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Biopolitical Conflicts in the Fractures of Development

The neo-developmentalism’s biopolitics in Brazil

In general lines, we can say that capitalism is a way of producing and organizing the production, extracting wealth and generating value. The way it happens is not the same everywhere capitalism is present. There is an international division of labor and, mainly after the globalization, the task of production was divided around the world through a big network. For example, the cellphone that we use has its technology thought in a country, its assembled in another one, and finally it is still made in another country elsewhere. Considering this division on a global scale and thinking about the reality of Brazil and Latin America, there are two keywords that describe how capitalism works in these places: developmentalism and extractivism. Two close words in this debate. The economies of Latin America countries are based mainly on extraction and exportation of commodities and this is what promotes the development of these countries. 

The history of economic development in Brazil has different phases since the ‘40s [1]. The first phase, between the ‘40s and ‘50s, was marked mainly by an idea of national development thought for the consolidation of the National State and its sovereignty. It was the national developmentalism, which had as its main thinker the Brazilian economist Celso Furtado, and it was a period marked by the industrialization of the country. Further up, this debate passed through theories such as Dependency Theory, which was developed mainly between the ‘60s and 70’s and had as references the works by economists associated to Economic Commission to South America and Caribe (CEPAL), mainly by the Argentinian Raúl Prebisch. This theory was concerned with reinforcing the autonomous development of countries from South America and the independence of these countries in relation to Europe and the United States. Two decades later, the global scenario was marked by the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of real socialism, the increasing intensification of the globalization of the world market with a networked production on a global scale that involved the whole Earth, and the rise to power of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in England. In this context, the debate about neoliberalism emerges, and in the southern countries it was a debate about neo-developmentalism, which is the model of economic policy that I want to focus on in this essay. 

With neo-developmentalism, it seems that the major concern of economic policy is less the consolidation of an independent national state and more the country’s insertion in the global market, the building of good relations with partners, maintaining a good image of the country in international politics and the positions that country occupies in international organizations and agreements, etc. Therefore, for this process of insertion in the world network to happen, there is a concern with the way the country presents itself and can attract foreign investment. 

In Brazil, the dream of being a great power among the most powerful nations of the world has always existed. Mainly in the last decades, there was a set of economic policies oriented towards the intensification of unbridled economic growth and expansion. These policies involved old projects such as the industrial advance in Amazon with the building of roads and hydroelectric plants, and other projects carried out during the dictatorship period. Then, there are many investments in big industries and big hydroelectric plants in order to generate energy for these industries; there is an increasing governmental support to agribusiness and mining companies in order to keep active and intense the process of extraction of commodities, causing the devastation of territories, forests, and communities that depend on these ecosystems for their survival; and a few years ago, the building of overpriced structures in order to host world events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. It is a whole politics thought for the big national characters, the “national champions”. 

Under Bolsonaro’s rule, it seems that the critical speeches used against the developmentalist policies by the last governments would not be useful anymore. The current administration seems entirely anti-progressist. But the fires in the Amazon forest, caused in order to create spaces for farms, show us that the Bolsonaro’s regime is the most perverse. Be it in a reactionary or progressist rhetoric, the developmentalism heads the Brazilian national dream at least since the 50s’. If on one hand Bolsonaro hurts and shames the feelings of being Brazilian, on the other it is precisely this national dream which boosted him. Of course, the current horror with a wave of destruction coming from all directions, reaches an incomparable degree in relation to all early experiences. But the fact is that environmental destruction justified by an idea of progress and growth is not something new and we do not know for how long this will continue. 

Neo-developmentalism accomplishes it all with the promise of a future reward and its policies always have populism as a strategy of political and discursive articulation. With its populist rhetoric, the neo-developmentalist regimes invite people to insert themselves in the chains of production and consumption. Consumption is the main way of social insertion in capitalist societies. This also carries a whole moral and ethical logics oriented to labor as a principle that organizes life. Because besides transforming the space, the economic policies also transform the ways of life in a society. Beyond producing infrastructures and commodities, the economy also produces subjectivities, ways of living, relating, desiring, dreaming, etc. Marxists know well that work in this case is salaried work submitted to capital. The political way to mediate this dialectical tension between capital and labor was the union, and with it, we found many other problems such as the promiscuous relations between work leaders and bosses. And the Brazilian experience showed that if the workers dare to revolt by their own means, they will have soon an anti-terrorist law ordered by the Worker Party to repress uprisings.  

