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The Tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul: A Critique of the Legal Form as a Mechanism for the Maintenance of Capital

Roberto Alexandre Levy

The recent tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul, marked by unprecedented events such as floods and landslides, has brought to light a series of environmental and social issues that cannot be ignored. Direct causes, such as extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, combine with indirect causes, such as inadequate public policies and lack of infrastructure, creating a devastating scenario. This situation illustrates the vulnerability of communities, especially the poorest ones, and the state's inability to effectively respond to environmental crises. Furthermore, the tragedy exposed deficiencies in urban planning and environmental management policies, which fail to protect citizens and the environment, leaving them at the mercy of profit and wealth accumulation. The consequence was the near-total destruction of a state, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people having their lives ruined and more than a hundred fatalities. The social and economic damage cannot yet be fully measured.

Examining this tragedy through the lens of the philosophy of law, we can identify the legal form as an element that not only reflects but also reproduces and sustains capitalist production relations. The critique proposed here starts from the premise that the legal form acts as a mechanism for perpetuating the logic of capital accumulation, rather than promoting collective well-being and environmental protection.

The legal form, as analyzed by the Soviet jurist Evgeny Pashukanis, is not just a set of norms and rules, but a social form[1] that reflects and sustains capitalist production relations. Pashukanis argues that law, in its essence, is inseparable from commodities and market relations, functioning as an instrument that naturalizes and legitimizes the exploitation and inequality inherent in capitalism. The legal form, by establishing legal subjects, private property, and contracts, creates and maintains the necessary conditions for the reproduction of capital. Therefore, the end of this mode of production must also be the end of the legal form, as legality arises in commodity circulation and reaches its full form in capitalist production. Pashukanis goes further to assert that legality not only accompanies capitalism but is an intrinsic expression of it. This conclusion reinforces the relevance of Pashukanis' critique, which will remain pertinent as long as the capitalist order exists (Kashiura Jr., 2009, p.54).

A clear example of this is the Economic Freedom Law (Law No. 13.874/2019), which aims to protect free enterprise and the exercise of economic activity, but faces criticisms for its constitutionality, especially in urban law. The law confuses free enterprise with real estate property rights, resulting in ambiguities and subjectivities that hinder its application. Specifically, the provisions on low-risk economic activities and compensatory measures are vague, compromising the social function of property and favoring large property owners. This leads to violations of the basic principles of urban law and the fundamental objectives of the Constitution, promoting urban deregulation under the false premise of debureaucratization. In other words, it ends up weakening essential environmental and urban regulations.

The commodification of nature and the legal form are intrinsically linked, reinforcing the logic of capitalist exploitation and allowing nature to be transformed into a commodity. In the context of Brazil, and consequently of Rio Grande do Sul, policies of real estate valuation and urban licensing also exemplify this dynamic. Urban legislation often turns the social function of property (cf. Jelinek, 2006) into an apparent instrument, preventing effective wealth distribution and environmental protection. Laws that confuse the right to free enterprise with private property ignore the need for regulations that protect collective well-being and the environment itself. This results in ambiguous and subjective application, favoring private interests over the public (Fontes et al, 2019).

Moreover, the rampant expansion of agribusiness with its monocultures based on agrochemicals and other related economic activities, such as extensive livestock farming, facilitated by legislation that prioritizes profit over sustainability, contributes to environmental degradation and the inexorable intensification of the ecological and climate crisis. Legislation allows the expansion of agribusiness and other economic sectors at the expense of the environment and local communities. This process is visible in the way urban legislation often ignores the social function of property, allowing private interests to prevail over collective well-being.

The analysis of the tragedies in Rio Grande do Sul from the perspective of the legal form as a reproducer of capital highlights the urgent need for structural transformation. Bourgeois law, instead of acting as a mechanism of protection and promotion of collective well-being, essentially exists to perpetuate the logic of capital accumulation. Pashukanis' critique remains alive and relevant as long as the capitalist order exists, reinforcing the need for a production model that prioritizes life over profit.

To overcome environmental and social crises, it is imperative to question and transform the legal form that sustains capitalism. Only through a rupture with the capitalist mode of production and the adoption of a socialist production model will it be possible to build a society that effectively protects both people and the environment.


KASHIURA JÚNIOR. C. N. Dialética e forma jurídica: considerações acerca do método de Pachukanis. In: NAVES, Marcio Bilharinho. (Org.). O discreto charme do Direito burguês: ensaios sobre Pachukanis. 1ª ed. Campinas: Instituto de Filosofia e Ciências Humanos da Unicamp, 2009, v. 8, p. 1-172.

LAW No. 13.874, OF SEPTEMBER 20, 2019. Chap. II, Art 3, Item I. Available at: Accessed on: May 20, 2024.

MASCARO, ALYSSON LEANDRO. Social forms, derivation, and conformation. REVISTA DEBATES, v. 13, p. 5-16, 2019.

PASHUKANIS, Evgeny B. General Theory of Law and Marxism. Translated by Paula Vaz de Almeida. 1st ed. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2017.

JELINEK, Rochelle: The Principle of the Social Function of Property. Porto Alegre. 2006. p.10. Available at: Accessed on: May 20, 2024.

FONTES, Mariana; NAKANO, Anderson; MARTINS, Maria; OLIVEIRA, Liana; ALFONSIN, Betânia. (2019). Technical note on Provisional Measure No. 881/2019, which institutes the declaration of rights to economic freedom. Available at: Accessed on: May 20, 2024.

[1] In the capitalist system, social forms constitute the fundamental structure of society and determine social relations. Social forms are understood as patterns or structures that organize social and economic life, influencing how individuals interact and relate to each other. Social determination refers to the process by which these forms shape and condition social practice, establishing limits and possibilities for human action. Thus, social forms are not mere abstractions but concrete elements that configure social and economic reality, playing a crucial role in the reproduction of production relations and power structures (Mascaro, 2019, pp. 8-10).

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