Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Landed natives against State and Capital

For me, indians are all of those large minorities who are, in some way, on the outside of this capitalist mega-machine, of consumption, of production, of 24 hour a day labour, seven days a week.  These planetary indians teach us to dispense with the giant machines of transcendence that are the State on the one hand, and the speculative system on the other, the market transformed into image. 

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Dialogues on the end of the world (El país 29/09/2014)

On the 30th of April, dozens of armed thugs, in the pay of landowners, attacked a community of native peoples, Gamelas, in the village of Bahias, in the municipality of Viana, Maranhão (MA).  With sticks, knives and guns, over a dozen were wounded with cuts, severed hands, and bullets.  The prize, as is so often in Brazil’s centuries long war against the country’s “indians”, is land. (Brasil de fato 02/05/2017)  And this latest violence is but one more episode in the narrative of usurpation, slavery, exploitation, and death that the Brazilian State, in all of its historical forms, has inflicted upon the many indigenous peoples of this country.  (For a recent study of State violence against natives peoples in Brazil, see the 2015 Report on Violence Against Indigenous People of CIMI, in Portuguese).

This history of violence is of course not only Brazil’s, as is not the resistance of native peoples to their forced dispossession (recent examples include Standing Rock, Idle No More and so many other native protests-movements throughout the Americas).  For the Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the resistance of the indigenous peoples of Brazil must be understood as a radical form of anti-capitalism and anti-statism, the kind of resistance that can serve as a model for all such movements.

We share below a text by Viveiros de Castro that reads this resistance historically and theoretically.  Originally presented as a conference on the 20th of April, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro (and published with 26/07/2016), the text was again presented in public, this time in Lisbon, on the 5th of May of this year.

The reflection is of intrinsic interest, not only for what we learn of the relation between the Brazilian State and the indigenous populations of the country, but also, and most importantly, because of the way that Viveiros de Castro interprets this relation, an interpretation that takes us beyond the Brazilian context.

The war against the native is a permanent war of primitive of accumulation, by means of which Capital assures its re-production.  In this war, the State acts as the agent of expropriation, a machine of capture that in the process of uprooting the native, lays the conditions for the transformation of land, waters, peoples, in sum, nature, into commodities, or forces susceptible to such transformation.  For Viveiros de Castro, at the heart of the exercise lies the need to sever the native from the land, from their places, to render them rootless, and thus proper subjects of the State and Capital.  In other words, capitalism depends on the existence of “landless” peoples, or in Viveiros de Castro’s terms, the metamorphosis of those rooted in the land, capable of sustaining themselves in the places where their lives are created and shaped, into the landless, the poor, the dependent, the governable.

The native’s resistance then strikes at the very root of capitalism, both as a bulwark to the reign of commodity spectacle and an example to follow, reproduce, intensify and expand.  And this is by no means limited to what are typically held to be “native” struggles.  Viveiros de Castro, for example, considers the Kurdish struggle in Rojava as an example of indigenous resistance.

There is much that resonates and seduces in Viveiros de Castro’s analysis.  And it would seem undoubtedly to be the case that as capitalism races towards its or the human eco-system’s destruction, that the “universal” middle class will in all likelihood devour itself, while the “natives” return to the land.

However a question haunts this analysis: can a model or example of resistance emerge from peoples who today are being driven to extinction, who are in other words, relatively few in number, in their geographical distribution?  (This is not a mere quantitative question; it has to do with a generalised loss of orientation).  That is, the many today are urbanised, alienated, anonymous consumers-producers, increasingly separated from any relation whatsoever to land or place.  In what manner do native struggles resonate with those so close to terminal dislocation?  And are there not struggles that lurk in the interstices of anonymous daily life?  Are not other demons of ungovernable rebellion announced in the occupation of city squares, buildings and houses, abandoned factories, that are not obviously “native”?  It is not to say that such movements may not be understood as expressing a desire to “return to the land”, but they emerge not from any local indigenous peoples, but from the faceless who no longer have anything in common except that they are nothing.

And is there not always always a danger that native rebellion turns “nativist”, folding in upon itself against the outside, in forms of ethnocentrism? And is not Viveiros de Castro’s “native” just another incarnation of the “revolutionary subject”, a subject which has never existed? Are there still “people” to be united, never to be defeated?

Again these are questions, questions that arose in the very reading of Viveiros de Castro’s text, reason enough to share it here in translation.  

