¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Emerging in the late 1970s and early 1980s—during the twilight of Brazil’s two-decade long military dictatorship and the ascendancy of neoliberal orthodoxy in international development and modernization discourses—the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil forged the radical practice of claiming fallow land through occupations, founding new agrarian communities on that land, and reproducing their movement by institutionalizing their values and practices in the state-funded schools of their communities. By laying claim to land they furnish themselves with a space of their own—relatively autonomous from the circuits of neoliberal rationality—on which they strengthen the bonds of solidarity and nourish the movement. By institutionalizing the movement at the primary site of the state in its local appearance (the public school), they secure their gains by more fully socializing the youth into their ethos. Whereas the public education system is often viewed as the primary instrument through which the state reproduces the relations of capitalist production, the MST has been able to develop a form of schooling that resists this tendency and instead helps reproduce the practices, habits, and values of the movement itself.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In its concrete actions, then, the MST has overcome two strong prejudices of twentieth century social theory: first, against the allegedly inexorable process of urbanization, they have retreated to the countryside to claim their own space, valorizing the rural, agrarian lifestyle over and against the tendency to favor the urban experience and the “right to the city”; second, against the tendency to see the modern public education system as a necessarily depoliticizing institution, they have secured their gains precisely by radically overhauling the nature of public education in their local communities. I turn first to an examination of the process of urbanization.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In The Urban Revolution (2003)—originally published in France in 1970—Henri Lefebvre argues that the modern world is on a trajectory towards what he calls “urban society.” This trajectory indicates the process through which the entirety of physical space, social practice, and everyday habits are increasingly subject to the organizational and economic imperatives of urban centers; a consequence of the development of modern industry, large-scale organizational forms, and global economic integration. He describes this as a two-fold process through which (1) agriculture is subordinated to industrialization, and (2) industry (including industrialized agriculture) is subordinated to urbanization. The entirety of social reality becomes increasingly subjected to a kind of technocratic-economic ordering effected by the dominant urban centers: suburbs, towns, villages, small and mid-sized cities, and rural expanses are all administered by way of the organizational imperatives of the metropolis, which itself is caught in the tension-coordination-compromise between the state’s technocratic impulse to organize space and the neoliberal impulse to allow some play within that ordered space for large enterprises to engage in activities that will maximize growth.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The imperatives of “[e]conomic growth and industrialization [duly managed by the state and corporate bureaucrats of the urban centers] have become self-legitimating, extending their effects to entire territories, regions, nations, and continents.” Industrialized production and endless economic growth—“means construed as ends,” valued for their own sake, independently of their effects on the sociality—become the principles of social organization that are imposed from the urban centers out onto the populations of huge swathes of space. Indeed, Lefebvre insists that we must recognize “the prodigious extension of the urban to the entire planet,” which can be seen as the “extension on a global scale of the internal organization of the enterprise,” i.e. the industrial division of labor. This extrapolation to the global scale of the industrial division of labor encourages each nation or region to maximize their comparative advantage in order to decrease the cost of production from the perspective of the world economy as a whole—that is, from the perspective of the smoothly ordered organizational whole projected by bureaucrats, financiers, property developers, and politicians in metropolitan centers.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Borrowing a term from nuclear physics, Lefebvre metaphorically describes the appearance of “the urban” across the entire planet as a process of implosion-explosion, constituted by
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 the tremendous concentration (of people, activities, wealth, goods, objects, instruments, means, and thought) of urban reality and the immense explosion, the projection of numerous disjunct fragments (peripheries, suburbs, vacation homes, satellite towns) into space.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Both the implosion and the explosion occur simultaneously. The urban concentration, or “implosion” toward the urban—in addition to the concentration of power, wealth, authority, knowledge, etc.—indicates a “rural exodus,” a flight from rural territories to new urban spaces; the movement of bodies from the periphery to the center. On the other hand, the “explosion” of this concentrated urban reality indicates the “extension of the urban fabric” out into space (the projection of peripheries, suburbs, etc.), and the “complete subordination of the agrarian to the urban.” Subject to the imperatives of a global urban order and its neoliberal regime of food distribution, agricultural production—increasingly automated and industrialized—requires less and less human labor. The excess labor is forced off the land and driven towards the urban centers. But rather than finding a proper place for themselves in the metropolis, these dis-placed rural workers, this refuse of the countryside, constitutes one of the many “disjunct fragments” of the implosion-explosion process: stripped of their rural livelihood, drawn towards the urban centers of gravity, and blasted out to the periphery of these major cities—where they are out of sight and out of earshot of the planners and bureaucrats of the technocratic-economic order—they scrape together meager wages through precarious forms of semi-employment. Thus expelled from the countryside, severed from their former social bonds, excluded from urban social space (i.e. placed at the periphery of the urban), and exploited by sporadic (and generally predatory) forms of employment, this marginalized, surplus population is thoroughly dis-placed: they have been displaced from their familiar spaces, and they lack a place of their own, a permanent site of social reproduction that would facilitate the formation of an effective “counter-public” and/or the construction of a contentious “political subject.”
