Transgressive Citizenship and the Struggle for Social Justice: The Right to the City in São Paulo

Transgressive Citizenship and the Struggle for Social Justice: The Right to the City in São Paulo


Reviewed by Bianca Tavolari

First Published:

16 Nov 2018, 10:49 am


Transgressive Citizenship and the Struggle for Social Justice: The Right to the City in São Paulo

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017; 334 pp.: 978-3-319-51399-7, £104.50 (hbk)


Transgressive Citizenship and the Struggle for Social Justice: The Right to the City in São Paulo is an in-depth dive into the diverse political, legal and social strategies employed by different Brazilian housing movements in order to contest the unequal patterns that shape the urban landscape of one of the most important global cities in Latin America. Lucy Earle’s ethnography guides the reader into negotiations between the social movements’ representatives and local housing authorities, into the political disputes unrolled in public hearings in which housing policies are thematised and into the movements’ internal meetings and discussions – and also gives the reader a glimpse of the everyday life inside occupied buildings in São Paulo’s downtown. One of the threads that connect all of these insightful glances into the oppositional, contestatory and sometimes conciliatory relationship between social movements and the variegated State levels is how the social actors justify the actions that guide their struggles.

The book is mainly focused on the reasons given to justify the understanding that housing is a social right with precedence over private property and to justify when to actively participate in councils and institutional channels created by the State or when to call upon direct action occupying empty buildings in the city centre. Those reasons given by the social movements’ leaders to themselves, to the State and also more broadly to the public sphere are part of an ongoing dispute over the legitimacy of the movements’ claims. Justification, public reasons and legitimacy are, as Lucy Earle rightly puts it, completely intertwined with legality.

Earle offers an innovative perspective on how the urban poor see themselves as citizens. This is one of the book’s main strengths. Differently from other accounts regarding the making of citizenship in Brazil, Earle moves the focus away from a struggle for homeownership and looks at housing as a social right. Therefore, Earle’s ethnography centres the attention on the homeless organised in collective action in São Paulo’s downtown and not on working-class individuals aspiring to own private property on the city’s outskirts, marking an important difference from James Holston’s Insurgent Citizenship (2009). The author shows how the housing movements use the idea of the right to the city to promote their claims for greater social and spatial justice. Their demands see the housing question as more than four walls and a roof. The claim for the right to the city is also a demand to be part of an urban centrality with public facilities of all types and also to take part in the decision-making process regarding urban questions. It is a claim to transform the city as it is – and this is one of the elements that characterise what she calls ‘transgressive citizenship’.

The author also defends the thesis of the existence of a ‘legal ambiguity’ (p. 16) that permeates all social relations. Drawing upon a Brazilian scholarship that has opposed a ‘legal city’ to an ‘illegal’ one in order to comprehend the social inequalities that have structured the shaping of modern São Paulo, Earle criticises what she calls an ‘unhelpful dichotomy’ (pp. 78–79) that strongly underlines the legal or illegal characteristics of the social and urban territories addressed by this urban literature. In Earle’s view, the differences are rather marked by porosity, by a grey zone in which it is not possible to clearly identify and determine what is legal and what is not. Therefore, it is also difficult – or impossible – to divide the movements’ and the State representatives’ actions into those opposing and contrasting terms.

But although she claims the necessity to abandon a strong dualist perspective in order to better grasp the housing movements’ relation towards the rule of law, there are many passages in which the author clearly decides to evaluate some actions as illegal, reinserting the opposition she had earlier criticised. For sure, the author brings many elements that show the ambiguous and controversial legal status of building occupations, but they are also characterised as ‘an act that is in theory illegal’ (p. 60), as a ‘potential illegal direct action’ that functions as a threat to State authorities (p. 214) and as acts that ‘almost always [involve] some violence’ (p. 237) and that ‘according to the penal and civil codes … are illegal, because they (generally) involve (some limited) damage to property and, if the building owner files a complaint, trespass’ (p. 240). The very framing of the overarching question as two different and quite irreconcilable strategies of, on the one hand, ‘rule-making’ or ‘playing by the rules’ – expressions used to refer to the movements’ civil participation in official consultation channels – and, on the other hand, ‘rule-breaking’ – used whenever occupations are at stake – shows that the whole argument has difficulties in leaving those somewhat overdetermined dichotomies behind.

