Mega-Events and the Neoliberal Production of Space in Rio de Janeiro

By Sam Smith
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 1/7 |


Sporting mega-events in Rio de Janeiro, including the 2014 World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Olympics, employ particular tactics of spatio-temporal scale-making to produce a utopic atmosphere of global camaraderie, modern urban development, and sporting revelry. However, these spectacular representations simultaneously work to obscure the recognition of the violence of infrastructural development, as securitization and privatization facilitate the mass displacement of residents of Rio’s urban slums. This article traces the implications of both material and discursive processes associated with privatization, militarization, and development as they are articulated in the lives of residents living in Rio de Janeiro’s squatter communities. I argue that the present mega-events in Rio are part of a regime of neoliberal governance, in which the restructuring of urban space articulates and reproduces the rational interests of private capital. I suggest that practices of spatio-temporal scale-making, and the production of visibility, are in Rio constitutive of forms of everyday violence. Finally, I examine the roles of visibility and recognition in concurrent modes of local and trans-regional subversion and resistance.

Introduction: Towards an Ethnography of Spatial Interruption

An overwhelming change in the distribution of human settlements across space has occurred in the acceleration of migration to cities during the past century. Over the last one hundred years, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities has risen from only 10 percent to over half; by 2050 it may well be 75 percent (Perlman 2010:8). Most of this urban growth will take place in cities of the “Global South” (Asia, Africa, and Latin America), and most of it will be concentrated in ‘informal settlements,’ squatter settlements, and slums (Davis 2004). The increasing concentration of dwellings in improvised and legally precarious urban spaces is dramatically apparent in the rise of shantytowns in Latin American cities.

Among them, the urban slums of Brazil have been an object of particular fascination to Western philanthropists and social scientists. They are taken as icons of the dramatic violence of drug trafficking, and as sites of poverty as a particular kind of temporal ‘failure’ of modernity. They are also popularly portrayed as the loci for capitalist development, as well as of ingenuity and perseverance in the face of structural injustice. These urban ‘squatter settlements’, termed favelas, are found in the metropoles of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in addition to smaller cities including Belém, Salvador, and Brasília.

The favela has become something of a ubiquitous icon of Brazilian economic inequality, emblematizing the uneven growth of capitalism during Brazil’s rise to power as an influential nation-state. In spite of the rise of political democracy following the dissolution of the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, favelas have remained zones of dramatic social inequality relative to the gated and alarmed homes of Brazil’s (predominately white) ruling classes.

As a part of the popular imagery of Brazil at home and abroad, favelas have appeared in numerous feature films as places of tumultuous urban squalor1, narcotrafficking-fueled violence, and state neglect2. Elsewhere, they have been variously deployed as the sites of corporate sustainability3, video game villains4, and empathic pop music videos5.

The multiple forms of spectacle surrounding the favela are implicated with its formation as a national commodity. It has developed into a zone of prime interest for tourists venturing to Rio, as police occupation and gentrification beginning in the 1990s increasingly expands accessibility to the foreign pedestrian. Since the announcements of the Olympic games in 2009, a surge of tourists have flocked to Rio’s most centrally located favelas, staying in hostels and riding newly installed cable cars to the top, while residents are forced out as rent increases geometrically.

When I travelled to Rio de Janeiro in January 2011, I was stunned by the dramatic proximity between the plush life of wealthy tourists and businessmen in Rio’s Downtown, and the highly visible operations of military police. At the time, a major operation was underway in the favela Complexo do Alemão (“German town”) just up the hill from major tourist attractions. The area was being described in the news as a ‘war zone’, a Latin American ‘Gaza strip’. As a tourist, however, I was told I could rest assured of my safety from traffickers in this militarized zone of the city, thanks to the overwhelming effort being poured into the creation of the city as a ‘safe environment for capital’ in anticipation of upcoming sporting mega-events.

As the host city of the 2016 Olympics, and as one of 12 host cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, Rio de Janeiro is in the process of undergoing a massive and permanent overhaul of its urban landscape. Blocks are being razed, new rapid-transit systems are being installed, and whole zones of the city are being redesigned with the aesthetic and commercial interests of the upcoming mega-events in mind. Up to thirty thousand urban poor are being displaced due to construction projects and gentrification, at the same time that claims by international human rights organizations excoriate the exploitation and abuse of the poor. Simultaneously, ongoing grass-roots protest movements are organizing against particular policies of development, calling for the inclusion of the poor in the benefits of economic investments connected to the mega-events.