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This implosion-explosion was the impetus for the various land occupations in Brazil that eventually coalesced in the institutionalization of the MST. Picking up steam in the early 1960s, the urbanization process helped to consolidate the majority of Brazil’s agricultural land into the hands of a wealthy elite who were integrated into the global food regime, and were thus well-situated to maximize the comparative advantage of Brazil in the production (principally for export) of industrial scale monocultures such as wheat and soybeans. This process strengthened the position of already powerful landowners and dispossessed millions of small-holder farmers across the countryside. The subsequent neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s continued this trajectory towards urbanization. As a result of these policies:
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 28 million rural workers and peasants were expelled from the countryside between 1960 and 1980, 10 million lost their jobs in the agricultural sector between 1985 and 1995 and it is estimated that another 4 million people abandoned agriculture between 1995 and 1999.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This rural exodus throughout Brazil signified a mass-migration to urban regions that could not support this enormous supplemental population, rendering many of these migrants redundant: they were reduced to the status of a surplus class with no place and no social role, eking out an existence on the peripheries of over-populated and under-served urban regions. Industrial-scale mechanized agriculture—dependent on capital-intensive inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, and privately-patented genetically modified seeds, as well as expensive tractors and harvesters—had replaced the social function of the peasantry and rural workers, leaving them with no place to exist and little to no share of the social good. Whereas they had previously engaged in small-scale agriculture to produce the means of their subsistence and to produce agricultural goods for market, without access to the land they were left with few options. Deprived of space, these dis-placed workers were doubly dispossessed: they had neither their traditional means of subsistence nor did they have a physical space in which to forge the bonds of solidarity to stage an effective political project.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Lefebvre points out that this deprivation of space suffered by the working class is typical of modernity and its process of urbanization. The spaces of the modern city were initially crafted by the activities of the merchant bourgeoisie, the intellectuals, and the politicians. This modern city-scape was subsequently “demolished” by the industrialists as they homogenized space in the transformation of both urban and rural domains according to the self-legitimating imperatives of economic growth. As for the working class, they never had a role in the construction of space: they “never had any space other than that of its expropriation, its deportation: segregation” (Ibid: 128). Given that bleak reality, the various strategies by which the working class might engage in the process of constructing a space of their own acquires a certain level of urgency. Commenting on the situation in South America, Lefebvre seems to suggest that a rural strategy of resistance would not be a viable option in the face of the urban revolution. Instead, he points to “urban guerrilla activity [that] is taking place in the favelas.” Though the objectives of this guerrilla activity appear to Lefebvre to be more or less “undefined,” he seems to see it as one possible strategy forward in the effort to construct spaces of resistance. He does not have much hope, on the other hand, for a rural strategy:
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In all likelihood, Che Guevara committed an error. His attempt to create centers of peasant guerrilla activity came too late. A few years earlier, in Cuba, there was still a possibility that this might have succeeded. The South American countryside was emptied of its population; the best of the peasants emigrated en masse to the outskirts of the already overcrowded cities.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Leaving aside Lefebvre’s strange distinction between the “best of the peasants” and the rest of the peasants, it is true that a rural exodus had occurred. However, many people living in the favelas on the outskirts of urban centers—former peasants, former rural workers, and dispossessed urbanites alike—saw the retreat to the countryside as their best hope, especially as the MST gained ground after the early years of its formation. To many, it seemed as though they were left with two choices: “social marginalization in cities [or] land occupation with the MST and other peasant organizations.” Because the MST is constituted by well over a million persons, and each occupation is locally autonomous, there is much variation in local practices and styles across Brazil. However, the progression of each occupation—from the decision of a group of families to make their claim, to the enactment and realization of their right to the land through the occupation of a plot to which they have no legal right—takes on a relatively common shape.