Inclusion, Political Mobilization, and Social Cohesion in a Brazilian Megacity

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Nov. 15, 2022

On Friday, November 4, the Brazil LAB organized a panel on ‘São Paulo: Governing the Brazilian Megacity,’ featuring Benjamin Bradlow. José Lira served as the discussant for the event.

Bradlow, an associate research scholar in the Department of Sociology at Princeton and a lecturer in Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, presented findings from a recently published paper based on long-term interviews and fieldwork in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city in terms of population. Bradlow examined questions of urban growth, inequality, housing, sanitation and political mobilization and based his analysis around the critical question: ‘why do some urban governing regimes realize a more equal distribution of public goods than others?’. For Bradlow, the nearly three-decade long period from the framing of Brazil’s democratic constitution in 1988 to 2016 is a key moment in the contemporary urban and civic history of São Paolo, in which the city “made remarkable improvements in the inclusion of the poor peripheral neighborhoods into the physical infrastructures of livability in the city”.

Bradlow argued how São Paulo defies two key “predictions” of prevailing urban sociological and political science theory pertaining to growth inequality, the concentration of power in local elite networks, power/class coalitions and redistributive forms of political mobilization. Noteworthy, for Bradlow, are the facts the despite multiple political parties being in power (between 1988-2016) trade unions (as a representation of the political Left) are not the primary working-class sector; instead “housing movements have been more important in the city.” This key conclusion is linked to Bradlow’s broader analysis about, for instance, a “172% increase in household toilets in informal settlements between 1991-2011”, which is a significant example of the ways quality of life, inclusion, social cohesion and health can be achieved in concert.

For Bradlow, the key distinguishing features of São Paulo’s “redistributive gains in the standard of living” are connected with conditions that facilitate “state embeddedness in civil society” (an ability of housing movements to influence political policy-making around housing, secure key financial and legal legislations in favor of inclusion) and “cohesive institutions” (coordination among various scales of government, high and low level bureaucracies often with representatives who owe loyalties to the state and popular housing movements). The multi-pronged moral and material scalar politics of mobilizations implicating popular activists, various hierarchies of government, bureaucracy and civil society, for Bradlow, create particular conditions through which São Paolo has achieved particularly significant forms of “inclusion” different from other megacities in Brazil (and even globally). In Bradlow’s assessment, the need of the hour for urban planning is “bring[ing] institutions back into thinking about the production of urban inequality” and “bringing the city back as a key scale (as opposed to say, ‘the nation’) in mobilizing political struggles.”

In his remarks, José Lira, professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of São Paulo, raised critical questions about the capacity and valence of theorization about global urban processes and politics through the situatedness of a Brazilian megacity. Lira asked to what extent categories frequently used in bureaucratic urban planning regimes might function as “ideal types” and to what extent these might then raise questions about their “representativeness as modes of mobilization among those not directly linked to formal and informal networks of housing”. Lira also raised seminal points about “the forms of fragmentation generated by urban expansion and the inequalities that are not visible” and the ability of sociological, urban and political categories to configure themselves around people’s pluralistic needs rather than the standpoints of bureaucracy and state-directed planning. Lira also raised a key methodological question about how one might use the analysis of São Paolo as a megacity and the categories of “embeddedness” and “cohesion” to evaluate smaller cities. “Megacities of the global South are often interpellated by the agendas of international institutions who levy certain funding conditions on them” – how, Lira asked, would this shift or sharpen the analysis at hand?

A vital and lively discussion followed the audience around questions about the ethic-moral valence of urban categories like ‘slums’ and ‘favelas’, the role of anthropological processes and practices of everyday living and dying within bureaucratic imaginations of the megacity, the pace and power of electoral time, radical housing movements as also the salience of causal variables like economic shifts, fiscal policies and precarities that link the city to the nation through nuanced forms of federal mediation.

The event was co-sponsored by the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Departments of Anthropology, Sociology and Spanish and Portuguese.