The involuteers of the fatherland

Today, those who consider themselves the owners of Brazil – and who are, ultimately, because we allowed them to consider themselves as such, and from that to their being so is but a jump (a royal decree, a band, a PEC [a constitutional amendment]) – are preparing their final offensive against the indians.  There is a war taking place against the indian peoples of Brazil, openly supported by a State that should (that has) a constitutional obligation to protect the indians and other traditional populations, and which should be (that is) their final judicial guarantee against an offensive carried out by these owners of Brazil, that is, the “rural producers” [“produtores rurais”] (a euphemism for “ruralists” [“ruralistas”: those with an interest in the life and things of the countryside], euphemism in turn for the “agroindustrial bourgeoisie”), large international capital, without forgetting congenitally related carnivores of the fascist faction of the urban middle classes.  A State which, as we continue to see, is the principal ally of these malignant forces, with its three “legitimately constituted” branches, that is, the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.

The offensive however is not only against the indians, but yes against many other indigenous peoples.  We should begin then by distinguishing the words “indian” and “indigene/native”, which many perhaps think are synonyms, or that “indian” is only an abbreviated form of “indigene”.  But it is not.  All the indians of Brazil are natives, but not all of the natives who live in Brazil are indians.

Indians are those members of peoples and communities who have a consciousness – either because they never lost it or because they recovered it – of their historical relation with the natives who lived in this land before the arrival of the Europeans.  They were called “indians” because of a famous error on the part of the invaders who, on docking in America, thought that they had arrived in India.  “Indigene”, on the other hand, is a very old word, with nothing “indian” about it; it means “generated in the land to which it belongs, originating in the land where it lives”.[1]  There are indigenous peoples in Brazil, in Africa, in Asia, in Oceania, and even in Europe.  The opposite of “indigene” is “alien”, whereas the antonym of indian, in Brazil, is “white”, or better, the many words of the more than 250 indian languages spoken inside the Brazilian territory that are commonly translated in Portuguese as “white”, but which refer to all of those people and institutions that are not indian.  These indigenous words have various descriptive meanings, but one of the most common is “enemy”, as is the case with the Yanomani “naipë”, the Kayapo “kuben” or the Arawaté “awin”.  Even though the indian concepts of enmity, or the condition of enemy, are significantly different from ours, it is not difficult to remark that the word that we have that is most suited to translate directly these indigenous words is “enemy”.  Let’s sleep on this.

But does this then mean that all of the persons born here in this land are natives of Brazil?  Yes and no.  Yes in the informal etymological sense confirmed by dictionaries: “originating in the country etc. in which s/he finds her/himself, native”.[1]  A settler of German “origin” (and language) of Pomerode is a “native” person of Brazil because born in a region of the eponymous political territory, as is a native from the semiarid northeast [“sertanejo”], a rural yuppie [“agroboy”: child of a large landowner] of Barretos or a securities broker of the São Paulo stock market.  But no, neither the settler, nor the “agroboy”, nor the broker are among the natives – ask them …

They are “Brazilian”, something very different from being “native”.  To be Brazilian is to think and act and to consider oneself (and perhaps to be considered) as a “citizen”, that is, as someone defined, registered, surveyed, controlled, assisted – in sum, weighed, counted and measured by a territorial nation-State, “Brazil”.  To be Brazilian is to be (or should be to be) a citizen, in other words, a “subject” of a “sovereign” State that is transcendent.  This condition of subject (one of the euphemisms of subject is “holder/bearer of rights”) has nothing to do the native’s vital, original relation with the land, with the place where one lives and from where one’s sustenance is taken, where “life is made” with family and friends.  To be a native is to have as a reference the primordial relation with the land where one was born or where one settled to live, be it a village in the forest, a small hamlet in the dry interior countryside, a riverside community or a shantytown [“favela”] in the metropolitan peripheries.  It is to be part of a community tied to a specific place, that is, it is to integrate a “people”.  To be a citizen, by contrast, is to be part of a controlled “population” (at the same time “defended” and attacked) by a State.  The native looks down, to the land to which s/he is immanent; s/he takes his strength from the ground.  The citizen looks up, to the Spirit incarnated in the form of a transcendent State; s/he receives her/his rights from on high.

“People” only “(r)exist” in the plural – peopleS.  A people is a singular multiplicity, that presupposes other peoples, that inhabits a land peopled in the plural by peoples.  When the writer Daniel Munduruku was asked if he “as an indian, etc.”, he cut the question short: “I am not indian; I am Munduruku”.  But to be Munduruku means knowing that there exist Kayabi, Kayapó, Matis, Guaraní, Tupinambá, and that these are not Munduruku, but nor are they White.  Who invented the “indians” as a generic category were the great specialists in generalisations, the Whites, or otherwise, the white, colonial, imperial, republican State.  The State, in contrast to peoples, is comprised only of the uniqueness of its own universality.  The State is always single, total, a universe in itself.  Even though many nation-States exist, each one is the incarnation of the Universal State, is the hypostasis of the One.  The people has the form of the Multiple.  Forced to discover themselves “indians”, the Brazilian indians discovered that they had been “unified” in a general category by a transcendent power, unified so as to be better de-multiplied, homogenised, Brazilianised.  The poor person is before everything else someone from whom something has been taken.  To make the indian poor, the first step is to make the Munduruku an indian, then an administered indian, then an assisted indian, then a landless indian.

