[08/13/10] Serra represents the bourgeoisie and the return of neoliberalism -- an interview with João Pedro Stedile

For João Pedro Stedile, of the MST’s national leadership, Dilma’s victory would allow a scenario and confluence of forces more conducive to social progress. Interview by Nilton Viana, Brasil de Fato newspaper

The candidacy of José Serra (PSDB) represents the core interests of the bourgeoisie and the return of neoliberalism. This is the assessment of João Pedro Stedile. In his first interview with Brazil de Fato, the national leader of the MST and La Via Campesina states that in the current electoral scenario, the candidates are not debating programs or projects for society. But, he said, they clearly represent different interests of organized social forces. In this sense, Stedile says Serra represents the interests of the international bourgeoisie, the financial bourgeoisie of the industries of São Paulo, of the backward latifúndio (large estate), with Katia Abreu as a coordinator for finance and the agribusiness sectors of ethanol. And faced with this scenario, he contends that "as social activists and social movements, we have a political obligation to defeat Serra's candidacy."

Brazil de Fato- With the implementation of the neoliberal model, banks and finance capital have increased their profits and started to direct Brazil's economy, which relies on a policy of high interest rates, inflation targets, fiscal squeeze and policy of exports. What are the consequences of this model?

João Pedro Stedile – We are living through the stage of capitalism that has been internationalized, the world’s economy is dominated by finance capital and the large corporations that act on an international level. The world is dominated by 500 large international corporations that control 52% of the world’s GDP and employ only 8% of the working class. This has disastrous consequences worldwide since whole populations and national governments need to be subordinated to these interests. And they respect nothing, in order to increase and maintain their rates of profit. Their methods range from the appropriation of natural resources and the outbreak of military conflicts in order to keep energy sources and State control, to appropriating the social surplus or collective savings through interest that states pay to banks.

In Brazil, the logic is the same. The size of our economy and our dependency on foreign capital are aggravating factors so here the process of concentration of capital and wealth is even greater. This is the structural reason why, despite being the eighth largest economy in the world, we are in 72nd place in average living conditions of the population and we are the fourth worst country in the world in terms of social inequality. Therefore, this phase of capitalism does not play a progressive role in the development of productive and social forces, as was the case during the stage of industrial capitalism. Now the levels of concentration and inequality only exacerbate social problems.

Even with the election of more progressive governments, the Brazilian government maintains its anti-popular character, without making changes that address the deeper structural problems of the country. How do you assess democracy and the State in Brazil?

First, there is a natural logic to how the accumulation and exploitation of capital overrides governments and laws. Second, in the neoliberal period, what capital has done was to privatize the state. That is, the State became the hostage of the bourgeoisie so that it would work only in function of its economic interests. And it scrapped the State in the areas of services for the entire population, such as education, health, public transport, housing etc.. For example, we have 16 million illiterates. To educate them would cost no more than about $R10 billion. It seems a lot - the state with all its legal apparatus prevents the money from being used - but this represents two weeks of interest payments that the state makes to banks. We build bridges and roads in weeks, but to solve the deficit of public housing is impossible? We still have 10 million homes needed for the people.

Finally, Brazilian society is not democratic. We delude ourselves with the democratic freedoms of expression that we won against the dictatorship, which were important. But true democracy is guarantees equal rights and opportunities to each and every citizen, as well as employment, income, land, education, housing and culture. So even when we elect governments with progressive proposals, they lack sufficient strength to change the laws of the market and the nature of the bourgeois state. In international politics, Lula's government has invested in the relationship with countries of the South, with the strengthening of Mercosur and of UNASUR, for example. What is your assessment of this policy and what are its limits?

