Writers don't know what they think until they write. Nor do they know what they've written until they see what colleagues have made of it in print. I have learned a great deal from the probing contributions to this roundtable by an admirably diverse group whose prior and future work has much to teach us about urban working-class life and popular politics. Curiously, I had never thought of describing Lula as a man “who fully lived through the rise and fall of Fordism,” as suggested by Antonio Luigi Negro. Having moved “from the countryside to the city, from the patriarchal logic of a slave past to the hybrid dialectics of Brazilian modernity,” Lula's two presidential terms are described by Brodwyn Fischer as bringing to the whole nation “the dream of egalitarian developmentalism that his own life had embodied.” Indeed, his remarkable trajectory looks different when viewed as a belated manifestation of a subaltern moral economy that had taken root during the Fordist industrialization that emerged in Brazil after World War II.
The contributors emphasize how Lula and His Politics of Cunning deviates from the standard biographical genre. First, the author is “careful to explicitly reject the temptation whereby . . . ‘the individual's past is recounted in light of his future’” or his life turned into an allegory (Lerner Patrón). Second, Lula's life is narrated as a “process of becoming, uncertain about motives and outcomes, navigating life by drawing on combinations of intuition, skill, and experience” (Velasco). Third, the book focuses on both “individual and collective consciousness, actions, and speech acts” (Lerner Patrón) and offers an “extraordinarily rich account of the daily lives” of the so-called popular classes. And fourth, it attends to a “repertoire of manifestations of class antagonism and inequalities” centered on “specific subjective, psychological, and micro performative processes: the vocabulary of ‘peons’ and ‘small fish,’ the self-effacing interclass etiquette, the self-limitations, the ‘yes, sir,’ the idea of people ‘out of place,’ and notions of self-esteem, hierarchy, and respectability” (Lerner Patrón).
A “walking metamorphosis,” Lula is portrayed in relation to the cultural dispositions, material needs, and diversity of beliefs and outlooks of his constituency from the most submissive to the most rebellious. This is possible because ABC's metalworkers were surprisingly well documented, having attracted “abundant attention from contemporary scholars, students, authorities,” intelligence agencies, and journalists (Lerner Patrón). A remarkable succession of Marxist and Marxisant sociologists from the University of São Paulo (USP) made a special contribution (Lichtenstein). They carefully documented the subaltern swept up in an industrial revolution, occurring in USP's backyard, in a peripheral country in what was called, variously, the “un-” or “underdeveloped world,” the Third World, “Newly Industrialized Countries,” or, eventually, the Global South.
With South Africa in mind, Lichtenstein acknowledges that an “ambiguous relationship [often exists] between shop-floor workers and politicized intellectuals,” separated as they were by “enormous cultural, linguistic, class, and (in the case of South Africa) racial gulfs.” Yet he worries that I am “excessively dismissive” of revolutionary students and radical intellectuals, perhaps because, he speculates, the book “privileges the attitude of Lula and the povo he spoke for, who regarded intellectuals as hopelessly elitist and out of touch.” A certain impatience with “the amateurish mistakes and class biases of the young researchers” is also noted by Lerner Patrón, who emphasizes, however, that their “well-intentioned” paternalism and “biases and blind spots” are used in the book to illuminate the norms and etiquette governing interclass relations. Indeed, I followed an exacting methodology that rigorously separated evidence from interpretation in my mining of this marvelous body of structuralist sociological literature, which mostly slighted subjectivities, imagined class as a homogeneity, and conceived of “class consciousness” as a Weberian ideal type.
Even a half century later, an immense chasm still remains between highly educated university degree holders (doutores) and the lowly povão (common people), resulting in an “enduring one-sided dialogue between the highly educated and the workers.” As Negro notes polemically, even highly intelligent and well-regarded university leftists in the twenty-first century are capable of imagining the poor as a “subproletariat easily overrun by populism.” I would add my own observation, after the left's anguishing 2018 defeat, that some were especially put out that so many poor people had voted for Bolsonaro: “Why don't they vote right (left)? After all, they should know their own interests.” Sometimes it seems this bothers them more than the massive vote of their fellow highly educated urbanites in the richest states, the group that provides the minority that makes up the mass base for this right-wing troll's movement. To Negro, at least, there are some in the academy who still can't forgive Brazil's povão for failing to embody bookish “expectations of class consciousness” of a sort that never existed even in advanced capitalist countries.