And notwithstanding, the original indigenous peoples, in their irreducible multiplicity, who were indianised by the general concept so as to be better de-indianised by the weapons of power, know themselves today to be the general target of these weapons, and they unite against the One, fight back dialectically against the State, accepting this generalisation and claiming from it the rights that this generalisation bestows upon them, according to the letter and the spirit of the Federal Constitution of 1988.  And they invade Congress.  There is nothing more just than that the invaded should invade the headquarters of the invaders.  An undoubtedly symbolic guerrilla operation, incommensurable with the real massive war (but also symbolic) waged against them by the invaders.  But the owners of power are aware of the coup and run to render viable their counter coup.  To use the term of the day, a coup is what is being prepared in the carpeted corridors of Brasilia against the indians, in the form, among other things, of the PEC 215.

The indians are the first natives of Brazil.  The land they occupy is not their property – not only because the native territories are “lands of the Union” [of the Federative Republic of Brazil], but because it is they who belong to the land and not the contrary.  To belong to the land, instead of being its owner, is what defines the native.  In this sense, many peoples and communities in Brazil, in addition to the indians, can be said to be, because they feel so, indigenous much more than citizens.  They don’t recognise themselves in the State, they do not feel themselves represented by a State dominated by a cast of the powerful and their puppets and garrisoned mercenaries in the National Congress as well as in the three branches of power.  The indians are the first indigenes to not recognise themselves in the Brazilian State, by which they were persecuted for five centuries: either directly, by the “just wars” of the colony, by the laws of the Empire, by the republican native administrations that exploited, mistreated and, very timidly, sometimes defended them (when they went too far, the State would cut off their wings); or indirectly, by the solicitous support that the State always gave to all of the efforts to de-indianise Brazil, to sweep from the land its original occupants so as to implant a model of civilisation which never served anyone except the powerful.  A model that “essentially” continues unchanged after 500 years.

The Brazilian State and its ideologues always wagered that the indians would disappear, and the faster the better; they did the possible and the impossible, the unnameable and the abominable for this end.  Not that it was always necessary to physically exterminate them for this – as we know, however, the recourse to genocide remains largely in force in Brazil -, but it was necessary in someway to de-indianise them, to transform them into “national workers”.[2]  Christianise them, cloth them (as if anyone had ever seen “naked” indians, these masters of adornment, of  feather art, of body painting), prohibit them their spoken or once spoken languages, the customs by which they defined themselves, submit them to a regime of labour, police and administration.  But, above all, sever their relation with the land.  To separate the indians (and all of the other natives) from their organic, political, social, vital relation with the earth and with their communities that live from the land – this separation was always seen as the “necessary condition” for transforming the indian into a citizen.  Into a poor citizen, naturally.  Because without the poor there is no capitalism, capitalism needs the poor, as it needed (and still needs) slaves.  To transform the indian into the poor.  For this, it was and is first and foremost necessary to separate her/him from her/his land, from the land that “constituted” her/him as a native.

We, the whites here seated on the stairs of the of the City Council of Rio de Janeiro, on the 20th of April of 2016, we feel ourselves to be natives.  We do not feel as if we are citizens, we do not see ourselves as part of a subject population of a State that never represented us, and which always took with one hand what it pretended to give with the other.  We the “whites” who are present here, as well as the many other native peoples who live in Brazil: peasants, riverains, fishermen, coastal inhabitants [“caiçaras”], former slave forest people [“quilombolas”], inhabitants of the arid northeast [“sertanejos”], white-native mestizos [“caboclos” or “curibocas”], blacks and “browns”, inhabitants of the shanty towns that cover this country.  All of these are “natives” because they feel attached to a place, a piece of land – however small or poor the land, of the size of a hole in the ground or of a backyard garden – and to a community, much more so than as citizens of a Great Brazil whose grandeur only increases with the size of the bank accounts of the owners of power.

The land is the body of the indians, the indians are a part of the body of the Land.  The relation between the land and the body is crucial.  The separation between a community and land has as its parallel, its shadow, a separation between people and their bodies, another indispensable operation executed by the State to create administered populations.  Consider the LGBT, separated from their sexuality; the blacks, separated from the colour of their skin and their past of slavery, that is, their radical corporal dispossession; consider women, separated from their reproductive autonomy.  Consider finally, but no less abominable, the sinister public eulogy of torture made by the criminal Jair Bolsonaro [elected member of Brazil’s national chamber of deputies for the right-wing Progressive Party] – torture, the ultimate and most radical way of separating a person from their body.  Torture which continues – that always was – the favourite method of separating the poor from their bodies, in the police stations and prisons of this so “cordial” country.

