On January 17, Guilherme Boulos, national coordinator of Brazil’s Homeless Workers Movement (MTST), was arrested as he tried to negotiate with police as they violently evicted seven hundred families from an area that had sat empty for forty years. His arrest reopened debate over the country’s ongoing criminalization of social movements.
While high-profile leaders like Boulos are less likely to face arrest and prosecution than rank-and-file militants, it has happened before. The MST, still the largest social movement in Brazil, has experienced criminalization over the years that has intensified since Michel Temer assumed the presidency.
Some speculate that this is because he has an illegitimate mandate and his right-wing support has carried a strong wave of anti-leftist sentiment with it. But Boulos arrest was authorized by laws that predate Temer. A local law concerning “criminal organizations” dates back to 2013, and Dilma Rousseff ratified a new antiterrorism law shortly before her impeachment last year, despite warnings from social movements that it would criminalize dissent.
This partly explained why radical left organizations were shocked by Rousseff’s display of empathy toward Boulos and her defense of social movements’ political freedom. Now that the PT has lost its place at the head of the federal government, it is trying to rally its base. To do so, it often downplays the damage it did to left unity, social rights, and freedoms while in government.
This interview with Gilmar Mauro, a national leader of the Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), took place during the 2010 elections — long before the massive 2013 demonstrations, the Rousseff administration’s crisis, her impeachment, and the PT’s implosion across Brazil.
In the interview, Mauro discusses the complicated relationship between the PT and social movements, especially the gap between official politics and daily struggles. He also points to the PT’s failures up until then, which provide foresight into the party’s refusal to represent the Left and the growing anti-petismo (anti-PT) feeling that would follow.
The MST continues to support the efforts of the PT and the moderate left, but Mauro’s reflections indicate that tensions from 2010 contributed to the party’s decline and the deterioration of its relationship with popular organizations.
By rescuing this previously unpublished interview, conducted by Charmain Levy, we hope to contribute to the reflections on the relationship between leftist parties and social movements and the chorus of ideas about what can be done to address the crisis of the Brazilian left.
Do you think social movements have lost influence on the governing leftist parties?
I would say that, but not just in terms of losing influence. In terms of strategy, what was the strategy throughout the 1970s? It’s the idea of the democratic popular project. What was it based on? It’s the institutional dispute as a means to strengthen the social struggle. It’s the pinça tactic. You compete in the institutional realm with the goal of strengthening social movements.
This didn’t happen. The institutional dispute and space became the strong arm, and the social movements were the weak arm. Look at the urban social movements: they’re in crisis, weakened. The campesino [farmers’ or peasants’] social movement has had many difficulties. The student movement, ditto . . . The union movement, too, is in a very defensive position. You strengthened the institutional struggle and weakened the social struggle. So social movements in general are weaker than in the 1980s.
They aren’t strong enough to influence anything inside of the PT, period because they lost social and political strength, even during the PT governments. If they have a critique, it won’t echo because of a lack of strength. In the political struggle, you can have the best ideas in the world, but if you lack political strength, no one will listen to you. And this is the biggest problem, including during elections.
It’s a disgraceful situation for the whole of the Left. It’s a really bad situation because the elections should be a politicizing moment, but they aren’t. They’ve become a market-based dispute; the candidates are sold as merchandise. The Left — even the MST — has to discuss the role of the elections in the process of struggle.
The second aspect — and this isn’t particular to Brazil, this is everywhere in the world — is that the Left is in crisis and fragmented. Why? Because of the international situation, the changes that have happened in the global economy and in the working class. You look at the economic situation and find new sectors of the working class, but we’ve lost the potential for strikes in the factories. For example, Nike: how many factories does it have? It doesn’t have any. Nike is only the brand. Everything else is outsourced, precarious, slave labor, child labor. This logic fragmented the class. So if there is a strike in one country but the company has factories in Korea, it just has to transfer work to Korea in order to defeat the strike. This threw the working class in a defensive position on an international scale.
The instruments the working class has produced — the social movements, the labor union movement, and the parties themselves — are unable to contemplate the heterogeneity of the entire class. The labor union can’t do it, the social movements can’t do it. So this is one of the challenges for today, thinking up new organizing forms.
But is there also a matter of individualism? Above all in the cities?
The class is fragmented and atomized. I’ll use an example of shoemakers inside the state of São Paulo. They were a strong class sector. The process of atomization took many shoemakers away from the factory, and today they work at home. The shoemaker becomes a sort of autonomous worker, and he provides services to the factory. So he works for much longer than eight hours. And the whole family works too, because they earn based on productivity. That is, the alienation is not over eight hours of labor; now he sells productivity. The sugarcane cutter also sells productivity. They kill themselves working.
