Questions from a miner who reads
by Anselm Jappe
Neoliberalism, as we know, is the epoch of privatization: privatization of hospitals and water supplies, knowledge and transport, the human genome and public space. Public powers are in retreat and corporations are invading, taking their place. In Italy, for instance, historical monuments can no longer be restored without a company sponsor covering the facade with a gigantic advertisement. Likewise, memory and perception are being privatized: the choice of how to speak about the past and the present of our world is increasingly left to private parties or — to be more blunt — to big companies. These companies are generally those whose work needs to be examined impartially by people who have no personal interest in defending them.
It is a kind of mental colonialism: those responsible for making the world the way it is also want to define what we think about their actions. If today the Church were to create a museum about the Inquisition, or if an association of sugarcane growers were to hold an exhibition on slavery, there would no doubt be a scandal. But when extraction companies in Brazil organize museums about mining, with public funds but in a private setting, is this not the same thing? Here, as elsewhere, the soft totalitarianism of the market has replaced open political totalitarianism. All modern totalitarian powers want to rewrite the past and have complete monopoly of perception: Stalinism and Maoism attempted to take this to extremes.
If this is true the world over, it is even more so in a country like Brazil. Here, public space has always been very limited. Not only in the sense that the state has been historically weak in comparison to the propertied classes (which is expressed today by the fact that, for instance, the tax rate for the rich and big businesses is very low, and there are huge fortunes that can afford any investment in the arts). However, public space is limited even in the primary sense that the street is generally abandoned to the poor and the “dangerous classes”; those who can avoid it never set foot there, going from one protected space to another by car.
The official discourse in this “emerging country” is an unbridled enthusiasm for a future supposed to be bright; people are supposed to forget the often shameful foundations of “economic development”. Of course, some important events — slavery, military dictatorship — are periodically evoked, but it is always stressed that this was in the past… But where does this leave the innumerable daily sufferings and injustices that may remain forever hidden?
This is what is particularly interesting about Mabe Bethônico’s project: it is not a museum specifically devoted to one subject or another, important as that would be, but to the principle of public discussion itself — a place where everything can be said. Here, ‘public’ does not mean ‘State’: the State also has things to hide and it should not have the monopoly of representation. Take for instance the Brazilian Federal State of Minas Gerais, where Bethônico’s project is taking place. We should remember the massacre of workers by police in Ipatinga in 1963 and the “concentration camp” of Barbacena’s psychiatric hospital, both kept in a distant past and never really accessed. Bethônico’s project creates a space for the emergence of another discourse, a counter-history. Similar to what the Bookmobile has been doing since the 1920s with books, Bethônico’s bus will bring the museum to those who do not otherwise go to museums of their own accord. In contrast to the shameless self-celebration of power, it provides not merely a different history, already written by supposedly independent journalists or alternative historians and scientists, but the possibility that the very voices of those who remain in the shadows — workers, indigenous people, women, the poor, and also nature — find ears ready to listen to and acknowledge their own history. ¶
Top . Museum of Public Concerns, by Mabe Bethônico, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Museum of public concerns . by Mabe Bethônico