South of the Border

Barbarians at the Mall Entrance

January 27, 2014

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The whole thing is not without its contradictions. In the same way that American hip-hop decries capitalism and greed on one hand while it extols fat gold chains, hundred-dollar bills, and platinum wheel rims on the other, the rolezinho movement exults in the tackiest displays of conspicuous consumption. Its soundtrack is Funk Ostentação (“Ostentatious Funk”), a hip-hop hybrid that eschews gangsta rap’s criminality and measures social status according to how many designer labels you’re wearing rather than how many rivals’ corpses you piled up. It is music for poor people who pretend they’re rich, or who at least aren’t ashamed to admit they want to be rich. Thus, according to Marxist strictures, this would be a reactionary movement of the wannabe bourgeoisie. But just as with the hip-hop mindset, if they don’t score the Lamborghini and the dozen silicone-injected hos in bikinis, they can always blame a racist and oppressive capitalist system. It’s a tidy, self-contained loop that allows you to be an entrepreneur if you succeed and a socialist if you fail.

While Americans continue to slosh around in a lukewarm bubble bath of historical guilt, few probably realize that roughly ten times as many African slaves were transported to Brazil than to what is now the United States. They also likely aren’t aware that Brazil actually came close to having a slave system for the oft-quoted timespan of 400 years, whereas Americans abandoned the whole shebang after a comparatively piddling two centuries. For all its miscegenatin’ ways and its pretensions toward being a rainbow nation, Brazil remains saddled with staggering wealth inequality that skews strongly along racial lines.

I doubt anyone will ever be able to rectify wealth inequality until they can cure human inequality, which may be innate and therefore incurable.

Still, the egalitarian dreamers see something admirable in these mall-crashers. They see a group of marginalized victims who refuse to lock themselves down in the slums, who demand equal access to public spaces, equal respect in public discourse, and an equal shot at purchasing the designer watches that mesmerize them from behind glass cases. Others, not quite so idealistic, dismiss them as “barbarians incapable of recognizing their own inferiority, who are deathly jealous of civilization.”

Global poverty isn’t quite what it used to be. Even in Brazil’s notorious slums, kids now have enough access to iPads and smart phones via which they can organize to meet in full force where only rich people used to meet. But just as technology permits them to peer more deeply into how the other half lives, mechanization will also render most of these kids obsolete as far as their labor value goes. And they suffer no shortage of ideological enablers ready to fan their resentment.

This whole mess recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death“€”no matter how the nobles tried to keep the abbey doors welded shut, the fatal disease still managed to get in.

Robert Frost famously said that good fences make for good neighbors. Good gates and good security also make for good malls. If the so-called barbarians are permitted to crash these gates, it may lead to a more just and cooperative society. Or it may lead to smoldering ruins. The fatal flaw of all revolutionaries is that they know how to tear things down but don”€™t have a fucking clue about how to build anything.

 

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