Bethania Assy | Addendum

By Bethania Assy (Puc-Rio)

I will briefly highlight two other co(re)existing experiences of cooperation and mutual solidary from subjects of social injustice. The first one concerns vulnerable population from the Favelas of Brazil facing covid-19, which I named an ethics of resilient cohabitation. The second one is to call attention to the mobilization and collective political engagement at the Roofless Urban Movement – MUST in Brazil

I – Covid-19 and an Ethics of Resilient Cohabitation: “É nós por nós” (“It is the We by the Us” or “It is Us by Us”)[1]

The pandemic accelerated the daily and systematic annihilation of our social invisibles, killed in the slums of large Brazilian cities, to mention just one form of necropolitics of our precarious humanity under the triad that reproduces the vocabulary of exclusion: structural racism, gender discrimination and social class. The pre-pandemic scenario already pointed to a Brazil in which 13.5 million Brazilians live in extreme poverty, mainly in the slums. In those communities, families share tight quarters, with poor sanitation and restricted access to clean and safe water. In Brazil’s northeast alone, 12 million residents did not have daily access to piped water in 2018. Nevertheless, such ‘normal’ hierarchy of death was accelerated by the pandemic. As a matter of fact, there is the growing self-awareness of the ´normal´ hierarchy of death brought about by the pandemic. As, for instance, Christiana Mendes, a teacher from the Coroadinho favela in the northeastern-Brazilian city of São Luís asserts, ´the crisis [COVID-19] just threw light on what we already suffer, it intensified everything, water, food problems, security…it made the world really listen to the favela’s voice.”[2] The pandemic accelerated this policy of erasure by an absent or violent state.

However, it is precisely in these circumstances that what I call the political subjectivity of co(re)existence it is also speeded. subjectivities constitute their own political subjectivity based on communality and resistance. It also accelerated a collective sense of resistance to this predicament, underwritten by what one would call an ethics of resilient cohabitation that seeks to respond to the radicalization of precarity.[3] It is, then, in these most impoverished communities most exposed to death where the capacity for collective self-organization and self-protection despite and beyond the ‘powers that are’ can be found. Under “normal” circumstances of socio-economic and political precariousness, people subject to these conditions are factually disempowered from participating in the dominant political economy of life and are invisibilized in a zone of brutal facticity and abstract normative representation quite beyond the level of violence ´permitted´ into the ´normal´ social imaginary. In fact, these conditions can invisibilized the body itself as the last site of existence.[4] As we already pointed out, the pandemic accelerated this politics of erasure by absent or violent states.[5]

Experiences of extreme vulnerability can and do engender cooperative resistance and political empowerment amongst the subjects marginalized through these conditions. This, we argue, is a perspective often overlooked in the overall focus –of the critical literature, at any rate- on the general biopolitical impact of the virus and the varied responses by governments, framed often in terms of human rights violations in relation to which these people and communities are merely considered helpless victims. While these communities are exposed to COVID-10 mortality to a much larger degree, and while governments are (often) connivant in their marginalization, there have, in fact, been many examples of political self-collective-empowerment in the face of sheer unsurmountable odds. As, for instance, Ana Paula Oliveira from the community initiative the collectives Mães de Manguinhos and Fórum Social de Manguinhos, contends, ´if it is difficult for other people, for us, who have already suffered from the absence of the State, it becomes even more difficult. It ends up being the we for the us (It is Us by Us) [É nós por nós]”: it is the organizations that exist that end up supporting us, it is the residents themselves that take shelter, and so we keep resisting all types of violence.”[6] In places, such as Brazil, where there has traditionally, and with few, if notable exceptions, existed a crass lack of effective public social protection for those on the lower end of the hierarchy of death, social protection networks have always been (self-)organized in affected communities and despite and beyond any public authority. The capacity of precarianized populations for such self-organization in the absence of a robust welfare state is, therefore, nothing new. Ironically, given the Brazilian federal government´s utter mismanagement and the more than 700.000 deaths amassed by the virus, the pandemic has yet strengthened this political subjectivity of resistance by means of communal action premised explicitly on a logic of “the we for the us.” [7]  New forms of communal solidarity and mutual aid, as well as a capacity for mobilization and the creation of support networks have emerged despite and because of the high exposure to viral mortality in most of these communities. The communal character of these practices are of particular interest here as, contrary to the dominant script of (late) modernity and its self-centered response to death, many of those most exposed to the risk of dying have espoused an ethical commitment to their others and, thus, to communal resilience.[8] This is well articulated in the (Coletivo Resistência e Luta) Resistance and Struggle Collective’s statement that “the campaigns of solidarity and mutual support are seeds of resistance that nourish us with life and hope, allowing us to weave networks of union, affection, and struggles that are in the most varied scales, as in the countryside, in the peripheral neighborhoods, in the urban centers and in the territories of the first peoples.´[9]