A great dilemma that developmentalism faced in its whole history is that it has never been able to integrate and organize the slums, riverside communities, backcountries and indigenous populations, and had always produced much violence against these populations. We can see in all these national projects a preference for big national characters and a whole way of ruling oriented to reinforce the perpetuation of oligarchies of state in power. In order to achieve this national ideal, the State runs over a set of peoples who did not fit in its project. So building the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant required displacement/removal of many riverside communities; building football stadiums and other structures for world events required the removal of slum communities; or we also can see the paradox of the State: install a cable car in a slum when it has never dealt with basic sanitation there. We also remember here an agreement of the Brazilian government with Bolivia in 2008 to build the road that crosses the Tipnis Park, which is the Indigenous Territory and Isiboro-Secure National Park, running over the indigenous communities that lived there.

We must therefore consider that capitalism, and here, in this case, its neo-developmental form, is not only a way of organizing the production and extraction of wealth, but also a way of governing, dividing the lands, managing the displacement of peoples on these lands, populating them, distributing entitlements on their shares, assigning the population groups each to their places, and adapting these populations to the modes of production and consumption of capitalist society. That is a way of managing populations as a productive body, which in order to produce must also have rights. For this mode of government of populations, Michel Foucault coined the concept of biopolitics [2]. 

  Work transformations and precariousness of life

While on the period of national-developmentalism the rights were linked to working and to the protection of the figure of workers, in neo-developmentalism there is a large tendency to flexibilization of work relations and to outsourcing. And besides the weakening of public services, there is an increasing expansion of the private services sector, such as education, health, transport, safety, communication, etc. These services are used by the emergent middle class which was rising on this cycle of production. 

  With the expansion of this private service sector, there is also a change from industrial work – that is placed in a specific location in the urban zone or out from the cities – to a distribution of work throughout the metropolis. The figure of the worker has been changing to the entrepreneur figure. Of course, the salaried worker does not disappear, but there is an intense proliferation of this entrepreneurial subjectivities and the entrepreneurship discourse. Their kind of work is less disciplined in a confined space and furthermore mixed up with the general life. The working time no longer has well-defined limits in routine. The whole life becomes a productive process that requires an incessant self-qualification. The objectivity of the employment gives place to an employable subjectivity. The income is no longer fixed by wages, but now has many sources such as temporary hires, freelancer jobs, etc. Our life in contemporary capitalism has been marked by anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty, the constant need for self-qualification which is achieved through the indebtedness and the wish for erasing the others who are seen as a threat. These new conditions of life require new rights. 

  This new entrepreneur subjects not only need to work to have rights, but they also need to have rights for work. They need to move throughout the city, to create legal personhood (such as the individual microentrepreneur law in Brazil), to communicate, to advertise themselves, and to make networks, etc. Communication has an important role in this new context because this new way of working depends much on knowledge, relationships, management of affects and production of desires. It seems that our very body becomes a kind of good which always needs to present itself as able to produce an attractive imaginary around itself.  All goods in a general way become depend on the set of affects and desires which give value to them. For example, the clothes, glasses or shoe values depend more on the brands and their capacity to stir up the desire of consuming than the spent work time to produce the goods themselves and the material used for their fabrication. The measure of value becomes incommensurable [3]. 

  This work that is increasingly flexible, dynamic, and uncertain requires that we create new rights. The book Inventing the Future brings an interesting analysis of this contemporary scenario. The book was written by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. They are known for the Manifesto for the Accelerationist Politics, where they thought new paths for political practices through technologies in the context of increasing acceleration of capitalism. Capitalism generates many technologies, but at the same time constrains the possibilities that these technologies bring. The accelerationist politics intends to free the political potency from technologies. But besides that, their book points out some tendencies of current capitalism that are interesting for our discussion here. These tendencies are the following: 

1. The precarity of the developed economies’ working class will intensify due to the surplus global labour supply (resulting from both globalisation and automation) 

2. Jobless recoveries will continue to deepen and lengthen, predominantly affecting those whose jobs can be automated at the time.  

3. Slum populations will continue to grow due to the automation of lowskilled service work and will be exacerbated by premature de industrialisation.  

4. Urban marginality in the developed economies will grow in size as lowskilled, low-wage jobs are automated.  

5. The transformation of higher education into job training will be hastened in a desperate attempt to increase the supply of high-skilled workers.  

6. Growth will remain slow and make the expansion of replacement jobs unlikely.  

7. The changes to workfare, immigration controls and mass incarceration will deepen as those without jobs are increasingly subjected to coercive controls and survival economies (SRNICEK; WILLIAMS, 2016, p. 104). 

