Taking shelter

The cities of Brazil have long been segregated by gross inequality. Now slum-dwellers are saying the

I visited São Paulo for the first time two years ago, and I still remember that first drive from the airport to the city centre. Even now, the average visitor could be forgiven for thinking about asking the taxi driver to turn back. In the car window, a bleak landscape flashes by of boarded-up factories, dirty industrial zones and, most shockingly, huge expanses of shanty towns or favelas.

Running right up to the roadside, these slums are not confined to the urban periphery; they are present in the very heart of a city that is segregated by sickening inequality. While some buy apartments at London prices and enjoy a swimming pool on each floor, thousands sleep under bridges, outside shops and in makeshift shelters of wood, card and corrugated metal.

This brutal social division motivates the activists of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Teto (MTST), or Homeless Workers' Movement. Thousands from different backgrounds join together to campaign for the right to dignified housing for all. Through occupations, roadblocks and camp-outs in front of the mayor's office, the group is forcing the housing issue on to the agenda from São Paulo to Recife.

For many, the decision to join this burgeoning movement flows naturally from the experience of growing up in the favelas. Helena Silvestre, a national co-ordinator for the movement at just 23 years old, grew up in poverty in Greater São Paulo and, aged 11, became involved in local political groups as a "response to the daily problems I was living and witnessing".

The key moment for Silvestre came in 2003 when, unemployed and living alone, she decided to join an MTST occupation in São Bernardo, an industrial area of Greater São Paulo.

"My motivations?" she asks rhetorically. "My parents are very poor, and I have five younger siblings - one sister works at a supermarket for R$450 [about £130] a month. I've always seen my parents work hard but get nowhere - and it seems so irrational to live in a world that produces so much, but where so many people lack so much."

The MTST grew out of the widely popular Landless Workers' Movement in the 1990s and quickly gained autonomy from its rural-based counterpart. Since then, it has grown in numbers and prominence, drawing in many middle-class activists. One such is Lizandra Guedes, a specialist in child education who has put her skills to use for the movement's occupations.

Guedes explains that she was initially attracted to the movement by its principles and methods of organisation, which, she believes, relate to important inner-city problems such as unemployment and drug trafficking. But the homeless workers quickly assumed a deeply personal sig nificance for her.

Describing an initially intense and difficult process as she "broke with the values of her class", Guedes tells me how she realised that the privileges of her middle-class background - such as the education to which she had access - could contribute to class conflict. "The movement has made it possible for me to remake my identity, redefine my life objectives - and, of course, has produced a hope for an end to social domination and oppression," she says.

The MTST focuses primarily on carrying out urban occupations. Since 2005 it has held two major camps in Greater São Paulo. The locations chosen for these protest camps are plots of vacant land, often owned by speculators simply waiting for the right time to make a profit on their investment. The names of the camps reflect Brazil's historic social struggle: for example, there has been "João Cândido", after an African-Brazilian slave descendant who led a sailors' revolt in 1910, and "Chico Mendes", after the rubber tapper and trade unionist murdered in 1988.

Each camp generates further actions, typically demonstrations targeting seats of executive or legislative power. Last year, 5,000 people marched 18km to the state governor's house. Sometimes there is a crescendo of direct action, such as last year again when, in so-called "Red April", a traditional season for leftist action, homeless acti vists blocked three main roads in São Paulo. In October, a similar protest created gridlock in the north-eastern city of Recife.

The camps that spring up during the occupations are not only a visible expression of outrage at unjust land ownership. In their very structure and activities, they embody a much broader political and social vision. The camps are built around communal kitchens where those who have no money to buy food are able to get a meal. There is a unity of both resources and vision.

"Everyone thinks of a better life! No one wants their children to pass through the same difficulties they have had - and I don't have different dreams from others," says Silves tre, whose association with the group started when she worked in one of the camp kitchens. "For me, the movement is important because it is where I am able to realise this dream, alongside and sharing with others doing the same thing."

The results of the occupations vary. The first such action in Campinas eventually prepared the way for a housing project for more than 5,000 families. Yet there is always the risk that the authorities will refuse to negotiate, and that the military police will use violence to break up a camp before there have been any concrete gains. In some cases, the police have cut off supplies to camps, including food and water.

Living in hope

Brazil's government is often described as being part of the general move leftwards of governments in South America, but police brutality against such movements has, on occasion, been authorised by local officials of President Lula da Silva's own Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party). MTST activists can barely conceal their disdain at the way in which, in the words of the São Paulo State co-ordinator Marco Fernandes, Lula's party forsook its once-impressive grass-roots support and turned into an "election-winning machine".

Silvestre echoes her comrade's disappointment, lamenting that the homeless activists have few supporters in government and must rely instead on smaller, radical leftist groupings. But perhaps the absence of friends in high places is not such a bad thing. Across South America, grass-roots movements have taken the lead in challenging neoliberal orthodoxies, sometimes as part of an electoral strategy (for example, propelling Evo Morales to victory in Bolivia) and other times by creating "pockets of resistance" (similarly to the Zapatistas in Mexico).

Guedes affirms her belief that forming groups such as the Homeless Workers' Movement is the most effective way of organising people to work for "radical social transformation". There is a long way to go, even in Brazil. However, the campaign for proper housing for all is, in its bold vision, kindling hope across the nation and keeping the spotlight on one of the country's most pressing problems. The plan is to continue the occupations and direct pro tests throughout 2008, with the simple message of affordable and dignified housing for the rapidly increasing numbers of urban poor.

"You live in what capitalism has constructed, but you don't stay still, looking on," says Silvestre. "You live it, because you are obliged to. But from the inside, you plant the seeds of another place."

Ben White is an activist and writer. His latest book is "Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy"

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times