Moreover, the political subject of resistance within this web of material self-support opens up new paths for displacing existing political-juridical narratives and their representations relating to the lack of access to rights. Given the state’s continually broken promises on the fulfilment of human rights, in general, and social and economic rights, in particular, the vulnerable and yet empowered political subjects of these communities signify an ambivalent relationship towards the grammar of rights. They embody an expression of the original constituent power standing before the constituted norm.[10] The narrative of the struggle for social rights has a political-juridical dimension that is not only about bringing to light the state´s absence or violence, but also the provision of a set of new political procedures to demand rights. Thus, new vocabularies halfway between the political and the juridical are introduced that aim to restore the power to fight for new forms to fulfil rights and to claim the state´s commitment towards them. Many of these self-organized collectives (coletivos) are politically empowered by what might be termed an authentic fidelity to the demand for rights. They actually embody the original counterfactual dimension of rights.[11] The experience of demanding and (self)enforcing rights generates the potentiality to provide a political voice for those constantly threatened by death. They contain new political-juridical potentialities of resistance, which consist of fighting for one´s life in a general economy of death.[12]

Hence, the self-mobilization to fight Covid-19 enhances the materiality of resistance through the language of rights itself.[13] At the hybrid frontier between law and politics, those most exposed to death denounce the absence of rights and effective protection from state violence. Likewise, they introduce a new semantics for approaching rights that propose new understandings, showcase contradictions, demand new standards or amend  existing standards.[14] Hence, for instance, in a manifesto by United Central of Favelas (CUFA), the organization lists proposals for practical measures to reduce the impact of the pandemic on favela communities.[15] It includes demands vis-à-vis public authorities for the implementation of political, social, economic and medical measures geared to containing the devastating effect of the pandemic in the favelas. The statement explicitly demanded the realization of constitutionally entrenched social and economic rights, despite the fact that such demands, expressed in rights-terms, had never been heeded before. Yet, despite articulating these rights-oriented demands, many communities have not staked their hopes on a responsive state but have, instead, organized their own fight against the virus in a hybrid zone between law, politics, an absentee state, and extra-legal solutions to protect life. A case in point is the well-known Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) which has been providing basic social services to vulnerable populations, including their own field hospital for urgent (Covid-19) cases. It is part of a broader civil-society alliance, the ´Brazilian Popular Front´, which as engaged in a wide range of service provision parallel to and often in lieu of public authorities.[16] Hence, it enables gradual and permanent performing of political and social practices of apprehending, compelling, and emphasizing new meanings within a generic vocabulary of social rights.

To conclude, we briefly turn to Judith Butler and her conceptualization of precarity and cohabitation, which, we use to introduce two ethical perspectives that can be applied to the  reintroduction of death-in-the-singular by Covid-19. On the one hand, precarity, broadly speaking, is an existential claim. Throughout our social existence as depended upon another for shelter and nourishment, everyone is precarious. The precariousness of life is in that sense a general condition common to all human beings who are subject to the risk of damage, disease, death and grief. On the other hand, precarity is to a large extent determined upon the organization of economic and social relationships. The demographically differentiated distribution of this precariousness is accelerated or aggravated for certain populations. However, there is what we term an ethics of resilient cohabitation based on Butler’s notion of precarity that arises from the intensification of the demographically differentiated distribution of vulnerability in certain populations. [17] Two entangled space and time scopes need to be taken into account to consider death (in-the-singular) related to this ethical dimension. It concerns the spatial architecture of the pandemic in relation to the materialization of vulnerability, precariousness, and the biopolitization of life. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the material and symbolic conditions of structural violence and precarity. Yet is has also and remarkably intensified the potential to resist on part of those constantly exposed to the most precarious social and economic conditions. Additionally, the pandemic also instigates a temporality of urgency, the time to save life promptly. For the singularly imminent possibility to die is a continuous experience of those exposed to already extreme social vulnerability. For many subjects of severe social injustices, daily life means precisely the always unpredictable and imminent possibility of facing death. While death (in-the-plural) starkly reinforces existing biopolitical vulnerabilities, it is precisely those who have always been exposed to precarious life who have least lost a sense of death (in-the-singular) and who, therefore, have always inhabited that broader horizon of an ethics of resilient cohabitation. Those who, in fact, have always had to fight for life in a general economy of death.