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Prior to the initiation of an occupation, a grouping of landless families—having been provoked to engage in their own occupation by exposure to written, spoken, or televised accounts of occupations from elsewhere—come together to organize themselves through grassroots meetings, which are sometimes facilitated by activists who have already engaged in successful occupations of their own. These meetings are held in a variety of places, including union halls, schools, and homes. Thus, even within an urban space organized around the imperatives of the global marketplace, marginalized workers are nonetheless able to find some places within which to begin the process of politicization that eventually leads to a return to the rural, and the claiming of a permanent site of their own. In these formative meetings, participants (1) exchange life histories marked by exploitation, marginalization, and expulsion from the land, (2) recognize the common conditions of oppression that they face, and (3) work to construct their identities as landless. These meetings thus involve the “recuperation of life histories” that have been suppressed, subjugated, silenced, or otherwise lost to the consciousness of the landless themselves.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Participants, by analysing the situation, the relationships of political forces, the formation of articulations and alliances for political and economic support, transform the subjective conditions by means of interests and will, recognizing their rights and participating in the construction of their destinies. They come face to face with the objective conditions of the struggle against landlords and their hired gunmen, of the confrontation with the police and the state.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 This process of conscientização (consciousness raising) at the grassroots meetings enables the self-construction of the people in their identity as landless, facilitates the recognition of their rights that they have been denied, and galvanizes them in the will to overcome their condition as exploited and oppressed. From this point, the decision to occupy the land provides the landless with a true space of their own on which to stand in the long-term struggle against the land-owners, the state, and the entire process of urbanization that has dis-placed them (in the sense displacing them from their homes, and of severing them from any place at all that could serve as a permanent site of social formation and conscientização).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 This decision to occupy “has its basis in the knowledge that only with this action will the people be able to find a solution to the state of misery in which they live.” Coordinating with members of the regional, state, and/or national bodies of the MST—that are able to provide strategic information regarding specific sites, including the likelihood that the government will eventually appropriate the land, the proximity of allies and resources for the occupation, and possible avenues for media coverage—they select a site and initiate the occupation, or “encampment.” Simultaneously, they petition the state for the legal right to the land (appealing to existing agrarian reform statutes) and for public-funding for the construction of a public school. Once they obtain a concession, they establish their permanent community. However, this fairly straight-forward picture of a more or less stable series of tactical steps was not so clear cut during the early years of the MST. In particular, the installation of a public school within the newly claimed space of their communities was rather contentious.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 The public education system has often been associated with state domination and the reproduction of capitalist ideology, both at the level of explicit beliefs, and, more perniciously, at the level of bodily habits and everyday practices. Althusser was one of the early proponents of this view, arguing in 1969 that the capitalist state required control over the formal education system in modern society; and that capitalist ideology was materially (not merely psychically) reproduced through the bodily practices, habits, rituals, and routines that are embedded in the structure of classroom relations. The authority of the teacher, the rituals of punishment, the presumed inferiority of the student, the internalization of discipline, the competition between peers, the transformation of time around the schedule of the bell, etc., etc., all prepare the students—at the level of material practices, habits, and rituals—for their future role as subservient workers who willingly accept their own exploitation. In the context of the implosion-explosion of the urbanization process, this takes on a particular character in the Brazilian countryside. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, “as a cheap solution to the problem of low-quality education in rural areas,” the strategy of the Brazilian state to improve the education of rural students was generally “to close rural schools and provide transport to urban centers,” clearly reflecting the modernization/urbanization ideology of the military dictatorship. This “solution” reveals the materiality of urban ideology: it practically equipped rural students with the habits and routines of commuting to the city for opportunities of education and employment, thereby increasing the gravitational pull of urban centers and ratcheting up the rural exodus. Furthermore, beyond this unconscious, material manifestation of the urban ideology, many of the teachers explicitly taught the students that “their only chance for “success” was to learn the skills necessary to find a job in an urban center.”
