Justification in Protest Publics: The Homeless Workers’ Movement in Brazil’s Crisis

Victor Albert (2019)

In: Belyaeva N., Albert V., Zaytsev D. (eds) Protest Publics. Societies and Political Orders in Transition. Springer, Cham

Abstract. In the late 2000s, a number of analysts were optimistic about Brazil’s future. Their expectant analyses did not bear out, however, as a political and economic crisis developed just as Brazil was gearing up to host two mega-events, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. This paper has two aims. The first is to deepen our understanding of the crisis through examining one of the foremost social actors to emerge in this period: the Landless Workers’ Movement (Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem-Teto, MTST). The second is to use this case to consider the potential for the sociology of critical capacity—a field of theory that emerged out of the Political and Moral Sociology Research Group in Paris in the 1980s—to contribute to theorising the ‘justification work’ of movements and protest publics.

Keywords: Crisis in Brazil; Pragmatic sociology; Protest publics; Homeless Workers’ Movement

Excerpt: “The research programme initiated by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot three decades ago has gone by various appellations, but the most promising and relevant for my analysis is the ‘sociology of critical capacity’ (Boltanski and Thévenot 1999).
This attention to ‘critical capacity’ is often contrasted with the tendency in critical theory to downplay the critical ability of agents to make judgements, evaluate alternatives and cooperate with others. The sociology of critical capacity thus sought to theorise the rationalisation of judgements, the means by which agreement is reached between disputants and the moral dimensions of cooperation. In On Justification, the founding text of the approach, Boltanski and Thévenot develop a flexible framework for the analysis of disputes and agreements, by elaborating ‘economies of worth’ (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006). Though often described as ‘ideal types’ (e.g. Jagd 2011), these ‘economies of worth’ are perhaps more productively considered here as moral-cultural repertoires (Silber 2003) or ‘forms of argumentation’ (Ricoeur 2000, p. 83) from which actors may draw in the evaluation of everyday events, actions and relationships. A central premise of the economies of worth approach is that in order to be considered socially legitimate, actors justify actions through drawing on a notion of the good that extends beyond the self, requiring a ‘rise in generality’. Boltanski and Thévenot derive six orders of worth (or ‘polities’) from key texts of political philosophy (2006, p. 67) which specify a plurality of public goods. These include the market polity (whose key theoretician is Adam Smith), the inspired polity (St. Augustine), the polity of renown (Hobbes), the civic polity (Rousseau) and the industrial polity (Saint-Simon). Subsequent research has also expanded these to include the networked order of worth (Boltanski and Chiapello 2005) and a green order of worth, which has accompanied the spread of environmentalism (Thévenot et al. 2000). The sociology of critical capacity is not only concerned with discursive legitimacy, however. Orders of worth have common requirements for inclusion (Thévenot 2011, p. 44) and correspond to different sets of ‘qualified objects’, which are used in the course of evaluation and the pursuit of public legitimacy. Boltanski and Thévenot use the term ‘worlds’ for the combination of the orders of worth and their qualified objects and conventions. The industrial world is composed of factories and manpower (objects), for instance, whose products may be compared according to accepted criteria. There may also be compromises between the orders in any particular evaluation. A product made in a factory, to take one example, may function excellently but be energy inefficient and thus susceptible to criticism according to green evaluative criteria. Further, any evaluation is impermanent, for instance, when the product breaks down, revealing a hitherto unacknowledged flaw in the industrial quality of the machine (e.g. Thévenot 2002, p. 61). There thus may be compromises and uncertainties revealed in the process of evaluation which unfold over time. Publics may allow groups to stake claims in terms of collective goods that correspond to the orders of worth, perhaps most commonly the egalitarianism of the civic order. But the contestations in which they are engaged may only be partially captured by a framework that is, for my purposes, too narrowly focused on ‘the critical practices evident in everyday life’ (Boltanski 2013, p. 47). Boltanski and Thévenot have pursued independent research programmes following the publication of On Justification, however, that extend the scope for theorising the relationship between the private and the public (Warner 2002) in quite different ways. Boltanski’s interest in the situated ideologies and characteristic critiques of capitalism is particularly relevant for the left-wing actor analysed here (Boltanski 2011, 2013; Boltanski and Chiapello 2005; see also Chiapello 2013). This is so because protestors’ claims may be justified through critiques of capitalist relations, the inequalities they generate or the unjust behaviour of elites, rather than in terms of explicitly articulated public goods. Or rather, the public goods which they pursue may only be implicit in their critiques of injustice, particularly as principled demands become embedded in more polarised forms of political contestation. Boltanski and Chiapello identify two principal critiques of capitalism as it has developed since the nineteenth century (2005). The first is a social critique that denounces the material inequalities that are generated through capital accumulation, while the second is an artistic critique that takes aim at the alienation and inauthenticity created through the commoditisation of human labour. Boltanski and Chiapello then historicise the social and historical critiques, arguing that both the artistic and the social critiques lost relevance as capitalism entered a new phase of development after the 1970s.”

(p. 102-103)

Link to the chapter

Link to the first version on Academia.edu