The Lula government carried out a progressive foreign policy on the level of State policies. And on the economic level, it carried out a policy in the interests of Brazilian companies. Compared to the neoliberal policies of Cardoso, who were totally subservient to the interests of imperialism, this is a huge advance because Lula’s government had a sovereign policy, decided by us. In politics, ties were strengthened with Latin American governments and so UNASUR was born for South America and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was born for the whole continent, excluding the United States and Canada. These two bodies represent the end of the OAS. As a matter of fact, it should have ended long ago. Economic ties were strengthened with countries of the South. But we still need to go further in building a continental integration that is in the people’s interest and not only for Brazilian companies, or Mexican or Argentine. A popular Latin American integration on the economic level will strengthen the Bank of the South to replace the IMF. The Bank of ALBA to replace the World Bank. And construction of a single currency in Latin America, as proposed by ALBA through the sucre, to break the dependency on U.S. dollars. If we want economic independence and sovereignty in international and Latin American relations it is crucial to put energy into defeating the dollar. The dollar was the result of U.S. victory in World War II and for all these decades has been the main mechanism for plundering the peoples of the world. In a broader aspect, President Lula is right: the United Nations does not represent the interests of the people, and so it is nonsense for Brazil to dream of having the presidency. We need to is to build new and more representative international bodies. But that does not depend on proposals or political will. It depends on a new world balance of forces, in which the most progressive governments are the majority. And today they are not.

The system of television and radio is highly concentrated in Brazil, even compared with other Latin American countries. What are the consequences for the political struggle?

During the 20th century, ruled by republican democracy and by industrial capitalism that produced a well-defined class society, the ideological reproduction of the bourgeoisie came about through the political parties, the churches and trade unions and associations. Now, in the phase of internationalized finance capitalism the ruling ideology is reproduced by the media, especially television networks and international news agencies. The bourgeoisie discarded the other instruments and prioritizes these, over which it has full control. Therefore, in Brazil, Latin America and around the world, the media are under absolute control of the bourgeoisie. And they use this ideological reproduction as a source of earning money and for political manipulation. And since their bosses are internationalized, their agendas and schedules are also centralized. Therefore, building a more democratic political regime, even within the framework of capitalism, has a critical dependency on the democratization of the media. This is essential for ensuring the right of access to honest information and prevent manipulation of the masses. And governments should start by eliminating the state advertising at any level in any medium. It's a What the government spends on advertising is a disgrace. To get an idea, in eight years of the Lerner government in Parana [1995-2002], the State paid more than $1 billion in advertising to two or three media groups.

The big Brazilian cities face problems like lack of housing, sanitation, schools, hospitals, traffic and violence. How do you analyze the urban question?

Most of the population is concentrated in large cities, and the poor are also concentrated there as well as the major problems resulting from the capitalist model and a State that operates only in favor of the rich. The poor in large cities are piling up in the slums, are not entitled to housing, schooling, decent public transportation, labor, income. Certainly not for leisure. The poor have nothing but vulgar TV programs for recreation. In this context it is clear that the system creates an environment that is conducive to drug trafficking and to social violence.

And the state, what has it done through its many different governments?

The only response has been repression. More police, more officer violence, more jail. The jails are full of the poor, young, black or mulatto. There is an unsustainable situation of social tragedy. Every day we see the absurdities of social inequality, the indifference of the State and cruelty of capital. The statistics are frightening: 40,000 murders per year in large cities, the majority by the police. So the social movements supported the campaign for disarmament. But the strength of military firms financed politicians, campaigns, etc. and the people fell into the illusion that the problem of urban violence would be resolved through the right to bear arms. I believe that poverty and inequality in Brazil’s largest cities is the most serious social problem we have. Unfortunately no candidate is debating the issue, not even when the debate turns to promising security! Security for whom? Families need job security, income, schooling for their children.

In the presidential elections, the ballot presents two candidates who polarize the dispute, while the others have not shown the strength to change this situation. At this point, who offers a better perspective for the working class and agrarian reform?

The candidates are not debating programs, social projects. But the candidates clearly represent various interests of organized social forces. Serra represents the interests of the international bourgeoisie, the financial bourgeoisie, São Paulo industry, the backwards plantation schemes, with Katia Abreu as financial director, and sectors of ethanol agribusiness. Dilma represents sectors of the Brazilian bourgeoisie who decided to align themselves with Lula more liberal sectors of agribusiness, the more aware middle class, and practically all groups of the organized working class. You see, despite Lula’s popularity, in this campaign, Dilma gathered more support from the working class than in the 2006 election. Marina's candidacy represents only environmental groups and the middle class of the large cities, and so it won’t take off in this election. And we have three candidates from left-leaning parties, with leaders with respected experience and commitment to the people, but who failed to unite the social forces around them, and so their electoral weight will be small. In this scenario, we think that the victory of Dilma will allow a scenario and confluence of forces more conducive to social progress, including changes in agricultural and agrarian policy. And of course, in this scenario we’re including the possibility of an environment conducive to greater mobilization of the working class as a whole to gain ground. As social activists and social movements, we have an obligation to defeat the Serra candidacy, which represents the core interests of the bourgeoisie and the return of neoliberalism.

