Heliopolis and Helipad

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 15,  Revolution

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I THINK often of Daslu, the department store in São Paulo that has, I am told, no doors. One enters from the garage below or one helicopters onto the roof. It’s like a fucking Bond pic. When I first learned of this it seemed like a missed opportunity for Fredric Jameson, who hinges his epochal Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism on the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and particularly on its unnavigability, a feature that begins with the challenge of entering the hotel from the street. You want unnavigability? You want recalcitrance to foot traffic? You should really check out Daslu.

But that’s not quite right. The store corresponds to Jameson’s account in some ways. It stands apart from the city that surrounds it, a characteristic Jameson identifies in differing ways with both modernism and postmodernism. Its interior is extravagantly elaborated. And yet, built in the carapace of an old mansion, it does not quite typify the “postmodern hyperspace” that Jameson took as allegory for “the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.” One should not force analogies for the simple reason that any clever person can do it. So I stopped worrying about postmodernism and Jameson’s missed opportunity.

But I didn’t stop worrying about Daslu. An ominous mansion with no doors is the stuff of nightmare, and it stayed with me. There are other ways to read its design beyond or before sophisticated cultural allegories. Though the heliport is blunt in its testimony, the subterranean garage is even more suggestive, each vehicle inspected by private security for weapons, explosives. What does it mean to fashion an exclusion zone of such rigor that it seems to contravene the very idea of shopping, the compulsions of exchange? Perhaps it is the simple production of exclusivity. And in some sense it is a version of every other poor law, a version of the prohibition on overnight street parking in leafy neighborhoods in the United States designed to make them as hospitable as possible for homeowners and inhospitable for others. But Daslu has an intensity one might almost admire, that seems to make the dialectical leap from quantity to quality of exclusion. It is illiberality armed. The pretense of democracy that provides an ethos for the market — are we not all equal in the moment of exchange? — has no place here.

There are perhaps three million living in São Paulo’s favelas and corticos. The wealth here is global luxury wealth. The poverty is local. Heliópolis, São Paulo’s largest favela with over 100,000 souls, has 300 books in its library. Like many other slums, it is pushed up directly against high-rise glamour sequestered by gates, walls, security guards. These last most of all. The well-heeled of São Paulo make pervasive use of private security against threat of violence, theft, and kidnapping; they are hustled from house to car by action teams like politicians in a world of potential assassins, played by the corticados and favelados, the classes dangereuses. And that’s all there is. There is no intermediate layer to provide a buffer, to provide persons who might be strolling about town on a Saturday afternoon with a paycheck. There is no middle class for sociologists to obsess over, to put into quintiles, the striated and subtle subclasses that fascinate them. The Foot Traffic For A Luxury Department Store Class is absent; any doors meant for them would be purely vestigial. Maybe you have a chopper at your disposal, maybe you are in a heavy black car, maybe it’s armored — or you are hungry. This is the social world mapped by Daslu’s design. This is its nonallegorical meaning. Wealth polarization developed to the point where daily life takes on the contours of asymmetrical warfare.

It is easy enough, presented with the theme of revolution, to bemoan its disappearance as a horizon, to despair at the willingness of so-called radicals to throw their arms around the knees of the latest SYRIZA. It is similarly easy to understand how once-revolutionary factions came to be prone in the first place. If there was a systematic global project of the postwar era, it was not “neoliberalism”; it was the annihilation of revolution as a plausible human goal, and the concomitant destruction of any content for the idea of emancipation, until people at the end of human history would associate it with full employment.

But the Pascalian wager of revolution seems no less self-evident: there will be a revolution, a series of them, or the world will end for humans. It has already ended for those condemned to misery, utterly indentured or utterly dispossessed as a condition of birth.

So let us assume there will be a revolution, an emancipatory one, not the kind mentioned often enough by Elon Musk or the Marinho brothers of Grupo Globo. Where might it begin? This is not an easy question, and not one to which we need know the answer in advance. If I had to guess, I would look at places where social antagonism is pitched so high as a practical fact, as a consequence of extreme polarization, that it is already beginning to exceed state management, where the rich are rich enough to hire shooters, and to need them. This is just a guess, one way among many to think about this, but it’s a start. Once it pops off, a series of problems will present themselves, not the least of which is how the revolution will sustain itself, cut off from market goods. Brazil, with its prodigious agricultural productivity, offers real possibilities — even if, once the semi-temperate southlands are seized, capitalist organization of production is broken immediately, as one hopes. These are factors we might look for, then: dramatic and increasing use of private security, and ready arable land that can serve as what a friend calls the “belly of the revolution” against the closure of the world market. These are only two coordinates. It unfolds according to many. Neither you nor I will tell it how to unfold. Once begun it will have to spread, of course. Or not spread, exactly, but erupt elsewhere. People will start the day organizing their lives around the free sharing of communal goods, and end the day defending this. Whether people will seize Daslu for a well-fortified outpost or loot it and light it, its fate is sealed.


Joshua Clover is author of six books and has been translated into a dozen languages. His two latest are Red Epic (Commune Editions) and Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso).