All God’s Children : Narrating class and Popular Politics in Urban Brazil

Theorizing Class Politics on the Basis of Experience

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Theorizing Class Politics on the Basis of Experience

This look at class narratives in Belém offers an explanation of how people who are overtly aware of their status as a subordinate class nonetheless hold and act upon beliefs that appear inconsistent with their class consciousness. Put simply, class consciousness is only one of many discursive factors that influence and direct political behavior. Altogether, people may experience class in a number of different ways that contest and examine social inequity from a number of perspectives. These differing narratives of class are in some sense all true, in so far as all speak to the experiences that most people in the popular classes share relative to economic hardship and political marginalization. In thinking about how to understand the existence of multiple and cross-cutting narratives, Luise White’s study (1993) of different « vampire » stories during the colonial period in Africa is relevant. Although she is focused on a different question regarding the historical analysis and significance of rumor, her point about how one should address multiple narratives of the same phenomena is valid here :

« Each one, taken on its own, may be interesting and suitable for analysis; but taken together, they form a debate which contains public discourses about the issues with which ordinary people are concerned » (ibid., p. 746-747).
What’s more is that people don’t simply pick up one narrative of class and stick to it alone; instead, they combine elements of each narrative into larger stories of everyday life that contrast their experience of social inequity with a set of egalitarian values that are indifferent to class. This story can be put in a nutshell by stating it in colloquial terms :

Everyone is equal. Regardless of race or class, we ought to be treated the same. Now some people have more than others, which isn’t in itself so bad, except that they don’t want to share their wealth, even just a little bit, with those who really need it. That’s wrong. Treating everyone equally doesn’t mean giving up all you have to help the poor, but it does mean helping out reasonably, within your ability to do so. If people really acted this way, we’d not be so angry about wealth. If people really acted this way, there wouldn’t be so much poverty because the politicians would listen to the poor and address their concerns instead of using the poor, just like employers do, in order to get more power and wealth. And if things don’t change, there could be problems. Revolutions. Apocalypse. Everything upside down. Because the way the rich act now is upside down, opposite of what it right : to treat everyone equal.