The MST has evaluated that the election is not sufficient to achieve social change. On the other hand, it analyzes that this is an important moment in the political discourse. How will the MST be involved in the election?

The Brazilian left, social movements and politicians are still stunned by the political-ideological-electoral defeat we suffered in 1989. This led to much confusion, and also to some deviations from class sectors. We’re living a period in the history of class struggle in our country - and we could say at the international level, in most countries - in which the strategy to gather forces for social change is a combination of institutional struggle with social struggle. In the institutional struggle, we understand the Gramsci vision in which the interests of working class must challenge and dominate the three government levels: municipal, state and federal. In places of knowledge, the university, media communication. Unions, churches and other institutions of a class society. And the social struggle comprises all forms of mass mobilization, which enable the development of class awareness and the achievement of a quality of life - knowing that they depend on defeating the interests of capital. Well, what happened last time? Part of the left and the working class prioritized the institutional struggle of the fight only against governments and underestimated, dismissed the social struggle. And a part of the social movements, disenchanted with the ideological crisis, dismissed the institutional struggle, as if the direct struggle of the masses were sufficient. Social struggle alone, without challenging the political system in society and without challenging institutional direction of the State, cannot amount to anything for the class. They may eventually solve occasional class problems, but they do not change the structural nature of society.

The MST understands that we must unite, come together to permanently encourage the two forms of struggle. To be able to gather organized mass support organically, we must build the class’s political presence, and at the same time create conditions for the reemergence of a movement of the masses, for this is an historical period in which the class is able to take political initiative, to show the issues to the people. So of course MST activists, as aware citizens, must roll up their sleeves and help elect more progressive candidates at all levels. This obligation is part of our commitment to the class.

Since the times of the FHC government, José Serra has made statements against agrarian reform and the MST. However, in recent weeks, the attacks have intensified. In your opinion, why has he been doing this?

For two reasons. First, because the social interests that he represents now, as the main spokesman, are the interests of the ruling urban and rural class, which are against the interests of the peasants, the working class in general and the Brazilian people. Therefore, he is against land reform not because he dislikes the MST, but as a matter of class interest. Second, in my estimation, is that the PSDB campaign thinks the only chance of Serra growing in the election is to adopt a discourse of the right, to polarize and then to demonstrate more confidence than Dilma. So he took all the icons from the left and attacked them. He attacks us, Fidel and Cuba, Chavez, Evo Morales, even Bishop Lugo. He finds a connection between the FARC and the PT which is nonsense. He knows that the party is closer to social democracy. It is not because of ignorance, it’s an electoral tactic. I think he also erred in tactics. And he will remain hostage to his right-wing discourse without winning more votes. I think it's great that he presents himself as so right-wing. It helps to clarify the class interests of the candidacies. And for this reason, he will lose by a larger margin than that of Alckmin’s loss to Lula in 2006.

Currently, the labor movement is pushing for a reduction of the workday. Yet the movement is fragmented among different unions. What are the problems and challenges that the labor movement faces today?

I don’t intend to lecture anyone. There are many strong and capable allies that are active in the labor struggle and many different elements one must understand when considering class organization. The problems and challenges that face the union movement are evident. Yet these problems don’t have much to do with the number of unions. Rather, this is a strength given that different unions have always existed and have been composed of various ideological currents. Thus, the challenge of class unity for the union movement lies with the necessity to regain a certain base organization, for the entire class, from the workplace to the home. No one anymore wants to hold a meeting either outside of the factory or inside of it (even secretly, as occurred during the time when Lula was active). We need to regain the sense of mass struggle as the only form of class strength. We need to return to a debate concerning political issues that are oriented around a program for society and that are more than simply economic and wage demands. We also need to recognize that the union movement needs its own means of mass communication. Worker’s television, in the ABC region of São Paulo state, is a welcomed arrival. Yet we need to have such a thing in all metropolitan areas. We need to develop political education for working class activists, at all levels. Without knowledge and theory, there will be no changes. And with such initiatives, it’s certain that we could build greater unity given that class interests would be the common denominator in the reconstruction of the mass movement.