This seemingly contradictory desire for civic participation reflects a central focus of this study. I ask: how can we make sense of the production of desires for global connection and civic participation in mega-events, in the context of their simultaneous condemnation as structural forms of exploitation and violence? It is my intention to offer, in part, an account of the dramatic disjuncture between triumphalist economic discourses of global development through sport, and, on the other hand, accounts of the mega-events as forms of overt class violence. By historicizing contested discourses of civic inclusion and urban integration that accompany the mega-events, I aim to illustrate the conditions under which these discourses co-exist and are reproduced.

Further, I interrogate complex processes of contestation that are elided by a simple dualism of rich and poor. I suggest that in order to unpack the seemingly dramatic disconnect of these discourses, we must analyze both the imaginary and material production of infrastructural development, and its concomitant socio-spatial effects of forced removal, police occupation, and marketization. I proceed by drawing together an analysis of urban space as immanently socially produced, with a structural analysis of neoliberal government in which the state comes to function as a technology of the market. I offer an account of the conditions under which a simultaneous integration and fragmentation of urban space is taking place, both discursively and materially. I finally suggest that the cultural politics of citizenship and visibility are key to the production of multiple and competing regimes of spatial practice in the city, and in global discourses of mega-events.

Notes on Methodology

The ‘suffering slot’ has been noted as a common trope in contemporary cultural anthropology, especially by its critics, wherein charitable or sympathetic analysis may lead to victimization or de-agentification of the poor (see Robbins 2004). Moving beyond such an easy reading of neoliberal development as a unilateral form of class-warfare, or as structurally foreclosed upon by capitalist regimes, I intend to bring into critical praxis both political-economic, materialist readings of structural violence, and specific discursive and cultural forms of interruption, contestation, and ambivalence.

Contemporary anthropological accounts of globalization and its effects wrestle with the critique of social science’s claims to ‘objectivity’. At the same time, they themselves rely upon forms of empirical data in their efforts to complicate easy readings of specific and often contradictory human experience (Keane 2003). Thus, a classic problem presents itself in the navigation of the contradictory territory between a political economic analysis of ‘global processes’ of institutions, markets, and nation-states, and ethnographic accounts that foreground local specificity and heterogeneity.

Tsing’s (2005:271) use of the concept of the ‘fragment,’ or “anti-holism,” serves as a starting point for my navigation of this quandary. I suggest that it is useful as a way of understanding how an analytic of space can be used to repeatedly undermine the settling of a static relationship between analytic objectivity and intimacy. Such fragments stop short of endorsing holistic structural accounts, opting instead to elucidate moments of encounter that interrupt received ideals of globalist scale-making projects.

Tsing also advocates for a form of scalar analysis which does not bifurcate the local and global, or the material and discursive. Rather, it seeks to specify the sites, or channels, through which an otherwise ubiquitous and vague ‘flow’ of capital, and its accompanying ideologies and processes, makes its presence felt. This means locating the specific moments in which scales of the global overlap and interact with those of the local, and the sites where scale-making projects like ‘globality’, ‘locality’ and ‘integration’ find their ground of contestation and reproduction.

My project foregrounds such moments of contestation and scalar interruption within hegemonic discourses of development, and in the scalar production of urban and global participation. I do not, however, wholly eschew the structural in favor of the ‘fragment’. Rather, I suggest that discursive and material practices of development and infrastructure collude in ways that are, if elusively, structurally patterned. I suggest that this patterning is particularly pertinent in forms of day-to-day violence.

The meanings and modes for the transmission of this violence, however, are in flux. While pointing out the ways in which spectacle and modernist development serve to pattern violence, I illustrate interruptions to their scale-making processes as not part of a globally united front against neoliberalism or sporting mega-events, but rather as specific moments of engagement that constantly complicate and erode seemingly rigid structures of hegemony. Herein, triumphalist narratives of mega-events and infrastructural development portray mega-events as successes of modernity, and as rational economic regimes for well-being. At the same time, local and trans-regional ambivalence, subversion, and resistance constitute moments of discord whose potency is radically contingent upon their visibility and recognition.

My analysis attempts to go beyond sociological arguments (as in Horne and Manzenreiter 2006) that seek mostly empirical data of demographics and statistics, by articulating the historical intersection of discourse and material. I argue that the ambivalence and resistance of residents of Rio’s urban slums to police occupation, privatization, and demolition turns upon destabilizing hegemonic scale-making projects of global capital as universal progress. By way of dismantling the monadic image of ‘global neoliberalism’, I look to the sites where ideology and practice fail to match up, and in which local and trans-regional experiences of ‘neoliberal’ techniques or modes of governance have come to contest scale-making projects of modernity.