II – Mobilization, collective political engagement at the Roofless Urban Movement – MUST in Brazil[18]

I will speak only in very general terms, since the project Sphere of Citizenship has just started to conceive a process of constructing a new cooperation with the Landless Workers’ Movement ( MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) at Rio de Janeiro. Let me bring instead the example of the Roofless Urban Movement (MUST – “Movimento Urbano dos Sem Teto”), a dissidence of the bigger and more organized Workers Roofless Movement (MTST – “Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem-Teto”)[19] Even besides the institution of a collective individuation of those occupations within the urban scenario, it represented a catalyst for political organization and action which should not be so easily forgotten.  According to Boulos (2014), the collective living in such an organized settlement, the new ways in which the land can be appropriated, and the political engagement in community decision- making and mobilizing necessary to the achievement of proper housing conditions make such occupations a space in which standing up against the logics of the City of Capital becomes effective.[20]

In this way, one can only perceive the demands for proper housing as a facilitator for a more fundamental claim in favour of a “right to have rights”[21], expressed through the affirmation of those individuals that took stand to affirm their fundamental right to proper housing by the invention of new ways of promoting collective social and communal goals. Following Kowarick’s distinction between processes of marginalization and those of exclusion, it could be said that some settlers were subject to a “partial inclusion”, since despite being intermittent, secondary, occasional, marginal, they were nevertheless a part integrant of productive dynamics[22]. To differentiate between marginalization and exclusion is not simply to introduce a “hierarchy” between so many forms of oppression, for more importantly it allows a comprehension of a “politically active” dimension of situations of vulnerability of these marginal forms of inclusion (albeit indecent and cynical these marginal forms of inclusion may be).  It rather means to suggest the politically active endeavour of these vulnerable communities to impose a new perspective, definitely deviant from those of the oppressors as well as from those of the “merely” oppressed, in favour of the politization of the notion of the human right for housing.

In an urban squatting, from the opening of the streets, through the organizing of trash collection, until the solving of daily problems, every little detail might indicate a process of political learning and collective engagement and decision. [23] The creation of a communal kitchen, for instance, is a perfect example thereof. According to Boulos, MTST has a policy to secure at least one communal kitchen for every group of 100 to 200 families. Such kitchens are provided by donations from the settlers themselves and carry through their mission on the basis of voluntary work, mutual aid, established on scheduled relay shifts. Such exercises on collective decision-making produces a lasting result, since it forms new militants for the cause of the workers struggle in Brazil. With the experience obtained by these communities, the participants in such experiments realize that they also may steer the society in which they live.[24] Since the public and private forces opposing occupations are massive, which is the origin as much as the consequence (in the manner of a vicious cycle) of their vulnerability and marginalization, their collective organization turns out as their best chance of resistance in favour of their perceived rights (housing rights being the most prominent in these cases, but surely, they imply much more). Such dynamics triggers a learning process which replicates far beyond the limits of that specific settlement, but properly institutes a “pedagogy of the oppressed”, in Paulo Freire’s terms, that is, a knowledge of the oppressed, by the oppressed towards the restauration of their common trait humanity, forfeiting any direct attempt of becoming “oppressors” or “sub- oppressors”.[25] Such radical apprenticeship enables the use of important knowledge on collective organization whenever needed. The is a constant fostering of communal bonds between the occupants, between those vulnerable, showing that a different political organization is desired and possible, all against the brutal objectification of their beings either as mere victims or as criminals. It must, instead, be understood as the key dimension of the cooperation.

One of the most important projects of the urban movements such as MUST and MTST is the promotion of political pedagogy through the practices instituted in those settlements. They contribute for the production of a new reality, a reality that is nevertheless made possible by their day-to-day activism. According to Raquel Rolnik: “We are therefore facing a “war of spaces” or a war “for spaces”. In this war, what is at stake are the collective processes of construction of “counterspace”: by movements that resist the reduction of the spaces available to mere loci for the extraction of revenue and, simultaneously, experimentation movements for alternatives and possible futures.”[26]


[1] See: Assy, Bethania & Hoffmann, “Memento Mori: COVID-19 and the Political Imaginary of Death” in Law, Culture and The Humanities

[2] Sobreotatame, “Mothers of the Favela”: this campaign helped solo mothers in more than 40 communities in five municipalities in MA , at (last accessed 10 July, 2020)

[3] In the extensive literature on vulnerable population and biopolitics see particularly Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004.. See also the concept of an ethics of resilient cohabitation which we elaborated below in relation to Butler’s thought.