Certain activists and academics believe that Brazil has passed through a transformation, and that political parties and unions are no longer equipped to organize Brazilian workers given the rise of economic informality. With respect to this, do you think it necessary to develop new instruments of political struggle? How do you evaluate the organizational challenges of the working class?

Workers organizing in political parties, unions and neighborhood associations have been developed by the working class as responses to the exploitation caused by industrial capitalism, since the times of Marx to the present day. I think that the problem is in getting stuck thinking over what worked and what didn’t, throwing everything away in the search for new means. Each historical period has its own kinds of organization, forms of mass struggle, and produces its own leaders. We are currently living through a time of political-ideological defeat that has created a crisis in workers’ ideology and organization. There is an ebb in the mass movement struggle. Yet this is a sign of the times and it’s like a wave. And we will soon enter new times. I don’t think it’s important to discuss the form of organization, but rather attempt to organize the working class in every conceivable way. It’s clear that union and party ways of organization are not reaching the youth and workers in the slums. It’s necessary to discover new forms and methods of organization. Such forms can have different labels and nicknames, yet what remains necessary is that these organizations begin from the economic point of view, addressing the immediate economic necessities of the people. It’s also crucial to have a political project in order to discuss changes for society. We only resolve problems of organization by organizing. Practice gives the best advice, better than grand theories, in this case.

Within a model characterized by the hegemony of banks and finance capital, weak industry and mass consumption, what is the future for the youth?

The young and poor in the working class don’t have a place in this dominant model. In the so-called rich countries, like in Europe, unemployment rates among the youth are close to 40%. The future of the youth lies precisely in this question of developing a working class consciousness. If we only think of them as young and without opportunities, we will never get answers; we’ll get old as we fail to reach any kind of conclusion. We need to develop their class consciousness and mobilize them in order to struggle. Given that they are outside of the factory and the school, we need to develop new ways of doing politics that brings them together and helps them see that the future is now. I’m hopeful. There are masses of young urban workers that are silent. Or rather alienated and deceived. Some try to enter the consumer market, as if this would generate happiness. They will soon understand that they need a different attitude and actively participate in society.

The MST has reached the conclusion that agrarian reform did not advance during the Lula administration. Why?

We need to keep in mind the concept and meaning of agrarian reform. Agrarian reform is a public policy, developed by the state, that democratizes land by guaranteeing it for all the peasants that want to work it. Historically, agrarian reform arose from an alliance between the industrial bourgeoisie and peasants. The industrial bourgeoisie were in power and the peasants wanted land in order to escape from the exploitation caused by large plantation owners. The majority of modern societies undertook various agrarian reforms, beginning in the 19th century and continuing through the 20th. Afterwards, there were agrarian reforms led by popular and revolutionary governments, often connected with other social changes. In Brazil, we have never had agrarian reform. The Brazilian bourgeoisie never wanted to democratize access to land. They wanted to maintain an alliance with large plantation owners in order to continue to export raw materials (the primary reason being to earn dollars from exports to buy industrial machinery), and also preferred a rural exodus from the countryside to the city. Such an exodus created an industrial reserve army of labor that depressed the wages of the urban working classes throughout the world. The Brazilian peasants remained isolated, never creating alliances with urban working classes to push for agrarian reform. The closest we came was in 1964. We had an enormous land reform project developed by the Goulart administration. The bourgeoisies’ response was to ally with the empire and support a military-class dictatorship. The policy developed in Brazil, including the Lula administration, has been to create land settlements. Or rather, here and there, the policy has been to expropriate certain large land holdings in order to assuage social pressure. Yet this is not agrarian reform. As we saw from the IGBE census taken in 2006, land concentration is worse now than in 1920, not long after the end of slavery. During the Lula administration, we didn’t have the space to discuss true land reform and didn’t have the mass forces to pressure the government and society. Thus, on the one hand the current policy is insufficient, yet on the other, it is a clear expression of the social forces that exist in society. We lament the fact that various governmental actors have deluded themselves into thinking, through propaganda and the like, that the current settlement policies are in fact policies of agrarian reform.