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 For the families occupying land in the movement, the option of education by commute to the urban centers was completely out of the question—it constituted an existential threat to the reproduction of the movement across generations. But the idea of state-run public education inside the settlements was also seen as a threat, and was resisted by many MST activists who
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 had been previously marginalized and made to feel stupid in schools. Additionally, there was still a tendency within the leadership of the movement to view public schools as an instrument of the capitalist state, which has the sole purpose of reproducing social relations of capitalist production.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Rather than focusing on ways to radically transform the nature of public schooling in their settlements—much as they had radically transformed their relation to social space by claiming land and founding new communities—many of the MST activists in the early settlements were dedicated to the idea of informal education initiatives, including “children’s education, adult literacy programs, and popular education focused on training new leaders for the movement.” These initiatives were directly linked to the process of conscientização, as practiced at each stage of the occupation process: (1) the initial grass-roots meetings described above, which focused on the reclamation of subjugated histories and the self-identification of families as landless; (2) the encampment phase, in which the newly formed community forged intimate bonds of solidarity as they lived together in tents, oftentimes for many years, sometimes subject to extreme weather conditions and sometimes under the threat of the hired gunmen of landowners; and (3) the settlement phase, in which they founded legally sanctioned settlements with the blessing of the state by first winning the legal right to the land and then physically constructing their homes and the social space within and between those homes.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 These intensely collective activities all served to solidify the members of the movement in their consciousness of: the structures of oppression they faced; their strategic aim of forging a new life that valorized rural, communal living; and the various tactics available to them in the concrete confrontation with the objective conditions of the social totality in its local manifestation (as a singular knot of specific landowners, elite politicians, law enforcement, private security forces, and fallow land). The informal pedagogical practices of the early stages of the MST built on this process of conscientização, seeking to keep critical consciousness alive and to insulate the movement from internal corruption by capitalist-urbanist ideologies that could be materially inculcated by a public education system funded and operated by the state. But while there was a desire to ensure that the youth was not corrupted by the state’s education system, it was eventually acknowledged that the informal, popular education initiatives were insufficient to handle the needs of the child population.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Testimonies from a participant in one of the early encampments (which had not yet obtained legal ownership of the land they were occupying) indicate the difficulty of this situation:
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 There were hundreds of children running wild, with nothing to do all day long, getting up to mischief. We carried out a survey and found there were 760 school-age children in the camp and 25 qualified teachers among the women. It made sense to set up a school.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 1 The issue of a public school came up to a vote in the assembly (the encampments and settlements make collective decisions through direct-democratic decision-making procedures) and they decided to petition the government to establish a public school. In this instance—as was a common experience for many encampments (because they have not yet obtained legal ownership of the land)—the local government officials refused to build the public school, declaring that the encampment was illegal. But with the sustained occupation of local government spaces by MST activists, local government officials succumbed to the pressure and constructed the public school. However, the state-assigned teachers (who commuted to the MST schools from urban centers) oftentimes viewed the MST occupations and settlements as illegal, and would speak disparagingly about the MST project in general, and about their students’ parents in particular, sometimes referring to them, for instance, as “outlaws.” The MST learned that they had to take control of the education system to prevent the undermining of the movement at the hands of the state (as many had feared from the outset). By applying pressure on the local governments through a variety of tactics, including the noisy occupation of government spaces, many of the early encampments and settlements that had managed to get a public school built in their communities had also managed to ensure that around half of the teachers were autochthonously rooted in the communities of the landless, and had won partial control over the content of the curriculum.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 This development would prove to be an important tool in an additional challenge that arose due to the fact that new generations who were born and raised on the legally sanctioned settlements had not undergone the transformative experiences that constituted the process of conscientização. For these youngsters: the ugly reality of dis-placement to the urban periphery, the transformative process of forging new identities as landless, and the difficult struggles experienced in the encampments that melded the various landless families into a cohesive community were all a thing of history, of stories told by the elder generations and integrated into the broader narrative of the community and its embeddedness in the MST as a whole. What was needed, then, was a curriculum for these public schools that would raise the consciousness of the youngsters in such a way so as to fortify them in their identities as landless, to valorize agrarian, rural life, and to instill a critical consciousness of the objective social conditions that (despite their many gains, including a social space of their own) were still stacked against them.