[4] It goes without saying that Covid-19 did not inaugurate the biopolitical and necropolical size of marginalized state populations.

[5] For the emerging literature regarding the Brazilian case and medical care see particularly Francisco Ortega and Michael Orsini, “Governing COVID-19 without government in Brazil: Ignorance, neoliberal authoritarianism, and the collapse of public health leadership”, Global Public Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice. (2020) (; see also Marina Lopes, “Brazil’s Favelas, Neglected by the Government, Organize their Own Coronavirus Fight”, The Washington Post, 10 June, 2020 at (last accessed 20 Augist, 2020); as well Tatiana Lima, “Doze Evidências da Necropolítica Frente à Covid-19 nas Favelas”, #OQueDizemAsRedes. RioOnWatch. #Covid19NasFavelas, 20, May, 2020 at (last accessed 20 August, 2020).

[6] Nina Zur, “A nossa luta aumentou na pandemia”: interview with Ana Paula Oliveira, July 15, 2020 at (last accessed 20 August 2020).

[7] See for example Marina Lopes, “Brazil’s favelas, neglected by the government, organize their own coronavirus fight”, The Washington Post, 10 June 2020 at (last accessed 20 August 2020).

[8] Alemão, “Juntos pelo Complexo do Alemão. Carta aberta sobre o coronavírus nas favelas”, (2020, March 26).

[9] Daniel Vasconcelos, Ginneth Gómez, Jessica Corrêa, and Priscila Alves. “As resistências e lutas no Brasil pandêmico”, Le Mond Diplomatique – Brasil, 21 July, 2020 at l (last accessed 20 August, 2020).

[10] For the discussion on the relation between political action (political subjects) and constitution (law), and despite their divergences, see Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1990) and Antonio Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[11] For a ccounterfactual normative theory of rights see particularly Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Boston: The MIT Press, 1998); and Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, Ciaran Cronin and Pablo De Greiff (eds.) (Boston: The MIT Press, 2000).

[12] See Thula Pires and Ana Flauzina (eds.) Rebelião. (Brasília: Brado Negro, 2020).

[13] For new forms of law and (relational) materiality see Margaret Davies, Law Unlimited: Materialism, Pluralism and Legal Theory (London: Routledge, 2017).

[14] See Bethania Assy and José Ricardo Cunha, Teoria do direito e o sujeito da injustiça social (Rio de Janeiro: Lumen Juris, 2016); and Costas Douzinas and Adam Geary, Critical Jurisprudence – The Political Philosophy of Justice (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2005).

[15] CUFA, “14 propostas para reduzir o impacto do Corona Virus nas Favelas”, Ciclo Vivo, #porummundomelhor.

14 propostas para reduzir os impactos do coronavírus nas favelas

(2020, July 20).

[16] Marcos Barbosa, “MST oferece Centro Paulo Freire como hospital de campanha para pacientes com covid-19”, Movimento Sem Terra (MST), 1 August 2020 at (2020, August 1).

[17] Butler underlines that among many forms induced by precarious life policies, it stands imposing on certain populations the deterioration or withdrawal from social and economic support networks, so that they suffer markedly more than other populations the risk of harm, violence and death. Moreover, there are deep differential distribution of the precarious condition to human risk such as poverty, disease, hunger, eviction, damage, violence and death, for which it is enough to be alive. See Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[18] These is a short part of a forthcoming paper on Roofless Urban Movement – MUST in Brazil, written by Rafael Role and I: “Immanent Violence and Perspectivist Difference on Legal Order: Benjamin’s Critique of Violence and Contemporary Brazil’s Housing Struggles.” Contexto Interncional (On-Line), 2023.

[19] Goulart, Débora Cristina. O Anticapitalismo do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem- Teto – MTST. Tese de doutorado apresentada perante a UNESP. Marília: 2011.

[20] See: Boulos, Guilherme. Por que ocupamos? Uma introdução à luta dos sem-teto. São Paulo: Autonomia Literária, 2014.

[21] Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co. 1973, p. 296 and 146. And also: Kowarick, Lúcio. Viver em risco: Sobre a vulnerabilidade socioeconômica e civil. 1a reimp. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2019, p. 92.

[22] Kowarick, op.cit. p. 76.

[23] See: Boulos, op.cited.

[24] Boulos, Ibib.

[25] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum, 2005, p. 45.

[26] Rolnik, Raquel. Guerra dos Lugares: A Colonização da Terra e da Moradia na Era das Finanças. 2a ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2019, p. 378.