Review- “Poverty of Rights”

Posted: April 13, 2012 in Book Reviews

In Poverty of Rights, Brodwyn Fischer explores the formation of poor people’s citizenship rights in twentieth century Rio de Janeiro. While past historiography has considered the importance of legal relationships in poor people lives, Fischer advances an historical argument about the connections between law, poverty, and citizenship in modern urban Brazil. Although the Brazilian state under the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship created a wide array of political, social, and economic rights that gave working people hope in the possibilities of law and politics, it did not extend citizenship to Rio’s most impoverished urban slum dwellers.[1] As a result, Brazilian legal inequality and informality helped to create an urban underclass that built their lives with a patchwork of scanty rights and hard-won tolerance.[2] While informality allowed poor people to stay in the city, they have never been able to enjoy anything close to equal opportunity.[3]

Brodwyn Fischer traces the history of rights poverty in modern Rio de Janeiro in four parts that carefully explore the interactions between the urban poor and a particular field of Brazilian law in mid-twentieth century.[4] She first examines the long history of urban planning and regulatory law in Rio de Janeiro and considers how the city’s heterogeneous poor population was excluded from authorities’ modernizing visions, deprived of public resources, and obliged to create their own urban world in the suburbs, swamps, hills, and backyards of the “civilized city” that became Rio’s favelas.[5] She explains how onerous building codes were often circumvented by poor slum dwellers and opportunistic politicians, jurists, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats who exchanged legal tolerance of the favelas for the political backing of its residents. However, tolerance did not translate into rights of participation or permanence. Instead, poor peoples’ lack of rights only exacerbated their material poverty as they depended upon unofficial networks of patronage and clientelism for survival in Rio’s “illegal city.”

Fischer explains how the development of labor and social welfare laws during the Getúlio Vargas era perpetuated rights poverty in Rio. Although Vargas established entitlement programs for workers in the city’s industrial sector, he did not extend these same privileges to Rio’s most impoverished residents who were often oddjobbers, domestics, and street vendors. Social and economic citizenship were not birthrights, but rather were “privileges won through narrowly circumscribed forms of labor, morality, loyalty, and bureaucratic agility.”[6] Meanwhile, Vargas-era changes in the criminal and procedural codes, together with the rising importance of birth and marriage certificates and legalized property rights further obstructed slum dwellers’ claims to civil rights.[7] Poor people sought real permanence, justified by logics of history, need, and rights, but they could achieve only the indefinite tolerance forged from political convenience, logistical incapacity, and societal impasse.[8]

Brodwyn Fischer challenges historiography that links Brazil’s legacy of weak civil and political rights to a passive and powerless citizenry. Instead, Fischer explains how poverty’s of rights were woven fundamentally into Brazilian law’s twentieth-century expansion.[9] She contends that advances in the rule of law were accompanied by and depended to some degree upon the persistence of extralegal realms.[10] Informality became entrenched as a source of wealth and power and as a mechanism to ease potentially overwhelming social and political tensions.[11] Moreover, Fischer’s attention to urban planning, work, crime, and property suggests that Brazilian law was rife with socioeconomic assumptions, bureaucratic hurdles, and outright exclusions that together ensured that the vast majority of Rio’s poor would continue to live outside the sphere of citizenship.[12]

Although Fischer skillfully traces the causes and consequences of social inequality in modern urban Brazil, she tends to underestimate the degree to which race shaped poor peoples’ relationships with the state. Throughout her study of citywide arrest records, she omits arrests for traffic accidents, the so-called “numbers game,” and crimes against the popular economy, charges that were disproportionately leveled against darker-skinned Cariocas. An analysis of these arrests may have provided greater insight into how some groups of poor Cariocas were more deprived of their rights than others. Nevertheless, Fischer’s impressive collections of poor peoples’ letters to the Vargas regime, samba lyrics, and police reports shed light on a subject often overlooked by historians: the formation of urban slums and the reasons for their “de facto permanence.” Finally, Fischer’s book not only helps to explain poor peoples’ tenuous relationship with the state, but also sheds light upon the historical conditions that make Rio de Janeiro’s favelas breeding grounds for crime and violence. A Poverty of Rights thus provides the groundwork for a future historical inquiry into the formation of illicit economies, narcotrafficking networks, and youth gangs in Rio.


[1] Brodwyn Fischer, A Poverty of Rights: Citizenship and Inequality in Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 312.

[4] Ibid, 8.

[5] Fischer, 17.

[6] Ibid, 116.

[7] Fischer, 9.

[8] Fischer, 254.

[9] Ibid, 310.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 311.

[12] Ibid.

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