With the advancement of these tendencies in cities, many of us end up much affected by skepticism in politics. Maybe we even cultivate it and let it shape our perspectives on the current situations. We wish the changes of the current state of things, but sometimes we see the behalves and speeches by militants on social media, in universities or streets and we realize that we no longer believe in that. We hear them and we do not feel those sparks of possibilities which make us see new paths. Nevertheless, skepticism is not entirely negative, and it is possible to notice positive consequences from this perspective. Skepticism also allows us to disentangle ourselves from old expectations about practices and discourses that no longer work. There is a deidentification with these old forms and, perhaps because of this, we need to deal with the feeling of void that rises in us through this experience. It is difficult to let go off old references and walk through the chaos in order to reorganize it in another way to dwell in the world. Freedom is always experimental and things can be a bit clumsy until the right path is achieved. It is easier to adhere to an already established identity and follow its flow. We know the difficulty of exploring information about new possibilities and wager on alternative ways. Often, we have no time for this. Mainly when you face a daily routine of 8 hours of work, plus some hours of transport, taking care of your son, studying, etc. Then, it seems impossible to dedicate yourself to building a new world when you are busy trying to survive in this world. 

Everyday the capitalist network of production puts its global army to work on long journeys, increasingly closer to working in 24 hours per day, and 7 days a week. When we are not working, we are seeking for more qualifications to work. Our own dreams many times match with the reproduction lines of our own servitude. Even the pre-individual production of our subjectivities, the unconscious dimensions from our body, the semiotic associations that we do without realizing it, all this pre-subjective virtuality is in constant relation with devices and machines that relate to the whole capitalist gear. Our aesthetical tastes, our libido, our dreams, and curiosities—everything is exploited and converted into databases. There is an investment in the subjectivation of individuals that are bombarded all time by information, propaganda, and words of order which make them conform and submit to the world. All this mode of living was subsumed to capitalism in a way that the time we spend working goes further beyond the official working time. The relations that we establish either on social media or personally become components of these new ways of capitalist production that increasingly invest in the semiotic production of languages, the capture of identities and the production of imaginaries. It is through our relations that these languages and imaginaries propagate themselves. Often, we just have our bodies left to invest, even under disputes. We know how difficult it is to take time to create spaces where we can share effects, express collectively our indignations and create our own ways of resistance. With as many events and tragedies happening all the time, we cannot meet all demands. The urgency paralyzes us.

   From basic income to another side of biopolitics

Srnicek and Williams present four proposals to face the tendencies that they pointed out: total automation of work, reduction of workdays, the overcoming of the ethics oriented to work and a universal basic income. For them, these politics can create better conditions to fight capitalism and catalyze a potential post-capitalist context. They can decrease the power asymmetries and trigger better conditions to freedom, such as the possibility of not being constrained to precarious jobs or subordinated works only to survive. Considering that capitalism is increasingly accelerated, and our time is intensively wrapped in its 24/7 cycle, a condition for collective organization and political activity generates more free time and liberates the subjects from the perpetual demands that capitalism imposes on us in order to survive. The struggle for a basic income is also a struggle for retaking the time subsumed into capitalism. Income and time are two poles from the same struggle that happen in the terrain of production of subjectivity. Then, it is important to relate our political agenda to basic income because it is a booster for other struggles. 

It is needed to give a turn to our perspective of biopolitics. We must think this not only domain, power and discipline upon people, but as a tissue where we weave resistances in the immanence of the experience in the cities. Such as Judith Revel explains in her Foucault Dictionary, the concept of biopolitics raises two problems: the first is related to a contradiction in Foucault’s texts. When this term appears for the first time in his texts, it seems related to what Germain thinkers called Polizeiwissenschaft in the nineteenth century, which is the maintaining of order and discipline through the State’s growth. But, on the other hand, biopolitics also seems to overtake the traditional split between State and society in direction towards a political economy of life. In this second formulation, biopolitics can be taken as a set of biopowers that both invest life and turn  life a power as well. A power of life itself that is experimented more than owned and allows a contra-power, giving place to a way of production of subjectivity as liberation from subjection. 

Resistances in capitalism require a struggle for new temporality regimes and it is not detached from the disputes immediately linked to the creation of the ways of life. After all, it is through our body that time is experimented while a perceptive dimension of life. It is also against other temporalities that we experiment new experiences. Perhaps all our experiences pass through our bodies. The body is a synthesizer of the set of relations, forces and effects that involve us and act upon our subjectivity, but upon what we can act as well. This body-time is increasingly entangled in capitalist circuits and our life also depends on this. It is not simple to adhere to an ascetic practice and just leave these circuits. Ever worse when this asceticism turns in a morality under custody of holy guardians acting in the name of the revolution. It is also not pragmatically able to change  institutional forms that organize society if it is merely individual practice. 