I suggest that the analytic of space, as an epistemological category that always occurs in both the realms of material and discourse, provides a critical locus for illustrating constant interruption of received political-economic truths, or notions of objectivity. Herein, I employ Lefebvre’s (1991) neo-Marxist understanding of space as socially produced, reflecting a dialectic between concrete and abstract practices as the interplay of discourse and materiality. An important part of my study is thus understanding political economy and governance as immanently spatio-temporal scale-making processes. I understand favelas as spaces of neglect, integration, or fragmentation as produced, rather than negative spaces of state absence or passive exclusion.

It is necessary to comment on the secondary nature of many of my sources in this work. In addition to the work of a diverse set of ethnographers in Brazil6, I’ve attained the interview data in this work from non-profit investigative journalism sites, as well as through news and social media forums including Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. In the absence of substantial opportunity for participant observation, these indirect and often highly interpolated avenues of information amplify the challenges of balancing ‘intimacy’ and ‘objectivity’ in ethnographic writing. Preliminary conclusions reached in this paper are based upon the combination of these resources, alongside my own brief experience in the city of Rio de Janeiro. While limited to the data on hand, the theoretical components of this paper are based as much as possible in the reported local, specific experiences of Rio’s residents during ongoing preparations for the Olympic games.

Focal Points

The 2016 Olympic Games and the 2014 World Cup are accompanied by deeply felt material and social impacts in Rio De Janeiro, and represent twin movements that share the center of a world spectacle. The vast majority of construction, infrastructural, securitization, and privatization projects associated with the Olympics will take place within Rio de Janeiro and its outlying areas, while the World Cup involves stadiums and facilities in a dozen cities across Brazil. Thus, it is the former that receives the bulk of my attention. While I do not wish to underemphasize the significant impacts of the World Cup on Rio de Janeiro’s spatial and cultural politics, their more dispersed effects place them farther from the focal point of my study, which emphasizes the close associations of mega-events with spatial and cultural patterns of change taking place in the city.

Several important themes run throughout my analysis of Rio’s present restructuring of urban space. First, the contestation of the scale and meaning of visibility are crucial to my arguments. In the production of spectacle, the generation of spatial-scale, and the normalization of state violence, I suggest that visibility and the politics of recognition appear as crucial loci of both hegemonic practice and its subversion or resistance. Another important analytic lies in the role of spatial production as both a concrete and discursive practice. Finally, neoliberalism as a set of ideologies and practices of government appears repeatedly, as an organizing principle of the state and institutional structures of upcoming mega-events. I approach neoliberalism as being constantly produced, and never simply the taken-for-granted condition of modernity.

The two chapters are closely related, but deploy distinct analytics as their central foci for understanding mega-events and the neoliberal production of space. Chapter one takes as its central analytic the construction of spectacle, and the role of images in generating regimes of value specific to cultures of capitalism. The chapter details the history of sporting mega-events in the twentieth century and their recent impacts in Brazil, a well as a history of the favela, providing the context for a multi-scalar analysis.

In doing so, it engages with both broad historical trends in ‘slum upgrades’ and urban renovation and the roles of ‘modernity’ and ‘globality’ as spatio-temporal scale-making processes. I foreground the experience of demolition as a moment of rupture and dissonance against globalist triumphal discourses, which is at the same time drawn into and constitutive of modernist desires for development. I explore the development of the imagery of global sport as intimately entangled with globocentric neoliberal ideologies, alongside the question of the utility of neoliberalism as an analytic in itself. I explore also the role of institutions and government in the planning process of the games, and the undemocratic moment of the games themselves as a form of what Agamben (2003) has called a ‘state of exception’.

Chapter two theorizes the production of structural modes of violence in Rio, and the role of visibility and invisibility in making them practical and thinkable. I propose here that Auyero and de Lara’s (2012) analytic of infrastructural violence proves useful in understanding the systemic and locally specific impacts of development projects associated with recent and upcoming sporting mega-events in the city.