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 In 1987 the national organization of the MST, in response to widespread pressure from the encampments and settlements of the movement, established a national education sector to comprehend the various experiences of formal and informal educational practices throughout the movement and to formulate a national set of pedagogical guidelines as well as training programs for the teachers of the MST. Teachers of the MST movement from all over Brazil came together to share experiences and develop pedagogical techniques as well as political tactics to pressure local governments to concede control of the curriculum to the local communities. The pedagogical techniques they endorsed were rooted in Paulo Freire’s method of critical pedagogy and conscientização, Catholic traditions of liberation theology, and the ideas of Anton Makarenko focused on collective self-government and the formation of revolutionary social actors through education. In terms of the structure of the curriculum, they aimed for a three-fold division: one portion would be constituted by the critical pedagogical practices that would be explicitly aimed towards conscientização; a second portion would be focused on the basics of traditional state education, i.e. reading, writing, and arithmetic; and the third portion would be focused on developing competency in the agrarian practices of crop cultivation. By the time the PT (Worker’s Party) had risen to national power in January of 2003, this transformed framework of a public education system had proliferated across most of the MST communities. They now had a public school that was funded by the state, ordered according to the radical curriculum of the movement, and populated by some state-assigned teachers and some teachers of the landless movement itself. The MST managed to construct a new social space all their own, and to co-op the state at the primary site of its local appearance in their newly constructed communities. The rural strategy—overlooked by Lefebvre in his study of the “urban phenomenon”—has proved to be incredibly effective for well over 1 million people across the territory of Brazil.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0  For instance, see: Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation” in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, henceforth “Ideology and ISAs” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001): 85-126.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0  See David Ricardo’s classic The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (Meneolo, NY: Dover Publications, 2004) for an elaboration of this enduring principle of economic thought.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0  I have in mind here Michael Warner’s notion of counterpublics and/or Jacques Rancière’s notion of contentious political subjects. See: Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (Brooklyn: Zone Books, 2002); Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0  Leandro Vergara-Camus, Land and Freedom: The MST, the Zapatistas, and Peasant Alternatives in Neoliberalism, henceforth Land and Freedom (London: Zed Books, 2014): 51-56.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0  In his defense, Lefebvre composed The Urban Revolution in the late 1960s (it was originally published in France in 1970), before the emergence of the MST, and, more generally, before the effectiveness of land occupations and rural movements across the Global South had been noticed by many Northern academics.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0  Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, “The Occupation as Form of Access to Land in Brazil: A Theoretical and Methodological Contribution” in Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, henceforth “Occupation as Access” (New York: Zed Books, 2005): 319-320.
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0  The practice wherein the landless uncover and lay claim to their subjugated histories is named by Foucault as “archeology.” It is what enables them to form the social bonds necessary to move forward with what Foucault refers to as “tactics of genealogy,” which indicates the active practices of resistance in which those de-subjugated histories are re-deployed. In this case, such “tactics of genealogy” amount to the occupation of the land made possible by the archeological work of conscientização. See: Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (New York: Picador, 2003): 10-11. See also: Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures” in Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980): 85.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0  This is not the whole picture provided by Althusser. Those students who move beyond primary education are practically equipped for more managerial and/or repressive roles; those who move beyond secondary education develop practices and habits for roles with more authority still; and those who gain advanced degrees are either reduced to “intellectual semi-employment” (i.e. as teachers, journalists, or public-intellectuals of some stripe) or their material habits and practices facilitate their rise in the hierarchies of exploitation (corporate management) or repression (police, military, and political administration), or as professional ideologists (where they find work as “priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’”) (Althusser, “Ideology and ISAs”: 104-105).
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0  Rebecca Senn Tarlau, dissertation, Occupying Land, Occupying Schools: Transforming Education in the Brazilian Countryside, henceforth cited as: Occupying Land, Occupying Schools (Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley, 2014): 68.