Marielle Franco, the Brazilian socialist feminist and LGBT activist, was brutally gunned down in Rio de Janeiro in March this year.
Franco was a member of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), a revolutionary split from the Workers’ Party (PT). She was an outspoken critic of police brutality and the Brazilian president’s use of the army to intervene in the favelas of the city.
Franco’s death has been attributed to gangs, but many suspect it was an extra-judicial killing by militias closely linked to the state.
Some 17 of the world’s 50 most violent cities are in Brazil, while Rio has 10 times as many murders as London. Franco argued that working class action, in communities and workplaces, was the answer to both the state and the gangs. For many workers across the globe, socialist answers cannot come quickly enough.
Violent deaths are a fact of everyday life in many parts of the world and nowhere is the situation worse than in Latin America. Every year over half a million people are estimated to die as a result of violence across the continent, with more than two-thirds (68%) of those deaths counted as murders alone. This is more deaths than in wars and worse than some of the worst hotspots of global conflict.
Latin America has the worst rates of murder. It has eight percent of the world’s population, but 38% of the world’s murders. Just seven states in Latin America (El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia) account for a quarter of annual global murders. And those deaths are highly concentrated in the sprawling barrios of Latin American cities: four out of five violent killings occur on two percent of the same streets.
El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world at present, with 81 violent deaths per 100,000 of the population — ten times the global average.
In January 2017, it was widely reported that El Salvador had just had a single day without a murder, compared to the norm of 12 a day and at worst of over 30 a day. However it was a false dawn: it turned out a few weeks later that a murder had taken place and the “record” was scratched.
The situation in El Salvador has been dire for decades. Civil war throughout the 1980s between the military junta and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) saw probably a hundred thousand killings, the use of death squads by the state and the decimation of civil society. At the turn of the century, its president sent troops into the streets to tackle gangs, which sent the murder rate soaring again. After a truce brokered in 2012 and some respite, in 2015 another president sent the army back to the streets with predictable results: a spike of more than 100 deaths per 100,000.
Mexico is a much larger and more industrially developed state than El Salvador, but it has been beset by growing violent deaths in recent decades. Mexican feminists estimate that more than 400 women have been murdered in Cuidad Juarez in the past 25 years. In September 2014, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College were forcibly kidnapped and then disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero state. Barely any of their remains have been found.
The Mexican federal state’s response has undoubtedly worsened an already dire situation. In 2011, the president sent the army on to the streets to wage war on the drug cartels, resulting in the murder rate shooting up. The current president tried the same tactic last year with the same result: some 32 murders per 100,000 people.
The ruling classes of the world have a whole literature with their “explanations” for murder. Whole departments of universities and a phalanx of academics pontificate about the causes of violent death. Very few point to the underlying systemic causes, but prefer to take refuge behind truism and speculation.
The Economist, house-journal of the cosmopolitan, globalising bourgeoisie recently assessed the situation of violent death in Latin America, providing a host of quantitative indices along with a long list of possible reasons for this continental predicament. They blame fragile governments, along with family breakdown. They point to the availability of weaponry as well as seasoned fighters left over from civil wars, alongside organised crime based around the drugs trade. Socio-economic causes such as urbanisation, unemployment as well as poor public services get a mention. Even drunken brawls turn out to be a major cause.
If the diagnoses are superficial, then many of the proposed “solutions” are facile. Repression is blithely discussed, including mass incarceration, harsher prisons, together with more police. This is married to “smarter” policing: “violence observatories” to generate more accurate statistics, to enable targeted state measures. In the long term they say economic growth will reduce poverty — somehow, slowly, trickling down from the rich while everything is left in private hands. These promises of a brighter future are the succour for a lamentable present.
Marxists have a distinctive explanation for crime in general and violence deaths in particular. The analysis starts from our understanding of all social phenomenon as rooted in the particular social relations of production in a given society, or more concretely the class relations specific to a particular epoch and to particular places.