What follows is a series of preliminary conclusions and propositions based on the dialogues examined in this essay.
1) The class consciousness of people in the popular classes – at the least in Belém and I would argue more generally throughout Brazil is quite clearly established as one of struggle. People are fully aware that there is a human explanation for social inequity and that some people, especially the wealthy and politicians, hold much of the responsibility for this state of affairs. Rarely in my research have I found respondents who claim that poverty comes from God. Mobility narratives may emphasize that honest labor differentiates the honorable poor from the undeserving, lazy elements of the popular classes, but this is very different from fatalistic narratives of poverty that have sometimes been brought forth as evidence of disempowering dominant ideologies that maintain quiescence and compliance among the lower-classes. Inversion narratives, at least in their imaginary potential, point out that in some respects class position is accidental, something given by birth and apart from one’s particular abilities – so there are stupid rich folks and really smart poor people. In the main, respondents stress that poverty, which is not the same as having less than the wealthy, is unjust and renders life a struggle between poor people and the upper-classes.
2) The class struggle is staked as much on moral and behavioral issues as it is on material concerns. This point has been stressed time and again in dialogues that ground class anger and invective not so much in the wealth of the upper-classes as in their behavior regarding other, less fortunate Brazilians. Beliefs about distributive justice aim to achieve some downward distribution of national wealth; given the poverty endemic to Brazil, this is a reasonable request. Nonetheless, popular narratives of class struggle do not call for radical redistribution, only that which is necessary to alleviate immediate suffering and assure that all may live a life in which honest labor does result in a measure of dignity. The key to changing the level of social inequity lies in the rich following the same rules of human obligation that poor people see as constitutive of social relations whether in everyday or political life. As such, altering or lessening class struggle as it is experienced by ordinary people is not dependent on changing the relations of production.
3) Class narratives are firmly grounded in individual and shared experiences that, through communication from one person to another, become elements of social discourse about class. Through communication and the sheer commonality of class experiences, people create a stock of common stories that emphasize different aspects of class experience. I have looked at a variety of dialogues in order to examine the five narratives considered herein. As narratives, they are elements of social discourse that allow people abstract their own experiences and communicate them to others in ways familiar and easily understood by anyone. This picture of how class narratives inform social discourse is consistent with Gamson’s (1992, pp. 117-134) discussion of how people construct social discourse by recourse to different kinds of knowledge – « media discourse », « experiential knowledge » and « popular wisdom ». Gamson focuses in part on media discourse because that is one object of his study, but it is also part of the larger set of « cultural resources » he identifies as informing social discourse. My focus here has been more on what Gamson would term experiential knowledge and popular wisdom, but in general the dialogue analyzed in this essay and that which he discusses in his own North American research bear striking similarities. In the same way that Gamson shows different discursive elements (he calls them « resources ») informing a variety of not always complementary viewpoints, the narratives analyzed above demonstrate that the popular experience of class allows people to mold varying dispositions toward politics and politicians, depending on how they combine class narratives with other values important to daily life.
4) Narratives of class experience do not by themselves inform action. Class narratives are mostly related to experience, individual or shared, and must be put together with other discursive factors – values that pertain to human charitable obligations, honor, work and the like – in order to appoint appropriate forms of political behavior. It would not be right, for example, to take the property of a rich person just because she is wealthy; one would have to know how she acquired that wealth, if she didn’t help her neighbors, if she treated her employees poorly, etc. This does not mean that class discourse cannot be used to mobilize people. Clearly it can, but this depends on how leaders or activists would create cultural frames for mobilization (Snow et al. 1986; Tarrow 1992) that could mobilize class discourse along with other values that inform both class discourse and behavior. In other words,
appeals to a desire for equality, pitched in transcendent terms, should work well to hold constituent interest on an ideological basis.
Such an appeal can easily be placed in terms of equality before the law, the rule of law or social democracy; these frames of political ideology resonate well with the idea of « middle ground socialism » and the notion that the present political system isn’t so much the problem as are the people who run it. This is not to say that these narratives could not be mobilized for more revolutionary or radical purposes, but that is related to the gravity of the context. More radical forms of mobilization would be highly dependent on leaders being able to frame ideology in the terms of already established values (honor, work, obligation) that animate everyday life – for example the irony that class-based movements are at their most successful when allied with God, of whatever faith.
5) Class hegemony does exist, but it may be more an economic condition related to political opportunity structures than a cultural phenomenon. Instances in which popular ideologies or class discourses appear to cohere with values found in the middle and upper classes are not always evidence of the hegemony of dominant culture. They may simply be evidence of shared beliefs. Those notwithstanding, the upper classes do have more access to government and politicians. They have more control over the ways that politicians may structure political opportunities, whether in the form of Constitution writing, ordinary legislation, the funding of certain campaigns or politicians to exclusion of others.
To an extent, my conclusions support Scott’s work (1985), in which he finds that peasants’uses of supposedly common beliefs and obligations are not in themselves instances of hegemony. Scott concentrates on the way that such beliefs may be used for the purposes of resistance, on however small a scale, but as Ortner (1995, p. 175) notes, Scott and others have devoted much attention to working out just when such acts are resistance and when they may be simple survival strategies. I would add that such acts may resist forms of domination without questioning the general outlines of class structure in a society, and perhaps in the end, following Ortner’s reference to the work of Stoler (1986) and Cooper (1992), emphasis should be less on resistance than on the transformative potential of these narratives and actions related to them. The key to unleashing the transformative potential of popular desires for participation in the democratic system as currently constituted in Brazil is community-level mobilization that places ordinary people within grasp of political opportunities available in the Brazilian system – and these are election campaigns, lobbying and pressure tactics, simply petitioning State agencies to fulfill their mandates, and the like. It’s a picture which fits well with the statements by Nilma and Carolina at the end of the section on mobility narratives, and there is also some complementarity to older pluralist theories of American politics as well as resource mobilization theories in the social movement literature (McCarthy & Zald 1977).
My own work (1996, chap. 7) suggests that localized mobilization can be very successful when mobilization frames stress the rights of citizens as taxpayers, equal before the law. For example, the leaders of the community movement in Igarapé Esperança continually stressed the community’s right to press the municipal government for services such as policing and sanitation by emphasizing that everyone there had paid taxes and ought to receive some service for them. At other times, leaders would invoke the wording of the Brazilian Constitution that stresses the equality of citizenship and the rights it entails. And of crucial importance, the leaders and movement were able to place enough pressure on the government to actually obtain some of these services – urban transport, lighting, a new bridge on the local creek – so that residents saw some benefit from their participation. The leaders in Igarapé Esperança had some affiliation with the PT and the progressive Catholic Church, but they did not use the movement as a platform for the party – indeed, the party was never mentioned at meetings. Overall, the story of Igarapé Esperança is quite similar to that told

by Robert Gay (1994) about the favela (squatter neighborhood) of Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro.

The problem of class politics in Brazil should be examined less in cultural than institutional terms, what Guillermo O’Donnell (1993) has called « low-intensity citizenship », a situation whereby lower-classes have less access to means and channels of political representation and thus cannot presume equal treatment under the law – recall Benedito’s desire for a death penalty that would be equally applied. As O’Donnell puts it (ibid., p. 1358), low-intensity democracy exists when « the effectiveness of the law extends very irregularly – it does not altogether disappear – across the territory and functional relations – including class, ethnic and gender relations – it supposedly regulates ». Popular mobilization is a necessary factor in changing the patterns of low-intensity citizenship common to many Latin American countries, and Mische’s (1995) work on the notions of citizenship that underscored the caras pintadas movement to impeach Fernando Collor offers some hope that there is space in Brazilian society for the grievances expressed by the respondents in these pages to find some redress via mobilization and political action.
Popular discourse demonstrates that « ordinary people » have all the cultural and discursive vocabulary they need to participate in politics; they also have the desire to do so. They know what they would like : equality, defined on their own terms and related to already existing values. What they lack, the discourse of struggle emphasizes, is access and the opportunity to act. When they do act, they do so less with respect to ideology as constructed by elites, militants and scholars as to their own, organic ideologies of right, wrong, honor, and obligation. They will evaluate populists, clientelists, leftists and other politicians equally on these terms. In the end, addressing questions of citizenship may be the first step toward addressing the problems that inequity poses for democracy in Brazil.
June of 1997

John A. Guidry

Department of Political Science,

Augustana College, Rock Island (Illinois, USA)

[Field research in 1992-93 for this paper was assisted by grants from the IIE Fulbright Program and the Joint Committee on Latin American and Caribbean Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The Advanced Study Center of the International Institute at the University of Michigan supported the writing of this paper, which was presented at the 1996 meeting of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco. The present version has benefited from comments by Lorraine Bayard-de-Volo, Barry Ames and Nancy Powers].


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