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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Studies, statements & references -> Essays 9 resources (Edited by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.)

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Sávio Bones


With hands calloused from poetry: The formation of the organic intellectuals by the MST.

"If prophecies of bards are ever truthful
I shall be living, always"

Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Antonio Gramsci, in the very first lines of his "Diverse Notes for a Group of Essays on the History of Intellectuals," collected in the twelfth volume of his Prison Notebooks, states the following: "Every social group, coming into existence on the original terrain of an essential function in the world of economic production, creates together with itself, organically, one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields" This creation, historically determined and the result of specific social formations, is the direct result of friction between the collectivity and the reality in which it forms itself. Divisions of labor, specializations, and the need to develop and make complex any human group correspond to this reality. It tends to be consciously encouraged and constructed to the extent that it produces, reproduces and develops itself.

In such a way, it is possible that a distinct intellectuality includes several areas of intervention and articulates its various activities in the bosom of the superstructure, in the organization of an "intellectual bloc" within the historical bloc, and in the dispute with traditional thought.

The Movement of Landless Rural Workers of Brazil (MST) has been successfully intervening in this encouragement and construction. It has been giving value to a theoretical production that can contribute to the strengthening of its cause in its own formulation, and in promoting initiatives among different segments of the population whether or not connected hat comprehend diverse aspects of life and many areas of knowledge and interest. Furthermore, as an integral part of the political and organizational activitities of the MST, one of the aspects of its poetic work is to contribute to the process of the "creation" of an organic intellectualism and a conscious militancy. This contribution is particularly important if the link of organic intellectuals and militants to social groups is especially close when the former originate from these groups.

Built and tempered through the popular struggles and in organizations that arose in the 1970s and 1980s, the MST has become, in the course of its existence, the most active and useful rural movement in the country. With tactical breadth and strength of principle, it has positively resisted both the attacks of latifundium violence and the attempts at involvement and cooptation by conservative forces.

The Movement has put back on the political agenda the struggle against the monopoly of the land and the search for an alternative agricultural model that is capable of meeting the needs and demands of the rural population and the great majorities. With its struggles and victories, Agrarian Reform has become an unavoidable national issue. It has continued in building a vast network of entities, means, militants, supporters, sympathizers, and contacts, which through mutual reinforcement, dispute the fate of the rural areas in Brazil, which have been appropriated by a minority. Thus, with an uncommon capacity for social mobilization and combativeness, it has extended its influence beyond its concept and remit. Today, it is a secure reference for social pioneering and for the most historically combative sectors in both country and city.

Perhaps the greatest merit of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers has been its capacity for affirmation in an historical period in which the popular forces find themselves perplexed and timid in the face of the neo-liberal offensive. The world of work in its several dimensions has been pressured and demoralized. They have said, with few replies, that such a world is in the process of becoming extinct in a history that has finally come to an end. Strengthened by the hegemony of the "single thought", a brutal feeling of impotence has invaded civil society and created a regression of rights and values, an ebbing of mobilization, and a series of obstacles and difficulties that seem to have crushed us. The same thing has not even spared the labour movement, which, since the second decade of the twentieth century, has played an important role in the Brazilian political process, culminating in democratic resistance to the military regime.

As a backdrop of political reaction, the so-called third techno-scientific revolution and the reproduction of unregulated financial capital articulate and are articulated by the rapid growth of telecommunications and the "globalization" of some hegemonic patterns that work towards a certain generalization of customs. It is in this area that the mythology of the end of ideologies and the standardization of political and social life prospers. Paradoxically, the particularist point-of-view fragments social practice and renders it impotent, inasmuch as the Other no longer has the freedom to be the stranger among the various isolated groups. In the name of modernity, the right disseminates postmodernist schizophrenia. Reason and truth, discarded by capital as antediluvian, give way to irrationalism and relativism. Aesthetics are demoted to a vulgar cult of "old novelties", as Brazilian popular music puts it, in the lyrics of the late, great Cazuza.