Nevertheless, what is understood as ‘legal’ or as ‘law’ is the most important question here. When stating that occupations are illegal, the legal text is used as the main or only criterion for legality – and this is problematic for many reasons. First, this approach is closer to a ‘law in books’ rather than to a ‘law in action’ perspective. Although the Brazilian civil and criminal codes assert that occupying private property should be qualified as an invasion subject to multiple penalties, Earle’s own empirical research shows that ‘across the federal, state and municipal governments, there is general consensus that occupations are justifiable forms of protest’ (p. 256) and that judges may also rule in favour of housing policies (pp. 156–157), demonstrating that legality is a matter of different interpretations and not an essence in itself. The legal text is, for sure, an important part of determining legality but, in itself, it may lead to misleading conclusions about the legal dynamics that underlie social conflicts. Second, this assumption contrasts with some of Earle’s theoretical references regarding law: she uses, for instance, Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ concepts in order to affirm that law cannot be reduced to norms solely enacted by the State and that, therefore, ‘illegal’ does not necessarily means ‘outside the law’ (p. 77). And third, the justifications presented by the housing movements are also legal, as Earle describes in detail. They are contesting the very assumption that occupying empty buildings should be considered a crime. And they are not only calling on moral arguments, but mainly on legal ones: the Brazilian Constitution affirms that private property requires a social function, otherwise it may be subject to expropriation; the constitutional texts also assert housing as a social right. Many of the social movements’ leaders and academics who have contributed to Earle’s research say basically the same thing: that the Brazilian Constitution is hierarchically superior to other enacted bills and that when the movements occupy empty buildings, they are actually trying to implement the law – and not breaking it. Earle is well aware of all of that. But she understands the dispute over the interpretation of the law as an intra-legal civil disobedience and, in her perspective, civil disobedience necessarily requires a legal violation of some sort.

Assuming that occupying empty buildings is an illegal act has a major consequence for the author’s thesis. When talking about one specific housing movement, the Federation of Housing Movements (União dos Movimentos de Moradia – UMM), Earle affirms that:

its commitment to the ‘satellite concept’ of the rule of law is problematic. While the UMM has been involved in both the creation of pro-poor housing legislation and litigation against the state (suggesting a belief in the role that law can play in regulating society), it is also frequently involved in transgressive collective action of questionable legality. (p. 149)

Earle understands the movements’ commitment to the rule of law – and, in the end, to democracy itself – as problematic because she assumes that they violate the law – a clear illegality rather than a ‘questionable legality’.

The very same assumption leads the author to conclude, in the last chapter of the book:

But the most important way that the movements draw the line between themselves and the state is by putting themselves on the wrong side of the law, through their acts of civil disobedience, asserting a type of ‘transgressive citizenship’ in the process. (p. 277)

None of Earle’s empirical findings suggests that the movements describe themselves as ‘on the wrong side of law’ or that they understand and justify themselves as being legally wrong. Quite the contrary – and Earle surely knows that:

By critiquing current limited levels of citizenship through illegal action, the movements manage to redirect the finger of blame and apportion criminality on the state. At the same time, in a twist on the traditional idea of civil disobedience, they assert the legality of their own practice, by representing occupations as an operationalization of the articles of the Constitution. (p. 281)

Once again, this can only be understood as a contradiction if we decide, beforehand, to characterise occupations as illegal actions. The idea of the ‘wrong side of the law’ is directly linked to another of the book’s theses: the idea that there is an equalisation between the legal transgressions made by the State – or by individuals and firms with the acquiescence of the State – and the supposed transgressions of the housing movements. Since São Paulo was built upon transgressions, the movements would only ‘mimic’ (p. 61) a series of legal violations. Here, the author does not seem to draw clear distinctions between the different social actors (State and social movements) and between the contexts in which the ‘transgressions’ take place (the making of São Paulo in the 1970s and 1980s during a military dictatorship, on one hand, and the democratic period of the 2000s, on the other). All actions are understood as same-level transgressions that equalise each other. There seems to be no right side of the law.

The conflicts between the theoretical framework and the book’s empirical research I have presented here do not undermine Earle’s most general perspective on social movements and the right to the city in São Paulo. The book poses the right questions and should therefore be read by anyone interested in the present transformations of citizenship.




Holston, J (2009). Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Google Scholar


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