But how can this person go on strike? He can’t anymore. The strike as an instrument is out of the question. This leads to a process of individualization, because he sees himself in relation to the factory, and you lose the dimension of the class sector. Class identity is lost this way.
It’s not particular to Brazil: it’s a global reality. This is one of the great challenges for a left that wants to come up with a project of social transformation. First it has to discuss a deep interpretation of this new reality. Second, it must reach critical conclusions about these instruments that were built in the twentieth century.
I agree, but this is not an easy thing to do. There are many leaders who live within these structures.
I agree with you. The leaders are the third aspect. I put forward this criticism: it’s necessary to think of new methodologies for social movement work.
You look at the leader. What’s the militancy? You look now at the elections, what’s the militancy? They’re hired. The union leader has that old idea of “I’ve done it, I’m the man, I do it for the class,” but the relation should be the inverse. I know this based on my experience.
If I had stayed in my hometown in Capanema, the way I was, I would have had access to a lot of knowledge and culture. They’re not that great, but I learned a lot. So I wasn’t the one who contributed so much to the MST; it was the category of poor landless people that provided the conditions to be who I am.
But the current logic of the party and union structures make it seem as if it’s the leadership that does everything. It’s a very perverse logic, because the achievements are not the leader’s, it’s the organized class in its struggle. So to think of new methodologies, including the participation of militants is fundamental to building organizations that are truly democratic, based on popular power, and so on. This is the great challenge for the next stage, because this structure is in fact corrupted.
Today many social movements have lost their capacity to mobilize the masses, but despite this they have gained a lot of their demands in the way of public policy.
There are only a few public policies, and they don’t solve most of the time the structural matters in our country. In terms of agrarian reform, we didn’t advance. Income distribution in our country, we didn’t advance at all — it’s the same as in the 1970s. Of course the economy is growing — commodities, employment, small advancements. But if you look at the urban issues, social calamity, the favelas . . . the criminalization of poverty, the ideological propaganda against the poor, against social movements, which justifies coercive action by the state in this logic, things have not improved.
Nonetheless, Lula has a stunning level of popularity; Lulismo is a phenomenon. I think that it’s really prejudicial to the process of social organization and political consciousness. But this is the reality, there’s no point in me trying to run away from it.
If the Left wants to recreate itself, in a positive way, it will have to make this critical evaluation. It will have to promote a deep interpretation of this reality. The economic logic applied in Brazil can get stronger if there’s no international crisis. The country will benefit from the room for growth found in the construction sector, in mass consumption of goods, and in services in general.
There’s room in agriculture, though it is growth with heavy environmental impact. It will lead to consequences for humanity, as in the entire world. This story of sustainable development is a myth from inside capitalism, there’s no such thing! It’s part of the nature of the system to permanently transform everyone and everything into commodities.
The logic of capital is one of brutalizing everything, an extreme reification of human beings. Clocking in each morning and out each evening. Subjectively, what’s the concept of happiness in the masses? It’s having a lot of money to buy a lot of things. Subjectively, that’s all there is today. We need to think of new ways of engaging in dialogue with society.
In terms of agrarian reform, we need to discuss it with society because reform is not dependent on us, the MST. We can occupy the land, but we have to have a discussion over what kind of use we’ll make of the soil, of the natural resources, especially the water and how it’s being contaminated.
These are all part of the new contradictions that we’ll have to face. The Left has to rethink the situation from the inside of each country and on an international scale. The logic of the parties has always been around the fight for hegemony: “My group versus yours,” “mine is always better than yours.” The Left is too sectarian. It’s all about “my group,” and my group doesn’t sit with anyone. If I hold the absolute truth, why would I listen to you? Once you depart from that idea, we can engage in dialogue. I think that from the philosophical standpoint, the debate will develop. I always say that if there are no contradictions, there’s no life.
Social movements are considered transmission belts, mass-based fronts for party structures. The logic has been to separate the political struggle from the social struggle. When you do that, you stop the social aspect of struggling for concrete matters — be it land, housing, and so on — from creating a degree of political consciousness that makes people into subjects of their own history.
It’s sort of like this: “the social movement is very good for occupations, strikes, rallies, but not political construction.” That part gets relegated to the political group. New organizing forms will have to merge social struggle with political struggle. You can’t separate them — that’s anti-dialectical at the least. It’s pro status quo to separate them. Thinking this process through will move things forward.
We are weakened. Even if we gathered all of the leftist groups, it’s a very small, centralized group. No one has time for anything. Just like the class that gets up in the morning and works till the evening to buy more things so that even caring for their children and their parents becomes commodified because they don’t have the time . . . On the Left, it’s sort of the same way. The Left is dehumanized; they don’t see their friends, partners.