Lula's dismissive comments about leftist students, I would add, derived from a broad critical judgment by São Paulo's trade unionists about the New Left's revolutionary union activism in the 1960s, a subject fully explored in chapter 7. Lula's criticism of students also occurred early during the strike cycle as he was positioning himself as nonthreatening with authorities. At the time, the overwhelmingly white university left was quick to denounce Lula as a bourgeois toady, a cat's-paw of the military, a pelego, or even a CIA infiltrator. Yet most of those leftist students and ex-students—including armed struggle veterans like Lula's future chief of staff, José Dirceu—joined Lula to found the PT after the strikes ended in defeat. In doing so, they crucially supplied self-sacrificing cadre indispensable to the survival and growth of the fledgling party, a point Lula has repeated emphasized despite his disagreements with some of them (the radicals keep you honest, he says). It was these PT intellectuals who wrote the documents for the various factions of this pluralistic party, although the vitally important internal party and union dynamics of the 1980s and early 1990s is not covered in this volume (Lerner Patrón). At least on paper, class tensions could be underplayed if not erased, although their role, which was no means simple, was important for understanding the PT and its allied trade union confederation, the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), which united powerful white- and blue-collar unions.
In truth, cross-class leftist unity had never existed in a country divided between the proverbial descendants of the slave quarters (senzala) and the children of the Big House (Casa Grande), who made up the tiny population of universitários until the first modest expansion of higher education in the 1970s. That such cleavages also existed during the Estado Novo dictatorship (1937–45) can be seen in the prison recollections of Marcos Andreotti, ABC's veteran communist trade unionist. Workers and peasants, he observed, found it more comfortable to associate among themselves rather than mingle with the radical communist students and young military rebels with whom they shared cell blocks. I would also cite an interaction he described on the eve of the disastrous 1935 military revolt planned by his party's non-working-class leadership. At a clandestine ponto (one-on-one meeting), an earnest young party cadre transmitted orders about staging a general strike in ABC to coincide with the planned revolt. Facing a certain skepticism, Andreotti's interlocutor—who would go on to become a well-known communist journalist and top party leader—suggested it should be no problem: just blow up the local power station. At this point in our interview, Andreotti's raised eyebrow—not externalized in words—hinted that this brave young anti-imperialist revolutionary did not, at least at this point, have a clue about the working class or the union movement.
These class cleavages could also produce disillusionment for activist workers who joined New Left revolutionary groups in the late 1960s. A formerly devout young Catholic, José Barbosa Monteiro, was the most important elected revolutionary in the diretoria of São Bernardo's metalworkers’ union in the late 1960s. Without renouncing the 1968 actions that forced him into exile, Monteiro used the Marxist language he had learned to express his discontent with Popular Action (AP), a Catholic student organization founded in 1962 that had evolved toward Marxism-Leninism and Maoism by 1967. In a published interview in 1978, Monteiro criticized the “petty bourgeois ideology that characterized the revolutionary movement.” In his crude class analysis, the petty bourgeoisie had been seeking a solution to its own problems which, he insisted, were as material as those of workers. They turned to the proletariat because they needed them, but rather than creating a movement with workers, they sought instead to constitute themselves as their leaders. Even students who went to work in factories, in his view, did so not to get to know workers but, rather, to give orders while bringing their “truths” to the benighted.1
Monteiro's case also speaks to the dynamics of color and race, a point raised by Lichtenstein. A migrant from the northeastern state of Ceará, the young AP leader was Black, as had been the communist Orisson Saraiva de Castro, the São Bernardo union's first president, also from Ceará. Although their color comes up in offhand oral comments by others, these two tough men—like other preto and pardo migrants and activists—were acutely aware of the double abuse and prejudice they faced in a metropolitan region that was still predominantly European-descended. In their own comments, they treated the discrimination against northeasterners and Blacks not as distinct but conjoined as they denounced factories that refused to hire from these stigmatized groups.
