Who Pays the Electricity Bill? State Funding vs. Grassroots Democracy

I sit inside a small and very clean family car. We are driving from a Landless Workers’ settlement to a town nearby. First we stop to buy bread for the next day’s breakfast. Bread is one of the products that the Landless Workers do not produce by themselves. Then we stop get gas. Gasoline is another product that the Landless Workers must buy. Distances are quite long, and it is usually either too sunny or too rainy to walk, so even if the Landless Workers do not have a car, they at least need motorbikes and fuel.

I sit in the backseat of the car; I do not need to actively participate in any activity or communication. I lie back for a moment and ask myself how self-sustaining agriculture can be nowadays. But I do not have much time to think; the driver – who is a woman and a teacher – stops again. She goes into a general store to pick up the post for her family and other friends who also live in the settlement. As is usually the case, post means bills. In this particular case it is the electricity bill: 156 Reais (R$) – a lot of money. Everybody in the car is furious. Such a huge monthly bill – gosh! I try to understand what they pay for. “You remember the water pump that I showed you yesterday?” “Yes.” “This is the bill for it. We do not need much electricity for the house, but the pump consumes a lot…”

Indeed, I saw the pump the other day. Ernesto told me that they let the pump work at night so they consume “ecological” electricity, which is cheaper. However, the bill is still very high. They do not get a special reduction for being Landless Workers. Even if they constructed artificial pools to keep rainwater for the dry season at a lot of personal expense, they would still need money to transfer this water from one place to the other. And so they sell large quantities of allspice and coffee beans (at quite low prices when compared to the price of electricity) in order to finance the pump. They must sell even more to buy freezers, cars, and all the other devices and technologies referred to in this article.

It is too hot to stay outside the car for a long time, and we slowly drive back to the settlement. On the way back home, I remember that I had also seen an electric pump in a village of Guarani Indians. They used it to transfer water from a small lake to their houses for their everyday needs. However, they did not have any agriculture or any irrigation, and it seemed to me that this pump, which ensured minimal hygiene and potable water, was not private but public – electricity was thus paid by the state. In general, the Guarani houses did not have electricity, and the few that did stole it from the public lighting columns. The same was the case in urban favelas as well as in urban occupied spaces.

The Landless Movement, however, tries to achieve quite modern living conditions. It is clear that the Landless Workers cannot afford everything needed in order to achieve the quality of life of a modern Brazilian citizen (I repeat: pumps, freezers, cars, motorbikes, TVs, electricity, fuel, etc.) by selling their products in the huge quantities and at the low prices currently acceptable in today’s global economy. State funding is the response to this problem. At the beginning of the Landless Movement, the state soon mediated between the Movement and the rich landlords – although this “mediation” was violent in the beginning, as already mentioned. However, as the state began to tolerate the Movement, it bought or re-claimed land owned by landlords and even financially supported the Landless people in their first steps. This implied providing them with building materials, milk, rice, pumps, freezers and other devices, schools, research funds, etc. It was also from the state that the Movement asked for funding for their schools, as well as for legal regulations so that they could create these schools in a way that would be meaningful for the Movement, as already described above.

Nowadays, local and central governments pay the Landless teachers’ salaries and support the Landless people in many ways – this depending on the level of corruption of the politicians involved, the wealth of the region in question, and the involvement of the central organization of the Landless Movement as well as its acceptance on local and national level. The Landless people have perceived this funding as a re-distribution of Brazilian wealth, since public money is going to the poor and not to the businessmen.

However positively such a relation to the state may be, the problem that state funding has created – as seen from my perspective – is one of representation: the Landless people had to select a few who would represent the others and enter in dialogue with the state, while the state also had to consider the movements’ enemies, such as the landlords, conservative political parties, the upper and middle class in general, or more recently, trader-chains (Mcmichael, 2008). The few “representatives” of the Landless Movement have at the same time been the few who produce meaning – while everybody else produces food.

Of course there are elections and democratic representation: ‘Núcleos de Base’ have been constituted for the organization of all possible domains of everyday life and for political representation outside the encampments/ settlements. These are clusters of families with elected representatives and constitute the basic organizational unit of the movement (above the family itself). The ‘Núcleos de Base’ are further represented in committees who formally elect the central administration – the so-called ‘lideranças’ (Veltmeyer & Petras, 2002). On all levels, engaged people participate try to create a functioning, active, and participatory basic-democratic organization with nuclei of base. This process happens through dialogue, alphabetization, political formation, and a lot of personal engagement by the “avant-garde” of the movement.

Although a great heterogeneity can be observed across the different settlements and local parts of the movement, and even though splits of the movement have taken place, the “lideranças” have remained the same and the movement has not developed new ideas or new practices – other than in the very beginning. In theory, the Landless Workers’ Movement is very much interested in everybody’s participation. However, even in the declarations that speak about participation, “everybody” is referred to as the “base” – in contrast to the “top,” i.e. the Landless Movement’s leaders (Associação Nacional de Cooperação Agricola, 2002, pp. 25-26). Even the division into “base” and “leadership” can be seen as an expression of power relations (as could the bureaucratization of the movement or the few but heavily discussed cases of corruption of some of the leaders, which would have been avoided through more direct-democratic and participatory politics).

The political organization of the landless workers would be different, for example, if everybody were expected to serve in one domain as a “leader” for a short period of time. It would also be different if the Landless Movement were in direct dialogue with industrial workers, urban populations, or other social movements and involved in the direct exchange of products – without any money or any state politicians involved. In such a case, general assemblies and processes of direct collective decision-making and responsibility-sharing would play a much more important role, as has for example been the case regarding the administration of the city of Porto Alegre.

It is worth mentioning here that Guarani Indians, Quilombolas, or other rural populations have never adopted such a politics of representation. Instead they have developed very different politics of resistance or resilience, such as direct action, non-participation in committees, nomadism etc. The Landless Movement, citing Marx & Engels, expected the state (personalized in Lula’s future and from 2003 governing party) to undertake all possible reforms until Brazil would finally be transformed into a communist economy (Heredia, 2008). I believe that the state politics of representation and centralized distribution of funds has gone well together with the rather hierarchical organization of the Landless Movement, and has slowly turned the occupied lands into private spaces, as described in the previous section.

At the same time, the support that Landless Workers have received from the state has been a result of their struggle for dignity and freedom, and is even now contested and the object of much critique from other societal groups and more conservative agents. One could consider the development of this relationship to the state as historically necessary – given the conditions in which the Landless Movement emerged and the events that shaped it. I am also not criticizing Landless Workers for their ambitions to achieve a “modern” lifestyle, with schooling, science, technologies, and entertainment. The question that I would like to pose here is: What can the next step be?