We say that we hold the values of the new society, but when people see us always so angry, nervous, won’t they think, “These are the ones with new social values? If so, I’m out.” So to rethink organizing norms is also to rethink all of these dynamics for the next period. Will everything work out? No. But we have to think of new experiences.
Sometimes the MST assumes the ideological and formation role of the party because the party doesn’t do it anymore.
Historically, the ideological questions and the political construction belonged to the party. What does the MST do? It tries to break this logic. It’s not because it doesn’t have a party, it’s because every social movement needs to do this. You can’t separate the social struggle from the political struggle. It’s a big mistake by the Left historically. So the MST is only doing what it should be doing in the first place.
Every movement should invest in political formation. The MST today is a worldwide reference for political formation, because it’s one of the only ones. Am I happy about this? No. I wish that everyone, all of the social movements were promoting political-ideological formation to form political references. We’re investing in two to three thousand people studying now. You can’t change society through ignorance; it’s important to invest in overcoming ignorance always.
Also, we should invest in publications and give access to culture, knowledge — open horizons as much as possible. I think that everyone should be doing it. Unfortunately, the logic now is that the party leads the social movements, and the social movement ends up being just the party’s access to the masses. It’s the logic of the avant-garde.
So, political leaders want to control these social movements?
There are deviations, but historically I agree a bit with George Meszaros’s critique. I think that the instruments built by the working class in the twentieth century were instruments for a time when capitalism, as it developed, allowed for some gains for workers. It always allowed more gains for the bourgeoisie of course.
But if you think of Lula — he leaves the northeast, comes here, and becomes a metal worker. So it was a different time, and union militancy is still a product of that time. In my view, we’re reaching the limit of this. More and more, we see social gains being lost.
In the United States and in Europe they’re living this, the loss of social rights, because more and more the process of big corporations exploiting natural resources is intensifying. So, these instruments that were built for this historical time cannot handle the economic modality we are living through. These leaders belong to this time. Some want to have political control, and they may even use it for personal gain.
I also believe that it’s not just manipulation. I think that there are those who believe that they are doing the right thing for the common good.
That’s true. It’s not to take advantage. There are many who think that they’re doing the best thing for humanity and the process of transformation. They haven’t realized that there’s a new reality.
I think they’ll realize it soon enough, the class will realize it, because the weakening process is intensifying. It’s visible that the social and political strength of the movements has declined. However, this is part of the historical times.
There were some good people in the PT but most of them are gone.
My honest opinion is that the PT is a party of the established order, and it’s bound to be this more and more. It’s actually the best manager of and for capital in the country. However, inside of the PT there are good people, there are leftists, people who want socialism. But they have no political strength to change this.
Second, those who left the PT, the guys in the PSOL today, also haven’t managed to build a camp that would aggregate new organizing forms. In reality, they left the PT but kept using the same [electoral] strategy.
I don’t believe in change from the top down. However, I think it’s important to elect people who can help strengthen the social struggle, the popular struggle, the building of popular power. But profound changes in a society will only happen if they result from organizing processes of the class itself.
This is the difficulty from the electoral and organizing point of view. Even if we wanted to take one hundred militants who can think up something new and create a new instrument, it won’t help. Someone creates an organization and then goes looking for people to support it. This doesn’t work. This is what the rank and file doesn’t want anymore. They don’t want to carry pianos to build this structure — see how disillusioned young people are with these organizational forms. So thinking of new forms is first thinking of a process of political debate. It’s not just about one group — it will have to be about much more.
However, I’m also optimistic about this because I think the contradictions will be so big that it will lead the serious militants — and I don’t mean simply socialists or communists, but the militancy that believes in humanity — to move forward in the next period.
We have to build a new leftist mentality and this cannot be built overnight. It’s a process. And that’s why I’m very happy with this moment in Brazil. It’s up to us to promote the critical evaluation of all of this, learn lessons from this process so we can move forward with new alternatives, new experiences, without burying the truth.
Do you think that in all of the movements there are people more open to acknowledging this context?
I believe so. If you ask where are we going, I don’t know. But it can’t continue the way it is today. It’s this desire to critique of all of it, and this is good. In many sectors they want to learn new things. They aren’t the majority yet, but I am betting on this new militancy, I think that this is where the new will come from.
From the youth, those under thirty?
I think so; this youth is very critical. This is not to compete with the older ones, but it is a competition over the organization’s internal hegemony. It’s a healthy dispute . . . It’s a process of political reconstruction, and I think many of these actors have not realized it yet, but they can and may participate in the new process. The new isn’t born out of nowhere: it’s always the fruit of the existing conditions. The new society won’t be from Mars; it will be from here. The seeds for the new society are also found here. This is why I’m happy, I think the next period will be very interesting.