That color and region could provide an easy language of denunciation, even among lifelong communists, is illustrated by an early 1980s interview with Saraiva de Castro, a man capable of using “little white” (branquinho) as a sarcastic characterization. Criticizing one local factory owner as “anti-nordestino and anti-Black,” he claimed that “the negro is to be found only as a mascot” in Termomecanica in São Bernardo, while nordestinos weren't hired there at all in the early 1960s. Whether accurate or not, he judged Doutor Salvador Arena to be a “racist” as well as anti-nordestino, although he added that, to his credit, Arena was nonetheless one of ABC's great nationalists. Saraiva de Castro was equally prepared to mobilize ethnicity in discussing Mercantil Suissa, a troubled bike manufacturer plagued with strikes because of its recurrent nonpayment of wages. Its owner was a Jew, he said, which he linked to cheating and swindling (picaretagem). As a knowledgeable communist, however, he did open an exception for Marxist Jews before ending his riff with a denunciation of Zionism and the racist state of Israel.2
In Brazilian labor history, the understanding of slavery, racism, and class struggle by Black union activists and leaders has been surprisingly neglected.3 We can get a glimpse of their approach in an interview with Santo Dias, a Black metalworker shot dead by a policeman on a picket line during São Paulo's massive 1979 metalworkers’ strike. A migrant from the interior of São Paulo, not the Northeast, Dias explained that pretos (a term commonly used for darker-skinned Blacks) constituted 60 percent of Brazilians, although a footnote by his interviewer suggested disagreement with his grouping of mulatos with pretos. As he explained it, pretos were divided, and some were laid-back (relaxado), but the bottom line in capitalist Brazil, he insisted, was that it was not just Blacks who were enslaved: that category now included the poor of all colors.4
While noting the book's sensitivity to the resonances of color and race in working-class life, Lichtenstein asks whether preto or pardo workers could advance into skilled positions, something not possible in South Africa. As he guessed, few factory studies gathered data by color or race, because the academic Marxism at the time was focused on class or regionalism. We do have a study of an auto-parts plant in greater São Paulo in 1976–77 that found that 85 percent of workers were white, 3 percent preto, and 12 percent mulato. In this factory at least, a segregationist type of exclusionary discrimination was not sharply evident from the distribution of each group across skill levels. Pretos were employed among the unskilled (3 percent) and the skilled (4 percent) in the same percentage as they were in the factory as a whole, while mulatos, perhaps surprisingly, were underrepresented among the skilled (5 percent) but overrepresented among the unskilled (17 percent).5
In her contribution, Fischer opens the debate about how “the democratizing process that had shaped Brazil's political teleologies for more than three decades” was upended so quickly and easily after 2014. Indeed, Brazilians and Brazilianists are still grappling with the nagging question of how to understand the impeachment of Brazil's newly reelected PT president in 2016, Lula's own prosecution and jailing, and the election of far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. For Negro, this is the point when the “Big House freaked out” at the invasion of their privileged spaces at the top of the hierarchy during an era that saw “one of the deepest social and cultural transformations in one of the most unequal countries in the world” (Lerner Patrón).
Light can be shed on this by looking at the specificity of Brazil's class and racial stratification compared to the United States. Over the past quarter century, sociologist Edward Telles has generated a series of sophisticated statistical studies exploring the relationship of race and social class. Looking at employed males in seventy-four metropolitan regions in 1980, he found that “nonwhites are more seriously underrepresented in high level occupations than they are in the United States; however, whites in Brazil are more likely than US whites to share unskilled blue collar jobs with nonwhites.” His data also shows a more or less equal distribution of each color group among “skilled manual workers” but a very sharp underrepresentation among the white-collar, managerial, and professional groups above them and overrepresentation below.6
As Telles notes in his 2005 book Race in Another America, the key to understanding racial inequality in Brazil lies in the radical underrepresentation of nonwhites “in high- and mid-level professional occupations” that require more advanced education.7 This group, referred to as the doutores, was the one that turned even more aggressively against Lula and the PT in 2018 after a vast expansion of higher education enrollment under the Lula-Dilma governments. After the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled racial quotas constitutional in 2012, the government introduced an admission quota system the same year that increased opportunity for Blacks and the poor. It incorporated class (public school attendance), color-race, and family income and applied to both the high-prestige tuition-free public university system and the private for-profit sector, where Pro-Uni also provided modest fellowships.
In “Lula and the Future of the Past,” Fischer enriches the discussion by suggesting that we probe the relation of Lula's past in terms of the capacity of different groups in society to imagine futures. Ending with “an elegy for a lost future,” Fischer echoes the insight of Jean-Paul Sartre, who observed that an imagined future always lies at the heart of the present even as historical actors, along with historians, speak in terms of the past.8 Indeed, I have continuously experienced a vertiginous feeling in writing this book, sections of which were written as early as 1986 and 1990, although until 2020 they remained unpublished. I had first arrived in ABC in the summer of 1980 after a disastrous defeat that broke the 1980 metalworkers strike, leading to a government takeover of the union, the prosecution of the strike's leaders, and the firing of fifteen thousand workers. At the time, the military had ruled Brazil for sixteen years, and Latin American governments were mostly in the hands of dictators, some more bloody and some less so, as in the case of Brazil.
By 1991, I had sketched out a hard-core labor history book with the tentative and anodyne title The Metalworkers of ABC, 1950–1980. By then, interest in workers was fading in the US academy and we were entering the world of utopian neoliberalism, the “end of history,” and the “death” of the left after capitalism's triumph over the USSR, its ideological and geopolitical rival, leading to the disappearance of the socialist world system. During the 1990s I shifted my research to Lula's presidential campaigns, and Lula and His Politics of Cunning would be an entirely different book if it had been written after his second massive first-round defeat in 1998 at the hands of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the USP-trained sociologist, a Marxist turned “third way” neoliberal, who oversaw USP's pioneering studies of São Paulo's workers and industrialization in the early 1960s.