When we analyze contemporary capitalism in order to find better strategies to subvert it, we need to consider that we are not outside this production and exchange network. We run the risk of covering ourselves with a kind of membrane that gives us the false impression of immunity to the contamination of capitalist relations. A mistake of this position is the expectation that this network can be destroyed without great pains to subjects that do not realize themselves linked to this. Instead, it is more interesting to notice that what destroys the relations that keep on capitalism is also destroying our life on the way how it is settled and wrapped in this network. Whether through our desires, needs or dreams. We need to take responsibility for this, but as Donna Haraway says in her book Staying with the Trouble, response-ability as a capacity of reply to the contingent situations composing new arrangements. 

For a new way of social organization to emerge and actualize itself, we need to break a set of divergent tendencies from the different elements that this organization involves and connects; to overtake the inertia from these elements that are grounded in vital needs, habits, and feelings of connection with other life forms, institutions, social forces or collective habits. One reason why it is so hard to articulate new social organizations is that its elements are always inserted in the several relations established through the costume that maintains the present social order. After all, the elements of social order, people mainly, must meet demands such as the provision of their conditions of survival in a competitive market. These demands do not allow enough time to engage in new tasks. The capitalist organizations – State, market and its symbiosis – manipulate forces, mainly money, in order to order humans and non-humans in different apparatus, including displacing them geographically. But these forces are not put in movement only in a negative way. They also actively produce subjectivities with desires and needs to insert themselves in the capitalist webs. 

How to think the production of commons and communities that subvert the capitalist networks which manage our bodies and desires? With exception of cases such as the Zapatists, Kurds, and other groups, indigenous or not, who maybe were less chained to capitalist modes of production, the creation of autonomous communities will be always snaky and never straightforward. But it is possible to produce social networks where the ways of relationship and exchange differ from that based on the extraction of value; creating spacetimes where and when it is possible to produce new subjectivities, memories, experiences through the entanglement of the wrapped subjects. These subjects can create ways of interaction that give support to each other in a shared life. 

The universal basic income can give conditions to these new political actions and sociogenetic processes, feeding the terrain of biopolitical production and potentializing its fertility in order to dispute the composition of life forms. Beyond allowing more free time for collective organization and action, the universal basic income would allow the reconfiguration of social forms that distribute to some the place of protagonists while others stand invisible, merely reproducing the daily routine of work, far away from great spectacles, but always in the backstage of all great achievements. That is to say, the basic income would reorganize the distribution of something that always was unequal in history: the use of time and idleness.

Renan Nery Porto is a Brazilian researcher, essayist and poet. He holds a master’s degree in Philosophy of Law from the Rio de Janeiro State University.


1 – Toward a more detailed approaching on the history of the developmentalist thinking in Brazil, look at the first chapter from the book New Neoliberalism and the Other – Biopower, anthropofagy and living money, written by Giuseppe Cocco and Bruno Cava and published by Lexington Books. 

2 – In the book Dictionnaire Foucault, Judith Revel explains that “Le terme « biopolitique » désigne la manière dont le pouvoir tend à se transformer, entre la fin du XVIII siècle et le début du XIX siècle, afin de gouverner non seulement les individus à travers un certain nombre de procédés disciplinaires, mais l’ensemble des vivants constitués en population la biopolitique – à travers des biopouvoirs locaux -s’occupera donc de la gestion de la santé, de l’hygiène, de l’alimentation, de la sexualité, de la natalité etc., dans la mesure où ils sont devenus des enjeux politiques” (REVEL, 2008, p. 25). 

3 – About this idea about value, look the article by Matteo Pasquinelli, Machinic Capitalism and Network Surplus Value: notes on the political economy of Turing machine, available in English here:


COCCO, Giuseppe; CAVA, Bruno. New Neoliberalism and the Other: biopower, anthropophagy and living money. New York: Lexington Books, 2018. 

FOUCAULT, Michel. The History of Sexuality I: an introduction. New York: Random House, Inc., 1978. 

HARAWAY, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 

HARVEY, David. The New Imperialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 

LAZZARATO, Maurizio. Signs and Machines: capitalism and the production of subjectivities. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014. 

PASQUINELLI, Matteo. Capitalismo Macchinico e Plusvalore di Rete: note sull’economia politica della macchina di Turing”, Uninomade, 17 November 2011. Available on:

REVEL, Judith. Dictionnaire Foucault. Paris: Ellipses Édition Marketing S. A., 2008. 

SRNICEK, Nick; WILLIAMS, Alex. Inventing the Future: postcapitalism and a world without work. New York: Verso Books, 2016.

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