there was among the Shanghai nightlife and the Parisian lumpenproles. Where else should we expect to find the travelers, clergymen, soldiers, poets, contrabandists, and others who can shoulder the mantle of re-founding and bring vitality to a society’s atrophied structures? Cramming our brightest into computer science, economics, and law classes from which they emerge with serious moral and intellectual handicaps is not the right way to build the future. There is more to elite education than what the mandarinate classes can offer. Young promising elites with the right disposition would do better to leave the world in which assimilation into those structures is the only way forward and take their own journeys through the underworld, among the peripheries and the alien frontiers. They might just emerge on the other side with the skills necessary to direct state and para-state structures—to found something new.
There has been a marked homogenization of society since the industrial revolution, but especially in the last few decades with globalization and digitization. But programmers will not inherit the earth and the digital is not a substitute for the real. The familiar pathways of Silicon Valley optimists will not suffice. Emergent elites who are ready to upend the established order must be comfortable breaking its rules.
This search for unowned spaces has been a longstanding project of both Siavash and myself in the last several years. This is the journey that brought me to China, Brazil, and other strange locales. I’ve met many others there on the same journey. We aren’t looking for a startup city or any variation of a city on a hill, but real places where one is forced to confront the human condition headfirst. By doing so, we can open the gates to a fundamental renewal of our civilization and beyond. We can accomplish the re-emergence of competence, human tact and ingenuity, the regression of the most oppressive aspects of technocratic rule, and the renaissance of the arts and literature. There’s little use in decrying the dystopia we live in. Any coherent and inspiring vision of the future will come from spaces outside the boundaries that decrepit respectability sets for us. We just have to find it.
This, my friends, is what is to be done.