For all of this, the struggle of the indians is also our struggle, a native struggle.  The indians are our example.  An example of secular “rexistence” against a ferocious war waged against them to have them de-exist, to make them disappear, either killing them pure and simple, or de-indianising them and turning them into “civilised citizens”, that is, poor Brazilians, without land, without their own means of subsistence, forced to sell their strength – their bodies – to enrich the new pretentious owners of the land.

The indians need the help of whites who are in solidarity with their struggle and who see in them the greatest “example” of the perpetual struggle between native peoples (all of the native “peoples” that I referred to above: the LGTB people, the black people, the people of women) and the nation State.  However we, the “other indians”, those who are not indians but who feel themselves much more “represented” by the indian peoples than by the politicians who govern us and by the police apparatus that follows closely on our heels, by the politics of destruction of nature executed by fire and sword by all of the governments that succeed each other since always – we others also need the help, and the example, of the indians, of their symbolic guerrilla, judicial, media tactics, against the Apparatus of Capture of the nation-State.  A State which is carrying out to its ultimate consequences its project of destruction of the territory that it claims as its own.  But the land is of the peoples.

I conclude with an allusion to the name of a street not very far from this Cinelândia where we are now.  In Botafogo there is, as you all know, a Volunteers of the Fatherland Street.  Its name comes from an initiative undertaken by the Empire in its genocidal war (and ethnocide) against Paraguay – Brazil was always good at this thing of killing indians, both on this side and beyond its borders.  Short of troops to take on the Guaraní army, the imperial government created military corps of volunteers, “appealing to the sentiments of the Brazilian people”, as the Wikipedia entry on the initiative states.  Pedro II presented himself in Uruguaiana as the “first volunteer of the fatherland”.  It didn’t take long for the patriotism of the volunteers to cool; the central government then immediately demanded of the presidents of the provinces to recruit quotas of “volunteers”.  The solution for this lamentable “lack of patriotism” for the Brazilian whites was, as is known, to send thousands of black slaves as volunteers.  It was they who killed and died in the War of Paraguay.  Obliged they were, it is needless to say.  Involuntary volunteers.

Well, the indians were and are the first Involunteers of the Fatherland.  The original indigenous peoples saw fall upon their heads a “Fatherland” that they did not ask for, and which only brought them death, disease, humiliation, slavery and dispossession.  We here feel as the indians do, as all of the indigenous do: forming an enormous contingent of the Involunteers of the Fatherland.  The involunteers of a fatherland that we don’t want, of a government (or dis-government) that does not represent us and which never represented us.  No one ever represented them, those who feel themselves to be natives.  Only we ourselves can represent ourselves, or perhaps, only we ourselves can say that we represent the land – this land.  Not “our land”, but the land from where we are, of who we are.  We are the Involunteers of the Fatherland.  Because our will is “other”.



1 The word indigenous comes from from Late Latin indigenus “born in a country, native,” from Latin indigena “sprung from the land, native,” as a noun, “a native,” literally “in-born,” or “born in (a place),” from Old Latin indu (prep.) “in, within” + gignere (perfective genui) “to beget, produce,” from PIE root *gene- “give birth, beget,” with derivatives referring to procreation and familial and tribal groups. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

2 The first name for the republican SPI (Serviço de Proteção aos Índios [Service for the Protection of Indians]) was SPILTN: Serviço de Proteção aos Índios e Localização dos Trabalhadores Nacionais [Service for the Protecction of Indians and the Localisation of National Workers]. It was SPITLN from 1910 to 1918, then only SPI, until becoming FUNAI [Fundação Nacional do Índio/National Indian Foundation] in 1967, at the end of a CPI [Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito/Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry] that revealed an infinity of abuses, violations, diversity of violence, exploitation and other other protective blessings conferred by the State.

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3 Responses to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: Landed natives against State and Capital

  1. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says:

    “Extremely few in number”? Well, there are 370 million indigenous persons in the world, according to a UN report. They sure are scattered across the planet, oppressed almost everywhere, as often as not threatened with “extinction” (although it’s very hard to “extinguish” a people completely — the extinction of a minority always generates another minority [Deleuze & Guattari]). Still, 370 million people is a larger number than the population of the USA and Canada put together. That sure must mean something…

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    If I am to judge from the source of this comment, it is you Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who has posted this comment. Thank you for responding, as I thank you for your text and presentation which i had the pleasure of hearing Lisbon.

    Your point is well made. What I had in mind was in fact the indigenous population of Brasil, which if I am not mistaken, sits at 0,47% of the population. I confess that I don’t know how the UN arrives at its number, nor what is called an “indigenous” person, for them. But perhaps this is less important than it might seem, as in the end, for you, everyone is, or can be, potentially an “indigenous” person.

  3. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro says:

    Stupid of me, I forgot you had it translated…

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