Latin America like most of the rest of the world is dominated by the capitalist mode of production, in which the means of production are mostly held as private property by capitalist owners, while the majority have to earn their means of subsistence through waged labour. An irreplaceable social relation within capitalism are bourgeois states, with their desired monopoly of violence over a given territory and which attempts to define the terms of law (and criminality) within a given space.
Marx understood law as a fundamental condition for the reproduction of capitalism. The wage labour-capital relationship depends upon an apparently equal contract between the worker and the capitalist, while relations between capitals depend on a structured framework of contracts to underpin profit, investment, credit and other business activity. Therefore law takes on a particular form under capitalism that is distinctive from other class societies: effectively a form of “legal fetishism” that parallels commodity fetishism — the veneer of equality that masks exploitation and oppression underneath.
Therefore an explanation for violence in Latin America would have to examine the specific, concrete class relations in these societies, including the particular strata and divisions within the two main classes. Marxists point to the criminality of sections of the capitalist class, including the manner in which the ruling factions flout their own imposed laws, alongside the activity of capitalist businesses that own and control illegal activities such as the drugs trade.
Marxists highlight the partial absence of monopolised armed force in many Latin American states, so that many bourgeois states do not even control much of the activity of their own armed forces and police, who kill with impunity, while also facing direct challenges from armed gangs involved in criminal business activity.
Finally, Marxists also point to the precarity of wide sections of the exploited classes in securing their own means of subsistence, giving rise to a large informal sector in which legal relations are weak and coercion rife.
Marxists want a socialist society organised on a completely different basis.
Working class rule would abolish private ownership of the means of production, while reorganising industry under democratic and workers’ control. Instead of the venal pursuit of private profit, production for need would guarantee the means of life to billions who currently live for their next pay packet, and certainty that they could live without the fear of homelessness, hunger and poverty.
Democratic workers’ states would remould law around new social relations of production. These laws would be regulated by armed forces, the police and judiciary re-established on a consistently democratic basis. After the Russian revolution, some activists argued for the abolition of bourgeois law and for “proletarian” law. The Bolshevik legal thinker Evgeni Pashukanis argued that workers’ states in transition to socialism would retain and indeed strengthen aspects of bourgeois law, both by legislating for real thoroughgoing equality and by decriminalising certain previously illegal activities. The Paris Commune’s workers’ government managed to rapidly reduce crime during its short existence.
How does this affect the situation in Latin America today? First, it means recognising that criminality is endemic to modern capitalism and that real, sustainable solutions require socialism. Working class self-emancipation will cut the roots of a whole range of social barbarism brought about by bourgeois rule. Therefore the labour movement needs to fight for socialism, rather than tinkering with reforms under capitalism. Socialism is possible in Latin American conditions, given the size and weight of the working class, along with its tremendous militancy over decades, including in the teeth of military rule.
However the majority of the working class in Latin America is not currently organised for socialism, so what should socialists agitate for in immediate terms?
First, collective working class self-defence in the form of workers’ own militias to protect working class communities from attacks by both the state and criminal gangs is the most immediate practical answer. This would be allied to demands for democratic control over the police and the armed forces, over the judiciary and all aspects of central and local government.
Socialists in Latin America should argue for democratic freedoms and changes to the law in a wide spheres of life. The legalisation and regulation of the drugs trade on a continental basis would go a long way towards tackling one of the drivers of violence in Latin America. Laws criminalising abortion, LGBT relationships and other forms of oppression should be scrapped immediately, while laws against domestic violence, hate crime and related matters should be strengthened.
Socialists should also agitate for the guaranteed means of life for millions in Latin America who currently do not have it. That means secure and paid employment, decent public services including housing, education and healthcare. It would involve the state nationalising private industry, even on a capitalist basis, as a means to build proper cities in place of barrios and provide work for all who need it.
Lifting millions out of desperate poverty would also undercut the roots of violence between and within working-class communities.
A programme of demands like this, worked out by socialist workers across Latin America and adapted to their own circumstances, would revive the labour movement through the fight for immediate reforms while pointing in the direction of socialism. This was the political project of Marielle Franco and other socialist activists across the region.
It is an urgent and burning necessity for millions of workers across Latin America.