I discuss the role of citizenship and civic participation as loci for making visible racialized urban violence. I seek to understand the spatio-temporal projects of urban modernization and ‘slum upgrades’ as part of a social production of space and time, which turn, in part, upon the politics of visibility and recognition. I focus also on the uses of privatization and police securitization as discourses and techniques for transforming public resources into means of private profit, at the expense of residents whose visibility is compromised. I conclude with a discussion of protest and practices of subversion, and the use of social media to attain new scales for the recognition of violence and resistance.

The Spectacle of the Mega-Event

In October 2009, the announcement of Rio de Janeiro’s upset win of the 2016 Olympic bid was accompanied by televised images of a massive crowd erupting into celebration. Barely-clad women frenetically danced the samba across a massive stage at Copacabana beach, as confetti and Brazilian flags flew in the air. The scene followed a two-year bid campaign by the Brazilian Olympic Committee (BOC), which culminated in Rio’s defeat of Madrid by a final round vote of 66 to 32. Calling it the end of Brazil’s ‘street-dog complex’, economic analysts have described this victory as laying to rest popular notions of Brazil as lacking in the institutional and organizational potency to compete with other Western industrial powers.

A State government-sponsored special advertising supplement in the November 2011 issue Foreign Policy boasts, “Sweet Victory! Rio Invests Heavily to Receive the World, Promising Peace and Comfort.” The tearful President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva remarked, “Today, Brazil became a citizen of the world; we proved that we have the competence to hold the Olympics.” Indeed, the Olympics serve as a spectacle that is intimately entangled with global geopolitics, and turns upon the capacity of its image to produce particular forms of desire.

Lula’s claims of competence turn on the promise of massive expenditures and development projects in association with the games, occurring via the national Programs for Growth Acceleration (PACs). The Maracaña stadium (Fig. 1), one of the largest venues for sporting and ceremonial events and located in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, has in the past served as an iconic image of Brazilian soccer, and is a centerpiece for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It is currently undergoing major renovations, including the expansion of its seating capacity, and the addition of a 10,000-car parking garage and shopping mall. Costs of construction have ballooned to almost R$1 billion (US$503 million), making it one of the costliest single construction projects of the games (Carvalho and Benedicto 2011).

The price of infrastructural development aside, its practice has led to widespread and sometimes violent socio-spatial impacts in the city. Practically in the shadow of the Maracaña, hundreds of residents of the Metrô-Mangueira favela have been evicted, and their homes destroyed, in order to make room for the massive commercial expansion of the stadium complex. They are promised the keys to new houses, but such compensation has largely failed to materialize. Protesting the removals, residents complain that they are frequently evicted illegally, relocated to neighborhoods far from their communities, or forced into unaffordable and untenable housing.

What is compelling about these mega-events as sites of contested meaning is not just the disjuncture between the stories being told by the rich and poor. Rather, the mega-event also serves as a site for the explication of particular ideologies of national identity, civic participation, and global linkage that attempt to crosscut divisions of race and class. These ideologies are expressed in the form a spectacle that works, with partial and fraught success, to transcend and minimize distinctions between rich and poor, global North and South, and “black and white,” through images of racial democracy, global linkage, and Brazilian national productivity.

Fig. 1. View of Maracaña stadium from Metrô - Mangueira favela c. 2011

The proximity of the neighborhood to the stadium has made it the target of numerous forced evictions in connection to Olympic development projects. It has been under military police occupation since November 2011 (Rio Radar 2013).

In this chapter, I address the interaction of symbols of national progress, civic identity, and global connection as they are deployed in sporting mega-events. I first locate the favela historically and spatially within Rio de Janeiro, and outline the ways in which the approaching mega-events might be understood as exemplary of what recent theorists have termed “neoliberal governmentality” (Ferguson 2010). While the games facilitate and explicate certain forms of structured violence, I challenge the presentation by activists of the games as a simple attack against the poor.

Rather, I suggest that the invocation of powerful imagery of national and civic ritual performs work that cannot be glossed as merely propaganda, or the locus of Marxian “false consciousness.” I instead understand the branding of the games as deeply imbricated with not only ‘global’, but also distinctly locally-produced ideologies of civic and global participation that find their roots in collective identities linked to place, race, and class. I suggest that the image and the significance of the sporting mega-event are being positively produced in ways that find their historical roots in Rio’s favelas, and longstanding desires of citizens for inclusion and constitutional ‘rights to the city’. Finally, I suggest that a key element in the prevailing success of these mega-events as neoliberal spectacle, and the extension of unprecedented institutional power, is found in their claim to special status as a moment of exceptional development in which, so it seems, anything is possible.

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