For some researchers and social sectors, even on the left, the time of land reform in Brazil has passed. What is the role of land reform within the current stage of development?

It’s true, we also say that. There is no longer any room for classic land reform, which was aimed only at distributing land to farmers to produce for the internal market with their own strengths and their own families. This model was viable in its heyday and for the development of the nation and of industrial capitalism. But it is not because the MST scorns it that it is not viable, but because the social and political forces that would have been interested no longer are. If there were a upheaval of the classes that govern Brazil, and if a new project for national and industrial development were to enter the political agenda, then the classic agrarian reform could take place. But that has not happened. So, what is the alternative now? It is to fight for a new kind of land reform. Land reform that we call ‘popular’. What the movement of small farmers call the ‘Plano Camponês’ (‘Farmers’ Plan’), what CONTAG and FETRAF call family farming. They are different labels for the same thing. Rather, we need to reorganize the country’s model of agricultural production. We want to utilize our natural resources for diversified farming, providing people in the rural sphere with improved living conditions, eliminating the large estates (which doesn’t need to be many, only those over 1,500 hectares), adopting agroecological techniques of production which are respectful of the environment, and which, above all, produce healthy food for the domestic market. Our proposal of popular land reform, however, depends on a new development model which consists of distribution of income, national sovereignty, and a break with the control of foreign capital over our agriculture and our natural resources.

How can agrarian reform benefit society as a whole, especially the urban population?

Agrarian reform and man staying in the countryside are fundamental to the reduction of unemployment in the cities and to raising the minimum wage and the average wage. The middle class pays only low wages and the number of domestic workers is rising as thousands of new workers arrive every day, ready to be exploited. Agrarian reform is the only way to produce without poisons. The grand domain of agribusiness can only produce with poisons, because it doesn’t require manpower, and this poison reaches each of our stomachs. In the last harvest there were a billion litres of poisons, six litres per person, 150 litres per hectare. An embarrassment. An attack. Agrarian reform helps to resolve the problems of housing and overpopulation in the cities. It will also rebalance the environment and with that we will have fewer of the climate changes that are now affecting the cities with more vigor. Look at what happened in the Northeast. In one day, thirteen cities were wiped off the map by the torrential rains. It wasn’t the fault of the rain, but rather the monoculture of sugarcane that altered the balance and pushed people to live on the riverbanks. But it was only General Nelson Jobim that saw it and had the courage to speak out. Globo stayed quiet, seeking to cover it up. No area of agrarian reform in Pernambuco and Alagoas was hit, why would that be? And our settlements were the first, before the government, to give refuge to those made homeless.

Why are Via Campesina and the MST carrying out protests against the big agribusiness companies? Are the land occupations no longer enough or are they no longer any use in the fight for land reform?

As I said before, the dispute is no longer just between the landless poor and the landowners. It is now a dispute over the production and use of our natural resources. On one side we have agribusiness, which consists of the alliance of the big landowners; the financial capital which bankrolls them, seeing that for the production of R$112 billion, the banks advanced R$100 billion for them to produce it; the transnational companies that control the production of raw materials and seeds; the national and international markets; and the media corporations. On the other side are the landless, the farmers with very little land, and family farming in general. And in this dispute, our main enemies are the banks and the transnational corporations. So, we are fighting a class war against our main enemies and at the same time we must continue fighting to improve living conditions, with new settlements, rural housing, electricity for all, CONAB’s food buying program, new sources of rural credit, etc. These steps, although specialised, also help to combine forces as a class.

In the next few days, the MST will carry out activities for land reform. What will these mobilizations be like and what are their objectives? Are they at all related to the electoral period?

The national coordination of the MST chose this week in mid-August a long time ago to carry out a national campaign of debates about land reform. It is a concentrated effort to develop different ways of encouragement and propaganda; to bring our ideas to the urban working class; to denounce the problems and wrongdoings that agribusiness, with its poisons and its concentrated wrath, causes for all of society; and, at the same time, rightly showcase the benefits of popular land reform. We hope that our militancy catches on all over the country, for this campaign of mass consciousness-raising.