Over this book turned life project, I have repeatedly been forced to rethink the future within which to frame Lula's trajectory. Not only had I witnessed the disappearance of the booming midcentury São Paulo of Lula's youth, but the world as a whole seemed in perpetual transition, economically, technologically, geopolitically, and ideologically. So many established signposts for meaning disappeared overnight that it seemed, at times, that the only certainty was that one day we would all be dead. In 2014, I finished a substantial draft of what was to have been the first of two volumes. I was not anticipating the powerful resurfacing of the darker currents of authoritarianism, classism, and racism in Brazilian society, although I knew them well.
In the end, I believe my book gained in wisdom and a sense of closure because I had waited, well into Lula's postpresidency after 2010. During the illegal 2016 ouster of a democratically elected president, I inevitably recalled the 1964 coup, which overthrew the mildly reformist Jango Goulart without significant parliamentary or societal opposition. What surprised me the most, however, was ex-president Lula's return to center stage in Brazilian politics. Targeted by prosecutors, political rivals, and the mass media, Lula powerfully reemerged as the anchor of societal resistance to this sharp right-wing turn. As Lula was the presidential candidate most likely to win in 2018, the conspirators recognized that if they were to maintain their 2016 victory, the only path ahead was to convict and jail him so as to illegally bar him from running for president.
The 2018 election ended with the consolidation of a mass vote resistant to Bolsonaro, with 45 percent of the second-round electorate voting for the PT's candidate. As for Bolsonaro's rise with substantial popular sector support, I would argue that it illustrates the book's themes: the cunning of the weak and their relentless individual drive to achieve social mobility against the odds. Far from being a doutor, Bolsonaro was a cashiered low-level former army officer from a poor family in one of the poorest municípios in the state of São Paulo. Looked down upon as crass and uncouth by the rich and well educated, he was well positioned as a social and political outsider to cast himself as antiestablishment in relation to a center-right political class, composed of his social superiors, who were discredited by their dramatically documented corruption in 2017. For many on the periphery of society, any shakeup of established power relations promises space for their own advancement amid the resulting chaos: “Why not? What do you have to lose?”
As for Bolsonaro, this cunning but mediocre political operator knew that the surest path to the presidency was to court his superiors and the powerful. He was prepared to say whatever they wanted to hear, including support for fiscal austerity and neoliberal economic reforms, and a willingness to voice a rhetoric about combating corruption that had, by then, become synonymous with being violently anti-PT. As Bolsonaro knew, the middle and upper classes could be expected to fall for his pitch precisely because they always underestimated their inferiors and were convinced that he could be tamed and contained. Once elected, of course, Bolsonaro had no intention to simply be their tool. Having now reached the top, he set out to do what high-minded upper-class politicians with impeccable credentials had always done: seize the opportunity to take his game to a new level far above his petty old-style corruption, which was well known before he was elected. Moreover, he now had the power to protect his family, friends, and organized crime buddies in Rio's militias from prosecution. It had never been his game plan to govern the country responsibly, much less cope with a pandemic, and his well-off sponsors and well-placed enablers were caught in his trap. With the US having just lived through the equally calamitous Trump presidency, it might be hoped that honest North Americans would recognize that the unprincipled pursuit of personal power is not unique to “shithole countries.”
After the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Congress to prevent the inauguration of President Joseph Biden, I was amazed that my biggest takeaway from this roundtable was about the US context and potential meaning of my book. As formulated by Velasco with acuity and elegance, Lula and His Politics of Cunning is a celebration of politics in a North Atlantic world where highly educated and left-inclined sectors of the intelligentsia have for too long been cynical or disillusioned about pragmatic electoral politics. In Velasco's reading, the book is a “searing indictment of dogmatic thinking” by those who “bemoan political calculation as always already corrupt, rather than as a potent tool for those aiming to improve the lives of the world's long oppressed.” Such pessimistic appraisals are “not only empirically wrong but politically self-defeating,” he goes on, and are perpetuated by those “more content with speaking and writing and fretting about power than wielding it.” French also invites us, Velasco adds, to recognize the validity, when it occurs, of an “affective leadership of the sort that privileges personal relationships and charismatic pull, maligned by left and right alike as unprincipled opportunism or populist demagoguery or both.”
In Velasco's elegant words, Lula and His Politics of Cunning is a bold effort to “reclaim politics with a small p as the condition of possibility for worlds more equitable, a politics of everyday interactions, fraught trade-offs, strategic calculation, and patient coalition building beyond like-minded allies.” In this regard, Velasco cites Lula, who is quoted in the book—crediting the point to the theorist of the pedagogy of the oppressed Paulo Freire—saying that we need the modesty and clarity to identify “the antagonist against whom one can unite the different.” Whether in Brazil or the USA, there is room for everyone in the fight ahead as we patiently move the world forward with an eye on a future when we can all live together equally “without fear of being happy.”
Rogers, “Race, Respect, and Authority in Contemporary Brazil,” is an exception.