Only within this complex historical-cultural debate apparently arid, but in fact rich in contradictions and transformations will it be possible to consider and comprehend the insolent, challenging "poetry of the Brazilian Sem Terra." It would even be possible, though pedantic and grotesque, to analyze it from the viewpoint of the spiritual life of the ideologically bourgeois intellectual "élites". Or, to attempt it in a glamorization not less pedantic and grotesque, from the viewpoint of a pretended autocthonous exoticism or over-fussy compassion quite to the taste of the great media corporations. It is necessary to understand it as a cultural manifestation opposed to the dissolution of cultural alterities, a match for its time, but absolutely modern, being the bearer of a project radically committed to the denial of the reality that insists upon reproducing itself.

The creative artistic path of the Sem Terra (Landless) is not that of the spirit transfused by Calliope into a few chosen ones, or of an initiation rite of a supposed poetic potential inherent in human beings. On the contrary, these people are the avenues of a human-sensitive activity through the practices of their authors, centered on their processes of work and characteristic lives. Even when they are autonomous in relation to the practical world and go into broader absractions and universals, the poetry of the country people of the MST maintain their connections with immediate representations. They seek to unmask and transmit experiences, share and express feelings and emotions that arise from their surrounding world. Their "místicas" are profane. Conservative hegemony created and nourished an abysmal distance between human-universal aesthetic victories, that degenerated into inert abstractions, which developed out of daily experiences of respect for transcendence. In the opposite direction, the productions of the disinherited of the land contribute to the straightening of these human links, opening up new possibilities for creativity at higher levels.

Since it is involved with values and positions that question the reigning social practice embedded in the cultural production integrated and associated with order and is distinguished from the dominant ideology, the poetry made by the men and women who carry a hoe is transformed into a means of resistance and struggle, integral parts of a counter-hegemonic movement, sower of hope, and herald of a new Brazil and a new world.

By valuing the creative potential of each one of themselves, these unique minstrels are also the supports for moments of individual strength and collective self-esteem, of self-confidence, of solidarity among their companions. They are true teachers who promote and create the activists and militants who walk and sing at their side.

Before they teach, they learn. When they become writers, they leave behind the condition of being mere Fuerbachian spectators of the world and invest in their perceptions, in their interpretations, in the dimension of abstractions, and in the need to express the world in the perspective of transforming it. This epistemology, which begins with practical sensibility, is incorporated into the structuring of an intelligence that favors the opening up of new horizons and knowledge, pursuits and futures, and the strengthening of an organic intellectualism. Now, with its members, it is possible to rival the mechanisms, ideological contents, and conservative cultures of order, incorporating into the consciousness of the workers rebelliousness and love of liberty, building the consensus of those "below" against the consensus of those "above". In effect each verse challenges passive political and cultural submission.

The MST and its artists can therefore express themselves and be conscious of doing so from a new angle; that of lack of submission to, and criticism of, the status quo. Based on what has been accumulated, break with dependence on those who conferred themselves the right and monopolistic privilege of thinking and producing cultural and political material it is not known whether with the permission of the God or the Devil of this "land of the sun". However simple or crude a poem, in its moment it will manage to express the anguish and joy, the sacrifices and desires, of those who dare to speak for themselves, for themselves and for others. Can anyone doubt that, in their own way and place, they are leading towards need, in the sense of a new reality and a new culture?

It is not the case of establishing a mechanistic scale of exclusive and simplistic aesthetic values, and even less of criticizing intellectuals of other origins and trends, who choose to generously and admirably sing of the reality with which they live. And they are many, although still too few, the Chico Buarques, the Haroldos, the Salgados, the Saramagos. It is a question of giving prominence to the force that erects a literature with the hands and minds of those immersed in their own chosen material and spiritual theme. Only a poetic production such as this, alive, gathering up particularities and building positions, erected in the absence of officialdom and against it, will be able to hold a front against the cultural pasteurization of the planet, scatter the dust of postmodern archaism, refound modernity and shape a universality capable of living with, respecting, appreciating, and being nourished by singularity and diversity.


November 2002

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