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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood